The Kobold Guide to Games Design – Volume I: Adventures (A Review)

12 01 2010

I start this review feeling something of a fraud. I mean, who am I to review something written by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Ed Greenwood, and Nicolas Logue. So I have chastised myself and instead present this as an overview of the product.

It’ll just be an overview with my opinions sprinkled liberally.

The PDF copy of the document runs to 90 pages – including covers etc. Much bigger books I can review quite quickly – with a basic outline of the content, some specific examples and a summary of the plusses and minuses.

The KGGD, due to its structure and variety of content, makes that format redundant. So I will devise a different review format for this product.

To start with, the title is quite self-evident. It is a guide to designing role-playing games. I would suggest the advice is as applicable to entire system design as it is to campaigns and adventures.

Where it might leave some readers behind are the pages devoted to selling the said output. Some of it can be useful e.g. marketing (as you should consider what your players want) but aspects like making a pitch can be glossed over by most that would look to buy this book.

I’ll digress for a second. Is this a book? I bought it as a PDF and it runs to less than 100 pages, but I’m not sure what to refer to the title as. Kobold call it an, “88-page collection of essays.” It is certainly a publication and I’ll continue to call it a book – but you see my dilemma.

So the title works for those wishing to become freelancers (indeed every aspiring writer/designer should have a copy) and those wishing to improve their homebrew efforts. Plus, I’d add it would help if you wanted to write articles for publication on the subject.

It’s written by people who know what they’re talking about and the style and ease of reading reflects their professionalism.

I could summarise the content thus:

  • Marketing (who is the audience and making a pitch to sell your offering)
  • Design tips
  • How to be a better writer
  • Writing style (pacing etc.)
  • World-building
  • Games genres (good advice on a variety here)
  • And then some more.

See how it’s a challenge to review quickly? To consider the topics covered in the publication, I offer the following (and these are my headings, not theirs):

  • How to get the most information with the fewest words
  • Making fantasy realistic
  • World-building and settings and bringing it to life
  • Games aren’t books (the differences in writing styles)
  • Pacing
  • Cliffhangers
  • How and why to raise the stakes
  • Misdirection
  • Structuring your story
  • Subplots
  • Genres (city adventures, Arabian, hardboiled, underdark)

As I write this, it is starting to look more like a list than a review – and that is the fault of the publication! It is so varied (despite keeping to the same topic) and in-depth that it defies a quick line on each section.

I’ll focus here on the GM that wants to build better adventures, and as I usually do, I’ll pick some sections at random to show you what to expect.

Section 4 is entitled Fantasy Realism and starts:

“I hate the common critique of fantasy adventures and settings that they are “not realistic enough.” At the same time, I totally understand. The critique is not about realism. It is about depth and plausibility. A realistic setting does not have wizards, 20-pound battleaxes, or half-naked Amazon elves. Or giants, dragons, or beholders. Or anything fun, really.”

And it is the writing style as much as the content that makes this publication work. It reads like a learned favourite uncle (Uncle Wolfgang in this case) has sat you down and spun you some home truths about writing fantasy adventures.

The language is accessible and flows smoothly. The down-side is that you have to read it – it is difficult to dip in for a line or two.

It is the ongoing theme that imparts the knowledge, not half a dozen words written in bold.

If I leap to section 11 City Adventures, the second paragraph reads:

“I always enjoy the subcategory called “city adventures” because they break the established rules of the D&D combat arena. Unlike dungeons and other secluded locations, city adventures are constantly interrupted by the presence of bystanders and busybodies, by the forces of the law, and by villains hiding among the innocent. They can be wildly unpredictable.”

I’ll close my excerpts by moving to section 15 Inspiration and Discipline in Design (aka Fire and Sword). In keeping with my approach, I’ll print the opening paragraph:

“To be a successful game designer, you need all the tools of the trade: wordcraft, imagination, mathematics, and discipline both in mechanics and in daily writing. To get started, you need the spark of inspiration that gets your query approved by an editor (for periodicals) or that gets your pitch accepted by a publisher.”

