The Inquisition: Freedom!

Thanks to flickr user ctj71081!! CC BY 2.0

The Inquisitor has been on holiday this past week, so I just have a few quick thoughts this week.  Next week we’ll continue with our regular features, drilling into the psychological and philosophical aspects of gaming. For now, on the history of the declaration of American Independence, we’ll talk about freedom.

We’ve got a lot of freedom issues in RPGs. There’s the freedom to play whatever character you might want, the freedom to go down whatever road interests you (commonly known as the freedom to NOT be railroaded), and so on.

But most importantly, we have the freedom to really do whatever we want when it comes to the games we play. If Rule 0 is that The GM is always right, then Rule 0.1 should be that if there’s something you don’t like about your game, change it.

I think a lot of us get caught up in the advanced rules systems whose heyday was the mid-90’s. Games move toward being universal; we started to see systems trying to account for every situation possible, and thus, rules creep became more and more of a problem.

We’re seeing the rubber band snap back nowadays: how many retro-clones have hit the “market” (which I hesitate to say since many are free) in the past few years?

This is not to say that these games do not have rules that cover every situation. They just have general rules that can be applied, rather than specific rules for every situation. However, there seems to be some kind of strange reverence for the olden days when there were no rules for grappling, or X, or Y, or Z. Having fewer rules is not necessarily a good thing if you live in a world where you have the freedom to choose which rules to use and which to throw out.

It seems that this is the way D&D Next is going: rules modules that you can choose to use or not. But remember, every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has had a short section saying that if you didn’t like a rule, throw it out or change it. I’m not going to fault Monte Cook et. al. for giving me more options! I don’t know a GM out there who hasn’t changed or ignored a whole swath of rules to make their game more suited to their group’s style. Of course, changing or removing rules makes certain aspects of the game weaker, stronger, or simply nonexistent (removing Attacks of Opportunity for grappling would power up grapple-focused characters, for example), so keep that in mind. Every system is its own ecosystem; change some of the parts, and other things will be affected.

So, sometimes it’s hard to remember, and the worst rules-lawyers of us will complain, but we have the freedom to choose our system, but also choose which subset of rules within that framework is best for our group. Don’t be afraid to tinker.

Have fun at your barbecues, and if you don’t read this until a few days later, I hope you had a happy mid-week holiday.

What System Are You Really Running?

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It’s been a while (too long) since I’ve found the time to post in my usual Thursday morning spot. What made me carve out some time today was an odd thought that occurred to me recently. I’ve been putting in a lot of work on my multi-system campaign setting, Sand & Steam. Due to a promise made to a friend, I’ve been concentrating most of my recent work on Fate. You see, I have a Fate Sand & Steam adventure to run at DC Gameday in a little over a week. I have only little experience with Fate, but since it is one of the systems I’m going to use for Sand & Steam, I figured that things would work out.

Things are, indeed, working out. My odd thought happened as I was exploring the Fate mechanics in more detail. It occurred to me that I have been running Fate for quite a long time without having even known it. And I’ve never run a game of Fate before in my life.

Let me explain.

One of the hallmarks of the Fate system is the collaboration between the players and the GM. In fact, there is a nearly 50/50 split between the players and the GM when it comes to who has narrative control. Through the use of Aspects, players can define things about the game world, or the narrative, that were not true before they made their declaration. I think this is awesome, and it is something that I have been doing with my Pathfinder group for as long as we have been together. I’ve told them numerous times, “If you make something up in the world, I’ll use it and run with it. This is as much your game as it is mine.” That’s an idea that is codified and built right into Fate.

My use of skills is also very Fate-like. Ever since I played D&D 4e, I have liked skill challenges. However, I do not like the rigid structure that has there being key skills that can only be used so many times, and higher DCs for skills that may not apply. What I like to do with skill challenges is have the players pick whatever skills they want to, and justify to me how that skill is applicable. Some are obvious, others are not, depending on the situation, and the results are often awesome. I ran a skill challenge in a Pathfinder Sand & Steam game at GenCon which involved the PCs avoiding a beating by some thugs during a theatrical production in a fancy opera house. It was great. We had PCs swinging from chandeliers, we had PCs bluffing with their combat skill, and generally playing to the crowd for support in the fight. It was one of the best skill challenges I have ever run.

