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In the last months I lost quite some weight. People that haven’t seen me for quite awhile look at me in surprise, asking if I’m anorexic or just extremely disciplined. Of course, it’s the latter, but I never imagined that a slight change in appearance could have such an effect on the people around you…

This leads me to the topic of this post: changing characters. In a campaign that has been running for a time, things might turn stale. For example, the players and their characters have seen most of the world and are getting bored with their environment. The right thing to do there is to just make a radical change to their surroundings, like a meteor hitting the planet or an ancient evil rising from its adamantium cave in the molten core of the world. This gives your campaign an interesting twist, but you can do better!

First, re-introduce old faces. Maybe you have an NPC at your hand that disappeared in the early days of the campaign under mysterious circumstances. Bringing him back with a new gimmick (“giving him a level in badass”, so to speak) will certainly draw the attention of your players, and have them wonder how much depth there is to the plot. Of course, the return of the NPC in question should make sense, and actually add something to the whole experience. Also, the gimmick added to the character might feel illogical at first, but should start to make sense after a while. The young magician who now returns as a master of both sword and sorcery should have a clear reason why he became such a badass. If the reason doesn’t seem logical to you, it won’t seem logical for your players as well.

Second, change the current important NPCs for a bit. Maybe the seneschal that the player characters are currently running errands for by doing some espionage is a member of the same global conspiracy that the player characters try to uncover since the start of the campaign. Unveiling this part of his personality at the right moment will give the players an awesome new fact to play with, which adds something fresh and new to the campaign.

Lastly, you might consider giving a player the chance to have his own character changed drastically. If there’s a downtime in between chapters of the campaign, you might turn towards the player who has an interest of giving his character something new and refreshing and work something out with him. His character, who in this case will be some alchemical gadgeteer, might disappear during the downtime, just to return with some new fire power…in the form of a mechanical right arm, packed with steam-punk goodness. Changes to player characters do not just give their players something new to tinker with, but the whole group. Clearly, this is a chance you should not miss out on!

So, in case your group gets bored with the current campaign, try to mix things up by just not changing the environment, but also the characters around them. After all, change is what we believe in, right?

Dying is, in most cases, a rather unpleasant thing. People hate to say goodbye, and knowing that you will not see your loved ones until they depart to the Elysian Fields themselves is anything but comforting. Death equals the ultimate departure, and most of us don’t like that idea.

Characters in role-playing games die too, but even though they’re purely fictional personalities, players will grow attached to them and hate to see them go. Situations like that are even crueler when the physical end of the character was caused by some trivial reason, like a really bad roll. Legend speaks of groups who broke up because of a terrible lame death!

To not let this happen to your group, there are two major things you can do: have clear “table guidelines” considering character death and utilize the rule system in order to prevent unnecessary deaths.

House rules about character death are an essential part of the plan to minimize permanent removal of a character. At my table, there is one thing that will NEVER lead to a character having to make the ultimate sacrifice: plain bad luck. No matter how messed-up a player’s rolls during the session are, this will NEVER lead to permanent death of his character. Mind you, it WILL lead to a very beaten-up, crying and in some games even deranged character…but he’s still alive! On the other hand, stupid deeds of the character, and by that extend of the player, are punished all that harder. I don’t mind killing off a character when I warned his player a dozen times that it might be a bad idea to rush into a ravenous horde of barbaric Orcs on his own.

Another legal reason for a character’s death is when his player wants it to happen. Up until now, this happened a single time in my games, namely in my earlier referenced Exalted chronicle. The character returned later as an undead antagonist who had some internal issues when being sent out to kill the player characters. This was all worked out in co-operation with said player, and the whole group enjoyed it. So don’t be scared to finish off a character when your players ask you to!

From a rules-wise perspective, many games provide mechanics to prevent death. Way back in the days, it was far too easy to die in a simple encounter against some dire rats. Today, mechanics like saving throws, immunities or karma-like points grant player characters a longer life span. Two quite contemporary games have a very creative take on how to deal with the Grim Reaper.

First of all, the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons gives characters in the higher echelons of the level cap certain “oh snap!” powers. Most Epic Destinies have a “Once a day, when you day…” feature, and give the character in question some way to return to life, in one form or the other. This can easily be adapted to other games where it would be fitting if player characters could arcane or divine ways to make the best out of dying.

The second title worth mentioning is Geist: the Sin-Eaters. As player characters in this game cheated death already once by striking a deal with a powerful ghost-spirit-hybrid, it doesn’t seem weird when seeing that they can cheat again, and again, and again. Should the Geist decide that the player character is still worth his time, he can bring him back to life once more, with some drawbacks. One of them is that the Geist still has to keep some balance, and instead of your character someone else has to die. Well, it’s not an easy life when you know that you are responsible for the death of the mother of four babies, right?