I would add that spark is just as necessary to get your gaming group fired up by your suggestion for a new campaign or game world.

Buy this if:

  • You are at all serious about writing professionally
  • You blog, write for fanzines etc. and want to improve your output
  • You are serious as a GM and want to be the best you can
  • You are prepared to sit down and read 100 pages of text
  • You can review advice and fit it to your own situation (i.e. the excerpt above about the spark)

Don’t buy it if:

  • You simply want some campaign ideas
  • You like lists and step by step guides
  • You can’t see the bigger picture 

Finally, I’d like to say I do recommend this publication. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better GM. And anyone who doesn’t want to be a better GM – your players don’t deserve you.

I am reminded of a trainer I met when I took over an HR function many years ago. I asked him what his aspirations were. Asking for my job had come top of the list to date.

He said he wanted to be the best trainer there was. I dismissed him as lacking ambition.

Yet, he was as ambitious as they come – and I learned that over the next few years. He really did want to be the best trainer IN THE WORLD.

He was relentless and looked to improve every aspect of his work. He was good to begin with and could have coasted and still performed. But he was driven to be better.

Unless you’re driven to be better, this book could just collect dust on your shelf (or virtual cobwebs on your hard-drive).

Next time, I’ll review Volume 2 that covers How to Pitch, Playtest & Publish. It is more focused on the writer that wants to be published but still includes enough for the cover price for GMs to purchase (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In response to a comment, you can find the title if you go to:

You can see both their standard offerings e.g. Kobold Quarterly magazine as well as The Kobold Guide to Games Design. Just use the search facility.


Roll or role – is it always fair?

7 01 2010

I like to ponder unanswerable problems. I don’t know why, I just do. Plus, I like to consider both sides of both sides – I am something of a devil’s advocate (but it goes with my job).

So a small conundrum has been rattling around in my brain for about six months now and I’m darned if I have a solution – but I do want to share my thoughts. So…

Consider a role-playing scenario. In it, the player’s character has to fast-talk his way out of a situation. Imagine you had a player that was naturally gifted with improvisation. Role-playing would take the floor and he would probably be able to talk his way out of the problem.

Now consider an average player. If his parents had rolled dice, he would be straight 10’s. He can’t do the talk as effectively and finally asks to roll a die instead.

If both players had a character that had bluff or a similar skill, both PCs would survive the encounter. On the other hand, if the character lacked these skills, the eloquent player may get away with it and the tongue-tied player would flounder.

Now I already have the first counter-argument ready. Don’t let the smooth-talker have the chance to role-play his way out of trouble if the character doesn’t have the skills.

But if you extend that logic – we would never role-play. We’d simply roll the dice and let the stats decide.

We could of course force players to only roll characters that reflect their abilities – but what’s the fun in playing yourself?

I can see some logic in limiting meta-gaming but not to the extent of taking away any opportunity to role-play.

And I was reminded of an old Dragon’s Inn podcast where a player with autism emailed in to relive where he was forced to role-play a social situation and the GM refused to let him roll dice.

Which leads me neatly into a closed circle. I don’t believe that the stats should be used exclusively. Nor do I think it’s fair that players can compensate for their character’s deficiencies and other players can’t. Do I have a solution? No.

Other than accepting the situation and applying that much misunderstood common sense wherever possible, I guess I’ll just have to live with the injustice of it all.

Which games to do like?

23 11 2009

As I was writing my appendix to my Mouse Guard review, it occurred to me that our opinions of games are often formed not by the mechanics or the out-of-the-book flavour, but by the GM (or to a lesser extent the players).

Think about that for a few seconds…

Imagine a GM offers to run a new game.  It’s a genre you’re OK with and you roll an OK character and you absolutely hate the experience.  Who do you blame?  Typically the games designer.

Yet even an experienced GM can falter with a new system and spoil what could have been year’s worth of enjoyment in a couple of hours.  Similarly, we are typically tolerant of flawed mechanics if the GM really sweeps us up into the game-world.  A so-so game can last years – as long as that GM continues to control it.

