Rule Zero

First of all, I am under no delusion that there aren’t already 10,000 gaming blog posts called “Rule Zero,” and that they are generally about “The GM is always right,” or that “The GM can say no to anything,” so let’s just recognize that and move on.

Moved on? Great.

I invented something called Rule Zero.

Rule Zero is simple: You can try anything.

So, I’m a big fan of rules-as-roadmaps (RAR) instead of rules-as-written (RAW). Rules are there to guide both the player and the GM, to give action meaning, to establish strategy and consequence in the game world, and, as a last resort, to answer questions and respond to disputes at the table.

GMs should make rulings. These rulings may originate from their deep knowledge and implementation of the game mechanics, from random dice results, or simply off the top of their heads. In any of those cases it’s the GM making a ruling. That’s what they are there for.

But why are we collectively at the table? For fun!

Let me go back real quick. When I played my very first D&D campaign (as a player) once upon a time, I tried to do something. My character was on a small roadside cliff-edge above an enemy. I decided to jump down, swing my club, and allowing gravity and momentum to give me a boost to the attack. I had the high ground, and I was a larger creature than what I attacked. It seemed reasonable that this action-oriented type of attack would grant my character an advantage.

It didn’t. There was no official rule that said anything about having a bonus to one’s attack based on environmental elements or improvised action. My character didn’t have a specific “leap attack” or anything of that nature. Because the rules didn’t specify that I could do this, I was met with “You can’t do that.” I was penalized for creativity, immersing myself in the environment, and thinking outside the “this is what your class can do” box. A basic melee attack–clearly spelled out in the PHB–would have been a better choice with this GM. RAW screwed me.

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth, and eventually it helped lead to developing a system without classes. As a player, I never wanted to be limited ever again.

As a GM, I never wanted to limit my players, either.

This is where Rule Zero comes into play.

Rule Zero: You can try anything.

Failure is still a possibility, of course. Just because you can try doesn’t mean you can succeed. But the spirit of letting anyone attempt anything was built into BASE12 from the very beginning. In Shattered Empire, anyone can attempt a Skill check, even if they don’t possess that Skill; or rather, everyone has every Skill, but that Skill may be at level 0. You don’t have to be a Class to make a certain type of attack. In fact, even characters without training in a weapon or armor can still wield or wear that item. Training makes you more likely to succeed, but even a child can pick up a stick and try to hit an Ogre with it.

When I GM, one thing that I try to get across to my players is that if they can convince me that something is possible or “realistic” (relative to the environment) then they can succeed. Sometimes I’ll ask them for a Skill check without telling them which Skill. “Which Skill?” they may ask. “Whichever one will make you succeed at what you’re attempting,” I reply. Three different players may end up using a Search check, a Survival check, and an Arcana check based on individual character backstories, play styles, or critical thinking. It’s the same Skill check, but they are each rolling different Skills. Now as a GM I could have said “Everyone make a Search check to find the hidden cave entrance.” Maybe one of them has a good Search rating, and the other two are just going through the motions. Or maybe they wouldn’t: “You roll for it, my Search Skill is only 1.” It doesn’t connect the player with the character to be told what to try. Even if they suck at Search, if that’s what they choose to use for their Skill check, they’ll have a connection with their character knowing that they are struggling to do something they don’t excel at, instead of mindlessly following the GM’s instructions.

So, Rule Zero is really about experimentation, creativity, and problem solving. It’s about using the rules as a guideline, and not as a forcefield. You can try anything, and perhaps as an addendum, if you can convince me (the GM) you succeed. And, as always, it always comes back to what is the most fun.

To Explore Strange New RPGs

At one time I started working on a Star Trek RPG homebrew using the BASE12 system. I’ll probably not do anything else with it because I’m much more interested in creating my own worlds than I am in repurposing other people’s. But if you need a starting point for a Star Trek home game, here’s a Race/Class/Skills handbook and character sheet that you can use. This is literally everything I have, so you’ll have to get creative to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

Player’s Handbook

Character Sheet

Separating Simple From Easy:  Why BASE12? 

