Tag Archives: DM

Tabletop RPG: Serenity the RPG System Thoughts

(After a long drought, finally an RP post! Sorry ya’ll, I had the plague and it will not go away.)

So I had bought the Serenity the Roleplaying Game’s book ages ago, along with a big old Verse map and a giant book about a specific cargo run. Why? Because I was interested in seeing how playable it was. Now, the book itself isn’t laid out in the most logical of senses, and sometimes it seems a bit screwy to me. I’m not going to critique the system as a whole, but instead, talk about how it plays.

I ran it this last weekend for a group of three players. It was specifically meant to be short, one or two sessions, three at an absolute maximum that I didn’t see happening, and so in an effort to keep it short, I chose to use one of the episodes of the series (“The Train Job”) as my framework. Bonus, most of my players had either never seen the show, seen only a small percentage of it, or hadn’t seen it in well over ten years and had since forgotten a large chunk of it. I had no worries about them actually recognizing what I was up to.

The game started off a little shaky–I’m not used to DMing, and I was trying to think of how to describe something I had seen in a show to convey exactly the right tone. But as the players started to make their plan and I got comfortable, we all started to enjoy ourselves. This is where the good parts of the game really started to show themselves. It isn’t loaded down with rules and schematics, but instead relies on the imaginations of the players and the DM, and on the way that they RP things out. It also gives some players a bit of flux.

What I mean by that is the use of Plot Points. I know of other DMs who will deliberately fudge rolls if a character rolls poorly and it may lead to someone having a bad night, or for similar reasons. Serenity makes that almost unnecessary with the use of Plot Points, provided the characters haven’t been just slinging them around. By really using them when they can tell a roll is important, it lets them get the desierable outcome without some…somewhat shady but good intentioned shady…actions on behalf of a DM, which I can appreciate.

That being said, 1’s still happen, and critical failures can lead to problems. But I’ve taken the stance that just because you failed the roll it doesn’t mean something catastrophic has to happen, and depending on what it is, the party isn’t screwed. In my most memorable case from this last weekend, one failed the hiding roll with a 1 while the other did really well. So I did something like you’d see out of a comedy skit to explain how both got hidden because of how well the other person rolled covering for both of them. Everything still proceeds, and everyone at the table got a laugh out of it. Failures don’t have to mean instant-death, and I was glad to get to DM something like that.

Is the lack of detail sometimes annoying? Oh very. And the rate of lethal damage applied to the weapons, while realistic, means that combat is never going to go well, and I’m still thinking about how to balance that out in a longer game. I also have to figure out whether I’d want to do something similar to Whedon’s work, where there is a long arc that we’re building to but a lot of it plays out in small moments, or if I want the long arc to be the focus with occasional side jobs. But that comes back to the flexibility of the system. It really lets you run the type of game that you want to run.

I don’t know if I would recommend this system for a newbie DM and newbie group of players. It’s not laid out in a way that’s neat, there’s a lot of holes, and the combat is harsh. But for a group that has messed around with a few systems, it is pretty forgiving to let them let their hair down for a bit. As a newbie DM, I had the advantage of knowing the world best, which gave me the measure of control that as DM I need to have any kind of confidence. With a group of die-hard Firefly fanatics, that isn’t going to be the case…but other new DMs may not have my anxiety crutches, so your mileage is just going to vary on that front.

If I can trust my players to stay off my blog, I might talk about the planning I go into for longer campaigns, but that’s a big maybe. I wouldn’t want to accidentally spoil anyone’s backstory or arc for them, and that will cause sour feelings. (Plus some of the players are uber private, which I respect.) In the meantime, if you can get your hands on the book or a PDF of it, it’s worth a page-through at the very least.


Tabletop RP: Let us play dragons, you cowards!

This is a personal complaint, but I can’t be the only one who gets frustrated about this mechanic in Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, which if I am understanding correctly, stopped even including after 3.5. That’s the level adjustment to actually let players play dragons. You would think a game called Dungeons and Dragons would encourage encountering and playing with dragons, but really outside of encounters as enemies or people you have to persuade to help you, you don’t actually deal with dragons much unless your DM is kind.

And this drives me nuts.

