Friday, April 17, 2015

Creating a Zelda Paper and Pencil Dungeon

Ever since the inception of Zelda there's always been a group of poor, pathetic, souls who want to make a Zelda-themed dungeon.  I am one of those poor, pathetic, nerds, so during my time playing DnD I tried as hard as I could to make Zelda-ish dungeons, always to the harm of my campaign. Part of that is the open nature of a paper-and-pencil RPG, but that's hardly the only thing standing in the way of making a good Zelda paper and pencil dungeon. Most people who have tried (and failed) to make Zelda dungeons just try copying blindly, which is the biggest mistake made.

What makes a Zelda dungeon so much fun to play?

  1. Physicality. Zelda dungeons are always solved by doing something physical that isn't related to combat. Push the blocks, blow up the wall, push the button!
  2. Analytical Thinking. Instead of having the completion of the dungeon hinge upon combat Zelda dungeons force you to use your head.
  3. Flair for the Dramatic. Hard or easy, you're gonna remember the Ancient Cistern, where you had to climb up a rope to escape an endless horde of zombies while your stamina gauge was running out. Memorable does not mean hard (although the Water Temple is a reminder that it can)
  • Use any of the puzzle elements from Zelda. Zelda's a videogame, and most of the best video games (in this humble blogger's opinion) are very aware of it and make no effort to hide it. As a GM you have a much lower suspension of disbelief threshhold than Zelda. So no buttons! No torch-lighting! Or killing all the enemies to open the door! Or crystals! Any of it! NO! BAD GM!
  • Make puzzles with one solution. Zelda can afford to do this because it's a video game and, by the very nature of a video game, it's much more acceptable to railroad. You're not playing a video game, however: you are playing something that allows your players to do whatever the heck they like. Do not squash that, otherwise you ruin the whole point of doing a table-top game in the first place.
  • Use Dungeons and Dragons. It's my blog and I'll opine like I want to. Dungeons and Dragons of almost any edition is a terrible fit for Zelda dungeons because of the overemphasis on combat. If you want the focus to be on the dungeon you'll want a rules system that focuses on other aspects of an adventure besides HP.
  • Make tests physical. Zelda dungeons are physical affairs, so you need to know the physical world pretty well. How do load-bearing walls work? How much oxygen do you really have in a cave? Questions like these aren't boring, they're pieces of the puzzle you're about to throw at your players.  For instance, if you want to do a magma dungeon (like I always find myself wanting to do) then the first problem is oxygen: how are players going to breathe? Or you're in a temple to a forest goddess and the vegetation works like poison ivy but worse. All of it.
  • Make puzzles that suggest gear but don't bloody railroad it. Zelda's a gear-based game, and rightfully so: your stats don't ever improve beyond the supernatural (yet another reason why DnD, particularly 3rd and 4th editions, don't fit). You have to make puzzles that, by their nature, require gear to get around them but don't force them down one path. Always, always, always allow the players to come up with a solution themselves, even if it means they have to make their own tools. 
  • Use a game that's focused only on dungeon crawl. Torchbearer's your best bet because of the emphasis on the mundanity of your characters and the grind that's present, but I'm sure there are other games available. I just wouldn't use any other DnD than Moldvay (or possibly 5th, if you really limited magic item use). You  could even use Burning Wheel if you wanted a more character-driven dungeon crawl than Torchbearer, but then the emphasis stops being on the dungeon itself, and where's the fun of that? Ultimately it's to your taste, just make sure that if you're going to do a Zelda crawl you keep the magic items down so the ingenuity of the players can run rampant. 
  • Go with a theme. Yes, do your Forest Temple. It wouldn't be Zelda if you didn't. Just remember to go with the Zelda theme using table-top strengths: imagination, creativity, and surprise. Throw out your monster manual if you have to, do whatever it takes to just focus on your theme. Research animals, flaura and fauna, and fantasy them up! Whatever it is, stick with the theme and go for it. 
  • Research, research, research. This is now shooting the dead horse, but it bears repeating: the more you know about how the physical world the more people will be engrossed, because they already know the rules well enough.
  • Read this and all the links on that page. They're awesome and you should read them regardless of whether you're going to make a Zelda styled dungeon or not. They're just good for basic dungeon-building tips. 
  • Make most puzzles gear based, link gear to boss battles. Nuff said.
Making a dungeon is a whole lot of fun. Making a Zelda dungeon should be fun and challenging. Go out and make awesome stuff for your players!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Better Late than Never: Star Wars Machete Order

