Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Pulp Hack is available now, pay what you want

A mad scientist has used old schematics from Nikola Tesla and a Peruvian demon stone to create an army of Rasputin clones. A group of robots from the far reaches of the galaxy have landed on Earth to study the brains of prominent composers. A fascist group has uncovered the lost scroll of the deathweaver in the Amazon forest and plans to hold the United States to ransom. These are the deliciously insane plots that you will be dealing with when you play The Pulp Hack.

The Pulp Hack is powered by the amazing rules-lite OSR game The Black Hack, created by David Black. Instead of fantasy, The Pulp Hack plunges your players into a world of spies, private, eyes, masked heroes and mad scientists. If you want a simple ruleset for your pulp game, this is the place to be.
  • Six pulp classes: Adventurer, Masked Avenger, Jungle Master, Scientist, Mystic and Private Investigator.
  • Rules-lite pulp goodness based on the popular The Black Hack
  • Lots of enemies to punch - from fascist soldiers to cyber dragons
  • Resources: forget money, heroes have access to new resources when they level up, unlocking new goodies as you progress
  • Crits just got better - Heroic Surges offer new benefits 
  • Pay what you want!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Nazi Captain America is a sucky stunt that won't last

No doubt you'll have seen the mainstream media fall right into the hands of Marvel's PR machine and editor Tom Brevoort after it was revealed that Steve Rogers has been a member of Hydra for the past 75 years.

The latest gimmick Marvel has spunked out to increase profits had the internet  in uproar, which isn't surprising considering Captain America is a well-loved character and a role model for many. It's a dumb story arc, but no doubt it'll be good for business. 

For those who have been away for a whole, Steve Rogers has been a wrinkly old codger for a while, with Falcon taking up the mantle of Cap. Now All New All Different Marvel is here, Steve is back and apparently a fucking fascist. Good oh. 

Look, if they decide to tell a great story then fine, but this is another reason why I'm really turned off by the Big Two publishers at the moment. Valiant is able to consistently produce incredible comics without resorting to gimmicks, same with 2000ad, Image and many others. 

Thing is, ths won't last. Not at all. It's comics. Remember when Cap died. Remember when all fucking characters died? 

Monday, 23 May 2016

Why dungeons should be like the New York Stock Exchange

Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg -Dungeon Interior (Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine, if you will, stepping into the trade floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Conjure the frantic voices of the stock brokers on their phones, the pacing across the floor, the bright lights and blips scrolling on the large screens that hang above the suited rabble. It's a scene of excitement, of high energy and of potential.

Now imagine that the trading floor was occupied by silent, static people who just stared into the middle distance. The screens are blank. Nobody is speaking and not a single phone is to an ear. This is what a poorly made dungeon looks like. It's soulless.

So how do you create the New York Stock Exchange dungeon?

Activity happens in spite of the players

How often have you played or read an adventure where the hobgoblins are just standing around in a non-descript room and only act until the PCs enter? It happens and I'm guilty of this shit too.

It's a very old school videogame way of level design. Walk into a room and some skeletons are just...there. Standing. There's no excitement to be had - just a room with some more monsters that need punching.

Dungeons are alive. They should be thriving hubs of activity where monsters scheme, get into trouble and actually talk to each other. As a GM you should decide what the inhabitants of the dungeon are doing when the players aren't around? Are there rival goblins who are trying a game of one-up-manship? Is an orc teaching an apprentice how to muck out the boar stables?

This is a huge help for when the players are listening against doors. You'll have a much easier time describing the sounds of a specific activity than a bunch of dudes sitting around a table staring at each other until the PCs enter. Think of all the activity that happens on the trading floor and use iy as inspiration for your dungeon.

Show, don't tell

Suppose you had no idea what the stock exchange was and you were transported right into the middle of the trading floor. Seeing the prices on the screens, the frantic buying and selling, the company names, you would soon be able to piece together a semblance of what's happening bit by bit. This process is intellectually rewarding and it's no different in a dungeon. Instead of telling the players that "a sinister rat person stands there, intending to kill you with its blade" actually show them the scene and allow them to piece it all together. "A rat person with a twisted snarl fresh blood dripping from its unsheathed blade" is much more effective in conjuring an image and allowing the players to fill in the blanks.

Build competition in your dungeon

Just like stockbrokers looks after the interest of their own clients, your inhabitants should have their own interests and goals, some of which will be at loggerheads.

Factions offer a wealth of role-playing potential for the players. A faction should have a goal of their own, which is often at odds with a rival faction. This creates a pressure cooker environment where PC intervention can set off a chain of events that effect both factions, and that's fucking fun to see.

I've already talked about how forced combat is a pile of crap and how role-playing offers a much more nuanced game. Competing tribes can really help create amazing memorable moments in your game.

