Friday, February 26, 2010

Internet Landmines

The only time I can write a post like this is when I'm not quietly mad at anyone. Otherwise, it ends up being a passive aggressive snipe at something bugging me. Thankfully, I'm still in a pretty good mood post dreamation, and a disagreement I had with the inestimable Rob Bohl on couldn't really be elaborated on twitter. And as we all no "To long for twitter" is code for "Blogfodder" I ended up answering that issue, and throwing in a few more tidbits of things to remember while navigating the Internet.

Unintended Costs of Polite Anonymity
It is not unreasonable to want to call out a bad behavior without going so far as to actually name the bad actor. It's a restrained form of shaming, and the assumption si that, by speaking publically, you are communicating to the bad actor "I saw what you did, this is what I think about it, but I'm giving you a chance to save face by not calling you out by name." This is quite civilized, but it has a non-obvious toxic impact.

The problem is this: a lot of polite people who are listening are intensely aware of how easy it is to accidentally engage in bad behaviors. You might be tired or distracted or stressed and as a result end up being an ass without ever realizing you're doing it. When they hear a blanket statement, they immediately seize up and try to figure out what they might have done, since this could easily be about them. This is amazingly stressful, and eventually it leads to very nice people not giving a shit because it is the only way to stay sane.

Plus, as a bonus, if the bad actor thought their behavior was ok, they may never get the message. That's kind of lose-lose.

Suggestion: If you want to call someone out without naming them, include enough corroborating detail to keep people from wondering if it is them.

"Obvious" is a Red Flag

You are never more at risk of sounding like an asshole than when you are discussing something obvious. Once we accept something as obvious it permeates our thought and speech in ways that we are not always aware of. This is invisible to our friends who also consider it obvious because it creates no discrepancies in their view. But when talking with someone who does not see this thing as obvious, these are obvious red flags, and they're really off putting. On even the nicest, most off-putting of folks, this behavior can come off as zealotry.

That may sound too strong, but it comes down to this: Once we consider something obvious, we stop bothering to discuss it. Usually it's because we don't see a need to do so, but sometimes it's a concious choice because we've grown tired of "that discussion". I'm sympathetic to this, but to an outside observer, all positions that can't be discussed look the same. Your perfectly reasonable position gets put in the same bucket as flat earthers and holocaust deniers because your decision not to justify it is indistinguishable from your being unable to justify it.

This is far from insurmountable. Once such a disconnect is identified, it's easy to address. You just unpack your argument, and discuss the point. No problem. Except, of course, because this thing is obvious, then clearly this other guy is a TOTAL IDIOT for not seeing it, and it would be best to treat him like such.

Or, perhaps not.

Suggestion: I'm not saying to go back to core assumptions every time you talk with someone. That would be barbaric. We all know how to discuss things rationally with people we disagree with, if we can bother to use those tools. Just keep them in mind if you find yourself thinking that the person you're talking to is missing something obvious. If you go to the tools, you might be surprised to discover who is actually missing something.

Disagreement is not Disrespect

The world is full of awesome people I think are wrong. Sometimes really wrong.

This does not make them less awesome.

It just means I disagree with them.

Seriously, if you can't get your head around this one, I am not sure you should be allowed on the internet.[1]

The Support or Opposition of Fools is No Useful Metric

If you progress in any field of knowledge, you will discover a really common pattern, as differing levels of understanding and sophistication express themselves in the same fashion. Think about any book that you were told was great in high school, but you hated, but you really dug in college, but now think is tripe. Your current viewpoint is a nuanced, rich on built on experience and understanding, but in the abstract it's the same opinion as a snotty 14 year old. Obviously, our currently held opinion is always the best[2], but without the ability to distinguish it from a similar opinion held for different reasons, we find ourselves grouped with EVERYONE who holds our opinion.

This is not limited to knowledge - it extends to opinions as well. If I am counting votes, I cannot distinguish between the 20 year business veteran who voted for John McCain because he believed his economic policies would be the right solution for the country and the guy who doesn't want a black man in office.

This sort of difference is usually easily sorted out one on one, but on the internet, we have such a tiny lens that it can be impossible to make these distinctions between people, especially in places like forums. If 100 people bash your product is it equally likely they were too stupid to understand it as it is you were too stupid to explain it. Of course, if 100 people praise it, it's equally likely they're deluded.

Suggestion: You cannot take numbers seriously on the internet. Concentrate on individuals and discussions. It is too easy to make yourself crazy looking at tiny slivers of data that people throw, spit or otherwise excrete up online and try to make a pattern out of it. The monkey brain DEMANDS a pattern. But you need to give it a banana and tell it to shut up. You can get a lot out of conversations, but almost nothing out of noise.

Jargon is a Social Tool
Jargon does 2 things.
  1. It helps a group communicate among itself by providing a shorthand for ideas the group values.
  2. It provides a method for self-identification within a group while simultaneously excluding outsiders.

This means that the value of #1 needs to be balanced against the general shittiness of #2. The problem, of course, is that the group tends to overvalue #1 and underestimate #2 and most outsiders are insensitive to #1 but highly sensitive to #2.

I cannot think of a single group that does not fall into this trap, so I can't just say "don't do it." All I can really suggest is thinking about it a little bit more, from both sides. It is most dangerous when unacknowledged.

Corollary: If you're going to use jargon, at least be honest about it. Jargon that waffles or changes definition at convenience is basically a big red flashing light indicating that its purpose is purely social.

1 -And if your instinctive response was "but what if they're really wrong, like, morally wrong, like, want to kill puppies or something? What then mister smart guy?" then my answer for your has three parts.
  1. We are not 8. We know the difference.
  2. If you really like and respect puppy killers, I don't think the problem is with them
  3. You're a douche.
2 - Obviously!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Slop the Table

I was thinking about language this morning. Not in any deep, profound way but in terms of my own decision to take French in school rather than Spanish. In retrospect I'd have done it differently, but I grew up a short drive from Quebec, so it was not completely crazy to consider French something practical to learn rather than merely a language that keeps being taught out of habit due to its former position of primacy in diplomacy and western civilization. If my kid insists on making the same mistake when he grows up, more power to him, but I am going to make sure he understands the decision better than I did.

Anyway, this ties back into gaming because it lead to me thinking about languages in 4e, and in games in general. It is almost always worth looking at how games handle languages because it tends to reflect a lot of the underlying thought that went into the system. This is because, to be blunt, differences in language are very rarely any fun at all to play, and trying to simulate the role of language with the same diligence that one might a sword swing is a path to madness[1]. There are a ton of ways to handle the pricing and levels, form cheap and abstract to broad and nuanced, but for the most part it's all moot because most characters only learn new languages if they must: otherwise they have better things to spend points on.

Fantasy settings have an interesting out in this regard, and 4e seizes upon it with both hands. Building on the long standing idea of "Common" as a language, they've established a fixed, very limited, list of languages of the setting with almost everything in the setting speaking at least 2 languages, thus guaranteeing that scenes where people WANT to talk but can't are quite rare. That's smart, and it's very playable. It was probably the right way to go.

But it's really, really boring.

Like any genuinely complicated thing, language provides a vast tapestry of story opportunities. The underlying issues of understanding and communication are incredibly powerful, and they've spawned thousands of neat idea. As with many things in life, the interesting and powerful stuff comes out of the points of friction rather than where everything works smoothly. Languages, in 4e, work smoothly and as a result they are a bit of a dead zone.

Now, this is not going to be an argument for adding more languages to D&D. It's hard to play well, and I'm the last guy to demand accuracy trump play. But I want to hold It up as emblematic to something that is a constant bugbear of setting and adventure design. Gamers tend to be completists, and when we design things, we want all the parts to work together smoothly. Leaving things incomplete is so hard for us to handle that there's an entire business model built upon showing only part of something and then maybe revealing the rest in drips and drabs in subsequent supplements. We want neat, tidy packages.

And heck, maybe that's some of why we game. On some level, an RPG is an assertion that the world and all the people in it can be understood. That all the myriad complexities we face every day can be boiled down and remixed into something that follows rules and logic, and even the capricious nature of luck is bounded within the system. Fantastic elements are only tangential to the escapism to be found in a game; the real power is in the mastery of situation it provides. Wherever we stand in our lives, in a game, the world can be known, and we are the ones who know it.

That is made much simpler when the world of the game makes sense. If the world of a game didn't make sense, it would challenge this illusion of control.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, to hell with that.

