Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Something I Read

It is usually a red flag when someone decides to write a story based on their RPG session or sessions. It's not impossible to do well, but it's easy to do badly, and the more tightly the story hews to the events of the game, the more likely it's going to be a terrible story even if the adventure was absolutely fantastic. The simple truth is that games make very bad stories, at least if they're recounted as they happened.

Games can, however, make a great starting point for a story. One of the things that separates the good from the dreadfully dull is a willingness to apply a little alchemy to the tale, to tighten up the pacing, get a little less literal, maybe take a few liberties, and concentrate on a story that is good rather than one that is accurate. One excellent means of making this transformation is to change to a medium other than text, especially something visual, like a comic.

It is with all that in mind that I recommend Clockworks, a steampunk/fantasy webcomic by Shawn Gaston that's based off a Savage Worlds campaign.

So, I dig Savage Worlds and all, but there is really no better advertisement for that game than this comic. For all that it looks good and tells a story, it's still got enough recognizable gamer-ness that it's hard to read without thinking how much fun it would be to run a game like this. It's got one of those premises (not-quite-city-watch in the bad part of a huge steampunk city) that a lot of games shoot for but which usually ends up falling down because it's so hard to capture properly. Clockworks does a great job of demonstrating that visuals make all the difference - like most steampunk-ey things, the aesthetic is one that is simple to grasp when well illustrated (as it is in this case) but which is much harder to really nail down otherwise.[1]

I'm also not joking about it being a good advertisement. Savage Worlds is a game I like, but it's about 15 degrees off from what I'm looking for, so it's a perpetual also-ran when I'm considering games[2]. But Clockworks keeps it bubbling to the top of the pile because, in part, I have no difficulty believing this story I'm reading could be captured with Savage Worlds. This good feeling has lead directly to the purchase of a couple Savage Worlds books and the serious considerations of others, and when the day comes that Mr. Gaston and company produce their own Savage World book for this setting, you bet your ass I'm picking it up.

1 - Am I saying steampunk is a primarily visual medium? I guess I am. Even the books seem to rely on a shorthand for goggles and gears that only really works if you already know what it look like.

2 - The fact that superheroes are better served diving for cover just doesn't sit comfortably with me. I get why it's so - SW scratches a tactical itch without getting too crunchy about it - but I feel like genre suffers as a result. This is not a flaw in the game, merely a difference in taste.

(images totally illicitly clipped from the Clockwork Comic)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blood from a Stone

'Income Streams' is one of those ideas that I've seen appropriated by hipster marketing, but which I give some thought to anyway. The idea is that if you want to secure your financial future, you'd be well served to set up multiple sources of income ('streams') to supplement your salary. Rental properties, freelance work and financial assets that pay regular dividends are good examples of additional income streams. The idea is that the more of these you have, the more secure you are. Even if the total volume isn't huge, the diversity means you're more likely to weather a storm that might knock out one or two streams. Someone who relies on a single stream (that is to say, a salary) will pretty much live or die by that one stream.

Well and good, but where the marketers come in is in merging this with production and the internet. If you're creative, they say, you should be able to be able to make STUFF with VALUE! And because the internet allows low cost distribution and delivery of your STUFF, you can turn your creativity directly into money. And if you're not sure how to do this, then you can be sure they have no shortage of books and seminars on the topic that you can buy[1].

But that got me thinking about gaming because, to be frank, this is not the best paying gig out there despite being stuffed to the gills with smart, talented people. There are plenty of reasons for this, supply may outstrip demand for one. That it's one of the most tight-fisted of hobby markets is another. People will tell you with great authority why it is so, and so long as you grow more suspicious as they grow more certain, it can be an interesting topic.

But that got me thinking about income streams. Gaming doesn't have a lot of evergreen[2] products (written ones in particular), and it's curious to me why this is so.

Some of this is the nature of the products. Games age, die and are reborn. We have a habit of considering any game that is not currently in active distribution as "Dead" even though it's no more or less playable than it was. The net result is that everything is built on a slow churn that guarantees that almost any product will become irrelevant in time.

Some of it is the sales model. Before the Internet, there were practical limitation on shelf space in what were mostly small, private shops. Things aged and were moved into the discount bin. If something was evergreen, it only remained so for as long as the game was "alive" and it would eventually just vanish.

Some of it may be that there aren't many products with the potential to be evergreen. Setting aside the birth and death of game systems, there are not a huge number of systemless books out there which are as useful now as they were ten years ago. There are some (Grimtooth's traps, Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and Nightmare's of Mine, to name a few) but they have historically run into problems with distribution or availability. Even if players want them, there's nothing saying they're necessarily available.

But that's all changed of late.

While WOTC has managed to kick the idea of e-publishing in the junk, there are still many many games that are now available through different channels, from digital download to print on demand to direct distribution or distribution through small outfits like IPR. With this, a lot of the barriers that might keep a product from being evergreen have been removed.[3] There's still a shortage of products designed for longevity, but that seems self correcting.

As it stands, I think the only real limiter remaining is the pdf.

PDFs have a lot of advantages, but they are mostly advantages that any other digital format would share (durability, portability, ease of storage and so on). In contrast, a lot of the limitations of PDF are not necessarily something that other formats will share. Formats that are designed for reading, rather than to simply emulate the printed page, are going to have a much longer shelf life as reading devices become more ubiquitous. Today it's the kindle. In a week it's going to be the iPad. In a year, it'll be something else. But whatever form the technology takes, we would be well served to consider the utility of books that are going to be able to be used by the next generation of readers, not merely displayed on backwards compatible devices with big enough screens.

Which brings us back to income streams. A sale now is good, be it print or PDF, and it's easy to just leave it there. Gaming products are fringy, and there's no way to be sure that your product would keep selling after that initial burst of interest. And all I can say s this: if that's how you make your decision, you can be sure you're going to be right.

So here's my question to everyone who hopes that maybe that thing they wrote today might still make them a few bucks in five or ten years: why aren't you writing an ebook?

1 - I sound cynical because I am. I still read marketing books because they're often useful, but it's important to remember that the primary argument for how marketing is really about passion and authenticity and storytelling comes from the marketers. Seriously, I'd like to believe. It really is easy to market something you're genuinely passionate about, because then the challenge is figuring out how to communicate that passion. Heck, it's even kind of cool to market for someone else's genuine passion, because you can try to capture that. But if you ever, for a second, think that's what the bulk of marketing is, I suggest you watch a beer ad sometime.

But I'm not upset about this, I'm really not. Marketers gotta get paid, same as anyone else, and I can't really object to them realizing that the thing they really benefit from marketing is marketing itself. But I'm disinclined to line up to celebrate it.

2 - An evergreen product is one that will keep selling every year, in contrast to a bestseller which may sell big for a year, then dwindle to no sales over the next few years. The Lord of the Rings novels, for example, are evergreen. Every bookstore carried them because you could always count on a steady flow of sales. Note that this can be a little fuzzy. Some game _lines_ are evergreen
(Cthulu, D&D) but the actual products are not. Similarly, dice are evergreen, but I doubt any particular dice are.