BASE12 isn’t for everybody; no game system is. The wide spectrum of playstyles dictates the vast array of systems and variants on the market, and that’s a good thing. Imagine if you had to play every game, regardless of setting, using the same game system? Would you really want to roll a d20 to see if you successfully charted a course for your starship? How could a complex figure like a secret government agent be summed up with only three stat categories?

The gaming boom of the aughts brought a new hurdle for developers. With a flood of new gamers–or return gamers that were away from the hobby for sometimes decades–RPGs in general took an approach of “Easy and Accessible.” It was important that newcomers not be deterred by overly complicated rules and structure. “Make it broad and approachable,” the developers thought.

The early twenty-teens saw many systems go a step further: into simplicity. It seemed reasonable that in our fast-paced/low-attention-span age that gamers would want to jump right in and game. Little setup, little structure. Just quick, easy, simple mechanics and let the role-playing take over from there.

And that, too, is a good thing. It’s especially good for pure role-players, and those that would rather meet and tell a collective story with friends than actually game.

But it’s not the only way.

I have always wanted a little more, and since I missed the boat on Pathfinder during my twenties I never quite found a system that let me dig in and get that math-crunch adrenaline rush that I craved. I wanted complicated.

And that’s why I made BASE12. I wanted a complicated, deep system. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to learn or slow to play; complicated can still exist beside quick and easy. It’s just that simple word that I wanted to get out of there.

So, yes, BASE12 is complicated. There are 12 Attributes for your character (compare this to 6 in D&D, or 5 in Savage Worlds.) This depth in defining your character’s attributes would allow you to create any type of character you can think of, and fit it into any genre.

Skills are tied to Attributes, so having more Attributes allows for more precision and variety in Skills.

Derived stats (Hit Points, Stamina Points, Action Points) as well as things like movement distance and initiative come from Attributes as well, giving greater control over minutiae.

Is it crunchy? For sure. It has depth enough for mathematicians, character tinkerers, and level-planners. But it’s still easy to learn, and quick to play.

Wanna try BASE12? It’s free under a Creative Commons license that even let’s you create and sell your own games designed for it.

Here’s a link: Base12 RPG System

Playtesters Wanted!

As I move into the final stage of playtesting before starting a Kickstarter campaign for Shattered Empire, I’ve decided it’s time for people to test it out and give me feedback without me sitting at the table with them.

If you are a GM that has access to a group that would like to playtest a Strategy RPG in a High Fantasy setting and are willing to give feedback on mechanics and documentation clarity, please send me a message or email me at LegendaryDropCast@gmail.com and I’ll send the penultimate draft of the game documents to you.

Looking forward to taking this thing to the next level!

(to get an idea of the crunchiness of this system, here’s what the Character Sheet looks like…)

Character Sheet

Trusting Your Audience 

Making your own game for your friends to play raises problems that you never anticipated, but you essentially know where you want to go in the end. It’s just for you and your friends after all.

Preparing a game for the public, however, brings up a whole new list of problems that must be solved.

If something is a little unbalanced when I run a session as a GM, I just tweak it. I’ve talked about this recently: fudging. A couple extra hit points here, a smaller die size there…and like magic we’re back on track and balanced. It’s an important skill to have as a GM. But should it be expected?

Is it reasonable to ask someone playing your game to use common sense and improvisation to keep it running smoothly? Or is this a cop out, essentially releasing a broken game and asking someone else to fix it?

I’ve been building combat encounters and trying to playtest for balance, but sometimes there are so many variables that I can’t account for everything.

“Yes, this WOULD be a balanced Level 5 encounter, except they found that chest of magic maces last session, so now it’s a steamroll.”

I’ve had to learn the hard way in comedy and screenwriting to trust my audience. Have faith that they can follow. Don’t treat them like idiots, don’t spell everything out for them. Know that they’ll get there without you. Maybe it’s the same theory here?

Or maybe this is completely different, and requires a different approach.

What do you think?

Roll Charts: Holidays and Observations (repost) 

(NOTE: This is a repost of a roll chart I put up here a couple years ago, but didn’t see a good way to “reblog” it, so I just did the old copy + paste) ​

In light of Independence Day, here is a holiday roll chart! 

