Friday, April 30, 2010


I apparently used all my smart juice in yesterday's discussion of piracy, so go check that out, it was actually pretty awesome Today I have work deadline and writing deadline breathing down my neck, so I'm shutting off the internet for the day to grind it out. The good news is if I get everything done in time, I can go to an apple store to see if all the 3g ipads are sold out already.

Wish me luck, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How to Tell A Random Story

There has been some growing awareness of the power of mechanizing setting that I've been really happy to see. One of the best examples of this is in the form of encounter tables - yes, the classic old D&D trope that was responsible of bugbears appearing in empty rooms. The problem is that the classic form of this is fairly formless - most of the classic lists tend to have everything and the kitchen sink, but the technology has improved since then. Things like the oracles from In a Wicked Age, the Playsets in Fiasco, the character creation system for Reign and half the stuff over at Abulafia are all fantastic and useful. This is good gaming technology.

One trick that's been through a lot of versions is the iterative random list (or more properly, lists). You make a roll on list #1 and based on that, roll on table #2 or #3, and based on that roll you then do something else and so on, until you've built a whole series of events. This is probably most easily recognizable at the model used for lifepath character creation from games like Traveler and Cyberpunk 2020. This is a great trick for character creation, because the same set of tables will be re-ued multiple times. Unfortunately, it's not as useful for adventure creation[1] because a single pass through the tables ends up wasting ninety-odd percent of the material. The amount of effort that goes into making iterative tables is just too much for the return.

But despite that, the method has some real appeal. There's a natural pacing to iterative rolling that lets you start at the beginning, end at the end and still have a mightily randomized middle. And, thankfully, there's a trick for getting that kind of effect with a much simpler table.

The trick is to use a table which is longer than the die you're using. If you're rolling a d6, use a table with 10 elements, for example, with the climax as #10. Roll the d6 to determine the encounter, and then cross that encounter off when it's complete, and skip over it for subsequent rolls. Thus, for example, if you roll a 5, the event at #5 gets crossed off and #6 is the new #5, and #7 is now the new #6. with each successive encounter it become more and more likely events will come to the climax, but that can't happen until there have already been several encounters.

To illustrate, you can use this sort of ablative table to model a classic dungeon without ever busting out a dungeon map.

1. The Guardhouse
2. Hobgoblin Barricade
3. The Old Brewery
4. The Black Lake
5. Old Dwarven Armory
6. The Spiderweb
7. The Abandoned Library
8. The Twisting Staircase
9. The Sleeping Minotaur
10+. Illusionist's Throne Room

So, you roll a d6 to see what the first room is, and let's say it's a 4, so we open with the black lake. We settle that out, and we scratch out the Black Lake. The list now effectively looks like:

1. The Guardhouse
2. Hobgoblin Barricade
3. The Old Brewery
4. Old Dwarven Armory
5. The Spiderweb
6. The Abandoned Library
7. The Twisting Staircase
8. The Sleeping Minotaur
9+. Illusionist's Throne Room

It's a pretty simple trick, but depending upon what kind of story or plot you want to represent, it lets you put it in a can, so to speak, without needing to bust too much hump over making a proper lot out of things. Just roll with the dice (har har) and take their direction as inspiration.

1 - Except at a very high, abstract level, as in the Dungeon Master's Design Kit, which I love.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good Things in the Wild

Enough good things happening out there that I figured I'd call a few of them out.

If you're a small press game designer who would love to have access to Adobe CS5 but stymied by the price tag, consider applying for the Terrible Grant. One small game company will get a copy of the software, free and clear. This is, not to put to fine a point on it, an awesome thing.

Dresden Files RPG
preorders have been going well. We've hit the 1000 preorder mark for Your Story and were nearly there (have maybe even cleared it) for Our World. Calling back to Fred's extensive breakdown of the costs of doing business, that's a good number to have hit.

David Hill's Maschine Zeit has been rocking the Kickstarter process. His goal was $650, and he's cleared $2000 at this point. He's already agreed to do a supplement in response to all the support, and if things clear $2500 by Friday, he'll bring all contributors in on another (as yet unnamed) product. This is a badass looking game, and if you're curious, I totally suggest getting in now, if only to get the pdf when it's $10, rather than the $15 it'll be post kickstart. Plus - cute little kid next to poster of space-horror!

Happy Birthday Robot has also rocked its Kickstart goals, so Daniel is trying to find ways to turn that success into books for schools.

Elizabeth Shoemaker has put up preorders for the revised edition of It's Complicated. If you're unfamiliar, It's Complicated was a neat little game that I would best summarize as being designed to play out large knots of complicated relationships. The mechanics are simple, but the situation generation setup, based around the physical act of drawing lines to represent connections, then using the points where those lines cross as points of play, it clever, novel and just neat. However, the initial game was definitely a little bit bare bones - lots of promise, but not necessarily a lot of direction with what to do with these clever ideas. The revised edition fleshes the game out and answers some of those questions, so I'm excited enough about it to have already bought it as book and PDF.

The Shared World Bestiary and Shared Word Writing Camp
exist to make me wish that I was younger or that my kid was older.

Joe Konrath has released his ebook, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. Konrath, if you don't know, is a successful author who has found more success releasing his older titles as ebooks and generally really testing the ebook waters. He blogs about it regularly, and is a fantastic resource for looking at where publishing may be going. it may or may not be the case that the role of the author is changing, but if it is, there's a good chance it's changing in this direction. The ebook is only 3 bucks and totally worth it.

Five Minute Marvels, encouraging you and your kid to draw a little every day, was just one of those things that made me go "Awwww".

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Children and Tasers

Penny Arcade has started a new round of "Lookouts" and WOTC has rolled out a 'kids' D&D game so kids games are kind of in the air (John Harper's working on something too and because it's John, it's probably going to rock). The bug has nibbled at me, but I also know that I really wouldn't even take a swing at it until I had time for some massive fictions consumption.

See, the problem is that most RPGs are much more fighty than kid fiction. Kid's stories, especially YA stuff, have a lot of conflict and adventure, but precious little actual fighting, and when there is fighting, it still follows very specific rules. Enemies are knocked down or tripped and taking out of the fight through their own incompetence.

This is why I use the yardstick that a system that can't handle tasers[1] can't handle young adult fiction. Fights in YA tend to be one sided and resolved by clever efforts, not direct confrontation. Boxes are dropped on things, enemies are tricked into traps, oil slicks are spread or (as is perhaps most common) enemies are evaded entirely. [2]

RPGs don't support this well. They support fights well, and you occasionally get efforts to shoehorn these things together, but it tends to work badly. To understand, take a look at actual kids material. At the extreme cartoony end you may have direct violence, but even that has specific rules - you can only hit appropriate targets (zombies, robots, stuff like that) - otherwise attacks are dodged, parried or blocked. When that doesn't happen and a hit lands, it's palpable and a non-trivial event. Consider that model versus a traditional hit point approach[3] and the disconnect becomes evident.

Other approaches are even more indirect. One reason magic works so well for YA stuff is that it often offers an array of ways to handle problems without violence, and when direct conflict is necessary, keeping it specifically within the domain of magic allows it to be dramatic and forceful, but rarely actually hurt. Similarly, it's very popular to allow for fierce conflict by proxy - cockfighting games like Pokemon allow kids to get their fight on without actually getting in a fight.