3 - Though some have been replaced. With a million zillion products available, it it easy for a potentially evergreen product to simply disappear.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Setting Matters to Me

Setting is, to me, the reason players engage. System can be fun, but setting provides the material to actually care about. See the problem is this.

This is Bob. Like any player, all he really wants is something interesting.

And this is Bob's character.

But no matter how engaged that character is, unless the setting is engaging, then Bob is still:Bob needs to care about the setting. He needs to care about the people in it, and about what happens to it. it needs to become as real to him as the other fake things in his life, like books, movies, TV and the Internet. Only then will I get the engagement I want from Bob.

Simple as that.[1]

1 - This is, btw, one of 4e's great strengths. It provides something interesting through pure play experience alone. For people who enjoy it (obviously not everyone) it doesn't really matter if the story and background of a given adventure is a pile of crap (as it often is) because the fun of the game is in the actual fight scenes. All that literary advice about conflict needing purpose? Out the window. Conflict is a perfectly valid purpose in 4e.

As an additional note, Bob's character's image came from one of the stock art packs I bought from
The Forge Studios a while back.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Gaming Zenslap

Sorry for the delay today. I've been asleep for the past 22 hours, so things slipped. Still, something must go up, and here it is.

I used to be a bit of an RPG snob. I consider it a phase, but it's what comes out of reading many many games and having Strong Opinions about them. Plus, as I got out of college, this whole internet thing was really booming, and it showed me that A) There were lots more other gamers out there and B) that their default social mode was total dickery. I don't think I ever fell that far, but I definitely learned some bad habits.

One of them was so stereotypical that it kind of hurts these days, and that was - of course - White Wolf bashing, almost invariably in the form of Vampire. Some of it was stuff I consider legitimate to this day (like adventure design with PCs as audience)[1] most of it was the less-than-subtle eyeroll when a black-clad gaiman fan would go off about how it was the Best Thing Evar.

This took a turn when, in a moment of conversation with a good friend who was a big booster, I asked her to really break down what made it so great. Her answer was not what I expected. Rather than zeroing in on Clans or Disciplines or Humanity or any of that, she said she liked it because of the Nature and Demeanor.[2] The rest of the sheet was just noise to her, but those two things really helped her play the character.

Now, I'm not holding this up as some great truth, or even as emblematic of some portion of the fanbase, but it was such a *drastic* departure from my expectations that it lead to me stepping back and reconsidering a lot of my other expectations about games and gamers.

Since then, It's been a lot easier for me to be comfortable with the different ways in which people get their fun, and more skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. Even more, it's made me more enthusiastic to look at things I don't necessarily get and try to understand where people find their fun.

It has not simplified my gaming life, but it has improved it immeasurably.

1 - Stuff that hasn't been a problem in the nWoD I hasten to add.

2 - For the unfamiliar, they were basically your true nature, and the facade you showed the world. Mechanically, these were really soft things, like your name, and most hardcore players I'd dleat with considered them an afterthought at best.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping Secrets

I seem to be crazy sick, so just a short one today.

I raised a question on Twitter, and while I also answered it, I got some very good answers as well. Good enough that I want to re-iterate it here to see what people have to add.

The question is, if your game's setting has a secret war, what keeps it secret?

One option is that reality basically rewrites itself to make everything normal. Feng Shui's critical shifts, as well as Scion's shroud serve this purpose.

Another is that there are consequences to revealing the secret. Those might be metaphysical (like Paradox, in mage), personal (the crowd-effect in Witchcraft, or a system where the secret is more painful or weak the more public it is.)

Yet another is that the secret has some intrinsic quality, such as it is more powerful as fewer people know it (I really dig this one since it suggests a sort of espionage/highlander model) or there is something toxic about the knowledge (a la Esoterrorists).

The conflicts of the secret war might happen at a remove, such as in another world (The Matrix is a good example here) or a dreamscape.

It might be an active conspiracy by someone higher up the food chain - aliens, the Men in Black or the strangers from Dark City - who actively maintain normalcy. These often end up being the big bad of such a setting, but that's not such a bad thing. As a variant, an oppressive regime could control the flow of information to keep things hidden. It might even be reasonably benign, a la the Truman Show.

It could be that everyone is already in on the secret, but playing along. This could be anything from full bore paranoia to a local thing (epitomized by Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars) or played up for comedy.[1]

And, of course, there's simple disbelief. I've always been a little skeptical of this one, but as I was doing research for The Dresden Files I discovered just how many people in America and the world genuinely believe in the supernatural (magic, angels, vampires - the works). And not just casually - they fervently believe this stuff and talk it up, and we generally just dismiss it as crazy. I still think it's a little thin if buildings start blowing up, but the tendency to disbelieve and mock that which is different could definitely help someone looking to keep a big secret.

Anyway, I'm turning these over in my head, for reasons I won't really be able to think about until May at the earliest, and I;m curious if there are any other models I've missed.

1 - This, BTW, introduced me to my favorite new word of the moment, Mokita. It means "The truth everyone knows but no one talks about" (via @WeaverChilde)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Villainous Thoughts

I just listened to an excellent Age of Persuasion on the role of villains in advertising. The role is very similar to what it is in fiction and gaming, but it's all a little bit closer to the surface. The villain's role is not to provide opposition (though it may appear so), but rather it is to highlight the attributes of the hero.[1] It's a useful bit of perspective, and certainly speaks to some of the things you want to think about when you design a villain. Specifically, you want to think about what it is you want to showcase - a villain that lets a player show off his character's cool abilities is probably going to be different than one whose actions cut right to the emotional core of the character, though a villain may well be able to do both of these.

Whatever you use them for, villains are tremendously useful in gaming, and with that in mind I want to talk about a few things that are important to remember when you craft up your villains.

Response is Better than Nullification - This is a big one, because it applies equally strongly to the big picture as it does to round-to-round combat. The villain should never make things not happen. In the context of a fight, he should not be immune to the player's capabilities. In the larger context, he should not cancel out a player's goals or motivations. In both cases, the villain's interaction with these things should be dynamic.

The immunity to powers matter is a classic problem in D&D and similar games, and in large part it's because the designers felt that it would be cool to give the players access to abilities like Charm Person and then never let them use it when it matters. This is, of course, intensely lame, but it does acknowledge a real problem. If your game has these potential scene-breaking powers[2], you need to be ready to deal with it in some way more useful than "nuh uh". Consider that the villain knows that these things are potential options, and consider what contingencies he might put in place to prevent them[3]. If a character can't use his signature Thundering Death Fist because the villain has Death Fist Immunity, then that's lame. If the character can't use the Thundering Death Fist because the villain has put hostages in a glass-bottomed cage over lava, and the thundering would also shatter the glass, that's fantastic. Not only has it added an extra element to the scene, it has demonstrated that the villain respects the character's abilities.