All this is to say: be aware of what system you are really running. Not that you need to stick to the rules as written explicity (gods know I don’t), but if you take the time to examine other rules systems, you might find actual, codified rules that support the way you already run your game. Now that I have firm examples from reading and working with Fate, I have a better idea of how to keep doing what I’ve been doing with players having narrative control, or malleable options in skill challenges. Every GM tweaks the rules to suit their style, but that tweaking shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Do some reading and see what else is out there. You might find that the game you run is not the game you think it is. And that’s a good thing.

Descriptive Loss

I was talking with one of my fellow forum members over at The Gamer’s Haven about some of the Actual Play sessions that those guys have posted. We were discussing how different it is to listen to a session of a 4e game, as compared to just about any of the other systems that have been run. We couldn’t quite put our respective fingers on it, but something about the 4e sessions was less compelling to listen to then the others. We finally settled on the the combat being the culprit, what with the tactical nature of it, and the near-need to see a battlemat to make it interesting.

But something kept gnawing at me. I’ve been thinking about it all evening and the following morning, and it finally dawned on me:  it’s the descriptions, stupid! In every game that I have ever played in, or listened to, the absolute best part of the combat was hearing how both the players and the GM describe combat actions. From the thump of a club into skeletal bones to the crack of a revolver, no matter the system, descriptive, cinematic combat really brings things to life.

4e changes all of that, and I think the problem lies in the powers that every class has. No longer do you have the warrior describing his sword-strike, instead you have Furious Smash. Instead of the wizard or the warlock being unique because they have powers and spells with names, now everyone does. And what’s worse, each of the powers has its own little block of flavor text, and it’s the same every blessed time. There’s no difference from one Vengeful Strike to another, and every time you Split the Tree, it’s the same.

Sure, it’s really cool when you use those powers for the first time. But as you keep playing, and you go through multiple combat encounters, there are only so many times that you can read the same descriptive text before it becomes massively dull and repetitive. As well, I run into what I call the “Anime Problem.” If you’ve seen any of the recent rebirth of the Transformers cartoon, you know what I’m taking about. It’s not enough for Optimus Prime to fire his laser cannon, no, he now has to shout out the name of the attack that he’s using. Every time I imagine a 4e combat independent of an actual game session, all I can do is imagine a party running around, shouting out the names of the powers they are using.

I realize now that it’s this problem more than anything else that has driven me away from 4e D&D. Because the players and the GM, by and large, are prevented from describing what their characters are doing in combat, everything just gets same-y and repetitive.

I don’t really have a fix for this problem, aside from not playing that system. While I don’t think that everything needs to be described and created by the players and GM, there needs to be some flexibility to those descriptions so that every fight doesn’t degenerate into a basic calling out of powers used, to-hit rolls and damage dealt. If you’ve got a way around this, I would love to hear it because I think 4e has a lot to offer. Right now, though, I can’t use it.

[tags]tabletop, rpgs, GMing, systems, D&D[/tags]

Houses of the Blooded – Review

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For the last month or so, I’ve been doing some thinking. You see, it was about that time that I received my review copy of Houses of the Blooded, by John Wick. My first reaction was “Sweet! A new system to review. This should be awesome.” I was partially right. There was a lot of awesome, but there were some things that gave me pause. Let me explain.

Houses of the Blooded is described by the author as “The Anti-D&D RPG,” right near the beginning of the text. That’s a pretty strong stance to take. I wanted to come into this review as an impartial observer, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do when the creator of the system starts out by positioning his game at the antithesis of another game. It made me constantly look at the system in terms of comparison. John keeps this up throughout the book, so it’s not like it’s a subtle theme. That having been said, I still did my best to evaluate the book and its contents on their own merits. With all of that in mind, let’s get going.


Houses of the Blooded (or HotB, henceforth), is a game about tragedy. No matter the story told, it will always end in blood and tears. That’s how the system is designed. The players take on the roles of ven nobles. The ven are an ancient race of beings that, the book says, scholars know precious little about. All they have to go on are a few documents detailing their laws, and some of what they call Pillow Books; stories that seem to be the ven cultural equivalent of harlequin romance novels.