I want to play a damn dragon! It is not my fault that they’ve overpowered their dragons to the degrees that they have. There has to be a way to create a scaled-back, but still reasonably powered, race of dragons that the player can play in combination with a class, even if it’s as simple as only allowing certain classes (like sorcerer and a few others) that have bloodline variants to dragons anyway.

There are two points that everyone who thinks I might be needlessly whining are going to bring up: Dragonborn/Half Dragons (let’s be honest, there’s not a huge amount of difference outside of lore and a few stats/attributes), and the level adjustments of older versions of the tabletop games. For some people, this may serve as a fix. For me, eh. I have issues with both.

First, the Dragonborn/Half-Dragon idea. It’s not a bad one. As they grow more powerful, depending on classes, they can become more and more draconic in appearance. It’s a peace offering, a way to try and let people play dragons without the power dynamic problems. Except it isn’t an actual dragon. I get stuck on this, because there’s a ton of world building that goes into most of the races and creatures. The Dragonborn/Half-Dragon cultures aren’t the same as the clans of dragons themselves, and each color of metallic has their own culture within themselves, and we don’t get to see it hardly at all as players. I want to tap into that, not just into looking aesthetically like a dragon.

3.5 did allow players to play dragons… to a point. If you were playing in a campaign that started at later levels (or had a pay off system that your DM arranged), you could play as a dragon. But the problem was that a) it wasn’t consistent between the colors of dragon as far as what you could play as age-wise, b) it was a high level adjustment because most campaigns didn’t start you past level 5, and those were pretty rare, and c) they were only for the stupid-young dragons. I mean, stupid-young. I’m talking freshly hatched to before puberty is even a dot on the horizon ages. Under ten in a human, ages.

Speaking as someone who has played that young of a character before in a joke campaign, it is so hard to get into the right mindset. Not to mention having a child-like character in the party can be super frustrating for the rest of the party. And at that age, per the own descriptions in the books, the baby dragons would want to stay close with their siblings, and there are at least two eggs. So what the heck is the party going to do with two of them? And that’s if you can convince one of your friends to play as your sibling, which is…very dependent on personalities.

By bending the rules a little bit (and starting our campaign stupid high in terms of level so the DM could be sure he wasn’t going to kill us), I’ve gotten to play Jadzia, a silver dragon sorceress. She is still, maturity speaking, about the same as a twelve year old human. I can play off her maturity versus her actual age a lot…but you know, my inner sap would really like to have to be dealing with being old enough to arrange her contract to a male, and how all her adventuring is affecting it, like how one of my fellow players is experiencing with their princess-rank character. I can’t expect it to happen like at all though, because of the age mechanics have pushed me down to, and I’ve made peace with it for this campaign…but it sucks that there isn’t even an option or mechanic if we wanted to.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Both of the current “solutions” have their pros and their cons, from a pure, “I want to play a dragon of some sort,” stand point. From my wants and desires, neither meets what I want. One solution is to use homebrew and playtesting with 5e or something to figure out how to make it work for an older dragon, or how running a campaign for all dragon characters would work. (Which is a possible solution, but I’m supposed to DM the first 5e campaign for our group, so still wouldn’t get to do what I wanted since I wouldn’t be the player.)

On the other hand, it would be a hell of a lot easier for the folks behind Dungeons and Dragons to come up with an expansion or something similar to let people like me have our fun with the dragons without it being a battle/counter diplomacy mess.


Tabletop RP: Plot Rails, a DM’s Worst Enemy

So, as a DM you have a brilliant story idea or goal for your team to reach. But certain things have to happen in a specific order, and to insure it happens, you just make it impossible for your players to do anything but what you need them to do for your story to happen like you plan.

Congratulations. You just put your party on the rails and, if my experience with this is any indicator, ended your campaign because none of your players are going to stay with you.

Now, my first attempt at DMing got put on hold because my school work went insane, but there were early indicators that I was accidentally straying into this territory myself, so we’re going to reset it period. But one of our group members who was running a military/mech style campaign with d20 Future actually did this on purpose, and between those two events, I think this needs to be something that DMs learn about the warning signs for and why it bothers players so much.