If you find yourself in the position where you have too many of these things to deal with, and your villains are engaging in truly preposterous levels of preparation, then I'll be frank - take a long hard look at your system. If it's so easy for players to steamroller opposition then either you're doing something wrong or the game is.

In the larger context, there is a temptation to have a villain nullify things in the name of drama. It's rare that the GM thinks of it as nullification, but when you decide to kill the girlfriend and stuff her in the fridge[4] you are announcing that

A) You could not think of anything interesting to do with the girlfriend and
B) That you're kind of a tool.

Destroying things seems like a cheap and easy path to drama, but in reality it is far less satisfying than merely threaten an thing. As I said in a previous post, killing someone's dad is lame. Introducing a character who's trying to kill someone's dad is awesome.

Layers Have Limits
- I have a great respect for the progression of villains[5] but it needs to be handled carefully. It seems like a trick that makes your life easier - after all it allows for the players to kill more villains and for you to introduce a wider range of villain types- but it's actually much more work for you because you need to make sure that each successive villain creates as much emotional response as the one before it. It is distractingly meta when you realize that you're basically fighting a throwaway villain or two solely because the plot won't let you fight the main bad guy yet. It's just clumsy design. If you are going to do a progression of villains, make sure that the progression is the one the players choose. That is to say, the guy they think should be the next villain damn well better be the next villain.

When Not to Fight - If you're ever stumped for a villain, write one up who the players can crush in a fight. When the Villain is big and tough, it's a pretty easy crutch to fall back on a confrontation, but when the villain is a bureaucrat or a clerk, you need to think much harder about how he can be a real threat, and you end up using much more interesting and sophisticated dangers than new piles of mooks.

Villains are the Hero of their Own Story
- This one is old enough to be a chestnut, but it's worth digging out just to remind people. Villains are doing things that make sense to them, and if you can get your head around what they want and what they're willing to do for it, thye come across as much more believable. This is not an invitation to invest heavily in the character so much as a trick to provide verisimilitude.

But That Doesn't Mean They're Not Dicks - It is also easy to get swept up in the sympathetic villain, and while there's certainly some room for that, try to keep it to a minimum. Sometimes, maybe even often, people are kind of jerks without requiring deep motivations or profound plotting. Your villains does not have to be someone who you would want to have dinner with. If you lack for inspiration in this, then just look to all the people who piss you off daily. Yes, putting yourself in their shoes is an important empathetic activity to understand why they thing "no right turn on red" doesn't apply to them, but sometimes empathy just helps you conclude that it's because they're kind of a dick.

The Speech is Real - I've written about this before, so the short of it is this: a good villain has every reason to lay out a good villainous monologue, and it is likely to sound a lot like an Internet rant.

A Villain's Story is Also Called and Adventure - If you find yourself strongly invested in a villain, use that to your game's advantage. Villains are a proactive lot, and they tend to have stories that are something like '[ANTAGONIST] wants [A THING] and [DOES SOMETHING] to get it, overcoming [OPPOSITION] in the process.' Think about your villains story, then think about the places where it might go wrong - "might go wrong" is a fantastic code phrase for "Where players show up". The thing that makes this trick most useful is that if you have a villain who is clear in your head, adventures write themselves. You answer questions about what the villain needs to do to accomplish his goal, what resources he brings to bear, who he hires or recruits, and pretty soon you have all the fixings of an adventure. The only hard part is that you may have to jump through hoops to figure out how a gigantic subterranean lair fits into it…again.

1 - I deliberately say hero rather than protagonist because, unlike in fiction, advertisements about people cannot be as easily pawned off as art.

2 - And a point in 4e's favor is that it's pretty much shed itself of this problem, though certain tradeoffs had to be made for that.

3 - If you're hard up for ideas, steal the contingencies your players use to protect themselves

4- If you do not get this reference, you are one of the lucky ones.

5- The idea that the first villain you meet works for the second one, who works for the third one and so on. This is almost a necessity for D&D or any other level-based game because it allows the villain organization to "level up" with the players. Unfortunately, it also ends up stretching credulity, as you end up with the World of Warcraft problem of Town Guards capable of killing everything on the planet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Random Day

Commitment is writing this when I could be playing Dragon Age: Awakenings. No review yet - it's fun so far, and I think the expansions of mythology may end up being very useful for tabletop, but I want to finish it before really assessing things. That said, I have one thing to say to Bioware.



In other news, I want to point folks over at this. Margaret Weis Productions has lifted the veil of secrecy on their other project. Josh Roby is at the helm of a Cortex version of Smallville, an if you thinking we've done weird things for Leverage, you ain't seen nothing yet. I am so excited for this product that I occasionally feel like I'm kin doff cheating on my own product.

There are other cool things for the future. Daniel Solis launched a kickstart for his very clever game, Happy Birthday Robot, and hit his contribution goal in 24 hours. Daniel keeps being surprised by things like this, but this is only because he's not aware of just how awesome his stuff is. Jess Hartley has also launched a patronage project, The Shattered Glass Project, and response has been great. The bottom line, really, is that the cloud of awesome is very large.

In the realm of awesome thing soy can get right now, you should check out Will Hindmarch's Alien Survivor. It's a self contained game of survival hour built on the chassis of John Harper's Lady Blackbird. If you don't know what Lady Blackbird it, then go check it out - I don't want to spoil the surprise, but you are in for one magnificent treat.

No? Well then how about a free copy of the magnificent game of Olympian planetary romance, Nine Worlds? This game had literally vanished for a time, and that was a great shame. I'm glad it's back in the light.

Still not enough? How about a 39 page preview of the Dresden Files RPG? Nevermore - Charm City was never quite so darkly charming.

And if all that is not enough, then perhaps you'd like a little cake or pie?

(And as long as I'm throwing around random links today, if there's something cool out there on the net you want to call attention to, feel free to do so in the comments!)

Monday, March 22, 2010

4E and Me (Books, that is)

I think the last 4e book I bought was Divine Power, or maybe PHB2, I forget which came last. I got AV2 and DMG2 comp copies but that's been about it. It's no because I have no love of 4E, but rather that my DDI subscrption gets me everything I need from the books. I know there's some extra color material I'm missing out on, but for the bulk of books, the extra content is not worth the extra money. This is no sleight to the content - it's good stuff - but I've already put in the cost of DDI, so a book needs to be able to support it's cover price purely on the materia I DON'T have, and that's hard.

But not impossible[1]. I just picked up the PHB3 in large part because the PHBs are historically pretty awesome, and they tend to be the sharp end of new ideas for the game. That much content is a lot easier to flip through as a book than on the website.

It's pretty cool. Monks still scare me, psonics still seem to work ok. The races don't really excite me much, but I'm sure they're to somebody's taste. Hybrid classes look like they're A) fun and B) something I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole without the character builder software. Skill powers are...blah.[2]

But what's interesting to me is that at this point, I can no longer imagine using all the classes and races in the game at the same time. PHB2 was pushing the bounds of this, but 3 absolutely makes it so. It's rather like my observation on Mage - there's too much stuff to take in all at once, but you can extract specific narrow slices of it and find something awesome.