History, heck *life*, is messy. It's full of contradictory, nonsensical things that happened because one guy was pissed or another guy was crazy. It's a big, beautiful mess, and as far as I'm concerned, gaming is at its most rewarding (artistically, emotionally, practically and personally) when we embrace that rather than try to hide it behind an illusion or order. And yes, that's hard. Maybe really, really hard. It puts the burden of the act on us as people, because no system of rules or cleverly written setting is enough to even scratch the surface of things. This is why the best games don't attempt to do this for us, they give us tools to help us do it better ourselves.

All of which comes back to this: when you're thinking about the world of your game, try to leave it messy. Sure, you can pick and choose what messes you want to deal with[2], but the important thing is that you, as a GM and a creator, should be opening loops[3], not closing them. An author needs to close loops to make a good story, but a GM needs to open them so that his players can close them. Open loops are messy, and they bother us instinctively. We want closure. But the thing to remember is that your players share that instinct, and all you need to do is leave them the opportunity to do the job.

Embrace the mess. It's where the game really comes alive.

1 - One illustration: if your system represents linguistic fluency, how do you represent the character's native linguistic skill? If languages are hard to learn (expensive) or you put skill caps on starting skills, then how awkward is it to bolt on an exception for language? Kind of undercuts the idea that the system's reflecting reality rather than arbitrary restrictions.

2 - For all my talk I totally avoid language whenever possible because it's a pain in the ass.

3 - A loop can be pretty much anything started but unfinished. It's opened by creating a situation: "the prince kills the king", or "I need to buy milk" and it's "closed" when its resolved: "The prince is punished (or crowned)" or "I have bought milk". Loops are not a narrative thing, they are a life thing that is powerful enough to resonate into narrative.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rethinking Props

This is a MUSH one, so other geek tribes can probably just skip it today.

So, I've bee thinking about props and realizing that I have a lot of faulty assumptions. To begin with, I assume that a prop should have a propco simply by virtue of being a prop. That's bad enough, but more subtly, I think I've made a somewhat backward assumption: that propcos are there for the sake of the prop.

That is, the more I think about it, all crap.

Ok, so here's the thing. Running plots on a MUSH is a pain, especially since consequences and impacts are hard to come by and difficult to implement. Staff can do it, but in the absence of staff, the theory is that a prop controller can have consequences of play reflected in the prop he controls. That seems like a very reasonable model, but how often do you see props handled in that fashion? The default assumption is that it is the propcos job to "look out for the interests" of the prop and to keep it form being abused.

That's one of those things that makes a lot of sense when you're hip deep in it, but from a distance looks completely ass backwards. Props do not need protecting. Props are, ultimately, not very important. Their importance is solely in terms of how much they serve play, and they serve play by reflecting consequences. To my mind, if the prop is not in the hands of the person most willing to see it changed by play, it is in the wrong hands.

Now, that's not to say it needs to be in any hands. For many people, props are an organizational unit of information. They are valuable for the background and playgroup they provide. Those are, absolutely, important things, and while they might require a subject matter expert - someone who knows the lore of the prop and can answer questions about it - that doesn't mean it needs a propco. The prop might well be off the table in terms of the impact of play, at which point it's not really a prop at all, just a background element. There's nothing wrong with that: setting depend on having some elements that aren't going to be constantly subject to change, and so long as it's clear what's "in play" and what is not then all is well.

What's more, the role of propco is one that gets horribly muddled by the non-prop responsibilities. Being a propco is a responsibility, and while most propcos will agree with that, the reasons they do so are a little different than you might expect. it is not that they feel it's a lot of work maintaining the prop, it is that by virtue of being propco, they are also de facto head of the playgroup. That means they spend their days herding cats, which is a lot of work. One of the rewards of that work is the social status that comes of being a propco.

At this point, it really feels to me like the bad parts of the system really feed back on themselves. Under this one umbrella, "propco" we really have several VERY different roles:
  • Keeper of Lore
  • Head of Playgroup
  • Keeping Prop Dynamic (handling consequences)
  • VIP of the Game

Is it any wonder that props end up static, fiercely guarded little principalities? Keeping the prop dynamic is the least rewarding of the roles, and is often in conflict with the other priorities. If a playgroup is tied to a prop, then taking consequences to the plot is often at odds with your responsibility to the playgroup. If you dig the social status of being a propco, diminishing your prop diminishes your status. Subject matter expertise is the only role that doesn't conflict with handling consequences, and it's the one most often farmed out to someone who is not the propco.

I propose that we rethink the prop and see about divvying up these responsibilities a bit. First and foremost, separate the props from the setting elements. The simple act of saying that the element-owner[1] can concentrate on other priorities will remove a huge amount of stress from the system. By calling out the props that can be impacted by play, and putting them in the hands of players who have a vested interest in seeing them change (which may mean players external to the prop, to prevent conflicts of interest) you free props up to be more play centric, and that would be a welcome thing.

What's more, it would also relax play in the fixed elements. If people know that play cannot substantially change something, and come to trust that, they will often get much more relaxed about short term consequences, knowing that the long term smooths it all out. Remote elements become more playable because there's no sense of needing to clear your play with the propco.

Other roles would, I suspect, sort themselves out. People have a way of finding leaders and social currency no matter what the situation. And this would by no means be a panacea - the first danger i imagine is that we'd end up with propcos who only allow their preferred playgroup to make changes in their personal element of the setting. That's inconvenient (though if done properly might work very organically), but since staff have fewer props to worry about, it's not hard to keep an eye on who is changing what, and watch for trends.

Whatever the solution, the bottom line is that a lot of what we do with props today is out of habit more than anything else, and like any habit, it merits some examination to see if our actions are really serving our goals.

1 - Yes, it needs a catchier name

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Balancing The Stone

I was talking to Dave (one of many Daves) at Dreamation and he mentioned that he really didn't like it when GMs took certain actions to screw over players. Now, I'm a big supporter of GMs being mean, so I questioned this, and he gave an example of a GM looking at his players, realizing that they had no direction, and having a large price get put on their head to kickstart them into action.

I argued a few points for how that could make things more interesting, and the all important point that it's unreasonable to expect that bad things wouldn't happen to adventurers - dealing with bad things is kind of the point. Despite this, I had to concede when Dave laid down the killer point; that this had been done with no input from the players. The problem was not that it was mean, but rather that it was a betrayal of the implicit agreement between the players and the GM. That, I had to admit, was something of a problem.

Worse, it was probably an unintentional problem. The GM almost certainly was trying to create the kind of good, fruitful trouble that generates play, but he chose to do so in a way that the players took as a slap to the face.[1] That presented an interesting challenge: how is GM supposed to distinguish good trouble (trouble that drives play, engages players and makes for fun) from bad trouble (trouble that feels arbitrary and capricious, and fails to engage the players, possibly even upsetting them).

My advice was pretty simple. The trick is that the GM doesn't need to do bad things: instead he should set up the situation so that the bad things is balanced precariously above the players, clearly ready to fall. The important thing is that it's clear that the bad thing will happen if the players take no action, but they have the ability to stop it if they do act.[2] This serves to important purposes: first, it gives clear motivation for action, which may otherwise be lacking. Second, if the bad thing comes to pass (either through failure or choosing to pursue a different problem) it doesn't feel like GM fiat because the critical decisions and actions came from the players.[3]

Put more simply, if you kill a character's dad, that's a jerk move. If you tell them that an old enemy has come to town to kill their dad, that's an adventure.

1 - Tolerances will totally vary by table, based on taste and trust, but I suspect that more tables are close to Dave than they are to some of the pain-eaters I know.

2 - this is, by the way, totally oriented towards adventure gaming. Many of these assumptions will be entirely off base in other styles of play.

3 - Now, this is not to say bad things should never happen. Unexpected badness is the classic initiating event of an adventure, and players are ok with that because that's the nature of the genre. Starting a game with the death of our family and destruction of our village is totally in bounds, because we begin play _from_ that point. However, the kind of capricious badness that a lot of people expect in the second act does not have similar blanket exemptions. If everyone at the table already has the sensibility that expects it, then great, but if they don't then the darkness before the dawn just ends up looking like the GM taking a piss on the group.[4]

4 -This is one of those explicit divergences between tabletop play and the fiction it models. All that conflict and tension that makes for great stories has to ground out through your players. If they're not synced up with you, then you can expect to smell a lot of ozone and burnt plastic.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dreamation plus Bonus Dragon Age

Back from Dreamation. Survived, had a good time. As ever, I was delighted with all the people I saw, and frustrated with all the people I saw only in passing for moments at a time (or, in some cases, only by secondhand reports that they were in attendance at all). In retrospect I do wish I'd worked harder to sign up for things. Not that I did not have a lot of fun filling time, but I would have enjoyed getting in a little more play. Of course, crashing early Friday with an upset stomach (resulting in my missing a 3:16 game) didn't help either.