You can really go on for ages finding examples of this, but hopefully if you've been exposed to enough young adult stuff, you can see this pattern well enough. Minimize direct violence, emphasize cleverness and other virtues. Easy peasy.[4]

But that's not what RPGs tend to do well, so the prospect of a breakout RPG for kids is a rough thing to pitch, especially when the strongest ideas ('A Pokemon RPG!') are wrappers around things that are already fun on their own. If the idea does not include the unique benefits of RPGs, it's dead in the water, because kids are smart, and they'll just go do the other fun thing without the baggage.

So what DOES make a good YA RPG? That's where the plie of fiction comes in. Start grabbing books from Rowling to Nix to Alexander to anyone else you can think of and start reading them with an eye towards what problems the hero faces and how he overcomes them. You will find that the answer is very rarely "With Both Guns Blazing" but what the answer is may be a bit harder to pin down.[5]

1 - Very, very few can. Insta-helplessness is a cost effective route to killing for bad guys or easy victory for good guys, and most games put up explicit barriers to keep that from being a cheesy path to victory. Unfortunately, it's essential for YA stuff.

2 - This does not last forever, depending on the story. One coming of age element that you'll sometimes see is the point at which the young hero must fight and kill. It's never a trivial thing and it underscores the idea that you don't do it lightly. This idea has, of course, been subverted by the popularity of dark hero tropes, because killing is fun an totally ok because there are lots of people who deserve it! However, that's just lazy writing. Killing people without consequences is juvenile at best, and a number of writing habits have evolved over time to address this. Monsters, specifically unsophisticated evil monsters like zombies, allow for "killing" without complexity.

3 - Yes, it can theoretically be handled by very abstract hit points, but in practice, that theory works for crap.

4 - This is not to say that YA stuff is toothless. It's not. But if you think violence is the only way to bring it, you need to work a bit harder on that.

5 - I am not touching anime in this discussion. Just acknowledging that and moving on.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back In Brief

The week off was fantastic for my wordcount. Project's due on the 30th, and I've gone from running in circles panicked to comfortably within sight of done. it also revealed a few things about my writing and most tellingly really demonstrated that this blogging thing has been working all the right muscles. My wordcount in a sitting and in a day have both improved dramatically since my last project, so much so that it's pretty much impossible to ignore. I'm pleased enough that I'm half tempted to re-skin some old Charles Atlas ads to talk about "The BLOG that made a MAN out of Pete!"

However, the project's still out there and it's not yet the 30th, so I need to remind myself to stay brief. It's harder than it sounds, since I'm developing a mental backlog, but I'll manage. With that in mind, I'm going to answer a question that came up. A while back I stuck my head very deeply down two different holes: the new Warhammer RPG 3rd edition (here, here, here and here), and the new Dragon Age RPG boxed set (here, here and here) . I was pretty happy with both games, and had some nice things to say, but here we are a few months later: where do they stand?

The most damning thing I can say about warhammer is that I haven't even been faintly tempted to pull it out to play again. It was fun, I enjoyed it, but its footprint (which is to say, the thought of digging out all those bits and keeping them straight) is so large that it's hard for me to have any kind of casual interest. Like 4e, playing it is a production, and I don't have time for a production. Also, when I come up with an idea for a game, it's usually the idea first, followed by my mentally running down a list of games I might make fit this. WHFRP3 runs Warhammer really well, but it never makes the list for other game ideas. That's not a criticism of the game - it does what it's supposed to - and I know that with time and effort I could hack it, but the level of effort is just too high for the return.

Dragon Age, on the other hand, is both more prominent in my thoughts and more frustrating. I liked the core system and it's retty lightweight. That means its not onerous for me to turn to, and it's easily tweaked to support other game ideas. At least in theory. My frustration comes from the fact that it's only 25% of a game, and I don't know how long I must wait for the next 25%. I do know that if I were actually running it, I'd have bumped up against the level 5 cap a long time ago. So when I think of a game, it's often one of my first thoughts for what I might like to try to use, but then I realize I jsut don't have enough meat to manage it.

That said, I absolute _could_ hack Dragon Age. It's got some system elements that absolute beg for it. But I choose not to because Green Ronin are some pretty smart guys, and I don't doubt that whatever they have planned for subsequent boxes will be fantastic. I don't want to spoil my own experience of that by takign off in a different direction and deciding they're doing it "wrong." I want ot give them a chance to show me what they'll do with it before I start really takign it weird places. Also, it's not an open system, and while that's no problem at my own table, it takes some of the joy out of redesign. That's not a problem with the game so much as a problem with me.

Anyway, that's where they stand - excited promise and a muddled now. WHFRP3 is probably unlikely to change status, which is a shame since it really is lovely and novel. But I'm optimistic that at some poitn down the line I'll have something different to say abotu Dragon Age.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Schedule is tighter than I anticipated, and rather than try to kill myself, I'm going to take a week off from the blog so I can continue my writing sprint.

So I'll be off from today (4/19) through the rest of the week, hopefully returning Monday, April 26th.

Everyone have a good week, and wish me luck.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Good Ideas From Bad Places

Even twinks can teach us something, if we know where to look.

So Merlin, the protagonist of Zelazny's second Amber series, and for people who play the DRPG, he is basically the template for a twink. In a setting where most of the characters are either from Amber (with the powers that come with that) or Chaos (with a different set of powers), he's a half-breed with powers from both.

He's hardly alone in this distinction. Mediocre fiction is awash in half-breeds with the best attributes of each side who are, despite their profound badass-ness unprecedentedly rare.

When I see a character like this in a game, my first instinct is to roll my eyes.[1] This is usually a gimmick to try to justify more than average powers or combinations than the rules might normally allow, and that's a big red flag. That may sound cynical, but it's not an unreasonable assumption. However, it does reveal something interesting that might be usable in almost any other game.

See, the truth is that there's a lot of mojo in hybrids. Interesting things don't happen in the middle of things: they happen at the edges and crossroads, and that's equally true of characters. Interesting characters in fiction and play are usually exceptions in some way, and hybrids are a good way to handle that.

First, it's conceptually powerful. White Wolf has pretty decisively demonstrated the power of combining two templates to make a character, and a hybrid character model can tap into that same appeal. The trick is that in White Wolf (or D&D, in the case of Race/Class) is that the combination is the NORM. Every character out there is something from column A and something from column B. There's nothing exceptional about any particular column.

With that in mind, there's something to be said for designing a setting where the combinations are possible, but not the norm. Create the factions and groups and declare that for the most part, they do not overlap, then quietly allow (perhaps even encourage) players to pick more than one. Everyone else may be a musketeer, and that makes it all the more fun when one player used to be a priest (or noble).

Anyway, my point is that while this is a pretty bad habit when used to exploit the system, it also reveals something that can be used to make a game more fun for everyone else.

1 - When I see that a character like this is an NPC, I am tempted to throw the book across the room. A setting has only so many "slots" for interesting exceptions before they start blurring the lines and making such exceptions meaningless. Those slots are for PCs, plain and simple, and every time a supplement author gives one to an NPC, a kitten dies.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Makes a Game Hard?

I believe that playing an RPG should be hard[1]. Not in a bad, punitive way, but in the way that many things which are rewarding in life are hard (sport, performance, many other games). But when you start, you should be uncertain regarding where you're going to end up, and even a little worried about some of the possibilities.

Right up front I'll acknowledge that this perspective is not universally held. There are numerous reasonable alternatives to this, including enjoyment of the voyage of discovery, a primarily social focus, or just a desire to blow of steam. With that in mind I want to be clear that I'm not presenting this as how things should be done, only as something I (and, I think, a non-trivial number of others) want in games and how i think it can be accomplished. If you reject the premise, no harm, no foul.

