Merry Christmas from Geek at Arms! In this episode we welcome Bex from the Redeemed Otaku Podcast! As is customary with our guests Bex starts off Geek Out by describing the highs (and lows) of playing Word of Warcraft Classic. She also tunes us in to her current favorite anime’s: Land of the Lustrous and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Next Bryan shares his experience playing a Lawful Neutral character in a recent D&D game and his thoughts on the deep, but disturbing, movie Joker. James also shares his a recent gaming experience where he played a dwarf in a friends one-shot campaign and also how much he and his wife enjoyed the recent film Ford v Ferrari. Mike keeps the racing theme going by describing how his family has come together in triumph to defeat difficult levels on Mario Kart 8. Mike also head’s a discussion on the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the divisiveness in the fanbase and how toxic fandom had risen as a result. Finally, Bex and the guys take a look at the works of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. They explore the characters and themes found within them and which of these animated classics are their favorites.
In most of my years roleplaying, initiative usually works the same way. We roll dice, whoever rolls higher goes sooner. If you wanted to cut the rope on the chandelier and crash it on your enemy before the party’s combat monkey blasts the baddie back five feet, then you need to roll high. If you want to talk things down before it all goes downhill, the dice had better cooperate. That kind of play changed a while back when I found the Doctor Who RPG.
I have a number of great things to say about the game, but where it really shines is the initiative system. Instead of a traditional initiative system, what actions you want your character to perform determines turn order. Talkers go first, Movers (usually Runners) go second, Doers go next, and Fighters go last.
Talkers going first is a brilliant emulation of the series, providing an opportunity for players to try to talk their way out of combat. They can rely on skills of persuasion, deception, or de-escalation as a first-order resolution. You can also get your enemy monologing to reveal information. Your character can surrender to henchmen in order to see the head honcho directly. You still have the make a successful skill roll, but you get to use your words before anyone else – including your enemy – comes out swinging.
Movers are up next. While that might apply to sneaking, it usually means running. The game is full of Cybermen, Daleks, Ice Warriors that can take you handily in a straightforward fight. If you’re confronted with overwhelming danger, run or sneak away so you can set up a plan and do something really clever later on. By the time the fighters are up, you have a head start for your chase scene.
The Doers category covers a large spectrum of actions. Do you want to deadlock a door behind you? Reverse the polarity on the artificial gravity? Making an escape hole with your squareness gun? All of these actions and more are Doing. It’s an opportunity for players to get creative, change the scene, create a hazard for your opponent, or accomplish something to their advantage.
Now the Fighters, with their fists or guns at the ready, get their turn. Except the Talkers may have talked you down, the Movers are already down the hallway, and the Doers have set the ship’s drive to overload before you can pull the trigger.
Emphasis on talking and roleplay
This change of operations massively impacts not only the tone, but the entire style of gameplay. First (and unsurprisingly), it emphasizes verbal problem-solving. Players who want to solve problems in-character through roleplay always have first crack. Never do you walk away from a combat encounter thinking, “Dang. I really wanted to question that guy. Now it’s too late.”
It also allows quick-witted players have a chance to use their creativity to change the situation, shift the focus, or cast doubt in the minds of their enemies. This is not to say that it defaults to roleplay over roll-play. Players still must make high enough skill rolls to convince, intimidate, or use diplomacy. But the resolution is more rooted to the character’s personality attributes than it is their combat prowess.
Allows for asymmetrical encounters
If you look at the Doctor Who television show The Doctor is always facing enemies that are far more physically powerful. In a straight fight between The Doctor and a Dalek, Cyberman, or Ice Warrior, The Doctor would lose every time. The Doctor is outgunned and outnumbered. The adventures modules in the game are very similar. If you played in a standard “who rolls highest goes first” initiative system, the PCs would probably be vaporized.
If your GMing style is anything like mine, you ask yourself the question “Is this enemy too tough for my players?” This question fades away in this initiative system. You never worry about if they are too physically imposing or too powerful in combat. The enemies are supposed to be too powerful to fight, because usually you are not fighting them.
Instead of fighting, players have the opportunity to get creative and use other means to success. The characters can turn their adversary’s own weapon or plan against them (i.e. a “Superman 2 switcharoo”). The party might jury-rig the enemy hyper-spatial field generator (or other fun technobable) to suck an enemy horde into a pocket dimension. In other words, the Doers can use their skills, equipment and creativity to foil an enemy plot without ever firing a shot.