As a noble, your character is in charge of their lands, their vassals and are subject to their liege lord(s). You manage your holdings, engage in combat with the vicious orks that occupy some of your lands, and of course, engage in both courtly intrigue and Romance with your fellow ven. Your main goals involve pursuing an agenda that will gain you power, wealth, land, lovers, whatever you decide that your character desires.

The thing that separates HotB from other rpgs is that the telling of these stories is largely collaborative. The players have just as much influence over the world that they inhabit as the Narrator, and at times, they might have more. The mechanics of the system are designed to give control over to the players to not only help get their characters what they want, but also to put their characters in positions of peril for dramatic/tragic effect.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The fluff in this book is amazing. The level of detail that HotB strives for in explaining the various aspects of ven culture is something that most rpgs don’t have. Ven culture is extremely complex, with layers upon layers of intrigue. The book gives you this information very in great detail, and more than a few times while I was reading, I felt the strong desire to search online for additional information about the ven, as if they were a real, historical people. The book is written to give it that level of verisimilitude. As well, the atmosphere that is described is one that I definitely find lacking in many rpgs. As you read, the world the ven inhabit seems real and seems to really embody the romantically tragic feel that the author is striving for.

Unfortunately, for this reviewer, the good of the system ends there.

To Playtest, or not to Playtest?

From the jump, it was my intention to run a session of this game to make sure that my review was as through as possible. As well, I was going to even include the audio of that session you all of you readers would have an ear into how my players went about the game, as well as what they thought of it. As I continued to read the book (which I will gripe about in a bit), my plans began to change.

I took a good look at the atmosphere the game was trying to create, took an honest look at my regular group of players, and decided that the game wouldn’t be right for them. They’re new to the whole gaming thing, and they do a really good job. However, given that most of us are family and are prone to having little spats during a game, playing something like HotB, where intrigue and betrayal are the name of the game, it seemed better to find a different way to test out this game.

So, I asked my wife. Now, my wife doesn’t game, as a rule, but she was willing to help me out, and she has both the brains and the creative mind to take on something like this. HotB can be played with only a Narrator and a single player, so we set out to create her character. Character creation in HotB is something that is best done with a whole group of players, that way you can establish connections between them and figure out how they know each other to begin telling their stories together. I figured that I would be able to make a few NPCs while she was making her character, but we ended up spending the entire time making her character alone, due largely to the organization of the book. By the time we got halfway through her character, I was so fed up with both the book and the system, that I called it. The upshot is that the same type of player control that the game is designed to use is also found throughout the character creation, so I got a really good idea of how the game would play.

So, now that we’ve covered the basics as to why I didn’t play a test session, let’s look at some of the deeper reasons.

The Book

The PDF copy of the book that I reviewed clocked in at a hefty 436 pages. 436 pages, and 0 bookmarks with which to navigate it. This may sound like a small gripe, but when you’ve got information necessary to the creation of the character nestled within 10 of your 14 chapters, it would be nice to be able to jump to a given section of the book as needed. Of course, if the information were better organized in general, it might obviate the need for bookmarks.

As I said above, the information about the feel of the world is great. As well, the stuff about the game world is cool. The problem is that there are mechanical items liberally sprinkled throughout these fluffy portions, not to mention the numerous sidebars that may or may not contain relevant information that may or may not even relate to the content of the chapter itself. The only saving grace is that the PDF is searchable, so you might be able to find what you need.

Finally, the book is really poorly edited. There are typos here and there, and the murky,  unclear sentence structure is justified by the author stating that he wanted to write the book “they way the ven wrote.” Okay. I’m doing my level best to put my English degree on the shelf here, but that’s a cop-out if I’ve ever heard one. Write well. Done.


Mechanically, at first glance, the game seems pretty straightforward. If you want to do anything risky, be it a mental or physical task, you will roll d6s, trying to beat a 10. You gather your dice pool from a number of places: your Virtues (Strength, Beauty, Cunning, Wisdom, Courage, and Prowess), your Aspects, your Devotions, possibly your Holdings, your Vassals. Once you get your dice together, you can set aside a number of them as a wager. If you make your roll, then you can use each wagered die to define an aspect of the successful result. So, if you walk into a room and the Narrator tells you that there’s a body on the floor, you can roll a Wisdom Risk, and if you wager 4 dice, if successful, you can then define 4 facts about the scene.