To sum it up, reducing the amount of TPKs or similar situations at your table is partially fluff, and partially crunch. Make sure your players are aware what will invite the Grim Reaper to your gaming table, and what will keep him away. Also, don’t be a jackass when you don’t have to. But, I guess, that is a quite general advice for your whole life…

Time to round up my mini-series, and finish with the last of three gamer archetypes, namely the most vile, vicious and dangerous Spike!

To reference back to Magic once again, you knew that if you went to your FLGS that there be someone who would urge you to play a match against him. Most of  the time, these were fat, snobby kids who got far too much money for their hobby from their parents and who didn’t mind to skip gym class in order to get their favorite chair in the store.  This excess amount of money and time gave them the tools to build vicious decks with the most exotic of combos, and only another deck with the same degree of efficiency could stand tall against them. And should they meet such a deck and even lose to it, these overweight high school pranksters would break into tears and tell you that you cheated or that you had luck on your side. Enter the world of the Spike.

I just hate Spikes, especially when theyre gloomy, emotional vampires in some 90s teenie show

I just hate Spikes, especially when they're gloomy, emotional vampires in some 90's teenie show

Now, I will be dead honest with you: nobody likes a Spike, especially not in a “non-winner” genre like tabletop role-playing games. This is because of two things. One, a Spike ALWAYS wants to win. Two, should a Spike lose he will blame every other player at the table for his most terrible failure. Witty readers will have noticed that a Spike meets a basic problem in an RPG: you cannot win alone. The “victory” in a role-playing game is to experience a thrilling story together, and beat down some evil badasses. Should the party succeed in this, a Spike will claim that it was all due to his magnificent insight into the rules and the world. Should they fail, a Spike will declare his fellow characters AND players to be incompetent tools with the intelligence of a rotten hamster, annoying everyone at the table with his grim visage he keeps intact for the rest of the session.

Most groups will try to either change the attitude of a Spike towards the game, showing him that a role-playing game is more than a lone wolf endeavor. Luckily, most Spikes will understand this after some time, and will soon become more enjoyable fellows. It is not uncommon that a new player starts his “career” as a Spike, until most of his colleagues pull him down from his Throne of Duchebaggery, converting him into the environment-friendly Johnny. Sadly, this does not happen to all Spikes.

So, what do you do with a Spike who just doesn’t want to change his mind? Well, the only “true remedy” would be removing him from the game, for the sake of everyone else. A die-hard Spike in your group is like poisoning your village’s well: sooner or later the other players will stop to show up, infected by the more than irritating attitude of the Spike. And I guess you, my fellow GM, do not want to run a one-man show, right?

A few days ago, I took a look at the player archetype called Timmy. To continue the mini-series, I’ll discuss the second of three gamer “stereotypes” I present you in Labeled Boxes!

As you know, these stereotypes are derived from the trading card game Magic. A big part of every collectible game is the customization, and finding ways to tweak and improve your strategy. However, some players see that share of the experience as the most important one and devote most of their time in their “deck garage” to enhance their combos and their odds of winning. Back when I played, we called these guys Johnnys.

They actually devoted a card to him...

They actually devoted a card to him...

I guess every GM has met at least one Johnny. It’s the kind of player who creates forty different drafts of his character sheet before declaring one of them his “finished masterpiece”. Also, a Johnny likes to spend his time reading sourcebooks and online articles about the game he plays, and tweak his character based on the information absorbed from them. He’s the kind of player who has an Excel sheet on his laptop to calculate the odds of an exceptional success when firing his Beretta while driving a car and being gnawed on by dire rats.

This sounds like a Johnny is a kind of munchkin, trying to use loopholes in the rules to his on advantage. However, this is anything but true. A Johnny does not improve his character to “win the game”, as far as anyone can win in role-playing games. Instead, the Johnny devours rulebooks and forum discussions on his character’s class because he wants to improve his personal experience. Like the Timmy, the Johnny just wants to have fun. Unlike his brother archetype, he finds this satisfaction in rolling enormous crits and finally getting that +3 flamestrike bow.

The danger a Johnny presents is that his knowledge of the rules and the amount of specialization his characters went through might overshadow the other player characters. Sure, Timmy’s sorcerer knows some good spells, but Johnny’s multi-classed sorcerer / wizard / paladin knows about the same arcane mysteries, and can wield a magical sword at the same time. This might cause a feeling of redundancy in the other characters and their players, making them feel useless in comparison to Johnny’s well-tuned expert.

A simple pre-emptive remedy against this, is simply putting the Johnny and his character up against a situation in which his “killer combo” doesn’t work. So he thinks his well-trained gunslinger, fine-tuned with the necessary merits and equipment is the biggest mother in the Wild, Wild West? Let’s see how he’ll survive a buffalo stampede his six-shooter’s noise caused. These challenges should be moments where the other, not so “perfect” characters can shine, giving them the opportunity to see what they’re worth.

So, now you learned everything about the Johnny. Later this week, I’ll end this series with an article about the power-hungry Spike. Stay tuned, dear readers!