(begin repost) 

While tending to my holiday obligations this year, I began contemplating the conception of holidays and celebrations within a given culture, and how vital they are in providing a cultural identity. Observed holidays can speak volumes about the values, history, and priorities of a group of people. Therefore, providing such “window dressing” when introducing a new culture to your players in a home game can help an unknown city of mindless NPCs take that leap into a living breathing community of believable people. Perhaps the townspeople are busily preparing for upcoming festivities, or maybe they are already in full swing. What is the feeling in the town? Is it pulsing with excitement, or are the people somber and reflective? Holidays can help you set a mood, quickly provide narrative exposition, or give an interesting backdrop for quest hooks. Of course, sometimes a party of adventurers steamroll their way off-script into one of these locations, so having a roll-chart ready to pull up can help an unprepared GM look like a clairvoyant. So for those that want some extra details about their towns, here’s a randomized chart.

* NOTE: This is designed for a fantasy setting, but a couple tweaks could make it work for other genres.

What kind of holiday is it? (Roll 1d12)

 

1. A seasonal festival. Spring planting, Summer or Winter solstice, or Fall harvest.

2. Birthday of a local leader (king, governor, tribal chief, mayor’s eldest daughter)

3: Anniversary of the death of a local hero, king, or town founder.

4. Religious high holiday, marking the adoption of a specific Deity as the town’s patron.

5. A public wedding celebration, perhaps of a notable person or persons.

6. Observed day of remembrance for a great battle, end of a war, or liberation of the town or realm from foreign control.

7. Local election, perhaps for mayor, sheriff, or judge. Public debates or voting may occur.

8. A great tournament, contest, or other organized leisure event.

9. Anniversary of some mystical or magical event that helped shape the town, such as a portal to another realm opening up , or the sudden appearance of a magical object or creature.

10. Anniversary of some natural or catastrophic event that helped shape the town, such as a great earthquake, tidal wave, or meteor that fell from the sky.

11. Strange custom. Perhaps completely superstitious, or based in religion or cultist beliefs. A day where everyone wears buckets on their heads to keep the corn-eating spirits away, for example.

12. Apocalypse celebration. According to legend, an Oracle, or the local calendar, this is the day that the world is supposed to end.

 

How is it celebrated? (Roll 1d20)

1. Traditional feasting.

2. Dancing, singing, and live music.

3. Courting and the admission of love for a secret object of affection. All remaining singles are randomly and forcibly coupled.

4. The granting of a boon upon the townspeople. Perhaps extra food rations, gold and treasure, or practical items.

5. With a day of silent meditation, where no business may be conducted and nobody may verbally communicate.

6. A public execution of the town’s most hated criminal.

7. With the sacrifice of an animal, where each townsperson is required to drink the beast’s blood.

8. With the sacrifice of an innocent person, virgin, or elder, in order to appease the gods or devils.

9. By exchanging gifts with strangers in the street.

10. With a huge bonfire where everyone brings an equal amount of fuel to signify unity.

11. With the juggling of geese.

12. With the choreographed mass suicide of each and every member of the town.

13. With a battle to the death between two armed combatants.

14. With the personal blessing of the town clergyman upon every citizen, including a fortune reading or prayer for luck and prosperity.

15. By sacrificing an object of personal value or importance.

16. By throwing food and excrement at all outsiders until the sun sets.

17. By participating in a seven-hour chant while holding hands in town square.

18. With the release of 1000 chickens into the village, which must be collected alive in the highest amount in order to crown the Festival Champion.

19. By marching to war on a neighboring city.

20. With a 24 Hour “purge-style” day of lawlessness with no legal ramifications.

 

Enjoy, and happy holidays!

The Straight Fudge

Being a GM is rewarding hard work at best, and a nightmare of record-keeping, crowd control, and floor-mopping at worst. But at its core, the role of the GM is to make the game fun. It’s not always about knowing the rules, or keeping the players heading in the right direction to tell your story. In fact, if you are only there to tell your story then you are probably on the wrong side of the GM screen.

Combat and skill checks are two of the most basic mechanical ways for the player to interact with the gameworld. So what happens when the dice don’t go their way? What happens if they stumble upon an encounter that is too far above their level? What if a lucky shot or an unlucky break causes the entire campaign to fall flat on its back?

