Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Some Thoughts On Railroads and Sandboxes

Yesterday, my friend Eric Lamoureux posted a link to David Hartlage's (a.k.a. DM David) blog post and asked the Nerds-International Google + community what they think about this topic. I posted my brief thoughts on this and the comments afterwards made it clear to me that they misunderstood what I meant. Below is an excerpt of the discussion with my response. Here is a link to the G+ post.

In order to explain what I mean I'll have to get the D&D 5th edition version of The Curse of Strahd out. Hang on a minute. I'll be right back. This is what Bill Lear is asking about. On page 35 you'll find a map of Barovia which details 26 points of interest. 

This campaign is what I would call railroads in a sandbox. With 26 locations on the map players are free to move from one Point Of Interest (POI) to another POI. They get to choose where to go and what to do. Each POI could be a single event or multiple encounters. In the case of one POI containing multiple encounters, I would call that a mini sandbox. Again, the players are free to choose where to go and what to do. 

Up to this point it sounds like one big sandbox, right? Well, yes and no. Each POI has at least one railroad and sometimes more. The premise here is that the players are trying to get home and in order to do that they need to defeat Strahd. In order to defeat him they need to gather clues and obtain magic items to help weaken the vampire. So, how do we find these magic items? Railroad adventures within the sandbox. With a clear defined goal of defeating Strahd to return home, the players are being railroaded into following the story plot. They may accomplish this in any order but the DM has a big influence on where the players will go next by which clues were given at any given POI.

So, with that out of the way, I can explain what I was thinking when I said "Players want a railroad with the illusion of a sandbox." I wasn't referring to a campaign when I made that statement. I was thinking on a smaller scale of a single adventure but that could be expanded to campaign play. For the purposes of a single adventure, I was thinking more along the lines of a GUMSHOE adventure. In the case of Ashen Stars, the adventure has a clear objective set out by the contract the Lasers agreed to take on. This could apply to any adventure though. 

I probably shouldn't post this next picture because I want to run this adventure and it will spoil the game for those potential players but here it is. The picture below will help explain what I mean by a railroad with the illusion of a sandbox. It is a simple flowchart, well it seemed more difficult when I made it, but it is simple nonetheless. 
As you can see, this flow chart represents 13 scenes from an investigative adventure written by Robin D. Laws. The first 3 scenes are on the rails but then the players could potentially have a choice to go in two different directions. This is an illusion of choice though because they converge back to a common scene. Then they could have 3 more choices which split off in different directions (sandbox illusion) but they again converge back to a common scene. And finally, we're back on the rails again for the conclusion of the adventure. The players think it's a sandbox adventure because they have what appear to be free will choices, assuming they ask the right questions to find the clues, but you and I both know that this is a railroad. It is more of a plot-driven story than character-driven one. Sure the players have choices that affect their course through the adventure but they won't change the completion of the story.

This same method could be used for a campaign. Just make another flow chart but replace the scenes with adventures. In the beginning the GM can set them on a path (railroad) and then give them a choice of a couple of adventures to choose from. Whichever path they choose the next adventure will be back on the rails. Now you can give them 3 or more choices of adventures to pick from and they will then converge back to an adventure the GM chooses. It's a masterfully crafted railroad with the illusion of a sandbox.

Well it's late and I'm getting tired as I write this so I hope it makes sense to the 3 people who read this.

P.S. I think both of the approaches I've outlined here are excellent but I prefer the second one.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Which Cthulhu game is the best one?

With the online Fantasy Grounds Convention around the corner on Friday the 13th, I've been waning back and forth on which game I want to run. My first thought was a Savage Starship Troopers game but I don't think it lends itself well to interludes or role playing in general. I've never been a fan of hierarchical organizations in role playing so it's down on my list right now. I mean who wants to be told what to do by another player at the table and you might not even know who that other player is. I sure wouldn't want to.

That brings me to the topic of this post. Cthulhu. Which version of Cthulhu RPG is best? For this topic I'm going to limit it to Call of Cthulhu using the Basic Role Playing system from Chaosium, Trail of Cthulhu using the GUMSHOE system from Pelgrane Press, and Cthulhu Dark using it's own rules-light system from Graham Walmsley.

Lets start with the new kid on the block, Graham Walmsely. Before I get going here's a free copy of the official rules for Cthulhu Dark. As you can see, Cthulhu Dark really is rules-light. Here's a different version of the same free rules that I personally think looks better. The only difference between the two are that the official version of the rules uses Insight instead of Insanity. The simplicity of it makes me think there's something wrong with it. My first impression was that the insanity rules were a bit over the top but then I started thinking about it and I think it fits in with the theme of Lovecraftian horror and the possibility of quickly going insane. Then I saw this section of final points and it made sense to me. 

I need to run this game to make my own conclusion on whether this game will be good or not. In my opinion Graham Walmsley is a good writer and the preview book I have shows that. I have no doubt in my mind that the adventures written for this would easily be compatible with any of the Cthulhu games with a little tweaking to make it work for the respective system. That actually says a lot about how something is written. The adventure provided in the preview book takes place in London 1851 and is more of a true H.P. Lovecraft investigation style story with just a little chance of combat. 

Next we have Big Brother. Call of Cthulhu has been around since 1981 with little changes made until the most recent 7th edition. For the purposes of this discussion I'll stay away from 7th edition because I own 6th edition and don't plan on buying 7th anytime soon. I understand there were some major changes made to 7th edition and not all of them loved by the CoC fans. I have not completely read this book or played in any games which is why these choices are difficult for me. I have seen some CoC games played on The Dice Stormers Youtube channel. They do a good job with their production of the channel and now I want to play it. This version is mostly a percentile based game. The action resolution mechanism for CoC is percentage based which means it is a d100 roll. The player rolls d100 and is looking for a result which is at or lower than his/her indicated skill score. For opposed attribute checks there is a resistance table in the book but it doesn't include rules for opposed skill rolls.

Finally we have Trail of Cthulhu which promises to fix the ever popular misconception that failed rolls will leave an investigator floundering and stop the scenario dead in it's tracks. The GUMSHOE system uses only one d6 for resolving conflicts and the clues are automatically given to the players provided they utilize their skills appropriately. Player characters have investigation abilities and general abilities. The main difference between the two are that investigative abilities can always be used even if their pool is at zero. General abilities are gone once they are down to zero. Players use their ability pools to gather information to solve the mystery before losing all of their health or insanity. It is up to the players to narratively use their abilities to uncover clues and solve the mystery.

I like the feeling of players rolling dice to randomize the outcome of a possible ability/skill. If the Keeper of Call of Cthulhu can improvise then the game wouldn't come to a screeching halt when a player fails a roll. I also like the use of ability pools in Trail of Cthulhu which give the player's more narrative control but I feel like there needs to be more dice rolling. The rules-light approach of Cthulhu Dark would definitely give more narrative control to the players while still rolling dice for random outcomes. My only concern with Cthulhu Dark is that the dice mechanic of Insight is almost entirely in the hands of the player.

I can't decide which one is for me. I need your help. Tell me your thoughts on which one you think is best and why. What do you like about it and what do you dislike about it?