The mechanic seems fine. I generally have no problem with the idea of it, but do you remember how I said that ven culture is incredibly complex? Well, take that complexity and turn it into a series of mechanics that employ those dice rolls. Want to insult someone? You’re going to need to gather your dice. Want to duel someone? Same thing. If there is a component of ven culture that is ritualized, then you can bet that you’re going to have to undertake a multi-step process every time you want your character to undertake it. It reminds me of trying to make a Grapple check in almost any game system: it’s far too complex because you’re trying to render down each step of the process until you almost forget you’re trying to grapple.

Tack onto all of this a system for managing the lands that you possess, a system for determining your devotion to your gods, a system for how to throw a party, for crying out loud, and you find that the mechanics quickly become unwieldy.


I mentioned Aspects before, and they deserve some further discussion. You can think of an Aspect as a Feat, or an Edge (depending on your system of reference), except that it has components that are also detrimental for your character. By and large, though the book has sample Aspects, the player is encouraged to create their own. They have to craft all three sections of it: The Invoke, the Tag, and the Compel. If you Invoke your Aspect, you get bonus dice towards whatever you’re trying to do, if someone Tags your Aspect, they get bonus dice against you, and if someone Compels your Aspect, they limit your behavior in some way.

Again, this is a cool idea. The problem is that you have to trust that no one is going to abuse the system. Guidelines for crafting Aspects are given, but there are loopholes big enough to drive a Mack truck through. The author even addresses these holes in the rules by giving the idea that ven laws are full of loopholes as well, so it fits. As well, he does his best throughout the book to cover those holes with this advice: “Don’t be a wanker.”

Don’t Be a Wanker

This phrase, and many like it are found sprinkled through the text. The author states this over and over to, as he says, improve the game experience. That’s completely fine. After all, no one wants to play a game with a guy that constantly works the rules to try and gain advantage for his character. The problem comes when you ask people not to exploit rules in your game system to cover up the shoddiness of the game design.

I really like the idea that the players can add as much to a session or campaign as the GM can. As well, I like the idea of mirroring a complex society within the rules of the game. But when you marry those concepts and knowingly leave massive holes in your rules, only to justify it by exhorting the players to not exploit the holes, that is just bad game design.


There are a lot of good ideas here, and from what I’ve seen and read of John Wick, he is really full of good ideas. However, I think that the final product suffers from a number of flaws that keep it from being something great. The type of group that could play this game without issue is a rare one, I think. Also, given how difficult I found character creation alone, I think that it might be the type of game that almost requires you have a Narrator who knows the rules and the style of play inside and out. This is true for a lot of games, but I think it might be vital for HotB.

To close up this review (if you stayed with me this long), if you want a book to read that might inspire you to add more collaboration to your game, that could help you craft a tragic, romantic game for your players, then HotB has some really, really good ideas to offer. However, I don’t think that the game itself is the venue in which to explore these things. Take the ideas, apply them to your favorite system, and leave HotB on the shelf.

[tags]game review, review, rpg, systems[/tags]

Anima: Beyond Fantasy: The Review

Okay folks, time for a system review.  My Tuesday night gaming group recently finished the pilot campaign of this game, and with a monthly game now starting up, I think it’s a good time to lay down my thoughts on Anima: Beyond Fantasy.

First, the book itself.  I am completely serious when I say that this book is worth buying solely for the artwork.  It’s stunning.  Nearly every page has a, well, awesome image on it.  In fact, that was the reason the GM in my group originally bought it.

The tone of the game is reminiscent of 80’s and early 90’s anime.  By that I mean it has Style, and yes, the capital and the italics are justified.  Think Berserk! and Vampire Hunter D, think secret techniques, think swords that can cleave through five mooks and a building in a single swing, think flashy magic, think sprays of blood, think adventure, think action, think awesome.  The genre we’re talking about is “dark fantasy.”