The other issue is that Jamie has retrained me to crash early and get up early, which is very much not the schedule of the convention. A lot of cool stuff happens after midnight, after I'm in bed, and almost no one is alive as early as I wake up, and that disconnect is kind of wearing. No easy solution for it, but it's something I need to remember. It did not help that my usual breakfast plans were complicated by the hotel charging $20 for their merely-ok breakfast buffet.

Still and all, it was a good time, and as always, it left me thinking. I know for some people Dreamation, with its excess of indie games, is a triumph of certain ideas of gaming, but for me it is always a reminder that theory is a pale shadow of play. I love these deep ideas and crazy system thoughts, but they smash to pieces under the weight of a good joke or that one guy with a crazy idea. For me, that's a good thing: theory and system can be seen so clearly by me that I forget about the power of the unexpected. I am ultimately in this for the messy, human stuff at the table, and these pristine tools and ideas are never so fine as when they start getting some mud on them.

It also really underscored my current thesis in game design, and I ended up vocalizing this to a few people. System design doesn't excite me as much these days. It interests me, but it has no dragons that I have not slain or made peace with. I like solving problems or thinking about it, but the real challenges are elsewhere. Specifically I think they're in setting and adventure design. To underscore this, look at all the concepts that have been introduced into RPG systems in the past few decades, then compare that with the number of improvements we've made in the technology of setting and adventure design. There absolutely have been improvements[1] but the difference in the number of them is absolutely staggering. This is odd because the impact of these ideas is huge, and I feel that thought about them has been stymied by a need to give system precedence.

Anyway, not looking to delve into any deep insights here, just mentioning that the con makes me think.

Oh, worth noting, the Indie Roundtable went well in that I think it was very useful to the 4 people who asked questions about their games (thank you Sean, Dave, Andrew and Shoshana) but it was also a little bit sparsely attended - there were very few new faces for me, even after having missed a year, and most of those were already community folks (including Ryan "Ryan's Awesome Idea" Stoughton), and that was a bit disappointing. That said, I am willing to attribute some of that to the fact that there was no way to know where it was taking place unless you already knew. I love Dreamation, but the roundtable was on the seminar track, and as far as I can tell that is at the very bottom of the queue of priorities. That is, I think, A great pity, and something worth fixing, but I always forget about it until I actually get there each year, especially because the have cool people doing seminars a lot of the time. [2]

What may also be starting some discussions is that Vinnie, the guy who runs Dreamation, pitched a couple of ideas at the roundtable. The first was to start videotaping games to help teach them. It's not an unreasonable thought: Not all of the small games make sense out of the box, and having some sort of example to see would probably be useful. Unfortunately, the logistics might hurt. Setting aside the need to edit any recording down to something short and not boring (an activity that Vinnie offered to help with) I don't think DVDs are really an effective means of distribution for it, for a host of reasons. However, I admit it might make for a good Youtube channel.

The other idea was to add a third con to the Dreamation/Dexcon family, one focused on game design and publishing. This is, I think, a response to the weirdly bifurcated nature of the indie games presence at Dreamation. On one hand, there's a strong community element to it, with playtests, new designs and experimentation, all focused on the designer community. On the other hand, there are a million-zillion games being run and played. There are more Indie games than there are RPGA games at Dreamation. That's crazy, and awesome, and it's one of the big selling points of the con. So the idea of recognizing that split with a dedicated publishing con is kind of appealing to me, but I also admit that one more thing on my schedule makes life all the more complicated. If it happens, I'll probably go, but if it doesn't I might settle for trying to shore up the Seminar track.

Most cynically, I worry a lot that we, as a community, have been less about bringing in new people than we have about occupying the elevated position and holding it. It's possible this sense of entrenchment is simply a result of the fact that, since I've had a kid, I have not been as able to keep track of all the new games coming out, but from where I stand, I know that new games are still coming out, but I am not seeing a corresponding growth of community. If that's true, it's kind of a big deal.

Anyway, because I've been rambly, I'll reward your patience with a special bonus. I was talking with Chad Underkoffler about the role of randomness and its strengths and weaknesses, and in the middle of that discussion, I realized I could rip off Greg Stolze's Reign[3] and get the best of both worlds with Dragon Age chargen. Now, this _is_ a geek solution, in that it requires tools that are not in the box, but I don't think that's going to be a problem for anyone geeky enough that they have Strong Opinions about random chargen.

Dragon Age Optional Rule:
Reduced Randomness Stat Generation

Step One: All Stats start at 0.

Step Two:
Roll 11d8. If you don't have 11d8, roll 1d8 eleven times and just track things one at a time.

Step Three:
Each number corresponds to a stat, as follows:
  1. Communication
  2. Constitution
  3. Cunning
  4. Dexterity
  5. Magic
  6. Perception
  7. Strength
  8. Willpower
For each die that shows the appropriate number, increase that stat by 1.

Step Four:
You may swap the values of any two stats.

For Example:
If you roll 6, 5, 1, 7, 5, 1, 8, 3, 6, 7, 7
Sort them out and you get: 1,1,3,5,5,6,6,7,7,7,8

Then the stat distribution is
Communication +2

Constitution +0

Cunning +1

Dexterity +0

Magic +2

Perception + 2

Strength +3

Willpower +1

Simple as that.[4] The idea is hopefully obvious: You get the kind of organic, unexpected distribution of stats that randomness provides, but there's no concern of one person rolling higher than another. The idea can also be tweaked easily enough to support other approaches. For example, you could start all stats at -1, but roll 19d11 - that would definitely make for some interesting outcomes.

1 - To rattle some off, Weapons of the God's Lore Sheets, Alderac's Hard & Soft Points, Savage World's Plot Point books,

2 - On this point I also want to give a shout out to Dave Hill and Filamena Young, who were doing really cool seminars at the con, one on Worldbuilding and one on designing a game in under 2 hours. Not only are they thinking cool thoughts, they are taking them out there and testing their metal against the reality of con-goers. That's badass.

3 - Which has the best random chargen of any game I can think of.

4 - It's 11 dice because the semi-official point-buy system is 10 points, distributed as you see fit, none higher than +3. Because I feel the point buy should be the most conservative yardstick, I give one more die (which is to say, one more point) as a reward for going random. GMs are welcome to alter this number as they see fit in their own game, and I note that an extra die in the stat roll is a fantastic reward for player contributions, so long as the contribution gap doesn't get too big.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What Are You Writing In?

Short one today, since I'm not actually writing because I'm currently driving to Dreamation. I just want to put forward an idea that may be radical or may be offensive, but which I hope may ultimately be of use to people out there who are thinking about writing and distributing your own game. That idea is this:

Maybe you should be writing in PowerPoint.

The rules and process for producing a printed book are well known, and we know what those books look like. Even if we're not going to ever print a book, we write our books to look like that. It's tradition. Habit even.

But there are other people out in the world who are doing interesting things with ebooks, with more of an emphasis on readability and presentation, books tuned to the screen and to printing. Go take a look at this pdf. It's a good read if you're into that sort of thing, but what I really want you to look at is how it's presented. This is a simple, clean layout that is easy for even a novice to emulate, and it is well designed to explaining complicated concepts simply. This layout (and variations on it) shows up a lot in business texts. It's PowerPoint, and while it's not quite presentation-ready (too many words per page) it is based off a lot of good thinking about how to present ideas - one per page, with illustrations that clarify or explain.

The question I want to put forward is this: Is your game really that much more complicated to explain than these business ideas? Or are you writing to fill pages out of a sense of what your game should look like?

Obviously, this is not a solution for every person and every game, but I want to put this out there and into people's minds. This is a club we need to have in our bag.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Conan's 11

I am going to run my next 4e game like a caper, simple as that.