Now, classically RPGs have introduced challenge by making the game more difficult. This has clear roots in the wargaming table, and it makes things challenging for the character (through bigger monsters, more damage and such) as well as for the player (with puzzles and traps that depend on player cleverness or knowledge to resolve). This is a tricky balancing act; if the ratio of player vs. character challenge skews too far one way or another then it can turn into a mess.

For a lot of players, this is their sweet spot, and there's a lot of literature and lore dedicated to hitting it just right. From my perspective, a great deal of the old school Renaissance is targeted at hitting this window, and much of the reason they reject subsequent visions of D&D is because they go too far off the point of balance (usually towards more character challenge).[2]

For some players, however, this all gets a little too meta. To properly pull off this kind of balance often requires keeping the "game" part of play very close to the surface, whether it's in the form of common resurrection or riddles based on 1970's tv shows. Perhaps even more, this is a player-centric model, and it works less well when you want to put the character in a more pre-eminent position.[3]

That thinking presented difficulties as new structures of games started showing up, most notably Vampire. The problem was that the dungeon was a finely tuned machine of challenge, and stepping away from it left GMs at a loss. Some games addressed this by simply re-skinning the dungeon into spaceships, haunted houses, corporate offices or what have you. Some added on a layer of abstraction to try to structure non-dungeon events like a dungeon (usually by imposing unreasonable restrictions, and creating the basic model for "railroaded" adventures).

But all those tricks could only go so far, so a new method of introducing challenge came along: Obscurity.

It turns out that if you give players free reign but keep them on a very restricted diet of useful information, they tend to freeze up, or at least limit their action to the known range of options. By turning the valve on secrets, you could keep things hard, dole out rewards, and generally make your players dance like rats in a cage.

Obviously, I'm not terribly fond of this model, but I concede it had some strengths. The one thing that was required for this approach to have any teeth was, paradoxically, a very richly defined world that the players could invest in. The element of mystery left hazy spots to be filled in by the imagination in ways that were far more compelling than the reality of the game could ever be. By giving a high level vision for players to sink their teeth into, the GM could engage in the worst kind of sleight of hand at the table without raising too many hackles because, hey, awesome background and total freedom, right?

Another interesting choice for challenge has been to challenge the creativity of players by granting them a great deal more authorial control and by offloading traditional GM responsibilities. This is an interesting solution because the bad outcome is rarely something that happens in game so much as the game (or story, depending on perspective) falling flat. This is an interesting idea, and it's easy to take in directions far afield from normal gaming, but it's definitely a specialty track.[4]

My favorite method for making a game hard is to make it compelling. That is, create a game with strong enough player investment that in-game consequences matter to the player enough that when the player makes empowered choices[5] in play, they have meaning. This is an interesting thing to contras to traditional difficulty because this model works even if players NEVER FAIL. Success and failure have their place in the picture, but the game is made hard by making the choices hard.

Now, for all that I distinguish between these approaches, and as much as they can seem like armed camps, the important thing to remember is that none of these are mutually exclusive. A good game may lean towards one pole or another, or even stick primarily with one, but it is a rare game that could not benefit from occasionally dipping into the other sources of challenge to mix things up.

1 - Perhaps more accurately, 'challenging.'
2 - The point, after all, is to engage the player. The character is merely an agent to that end.
3 - The ill-informed tend to categorize this as "Roleplay vs. Roll-Play" (usually followed by a passable yokel laugh) but it's much more nuanced than that. Both camps savor roleplay, but it's position of preeminence (compared to other elements of play and fun) is subject to re-arrangement within the hierarchy.
4 - The real irony, to my mind, is that the emphasis on player challenge puts this approach very much in tune with the OSR's goals, while the methods are so much at odds I constantly expect dance-fights to erupt between the groups.
5 - That is, choices that matter to the game, as opposed to choices that only seem to matter to the game.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to Pay Writers When You're Broke

So, the inestimable Chuck Wendig managed to get a lot of panties in a bunch by suggesting that writers should get paid. Most of the responses were from people who were still entranced by the novelty of the power of free, and they made predictable arguments about promotion, brand building, making connections and so on. Sadly, very few of them read what Chuck actually wrote, which more or less boiled down to "your writing has value, treat it as such." I'm pretty comfortable with that position.

More impressively, the folks who Chuck raised the point to took it seriously, and are now considering ways to try to create a model that acknowledges the value of the writers. I'm not going to weigh in over there, partly because I'm not a writer, but more because my answer is TOTALLY CRAZY.

So, of course, I will share it here.

Ok, so say you want to publish a collection of writing. A magazine or small book. First, sit down and do the absolute basic business plan of "It will be X pages and cost me Y dollars to print and distribute Z units". Do it through Lulu or Amazon's service or some other POD shop.[1] You will need that much seed money, hopefully not to much. Scrape it up.[2]

Put out a call to writers and supporters through whatever channels you see fit and start getting things together, and as you do, be absolutely transparent about your anticipated costs and business plan. Put out a call for patrons and allow them to buy shares in the project for a fixed cost (how much? See below). At some point after the book has been released for, say, 4 months, you will buy back all shares at a price equal to the amount of money on hand after costs (which you have transparently revealed) are covered.[3] Pretty simple, and I expect anyone who invests in this fashion knows they'll lose some money, but they probably won't be doing it as an alternative to bonds.

Now, sit down and figure out a few things, notably how much writing you expect to get, and how much you would pay for it in a perfect world. You can be a little approximate onhe payment - if you want to price it per word, great, but if you just ballpark it to $x for flash fiction or poems, $y for stories, that's fine.[4]

With this information, it's time to price your shares. $x is an excellent starting point, but every project needs to decide for itself. A highish share price probably means fewer, more committed supporters. A low price means more shares but also more voices. If you're going to run things with shareholder input (you don't have to, but I'd suggest it) then the ultimate number of shareholder is an issue, and for reasons of bookeeping, fewer shareholders will probably make your life a little easier. Once you have the price, let the world know (and as I keep underscoring, do so as transparently as possible). Maybe you get some sales, maybe you don't.

See, the trick here is that once you've got a price, you pay the writers in shares in keeping with their contribution. No, it's not cash, and in the end the shares may not be worth a lot, but there is always a possibility of success (which is nice). More importantly you are acknowledging the *value* of the writing as concretely as you are cash contributions. The writer's shares will absolutely dilute the value of the purhased shares, and if the project makes very little money, everyone sees very little return, but so long as costs are covered, it's no worse than it you'd just done it as a lump in the first place.

Initially, this may seem like a lot of bookeeping, but it's really something that requires little more than a spreadsheet and a shared understanding that paypal (or whatever service you use) is going to take a small bite out of every transaction. The important thing is to pay everything out. There will be a temptation to allow people to roll investments forward into the next project, but that is how things explode in complexity. Keep it simple unless you're committed to getting all businessey about it. The simple solution is best.

