Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mohawks and Mirrorshades

Most RPGs have a “default” style of play that they promote and are designed to accommodate. For example, early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were heavily oriented around the concept that the player characters would be exploring dungeons and looking for treasure. Naturally, these days most players understand that Dungeons and Dragons campaigns can vary wildly from one extreme (pure dungeon-crawling) to the other (pure roleplaying) with plenty of room in between.

I’ll make a bold statement: nearly any RPG can support very different styles of play. This is a lesson I learned over time, but one of the best examples of this idea comes from the classic cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun.

Larry Elmore captures Shadowrun like no one else.

On the surface, Shadowrun is all about playing as skilled operatives/criminals that exist outside the system. These “shadowrunners” are hired by megacorporations to strike at their rivals because they are deniable assets. The setting is a future where man, magic, and machine all exist side-by-side, and style generally triumphs over substance.

I spent over two years playing Shadowun online (as mentioned before in another blog post), and I discovered that for that particular RPG there are two very recognized and distinct styles of play; Mohawks and Mirrorshades.


The first style embraces the whole concept of “style over substance,” and the name itself is a reference to one of the more recognizable features of much of the early Shadowrun art featuring characters with hair styles into outrageous mohawks. Typically, the Mohawk style of play is characterized by over-the-top, cinematic action. The idea of “anything goes” and using some of the more unusual character options (such as playing a vampire, ghoul, sasquatch, AI or Free Spirit) are often associated with Mohawk style. Mohawk puts the “punk” in cyperpunk, and often the outcome of any given situation can be quite bleak.

Check out that mohawk!

One of my early characters for Shadowrun was definitely made for the Mohawk style. X’ian was actually based on an anime character and had a career as a professional athlete (Urban Brawl) before becoming a shadowrunner. Visually and vocally distinctive, “subtle” was really not part of X’ian’s dictionary. She was a lot of fun to play because of how unusual she was, but I did encounter a lot of issues with integrating with other players and staff in the online game who were more interested in a different style of play.

A very memorable incident with X’ian illustrated both sides of these different Shadowrunning approaches. The situation was this: a child had been kidnapped from a rich corporate family, and was being held for ransom. The family had made it known that there would be a large reward for the safe return of their child. X’ian had happened upon some clues about the kidnapping, including an odor trace for her cybernetic olfactory booster, and followed it to a deserted warehouse surrounded by an empty fenced parking lot.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is clearly where the kidnappers are lairing while negotiating for the ransom…” And what, you may ask, did X’ian do then? Did she gather her shadowrunner friends and make a plan to infiltrate the building and rescue the hostage? No. She walked right in through the front door.

She was promptly shot nearly to death by a sentry gun set up inside the warehouse. I think the GM was being fairly generous, in fact.

So lesson learned, right? Not quite. X’ian rounded up the usual suspects (her fellow shadowrunners on her team) and made back for the warehouse lickety-split. This time, she figured, they had a car. Said car crashed through the front gates of the fence and drove right up to the front door. X’ian and crew went full frontal assault on the warehouse, guns-a-blazin’.

This car is way cooler than the one X'ian had.

It didn’t work out so well. In the end, the ninja physical adept had to carry everyone’s bleeding, unconscious bodies back to the car. A pair of white phosphorous grenades had immolated the warehouse, consuming both kidnappers and kidnapped.

This time, I learned a valuable lesson. And I’m proud to say my Shadowrun characters have never advocated using the front door ever again.

To be honest, it was actually quite an eye-opener to find out that bombastic, cinematic action wasn’t going to work with all GM’s. It was time for me to think about adjusting, to consider trying out a more subtle and (dare I say) professional character.


In contrast, the Mirrorshades style of play is oriented around professionalism, preparation, and planning. Mirrorshades games focus on doing things “smart” and “subtle.” Mirrorshades games are often more realistic and tend to be quite challenging intellectually (often ending up trying out to outguess the GM!).

This is Mirrorshades style.

Much later in my online Shadowrunning, I created a mercenary named Reason. Reason was one of the most “professional” characters I’d ever made up to that point, although I hadn’t built him so much with that objective in mind. However, that’s how he developed during play, and I actually observed other players that I considered good at that style of play and learned from watching them. Possibly because of this approach (and no doubt helped by my growing experience with the game), Reason was—by far—my most successful Shadowrun character. He ended his career with over 200 karma (Shadowrun’s “experience points”) and actually achieved his long-term goal of retirement after a massive one-million-nuyen job.