It actually takes surprisingly little in the way of preparation to make the transition. Characters are already highly capable and aware of their capabilities, the only real difference between the standard dungeon crawl and a caper is a simple matter of information management. All of the material is already in place, the trick is to change the players from the reactive group experiencing the dungeon[1] to a proactive group exploiting it.

Now, I could use almost any pre-published dungeon to do this, but I will definitely be a little bit picky. First off, I need ones where the motive to go into the dungeon is clear and is more nuanced than "There's treasure there" or "The Bad Guy Lives There". Those are flat motivations, and flat motivations make for flat capers. The characters are badass professionals, not simple thieves, and there should be a reason they are directing their considerable talents to this task rather than something else. Additionally, a clear motive helps make for a better adventure because players can come back to their true goal when they consider plans. For example, if they're just after loot, then the plan is unlikely to get more sophisticated than a smash and grab. If, on the other hand, the goal is the recovery of a specific item, then the players could still smash and grab, but they might also try to trick the owner into moving it, swap in a substitute, con the owner out of it or almost anything else. A clear goal allows for specific, thoughtful action. A murky goal allows for only mess.

As such, a certain amount of urgency is usually called for. Without it, players can afford to wait for the perfect moment, and that can be dull taken to its extreme. In a caper, the characters have a LOT of information, but they shouldn't have ALL the information, so there needs to be some sort of reason why things need to happen *now*, rather than the next time the bad guys are going to town for supplies.[3] Dungeons that also are strongly personality driven, that is ones that are the base of operations of a well fleshed out villain[4], also tend to be a lot more useful for a caper since they're usually designed with more flexibility of response.

But with those simple ground rules, it's a simple matter of handing the players most of the information you have about the dungeon. Give them a map, give them a breakdown of who is where and doing what. Don't give them stats or anything, but rally give them enough information to accurately describe everything in the dungeon, then let them come up with their plan.

Now, naturally, there should be a few surprises. Pick a few pieces of information to keep in reserve as surprises - tunnels that aren't on the original map, secret resources of a lieutenant, and unexpected twist or whatever. This doesn't take anything hugely sneaky or cunning, just find the things the author clearly put in as twists and then make them real twists.[5]

And seriously, that's all there is to it.

Ok, yes, I'm skipping over a big chunk here and just handing the players the information, with the assumption that they've already successfully done the footwork and research to get it all together. On some instinctive level, it feels like I should set up some skill challenges and die rolls to make this investigation part of the play process. But that instinct is dangerous. See, the caper is not a familiar model for players, so the first time I do it, I don't want to dwell over the supporting details, I just want to get to the meat of it. Based on success or failure of this, I might take that to inform on my decisions for the NEXT caper, allowing for some rolls beforehand to tune what information the players do and don't get, but at no point do I want that to be the *focus* of play. If I really want to make players work for information, I'll make getting THAT information a caper of its own.

Anyway, that's how I'd do it.

1 - Does that sound mean? It's not mean to be but it's really what's going on in most dungeons. There's an illusion of proactivity through player directed action as they explore, but that's mostly sleight of hand. Excepting certain key decisions like when to rest, the set pieces in a dungeon might as well be coming to the players on a conveyor belt.[2]

2 - Yes, the players might decide between right and left and that impacts the order things happen in, but that's still sleight of hand. Which does not make it a BAD thing. The dungeon is a very efficient adventure delivering device.

3 - Doing this also spares us the kind of convenient timing that guarantees the demonic ritual is underway JUST as the players bust into the room - fun once or twice, but absolutely trite after a while. If the players know that the ritual is coming and will happen in 3 days, they have a timeline to beat.

4 - Owen KC Stephens' adventures tend to excel at this.

5 - More snark, I know, but the reality is that a "twist" in the context of a dungeon is virtually meaningless. It's a disposable environment, and all the information within it is disposable too. Twists are merely unexpected. It takes some investment (as in the case of the knowledge that players are given) to give a twist some weight.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Random Day

A few Random thoughts for today

- I got a new phone, which would not merit much comment normally, except I’m a gadget nerd and got one of the Verizon Droids. I’m pretty much shackled to Verizon, so it came down to the Droid or the Pre Plus, both of which are pretty sweet. Droid sold me on its google integration and web browsing, and a couple days in I’m still pretty much delighted with it. Biggest complaint is the app store: while it’s worlds better than the blackberry app store, there is really no filtering of crap from non-crap, so finding anything useful is pretty much a crapshoot. I’ve grabbed a few things on recommendations or because I know the brand: notably Evernote, astrid, Advanced Task Killer and Twidroid but I figure I’m still missing out on quality, so I put out a request for suggestions to anyone out there.

- I’ll be going to Dreamation up in Jersey this coming weekend, driving up early Friday morning and staying through Sunday. I have signed up for exactly nothing. This was not a cunning plan on my part, just a result of constantly forgetting, so I intend to play it by ear. I’ll probably hit the signup sheets for things, but I’m also totally up for some pickup play, and may even see what supplies I can bring to help that out. As a heads up, I have a bit of a Dreamation/Dexcon tradition of doing an open breakfast. I usually do this in the hotel, but I don’t know what the facilities are like this year, so I’ll be playing that by ear. Anyway, it basically goes like this: around 7:30 to 8, I’ll go an grab breakfast, and there’s an open invitation to join me that is limited only by whatever chairs can be scrounged up. So if you see me, please, come grab a seat.

- On the topic of Dreamation, if I introduce myself to you and we’ve already met, please do not take offense. At some point, my ability to keep online handles connected with names connected with faces with icons really took a hit. It is entirely possible that I will make that connection sometime halfway through any conversation, and while that’s funny to watch, no offense is meant by it.

- On a similar topic, I come to these things to talk to people. Playing games is an awesome bonus, but the context to randomly shoot the shit about games and gaming is a pure delight for me. So while I sincerely doubt that anyone in my VAST[1] readership would be inclined to shy from conversation, I just want to lay it out there for the record: say hi. I am totally happy to talk.

- The podcast suggestions covered a wide range, but there was no clear winner, so I’m going to call out for a tiebreaker! Of the podcast suggestions I got, the ones which got multiple suggestions were the following:
  • Podgecast
  • Return to Northmoor
  • Atomic Array
  • Actual People, Actual Play
  • Canon Puncture

So, I will be picking one of these. Given that list, people are welcome to suggest which one I go with!

1 - Har har

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Two More Obscure Ideas Worth Stealing

Lines of Experience
So, the recent Marvel Superheroes RPG, the one with the stones system, was really interesting, but as I understand it, died because it was published by a comic book publisher. Good numbers for an RPG are bad numbers for a comic, or so I am led to understand.

Anyway, even if you never get to play it, it's worth nowing about its advancement mechanics, "Lines of Experience". Characters were medium-grained in detail, and when you gt advancement, it was given as "lines of experience". Now, mechanically, each waas basically a point which you assigned to the thing you wanted to improve. if your kung Fu was a 7, you assigned lines to it, and after you accumulated 7 of them, it became an 8. Easy peasy.

But where it got interesting was that for each line you actually wrote a brief description of what you had done with that skill durng the adventure, like "Fought the Sinister Frogmen of Yslar in their underwater lair" and if on a subsequent adventure you are in a similar situation (fightign underwater, say) you could use that line of experience to temporarily boost your skill from a 7 to an 8.

I love this idea, and Fred Hicks ended up riffing on it nicely in Don't Rest Your Head, but I think there's a lot more to be mined out of it.

Player Contributions
I sometimes need to actively remind myself that the Amber Diceless RPG is a small, niche game. This is hard because it's SO big and SO influential on me that I sometimes forget that not everyone else has is burned into their heart. And that means not everyone has been as exposed to the ADRPGs player contributions.

So Amber had a simple point-buy system, with 100 points to spend, but plyers could get extra points, usually in 10 point blocks, for maing contributions ot the game. Contributions included drawing pictures of the characters, keeping a character journal, writing stories about your character and so on. Over time different groups expanded what qualified as a contribution to include things like hosting or buying food.

Now, bear in mind, this was the time before Livejournal and fanfic communities, so the fact that the game provided a legitimate outlet for other types of creativity was a huge win in terms of creating player investment. What's more, by granting players the leeway to author a lot of "offscreen" materials, it proved one of the few ways to really get player investment in setting that's on par with killing Elminster[1].