So what’s the point of this blog?  Well, if a few readers make the effort to try a game they previously disliked (by running it with a different GM) then I think it will have been a blog worth the effort.

Aside from my Mouse Guard experience (which still does not have a happy ending), I can relate my D&D 3.5 tale. 

D&D was a system I avoided like the plague because of one role-player in a game I was only observing casually (for more on the +3 dagger, you’ll have to trawl September 2009’s archives). 

When I wanted to game again, 3.5 was the only option available to me.  I played a session and – really didn’t like it.  The GM was fine, but the players and the dynamic were reminiscent of all the strange mechanics that put me off the game in the first place. 

Players saw the game as killing and looting.  Everything was a dungeon crawl – they fought to be the person to kill the kobolds and wanted to be first to loot the bodies.  During my second session, I asked why this style of play?  “Because that’s the only was to get xp,” I was told…. 

As luck would have it, the GM wanted a rest and as someone with previous experience, I was asked to start something.  I asked innocently if they would consider Pathfinder.

And so, a few months into Rise of the Runelords, we have a game that is essentially 3.5 but the players now don’t even bother to loot every corpse.  And if they’re injured, they hang back from the front line. 

They even help each other to outflank opponents!

The same game, a different experience altogether.  I now play in a couple of Pathfinder games and they are nothing like that 3.5 game I re-started by gaming interest in.  Had I taken that one experience, I would have given up on 3.5 and Pathfinder would have been lost to me.  

So, the next time you play a game and it doesn’t do it for you, politely consider using a different GM.  Not necessarily a better GM, just a different one.  You may find you like it after all.

Mouse Guard (a review)

13 10 2009

mouse_guard_rpg_coverMouse Guard is a roleplaying game where players assume the role of mice (no surprise there) from the comic books of the same name. 

The rulebook is lovely and for someone like me that likes to create characters, it was awesome – but more of that later.

The mice in the game are, to all intents and purposes, like humans.  They stand on their hind legs and perform human type activities.  The Guard are the ones that protect the communities from all threats – from crows to weasels.  To conclude the background, it is set in a medieval world but there is no magic – nor do you encounter any humans. 

If you know Burning Wheel, you know Mouse Guard.  If you don’t it doesn’t matter.  The book starts with a background to the world and role-playing in general before moving on to characters.

Character generation was, for me, almost a game in itself.  Unlike many role-playing games where one warrior is much like another, there is no excuse with Mouse Guard to play the same character twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself gain, character creation doesn’t come just yet.

An interesting aspect of the game is the emphasis on beliefs, goals and instincts.  Your mouse has a code that they must live by, a goal that is set before each adventure and an instinct that your mouse automatically follows.  Experience points in part depend on how well you role-play these.

There is a section on missions (adventures) and here is where my love affair started to wane.  I will say up front that I don’t know how much of my disappointment with playing the game was down to the GM and how much was the rules .  I have spoken to another player who waxed lyrical about the game, so perhaps my experience wasn’t typical.

The role-playing aspect of the game is based upon missions.  For missions read obstacles.  The obstacles are weather, wilderness, animals and other mice.   Typically two of these comprise a mission. 

The way the game runs felt to me more like a board-game than a role-playing game.  The GM takes a turn, and then the players take a turn.  To me this felt wrong.  And the turn options were awkward for me.  More than half the time my turn consisted of offering a bonus to the leader of my group – as did most of the other PCs. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of options available but my experience differed from the theory.  Actions are typically opposed and continue until there is a winner and a loser. 

There are sections on the ‘world,’ other animals and the weather (a significant aspect of this game).

Getting back to characters, one interesting choice the PC has is, how close to natural mice behaviour do you want to be?  Closeness leads to benefits in mouse-type skills – like hiding or foraging.  Going against your nature gives more opportunities for skill progression.

The creation of the character is heavily slanted towards their background.  What your parents’ did for a living for example will enable you to take skill ranks in an associated area.  Characters also have ‘wises’ (areas of knowledge) and traits (special abilities).  Traits, by definition, have a positive and a negative side to them.  Being alert helps spot things but can make you anxious.

