Aug 29 2016

A Character’s “Kit” in RPGs

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I’ve working on a little filler game of D&D, and I’ve run into an interesting little wrinkle this time around, in which a couple of the players want outside-the-box options, like moreso than usual. And while I’m happy to oblige, even if it makes more work for me, it has led me to some interesting thoughts on the role a character’s “kit” (or the abilities provided by their race/class combination) plays in the broader metagame considerations.

One of the players wants a 3rd-party race whose signature bit is wings. The ability to fly, especially at low levels, is one that tends to generate a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in D&D, because so much of what happens on a tactical level is dependent on your interactions with the map. A character who can fly bypasses pits, ignores difficult terrain, can go right over climbing/jumping obstacles, etc. This is expected behavior for 5th+ level heroes, but completely negates a lot of the initial “just learning to survive” challenges that 1st level heroes are expected to face. This is a powerful signature bit– but at the same time, 5E has an underlying philosophy of “let the players do the cool thing,” and so do I, so we bashed around the ability a bit until we got to a state where it was useful and cool but not game-breaking.

Another player, basically wants MMO-style crafting (which is an issue the same player was having in my regular campaign). Magic item creation rules are something that existed in 3.x/PF, but are conspicuously absent in 5E, and I think the real reason for that is that it creates a lot of “rules overhead” for the DM compared to the actual amount of use it’s likely to see at the table. Crafting of any kind (including the spaceship building rules from Traveller, the Summoner class from Pathfinder, or all the everything of Champions) is a fun game-within-the-game for a non-trivial segment of the gaming population, made of up mathy engineery geeks who love having systems to stress and break– but it’s something of a headache for everyone who isn’t among their number.

For this player, I suggested the Artificer class. This adds the crafting subsystem that they want, and makes it their “cool thing.” In my e-mail discussions with the player, I explained my thinking thus:

[5E is] written primarily to make life easier for the GM after decades of rules-heavy systems. (And really, the entirety of the OSR is kind of a reaction to the same issues.) GMs spend so much time coming up with NPCs, scenarios, neat images, etc., that they often don’t have the mental bandwidth to spend lots of time on system mastery beyond what’s absolutely necessary for the immediate task in front of them. Detailed magic item creation rules in that context only exist to keep the players from running amok and spamming the world with vorpal swords. The GM doesn’t need any such stuff.

I think we’ve talked before about how the real currency in any tabletop game is “face time”– i.e., who gets to do the cool thing when, and how often? To that end, I’d say, if you want crafting and fiddling around with the ins and outs of your items be what time in the game is spent on, that’s fine, but that should be where your character’s mechanics are (hence pointing at the artificer class). Somebody who doesn’t care about crafting and just wants to punch badguys, makes a fighter. Someone who wants to engage in all the social stuff, makes a bard. Their class choice defines how and where their face time will be spent. Adding on a whole subsystem to a game that only one player really gets into, while they also get the face time benefits of another class, is where the real “imbalance” would start to come in.

This led me to thinking in broader terms of a character’s kit, and how the choices a player makes when creating their character really inform the game that you will actually be playing once the group comes together. The character’s kit is where the concept (“a heroic warrior” or “a wily rogue” or whatever) interface with the game construct (the numbers you have to roll on the dice to achieve your desired story goals), and point to the sort of things the player wants to be spending their time in the game doing. The problem comes when your player’s mechanical choices don’t synch with what they actually seem to want to do.

In a game I had some time ago, I had a player who had a tendency to want their character to be able to fill every role all the time. Said player made a rogue who would immediately run up to the biggest monster in the fight and try to tank it; the same player made an archery-based ranger who was forever wading into melee, and a mad scientist in Deadlands who kept getting into one-on-one gunfights. In short, he wanted to be the one Doing The Cool Thing all the time, regardless of what his character’s abilities actually were.

This just doesn’t work in a group game, and in fact will pretty much always backfire. I kept trying to throw “Here’s your chance to do the Cool Thing!” moments at the player, but their character was either engaged elsewhere in a losing battle that didn’t match their kit… or dead, because they’d brought a rapier to a greataxe fight. When you build a character, you have to commit to putting that character into situations where they’ll be playing to their strengths! You also have to be able to sit back and applaud when some other player is doing Their Cool Thing. If you’re a rogue, and the group is being swarmed by zombies? That means it’s the cleric’s turn to do the Cool Thing. You’ll get your chance in the Chamber of Deathtraps.