If the scene looks too overwhelming, the PCs have the chance to run away, regroup (usually after a chase scene), and come up with a new plan.
Changes what challenge looks like
A good nine months into playing our Doctor Who RPG, our GM said, “I feel like I’m not challenging you guys.” And we replied, “Oh, you challenging us. We have to stretch ourselves!” In a stereotypical D&D encounter, challenge equates to using your feats, talents, and skills in synergy to beat back a powerful foe. In Doctor Who it is using your skills, creativity, and problem solving to change the scenario to foil the enemy plot. It might well result in your enemy’s downfall or death, but the PCs are not the ones delivering a coup de gras.
The challenge for the players is to look at the assets they have on hand, their unique abilities, and get creative to affect their enemy’s weakness. The challenge is in problem solving and creativity. Though it looks very different from a typical RPG session, it still is very much a challenge for the players.
Applying this to your game
The beautiful thing about this method is that it isn’t system specific. There is nothing stopping a GM from importing it into a D&D, Star Wars, Numenera, Pathfinder, or most other games. Gamemasters often suggest to their players that a particular session is designed to be “combat light.” Applying the Doctor Who RPG initiative system allows the GM to incentivize diplomacy and problem solving over combat. It also offers a change of pace for a group that is growing weary of a “smash the monster and take its stuff” style of play.
This is not to say that combat disappears. It is always an option. And even in my group’s Doctor Who games, we have combat. The difference is the other options come first, but fighting is always there if we want it.
It also facilitates a story telling element that players of all systems and genres like to talk about. Gamers love to tell stories from amazing moments in their games. And while you do have the occasional, “I critted, and one-shotted the big bad,” I more often hear the amazing and improbable stories of a clever idea gong amazingly well in game. The stories people love to tell about the moment, “And then I bluffed the Stormtroopers into believing my officer disguise and ordered them to escort me through the checkpoint!” Or maybe a scenario of, “We got in by opening a portal above the enemy guards and dropping a boulder through the other end.” Such options make for memorable and enjoyable sessions.
In short, Cubicle 7 has done an amazing job with facilitation stories based on a media where the hero is clever. It supports the players by rewarding clever ideas before facilitating combat prowess. It is a unique, but highly transplantable format of play. Whether for a change of pace, an experiment in a one-shot, or just an alternate mode of play, Who can change initiative in your game.
James and I were recently delighted to play a short session for the City on a Hill actual play podcast. They run a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game, and we were adventuring in a corner well away from the main storyline. The DM, Ryan, instructed us that the only available races were Gnomes, Halflings and Warforged (sort of a cross between a golem and cyborg—a constructed being with a full personality). I’ve played my share of halflings in the past (alas, poor brain-damaged Willem Baggins), and a Warforged didn’t sound interesting to me, so I decided to try a gnome. Since gnomes are among the smallest and weakest of typical D&D races, I naturally decided he should be a Fighter—the mightiest gnome of Clan Spitlk! (That’s pronounced “Spittle Lick,” and yes, it is a Superman reference.) I present Feddernik Singsangsung Thrubmorton:
As the eldest son of the Thrubmorton family of Clan Spitlk, Feddernik stands to eventually inherit his grandfather’s responsibilities as governor of the Thrubmorton Fens. In addition to his own quite large family, Fed is on good terms with the other gnomes in and around the Fens, as well as a few tribes of other races. He strongly believes that a governor’s purpose is to protect and improve the people, not to enrich himself. He tends to be contemptuous and disrespectful of rulers who do not measure up to this ideal, which gets him in hot water when dealing with typical nobles.
Fed left the Fens in order to gain a broader experience of the world and make contacts among the people with whom he would one day need to negotiate. That plan has gone somewhat off the rails since he really doesn’t get along with the leadership of most other races. He’s gone haring off into a life of adventure instead of performing his duties (which, given his idealistic views of governance, is a bit hypocritical, but it doesn’t seem like he’s twigged to that yet).
Standing over 4 feet tall, Feddernik is massive for a gnome. If not for his slender build, he might be mistaken for a dwarf. If there were any dwarves in… Injornu? (Ryan never typed that name, and although he said it quite a few times, I am not quite sure I have it correct.)