Now, this leaves all manner of questions on the table regarding how to manage the project, and those are better answered by the individual. Personally, I think there's a lot to be said for opening up decisions to discussion by shareholders - people have a much different perspective on issues like paper vs. e-pub or how much to spend on a cover artist when they have money on the table. Since these shareholders will, naturally, be people of great intellect and discriminating taste, they probably have something worthwhile to say as well.[5]

Ultimately, this model may or may not work for any given project, but I want to float it out there specifically to broach the idea of allowing writers to 'buy in' with their writing. Obviously, it's a different model than paying them outright - but if you're not in a position to pay straight cash and you want to do something a little more concrete than straight profit sharing (which, I fully concede, this ends up looking like) then give an approach like this some thought.[6]

1- This does not demand that they will be your final printer, you're just establishing a baseline.
2 - If you CAN'T cover this minimal cost then doing a collection of other people's work may not be the best plan to pursue. Yes, you can gather contributions, kickstart or the like, but doing so depends that you have an actual product, which in turn depends on other people. If you can make it work, great, but it's going to be a juggling act.
3 - If you're really committed, use your seed money to buy shares. If you're conservative, treat your seed money as a debt to be paid back. Either approach works, but just don't be secretive about which it is.
4 - Life will be a lot easier if Y is divisible by X, for reasons that will be apparent.
5 - Encouraging participation also underscores the idea of ownership that comes of a share based model, which in turn underscores the value of the author's contributions.
6 - Chuck asked me a pretty reasonable question: "How is this better than the normal model of simply paying the writers up front?" My answer is this: Paying writers what they're worth up front can be more expensive than might be reasonable for a small project. That means the alternatives are often to pay them less than they're worth, or nothing at all. "Less than they're worth" is usually the necessary compromise, but this approach at least allows for the possibility that the writers might get their fair share.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who Can Resist Lists?

Someone was talking about people's lists of top ten worst RPGs. That prospect didn't appeal to me, but I admit that I have a fondness for lists, so I thought I'd take the idea and turn it into something a little more productive. Thus, I present the top ten most educational RPGs (in a bad way).

10 Most Educational RPGs (In a bad way)

1. Secrets of Zir'an
This was a pretty awesome game. A pretty solid, non d20 system with some genuinely clever mechanics. It had a setting that was full of airships and final fantasy elements and other fun things. But an interesting printing idea which should have put subtle silver decoration behind the text ended up being printed so strongly as to render large portions of the text unreadable.
The Lesson: A printer's proof is the best investment you can make in publishing your game.

2. Everway
Everway was a brilliant game, but it was best described as requiring that you "pack Jonathan Tweet in each box." Produced by Wizards of the Coast, it was very much NOT D&D. A fantasy game with minimal setting and a notable absence of European influence, it was full of interesting hippie ideas like diceless resolution, inspirational cards. It was fantastic and critically acclaimed, but it was just a bit too "out there" for the target audience.
The Lesson: All the production value and distribution in the world won't help if you go too far afield from your audience's expectations.

3. Aria
Aria is a game full of interesting ideas about building cultures and generational play. Even outside of the broad strokes, there were clever little tricks to it, like the idea of "normal" stats as the ones that the character has not bought. However, it was written in a painfully academic style, and it completely reinvented the entire terminology of gaming in an intensely overwrought fashion (it wasn't a game, it was the Canticle of the Monomyth). The use of jargon is so thick and painful that it's almost unreadable.
The Lesson: Try not to reinvent all the wheels at once.

4. Amber DRPG
I love the Amber DRPG, and the lessons it teaches are subtle, especially because they are often taught by showing you the wrong thing so profoundly that the correction is goes in useful directions. Most notably, the game is a giant manual on how to gracefully and elegantly screw your players over as hard as possible for fun. This is, in fact, incredibly useful to know how to do, but the adversarial posture it promotes with it is outright mean spirited.
The Lesson: The lessons you teach go deeper than the rules of the game.

5. Nobilis 1e
Nobilis was brilliant but, to put is simply, utterly incomprehensible. If you've read second edition, and thought it was kind of trippy, I promise you it had nothing on the first edition.
The Lesson: The changes from first to second edition (besides layout) are almost all a result of a profound editing job. Bruce Baugh deserves a medal for the editing job he did in producing second edition. It is probably the clearest example of the value of a good editor.

6. Hunter: The Reckoning
Hunter was a nicely subdued game of fairly underpowered good guys trying to hold the line against the much bigger, scarier World of Darkness, or at least that's what it was if you read the books. If you looked at the art, it was a game of huge guns, explosions, tattoos and boobs. This discrepancy was a little jarring, to say the least.
The Lesson: Art direction is really that important.

7. Gamma World 6th
Ignore the naysayers. This was a genuinely awesome, brilliant post-apocalyptic game that would have been broadly recognized as such if it had been called something other than Gamma World. To fans, GW is a game of metal bending rabbits, double brains and general wahoo weirdness. GW6 was a serious, thoughtful, often quite disturbing study of post-apocalyptic play, but that's not what people wanted.
The Lesson: If existing expectations of what something should look like are passionately held, defying those expectations is risky at best, no matter how good the product.

8. Deleria (Not Delerium - I should have checked my bookshelf)
This was the right game at the right time. It came out just as Urban Fantasy was starting to experience a big resurgence. It promised something that felt like the World of Darkness, only through a lens of light, color, music and beauty. It had fantastic art, neat ideas, and it's utterly unreadable (Edit: To be fair: Much of the fiction is just fine - it's the rules that totally tripped me). It is really clear that it makes sense to the writer, but that personal understanding did not translate into something broadly approachable.
The Lesson: Write for yourself first, but don't let your passion interfere with clarity.

9. Marvel Super Heroes
This is the recent one, which used stones as its diceless resolution mechanism. It did decently well, was kind of fun and playable, and all in all was a good game, and it died on the vine because it's sales - while just fine for an RPG - were piss poor for a comic book (the yardstick its publishers were using).
The Lesson: RPG success is not that big in the grand scheme of things.

10. Most Licensed Games
Too many possible targets to pick only one, (and I have ulterior motives in being a little diplomatic on this) so I'll just cut right to the lesson.
The Lesson: A generic game is almost always the wrong choice for a licensed product. The same licence that attracts and excites players creates an expectation for the game. The game needs to reflect the things that make the license exciting.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Weapons and 4E

Going to be nose to the grindstone this month, so odds are good that April is going to be full of fairly sparse posts. I'm still committed to writing every weekday, but my available time is going to finally force me to the kind of brevity I've been trying (and failing) to deliver.

So, today here's a small trick for 4e. By now, everyone knows that you can get a huge amount of mileage out of the existing material by reskinning monsters.[1] Similarly, it's not terribly hard to reskin races, powers or many other elements of the game. Because the mechanics are the bedrock of the game, you can make any change you want to the game provided you keep the mechanics unchanged.

So with that in mind, let me propose one fairly drastic reskinning: weapons.

Obviously, it's pretty easy to just invent new weapons that use the stats of existing weapons, but which look and feel different. I'm thinking of something a bit more profound: you can replace weapons entirely with weapon styles.

The idea of weapon styles is pretty simple: you describe them in terms of their color - dirty fighting, martial arts, schools of combat or anything else that seems appropriate. When you do, pick a particular weapon, and use those stats to represent the style. Whatever weapon they use, they'll use the stats of their base weapon.

For Example: The Pirate Style is based off the Rapier (D8/+3, Light Blade) and covers the range of pirate weapons: cutlasses, knives, hooks and belaying pins. Any time the character who is proficient in this style uses one of those weapons, it uses the stats of a rapier.

There are as many potential styles as there are weapons, and a character can use any style that uses the stats of a weapon he's proficient in.[2]

One of the real virtues of a system like this is that it allows a lot of diversity in a game where there is more uniformity of weapons (think Samurai, Roman or Martial Arts stuff) because it still allows a wide range of fighting. Plus, in terms of sheer fun, you get players able to pick the weapon they think looks most cool for their character (or best suits their mini) without stressing about the right weapon being one they don't like.[3] To my mind it also does a nice job of underscoring that it's the warrior that's dangerous, not the weapon.