Reason and his team (called “Black Omen”) approached every job with a mindset of accomplishing it as efficiently as possible. We researched our targets thoroughly, created detailed plans, and prepared ourselves as much as possible. I developed a leadership style for Reason that took into account the fact that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” So, Reason would get together with his team and make a plan, but he would keep it simple and make sure everyone knew the core goals of the mission. That way, when things went to crap (as they always did), the runners all could react on their own initiative to accomplish the mission. (Oh yes, and I never used the front door!)

I actually had a more “Mohawk” style GM complain that my team was not as much fun to run games for, because Black Omen worked too much like Seal Team Six and had not enough “style” for his preferences. In a way, it was quite a compliment! On the other hand, I could sympathize with him; I could tell he was bored with the clinical approach of my team and was craving something “cooler.”

I definitely enjoyed playing Reason with the Mirrorshade style, but I could tell that there was definitely something to be said for a more stylish and cinematic approach.

The Space Between

Sometimes called “Trenchcoat,” there is a style that lies in between of Mohawks and Mirrorshades, a style that combines some representations of both. “Trenchcoat” can mean many things to many people, so rather than attempt to further define such a broad term, I’d like to present another anecdote from my online Shadowrun days as an illustration of one possible meaning.

This story involves my character Alita – street name “Mouse”—a cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunter. Mouse and her partner, Danrath, had been investigating a series of ghoul sightings in a certain area of the city. A bounty had been placed on these ghouls and Mouse was determined to collect.

My inspiration for Mouse.

Mouse and Danrath followed the trail of the ghouls into the local sewer system and bagged a few of their prey along the way. However, it didn’t take long to discover something very unusual down in the sewers – the sound of pounding rock music. Investigating, Mouse and her partner found another set of bounty hunters camped in a side passage, music playing from a portable recorder they had brought with them. Chained to the wall was a beautiful human woman, her skin and hair colored a stark white, her eyes blank and pupiless. The woman was dancing for the two bounty hunters, but she was clearly their captive.

Mouse, naturally, wanted to know what the hell was going on, but her questions only led to the other bounty hunters to attack. Mouse and Danrath defended themselves and wiped out the opposition. Mouse questioned the woman, who claimed her name was “Lady Death” and that she was “Queen of the Ghouls!” Suspecting something was definitely amiss, Mouse slapped the woman with a tranq patch and knocked her out before taking her back to a safe house apartment for further investigation.

Mouse and Danrath debated what to do for some time… after all, there was a chance that something supernatural could be going on, and there were many mysteries in the Sixth World that had yet to be fully understood. It was decided to take “Lady Death” to a local street doc to have her checked out before taking any further action. Surprisingly, the street doc’s report was that “Lady Death” was in fact a normal human with extensive biosculpting. She even had a datajack registered to Aztechnology – a powerful megacorp that, in Shadowrun, has an extremely dark reputation.

When “Lady Death” awoke, Mouse and Danrath attempted to learn more by talking with her, but she refused to believe anything other than the story she had first given when they had met. Frustrated, Mouse jacked the woman into the Matrix and then pulled the plug, inducing dumpshock on her neural system in hopes this could break the programming. The drastic step worked – “Lady Death” was actually a daughter of an Aztechnology executive who had no memory of the last few weeks. She claimed she knew her name and her father’s name and was very grateful to have been rescued from her fate.

Suspicious but unaware of what else to do, Mouse and Danrath took her at her word and escorted the young woman to meet her father inside the Aztechnology corporate building. The handover of the woman was fraught with sinister undertones considering the nature of the corporation, but her father seemed normal enough. He rewarded and thanked us and then we were escorted out of the building.

Mouse and Danrath had many questions after that – was the girl telling the truth? Why had she been put through that bizarre situation? What was the link with the ghouls? Unfortunately, all these questions would never be answered – but even now, thinking back about the situation, I can imagine many intriguing scenarios that would explain just what we had stumbled onto.

Alas, Mouse’s story has a bittersweet ending. She actually ended up arrested by Lone Star and placed into prison. I definitely feel that the GM was attempting to offer me a way to turn that failure an opportunity, but I was too discouraged to consider it.

In conclusion

Universal RPGs like GURPS don’t generally have an issue with a default style of play. Champions also falls into this category, although it drifts close with its heavy focus on superheroes. As stated earlier, D&D is so wildly varied that it is difficult to define a “default” Dungeons & Dragons experience. Rifts, similarly, is very widely varied in the types of campaigns it can support.

Not exactly what I meant, but close.