Now, not every game necessarily calls for fiction or the like, but every game calls for _something_. If there's some sort of behavior or investment you want to encourage or acknowledge, then consider formalizing in-game rewards for player contributions. It's not fair in the traditional sense, but that tends to make it more motivating: you recognize your contributing members and provide others the opportunity (and clear direction on how) to do the same.

1 - This gets its name from a tale told on the Sons of Kryos podcast, of a D&D game where the opening even is the murder of Elminster, the iconic NPC of the Forgotten Realms. This sort of actionis a clear dramatic statement that the game is not going to be dictated by the official canon of the setting, and that the table owns the game.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Three Obscure Ideas Worth Stealing

If you are not stealing ideas in your game design, I might suggest you are doing it wrong. There are a lot of games out there that have hit upon really good ideas, even if the games themselves have met with a variety of fates.

Margin of Success Tricks

There was a game once called Secrets of Zir'an. It was a clever, interesting game, but it suffered the kind of printing problems that make it a cautionary tale rather than any kind of real success. It's a shame, since it had some clever ideas, and one in particular really caught my eye.

SoZ had a system where you could learn various tricks to use with a skill, things like combat tricks for extra damage, extra spell effects, and so on. There were a lot of these, and they allowed for a lot of differentiation between skills. The trick was that each one had a particular cost, and that cost was paid out of the margin of success of an attack.

To illustrate, imagine a fairly D&D type-attack, where I roll d20, add a number, and hit you to do, say, 2d6 points of damage. I only needed to roll a 19 to hit you, and I rolled 24: that's a margin of Success of 5. I have a few tricks: for 1 point, I can increase damage by 1. For 3 points, I can knock you down. For 5 points, I can perform a disarm. So using those 5 points, I could do +5 damage, +2 damage and knock my enemy down, or do a disarm.

There's a downside to this in that it's a little math-ey, but it's got a big upside (beyond just cool fiddliness), since it clearly calls for description after resolution, so you get to incorporate your awesomeness.[1]

Inverted Pricing
Wilderness of Mirrors is an innovative game in a a number of ways, but one of my favorite elements to it is often overshadowed by the other novel elements, and that is role pricing. WoM doesn't have skills, rather there are 5 roles you buy not representing the roles on the spy team. The danger with such systems historically is that the benefit of having a broad skill at all is usually much greater than the benefit of incrementally improving it, so there's a strong incentive to buy many things at low levels rather than specialize. This is especially true if prices get progressively higher.

WoM turns that on its head by making the first rank cost the most, and each subsequent rank cost lest (so the price is 4:3:2:1, not 1:2:3:4), and I dig the behavior that encourages. It leans naturally towards niche protection and excellence within your niche.

"Wild Card" Skill
Eden's "Buffy" system was a lot of fun, and it's a shame it's vanished down the licensing hole, but I want to see if we can hang onto one particular idea.

Buffy had what I would describe as a medium sized skill list. Long enough that I couldn't rattle it off by memory, but shorter than 15-20. It's a good size, since it allows for skills that are neither too broad nor too narrow, but it's a bit of a crapshoot. See, at that size list, you have the greatest chance of having overlooked something important to one of your players.[2] Buffy's skill list included one blank slot where a player could insert any skill he needed, so if it was really important that his character is an excellent accountant, he could put that in the Wild Card Slot.

There's an obvious benefit to this - it introduces a bit of flexibility into the skill list without demanding that players come up with the skills on their own. But there's also a subtle benefit: whatever skill the player put in that slot is a flag - he is more or less calling out the GM the thing he thinks makes his character stands out, and is inviting plot hooks to be attached to it.

There are, of course, lots and lots of other ideas worth stealing, but you can't steal them all at once. I figure three at a time is probably digestible.

1 - Something similar was done in another brilliant-but-gone game called Fireborn[3]. The difference between them us subtle, but potent. In Fireborn, you effectively paid for actions in the difficulty. So if I want to do extra damage, I increase the difficulty to hit by some amount. There's a compelling logic to this, but it has the downside of making cool behavior (stunting and the like) less likely to succeed - players are punished for doing something risky. It's more 'realistic' (harder tasks are harder), but not necessarily more fun.

2 - With fewer skills, odds are good it falls under the penumbra of one of them. If there are lots of skills, then adding another is pretty trivial.

3 - Going from memory here though, so apologies if I'm misstating.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Serious Play

I always enjoy the Penny Arcade comic, but I often get something useful out of the column as well. Today's in particular got me thinking. He was inspired by another post about the "daddening" of video games (the idea that in video games it is becoming more common that you play someoen who is a father than someone whose father is an important part of the story) and more generally observed that there are issues which are common and powerful but which are rarely touched upon in video games. Issues like relationships, marriage, family, kids and so on. A lot of it rings equally true for RPGs, and that got me thinking.

First off, I need to echo the sentiment that getting married and having a child were both genuine thresholds for me. before actually crossing them, their meaning were pretty nominal to me. I got their importance on paper, but it was very different for me to actually do it.

With that in mind, it's interesting to apply that general lens to my games. I can think of many game I've played that were generational in nature, literally or symbolically, but they almost always revolve around the emergence of the new generation[1]. Sure, there's always the occasional jokey one-off, of playing an Amber game where you're elders dealing with these wacky kids, but it's not quite the same.

Now, some of this is kind of understandable. Players should be the focus of play, and kids take focus. It's hard to make kids as important as they should be without that overshadowing your going out and shooting orcs or whatever, and more the introduction of kids introduces all kinds of questions like "how responsible is it, really, to go out and shoot orcs when you have a kid at home?"

At its worse, the introduction of family and kids seems like a threat to suck the fun out of a game in favor of the mundane details of life we may be playing to escape. It's only natural to flinch in the face of this, but it might be worth overcoming that reaction. No, no one wants to be playing a glorified versionof house, but the same things that make a 'family' game challenging can make it awesome. Consider:

  • Heroes with families have something to go home to. I've mentioned this before, but I'll reiterate: having a reason to *not* adventure demands that the reasons for an adventure be good ones. This makes for more work for the GM, but it's "eat your vegetables" kind of work - the reward is more than worth it.
  • On the flipside, heroes with families tend to be more engaged once you get them on board. If this is tied to the health and happiness of their wife or kid? The heroes are all in.
  • Players are used to lacking authority but having freedom. Parents have just enough authority to be frustrated by its lack, and trade that off with responsibility. This is frustrating, but also makes for some interesting play.

That said, I'm not suggesting this is something that suits every game. But look at the thresholds you and your group have crossed, and consider how that might alter your play. Before i was married, a plot centered around a wedding was just color to me, but having actually gone through one (with all the madness that entails) it would not be hard to hook me into caring a lot whether or not the wedding goes off well. Kidnapping someone's spouse? Standard trope of villainy, but allow me a second to think of that in terms of my wife? It is ON.

There's a lot more to this than just spouses and kids. As we get older and our understanding of our parents change from our own experience, it get harder to rage against surrogate father figures in a game[2]. The richness of generational play starts becoming more evident as your own place shifts away from the edge of the generational spread.

1 - The only game I can think of that bridges this gap smoothly is Changeling: The Lost. It's not truly a generational game, but it offers a premise whose meaning depends upon where you are in life. The game begins with the presumption that you have been taken away from everything important in your life by a powerful being and used as its plaything. Meanwhile, a duplicate is living your life in your stead.For one type of players, the driving motivations fury at this powerful figure who has been bossing you around. For another, the prospect of what you are losing in your life is genuinely horrifying. Players with strong ties (which usually means having gotten past the point in your life where you're striking out on your own) can get entirely gut punched by that sense of loss. It's a magnificent idea and a magnificent game.

2 - I watched "Big Fish" with my dad. it's a beautiful movie, and if it does not move you then, in the words of Pete Thurston "you might want ot call a doctor because you're probably dead inside". It's a generational story of stories, and my dad's comment at the end was that he's no longer sure if he was the dad or the son (in the film). At the time, I knew where I stood, but it's been a few years, and I now have a son of my own who is going to make me ask the same question someday.

EDIT: I read this again and I fear it might sound like "You need kids and a marriage to get this deep stuff" and that's not the point at all. What I'm saying is look at what has become important in your life. Maybe it's a family and kids, maybe its something else, but whatever it is you can use the WAYS it's important to you and your players to tell stories that resonate more with them.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Podcasts and Me

The sad reality is that I don't listen to as many gaming podcasts as I used to, mostly because my favorites ('Have Games, Will Travel', it's sequel 'For a Few games More', Sons of Kryos and the Durham 3) are more or less done and many of the remaining ones I enjoy are nearing completion (Ryan Macklin's Master Plan), intermittently updated (That's how We Roll) or in unknown status (Theory from the Closet).