Handling Special Cases
Dual Weapons - So you have a style in each hand. So long as that style is valid in the off hand, so be it.
Rogues & Daggers (and feats) - If a bonus applies to a weapon, it applies to the style based on the weapon.[4]
Magic Weapons - Given that magic weapon abilities are just layered on top of the weapon stats, there should be no real problems with that.[5]
Changing Styles - An interesting question: Can the character change styles midfight? I would totally say "yes" and just make the action equivalent to drawing a new weapon.
Kung Fu - Yes, you could do this to make an entirely martial arts game. Yes, that would be awesome. Yes that would also kind of undercut the monk. In my mind, that is too bad for the monk.

1- For the unfamiliar, this means using the stats of a monster but changing its description entirely to suit your needs. You need creepy shadow cultists? Use the Displacer Beast's abilities, and just describe the attacks as bolts of shadow or something similar. If you're not doing this, you'll be amazed to see how much easier it makes the GM's life.

2 - This means that characters can swap pretty freely among simple and martial weapons, and most of the interesting stuff is in the domain of Exotic Weapon Proficiencies

3 - That, by the way, reveals the really simple way to do this. When a character grabs a weapon, he picks its stats from anything of the same category. You want your dwarf to have an axe but with longsword stats? Done. You pick up an exotic weapon proficiency for your staff fighter and make staff stats match Bastard Sword stats? Done.

4 - Yes, this means dwarves and elves and other folks with those cool racial weapons get a little more flexibility, but honestly, they're already pretty twinky.

5 - A more ambitious model might be to tie the magic to the style (which is to say, to tie it to the character, so that the character learns "+2 Flaming" and anything he picks up bursts into flame and gets a +2 bonus. Instead of finding new weapons, he finds the runes to let him learn new "magical styles") but that's the tip of a MUCH bigger iceberg.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Because I am a living cliche, I'm writing this from a Starbucks. No wifi but I'll do a little dance to get this onto my phone and then onto the blog. It's cumbersome, but I can live with it. I'm lucky to have a Starbucks close enough to my mechanic's that I have a place to wait until my car is ready. Anyway that's neither here nor there.

I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender the other day, and how it plays into my unified theory of skill levels. See, as much as we in RPGs like to have very finely graded levels of distinction between levels of ability, fiction tends to work in a slightly different way. Look at almost any movie or TV show and you'll see that competence (usually expressed in terms of kung fu or other fighting skills) breaks down into broad tiers. (I've touched on this thought before, but it's one I keep coming back to, for good reason.)

At the top is the Supreme Badass. Not every story has one of these, and if it does, they are more likely to be a plot device than anything else. This is reserved for Old Masters and Immortal Generals and the like - they simply are so good that they can't lose a fair fight (that's an important distinction BTW). If this character is a protagonist, then the story is NOT about them fighting, though it may appear to be.

Next down is the Badass. Practically speaking, he can win every fight he's in (within the reasonable bounds of genre) and fighting is his thing. Even if everyone else can fight, this guy stands out as THE warrior. It is rare that there be more than two of these in any story (one pro and one anti).

Next down are the Ass Kickers. These folks are not quite up to the badasses level but they can see it from here. There aren't a lot of these, but there are enough that they're recognizable. In term sof iconography, they are usually recognizable by their distinctive look. Even if they are members of a group, their uniform will usually be distinctive in some way.

Below that are the Warriors[1]. They're trained , and they're better than the average mook, but they're not scary. In fiction, these guys generally represent special forces, and are often found in groups in similar (but distinctive) uniforms, such as musketeers, royal guards, templars and so on.

Below them are the Soldiers. These are rank and file fighting guys of entirely adequate skill. They tend to be faceless combatants[2].

Below them are Civilians, who might make a good mob or even be dangerous under a skilled leader, but aren't too dangerous.

Least of all are the Incompetents, those who are actively BAD in a fight. Cowards and comic relief tend to fall into this category.

Now, what's interesting is that this tiering resolves a lot of conflicts by itself: for the most part the guy in the next tier up is going to win the fight handily. Circumstances (injury, inspiration and so on) might temporarily shift tiers, but only so much. If someone is a tier above you, then you might be able to fight them fairly on the best day of your life, but you couldn't guarantee a victory unless it was, perhaps, also the worst day of their life.

RPG-heads can probably see the mechanic there. It may be possible to increase your tier by one step, but that would be the limit. However, it can almost certainly be decreased by multiple steps by appropriate circumstances (like injury).

Given that framework, the interesting fights are the ones that take place within a tier (and sometimes between characters within a tier of each other). Why is that important? Well, consider this: historically, RPGs are built around the idea of a fair fight (as established by D&D). Numerous rules (sweeping, mooks and so on) have been introduced over the years to try to make these fights work more like they do in fiction, but a disconnect has remained: most fights in fiction are pretty fast, with a handful of exceptions when dramatically appropriate. A model like this gives good guidelines for which fights can be simply breezed past, and which should be zoomed in on.[3]

More broadly this model can be applied to answer one of th emost important questions of running a game: when shouldn't you roll? In most other situations, like the use of skills we have some familiarity with, we can usually eyeball the situation and determine that we don't need to go to dice. Combat and other circumstances we cannot identify with so easily tend to default to the dice, and that's not always the right choice. A simple rubric like this can really help address this.

This will absolutely not work for every game. 4E, for example, should ALWAYS go to the dice for a fight because that's why you're playing 4E in the first place: the fights are awesome. 4E also assumes everyone is roughly equal in terms of badassness, just with different roles. A game like this assumes discrepancies between characters.

Those discrepancies also point to the other things a system like this requires. If it's all on a single axis, this model kind of sucks. It requires multiple axes and different ways for characters to excel. This can be a simple as the Amber DRPG's four stats or as nuanced as any skill system you can think of.[4]

What's frustrating is that many games fit this model descriptively, but mechanically fall short. While there aren't a lot of steps to this ladder, they are very far apart in terms of effect - much further apart than a small number of dice might suggest. [5]

Oy, ok, car's almost ready. This is obviously, only one edge of a larger thought, but I wanted to lay it out there so I have some context for future noodling

1 - Sometimes there is an "Elite Warriors" tier over this one if the fiction is especially fighty, or if you have multiple elite groups that need distinction, like musketeers vs. cardinal's guards.

2- Occasionally fiction respects the power of numbers to overcome a skill difference, but in more action-oriented genres, raw numbers rarely matter. Mechanically that means one of two things: in a "realistic" genre, superior numbers result in a tier bump. In more cinematic genres, the group produces a leader (or similar figure, like "The Big Guy") who fights at the next tier up. The net result is the same, but the difference in color is important.

3 - Another genre decision is whether you only do fights at the same tier, or if you do fights in adjacent tiers as well. There's a philosophical question to this as well as a mechanical one - what does fighting an underdog look like? For heroes fighting an underdog is usually a sure thing but may cost time or resources, but it might feel pointless. But when heroes _are_ the underdog, they totally want a shot at the guy. How you want to handle that suggests a lot about your game.

4 - In fact, this system is a great litmus test for any skill system. If you can't imagine these kinds of tiers within a skill, reconsider whether that skill should be on the list or if perhaps it should be rolled into another skill where you can imagine it.

