On a tangent

I may have mentioned that I’m getting back into being a gamemaster for tabletop role playing games. If not, consider it said.

My last foray’s series ended a few weeks ago. On review, I was dissatisfied and so were my players, so we’ll be changing.

Before I go into the future, let me delve into the past. Not least, so I have my mistakes noted for future reference.

First and foremost is the curable – I was out of practice. So I had to stop the flow as I refreshed a rule or made a judgment call. There are a host of little tricks a GM can do to keep things going, and I had to encounter the need to recall I used to know the trick. I’m still not on top of it but I’m better.

Second, also curable, is that the system and genre we used weren’t really my favorite. I used it for three reasons. First, it was a favorite genre of a couple of my players, and that enthusiasm carries. Second, I’ve always sorta liked parts of the system even not liking the genre (Spycraft 2ed, if that matters.) Third, I knew it well enough I could use it as my re-learning springboard without fear of major crashes or wishing I’d done scenario X after practice.

I also violated some rules of play which just happen to be rules for fiction as well. We ended the series, which was supposed to be part 1 of a four or five part arc. And I went and let the players kill the driving hook.

Let me explain that a bit. A driving hook to me is the hook that’s got them going RIGHT NOW. Never mind it’s not really relevant to the whole arc, never mind it was supposed to capstone the arc, it was stupid. It was stupid because there really wasn’t anything driving them to go to series two beyond it being that or “retire to Venezuela.” I should have let the hook survive, bury it so it didn’t show in series two (though they’d know it was there, and there might be a reminder note here and there), and bring it back out in a later series.

Why? Because all my players were really, really invested in getting her and making her go away. (Yeah, the hook was a she, a significant henchman, who had seriously annoyed them from the very beginning.)

So that’s the big thing – unless it’s really really necessary, don’t kill the hook. Not even if it’s in the original plan to do so, not unless it’s absolutely critical OR you’re winding down the campaign. And not even if it wasn’t supposed to be the hook. That’s an advantage of tabletop RPGs over computers or fiction books – the feedback of your audience is immediate. Your failure to anticipate their interest can be remedied swiftly, provided you pay attention.

So that’s the past. Where am I going? Why, Castle Falkenstein.

CF used to be one of my favorite systems. And its real-world story has always struck me as ironically amusing.

For example, steampunk is a major genre these days. CF was the first title to use steampunk as a term. Further, it’s a non-crunchy rule-set. Oh, there’s a bit of crunch, it’s not ‘just whatever the gamemaster says, goes’, nor is it ‘everyone agrees what’s happening, and then it happens.’ No, in that regard it’s still a definite RPG. Oh, it’s fantasy steampunk, with magic.

Oh, all the above and it was the 1994 RPG of the Year at Origins, and it was written with LARP rules in place. Yet it didn’t go anywhere, and most steampunk people go “huh” when it’s mentioned.

One of the things a lot of people use as detractors is that instead of dice it uses cards for the randomizer. Me, I like the mechanic the way it’s done. There are a couple of reasons. First, you’re holding a hand of four cards which means you KNOW how well your character can do on the upcoming task. Well, sorta, because the GM (the term in CF is host) puts one to four cards from HIS hand face-down when he sets the task. So you know the difficulty of the task on a scale, you know your skill, you know what your ‘randomizer’ potential is, and all you have to do is guess what the GM’s done. As a GM I can decide how difficult this really is based on circumstances and modifiers and use my cards to ‘tweak’. Yes, I also only have four, but it’s still four.

Another major advantage of the cards is the fact they come in suits. The game uses suits as ‘areas of emphasis’. If you’re doing a physical task then clubs matter — everything else is ‘just one’. Except, of course, that if things go wrong (or right) I the GM can use the off-suit cards as an indicator for the details. Did it happen to yourself, your team? Did the other side get a boost?

In the end it’s actually more work for the GM as it’s not just ‘check the numbers against a chart’. On the other hand if your GM is working a story that’s to everyone’s benefit.

