Good RPGs encourage good experiences—it doesn’t matter how!

Declaring that a game is “good” (or, worse, “bad”) is almost always a controversial prospect. In general, I prefer to say that I have liked or disliked a game rather than claim that it has an absolute or objective quality. “Good” is a subjective distinction, and opinion will vary from player to player.

That said, I feel pretty confident in defining what a good game is, as long as the definition itself leaves room for subjectivity.

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What I want in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic

cortex-plus-hackers-guide-coverLast week, it was announced that Cam Banks has licensed Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. Cam co-created the Cortex Plus system, and he was co- or lead designer on three out of the four main games published using that system, not to mention the driving force behind the excellent Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. He knows Cortex Plus inside out and he can do wonderful things with it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what his new design studio Magic Vacuum comes out with! I’ve no doubt that soon there will be new versions of Cortex Plus Action (used for Leverage and Firefly) and Cortex Plus Heroic (used for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), which will make many fans of the system happy.

But my favourite is Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, which was spun out of the Smallville Roleplaying Game. It’s the only one of the three that gives me something I can’t currently get from any other RPG. I love it, but it has flaws. It could use a new edition.

Here’s what I would want to be updated, changed, clarified or kept in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying.

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Character advancement vs Character development

Anakin Skywalker's journey to become Darth Vader: Fear, Anger, Hate, Suffering.
Character advancement and character development sometimes go hand in hand… but character development isn’t always a joyful experience for the character itself

One of the great joys of playing roleplaying games, especially playing a single character through a long campaign, is in seeing your character grow and change. In traditional high fantasy games, it’s fun to rise from humble beginnings to be an important and powerful figure in the campaign world.

However, it’s relatively rare in roleplaying games to see the sort of deep, personal character transformation that you might see in books, TV shows or films. That’s because the sort of growth and change encouraged by traditional roleplaying games is different from the growth and change that most popular media is built on.

Character advancement is not the same thing as character development.

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My (red) kryptonite: Mind control in Smallville RPG

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) with red kryptonite eyes, from Smallville via Wikia

Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.

But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…

Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.

In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.

In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.

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“Why do I hang out with you again?”: The importance of group character generation

I am a huge believer in doing group character generation at the start of a new RPG campaign. I don’t just mean getting all the players in the same place to do character generation, but actually doing it together. Of the RPGs I’ve played in, nearly all of the ones I’ve enjoyed most have made character generation a group activity.

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