The character generation is actually referred to as recruitment.  Depending on your choice of rank and background – your lifepath – your points to allocate to things like skills and resources vary considerably.  Youth has benefits – as does age.  It’s all about the sort of mouse you want to play.

And this links to my second concern.  One mouse is typically the leader of the group and I found I spent a large proportion of my time supporting him – as the leader – rather than developing my own character.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know how much of my misgiving is down to the game and how much is down to the GM.  Will I try it once more?  Yes, but I’ll take some convincing.  That’s not to say this is in any way a poor product. 

 I can see huge appeal to younger players, new to role-playing (plus the fact that death is rare) and to groups wanting something different (and who have an inventive GM).  But I do think this is a Marmite product – people will either love it or hate it.

The hunt for the unique idea

28 09 2009

IdeasI had a two day gap in posting.  Over the week-end, I had something of a crisis in confidence.

I was doing some gardening on Saturday morning – and listening to some podcasts at the same time.  In the space of an hour and a half, three items were discussed that I had only recent blogged about.

This caused two reactions:

  1. Perhaps others will think I simply copied their ideas and
  2. Regardless of what people might think, am I devoid of original subject matter?

It took me over a day to rationalise all of this and the source of my solution came from my other interest – writing.  I often see similarities between the two subjects – and this time was no exception.

One thing that I always live by in writing is that there is no such thing as a unique idea.  So why should a blog about role-playing be any different?  And furthermore, why should writing adventures buck the trend either.

So if you’re a GM that’s stuck for an idea for a campaign, I’ll share some writing wisdom over the next few days to ease the burden. 

Many writers GMs have an idea but dismiss it as being too similar to this book adventure, or too close to that story campaign.

To illustrate the potential dilemma that many writers go through in converting an idea into a story, I offer the following…

I have a real story in mind. It’s about a young man who is blessed with magical powers – only he doesn’t know about them at the beginning of the story. He’s an orphan and one day he meets a mentor and his magical abilities are revealed. It’s also foretold that only he can defeat the ultimate evil – despite his youth and inexperience.

Hands up if you know the story.

OK, hands down if you thought it was Star Wars.  And hands down if you thought it was Harry Potter.

I was thinking of Anthony Horowitz’s Power of Five series. How many hands remaining? To be fair, I bet there are a fair few of you with your hands still up, telling me of a book I’ve missed.

The point is that, on the face of it, the story of an orphaned boy with magical powers he didn’t know about is in no way unique. I would add that it doesn’t stop Star Wars or Harry Potter from being original.

Similarly, the classic retelling of an old tale is fair game. The Forbidden Planet is a Sci-Fi take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest after all.

Never confuse original with unique. If you review the current best-seller list for campaigns and adventures, I am confident you will find similar plots in other role-playing products, films and novels.

That does not make them rip-offs and it certainly hasn’t hurt their sales.  Your adventure should be original.  Simply changing the setting does that. Never strive for unique – you’ll die before you finish your campaign.

If I could have an unofficial sponsor for this blog it would be Musing of the Chatty DM.  He wrote a few articles on blogging in which he said that you need to have a focus.  Don’t be all things to all gamers, but don’t be too narrow either.  It’s taken me almost thirty blogs to get there, but I now know what my personal input to the world of gaming should be.  Thanks Chatty!  You don’t know me, but I’ve heard you on many podcasts – and I salute you (now I sound like a stalker — so I’ll stop now).

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to come up with original ideas.