First, from the player’s side of things. The d20 Future campaign had already been on rocky grounds. For one, the distribution of which characters were useful and which weren’t was way out of balance, even among the party. Some of that is the way that weapons work in d20 Future (more on that in a later post), but some of it was the style of missions we were dealing with. An example with my character: I had set Lucine up to be the soldier. She was an all-around soldier rather than a specialist, so she had some ranks in several of her skills and I went the Smart Hero track, letting her be a variable skill monkey. She was also, fighting wise, suppose to be support/sniper/hand-to-hand, ensuring that the party would always have some other defense. There were two other Smart Heroes in the party, who were specialized, a Fast/Smart mesh Hero, and a Charismatic Hero (if I remember right). I wasn’t the only character that got underutilized with the start of the campaign, but we were slowly figuring things out, so I thought that we would be in a good place after the first few kinks were figured out.

We had left off the previous session invading a base. Now, for those who haven’t looked at my bio, when it comes to video games and such, I tend to stick to medieval fantasy games, or ones that aren’t particularly modern or technical. My DM? He glorifies in that style of game. I was really relying on my fellow game players to make sure we took care of the things we needed to. Problem? Almost all my fellow gamers live to do anything they can get away with. So since we didn’t do one thing, the DM felt we needed to face the consequences. What followed was a complete nightmare. My character was tortured (electro-shock style, and the only one to go through standard torture), the others had their own little interrogation sessions, we lost all our gear, even mods that were done to some of our bodies (not mine, I hate those, but the smart/fast character had a few). And then for those of us who were deemed “strong test subjects”…? You guessed it. We had forced mods/templates put on us. Mutations, to be specific, that were completely irreversible. My biggest hatred in ANY RPG where I create the character. I was done.

So why do players hate this? On my side of it, I felt like I was being punished, and the others felt like we’d had no ways of fighting back, meaning we weren’t playing a game anymore, we were just listening to the DM tell us a story, which isn’t the purpose or fun part of the game. There wasn’t even a chance for an escape attempt, which blew my mind. And through the entire session, we’d literally had no control over what we could do, besides what we could say, and even that was lost to some of us with the use of truth serum (that he forgot to mention was truth serum, that was annoying). As for the mutations/templates, I will always hate the ones I have no say in. Mostly because this is my character and while yes, you as the DM get to write the story, but if you are going to be doing any unchangeable and unavoidable modifying to my part in it, I want to know what and when.* Some of my characters, I’m even okay with it to a certain degree. But it takes time on my part to adjust to the change. (The DM later claimed, btw, he did this to my character specifically because he felt I was too attached to my characters and viewed them as versions of me. I’m still pissed off about this.)

*Note: this does not include plot stuff, like the character’s parents dying or something. In fact, I usually HAND the DM plot crap that they are free to use against me.

So how can a DM recognize that they are about to use the rails? I realized that I had done it with my mercenary campaign because of the difficult I was having running the session. Some of this is the fact my fellow DMs have letting-go-of-control issues, but there is a portion of this that is mine for not having stuff planned out in the right way to leave me prepared and them still have their choices. I also had issues with coming up with challenges that would let each player have their moment to shine, whether it be one’s always creative way out of situations or the other using this class that I am DEEPLY not familiar with, and he didn’t brief me on before we started.

(Here’s a tip, by-the-by. If you are using a class from a supplemental book of any sort, be it war mage, favored soul, or anything else other than what is in Player’s Handbook, bring either a copy of the book or find a link to it and send it to the DM so they can look over the class and know exactly what you are and aren’t capable of. Same if you have a race or trait you want to take on. DMs can’t be familiar with every single aspect in the entire Dungeons and Dragons franchise, especially newer DMs. Even our most experience DM hadn’t known about the prophet-variant of Favored Souls until I told him about it.)

I realized I had thrown them into the main plot waaaaay too early, and had made it way too rigid (sort of baby-rails, which are a good warning sign to look for). I have a better idea now on how to structure it so it is still, at it’s core, a mercenary campaign and they have choices to make, but my grand “save the world” plot can happen at the same time, at their pace. I guess the biggest warning sign is to look at what you are planning on happening that session. Are their chances for the players to fight back or escape or bargain their way out? What are you going to be doing to them, and are they (as players) okay with that, or do you have one or two who really hate it and it would be better to plan something else? If you absolutely must do it, is there a save possible? (No saves and sucky consequences are never a good thing to use, btw. Players hate them. It’s one thing to end up Blessed with Suck because of the Random Number God. It’s another to just be screwed over by Word of God.)