Fed is a fashion plate. He delights in fine clothing and is typically the best dressed person in a given room, especially by gnomish standards. He keeps his beard closely trimmed to an elegant point on his chin. He’d like to grow it longer, but it’s not such a good idea to give an enemy something to grab.
Although as a rule, gnomes tend to immerse themselves in thoughtful pursuits, Feddernik’s brash personality and unusual stature have led him down a different path. He is a skilled with sword and shield, and he prefers to be heavily armored if there is any risk of battle. Even if he doesn’t style himself an intellectual, though, he is still wickedly clever and is likely to find an unconventional solution to most problems. But when it comes time to hit something with his sword, he never shirks.
He has a big personality, and when he’s fired up, he is prone to give self-aggrandizing speeches. Ideally, his enemies would throw down their weapons rather than facing a gnome of such power, but more often than not, the speech merely serves to give his comrades time to get into position and to draw the first volley of attacks to himself rather than to anyone less capable of taking a hard blow.
Feddernik Singsangsung Thrubmorton
Level 2 Rock Gnome Fighter
Max HP: 20 Hit Dice: 2d10
Armor Class: 18 (chainmail), 11 (unarmored)
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Strength: 15 / +2 Dexterity: 12 / +1 Constitution: 15 / +2
Intelligence: 15 / +2 Wisdom: 10 / +0 Charisma: 10 / +0
Strength +4 (Proficiency)
Constitution +4 (Proficiency)
Wisdom and Charisma: +0
Gnome Cunning: Gets Advantage on Int, Wis, and Cha throws against magic
Skill Proficiencies: History (Int) +4, Insight (Wis) +2, Intimidation (Cha) +2, Persuasion (Cha) +2
Artificer’s Lore: Adds his Proficiency Bonus twice on History rolls related to magic items, alchemical objects, or technological devices.
Longsword: +4 attack, 1d8+2 slashing damage
Crossbow: +3 attack, 1d8+2 piercing damage, range 80/320
Armor: Chainmail, Armor Class 16. Shield, +2 to AC.
Other Equipment of Note:
Bag of Holding, fine clothing, signet ring, scroll of pedigree
Tinker (gnome): Proficiency with Tinker’s Tools. Can spend 1 hour and 10 gp worth of materials to make small clockwork devices, such as toys and music boxes, that will function for 24 hours.
Protection Fighting Style (fighter): If he is using a shield, when a creature attacks a target other than Feddernik within 5 feet of him, he can use his Reaction to impose Disadvantage on the attack roll.
Second Wind (fighter): Can use a Bonus Action to regain 1d10 + 2 Hit Points. Feddernik must take a short rest before he can use this ability again,.
Action Surge (fighter): Feddernik can take an additional standard action on his turn. He must take a short rest before he can use this ability again.
I don’t remember where the portrait came from. Likely it was in one of the Dundjinni community collections. If whoever created it sees it and objects to my use here, please do let me know. I’d be happy to provide attribution.
Geek at Arms is back again! Mike kicks things off with his report on PAX East, and then describes the new love of his life, Betrayal: Legacy. James explains how his new game Kingdom Come: Deliverance feels like stepping into 15th century Bohemia and how much he and his wife enjoyed Captain Marvel. Next, Bryan deep dives us into his latest math interest with the Mandelbrot Set and math comedian Matt Parker. He and James also share how their latest rpg session with City on A Hill Gaming podcast went with fellow players Kyle from the Min/Max podcast and Mike from Innroads Ministries. The guys then have a discussion about all the upcoming film and TV adaptations that will hit the screens in the days to come: from the Lord of The Rings to Discworld to The Wheel of Time and many more!
Errata: Bryan said Good Omens was either already out or coming within the next week (of the recording). He was wrong. It becomes available beginning May 31. Bryan also attributed the Wheel of Time television movie to a company called Red Sky, but it was actually Red Eagle. And the Lord of the Rings TV Series may, in fact, not follow Aragorn, but be set instead in the Second Age. Bryan obviously needs a fact-checker. But to be fair, that LotR stuff is still largely conjecture!