I've always liked Luke Skywalker. Something about the character has always appealed to me: the guy who just goes and does the right thing because it's the right thing, consequences be damned. The story of the original trilogy was Luke fighting to keep that passion throughout all the changes that were thrust upon him: the death of his family, the loss of the Hoth base, finding out that not only was Darth Vader his father but that no one else thought he should be saved. Luke's arc was about someone refusing to lose their innocence to the overwhelming darkness that had claimed his father. a man whom he struggled to be like in spirit but not actuality. 

And that's what I love about the Machete Order (Episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6, the words Machete Order are actually a link): it deepens Luke's story. I watched this order with my wife Maria a few months ago (mostly against her wishes, Star Wars isn't her cup of tea). She watched it with me because I really wanted to try it and, while she had seen the original trilogy, she had never seen the prequels, so it made for some surprises for her. Episodes IV and V went about as expected: Maria tolerated them while I remembered what I loved about them in the first place: a simple tale about a boy who would be a hero. 

Then we started on II and things changed. Gone was the optimism, the spark, the charm, and fight scenes that actually seemed like fight scenes. In its place was depression, despair, weakness, and a whole lot of flash with no substance. But somehow it worked, especially Episode III, which saw Anakin's true trouble: he had no moral compass. Anakin, while phenomenally powerful, had no way to figure out what the right thing to do was. His relationship with Obi-wan was wrecked and perverted. He hadn't gotten the guidance he needed to become a strong person. So when it all came down to that fateful scene with Mace Windu and Palpatine on Coruscant, Anakin goes with the guy who promises to help him protect those whom he loves. The fact that Anakin had no idea what he was going to do up until that point is what  makes him such a flawed  and tragic character.

When Return of the Jedi came up the conflict became clear: Darth Vader was a hopeless, bumbling, incompetent, tragic man who had no moral character whatsoever. Anakin was no her until he saw Luke stand up to Palpatin. And that's when Star Wars finally crystallized for me.
I'd always felt that the trial of Luke during Return of the Jedi was odd, because Luke isn't the sort of guy who would just commit evil. That's not Luke's struggle, not really. No, what we were watching was Anakin finally being won over by his son, bit by bit. He put up a fight but Luke never gave up on Anakin, something that Anakin had never had before.  The struggle became about Anakin's redemption. Luke's almost suicidal trust in his father had finally paid off. Luke had won and it was well worth the wait.

I don't know if George Lucas has seen anything about the Machete Order, but I'm completely sold: this is the definitive way to watch Star Wars. It improves the original trilogy by putting two of the prequels in as backstory, allowingr you to enjoy Return of the Jedi for the masterpiece that it was always intended to be. Luke was always meant to save Anakin, that was the point. And the Machete Order delivers this in the clearest way possible.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Spider-Man Should Be Married

So I just read this article here on IGN, which states that Spider-Man should remain single. I disagree fundamentally. Spider-Man is a story about growing up, responsibility, and finding your place within the world. That's what the mythos are at it's core. Marriage is natural part of growing up for many of us, so it makes sense for the everyman of comics to face what the everyman does: commitment to someone else. Furthermore, nothing makes someone feel as in over their heads as fatherhood. You want a beleaguered Peter? Try being a father who has to go take out the Rhino, that's much more complicated. And finally Peter and MJ do actually belong together. The two of them (especially in JMS's run) share a common core and MJ is in much the same boat as Peter being a super-model as he is being a superhero. 

Spider-Man is the ultimate everyman, the guy who is a hero while still going home and maintaining everything that a normal man can under the circumstances. What's more normal than having someone to share your life with?  Peter's a good guy, he would attract someone like that to himself eventually. Heck, it doesn't make sense if he doesn't , most Americans will. That creates a different type of story, to be sure. Peter now has to deal with living with someone else and how he and his wife will change as a result. Given how tumultuous a marriage can be without the added stress of supervillains screwing up your home that makes for one eventful marriage and one heck of a story. Again, JMS pulled it off, what's preventing other writers from doing that? If they're not even able to grasp that basic part of Spidey then what are they doing writing him in the first place?