Top Ten Tips for GMing

21 09 2009

I’ll stick to the term GMing for my blogs.  With D&D 4.0, even Pathfinder have to avoid using the DM title.  But what makes a good games master?  If I avoid the obvious, like having rulebooks and dice, I’ll offer ten useful tips for novice and veteran GMs alike:

  1. Show don’t tell – This is a writing tip that travels well into the gaming world.  A good GM gives hints and clues as to what is happening.  It is far better to quote an NPC having a rant than to say, ‘they are angry with you.’  It is far better to create an atmosphere using the five senses than to simply say it is an evil place.  Using evocative adjectives wins every time.  Darkness, cold and the smell of sulphur (however hackneyed) always conveys evil – but it lets the characters work it out for themselves.  Better still, use some original description.
  2. Let the role-playing flow – avoid at all costs interrupting interaction between two PCs or worse still a PC and an NPC to get them to roll dice.  This smacks of boredom and keeps the player out of character.  Once the dice are held, they are a player, not a character.  Similarly, let the players speak as much as possible.  Don’t feel the need to match them word for word.
  3. Be fair and consistent – this is so obvious yet it is often ignored.  To start with, rules should be applied evenly.  If, as GM, you realise a rule has been misinterpreted before, don’t wait until it’s used to point out the fact.  Let players know where they stand at all times.  There is also nothing wrong with fudging rolls from time to time, but if the players believe their actions count for nothing and that you will do whatever you want regardless, you lose them.  Finally don’t trick players unnecessarily.  If you have a trap, that’s all well and good.  If you know the players have misunderstood something, don’t let them go blindly into certain death – warn them.
  4. Make it fun but challenging – if the levels of encounters are too easy or too hard, you will lose the players.  Role-playing should never be a competition between GM and players.  I always want the players to succeed – but want them to do so by the skin of their teeth.  That is the perfect balance.  Game death will happen, but should be the exception rather than the rule.  Similarly, the game should both be balanced (in terms of combat, role-playing, problem solving etc.) as well as biased a little towards what the players like (not what the GM likes).
  5. Don’t make challenges stop/go situations – if you set a puzzle that the players can’t solve, you can’t sit there for four sessions while they work it out.  Sometimes players see through clever plans straight away.  Other times they miss the obvious.  Always have a contingent for the times they don’t get it.  And avoid having an NPC walk up and solve it instantly.  This simply annoys the players.  Let an NPC pose questions that lead to the players solving the puzzle.
  6. Be enthusiastic – if a GM seems bored by the scenario, the players will too.  How do you expect players to enjoy what they’re doing if you don’t?  Enthusiasm is infectious – spread it around.
  7. Set clear and fair house and table rules – I’ve talked about these before but the key here is to be consistent; take into account what the players want; follow them yourself (this really bugs the players if you don’t).
  8. Be inclusive – never make an entire adventure revolve around the rogue at the expense of the other characters.  Nor should you make an adventure revolve around a rogue if the party doesn’t have one!  Having said all of this, there is nothing wrong with making specific scenarios link to one character to allow them to shine for five minutes.  And next time let another PC take the lead. 
  9. Know the PCs – a good GM knows the skills and feats the PCs has and will ensure that the scenario will utilise them.  This is especially true for the more obscure skills as it makes the players feel good and ensure that they will pick interesting and diverse characters next time around.
  10. Know the players – you need to know how to pitch the game and understanding who are the really immersive role-players and who just likes to roll dice are will ensure you pitch the game right.  For example, know who the rules lawyer is and enlist them to be the rules-guy.  Go to them when there is a query and make them focus on helping rather than catching you out.
  11. Use character names – this is so much better than using the player’s name – even when you just want to catch their attention.

OK, I count eleven tips too – but the title wouldn’t have looked as neat with the odd number in the title.

Dark Heresy – the almost game…

19 09 2009

When I finally found somewhere to role-play again (something I’ve discussed at length before), the first game I was offered was Dark Heresy.

As my desire to role-play was so intense and as the game seemed based upon the Warhammer Fantasy RolePlaying game of which I was familiar, I jumped at the chance.

There is an old saying about fools rushing in.  I spent an evening with the GM and other players creating a character.  The day after I agonised about my decision and wondered if I’d chosen correctly.  I subsequently spent c. £120 (almost $200) on the Core Rulebook, The Inquisitor’s Handbook and Disciples of the Dark Gods. 

I then spent the next two weeks rolling this character and that one.  I took basic characters and  also added background packages.  After about 50 characters, I ended up with the one I really wanted.