A dungeon doesn't need to be rational, but it should make sense

What happens on the trading floor is a weird thing. It's its own little bubble with its own language and traditions. To someone seeing it for the first time, everything would seem quote alien. But within that world everything makes sense.

This applies to your dungeon. I call it Internal Dungeon Logic. It's nothing new but it's worth bearing in mind. A dungeon can live in its own little bubble where up is down and doors flirt with you. It's important to make sure that this weirdness has its own internal logic, that the rules you set out in your dungeon don't contradict each other. This way, the players will start to put together a picture with of how the place works, giving smart players informed decisions and the ability to play around with the environment.

A living dungeon is one with soul. It's a playground for the players, a pressure cooker of ideas. Having activity in your dungeon, or city or wherever, will help the players feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves and where they can influence and be influenced. It's the New York Stock Exchange, but with fewer evil NPCs.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

How to make magic weird again

When did magic stop being so...magical? I'm talking about how in new D&D and Pathfinder magic items are often little bundles of mechanics. A medallion that gives the wearer a plus three to Fortitude, some boots that allow you to make a 5ft step in difficult terrain, or the heap of boring that is the plus one sword.

Many items are suited specifically for combat, which makes them an attraction to min maxers who want to reach peak character. I'm not saying that min maxing is the wrong way of playing, but I personally find it tedious.

Because of this focus on mechanics and combat, players often discard magic treasure that doesn't fit their character, which is fair enough but it leads to uninteresting role-playing. Magic needs to be weird as fuck.

The difference between boring magic and wonderous magic

As I mentioned before, the plus one sword is probably the laziest piece of crap magic item out there. There is no difference in saying that the sword gets a bonus because it's magic or because it's a bit sharper than regular swords. While not all magic items are like this, many share 'sword plus one' traits.

Here's the thing: mechanics are the bane of magic.

If you create a magic item with the goal to increase dexterity then your item is going to be dull and uninspired. If instead you think of a cool effect, regardless of mechanics, then you're on your way to making something worthwhile. This is the difference between making something boring or something wonderous. Which sounds better: Elven boots that give a plus two dex bonus, or Elven boots that allow you to leap as high as an adult oak in a single bound?

Magic is a toy that can be used at any time

The best magic can be used in a multitude of scenarios. It can be combined with other magic to make something truly special. Magic should not only bend the rules, but annihilate them.

Even the most subdued magical effects can add to the role-playing experience. A blow gun that lets you snuff out a torch from a mile away. An eyepatch that makes people see you as an old childhood friend. A ring that causes anyone who shakes your hand to fall sick in the next 1d4 hours. These aren't your min max bow of firefucks, but they're the items that will pepper your game with great, memorable moments.

By far the worst magic items are the ones that only offer anything good in combat. Those whose mechanics only apply when fighting rather than when role-playing. A good magic item can be used by crafty players no matter what the scenario.

Nobody gives a shit about the 'how'

If you want to make magic seem mysterious then don't treat it like a science. Magic needs no reason - it just 'is'. The effect is the only thing that matters - not the item's history, who made it and how. Magic should be a bizarre, irrational thing that shouldn't need an explanation.

So let's stop littering our dungeons with 'plus one swords' - min max collectables that are only useful in combat. Instead, let's make magic weird again. To hell with balance. To Hades with mechanics. Let the bizarre reign supreme in your game. Let's make magic magical.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Why rules are the shitty commercial breaks of RPGs

It's happened to all of us at some point. No matter how great our brains are at absorbing information, we've had to pause the game in order to look up a specific rule. The game grinds to a halt and the storytelling goes out of the window, like a commercial break about personal injury lawyers interrupting your favourite show.

Well my favourite show is role-playing games and that chunky ruleset is my ad break. Fuck rules.

This may be more of a personal thing, but I'd imagine some of you reading feel the same way. Too many niche little rules are a barrier to fun at the table. They suck you out of the action and back into reality where there are electricity bills and Donald Trump.

But as a GM you have the ultimate power to protect your players from entering this mundane ad break that is reality.

Forget the rules: make rulings

Ironically the advice built into the foundation of many games is that the rules are a guideline - fun comes first. But this is usually forgotten as soon as you've got to the second page. This is the golden rule. If the rules are getting in the way of your enjoyment then douse them in kerosine, light a fucking match and watch them burn. Figuratively of course. Unless you're playing FATAL.

The rules should be an inspiration for the GM. They should help rulings. The GM is the arbiter and it's their job to interpret the rules as they see fit as long as they aid with the enjoyment of the game. This is very important. If you're changing the rules just to be a dick to your players then step away from the table, you don't deserve to be there.