Two more things I really like about the system (of several, but I’ll stop there) are the magic system and character creation.

The magic system is different from many other games. See, you learn lore, not spells. The lore is the toolset from which you create your art, the spells. The range and degree of effect and number of people affected and several other factors add to a basic cost for spells of that lore to determine how many thaumaturgical (hey, pseudo-victorian steampunk, never use one syllable when you’ve got four or five laying around) energy points the spell requires. To cast you take your skill and start drawing cards, one every interval, till you have enough points for the spell to go off. Except (grin) off-suits are not just ‘one point’ but create harmonics. If you’re summoning elementals (intellectual, diamonds) and you use some hearts to help you get the spell off the elementals have an emotional component. Perhaps they cause fear among all nearby (including your team). Perhaps the emotion is lust, instead. (Yeah, love your enemy takes on a new and entertaining meaning.) Perhaps the elementals themselves have the emotion. You can (mostly) put off-suit back in the deck and only use your suit, but that may mean it takes longer to cast your spell. decisions, decisions. There are ways to cast spells faster. I’m not going to further increase an already long post when I want to get to other things as well.

The other thing I really like is the character creation system. Again, NOT CRUNCHY. There are a range of abilities, both characteristics and skills (comeliness and fencing, to give an example of each). The player chooses six. One is made poor quality. Four are of good quality, and one is great. All other abilities are of average quality, between poor and good. There are two qualities of higher level (exceptional and extraordinary), and the players can choose to increase their already good and great abilities at the cost of making more abilities poor. The rank will determine the skill points when a feat would be required. Average, by the way, is average for the population not for someone of that skill – ‘if you put ten people from off the street in the pilot seat what would most of them do’. To use an anachronism, Average jet pilot skill would be ‘can’t start it, if started can probably drive it around the airport, probably drive off the runway or taxiway, and would certainly crash on takeoff or landing.’ To focus it: if you want to cast magic you have to be goo*-d or better in sorcery. Oh – you can increase your scores as the game goes along but it’s not by ‘experience points’. It’s by accomplishment of tasks as mutually determined by player and GM, or by the GM observing that the player has been using a particular ability a great deal and in trying circumstances so quietly awarding the increase.

What this means is that you’re not constantly referencing scores. You have six to know, no more. Which means you can play, not reference your character sheet. (I know, experienced players do this. My point is beginning players can do it too, here.) All that said, this isn’t what I consider the most brilliant part of the creation.

No, that goes to the diary. Or at least the biography. See, the conceit of the system is that you’re writing a trashy Victorian novel; that your characters are the characters of it. And all good Victorian characters kept a journal. The minimum is that you are required to take time to answer about 20 questions about your character, writing in first person and in complete sentences and paragraphs. One of the questions asks at what you’re great, good, and poor. The rest are questions of upbringing and likes and stylistic habits and, well, by the end of this your players know your character. Even better, so does the GM, and so the GM can tell when the player’s not ‘playing his character’ (and appropriate pushes and hints can be applied).

Ideally the player continues to write the diary, not only of what happened in game but for ‘off-stage’ events. Perhaps the players are riding a train from Munich to France. The GM has no event planned, so the players are free (with a degree of oversight to avoid ruining main threads) to referee their own minor adventure. Remember the system does not use experience points. But if, for example, the player intended to do regular exercise to increase his physique here’s the chance to note it’s being done.

The game isn’t perfect. I don’t like the primary combat system (and will be using an alternative). Some players rely on crunch – whether as min-maxers or simply so boggled that their imaginations shut down – and can’t deal with a looser system. The looser system allows a player who wants to sabotage your campaign to do so; using care in inviting players is somewhat more necessary than normal. (That last isn’t fair. I pick players with care anyway because I usually want a night of fun, not arguing over which rule trumps another.)

I’ve got a few months before play begins. The other GM of our group is refreshed and enthused about the 26 episode series he has ready to run, so I’ll not be running mine till a mandatory break occurs. Nonetheless you’ll see things mentioned here occasionally, and now you know what’s going on.

Have fun.

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