Games like Traveller and Star Wars, by contrast, both have a generally accepted “typical” style of play (although both can support multiple styles).

However, no matter what your chosen system of RPG may be, it is fairly easy for established groups to fall into a pattern of a specific style of play. There’s nothing really wrong with this – you should definitely game the way that is the most fun for you – but I would like to encourage gamers to consider thinking about the other options that exist.

It can be very refreshing to try out a different approach to RPGs, to get a fresh look at perhaps your style or the styles of others. Game conventions, such as PAX, Genghis Con, or Gen Con, are one of the best ways to try out a new game and a new style. Even at home, consider trying out something new as a one-shot game night, perhaps for a special occasion like Halloween.

Changing things up from time to time can be really good and give you a fresh perspective on not only what you like about RPGs, but also about how they appeal to other folks as well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Price of Failure

I’m currently involved in a truly excellent RPG campaign that fully engrosses my attention when I’m playing. This is what they call “immersive storytelling.” I’m invested.

In last weekend’s game, the GM presented an opportunity for the characters to reach out from our struggling nation and make peaceful contact with neighboring realms. It was an excellent chance both to get some much-needed aid and to build a foundation for a lasting alliance—and these things were very, very important to my character. I happened to be the most diplomatic character, and I had built my skillset so that speaking to other rulers was something I did well. I spent some time the night before the game preparing what I felt was a good speech and had two printed pages of dialogue ready to go during the session.

Given the title of this blog post, I’m guessing you already know how things went. Let me be perfectly clear: I screwed the pooch.

I see what you did there.

Not only did I fail to establish better relations with one of our (up until this point) peaceful neighbors, I managed to kick off an entirely separate front of hostilities. My entire diplomatic team was exiled from the realm on pain of death, and large portions of the nation I was part of were seized. Citizens weren’t killed—they were given plenty of warning to evacuate—but towns and villages alike were burned to the ground. Thousands of people with no homes, no farms, no food, no hope.

It was all my fault.

Again, to be entirely clear, this was a pure roleplaying situation—no dice were rolled. It was simply my choice of what I had to say and how I said it. The GM was generous in that he gave me plenty of coaching ahead of time from a reliable NPC as to how to go about things, and in some regards, I went against that advice.

And so, the land was ravaged.


How Does It Feel?

As I had said earlier, this is a game I am highly invested in. I look forward to it every week and exult in the moment when we’re playing. I’m very much “in character” when I’m playing in this campaign. In addition, we’d been very successful up to this point. Sometimes, wildly successful by bucking the odds and acting like Big Damn Heroes when the situation called for it. So, in many ways, I was feeling cocky. After all, I reasoned, this is what my character is good at.

When I first realized just how badly I had screwed the pooch, I froze up. I was paralyzed. I had no idea how to respond. My stomach was churning with embarrassment… this was certainly not how I had expected things to go!

And then things escalated. The realm went from being mildly pissed off to becoming belligerent. Suddenly, my character—a champion of good, nobility, and heroic ideals—was directly responsible for starting up hostilities and the burning of several villages and towns. It was like a punch in the gut.

I had that sick feeling that this was a mistake I couldn’t just fix. There were consequences to my actions… fairly dire ones, in fact. And I was responsible.

Fortunately, some of the other characters in the party were able to manage the situation before it went any further out of control. Nevertheless, I knew that this was a big moment in my character’s life.

Handling Failure

There’s a number of ways to deal with a failure of this magnitude. I’ve known some players to simply pack up and leave. In fact, the last time I was this invested in a campaign and my character died, I nearly did that very same thing myself! Other players can get angry, or very, very quiet (which in many ways is just as bad).

Luckily for me, I trusted my GM. I knew that he had not chosen that I would fail because he was punishing me… rather, it was simply the outcome that the story called for at that moment.

My good friend Dave Mattingly, head of Blackwyrm Publishing, once helped discuss failure in RPGs at HeroCon in Glen Burnie, MD back in 2006. Dave said something that stuck with me:  
"Failure gives the heroes twice as much screen time. First they fall down; then they get back up.”

Dave is a wise, wise man.

The idea that failure is—and should be—another opportunity is a powerful one, and I try to look at in-character setbacks in the same way Dave does. In the situation I mentioned above, I took my character's setback and used it to try and build some growth of his beliefs and relationships with others.

When it comes to handling failure during the game, the most crucial element (and one that I cite often when discussing roleplaying) is trust. If the players trust the GM, if that bond exists, then it is okay to fail. Failure is another opportunity, it is a way to examine (as I have done) how the character deals with setbacks. Comparatively, it is easy to roleplay a character who is successful… often, it can be more rewarding to handle a character through his darkest hour and come out the other side.