I was an assassin, with a background of being a member of The Moritat.  I had a full background mapped out.  I knew my character backwards.  All I needed was a game to play in.  And that was the rub.  The game never materialised.

Meanwhile, I have 50 or so character sheets, three pristine rulebooks and nothing to do with them.  One day, I will GM the game – but not within the year.  Despite this, my love for rulebooks stops me from being too disheartened and when/if Rogue Trader gets published, I’ll be at the front of the queue to purchase a copy.

But what of Dark Heresy?  If you like the Warhammer mechanics and enjoy sci-fi you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of the game.

What do you need?

In theory you can get away with just the Core Rulebook.  Players can generate characters, you have all of the main rules and enough background to the ‘world’ to get underway.  The artwork is of excellent quality.  There are a fair few monochrome pictures within but even the colour ones tend to be dark.  It’s reflective of the game.  This mean, evil, dirty and violent.

Players can choose from a number of homeworlds but are essentially human.  Anything non-human is seen to be cannon-fodder.  Each homeworld gives different advantages e.g. Void Born PCs don’t suffer from space travel sickness and automatically know how to navigate and pilot spacecraft.

Next the characteristics are rolled.  The usual Warhammer fare are represented here (although there is no magic in the game – at least not legally).

Next the PC chooses a career path.  It is expected the player won’t switch classes often.  Choices include Clerics, Abritrators (space FBI), Guardsmen (warriors) and Psykers (instead of magic you can be a psionic).  Each career has associated bonuses and weaknesses e.g. Tech-Priests start with implants.

The player then spends XP on developing skills or improving characteristics (based upon what their career path allows).

The rest of the book discusses the definition of the skills, has an equipment guide, covers the core rules, has a GMs section and then gives a fairly detailed background to ‘Life in the Imperium’ and other background chapters.  There is also a full adventure to follow.

The basic premise of the game is that you live in the 41st Millenium.  There is a war against chaos, and your PC has been chosen as an Acolyte for the Inquisition.  Your task is to root out heretics, aliens and witches.  Combat is risky early on as most weapons do more damage than you have hit points. 

The Inquisitor’s Handbook is really a player’s guide.   It covers more advanced character creation.  In introduces four new worlds to originate from and explores some unique planets you could hail from. 

It also introduces background packages.  Rather than spend all of your starting points on skills, you can spend some on a background package that both develops a back-story and also gives some different skills.  Some really enhance your character, whereas others just make them fun to play.  Personally, I loved the option.

There are future career paths (rather like Prestige Classes) that you can aspire to.  I hoped to become a Moritat Reaper when I grew up! 

There is more equipment to choose from and a section on Religion and Superstition.  There is also a chapter on ‘Life as an Acolyte.’  Overall, this is a worthwhile addition to the Core Rulebook for players and GMs alike.

I also own the sourcebook Disciples of the Dark Gods.  It was billed as a, ‘collection of cults, secrets and conspiracies.’  It’s a solid book but I wouldn’t rush out to buy it until you’ve been playing for a while.

In terms of character creation (which is why I bought it) the additional material isn’t for the beginner.  It does add new Psychic Powers and offers the option of the ‘corrupting path of sorcery.’  This is a background book more than anything else as it talks about various cults – although it does contain another full adventure.  This is a GM’s book rather than a player’s book.

Overall, I like the game.  OK, I haven’t played it but I understand the mechanics because of Warhammer and I like the setting.  If you’ve ever played Warhammer 40k, you already know the world.

Some basic pluses are:

  • It’s similarity to the Warhammer system
  • The depth of the background material available
  • Building on the knowledge of the 40k world
  • The Core Rulebook is enough to play the game

My main gripes are:

  • If you don’t know 40k, it’s a lot of background learning for the GM (players can learn slowly by having a background that’s from a backward world)
  • If you don’t like Warhammer FRP, you won’t like the game mechanics
  • It can be too dark for some (but not me)

My overall review advice is, if you’re thinking about it – get it.