Similarly, when building a character, think about what you want to be doing in the game and build a character to suit. If you know you want to be up front cleaving your foes and sucking up damage, then you should probably play a barbarian, not a bard. If you want to dynamically mess around with your character’s kit and have a something in your pocket for every challenge, you should probably play a wizard so you can tweak your spell selection. If you want to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, play a rogue, not a cleric. Think about what your character’s Cool Thing is, and build your character’s kit around that. (And let the other members of the group have their own Cool Thing. It’s not always your moment to shine!)

-The Gneech

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Aug 22 2016

Helpful Feedback is Helpful

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On the value of good manners, the agent who passed on Sky Pirates of Calypsitania last week wrote back in response to my thank you note to say, “I think your writing is very strong and I wish you the best in your agent hunt! For me, I just didn’t fall in love with the characters in the way that I’d need in order to be a great advocate.”

This, while it may not sound like much, is actually hugely helpful feedback. When you send out query after query and get the same boilerplate “not a good fit at this time” response, you begin to question every little aspect of what you’re doing. “Is my query letter too amateurish?” “Am I committing enormous grammatical blunders that I just don’t see?” “Is my adventure story about airship pirates really just a string of vapid clichés?” “Are the weird relationships and social outliers in this story too off-putting?” “Am I a hamfisted hack and everyone’s just been too nice to say so?”

This tiny bit of specific feedback makes all that junk go away. Being told by an industry professional that my writing is very strong is a bonus, I won’t lie! But the real value here is knowing that it was a matter of personal taste, rather than a systemic problem with the work. There are plenty of books out there that are great books, but I just don’t get into them. The entire corpus of Ernest Hemingway, just for starters.

What that means, in real terms, is that I have to just keep putting the book in front of agents until I find one for whom the book clicks. Of course, that was my plan anyway, but I feel a lot more secure about it now. Even if this particular agent and I end up never crossing paths again (although there’s no reason we might not), she’s done me a great favor and I’m grateful for it.

-The Gneech

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Aug 20 2016

In Which I Deal With Rejection

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It has often been observed that writing is a tough racket. Like, suspiciously so– people have been predicting the death of the written word pretty much as long as there have been written words, but particularly the death of the modern publishing industry as long as there has been a modern publishing industry, despite the fact bookstores tend to be full of people happily shelling out their hard-earned dollars for books even in this post-internet age and that book sales are actually up rather than down. The rates for writers are largely un-moved in decades, and editorial budgets are slashed, but book prices keep going up, so… that money has to be going somewhere.

However, for the time being at least, I am not interested in figuring out that mystery. Publishing for me is largely a giant black box where I put words in one end and, theoretically, money comes out the other. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Granted, I have not submitted that much for publication in the grand scale of things, being largely self-published or having worked mostly with editors who were also friends and colleagues already. But over the course of my writing career, I’ve had far more successes than rejections. In fact, I can only think of three rejections off the top of my head:

  • A creature write-up sent to White Wolf for a Werewolf line “monster book” in 1989 or so. This was done hastily, because Bill (the line editor at the time) was in a pinch, and I basically threw together something that belonged in Call of Cthulhu instead. I’m not surprised he didn’t use it– in fact, I would have been more surprised if he had.
  • Out In the Cold, my first full-length(ish) novel, sent to an agent c. 1996 in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. This was a cozy mystery, and it didn’t totally suck but it wasn’t great, either. It did at least garner me a very nice handwritten reply praising the narrative voice and depiction of the characters. I eventually decided that mystery writing was probably not where my strengths were and shelved it after that. And finally…
  • Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, which as of yesterday has been rejected by one publisher and seven agents, and “soft rejected” by a handful more agents who simply did not respond (“If you do not hear in 4-8 weeks we aren’t interested.”). Of all these, yesterday’s rejection was the hardest.