There are still a few consistent ones. I try to stay up with Voice of the Revolution, the IPR podcast, but I admit I am not too diligent about it, partly because I track a lot of that stuff through other channels. 2d6 feet in a Random Direction is always solid, but after that I taper off. There are several good podcasts I check up on regularily, bt don't subscribe, notablye: The Ogre Cave, Independant Insurgency, The Game Master Show, Canon Puncture, Stabbing Contest and All Games Considered. They're all solid, and I keep hearing great things about Return to Northmoor, but the problem is I kind of got burned when I branched out and started looking for other gaming podcasts. I found one, which shall remain nameless, that really put me off the whole thing. Listening to it went something like this:

Host 1: So, I enjoyed the writing on this game, but I think it meandered a bit.
Host 2: I agree. The author clearly had some solid ideas, but wasn't really clear on how to express them.


H1: The good news is a lot of the confusion doesn't actually come up in play.

H2: Howso? It seems like it would really throw things off.


H1: A lot of the confusing stuff handles edge cases that really didn't come up at the table.

I'll spare you any further transcription. The bottom line is that I've ended up feeling a bit alienated from gaming podcasts, and given the sheer volume of them, I've been hesitant to dip my toes back in the water because sorting through them promises to be daunting at best and outright painful at worst. This makes me feel crappy because there are many I'm genuinely curious about (Walking Eye, Eddy Webb's White Wolf Podcast, Open Design, Dial P for Pulp, Green Ronin's Podcast, other's I'm totally forgetting).

I also have a little less time for Podcasts these days. I changed jobs a while back, and my commute is shorter now, and that throws a wrench in my listening habits. It definitely makes me much more time sensitive, and it attracts me to the 5 minute podcasts of the Grammar Girl or Get It Done Guy, which i can mainline much more easily. Anything over a half hour is a commitment I am hesitant to make. That said, if I find something good, I will commit to mainlining it, and I've been working through three seasons of Terry O'Reilly's "Age of Persuasion" podcast and enjoying the hell out of it.

And that, by the by, tangentially touches on something about podcasts. Gaming is the biggest hobby in my life, and a huge part of my life in general, and as a result, I get less out of 15 minutes of gaming talk than I do out of 15 minutes talking about something I don't already know intimately. There are lots of gaming podcasts I enjoy as I would a friendly conversation, but which I'm only going to get so much out of the time spent. This is no sleight to those podcasts; as much as it would be nice if every media was tuned to my taste and needs, that's not a reasonable expectation. But it does mean that gaming podcsts have a harder time fighting for a slice of my attention as a result.

The ones that succeed have, to get all marketing-ey, a unique selling proposition. Things like Paul Tevis's depth of boardgame knowledge, Chris Hanrahan's hands-on retail experience, or nearly anyone's genuine passion for a specific topic are what I need to elevate a podcast from "this is good" to "I need to be listening to this".

That said, I'm open minded. Suggest a podcast in the comments. Whichever one gets the most suggestsions, I will commit to giving it a serious listen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When the fall is all there is, it matters

Gamers crave absolution.

For an array of reasons, we don't like to lose. Some of that comes from the "game" part of the hobby but that's not all of it. We most get into this because we have ideas of heroes triumphing over overwhelming odds through pluck, cunning and sheer force of will, and we don't want to come up short[1]. We want to hold the line. We won't let it happen on our watch. We will run barefoot across broken glass in Nakatomi plaza because somebody has to.

This creates a lot of problems, especially when you're trying to do something that depends on players losing. I'm not talking about randomly losing a fight or pulling off a TPK, but rather the kind of defeats and setbacks that mark the second act of a lot of stories. Even the most trivial of these sorts of problems will often be met by players digging in their heels, putting up their fists, and refusing to let it happen.

At this point, things get ugly. Even if the GM is totally fighting fair, the players may be angry and resentful, and accusations are likely to be thrown about (or worse, linger unspoken). The easy fix for this is, of course, to skip the second act entirely, and that solution works - it's demonstrably worked just fine for gaming for decades - but sometimes you just want to push it a little farther.

This is where absolution comes in.

The trick is that defeat is not about the characters, it is about the players, and as a GM, you need to address those players. You need to get across that the tragedy is coming, whatever the characters do. It is not on their heads, so with that settled, are they willing to get onboard with making it awesome?

It's a simple proposition, but one that is not natural to all players, but usually one or two in a group can pick it up pretty easily, and they provide an example for the rest. An example of what? That's the trick: once players have bought into the idea that things are going to go bad, you need to give them the ability to really direct how badly it goes. Given that, players will generally be much, much nastier to themselves than you would EVER be willing to be.

It's one of those balancing acts of trust and control. Because they know the outcome, the trust level is high, but they still want to maintain control. They're willing to fail, but they need to be allowed to fail big. By absolving them of the normal responsibilities that come with failure, you free them to go for the gusto in ways they never can normally[2].

One of the best examples of this is in Exalted. It is a fact of the setting that the Solar Exalts of the the First Age fell, and the heroes of the game (by default) are the reincarnations of those dead heroes. Because they're tied to that past life, it is not uncommon for events from the first age to come up, most notably in how the character died back then. Players given leeway to describe how that went will, provided they've bought into the idea, make sure their own falls are magnificent, enthusiastically throwing themselves into their character's death because they accept it as inevitable. There is no way for them to be so cunning or charming or stubborn that it won't happen, and with that relation, they seize on the one thing they can do, which is to make it awesome.

1 - This is, incidentally, one of the hardest parts of trying to use fighting anime (and other fighting material) as source material for gaming. For all it's visual awesomeness, the default mode is that the hero gets beat to crap, but won't give up and fights harder at the end, and that's enough to win. Very dramatic, but it makes for crappy play.

2 - The closest you can come is announcing that this is the last session of a game. That can, at times, be intensely liberating.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Gaming DNA

One of the questions form yesterday tickled my fancy, so I'm going to talk about the games I've loved.

I started out with D&D, which I got into because another kid at summer camp had it when I was, like, 8 or 9. The thing I noticed was the diagram of the dragon's breath weapon shapes, and for some reason that struck me as particularly awesome. I think my parents ended up getting me the red box (Erol Otus cover) which I literally read by flashlight, under my covers because it was SO AWESOME. I later got the Expert set, which totally blew my mind, especially the magic items. I'd though the Gauntlets of Ogre Power were awesome, but then I saw the Staff of Wizardry![1]

At the same time, a cool older kid (the son of one of my dad's co-workers) showed me there was this whole _other_ D&D, with illusionists and rangers and stuff. So from about age 10 to 13, my understanding of D&D came from the boxes, half remembered bits read from the Players Handbook, a copy of the Monster Manual that I bought at Waldenbooks (because I had the money and didn't know which book to buy), a copy of one of the Slave Lords modules I got _somewhere_, then eventually a DMG my parents got me for Christmas and eventually a PHB gifted from that same older kid.

Tellingly, at no point during this period did I actually play D&D. I made a LOT of a characters (mostly Rangers named Aragorn who rode silver dragons) and rules for things like a Jedi class. I did play some other games - One friend got a Star Trek RPG, and it was totally incomprehensible to is, but it had ship weapon systems, so we used those to make a ship to ship combat game, that later became a giant Robot Fighting game[2]. At anther summer camp, I got to read the James Bond RPG (notably the Q manual) and Top Secret, and made a lot of Spy Cars, and even played in a sort of ad-hoc Top Secret game with no sheets or rules, just us talking. I lost.

During High School I actually got around to playing D&D, and if you think this has been stereotypical so far, you ain't seen nothing yet. We played D&D with all the bad habits you can imagine. We had party members who existed to steal from party members. We screwed up the Dragonlance Modules. We arranged mass suicide so we could bring in new characters when we lost all our gear n the Slave Lords modules. We were _terrible_, but we had a lot of fun.

College was when I started branching out more. I met a lot of folks through the UVM Science Fiction and Fantasy in Literature program, and got exposed to many new games[3] like Champions, Star Wars, DC Heroes, Traveller, GURPS, Vampire, Paranoia Shadowrun and such, but the big go-to game for the group was Rolemaster. We played the hell out of Rolemaster, with a constantly evolving set of house rules designed to fix problems and to reflect the game currently being played. Those were some of the best games of my life, the sort I still have War Stories from.