Now for the system.  First off, beware, because the system is crunchy.  Usually, I’m a huge fan of crunch-lite systems, for the simple reason that I don’t like rules getting in the way of the story.  Anima’s system is actually fairly functional crunch, however.  The only dice you will ever need is a set of percentile dice (2d10), and you use these for all rolls.  When you’re making a combat roll, you only need to roll your percentile dice, apply modifiers, and determine what happens.  How much you hit by matters, as damage is decided by percents.  If you just barely hit your enemy, you might do 10% of your weapon damage, but if your dice explode several times, and your enemy defends poorly, you might deal 200% of your weapon damage.

In addition to standard swordplay, there are also rules set up for the use of Ki techniques, Xeon,  Psychic powers, and summoning.  Ki techniques are often employed my martial artists, technicians, or warriors, and can have effects from modifying your stats, to creating a weapon out of thin air, to the classic Kamehameha.  Xeon is closest to standard magic, allowing wizards to call down fire and energy upon their foes.  Psychic powers cover the manipulation of objects and minds, and a powerful psychic can command others to do his bidding, unleash psychic assaults, and move things with his mind.  Summoning, while difficult and dangerous, can bring powerful allies onto the battlefield.

So it’s pretty standard dark fantasy, but the execution is so stylish that it easily makes this worth a purchase and at least a miniseries.

A few recommendations:

Know which rules apply to you, because if players are clueless, the pace of combat can absolutely crawl.

Get a portrait for your character.  Find one, draw one, commission one, whatever you have to do, but know what you look like, and make sure everyone else does too.

You start badass, and get exponentially more badass as you advance in levels.  Own it.

[tags]Anima,review,systems,roleplaying games[/tags]

Becoming Familiar with a New System

We’ve all been there. It’s Game Night, and you’re set to make sure that the Evil Thus-and-such doesn’t take over the world. You have your character sheet in hand, dice bag at the ready, and when you arrive, all of your fellow players are drooling over a book for a new system. Your grip goes limp, and Sir Elberforth the Bold gently falls to the floor, his meticulously-statted self landing on the floor.

Okay, maybe it’s not all so dramatic, but what do you do when your group just up and decides to change systems on you? If leaving your group for one that isn’t quite a douchy won’t work, then here are some tips to get ready, fast.

1. Read, read, read

One way or another, you’re going to have to learn the mechanics of the game before you can take your new hero out for a spin. Get your hands on a copy of the Player’s Guide for the system and get to reading. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend focusing on the stuff that tends to be important for your group; if you’re RP-heavy, then make sure you know how to make what passes for a Diplomacy check. If you guys roll up and start the slaughter with  no words exchanged, be sure to know the mechanics behind your weapon of choice.

2. Get to know the setting

Hopefully, your GM isn’t preparing to thrust you into their self-created world where more than half of the things you read in the Player’s Guide won’t apply. If there’s a default setting, and your group is using it, know some of the ins and outs. What countries are where, and who will you upset if you wear the wrong color to dinner? Who can you kill and who should you avoid? A good system will provide you with basic info that you should need to know to get by.

Caveat: If you’re using a ruleset with basic rules that has a bunch of different settings that can change the core rules in certain ways (see: Savage Worlds), then make sure you get accurate info on the setting that will be used.

3. Grab some podcasts

If you have some extra time, then head to iTunes or Podbean and find some podcasts that feature either game system reviews or actual play sessions of the system in question. If you find a good group of gamers actually playing the game, it can give you a much better idea of how the mechanics work than if you just sit down with the book to try and puzzle it out.

4. When all else fails, play

If your situation mirrors my intro, then you won’t have time for any of my previous suggestions. If that happens, and you don’t have the option of reasoning with the group to wait a week to try out the new stuff, then do your best to just roll with it. If you’re a new gamer, this can be rough, as you might have only gotten a handle on your current system, let alone  a new one. Still, give it a shot. If you’re an experienced player, then dipping into a new system is a fun brain-stretching exercise, one that might give you new ideas for the old campaign.

Any gaming group worth your time should give fair warning before a new system is brought to the table. If that doesn’t happen, do your best to play along. There is something to be learned from every gaming system, even if what you learn is to not do what the new system does. Keep your mind open, and your dice rolling.

[tags]geek, Role Playing Games, rpg, systems[/tags]

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