The reasons why yesterday’s hit me so hard are twofold. First, this agent was specifically seeking steampunk novels– a genre which is notoriously tricky to get people interested in. I was very jazzed to see someone actually wanting steampunk, instead of having a subtext of “Okay, I guess I’ll look at it, but don’t you have any doorstopper fantasy or military SF we could check out instead?”

Second, after the initial query, the agent wrote back to me and asked for a larger sample, which was the first response of any kind on this book beyond a polite form rejection. I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that she would want to move forward after that, but I did think it was quite likely. She wanted steampunk, she liked the first chapter, and her agenting portfolio seemed like just the right fit for this particular book’s eccentricities. Alas, “After a careful reading, I am sorry to say that I don’t believe this project is right for me.” I sent her a thank-you note, and who knows, maybe something else will work later.

But in the meantime, we carry on. I really like this book– even if it weren’t my own it would be one of my favorites– and I honestly think it’s as good as anything out there. I know that steampunk is a long shot, and I know that first-time novelists always have a tough hill to climb. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m going to put it away for the weekend and then, come Monday, pull up the next three agents on my list and send it out again.

It is, as has been observed, a tough racket.

-The Gneech

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Aug 13 2016

Learning Not to Suck at Overwatch, Ep 10- Ranked!

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With the help of Inkblitzer and Plotline, I finally complete my ranked placement matches, which shows much just how far I’ve come! We also have to deal with a dash too much salt.

-The Gneech

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Aug 08 2016

Periodic Welcome Post, August 2016

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Hey, hey! Every once in a random period, I put up a little post welcoming my new readers and keeping everyone abreast of what’s coming up!

Welcome New Readers!

<3 <3 <3

…Not a lot more to say about that, actually. Got questions? Comments? Suggestions? I’d love to hear ’em, in the comments or via e-mail (thegneech at gmail dot com)! I’d also love to know how you came to be here. Suburban Jungle? Are you a Twitter follower? WHOOOO ARRRRRE YOOOOU?

Suburban Jungle Issue Five!

The cover is up! I’m going start drawing pages this week, with my current plan being for the issue to begin running September 5. I’m not going to set that date into stone yet tho, just in case things randomly go pear-shaped, as they have a tendency to do around here.

Sky Pirates of Calypsitania and NaNoWriMo

There is some hopeful activity on the novel front! Alas, I can say no more for fear of jinxing it, but I am excited and hope it works out! In the meantime, I am working on an outline for a sequel novel, under the working title of Eternal Promises, with an eye towards writing the actual manuscript (or at least large chunks of it) over the course of NaNoWriMo. (Which means, among other things, I need to get as much of issue five done as possible by the end of October!) Eternal Promises will finally bring the intended-but-never-produced first story from Arclight Adventures to the light of day, which makes me happy.

Overwatch Play of the Game Badges and Videos

There are only a few badge commissions left, but I do have a complete “Victory Poses Plus Badges” group commission that I will be trying to finish over August and September. (Because let’s face it, I won’t be drawing enough, right? ¬.¬ ) I only have footage for one more Learning Not to Suck at Overwatch video right now, which will probably go up sometime this week, but I imagine that series will be going for a bit longer. I’d love to know what (if anything) people think of it, beyond the obvious “There’s a watermark on the video and your microphone is wonky.” Think of those elements as… uh… charmingly kitschy? I don’t have the budget to fix them at the moment. 😉

Convention Schedule

My next convention will be Midwest Furfest in December, where you should be able to find me in the Artist Alley most of the time. Due to budget constraints, I am currently trying to find someone to take over my Dragon*Con room; if that doesn’t happen, it’s entirely possible I’ll end up going to that as well, even though I really can’t afford it, on the grounds that the money is committed so I might as well enjoy it.

So that’s the State of the Gneech at the moment. Busy, busy, busy, but creating a lot of stuff that I hope you’ll check out and enjoy. Life is good.

-The Gneech

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Aug 07 2016

Learning Not to Suck at Overwatch Ep 09- Victory at Hanamura

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Sirfox, Plotline, Inkblitzer and I doing quite well on Hanamura, thanks largely in part to the enemy team making the same mistakes we used to. 😉

-The Gneech

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