Follow the rule of cool

We play RPGs to take a break from reality and to become larger than life. Think about how you've described the hobby to the uninitiated in the past. It's likely that the fact that you're able to have total freedom to do anything you want was something that cropped up.

Fiddly mechanics can damage this. When a player wants to do something awesome, like descend a burning rope, firing flaming bolts into a barrel of gunpowder surrounded by orcs you COULD hinder the player by telling them the rules limit this. Or you could go by the rule of cool and say "hey, that's a great, memorable idea that everyone around the table will enjoy - do it."

Similarly, the rule of cool doesn't have to be about the players. The GM can bend the rules to produce a great, memorable effect. The rules may not say this monster can speak common or have telepathy but it would sure as hell make the encounter more interesting for everyone involved.

Rules lawyers are pointless

A player who is also a stone cold rules lawyer can be a burden on the group. Say you, as a GM, follow the rule of cool and let a player do a great thing that they will remember for years to come, and then the sanctioned rules lawyer says that this can't and shouldn't be done, it bricks the game. They may mean well, but the prick has commissioned his own ad break right in the middle of a great scene.

To prevent this, kindly remind them of that golden rule - rules are advisory and shouldn't get in the way of anyone's fun. If another player doing a fun thing that technically breaks the rules hurts their fun, then they should go and play a videogame.

There are some cases in which they are justified. For example, if you made a biased ruling - allowing one person to do something and not allowing another who wanted to do the same or similar thing. Don't do this - your rulings need to be fun for everyone involved.

By making great rulings you are using your power as a GM to keep everyone's favourite show going, rather than cutting to a commercial break. Mechanics should take a back seat when they would directly affect the enjoyment of the game. Fuck rules.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Here's why combat is probably holding your game back (and how to fix it)

Wikimedia commons
Edit: it has been raised that my previous title was clickbaity. I don't want to lead you guys on, so I've changed it. Peace. 

In a recent game the paladin of my group crept into the foisty cavern where a disease-ridden Ash Giant was sat munching on the bruised flesh of a tribal barbarian. The giant paid him no heed, just happy to devour his supper. The paladin, taken aback by the creature's nonchalance, curiously cast detect evil in the area. The giant wasn't evil. "Erm, guys, I don't know what to do now".

Now, this isn't because the player is stupid. Quite the opposite. Instead, this scenario was revealing of what a lazy GM I had previously been - one whose players had just grown to expect me to throw a series of evil creatures at them to battle to the death. The paladin could justify slaughtering his enemies and that was that.

I discovered that this was a shitty way to run an adventure.

Combat should be a choice (most of the time)

One thing that forced combat does is take agency away from the players. Sure, some times it totally makes sense for enemies to attack the players in cold blood, but this rarely ends up as a memorable encounter.

Think about it. How many times have your players reminisced about a good combat? Probably not a tonne. But how many times have they talked about a fun role-playing encounter? Likely a tonne.

The thing is, emotion is memorable. When you throw a forced combat at them, your players rarely have the chance to roleplay the scenario. They already know the enemy's intent: to kill them, which leaves them with limited options.

Consider instead if you offered players the ability to meet the encounter their own way. They could try and aid the enemy, parlay, trick, or a host of other tactics that don't include twatting them with a sword. I guarantee that giving them agency will make for much more interesting encounters. At the end of it, if they choose to attack them that's their perogative.

Fighting to the death is a drag

Your players have exhausted their role-playing options and have decided to get their murder on. Great.

Hands up if you usually have your bad guys fight until they're all dead? I see a few. It's easy to forget that your monsters or brigands or whatever they are actually have lives. Personal preservation is hardwired into most living creatures, so when the chips are down they're probably unlikely to keep fighting if they've had the shit kicked out of them.

Have your enemies surrender, flee, or try to bargain if they're being decimated. Show the players that these are emotional beings - doing do will open up another avenue for role-playing and that all important player agency. This is particularly useful in crunchier games where combat tends to last a lot longer.

Make your baddies chatty

It's a lot more interesting to roleplay a conversation with an enemy than to roll a bunch of dice until its HP drops. This usually means making sure that your enemies speak common or its equivalent in your game of choice. Remember how interesting Smaug was in The Hobbit? This was because he talked. He was able to cover his thoughts, share his motives and have a two way dialogue with Bilbo. This makes for an infinitely more fun encounter than a red dragon that just attacks the players.

If making you monsters talk throws out the rulebook, so be it. Fuck rules (more on this in a later post). You're all going to have a better time if your players can converse with a creature.

Don't get me wrong - combat can be really fun. You can get some really dramatic moments in combat - real nail biting stuff. But player agency is key to great role-playing and forced combat is a real hindrance to this. Making your enemies more interesting and more inclined to have a dialogue will create memorable moments that combat can rarely capture.