And a lot of people comment on how Peter wouldn't be so down on his luck and identifiable as a married man. Excuse me, but what universe do you live in, where being a father and husband doesn't immediately give you a whole host of commitments that are stressful to keep without being a superhero? Can I live there? Cause, as a husband and as-of-last-week father, that sounds like a nice world to live in! Things get much more complicated as a normal dude, I can't imagine what it would be like  to be Spider-Man on top of that. That's a good story.

Finally, the article in question asks why it has to be MJ, since Peter's had multiple loves. Um, who are you counting here? Black Cat? Cause that looks a lot more like lust a lot of the time than love. Ooh, Betty Brant? Yeah, she's with Flash, probably not such a true love thing (and even if she isn't right now you certainly get my point). No, it has to be MJ at the end, and that's because the two of them are actually very similar in all the right ways. MJ, as a model, has a lot of public scrutiny on her and projects her own image, producing her own secret identity. I always saw the two characters as being more of a yin-yang, sharing the same core while expressing it in very different ways. That's MJ portrayed at her best and I can't imagine those two not being together.

To say that Peter is more relatable being single is to miss the entire point as to what marriage gave him (or sometimes did, depending on the quality of the writer) in the first place. All you have to do is to take what normally happens in a marriage and run with it. It's easier said than done as some of those 20 years of marriage showed, but at it's core it's still the same hard-on-his-luck guy trying to make his way in a world that requires him to be a hero, even if he really doesn't feel like one a lot of the time. If anything, marriage would just make that matter more.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Hi Micah!

So this little bundle of joy appeared into my life yesterday at 9:30 PM! Micah James has made inroads to our hearts and we'll never be the same for it. Thank goodness, cause I was starting to wonder if the pregnancy (and labor) would ever end.

As I look at the little guy I come to realize something: throughout my life I've fought to not be changed by the things that happen or to be overly bitter. But, for the second time in my life, I've realized something: I want this to change me. I want to not be the same because of having him in my life. I want to be different. And this little dude's definitely in on it.

God is good.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Burning Wheel: Character Traits

Traits: they're the least talked about part of Burning Wheel. Don't pretend that you don't know what I"m talking about. Go peruse the Burning Wheel forums. It's Beliefs this, Instincts that, how am I supposed to write this Belief, is this Instinct going to get me into enough trouble? Well, I'm here to say that I think that's a load of bunk. Traits are where it's at. Traits define the character in ways that Beliefs and Instincts never can, because they define the most important part of the character: the lessons they've already learned.  I'm first going to lay out the basics of the Burning Wheel Artha Wheel, explain how Character Traits help this Artha Wheel to turn, and then go into using Traits to help generate Beliefs and Instincts, and finally give some tips on how to make Character Traits more meaningful in Character Burning.

Burning Wheel is built for the zero-to-hero story: you start out as a broken and flawed individual who has potential and, over the long 30+ sessions, become a hero. The Beliefs are what the character is trying to do, the Instincts are little things that actually tell you who the character is, and Character Traits tell you what lessons he's already accumulated. As time goes on Trait Votes happen and Beliefs that have been resolved become Traits (usually Character Traits, but not always), because you're no longer fighting for them. They've just become a part of you now.  As you fight for what you believe, gaining Fate and Persona points, you eventually realize that your own petty little thoughts really don't matter in the grand scheme of things, so you sacrifice them so that way the grander picture can actually benefit. BOOM! There's a Deeds point. Your Beliefs change to reflect what you've just done, and the cycle kicks in again.

In this virtuous cycle Character Traits play a vital role. You get rewarded for any of your Character Traits causing you trouble or changing the direction of the story in an unseen way. Your grand schemes, summarized in the Beliefs, are going to start running up against your Traits, which summarize your past. The present and past rub against each other and create friction, requiring the player to make a stand. Notice I said the player, not the character. 

For instance, let's say you have a Belief about saving your kingdom from civil war and strife, but you have a bad relationship with your stepmom (the person currently in power) and you have the Vindictive trait. You just can't help yourself, can you? You just have to screw her over somehow. So you spit in her food as it passes by, hoping no one notices. But of course someone had to, didn't they? Now you have a real mess on your hands.

Playing the Character Traits like this allows for you to make the character more sympathetic. He's got a past and it haunts him, like it does for all of us, and sometimes that means he's going to do things you're not going to agree with. 