What's funnier still is that this recognition actually improves the game for me. Whereas imagining everything all at once produces a muddy mess, imagining the game with any 8 character classes (or less) produces all sorts of interesting ideas. Why _this_ set? What does this say about the world?

Sadly, that's probably not enough to get a new game up and running. The overhead of playing 4e is still more than I'm really ready to wrestle with. So I'll keep waiting for the box set and hoping maybe it's the thing I hope it will be.

1 - I'll also probably pick up the Dark Sun books. Setting doesn't do so well on DDI.

2 - They're not bad, but it's a matter of what I'd want. They don't make Skills more useful as skills, they just make them more useful in combat. For me, that's a problem that was really, really not looking for a solution. But, hey, more powers.

Friday, March 19, 2010

When Boring is Fun

Stories and games have been being chewed on this week in a way that I find a lot more fruitful than the usual dance, and I explicitly want to point over at Chuck's blog and Gameplaywright for good stuff to read on the topic. I've found a lot of good fruit in this thinking, and the question of what it is that games do well (and poorly)[1]. My short suspicion is that games look like stories not because they are but because the events in games are the kinds of things you tell stories about - that is to say, cool, interesting, exciting things - and the similarity to stories has more to do with the compression algorithm that makes fiction than something inherent in their structure.

But that got me thinking about things that are exciting, interesting or compelling but make bad stories. Are maybe those sort of things in an area similar to where games live? Specifically, could the difference be found within? That required thinking about what you can't storytell about well, and at first that seemed a daunting challenge. A good writer can make even very mundane things compelling, but there's the rub. There are certain tricks that are used to write about certain things to make up for the fact that the thing itself doesn't make a good story.

This is best revealed in any long activity, where endurance is part of the satisfaction. Climbing a mountain is long and hard work, but it can be intensely rewarding and satisfying. Telling the story of a climb in any irect way will be very boring indeed, and capture none of what actually makes it compelling. Instead, an author will turn it into a story by focusing in on a single, emblematic moment, or using the climb as a framework to tell other stories that might symbolically resonate with the climb[2]. There are plenty of tricks to do this, but the point is fiction compressed (or perhaps more poetically, distills) the experience to find something compelling in it, even if that thing you find is not the reason someone climbed a mountain in the first place.

Games, and in this case I especially mean video games, have a different sort of compression algorithm, and most notably, endurance is in their bag of tricks. Done badly it's slog or grind, but games can have their player commit hours to activities which would be described in a few sentences in text. Sure, it's not a full mountain climb - it's still compressed - but its much closer to the experience.

What's interesting me most is that as I've been writing this, I've found I don't have the words for these things. Because we can't represent it in fiction, there's not a lot of common language for satisfaction out of endurance[3]. I've got tons of words for other types of satisfaction, but not this. Yet despite that lack of words this is a real thing, and something that games serve well.

And that feels to me like a blind spot. We've talked about how it might be worth having the game experience have its own word to distinguish it form the structures we've associated with story, but that has also come with an idea that the stories you get out of games are more raw, unfinished clay - full of power, maybe, but not much else. But thinking about endurance makes me wonder how much of this is really about our limited (and self perpetuation) understanding of stories rather than some shortcoming in games.

1 - And whether we'd all be better off if it was called something other than story. A lot of this came out of my trying to think of how one describes Shadow of the Colossus.

2 - This isn't limited to writing. In film or TV, for example, this will be a montage.

3 - I'm sure there IS a word, something latin-y and used by people who use "Fiero" in sentences, but jargon doesn't count.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Worldbuilding is Easy

This whole worldbuilding thing has been on my mind since hearing some of the comments about transmedia from SXSW. For those unfamiliar, transmedia is currently the hip phrase to describe using different media platforms to tell a larger story. For example, consider the television show Heroes. In addition to the TV show, it has webisodes and a sort-of comic book (also available online) to say nothing of various cel-phone points of interaction. Each part ideally stands on its own, but taken as a whole it creates a bigger, more satisfying picture. As a storytelling mechanism, it lets a creator tell stories in more dimensions, and as a marketing gimmick it lets you squeeze a lot more selling out of a single piece of IP. Other good examples of this include ARGs and, for all that this is a hip new phrase, there are lots of older examples of this from all the various Star Wars spinoffs to the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

If I sound cynical, it's because I am, but perhaps not as much as you might think. The marketing end of this is pretty shameless, and it hinges on making more money from less creative material while reinforcing the idea that you should go back to the well, no matter how dry it seems[1]. Plus, the new buzzword for an old idea is pretty lame. However, from a purely creative, storytelling angle this seems to have some juice to it. The idea may not be new, but calling it something helps gives creatives permission to push the boundaries a bit[2] and that hopefully means we get more good stuff out of it as a result.

The part that worries me is worldbuilding. This seems to be riding along in the buzzwake of transmedia - the idea that for transmedia success you don't need to storytell, you need to worldbuild. After all, if you build a rich world full of stuff, you'll have so much material for transmedia efforts that the stories will write themselves!

This is, to put it bluntly, fool's gold. It sounds really good on the surface, and it's compelling because it's actionable, and thousands of 14 year olds have filled up three ring binders chasing this dream, and my expectation is that transmedia will send a whole new generation down this particular rabbit hole.

The problem is that Worldbuilding is easy, easier than writing. Worldbuilding is like writing where you only need to write down the neat stuff and never have to worry about sticky things like characterization or conflict[3]. It is intensely satisfying, a lot of fun, and it feels creative, but beyond a certain point it's finger flicking. Yes, some worldbuilding can be useful to a creative endeavor, but it's something to be done in service of the greater endeavor, not the primary activity in its own right. Making it the primary activity is ultimately a bankrupt proposition - you don't produce much of real worth, and if you're doing it solely to create IP, then it's probably going to be pretty unsatisfying in the end. At least the 14 year old kid fills his binder out of enthusiasm.

But I don't bring this up purely to piss on the idea. There are a few arenas in life where role-playing experience is actually a big boon, especially if you're willing to embrace it's benefits. If you put yourselves into strange situations and other people's heads for fun, then you can benefit from doing the same thing in your daily life. And sometimes a creative idea comes along that's old hat for you but new to the rest of the world. This may be one of those times.

See, we in RPGs have put in our 3000 bad pages[4] of worldbuilding. If we've been paying attention, we know the difference between how to worldbuild for play versus how to worldbuild out of pure self indulgence. If you've learned those lessons, then you can probably build a world in four pages that is more compelling than even the most talented novice can in 100. That's an opportunity, and this is why I keep using the word Transmedia rather than stubbornly refusing to accept the buzzword, as is my normal practice. Bottom line is this:

If you are a gamer and you want to create, transmedia (or perhaps more aptly, the buzzification of the concept of transmedia) is something you need to be aware of and keep your eyes on, because this is an opportunity. Like most real opportunities, it's not going to walk up to you and demand to acknowledge your genius, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

1 - Sequels are not technically transmedia because, hey, same medium. But in terms of the spirit of it - expanding on core material - they totally are. That is to say, transmedia thinking without restraint gets us Nature Trail to Hell part XXI in 3 D.