We discussed these things:
Bryan, Mike and James return for yet another super-sized episode! Mike shares his enjoyment at reading The Fellowship of the Ring to his children for the first time and how he barely contained his Geekiness at meeting author and fencing master Ken Mondschein. Next, Bryan talks about how much he’s been enjoying the new Voltron: Legendary Defender and My Hero Academia. Both he and James express how much they’re looking forward to actually gaming in an upcoming RPG session with the City on a Hill Gaming Podcast. James keeps the gaming talk going by detailing a hopeful upcoming Monster of The Week campaign, and how happy he was at finally finishing The Last Duel and playing Biblios. Finally, we see the return of the Geek at Arms Film Club! Shifting from sci-fi to fantasy, the guys delve into the George Lucas written, Ron Howard directed 1988 epic Willow.
Special caution: During the show I recommended the series Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Although the first book, Midnight Riot, was fairly tame, book 2, Body Work, has some rather explicit naughty parts.
Discussed in this episode:
Bryan, Mike and James are back with a new episode! In Geek Out, James praises the new Lost in Space series on Netflix and then takes us through the contents of his EDC Kit. Bryan describes his enjoyment playing a session of the RPG Tales from the Loop. Mike talks about his latest Star Wars RPG session and how a trip to an air museum turned into a personal tour of a B-17 Flying Fortress! The guys then discuss the world of audio fiction. From audiobooks to podcasts, they share their first experiences with it and how they enjoy it now.
In this episode:
The first time I’d ever taken the GM seat for an RPG campaign, I kept all my campaign notes in a college-ruled notebook. On the inside cover I wrote three rules. These rules were to be my guideline for preserving the flavor of the kind of game I wanted to run. Since I had little experience as a GM, I wrote them out of my body of experience as a player. I based them on what I found fun, and I wanted to keep that perspective as I shaped adventures for my players.
Over the many years I’ve been gamemastering, I’ve added to those rules, and I’ve re-worded them, but the core of their message hasn’t changed. Recently, a friend has found himself as a first-time GM and asked what those rules were. And so, I thought it was fair to share with everyone.
1. Don’t kill player characters lightly.
To contextualize this, I was running a game that had no resurrection. There were no second chances. Combat was dangerous, and when you died your character was gone. Roll up another one. And if that’s the case, make death mean something.
PCs were never there to just get caught in a trap they couldn’t have seen coming. They’re not Red Shirts there to show how dangers worked. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t kill a player character, but it either had to serve a purpose, or they had to really have it coming.
How do you make a death mean something? Sometimes a player wants a change of pace. Maybe this character isn’t working out they way they wanted it, so rather than having their PC wander lamely into the distance, their departure would be heroic. It might have been self-sacrifice to save the party. They may have the chance to score a major victory at the cost of their lives. But one way or the other, the character could have the chance to go down in a blaze of glory.
That assumes the player wants the character to go. That isn’t always the case. That is, of course, why I said “or they really have it coming.”
If what they’re doing is a really bad idea, you really should give them some sort of warning. If there is no chance of success, they should have the chance to back down. But if they persist, let the dice roll, and what happens is what happens. If they patently ignore a dangerous situation, turn up the heat. If they still choose to pass on opportunities to change their gloomy disposition, then it’s their funeral.
2. Make their choices count.
The players are not here to just experience your narrative. This is an interactive activity where you can give the PCs some agency. Do your best to make sure that they are making choices that they understand and have real impact on how the narrative plays out.
Failing to make their choices count usually plays out in two ways. The first is by railroading players along a pre-planned path of how the narrative should go. Railroading is common enough that I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it, but suffice to say few people enjoy being forced in a narrative direction.
The second is by giving them a choice, but taking away their understanding of how their choices matter. A GM can lay out an adventure where the players can pick blindly between opening Door A or Door B. This scenario can play out a number of ways in a badly designed adventure. The GM can make the players choose whether they visit one town or another, save person X or person Y, or who to back in a conflict they just got introduced to yesterday. Whichever they choose it will irrevocably impact the way the adventure plays out. Which door they open may even set a chain reaction of events that determines the whole campaign. But these were never legitimate choices if they couldn’t foresee any of the outcomes. This doesn’t mean that a legitimate choice won’t have surprises, but they should have a chance to contemplate the potential outcomes, and choose accordingly.