Character Traits can also earn you Embodiment for really good role-play.

That Vindictive traited guy we were just talking about? You think he's going to apologize for spitting in his mom's food? Heck no, he'll get up and start attacking his stepmom. Is it the smartest move? No, but since when is a guy with the Vindictive trait really out to benefit anyone? "She knew that I was the bastard and that would give her a position! She ruined my life and that's why you should trust me over her. I'd never do something like that!" Hypocritical? Oh yes, but I'll bet you those two sentences will earn an Embodiment award.

And finally there's the Moldbreaker. Playing against a Belief, Instinct, or Trait, usually requires one or the other, and Traits can be a powerful way to Moldbreaker

So someone brings that Vindictive guy aside and starts yelling at him about what he just did and how he just ruined the talks. Let's say this Vindictive guy also has a Guilt Complex Character Trait. He then drops out of the talks altogether, telling his stepmom that she's the best chance everyone has because he clearly isn't the dude to do this. That's Embodiment, Moldbreaker, and using your Character Trait to twist the story in an unexpected direction! What a session!

So what does this mean? When you make a character his Character Traits should be the big red buttons for you to press when things go wrong. When in doubt (a situation happens that doesn't hit one of your Beliefs) look at your Character Traits and act on one of them in the biggest way you can. You'll get Artha for it, almost guaranteed. If not it's because you didn't do it big enough.

Another you can do is use Traits to write your Beliefs. For instance, you have the Afraid of Wet Noises Character Trait. Weird trait, right? I mean, how the hell are you gonna use that? But, since you're always supposed to be looking for ways to make Beliefs more personal, that can come to good use!
Fearot should be killed for putting me in that well when we were kids.
Does the fact that Fearot, the horrible bandit, is destroying villages really the center of this guy's wish to take him down? No, it's because Fearot and him grew up together and Fearot tortured him. Now this character wants control of his Fear of Wet Noises by taking out the guy responsible for it. Now you have something compelling!

You can do the same thing with Instincts. Got Broken and Bitter Character Traits and you were once conscripted into the military? Take a look around and add things together of that nature
Whenever I see a soldier I hide.
That's a fantastic Instinct which won't get you in any trouble. Whatsoever. 

And last, but not least, is something I highly encourage anyone who's burning a character to do: whenever you take a trait in character burning (whether you like it or not!) come up with a small reason as to why you have it and try to associate it with a lifepath.
I'm buying Bitter and I've got that conscript lifepath. I decide to say that I'm Bitter because I was stolen from my family when they needed me most and now my parents are dead from starvation.
Don't write anything terribly long or detailed, a sentence will do. Your GM will thank you for the fodder to throw at you and you'll find that it gives deeper roleplaying.

So, in conclusion, Character Traits can be used to really powerful and subtle effect. You can use them to power your Beliefs and Instincts in ways that make it easier to roleplay the character and make character generation easier. Take a good long look at your Character Traits and play'em to the hilt!

Post-Synopsis: Andy, a good buddy of mine who was kind enough to proof read this article, pointed out that playing Burning Wheel this way will make for a very tight-knit character, the type of person who doesn't have a lot of nooks and crannies to explore, which is very true. Beliefs are far more than being rooted in the past, they're a way to explore the future of the character. At that point Traits become the texture of the character, how he reacts to things not found within those Beliefs. Which is a totally good way to do it as well. I just like having a character's future heavily influenced by his past, which feels far more realistic to me. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hacking 13th Age with Tenra Bansho Zero and Numenera

Tenra Bansho Zero has an awesome mechanic: the aiki-kiai-karma system. Basically each character has a set of Fates that, should they play to them in ways that their fellow players deem as cool, they get an aiki chit, which they can use for character advancement. So I got an idea to hack it into 13th Age, which has only one flaw: no actual advancement system beyond hand-waving. Now, granted, this game is open for hacking by design intent, so I don't really see it as a flaw.

But I still wanna hack it.

So the system doesn't have Fates, and I've thought about having everyone write them up. I even devised a Destiny system that would set down major plot points over the entirety of the campaign. But it started looking a little rail-roady and besides, as Carpe pointed out, we've already got some free-form elements in 13th Age: Backgrounds and the One Unique Thing! So we're going to use 'em. But first, the actual rewards system.