5 - Fudge actually handles this decently well, but Fate less so. Aspects wreak holy havoc with this model, at least as presented in SOTC. But that's not the only way to handle aspects.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Useful Stuff for DFRPG

So, I want to thank everyone for the kind comments yesterday, and I want to underscore that as much as the piracy thing bothered me, it's a very small thing in the grand scheme. Dresden looks great and is rolling out on time, I'm writing for another game I'm in love with, and I love in a day and age where I can turn my love of these games into something. All in all, I'm WAY ahead on points.

So with that in mind, let me turn the light on a few positive and interesting things about the DFRPG on the off chance they've escaped notice.

First, if you have not read Fred's post on Sausage and the DFRPG, it's absolutely worth a look if you have any interest at all in the business side of RPGs. He drills down into our costs, sales and all sorts of other very concrete and very specific information. While it's an incidental benefit that this also makes our pricing transparent, the reason for putting this out there is simpler than that. Fred has taken steps at every turn to keep our numbers transparent, posting quarterly sales numbers and delving into pricing with details whenever possible. Why? Because this information is a pain in the ass to get. The hobby has no real commercial trade publications or standards, so the only concrete information you're going to get is what people release. When we started out, we could find barely any data to go on, and that was incredibly frustrating. We made a number of mistakes as we stumbled in the dark, and while none of them were fatal, they could have been easily avoided with a little more information. So we do what we do in order to help the next guy, and thankfully, more and more small press folks have been more and more transparent over the past few years. It's a good thing.

Second, if the $90 price tag for both DFRPG books is too much to stomach, consider getting just one. We handled the divide pretty clearly so that if you're just interested in the next iteration of Fate, then you can buy the "Your Story" book and be satisfied.[1] If you're purely in it for the Dresden side of things, "Our World" can scratch that itch - it's like a fan guide with stats. Yes, you'll miss out on free shipping, but you can avoid that by preordering through your local store.

And that's the third thing: The local stores. We love game stores. Love love love them. But we do a lot of business on the internet, and that can create problems. For example, when we offer a free PDF with the purchase of one of our games online, that's easy to do because the infrastructure's in place. But that's kind of harsh on the store owner, who only has the print product to sell - at the same price, his product is worth less because it doesn't come with the free bonus.

But as I said, we love game stores, so we offer the Evil Hat free PDF Guarantee. If you buy a copy of one of our game in a brick and mortar store, then have the store mail us (or otherwise provide proof of purchase) and we'll send you a PDF. Simple as that. Unfortunately, this is a pretty manual process - we have to get the emails, check them out, then set up the freebie on a case by case basis. That's ok for the volume of our current product, but for the Dresden pre-order it's untenable. It would require store owners to mail us every time someone preordered (which is inconvenient for them) and require us to set up distribution (which is inconvenient in many ways), so Fred hit upon a brilliantly crude (in the William Gibson sense) solution: we make the pdf available to store owners and let them burn CDs for folks who preorder. Simple as that. It wouldn't have worked even a few years ago, but CD burning is so trivial these days that this works out ok. Net result, people get games, game stores get business, everyone wins.

But if the books are still too much, then heres #4: rest assured the PDFs will be available for purchase, once the book goes on sale (late June: Origins is the target launch). I have no idea how much they'll cost, but we're not big fans of egregiously overcharging for PDFs, so rest assured the price will be reasonable.

And if that's still to much, then consider #5: it's still open content. Admittedly, it's muddled in the books because we can't (and wouldn't) open up Jim's content, so we can't just put up the text as an SRD as we did for Spirit of the Century, but the rules are under the OGL from day one, and will eventually be in an easier to absorb format (maybe an SRD, maybe in FATE 3 - hard to say right now). That is, I admit, a priority that is going to wait until the book is actually out the door.

So, I hope at least some of that was useful or informative. Me, I'm chomping at the bit to get my hands on a physical copy of the books. Or at least an ipad to read the PDF.

1 - With the one caveat that the "our world" has a ton of sample monster powers, so you'd miss out on those.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

The internet is a pretty crappy place.

It's not really any kind of surprise that the internet is drenched in negativity, bile and hatred, but sometimes you get fresh reminders of it. This has been one of those weeks, and I blame the ipad. Something like that just naturally generates a storm of nerdfury, and once that storm starts, it drags down the level of discourse pretty much everywhere. Thinking about it like it's weather is comforting, but it ends up creating a comfortable illusion that these individual acts of jackassery aren't actually personal, and the problem is that they are.

The Dresden Files RPG has show up on the pirate sites. In and of itself this is no shock - Fred will send of takedown requests as is appropriate and responsible, but it's fighting the tide. This doesn't upset me much - it's a simple reality of the modern age - but what does get me is this: at this point we've only gotten a few hundred DFRPG pre-orders. That's not a lot, in the grand scheme of things. It means we're still at a point where everyone who has bought the DFRPG has a name and a face. I like this stage, because it feels like we're really making a connection to people, and that's why it's genuinely painful to think that one of these people, these names and faces who I would like nothing more to meet and talk about this game with, is the person who decided to do this to us.

It's a kick in the face.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg, though. There have been some ugly threads on Story Games and that I've no desire to draw attention to directly, and while that's par for the course, the volume is a bit higher than usual. Take it all together, and it's the sort of week that can make you wan tto give up on the internet entirely.

Yet despite all this, I am filled with genuine good cheer. It is possible that I have finally absorbed so much negativity from the internet that I've pulled a Mithradites, and am no longer vulnerable to its poisons, but I doubt I'm quite that lucky. Rather, I think I've trained myself to follow a few rules when dealing with crapstorms that the Internet provides us.

Find the Good (AKA Filter favorably)
- In even the crappiest of situations, there is usually some useful insight to be gleaned, even if it is only to help clarify what upsets assholes enough to get them to rant. One of the recent threads had the truly poisonous topic of why people aren't interested in the DFRPG[1] but for all that there was a lot of good to be gotten out of it. So long as you are confident about your product (especially if you can back up that confidence with sales) It's awesome to have people so upset about your product that they want to talk about it. It's like manure for flowers - it might stink, but it helps with growth. But even beyond that, any and all feedback is useful, especially if you can separate the axe grinding from the real concerns[2]. It's discussion like this that can reveal where misperceptions spring up, and allow you to address them. Once you start looking for the positive, you start realizing that there are good things out there, even in the crappiest of internet-storms.

If it Hurts, Don't do it (AKA Just close the window) - This one shouldn't be hard, but it is. If a forum makes you consistently unhappy, don't go there. If a blogger raises your blood pressure, don't read him. I understand the completest urge to stay on top of everything, but you need to realize that not only is it impossible, you're prioritizing things that harm you over other things in your life. Make the decision. Cut the cord. In large part, that's what drove me to blogging - as much as I like what is good in RPG forums, the bad is just too unpleasant for me. I get angry and frustrated, and I needed to step away from that onto another platform that let me talk about games without starting to hate them.

This especially goes for twitter. Seriously. One of it's benefits is that you can skip reading it any time you like.

Be Accountable (AKA Anonymity is Poisonous)
- I dig handles, and I'm not saying you shouldn't have one, but it shouldn't be a mask. Having a discussion with an anonymous person is like talking with someone who is waving around a loaded gun - maybe they'll never pull the trigger, but who knows. If your words are so important that you have to share them with the entire internet (especially in a venue that is theoretically dedicated to discussion) then think hard about why you're uncomfortable standing behind them. [3]

If you have genuine privacy concerns, then at least try to be consistent in presenting your online identity. It's not a perfect fix. You're still going to come across badly. Anonymity on the web has become too much of a weapon, and the fact that that paints those who have no ill intent with the same brush is terribly unfair, but is simply true. Sorry.