To make the player’s choices matter, allow room for them to surprise you, and try to be flexible enough to follow the new path the players are taking the narrative. Perhaps they have a creative solution to a problem, and now the adventure you planned is a sandbox of potential assets and complications instead of an outlined sequence of events.
3. Their ideas are better than your ideas.
I once heard of a GM that completely shut down the players’ idea to raise a zombie army to storm a castle. The rest of the adventure was about following the GM’s breadcrumbs so they could raise a vampire army to storm same said castle.
That’s a lost opportunity.
Even though the GM’s adventure notes might have pointed to a castle, and pointed to a means to taking it, that adventure was still a failure. When the players had an idea, you find a way to say yes. Better yet, if they come to an independent idea and it is what so happened to be in your adventure notes, you let them think it was their idea. If they come up with a means to accomplish the task in the adventure notes, then you reward that.
I once had a group where I planned a set of complications and built in a solution. The castle they were trying to sneak away from was patrolled by guards flying on griffon-like mounts. Solution? Escape undetected through tunnels. In my mind, everything else in the sky was just window dressing to enhance the setting.
One of the players said, “Let’s find the rookery, and steal some mounts!” I had to build some mechanics on the fly, but what resulted was a fantastic evening of swoops, dives, falls, near misses, and someone catching another player in mid-air. Not only was it much better than a dungeon crawl, but also, anything that they can do to take ownership will be more rewarding than the loot, quest items, and XP at the end.
4. Everyone gets their time to shine.
If your group is at all put together well, they have a diverse set of strengths and weaknesses. Design your adventures so everyone has an opportunity to solve problems. This does not mean that in every single adventure everyone takes turns sharing the spotlight. If they are working cooperatively then everyone should be engaged. But every few adventures a PC should have their moment.
Maybe this is letting the gear-head repair a device that allows them to overcome an obstacle. Sometimes this is an NPC from the player’s past bringing the narrative forward. Sometimes this is just someone’s crazy idea that everyone else can get behind.
Just make sure that no one is left in the dark. Don’t just imprison someone for three-quarters of an adventure. Don’t leave them knocked out in the corner. Don’t let three hours of real-life time just pass by while a player sits at the table fidgeting with their dice. If they do something stupid and there is no choice but to capture them, let them try to escape. Let them meet a helpful NPC in a cell. If they’re out cold, at least give them a dream sequence.
5. Keep them challenged.
One mistake that I made early on was to give players all they ever wanted. At the end of every adventure they got experience, new gear, and sticker that says “YOU DID IT!” Every time. It got boring. Nothing is worse than perpetually having your cake and eating it too.
If they don’t have to work hard, then rewards don’t mean as much. If they don’t have high risks, then it isn’t as satisfying. The challenge is what makes it worthwhile.
A great example of how this works is in the TV show Firefly. The characters are almost always being chased by the Alliance, nearly out of gas, or getting one-upped by the quiet farm girl turned ship thief. On the show, even the basics are a struggle.
6. Let them have their win.
On the flip side of #5 is letting them have their reward. If the players are always struggling, then they’re going to suffer from drama fatigue. If the universe is a never-ending dumpster fire that they can never put out, they’re going to lose interest. Being on the run must be met with some period of rest. Constantly pushing should be met with having a meaningful victory. Once you have one chapter of struggles close, let them have their parade or throne-room medals. You can always set up another challenge the next session, and build to a greater level of tension in the as the next chapter unfolds.
In Episode 6, the guys Geek Out about Tudor-era warship Mary Rose, Star Trek and The Orville, and Ken Mondschein. We also express our opinions of the movies we saw over the summer and look forward to the ones coming up in the holiday season. After that, it’s a look at introducing roleplaying to new players and a not-so-fresh suggestion for public school lunches.
In this episode:
Mike rejoins the podcast, James shares the books he’s recently plowed through, the guys answer a listener question about suggested RPGs for newcomers, and they tackle the question “Is hacking a video game a sin for Christians?”
Mike wishes to to issue a correction: I had a brain glitch during recording and I claimed that the Greek word “hamartia” was a Hebrew word from the Old Testament. The translation and theology is correct, just not the source.
In this episode:
A couple of days after this episode recorded, Bioware fulfilled James’ prophecy by announcing that there would be no single-player DLC for Andromeda. Disappointment abounds, but perhaps an energetic modding community can find ways to fill in the holes.
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.