2 - If I sound like I'm suggesting creatives may have more of a conservative streak than commonly thought it is because I do.

3 - This is something you see as you read people's attempts (intentional and otherwise) to worldbuild.[5] Worldbuilding is story without conflict. And the thing is, I sympathize with the desire for this. The idea that conflict is necessary to storytelling is not an idea that sits well with many people. It's painful and disruptive and can detract from what you really want to say. I totally get that. But this is one of those tough realities - you can write stories any way you like, but if you expect people to care about them, you are going to have to risk some discomfort.

4 - Shorthand for an idea expressed by many artists and writers that if you want to do something well, you need to do it a) a lot and b) badly first. Everyone has a few thousand bad pages in them, and you need to get those out of your system and down on paper before you can get at the good stuff.

5 - MUSH folks - most MUSH writing is worldbuilding. Lord knows most apps certainly are.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Built to Use

The conversation continues. Discussion yesterday has me thinking a bit more about the role of setting in making a game friendly to a novice player.

When people talk about novice-friendly settings, they usually talk about familiarity. Something that the player already knows, something like Star Wars or some other licensed setting. The idea is that if the players ia already familiar witht he material, the it will be easier for them to settle into.

I think there's some merit to this, but I think it's only part of the equation. The familiar setting is absolutely a good thing for comfort, but it does not necessarily help direct things towards something suitable to play. Star Trek is a great example for this - it's easy enough to imagine writing yourself into an episode of the show, with the cast you know, but it's less easy to clearly envision your own adventures that are not just a knock off of the original adventures. It's not impossible, but just saying "it's Star Trek" is not particular helpful to that end.[1]

With that in mind, I don't think novelty is a drawback for a novice, provided it can be presented clearly. This means avoiding the temptation towards completeness, and zeroing in on the elements of the setting that will catch the player's interest.[2] The trick is that the pitch for the setting should also clearly suggest something to do, specifically something exciting.

This is pretty easy to do for a particular game at a particular table, but harder to do when designing a setting for play. But the interesting thing is that the part of a setting that can grab a player and interest them is often pretty brief: a page or two of material is usually more than enough. The very best published settings tend to be collections of these snippets all tied together, so that you can't go more than a few pages while reading without thinking of a game you'd like to run or play.[3]

It may be counterintuitive to think of a setting as a collection of pitches.[4] We're habituated to the idea that setting should be something out of a very bad history textbook, but if we can break away from the idea of creating something complete and focus more on something built to play, then we can go a long way towards making our games friendlier to newbies. Setting can carry a lot of weight, as much or more than setting if used the right way.

Then, once we've gotten titanically successful, we cna use the profits to fill the second book with all the useless details we could possibly want.

1- If you're a huge fan, Star trek offers more options, but for the average fan, the appeal of the series is mostly the idea of interacting with the characters.

2- This is one of the real benefits of using the real world as a baseline, a fact well exploited by the World of Darkness. It even works at a bit of a remove - one of the benefits of post-apocalypse is the common touchpoints of the pre-apocalypse world.

3- Some recent-ish examples that I feel make this cut are Exalted's creation and the original Eberron hardback.

4- Curiously, this mirrors something that's been very successful in popular non-fiction. Where a large treatise tends to be impenetrable, a collection of anecdotes that all serve an end is much more readable and, more importantly, easy for people to talk about.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Novice Game

I was talking the other day about broad categories of games, and I mentioned two particular modes, framework games (like 4e, where there's an existing framework that all expansion is built within) and modual games (Like storyteller or Cortex, games with a solid core where new rules and subsytems can be added and subtracted to support particular ends). Two other large categories worth mentioning[1] are the molecular games, those where everything is modular to a very fine grain, but there's an overall system to the modularity. Hero is the best possible example of this, but games like GURPS and BESM also qualify. At the other end of the spectrum you have the guidelines systems, which usually have only a few rules that provide sweeping guidelines for play. Risus, Over the Edge and some builds of Fate fall into this category.[2]

I have always been a big fan of guideline games. Over the Edge was the first one I was ever exposed to, and it was a totally eye-opening experience. The freedom and simplicity it represented was almost too much to wrap my head around. Ever since, I've greatly enjoyed playing and running guidelines games because it's so easy - there's very little bookkeeping for setup or prep, and it's easy to get right to play. They're also fun and easy to design because you can produce a comprehensive game in only a handful of pages.

Really, guideline games are so compelling that it's easy to overlook their flaws. Sure, some are structural to the games, such as a potential for mechanical sameness among the characters, but I think the real problem is even more profound, and it can be found in the skill list.

See, most guideline games are pretty freeform in terms of what skills/traits/descriptors or whatever the player is going to come up with. On paper, this provides limitless freedom to create, but in practice it creates a situation where players who know what they want think "This is easy!" and players who don't are bereft of any kind of guidance[3]. This is a "blank page problem"[4], and the irony is that it's the reason these games are often terrible for players who are new to gaming despite being obvious choices for their simplicity and ease of play.

They are, however, usually just fine for experienced players, especially those with enough know-how to impose their own structure. That's great for play, but it introduces another landmine - this ease of use often makes experienced players even MORE blind to the reasons a newbie might have trouble, and that makes for a cycle fof suc for everyone at the table.

Anyway, I mention all this in part because over at Gameplaywright they asked the very interesting question of "What's the best game for a total newb?" and that forced me t consider my own thoughts on this. Historically, I would have absolutely leaned towards a guideline-y game like Risus or my own Wheel of Fate, but these days I'm less certain of that. As much as I'm a fan of simplicity, I think even a newbie player can handle a few more moving parts, especially if those parts give some indication of what the novice player can _do_ in these strange and new circumstances.

This is a less than academic concern since I'll be running a game for a tabletop novice later this month, and I'm not yet sure exactly what system I'll be using. But trying to answer that is proving quite inspirational.

1 - These four categories are not all-encompassing, nor are they supposed to be. the purpose of the categories is not to label all possible games, but rather to just give a shorthand for what I consider Unisystem and Cortex the same "type" of game.

2 - Fudge, and by extension fate, can potentially fall into any of these categories, though usually it's molecular or guidelines as contradictory as that may seem. It comes of a strangely mixed community and an those that the game was more of a toolkit than a finished product.

3 - Not coincidentally, this also spares a designer from having to come up with skill lists, advantages or disadvantages, or other crunchy bits which are less fun to write about than almost anything else.