Another very wise man.

Accidental Failure and Deliberate Failure

Failure can come in many guises during an RPG. I like to separate failure into two categories; accidental and deliberate failure.

Accidental failure is unintentional on both the part of the players and the GM—typically it revolves around die rolls. It can be a single crucial roll or a series of important ones. It can even take the form of a certain card (such as in the infamous Deck of Many Things) or just having your miniature in the wrong place at the wrong time on the battlemat.

Deliberate failure happens when someone chooses to fail. Often, this comes in the form of the GM deciding that “this didn’t work.” However, players can also deliberately fail—although rarely in the interests of the game. Most often that I’ve seen, deliberate failure on the part of the players is a way of showing disdain for the game itself, a “I’m taking my toys and going home” sort of decision.

Degrees of Failure

“So just how bad is it?” This is a common question asked whenever a player rolls a critical failure during an RPG. Some games (such as, famously, Rolemaster) have quite a list of possibilities. Many of my own games in the 40K Roleplay line have quite a few horrible fates for a psyker who rolls particularly badly, as another example.

I didn't make this graph, but I generally agree with it.

For me, I like to divide failure up into two categories. Either the failure is manageable, or it is one of those moments when you say “Oh s#!t.” These categories are what I like to call
Minor Failures and Spectacular Failures.

As mentioned above, Minor Failures are manageable. They’re usually temporary and have few if any consequences.

Spectacular Failures are, well, spectacular—they have long-lasting effects and often come with a boatload of consequences after the fact.

Change of Perception

Failure of either kind can change your perception of the character. A series of minor failures or even a single spectacular failure can have an effect on the tone for a story arc or even an entire campaign.

Generally, the effects of failure are magnified if they occur earlier in a character’s adventuring career—and by “career,” I don’t mean backstory. I’m talking about actual, in-game performance.

A classic issue of different expectations, and a reaction thereof.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an anecdote from my own gaming history. I had one of those character concepts that I was really, really excited about but never got a chance to play long-term. I got to play the character one time in one game, and that was it. So when a friend offered to GM a campaign that was perfect for this character, I was thinking oh yeah, this-is-gonna-be-awesome. The character’s name was Nimrodel, she was a dryad who survived her tree getting cut down, and she had become a warblade (a fun fighter-type class from the Tome of Battle for D&D 3.5). I was, to say the least, jazzed to play this character.

So, in the first session, we’re fighting our way through some guards when my character gets her chance. “I got this,” I announced confidently, triggering one of the cool warblade powers for kicking ass and advancing on the enemy. 

What happened next? I rolled a critical failure. Yep, the very first swing with my awesome sword-mistress was a fumble.

It was fortunate for me that I didn’t end up rolling a lot of fumbles for Nimrodel, but it certainly affected both how I and the other players saw the character in-game. This was definitely an accidental failure, not a deliberate one, but it was still a real bummer and the fact that I’m writing about it here shows how memorable it truly was. I am sure that I’m not alone… no doubt many players can think of moments like these for their characters.

Another example I can point to regarding how failure can change the tone of a campaign comes from Shadowrun 4th edition. Our characters discovered that regardless of having high skills in Infiltration (the catch-all “Being Sneaky” skill) and ruthenium (think the Predator’s camouflage) suits, we were getting spotted by your typical beat cop on patrol at one in the morning. This is an example of deliberate failure—the GM had chosen that sneaking around like ninjas just didn’t work in his campaign.

Failure, Frustration and Punishment

I started out talking about how failure should be looked at as an opportunity, and I believe that is a good ideal to strive for because the alternative is detrimental to the game—frustration and a feeling of punishment. Failing every so often can be a doorway to some really great roleplaying. Constant deliberate failure can feel more like you’re being punished for trying to go against the GM’s style, story, or preferences.

Let’s do a quick breakdown of the types and degrees of failure—when do they stop being opportunities and become frustrating?

Deliberate Failure: When deliberate failure happens occasionally, it can cause frustration (especially if it results from a misunderstanding of expectations from either the player or the GM), but it is generally going to be manageable. Deliberate spectacular failure is, surprisingly not as frustrating, probably because failing big can be quite entertaining with many groups. In fact, many roleplayers that I personally know ascribe to a "go big or go home" school of thought.

However... constant deliberate failure, as mentioned above, is generally about as fun as getting smacked with a lead pipe.