EDIT: So, some discussion in comments has led to me refining my position somewhat, so here's the new and improved version:

"Anonymity has a price as well as benefits. Acknowledge that, and don't use anonymity as a tool to be a dick. Consider the reasons you stay anonymous thoughtfully, and try to separate genuine need from reflexive introversion. There are real benefits (and prices) to transparency as well."

Listen, Think then Speak (AKA You don't need to be right) - Again, this should be simple, but it's not. We have keyboards and by god we're going to use them because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. It's kind of you to step up as the avenging angel for grammar or whatnot, but take a moment before you hit send to think about why you're doing this. First, what are you responding to? I mean, what are you REALLY responding to, not just what do you think you're responding to. Did that guy really just insult your mother, or is it possible you misunderstood? Is the discussion about eggs but you REALLY want to talk about bacon? Make sure you're having the conversation you think you're having. If you're not, but you want to, why not start that conversation somewhere else?

Next, consider why you're writing. Are you trying to prove yourself right to the internet? Are you trying to score points? Are you emotionally worked up and lashing out?

Stop and answer that, as honestly as you can. If you're writing for a reason you can be proud of[4] then carry on. Otherwise, maybe you should take 5 first.

Be Useful (AKA No, really, be useful) - You can be useful to yourself or useful to others, but whatever you're doing, try to make the internet a better place for the footprint you leave. This may mean being more careful about where you leave what kind of footprint, but it's just not that hard.

The internet is a pretty crappy place, but we can make it better.

1 - I don't use poisonous lightly. I don't mind an outright hatred thread (which, luckily, it became) but a thread promoting indifference is toxic to anything. This all comes back to the difference between great and mediocre things. If something is great, people are passionate about it, and that means that hatred is as important to your success as love. If nobody cares, that's a much worse sign for your product.
EDIT TO CLARIFY: The thread itself was actually fine - it's the IDEA of it that bothers me. Discussing why you dislike something is understandable to me, but discussing why you're disinterested in something is...self-contradictory? Genuine disinterest would seem to make it unlikely to bother with a thread, so the presence of such a thread suggests a different motive.

2 - This is surprisingly easy; if the tone of the argument is about how THEY would do it, they're probably axe grinding.

3- Do you know how these networks of gamers and game designers end up forming and excluding you? They do it by identifying themselves so they can actually
talk to one another. Sounds crazy, I know, but you'd be amazed how effective it is.

4 - No, just being right is a reason to *embarrassed* about.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I don't have an Ipad, yet

I got my wife an ipad for her birthday. It is a rare thing in our household that she gets gadgets before I do, so it seemed like a good idea, and I figured that at the very least I could see her use it and decide if I wanted one of my own or if I would, instead, use the money to replace my old netbook. It took about a day to convince me that I wanted one for myself, and a few days more before I decided I *needed* one for myself.

I have only gotten to use the ipad a little. The temptation to rush in and install everything under the auspices of "helping" my wife is strong, but doing so would sort of ruin the whole point of the gift, so I have been restrained (as much as it pains me). That restraint has allowed me to watch my wife use hers, which has given me some interesting insights on it.

My wife is a very technically savvy woman, but her expertise is outside of the field of gadgets. If she must have a widget, she errs on the side of the very utilitarian. She has her phone (which is as simple as it can be and still do what she needs) and her work laptop and with that, she's done. Or at least that had been the case. A while back she ran out of books and I, in a gesture of goodwill, downloaded a stack to the Kindle for her. The only reason I got my kindle back is because she discovered that my ipod could also display my ebooks. The gift of the ipad was, at least in part, an attempt for me to get those devices back.

So, if I had an ipad, it would live in my bag (as gadget do) and never be far from my hand. In contrast, my wife has a far less addictive pattern of use - it's found a permanent home on the bedside table, and in the evening she uses it to play mahjong, read books and watch Netflix, as the whim strikes her. It is not a lifestyle item for her (in fact, she has yet to take it into work to show off despite interest from co-workers) but rather a simple appliance.

Or perhaps not entirely simple. She is, at her own pace, dipping her toe in the app store form time to time to see what looks interesting to her. She's got an SSH client and a few games, and she's willing to try out new things when they're not a hassle, but she's not in any rush to do so.

I contrast this with another friend who has an ipad who, I think, would not object to being described as a power nerd. He had all his apps pre-bought before the ipad arrived, and he's shelled out for commercial apps from Apple and Omni and others, and has specifics plans for using the ipad at home and at work (at least when he can steal it back from his wife, who insists she doesn't need one, but is hooked on big screen popcap games). I played a little with his too, and it's got EVERYTHING.

Comparing those two usage profiles (along with my imagined self-profile) was really interesting to me. It's cool that someone's mom could use this, but I think that's ultimately unimportant compared to how many different ways people can use the ipad to suit their personal needs. When we talk about it "just working" (because it does), it's easy to assume that ease of use is directed at the absolute novice, but that misses the picture. The novice isn't even aware that Netflix streaming exists or of what twitter is. The ipad might be a gateway for someone like that, but the reality is that it's for the nerds, albeit for more of the nerds than most any computer to date.

And by nerds I don't just mean computer nerds. Another friend of mine broke down and got one when it became clear that the pdf organization and reading capability was good enough to handle all his scientific papers. Other folks have talked about how fantastic it is for reading scripts. The possibilities for boardgames and RPGs are obvious and huge.

This is, ultimately, why I think the ipad is going to be a winner. It's not for everyone, but for people who have particular passions, the ipad is going to provide unprecedented tools to help with that passion. It's not a universal tool, nor is it going to offer something for every passion, but when it lines up it's going to be fantastic. What's more, I think it may also be useful for discovery - your ipad may help you with your passions, but it may also lets you find other things to be passionate about.

A bit hype-y? Maybe. I acknowledge some genuine excitement as well as lingering pissiness at the crowds looking for cred in bashing the ipad because it's not how they would do it. I'm willing to be wrong.

But I'm damn sure going to have a good time until the jury comes back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Done is the Enemy of Suck

So, it's been a pretty awesome weekend for new things. The iPad was released[1], The new Doctor Who was one[2] and the weather was pretty nice as well. It's auspicious for one more piece of awesome.

The Dresden Files RPG pre-order has begun.

It's 2 books, ($50 and $40 respectively - not cheap, I know, but the level of production going into these things is crazy) but more importantly, the preorder price is for a print+pdf bundle. Folks who order it now can start reading it right away.[3] So far, impressions seem to be pretty good, as I would imagine they would be. Even setting aside my obvious bias, I'm quite sure this is a pretty badass game. If nothing else, I am absolutley chomping atthe bit to get my hands on a physical copy.

Lest I be entirely self serving, let me mention another pair of good an worthwhile pre-orders. Daniel Solis's Happy Birthday Robot and David Hill's Maschine Zeit are both using Kickstarter to get their initial funding through a preorder process. Both games (deservedly) hit their marks within 24 hours of going up, but offer further incentives for continued interest. Daniel is sending extra copies of the game to Kids Need To Game based on how far over he goes, and David's offered to profoundly embarrass himself if he should manage to double his goal.