Let me talk about FUDGING.

This can be tender subject, both for players and for game masters. There are probably endless opinions about the subject–one for each human asked–but for the sake of this thought experiment I’ll stick to the three most obvious and straight-forward: Do It, Don’t Do It, and Sometimes Do It.

First, a quick definition:  Fudging, as in “fudging the numbers,” is when the GM takes a creative interpretation to the results of a roll, for good or bad, that is usually in direct opposition to the literal results of the roll. This could also be accurately called “cheating.”

Let me set the scene:  Your adventurers are pursuing a character that they will later discover is the “big bad” of your campaign. For now, they don’t realize that this NPC will be pushing the story and creating tension for weeks to come. All they know is that he stole something from another NPC. You’ve set up a terrific chase scene, with brilliant mechanics, difficult traps, a gripping cinematic eventscape…And then one of your player’s says “I use Psionic Reach knock the boulder off the ledge onto his head.”  You grit your teeth, because you didn’t really foresee that trap being used against your own antagonist, but fine, you’ll roll for it. Damn. It’s a 1. The boulder crushes his skull, killing the NPC, and essentially ending your campaign before it starts. Right?

Of course not. That’s why you roll behind a screen.  “Ooh, sorry, the boulder crashes down just to the left of the fleeing suspect, narrowly missing him.”  “What did he roll for defense?” a player may ask (and that player is probably a trouble-maker at the table for questioning the GM in the first place.) “A 9,” you reply. “Just enough to dodge.”

Fudging. It’s cheating, sort of. But is it wrong? Is it the wrong decision for your game?

1. DO IT.

First of all, let me get this out of the way. I fudge. I don’t do it often, and I don’t like to do it at all (it makes me feel guilty.) But sometimes it necessary. The real question is: How do you know when it’s necessary?

The answer is: “When it’s fun.” That’s what we’re here for. To have fun, to enjoy ourselves. To tell incredible stories, to forge friendships, to use our brains and imaginations in a way that no other thing in the real world would let us. I’m not going to let one random dice roll stand between my players and I and fun.

BUT…

2. DON’T DO IT.

There HAS to be some amount of restraint on fudging. Player’s have to feel like their decisions matter, especially if they are taking an action that they know is a long-shot. Luck is a fun element when it’s on your side. I’ve had players ask to do something completely outrageous and unlikely, and instead of saying “no” I’ve told them “roll the dice.” Boom. Natural 20. You just defied the odds. That’s a memorable experience that will stay with that player forever, and I’d never DREAM of taking that moment away from them. This is not the time to fudge. If you railroad the story, fudge every roll, and never let the dice fall where they may–especially if your player’s become aware of it–you’re going to lose the table. It won’t be fun. Fudge in moderation.

3. SOMETIMES DO IT.

What’s even better than fudging in moderation? Making sure you put yourself in situations that you won’t HAVE to fudge. Don’t set a pivotal plot point at the mercy of the dice if you don’t expect to abide by that dice result. Why do that? Don’t go into a situation knowing the outcome. There’s no reason to bother with pointless skill checks and asking player’s for their opinions if you are just going to “move the story along” however you see fit, no matter the outcome.

When is a good time to fudge? When it’s fun. FUN. Fun is why we’re here. Has your Barbarian just missed six turns in a row? Did she decide to spend every last bit of energy she has on this one final attack just at the hopes of getting a little piece of the damage-pie? Did your Skeletal Knight just roll a defensive tie? Fudge it. It wasn’t a 12 after all, it was an 11. She hits. It was fun. She won’t quit playing the game now. And you know, it makes sense in a story about heroes performing great deeds that a dramatic moment like that would succeed anyway. It’s relevant to the game.

So do it when you must, and don’t feel bad. Don’t do it too often, and don’t let your players know. Don’t fix broken mechanics with fudging, fix the broken mechanics instead. Don’t not do it, just because you want the universe to decide everything. That’s what most of us are here to escape from, after all.

And always remember: There’s a reason that we as GMs make our rolls behind a screen.