Accidental Failure: Occasional accidental failure is simply part of the RPG experience. Any game with dice is going to have times when they completely abandon you. The vast majority of gamers are pretty philosophic about occasional accidental failure. Constant accidental failure, however, can be extremely frustrating. As humans, our brains tend to seize more on the outliers when looking at a random system, meaning that you remember the really amazing rolls and the really crappy ones and generally forget the far more numerous average results. 

I’ve known some gamers, including a good friend, former roommate, and game author Grady Elliot, who can get really frustrated with a bad run of dice. Grady’s bad luck with d20’s is fairly legendary, in fact. I can sympathize… it’s no fun to fail over and over again. 

Again, this category usually causes more feelings of frustration when the failures are manageable than when they are spectacular—but I should definitely mention that it depends on the game and the situation. Losing the fight against the big bad because of one critical fumble is certainly memorable, but it can also cause some serious stress in many players.

Final Thoughts on Failure

If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this post, it’s this: don’t be afraid to let your characters fail from time to time. It can change your perception of the character’s place in the world, give you fodder for more stories, and act as a catalyst for change. Just don’t make it a punishment… especially if you’re the GM!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Secret History of MMOs -- MUDs and MUSHes

Sorry about the lack of updates—August has been crazy for me this year, possibly one of the craziest months ever. Not an excuse, just background. My father was kind enough to give me some incentive (i.e., “I’ve read enough about Gen Con, time for something new.”) so get ready for more blog goodness here on Rogue Warden.

Today’s blog post is about Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs… but not in the way you’d think. Currently, MMORPGs in the video game industry seem like they’re suffering—good examples include City of Heroes and SWTOR—and the business model is in the process of change. It’s possible that MMOs as we know them may be on the way out. However, rather than talking too much about the present and future, I’d like to focus on the MMORPG’s distant past… a world of text-based adventures on the early internet known as MUDs, MUSHes, and MUXes.

An MMO By Any Other Name

If you can’t already tell, dear reader—this post is chock-full of acronyms. Don’t worry… I’ll explain. A MUD is a multi-user dungeon—these online games generally were the closest to modern-day MMORPGs in that they weren’t really about roleplaying. Instead, MUDs centered around the player taking his character through a series of dungeons, slaying enemies, and taking their stuff. There were also guilds to join, characters could get married, shops to buy things and bars to get virtually drunk.

It's not that kind of mud.

By now, this should all sound very familiar to any World of Warcraft player. Of course, the major difference here is visual—everything in a MUD (and by extension every other MU* game I’m discussing in this post) is entirely scrolling text on the computer screen. Scenery, actions, battles, monsters, gear… literally everything in the game was described through text, with the player’s actions being entered in a series of commands. Typing “L” for example, meant that your character looked at his surroundings, and a description of where your character was would then appear on the screen. This was usually followed by the command “kill orc” and then “get gold.” In fact, the first MMORPGs started out with the label “Graphical MUD.”

The Wikipedia entry for MUD contains a lot more detail about these games, so I won’t re-state much here about that… instead, I’ll tell you about my experience with them. I first encountered MUDs at the University of Wyoming in 1992. A friend of mine introduced me to MUDs after discovering we shared an interest in roleplaying games. (Side note: I was one of those nerds who took every single rpg book I owned with me to college. Yeah. I’m that guy.)

Thus I began my exploration of Shadow MUD (there’s currently another game of that name, but I don’t think there’s any relation to this earlier incarnation) and I was instantly hooked. As I was a writer, this was right up my alley—it was using all the typing skills I’d developed in high school and putting them into practice online. I could play any time of the day or night, and I could even play with some of my friends, including my then-roomate.

Keep in mind this was twenty years ago, so my memories are a bit fuzzy… I think my character’s class was a Shadow Mage. I remember that the character could summon shadows to devour the bodies of the slain and gain health. Shadow Mages were also unique in the game in that they could heal other characters that were not in the same virtual “room,” no matter where they were in the game. When I reached a higher level, it was common for me to grab a few virtual beers in the tavern while casting heals on adventuring parties out fighting dragons and whatnot! Drinking beer, in that game, helped restore a character’s magic and hit points at the same time.

As much as I enjoyed MUDding, I grew tired of it quickly and sought out a new challenge. Fortunately for me, I had made several friends online, and one of them pointed me towards another online game that would prove to be a huge impact on my life. This game, he told me, was ALL about roleplaying.

Read more (a LOT more) about MUDs and MUSHes after the break!