4 - Many people will, if handed a blank page and told "Draw something" will lock up with uncertainty regarding what to draw, with the intensity of the lockup being directly proportional to their uncertainty and discomfort with the situations. Tell them to draw a dog, and much of the hesitations vanishes. Once again, constraints breed creativity.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Openness and Obstacles

Back in the day, Steffan O'Sullivan demonstrated that he was pretty darn far ahead of the curve by releasing Fudge as an open game system. This was before openness was a thing, so in the absence of guidelines he just set up what seemed like very easy terms - if you want to use the system, send him two copies, and he has the right to veto use if it's really inappropriate.[1] For hobbyists that was fantastic, but it ended up being a bit of a barrier for business. You didn't want to put money on the line when the entire system for a thing was one guy who might change his mind.

This ended up being a big deal for us after the success of Fate when we were thinking about actually putting out products. The business consensus was that sticking to Fudge would be problematic, and there's actually a copy of Fate floating around my hard drive which is a d6 based success counting system that we started drafting up in case we had to separate ourselves form Fudge. Thankfully, this problem was solved when Grey Ghost Games acquired the Fudge license from Steffan and released it under the OGL. While it was far more cumbersome than Steffan's handshake method, it was also much more reassuring to businesses, who at least kind of understood what that meant. [2]

Today a bit of news about the D6 System caught my attention and reminded me of this. See, the D6 system, most famously known for its use in the Star Wars RPG, has been released under OGL, sort of. The rules are open (and can be acquired as MiniSix) but not the D6 name or license, which is still in the hands of an individual. This gave me flashbacks because it feels very similar to Fudge's situation. An open system is great for the hobbyists and fans, but I'd be very leery of tying my financial fortunes to d6 for fear that I might, for example, actually call it d6 sometime, and get in a boatload of trouble.

This is kind of a shame, because I think this is an area that badly needs a strong open contender. Specifically, I mean the category of games that use recognizable dice, stat and skill lists, and have a very modular[3] approach to rules. Examples include d6, Unisystem, Cortex and the Storyteller and Storytelling systems. It's not that I think we need another generic system - I kind of don't - but rather that particular sort of game is incredibly friendly to kit-bashing. My current experience with Cortex is doing an excellent job of illustrating how far you can tweak a system towards a specific end while keeping it recognizable. Yes, the same can be accomplished by building a system from scratch, but using a modular system as a starter kit makes ramp up easier and takes advantage of familiarity.[4]

So, that does lead me to wonder if there's a contender for the throne out there I'm unaware of? Something more contemporary in its design than Fuzion?

1 - He only did this once, and regretted it.
2 - You do not have to argue very hard to convince me that maybe Creative Commons is a better solution, but the gaming market gets OGL and is leery of CC. That may suck, but it's a reality.

3 - That is to say, rules are added as discrete chunks on top of the system, to handle things like magic or barter. Contrast that with 4e, which uses a framework model: there's an existing chassis and new systems need to work within that framework. Or d20, which is a horrible muddle in this regard.
4 - Evidence of this can be found in the numerous ways Savage Worlds keeps seeing use. It's not truly open, but they're very transparent about what's involved in licensing the system, which is nearly as good. They have absolutely reaped the benefits of this approach.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bullet Point Friday

  • If you think the reason your games are not raking in big bucks and critical acclaim is because the amateurs are hogging the spotlight, then at some point you are in for a very rude awakening. Be thankful for the amateurs; they keep you from seeing yourself.

  • I seriously wish it was possible to do modern weirdness without getting Grant Morrison all over it. he has leaked into everything, and it makes me crazy. I love a lot of his stuff, but for some reason it's become a template for weird, and it's made weird boring.

  • Also, the universe made much more sense when I checked the American to British dictionary and realized the British word for terrorist is fascist.[1]

  • Tony DiTerlizzi is the greatest argument for the power of art in RPGs. I'm not saying he's the best RPG artist, but rather that the two lines defined by his signature look (Planescape and Changeling: The Dreaming) would both have been vastly more uninteresting without his images to ring them to life. In both cases, his art made a promise that was so compelling many of us were willing to forgive it when the delivery fell short. Contrast this with Hunter: the Reckoning where the art was also greatly disconnected with the text, but it did not have the unifying force of a single artist. H:tR did not create a promise in the mind of readers, it merely created a conflict, and in turn a mess.

  • I love talking about old Mage because of the ways it sucked. Taken as a whole, mage was an absolute mess, but if you zoomed in and took any particular slice of it, that slice was probably absolutely awesome. But what's most awesome about that is that mage fans seem to embrace this. They all love Mage, even though they love radically different games, and they're ok with that. Amber is the only other community I can think of that does this. Now, I love new Mage because it's close to the slice of old Mage I liked best, but I admit it suffers for not having this sort of magic.[2]

  • I made an assertion on Twitter that I could fit Danny Ocean into any game except Burning Wheel in 4 pages or less. This lead to some interesting questions that mostly answered themselves in my mind[3], but I figure I'd elaborate a bit here because it usually takes far less than 4 pages. Really, it's 3 things.
    1. Danny knows things. If you want to support him (and by extension, good capers) then you give the player more information than is traditional. You put him in a position to be proactive, not reactive.
    2. Danny makes everyone around him more awesome. He can do some stuff, but mostly he creates opportunities for other people to do their thing.
    3. Danny sometimes knows things the audience does not. In some situations he needs to be able to tweak the plot.
    Which is to say, all you really need to do in four pages is create plugins for those 3 things. Given that, it doesn't seem so hard, does it?

  • I spend too much time thinking about how to arm and equip mortals to fight the supernatural in the Dresdenverse.

  • I always though Mage's 'good guys' fell down from there being too many of them. The Akashic brotherhood is far more compelling to me when it's a dojo of 15 guys in San Diego, with one or two smaller satellites in other cities. Mage had too many mages: it made things bland, and it made the Technocracy less compelling as a threat (though that was only one of many reasons). More broadly, I'm a big fan of games where there are less than 200 people of whatever category makes the character's special. It allows for more engagement, and it dismisses a lot of unpleasant social myths.

  • I worry sometimes that I paint myself into a corner with my old man game thoughts. I'm not mad at my father or fighting the man, and I don't think the suburbs are ritually draining cities of their mojo[4]. I am not sure I am resentful enough to make a game setting that appeals to the market these days.

1 - It will hurt me if I have to explain why this is not literally true, but is all the same very very true. it's not about what the words mean, it's about how they're used.
2 - K?

3 - I'm just saying: A Ganakagok game centered around your team of cool glacier dwellers planning to steal the sun? Awesome.

4 - Urban, suburban and exurban development are actually really fascinating issues in their own right, and the suburbs have no shortage of problems, but they are much more interesting than "Wah, it's all whitebread!"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Rosetta Stone

My current lunchbreak book is "Switch" by the Heath brothers who also brought us the magnificent "Made to Stick". MtS set a crazily high bar, and I'm not yet sure if Switch will clear it, but even if it doesn't it's proving an interesting and thought provoking read. [1]

One idea struck me as particularly resonant to gamers, and that revolves around why we make choices. The Heaths propose that there are two main reasons we choose to act. The first is based on consequence: we think about outcomes and choose the action that produces the outcome that is best (or least bad) for us. This is what we usually think about when we talk about decision making. The other basis is identity. Sometimes, when faced with a choice, we ask ourselves "What sort of person am I? What would that sort of person do here?" To illustrate, we buy a cookie because the pleasure of eating it is worth more than the price of buying it - simple consequence. We buy the cookie from the local baker because we like to think we're the kind of person that supports local bakers, not because we get any additional benefit from that cookie - in fact, that local cookie may even be more expensive.