It's a lot of good stuff, I know, all without mentioning White Wolf's hilarious April Fools Day product, Dudes of Legend[4]. Sometimes the internet is a bit of a cesspool, but this week, she is sharing her bounty, and it is lovely.

1 - I got my wife one for her birthday, so I've only been able to play with it a little, but so far it really seems fun and useful.

2 - So, I was never much of a Who fan until the recent revival, which makes me worry every time people who apparently hated the new stuff like this new Doctor. But then I remember that people just like to hate things, it doesn't actually mean anything useful.

3 - And reports indicate that the goodreads PDF reader, which plays nicely with dropbox, makes for some good reading on the iPad. Just saying.

4 - The link is adult content because the book is more than a little bit saucy. The ever-magnificent Chuck Wendig was basically given free rein to write the most over-the-top, stereotype-driven Word of Darkness Supplement imaginable. It has sex, drugs, katanas and desert eagles, and that's the nice stuff.
If you ever saw their previous satire product, Exxxalted, you may have a hunch regarding what to expect.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Failure of Secrets

So, information management is usually a pretty business-wonky idea, but it's one that has a role in RPGs that can be very useful to keep in mind. Specifically, the role of information management is one of the easiest ways to distinguish between adventure, intrigue and caper/crime.

Information management, which is to say the review of what informationis distributed, how it's distributed, and what's done with it, has a very small role in the traditional adventure (which is why we tend to not prioritize it). Specifically, the traditional adventure manages information by being very, very tight-fisted with it. Some bits of data might be necessary to proceed (like a password or location of a secret door) but most information is purely color. It simply may not make much difference if the bad guys you're fighting are a thousand year old cult of the Old Ones or a new age cult of destruction.

But what's important in an adventure is that this lack does not matter. Player action is not dependent on information - what they need to do is usually very clear. Most typically, there is a dungeon, and once you've got a dungeon, you pretty much know what to do with it. In fact, too much information can make for problems, because players might decide to go off in unexpected directions as their options open up.

Because of this combination of clear motivation and sparse information, gaming has developed a culture of secrets. Giving players more information is treated as a bad thing[1] so secrets are kept out of habit rather than because it's necessary for the game.

But this is not the only model.

For games centered more around intrigue (such as espionage) then, paradoxically, there should be MORE information available. Characters know a lot about a lot, so much so that the thing they don't know is usually the important point on which the story or game resolves. if, in contrast, EVERYTHING is a secret, then no particular secret is going to be very compelling.[2]

On another vector, a caper game should assume nearly total information. Capers revolve around plans made from comprehensive data - it may take some work to get that data, but that's only a fraction of the game - and that data needs to be reliable. That does not means there's no rom for surprises and the unexpected - they're a part of the genre - but like with intrigue, they stand out as exceptions.

These examples only scratch the surface of ways to consider information management[3] but what they hopefully highlight is that a lot of assumptions about how things should be may just be habits. Next time you run a game where you're trying to capture a specific genre, then take a little bit of time to think about what people know, how they find it out, and what they do with that information.[4] A small change could profoundly transform your game for the better.

1 - Some of this also comes from the much more reasonable "no one wants to drink from the fire hose" problem. If you're too free with information, players will get overwhelmed and disinterested. This is also an information management issue, but a slightly different one than we're looking at today.

2 - This is doubly true when the entire setting is designed to be "wheels within wheels" to a totally arbitrary degree. Once everything is suspect, everything is meaningless.

3 - I remember my first exposure to the idea of total information transparency, proposed by Robin Laws in Over the Edge. it was a little too weird for me at the time, and it still is a bit uncomfortable, but it's a great example of how to rethink these assumptions.

4 - Shadowrun is my poster child for this. 99% of the time I see it run like an adventure, with the run standing in for the dungeon and with a more interesting wrapper around it than a trip to the tavern. That's fun, but when I think about the Genre,I imagine something much closer to intrigue or caper style play. I don't think I'm alone in this perception, but the trick is that despite that sense of genre, it's not necessarily reflected in play.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Candyland Rocks

I'm not up for a full on joke post for April first, but it does seem a good day to have a serious post about a slightly silly topic: Candyland.

Candyland has been getting a bad rap lately. As more sophisticated games are entering the general awareness, we're getting second stage snobs who are totally excited by 'new' games like Settlers of Cataan[1] and taking this opportunity to step up and inform us all of what a terrible game Candyland is. After all, there's no play to it - you just draw cards and follow the colors and it's all dumb luck! That's a horrid game and should be destroyed!

This makes me crazy.

I like games. Not just RPGs, but games of every stripe. I have a one year old son who I am chomping at the bit to get the chance to play games with, and he's going to grow up in a household where there will be an abundance of choices. With my luck, he'll decide he hates games, but I'll deal with that when I come to it. In any case, I've already bought a copy of Candyland, and I can't wait for the day that I get to bust it out. And I've got three big reason's why.

1. Education
See, what these excited game experts forget is that there are a lot of incidental skills to playing games that are not necessarily intuitive to kids. Taking your turn, moving your piece, drawing a card and acting - these are all things that need to be learned. Yes, you can absolutely try to teach those things while also trying to teach a game with strategy (even simple strategy) but that seems like unnecessarily muddying the water. Now, you can pretend that the educational advantage of these games is something else, like color matching (or numbers in the case of Snakes and Ladders or War) but I feel that's a pretty thin argument. My kid can learn those things in lots of ways (including games) but that's not why I'm playing these games. I'm playing them to teach games in a way that is fun and which I can participate in.

2. Realization
Kids are smart, and they will eventually figure out why Candyland sucks on their own. Usually pretty fast.[2] When they do, they want more, and conveniently there's lots more available. Letting them figure this out for themselves will get way more investment than telling them ever will.

3. Hackability
My kid will learn from an early age to house rule. You want to make Candlyand more interesting? Try one of these:
  • Draw 2 cards and pick which one you go to
  • Keep a hand of 5 cards, and choose which one to play, then draw a new one
  • Allow the special square cards to be played on other people
  • If you draw the color of your playing piece, it always counts as a double.
  • Let candymen on the same square kung fu fight.

None of these make it a sophisticated game, but they all change the dynamic in ways a kid can appreciate. They can even introduce new mechanical ideas that will be useful for other games. Given time, I bet we could make it pretty darn crunchy if we really wanted, but that's not the point. The point is that it shows the kid that there is more to be done with the game than maybe immediately apparent.[3]

So, in summary, Candyland teaches kids how to play, helps them realize what's not fun, and provides a platform to show how they can own their games and make them more fun for themselves. What's not to love?

1 - If you want a game that makes me crazy, it's Settlers. I'll still play it because people like it, but it's always my last choice - in my book it is a worse game than Candyland because it violates a very simple rule of game design that I have come to consider very important. In settlers, it is entirely possible to have nothing to do on your turn (and, if that happens once, it will probably happen many times). If I'm going to be sitting on my hands, then I;m uncertian

2 - I don't want it to be news to my kid that Candyland sucks when he's old enough to have their own blog or bestselling book. It's just embarrassing to watch.

3 - When I was maybe 5, I played checkers on a board that had variant rules on the back, and when I discovered this it absolutely blew my mind. The only variant I still remember was Fox and the Geese (because that one looked awesome) but the very idea that there were OTHER WAYS to play checkers was really compelling to me. Sadly, it was not compelling to many other people around me, so I never got to really try them, and instead I got to stare at the older people playing Risk, which looked awesome but incomprehensible at the time.