First of all, you've got what're called Awesome Chits. Whenever you do things in-line with your 
Backgrounds and One Unique Thing that someone else likes they give you an Awesome Chit. Awesome Chits are used for a few things:

  1. Add +5 to any d20 roll, cumulative. If you spend 5 points on a d20 roll you get a critical success.
  2. Halve the incoming damage of an attack by spending a number of Awesome Chits equal to the damage dealt/10.
  3. Add 5 damage/tier per point spent, to a max of 3 points.
  4. At the end of the session spend the extra Awesome Chits to buy the Incremental Advances talked about in the Core Book. 5 Awesome Chits get you one Incremental Advance. 
Those are just some basic ideas for now. None of these ideas have been playtested, so I have no idea if they actually work, but I do know this: 
  1. A d20 is the swingiest dice out there, and sometimes you just need the extra oomph. And sometimes you just need a crit. Badly.
  2. Crits from the GM suck. I'd like to make them not as...awful.
  3. Sometimes the damage you roll just needs some help.
  4. I want an actual reward system in my RPGs.
S'yeah, comment let me know what you think!

Saturday, December 21, 2013


OK, so I might have Kickstarted this the instant I could, I might have man-squeed with delight when I first saw it and... I might have played a campaign of it already, before I even thought about writing the review. I might seriously be in love with this game, which Maria may think is a bad thing, but oh well. I suppose I'll have to work on it. Anyway, on with the review!

Torchbearer is the newest game by the Burning Wheel group, this time led by Thor instead of Luke. It takes the basic Mouseguard engine and screws around with it, making what the crew calls "Advance Mouseguards and Dragons". That's somewhat accurate, although not complete. Mouseguard, while hard, has a turn structure to protect the players from the GM's machinations against him. The Player's turn offers relief of sorts to the players that I'd never even known was there in Mouseguard. Y'wanna know how I figured out that the Player's Turn was a relief mechanic of sorts?

I played Torchbearer and cried.

On a surface level Torchbearer isn't all that different from Mouseguard. You have Nature, representing how much like your race, Will, your social stat, Health, your physical stat, Circles, how well-connected you are, and Resources, your cash (which starts at 0 at the beginning of the game, period). Your skills advance based on a pass-fail system that's extremely simple and intuitive. Extended conflicts are put together via a script-three-moves-at a time system that's simple and awesome. Actually, just to save space, here's my Mouseguard review. There, now that you're done with that, I can go on about the differences.

First of all, there's a clock of sorts put in the game. Every four checks not made as a result of an Instinct you get another Condition. These Conditions are similar to Mouseguard, but are much more beefed up and, well, terrifying. You do not want these conditions. One at a time they're not too bad, but start stacking them up and... well...

I think that communicates what happens to your character when you get all the conditions pretty adequately. Don't have this happen to you, just don't. 

Anyway, so there's the clock. You can reset the clock by either going back to town or taking a rest in the dungeon. Doing so invites it's own problems, of course, like accidents in the dungeon, new laws or being outright barred from said town. But it's still worth the chances to reset that clock.

Oh, and speaking of dungeons, don't think you can fight your way through: the Burning Wheel Co. put in a mechanic called Might, which tells you on what magnitude of awesome the creature is (your characters are at 3). If the creature has a Might 2 or higher than your character's you may not kill, drive it off, or attempt to capture it. That's it, there's no chance of anything like that working. You'll have to trick it or convince it to go away. There are things in the world you'll need to go around.

Monsters are also a bit different this time around. They're a bit more sophisticated than in Mouseguard, where they only really gave you the Nature and some of the weapons it would use. Here they give you the disposition for each of the conflicts they're in and the weapons appropriate to that conflict.

Now there's one particular set of changes that are the most obvious, and that's the BDnD-esque additions. There's levels, mapping (of a sort), spells, essential clerics (played a campaign without one, see the gif up above for the results), all like BDnD...except... well... better. Heck, if you're looking for a good old fashioned dungeon crawl done to the utter nitty gritty, this is that game. You even have to account for what's in each hand! This nitty gritty, contrary to a lot of games, doesn't slow it down or make it less fun. If anything, the constant minding of resources in the face of certain and utter doom is awesome. Going to town, getting your stuff replenished, heading back out to get stuff you don't have any actual room for...

BDnD done right. Yup.