That last point is the key of why this issue comes up. Identity is a very powerful way to motivate people, and in many ways is more powerful than consequences. It's something that's used to great end by local environmental causes - when they have little in the way of resources to persuade people that they should save a local animal, they have found much success convincing people that they're the kind of people who -would- save a local animal. If this isn't clicking, think about your own decisions: do you ever make decisions that are not to your benefit because that's the decision you should make? Look at your voting record - if you default to voting your party's ticket, you've done this. Ever spent too much money to buy a shirt because it has your team's logo on it? Ditto.[2]

The bottom line[3] is that identity is incredibly powerful when it comes time to actually take action and make decision. It's one of the reasons lots of things we think will help us make better decisions (like incentives or education) don't actually end up helping. It's not that we don't think littering is bad, it's that it doesn't matter enough, unless we see ourselves as the kind of people who protect the planet (or at least our region).

And that's the part that fascinated me because of this question: How do we make decisions for our characters in games?

The divide of consequence vs. dentity virtually jumps out of the question and waves its arms for attention. It's the classic divide: benefit vs. characterization. optimization vs. "What my character would do". Consequence versus Identity.[4]

And I'm not sure what to make of that. Yeah, I know, usually when I roll one of these out I've thought it through and come to some sort of conclusion, but I'm turning this over and over, and every time I do, it reveals more facets. But what I do see is this: this has been a bitterly divisive issue in gaming, but it's *bigger* than gaming, and the ways its addressed in the real world may shed some light on how we can handle it in our little corner of things.

That's my hope at least.

1 - It's had a ton of useful tidbits, but my favorite small addition to my vocabulary is "TBU", which means "True But Useless." It comes up in the context of problem solving when someone lists all the huge systemic reasons the problem exists - these may be accurate statements, but they are not problems that those speaking can usually solve, so they are distractions from focusing on what one actually CAN do. They are, thus, TBU.

2 - Peter Bregman writes about this, indirectly, and it's a story well worth a read.

3 - It's ultimately a fallacious distinction, and intentionally so, because it's illustrative. Identity, specifically how we feel about our identity, really feeds into the larger consequence decision-making engine. We feel better upholding a self-identity that makes us feel good, so it's part of the equation. However, we very rarely think about our decisions in those terms: identity and how we feel about it is a very difficult consequence to measure. As such, it is far easier to talk about as if it were a separate category of thing, so I'm comfortable with that approach.

4 - And if anyone suggests "Roleplay vs. Roll-Play" then they are in danger of spontaneous combustion via the power of my mind. That chestnut deserves to be forgotten forever.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Something Wonderful

No long post today. Instead, I will only point to this picture and the link it represents.

Now, I can't really say much, but I can say this:

  • It's just quickstart, so what rules there are remain limited to what's necessary for the adventure. You can derive a sense of what's going on with the system from it, but not a full picture. The actual game is not yet available.
  • The rules in question are still recognizable as Cortex, but you need to squint a little. Small tweaks have broadened the engine in interesting directions while still keeping it simple.
  • Were I to summarize the changes, I would say the game is better designed to scale with interest. That is, the less interesting or important something is, the lighter is it. The more engaging something is, the more it engages the system.
  • Credits page has some wonderful names, people who I should dedicate a whole post to singing the virtues of sometime. And also me.

So I say no more than that, but if you've read my stuff then you now my love of capers is nigh unto a sickness, and I feel it's something that's never quite been served by RPGs[1] primarily because it's hard. This is one of the few remaining white whales, and I'm optimistic we can catch it.

1 - Closest is
Wilderness of Mirrors which, yes, rocks, but it's a subtly different beast.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Three Fight Scenes

The other day I talked about the three-fight-scene scenario design method, and it raised a question or two, so I'm going to delve into it a little bit more.

First, let me be clear that this method is blatantly and shamelessly stolen from the ever-brilliant Robin Laws, who wrote it up for Feng Shui. Feng Shui captures the range of 90's Hong Kong cinema, from two-gun wielding assassins on a road to redemption to sinister imperial eunuch wizards to kung fu roosters (sort of)[1]. It's not a game of subtlety or nuance;it's a game of wonderful fight scenes and general badassness. As such, a simple method of creating scenarios that played to its strengths was an important tool for the GM to have.

The idea is simple: since the centerpiece of the game is cool fight scenes, you start planning a scenario by picking three different places which would make for great fight scenes. This step is very simple, but only if you really buy into it. The trick is to think like a movie director, look at a location and think "What kind of awesome things could someone do if they were fighting a hundred zombie ninjas in here?"[2] Are there chandeliers to swing from? Escalators to run the wrong direction on? Giant pieces of machinery to crash and blow up? Huge windows to smash?[3] If you could answer that to your satisfaction with three locations you were pretty much good to go, because at that point, all you needed was to come up with a reason to get the characters to all three locations.

"But wait," you say, "you say that like it's simple, but that's the hard part!"

But the trick is this: it's really not. If you had to come up with the connective material first, then yes, that would absolutely be hard to pull together. But you've got three hard points to work with, and that simplifies the whole process. I know that's kind of counter-intuitive, but this is one of those "constraint breeds creativity" things. It really works.

Of course, part of the reason it works is that these things follow certain patterns. The first fight reveals a danger (A stock NPC is attacked, players are ambushed, a friend asks for help) and points to something that must be done/stopped/gotten at the location of fight two. Fight two reveals the real problem which must be stopped at fight three. Done. You could make a mad libs of it.

Now, this is totally a fight-centric approach to scenario creation, and for fight centric games, it rocks. This formula works beautifully for D&D, especially 4e, and I have always found it much more satisfying (and much more likely to finish in a sitting) than any dungeon crawl you can name. But not every game is quite so fight-centric.

For those games, the underlying model still holds up, but where I say 'fight scene' you really want to think 'set piece'. A fight scene is a kind of set piece, but more broadly a set piece is a location, a cast of characters, and something happening that the players must engage. It could be a social event, or a chase, or an investigation. The trick is you need to give it the same kind of thinking that you put into the fight scenes - that is to say, you need to ask yourself, "How can this scene be awesome?"

This is not always easy to do with non-fight scenes[4]. Coming through a plate glass window with a shotgun in each hand is much more straightforward than wowing the crowd at a party with your wit. Still, this is the kind of game you signed up for, so screw up your courage and take a look at your player's sheets. Stunts, skills, aspects, beliefs, powers...look at them all while asking yourself how you could give the player a chance to actually use this thing.[5] If none of this provides you any inspiration, then stop and consider. You are running a scene in which none of your players get to do anything cool. Ask yourself: do you hate them? Have they wronged you in some way?