During this time, the Amber DRPG also came out, something I had been very excited for, both out of my love of the books and my curiosity about dicelessness. My attempts to actually run the game failed miserably, but I did get involved in playing AmberMUSH, which was good and bad in many ways.

The real zenslap for me came near the end of college when, intrigued by the back copy and some comments online by Bryant Durrell, I picked up a copy of Over the Edge. Holy crap, that book totally upended my view of games. Sure, the setting was cool and all, but the potent, elegant minimalism of the design absolutely knocked my socks off.

After college I moved to DC and hooked up with some people I'd met on AmberMUSH, and got involved with a very large monthly game involving about 20 people form up and down the east coast who got together, played all day Saturday, drank all night, had breakfast and hangovers on Sunday. It was awesome, all the more because it was really more adult gaming than I was used to. The social element of the game was as big a deal as the game itself, and I really dug that. I also ended up as one of the GMs because, well, I had a knack.

Years of Amber followed. There were other games, sure - Feng Shui was a big hit, and I actually ran some very successful Rolemaster games - but Amber was the default mode of the group. But the thing about Amber is that it's really, really easy to retool. We ran Amber under a ton of different systems, most of them being weird hybrids of ideas stolen from the game book I'd most recently read [4].

Somewhere in here I also started paying attention to what people were doing on the Internet. Fudge was fascinating, and Ron Edwards and John Wick were both writing interesting things in random places. But I tried to stick to the edges. For me, was a place for reviews, not forums.

Anyway, towards the end of my time in Maryland, Fred Hicks ran a great Amber game called "Crown of Amber", using Fudge. it was a lot of fun, but what was most telling was that when it came time to end it, Fred ran a final session to actually bring everything to a conclusion. This blew my mind, and when 3e came out, one of my priorities with the Big Epic Game I ran was to have a satisfying conclusion. It worked out OK, I think. That same game also lead to Fred wanting to run another Amber game, Born to Be Kings. FATE was basically invented for that game lut of a long car ride to Lake Tahoe where (Fred and I geeked so hard that it drove his (infinitely tolerant) wife to the other car.

From that point on, things have taken a weird route, weird enough to probably merit their own post someday. But I figure that's a decent snapshot to get a sense how the hell I ended up here.

Extra Bonus: Games I Can Remember That Have Blown Open The Top of My Head[5]
  • Over the Edge
  • Amber DRPG
  • Feng Shui
  • Fading Suns
  • Run Out The Guns
  • Everway
  • Dark Space
  • Trollbabe
  • Donjon
  • Birthright (Setting)
  • Planescape (Setting)
  • Silver Age Sentinels
  • Aria
  • Heroquest
  • Changeling (both versions)

1 - One of my great regrets is that I left the expert box, with all content, on top of the heater one day. it singed a bit, but more importantly, all my dice (my crayoned dice at that) melted.

2 - Which I then programmed. In BASIC. On my Commodore 64.

3 - Including a bootlegged French game on of the guys was translating called "Magnas Veritas" which was more fully titled "Magnas Veritas: In Nomine Satanis", which lead to a big of cognitive dissonance for me a few years later.

4 - I did not make much money, but every payday I took the Metro to Twinbook and walked over to Dream Wizards to see what my extra cash could buy me. Over time, that made for a lot of books.

5 - List is far from comprehensive. I'll be regretting absences all day.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Ok, so it's a non-post-post, but I am willing to blame the complexities tied to 30 inches of snow.

But to be fair to anyone who actually reads this, if you've got a question you want to see me try to answer in the main blog, go ahead and ask in comments. I'll do my level best.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Price of Books

Writers are, unsurprisingly, good at crafting a narrative. As such, the writers have managed to steer the ship of the Amazon story much more effectively than either Amazon or Macmillain. It's no shock that this narrative favors Macmillan - almost everything about ebook pricing is hypothetical, but amazon not selling books is a direct threat to authors. Its reasonable that they favor the side that keeps selling their books.

Unfortunately, that's resulted in the sense that Amazon blinking was some kind of victory for authors[1], and that worries me. First and foremost, there's a big echo chamber in effect here: the book trade has definitely convinced the book trade that this story went a certain way, but that perception is not reflected quite so fervently in the public press. Sure, there are a few op-ed pieces from authors espousing the party line, but the actual news stories are a lot less invested.

And this leads to things like the declaration of the death of the $9.99 ebook, a declaration that is, I think, a bit presumptive. I've said before that I'm sympathetic to the cost of ebooks being non-zero, but the fact that book nerds grasp the fine points of the pricing enough to appreciate that does not mean that knowledge is widespread[2]. Here's an unfortunate reality: the readers who make up the ebook market are never going to be more saavy than they are today. It is currently a field full of early adopters, and that means there's a high proportion of knowledgeable folks. If the ebook market grows, its going to grow to the people who do not give a crap about the problems of production and distribution: they are people who will look at a product and simply decide if it is too expensive or not based on its own merits.

These people are going to be hard pressed to justify spending $15 on a computer file.

And the thing is, the publishers are more ok with this than not. If the whole ebook idea were to just die, they'd mostly be ok with that - lord knows they were happy to see it happen the first time. Sure, there's be the O'Reillys of the world who might soldier on, but for most big publishers, it's a big unknown that threatens to disrupt their already tenuous business model. Amazon and the kindle made it necessary for them to address the market, but if they can keep it priced high enough to stay a niche market, then that works well for them.

Of course, there's no real chance of that happening.

Book pricing doesn't follow the same rules that many other products have. If I want to buy a book, say Gladwell's "Blink", then it has a price set by the publisher. I might get a better or worse deal based on how steep a discount an individual reseller offers[3] but the base price of the book is fixed. There is no secondary company offering me the same book with a different cover for a lower price tag, or another company offering me the same book with extra bells and whistles for the same price. There's one source, and it dictates the price, without competition.[4]

So now these books are going to move to the ipad at a price set by the publisher, and it'll be high. This'll hurt the larger ebook market[5] and that's going to murder the kindle in the short run. The kindle is expensive, and reasonably priced books are part of its value proposition. The iPad, on the other hand, only has ebooks as an incidental aside, so their price has no part in its value proposition. That is to say, if ebooks are $15, then I might decide not to get a kindle because the total price is too high, but that same price point is unlikely to affect my purchase of an ipad because that's only tangential to why I'm making the purchase.

But here's the problem: The value of ebooks is arbitrary.

Consider for a moment a copy of "Blink". Now imagine a book of the same size filled entirely with thousands of lines of "row, Row, Row your boat". Now, there is a _cost_ difference in producing these two books (paying the write, editor and so on), but per the echo chamber above, no one outside the book trade really gives a crap about that. For the book buyer, looking at these on the shelf, there is a value difference between these two books that he's willing to put a price tag on, but it's always a question what that price point will be. If you price the real book for $15 and the junk book for $0.01, the buyer will balk. The junk book may be junk, but it's clearly worth more than a penny - clearly the difference is just markup. So you try to close that gap.

Now, there _is_ some price point at which the customer will be comfortable, but how your reach it can be rough. Remember, there's no competition, so the market can't really decide what your book is worth, except possibly in terms of other books (is Blink worth more or less than The Tipping Point?). The alternative is that you fix prices.

Now, publishers have been fixing prices forever, so they're ok with this, but that old model doesn't hold up as well online, partly because there's greater visibility, but partly because the feedback cycle is faster. Basically, you need to set a perceived reasonable price (as Apple did with 99 cent music tracks) or else you'll experience a race for the bottom as everyone involved moves to compete on price.

And this is why punting Amazon may ultimately hurt the publishers. The terms were not what they wanted, but Amazon had been very successfully creating a default perceived value for an ebook at 10 bucks. That seems like a terrible thing when you think you can get more than that for an ebook, but its going to look MUCH better when the price you can expect to sell for starts getting lower.

Am I confident that book prices will get driven lower than $10? Absolutely. They will get driven as low as they can while still turning a profit for the publishers[6] unless something artificially keeps them higher. Right now there are a lot of inefficiencies tied up in legacy business (y'know, actual books) but those will get trimmed down with time, technology and outsourcing and prices will reflect that[7] (again, unless they are artificially set in some fashion). Right now, book prices are something of a walled garden more than a marketplace, because the book trade wouldn't survive in its current form in a true market.[8]

I worry that publishers are making a decision in favor of short term gain and fear of change that is, ultimately, going to hurt themselves and the book trade immeasurably. That this may mean greater opportunity for small publishers with new ideas and greater flexibility is cold comfort at best.

(Of course, the reality is that the publishers are probably already colluding to create a fixed price structure on the ipad - it's not going to be a coincidence that their best-sellers are all identically priced - and the question is whether they can get away with it in such a visible place as out in the open on the internet?)

1 - Because authors will see so much more money under this deal...OH WAIT.

2 - Especially since the information out there is laced with a lot of self-serving misinformation.

3 - This, by the way, is part of why the "The publisher takes all the risk, the retailer exploits them!" argument is not as strong as it looks. Retailers need high margins so they can offer deep discounts. This is not a terribly reasonable model.

4 - This is, by the way, why Amazon's complaint about Macmillan's monopoly on their own products is not as silly as it sounds on the surface. It's into a great choice of words simply because it was so easily twisted into a joke, but this sort of exclusivity is actually a real problem, especially if you expect prices to be rational.

5 - Though that pain may mean more opportunity for the small players, and I'm good with that.

6 - The publishers, not the authors.

7 - I don't see that going great for authors, but I may be cynical.

8 - And there's a lot of pain associated with that. Publishers don't come of great in my perspective, but they also get checks to authors and put books on shelves, many of which are _not_ going to be the next best seller. While, as companies, they don't do this out of any generosity, the actual people involved tend to be real book lovers who have chosen this business because of their passion for it, not any sense that books will make you rich. If the book marketplace were to become rational, it would kill the midlist, at least for a while. That would suck immensely, and there's no guarantee that what would come next would be any real improvement.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Live the Fantasy (Football)

I try not to mock things that other people find fun. I don't always succeed, but it’s a good goal. See, I figure I'm totally happy to mock things people find important, because 'important' isn't really that useful a yardstick - lots of dumb things are important. But "fun" is pretty meaningful, in part because it’s sincere – people don’t talk about the things they find fun to sound cool or to impress other people[1]

That sincerity is a big deal, because it's not obvious why people find things fun, especially things you just don't understand. The instinct is often to find ways to justify your original idea (that the thing isn't fun and these people are wrong in some way) and look at it strictly through that lens, but I've consistently found it more valuable to really try to get my head around the fun people are having because that often gives me ideas I can steal for my own fun.

So I've been staring at Fantasy Football. Yes, I've passed around the jokes. It's D&D for people who beat up D&D players in high school. It's nerdier than D&D ever was, it just doesn't know it. Har har.

But, man, people play it. Lots of people. People who would laugh in your face (or at least look very pained) if you were to print up the rules for this game, put it in a box, and expect them to play. That's amazing, and it's something that really makes me stop and think.

Now, the obvious explanation is that fantasy sports succeed because they're tied to something people are already passionate about (sports franchises), it's a social object (people can talk about it[2]) and by extension it's socially acceptable. Those are all valid points, and while I am certain they're contributors, they are equally true about the discussion of the games themselves - there is something more that comes out of the game element of it.

Fantasy Sports still take many forms, and there are lots of variants out there, but their general shape has evolved through heavy use and revisioning[3]. In many ways, they're a better example of "Crowdsourcing" than anything the black turtleneck crowd would put forward (though that's become less true as it's gotten co-opted). For all that, I'd like to point to five things fantasy sports do that might provide useful lessons for other games.

Understanding is Not Required for Decisions
The rules you need to know to play a fantasy sport are incredibly simple. You have a list of players. From that list, decide how you want to fill a team roster this week. Bam. Done.

While it might be helpful towards your final score to understand what the numbers next to someone's name are, it's not necessary for you to be bale to play. You could pick people at random, because you like their team, because you like the sound of their names or because your cat told you to.

Perhaps even more potently, because the score you generate is based on events yet to come (who plays and how well) then there's often a lot of luck in the decisions you make, enough so that *any* method of selection will probably produce enough hits and misses to feel satisfying.

This means that it is incredibly easy to start playing and probably do ok.

Potential for Understanding is Bottomless
If, on the other hand, you want to really delve into the minutiae of the games, you absolutely can. There is more information (stats, news, personalities) than can ever be absorbed, and its utility as a predictive tool is questionable at best. But that's not important. You can gravitate towards whatever level of understanding you are most comfortable with, and that will be a perfectly effective platform to play.

"Turns" are long in fantasy sports, and the window of when you need to act is fairly small. As with understanding, this supports many different levels of interest. The guy who just picks out of a hat the day before game day is taking his turn just as well as the guy who spends his week poring over ESPN looking for details.

But that also has an extra bonus: you can be playing the game even when you're not playing the game. For a certain personality (like players of web-based games like Kingdom of Loathing) that's huge. It's a time-filling activity (to say nothing of fodder for discussion) and people are often desperate for that.

Cognitive Focus
It takes a fair amount of knowledge to appreciate most sports. Without it, football is just guys hitting each other, and baseball is a bunch of guys standing around in their pajamas.

The problem is that beyond a certain level of basic understanding, the potential depth of knowledge is HUGE - all the players and coaches, all their stats, all their careers.[4] The average fan is not going to have all that information.

Playing fantasy sports provides a narrow slice of that information you may want to care about - the stats and careers of the players on your roster. You can relax your brain a bit and worry less about the rest of the league, and just worry about "your guys."[5]

Social Game is Supplemental
Like most good games, there is a technical game and a social game to fantasy sports. In this case, the social game is that of trading roster members with other players. Importantly, the Social game can _improve_ the technical game, but it is not *required*. This offers the best of both worlds - players how enjoy the social game can dive in, but more tentative players can stand back, or just dip a toe in if they're inclined.

Using Tools
Fantasy sports are aggressive in their use of tools to make things easier. This is a good sentiment in general, but it also is interesting given how simple the actual act of playing is. If the tools were solely focuses on play, they would be small and sparse, but the reality is that they're robust as all hell. That's because the tools support play, not the game.

Looking at these all together, I want to call out the thread that runs through most of these[6]: letting the player find her own comfort level, and making that rewarding. This is not an idea I see a lot in most games, be they board, RP or video. The assumption of most published games is that there is a particular mode, and the player should be brought to it.

It's not a bad assumption: the tradeoff for that expectation is that it guarantees a certain level of player investment in the game, at least in theory. Still, I can't help but wonder what a game that takes these ideas to heart might look like.[7]

1 - Ok, they sometimes do, but not often, and you can tell. Usually it's because they want to impress someone in particular, and I can forgive that since it's usually under the "Trying to score" umbrella.

2 - And oh god they do. If you want to have your assumption that only geeks of various stripes drone on and on about minutiae nobody cares about from a game, hang out with some Fantasy football fans. I don't say this to criticize the fans but rather to suggest that being a colossal dork is not something limited purely to geeks - it's a human failing, albeit one needs an appropriate trigger.

3 - Rapid Revisioning is another great strength of this form. The rules are not terribly calcified, and there's incentive to tune them every season. Since each season provides copious sample data, there is also enough data to base revisions on.

4 - Some people can rattle this stuff off, and I am in awe of them. It is the greatest proof I know that very few people are truly stupid, rather that people are very smart about things they actually care about, though that list may be quite short.

5 - Paradoxically, reducing interest in the sport at large serves to *increase* interest in the sport at large. Your narrow group of guys you care about give you a reason to care about games and teams you might previously have been indifferent to.

6 - But not all, I concede. Some of the lessons depend on the timeframe fantasy sports operate on, and that's not necessarily applicable to all games. Not to say it can't be informative - play during downtime between sessions is a surprisingly robust topic.

7 - To some extent, this is something Fred and I have kicked around a lot, leading to the initial idea of FATE as a "fractal" design. There's an idealized game out there where character sheets trade off granularity for control, so one player might have a simple, Risus or OTE-like character sheet while another might have a vastly detailed one. As an example, imagine a World of Darkness game where my character sheet said "Ex-Soldier ********, Phone Phreak ******, Bully *****" and Fred had a fully filled out sheet. For 90% of the game, those two sheets could be used equally well with only a few rubrics in my head for handling odd cases. The advantage is that first sheet is appealing to one sort of player, but the second appeals to another. The ultimate question is how you turn those into a scale that people can find their place on.