If the only place a scene is awesome in in your head, it has no place at the table.

Anyway, once you've got the three scenes mapped out, then you just need to tie them together. This is, seriously, no harder than it is with fight scenes. Once again the gimmick hinges on you having the set pieces done. That lets the connections suggest themselves organically. If you try to tie them together when you've only got half an idea for the scene, then it's going to be a crapshoot how well it all hangs together.

By the by, there is nothing particularly sacred about three, except for the fact that it's got all that magical mojo. If three is too many for your game, there's no harm in going for one or two. If it's too few, then go for more. The purpose of this approach is not to limit what you can do.

See, the hope is this: if you have three really solid set-pieces ready to go, the rest of your game will take care of itself. It's not that those will be the only scenes in your game, it's that they give you a solid foundation under your feet, so you feel confident enough to handle the assorted scenes which may spring up on the fly between them. Having that confidence is a powerful tool, both psychologically and practically. Psychologically, you know you can let things go for as long as they're fun because you have something to gravitate back towards. Practically, you have a concrete sense of the pacing of the adventure, based on where things are relative to the set pieces.

I'm aware that I'm making some broad assertions here about what is easy and isn't, but I do so out of genuine enthusiasm. These are things which are more complicated on paper than they are to just do. If you haven't tried this method before, I strongly encourage you to actually do it. Sit down with pencil and paper and sketch up a three-part scenario for your next game. I think you'll find that it's easy, satisfying, and makes it much easier to tie your characters into.

Personally, I have used this trick more times than I can count, and I consider it a lifesaver. I have encountered very few pieces of game advice as practical as this one, and even if Robin Laws had not also done dozens of other brilliant things, he would deserve a place in the pantheon[7] for this one[8].

1 - Feng Shui is one of my favorite games of all time, and to this day I have yet to see another setting that was so perfectly well designed for gaming. The premise was easily recognizable, had clear goals (over which you could fight), a clear role for PCs, colorful villains and could support an unbelievable range of character concepts without any trouble.

2 - In other games you might need to think about who your opposition might be, but in Feng Shui that pretty much just took care of itself. In this case, for example, it's obvious the Thorns of the Lotus or, if they're techno-ninjas, Architects of the Flesh.
For your game, the answer is equally easy: whoever will make the fight interesting. Interesting might be people the players know, or it might mean enemies who are mechanically interesting, as is often the case in 4e. Hell, it might be you've got a really cool mini you want to show off. It's all fair game, just try to make the enemy something other than faceless.

3 - Doing this, by the way, adds an extra layer of fun to travel and tourism. You start looking at new places, from restaurants to monuments to train stations to anything else through this lens. You unconsciously scout for locations, and as a result, the locations for your fights are even more fantastic, becaus eyou've got all the little details that give them the ring of truth.

4 - Here's a tip: never let the scenes be static. Something should be happening or about to happen. Players can shape events and engage the scene, but don't make it entirely inert until they do something. Of course, you need to also make it clear to them that they
can do something - the purpose of making something happen is not to create a situation for the players to watch, it is to create a situation for them to engage.

5 - Seriously. Especially that thing you never let him use because you think it makes things to easy? That social control power, or teleportation trick or whatever. You know. The cheesy one. He bought it for a reason and he's totally sick of you blocking him at every turn[6]. I know you think you're being subtle, but trust me. He knows.

6 - Yes, this totally includes using 4e powers in creative ways.

7 - Obscure Joke.

8 - As such, any failings in describing this model are entirely mine, not Robin's. I am sure I have not done it justice.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Playing Paragons

I try to make it clear that I'm always happy to steal good ideas, and I also try to give credit where it's due. This one is the brainchild of my friend Fuzz[1] who solved a long standing problem in a very elegant way[2].

One of the classic tropes of literature is "The Best …" - most often it's the best swordsman, but it might just as easily be the strongest guy, the smartest or whatever. We're all familiar with the idea, and when we see it in literature (Benedict of Amber, Richard St. Vier of Swordspoint, and seemingly every third character in the Thieves' World novels) or in films and on TV. This is hellish to model in most games because the spread of dice and the range of potential outcomes of most mechanical systems requires that this paragon be a substantial margin better, mechanically, than everyone else. This tends to be pretty lame for players. It makes such roles virtually unplayable because the cost of creating such a character is prohibitive (and, in fact, usually requires a little bit of cheating), and underscores the 'specialness' of the NPCs.

Now, for more mechanical games (which is to say, virtually any game with hit points or some other way in which combat is composed of many, many elements) this is really not fixable short of just spiking the skill and calling it a day. But for games where outcomes are a little more interpretive then you've actually got some leeway to allow for a player to be a paragon of some sort without breaking the game.

The underlying mechanic is simple enough: it may take a little tweaking to determine how you want to attach it to the chassis, but I leave that up to the individual tinkerer. Anyway, it is as simple of this: add a line to the character sheet somewhere that declares this superiority (Paragon of Willpower, Best Swordsman in the World or the like) but do not otherwise adjust their stats or skills. The only thing that line means is this: if you lose, the loss must respect that fact. Thus, if you're the best swordsman in the world, you can still be beaten, but if you are your opponent must pull a dirty trick, or bring in allies or otherwise describe the victory in such a way as to respect the fact that you're the superior swordsman.

Now, there's obviously a bit of negotiation with this, and the player has some responsibility to build his character to support this idea (in some game, you might have skill requirements for paragon status) but the net result is that the character can still have a skill that is within the normal range for the game while still occupying the narrative role of being the best at something.

At first blush this may seem to distinguish btween players who buy skill high because that's where they want to be challenged and those who buy up because they want to be secure, but it is muddier than that. Being a paragon introduces a new behavior type, best described as "Seeking opportunities to demonstrate that I'm awesome[3]." It also has some potential hooks into other reward systems: consider the possibility that the Paragon's player can throw a fight for currency, but then has to regain his paragon status.

Anyway, it's a small idea, but it's one I'm really chewing on how to apply, and Monday morning suits small ideas. And now: coffee.

1 - AKA Amberyl, and the inspiration for the Evil Hat. As a group, Evil Hat actually began as a 'brand' that she, Fred and I ran games under at Ambercon Northwest.

2 - As with all ideas, it is quite possible someone else had it first. But she's the one I'm stealing it from.

3 -And here's the real dirty trick. If you, as a GM, have gotten you head around this, then consider what you would do if every one of your players had "Paragon of Awesome[4]" on their sheet. Could you manage that? Could you make sure that every time they fail there's a good reason for it and it doesn't make them look like a toolbox? And if you can, will you?

4 - Assuming it's a game of awesome characters. Not every game is, I know. So feel free to replace it with some other term that suits the tone of your game better, and if you can't think of one, try "
Not a Freaking Idiot."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Totally Beat

Man, I am beat. These are the days I kick my own ass for not having a bigger backlog of articles on hand. I'm sufficiently fried that it's hard to pull together any kind of coherent thought. But it could be worse.

I could have a game to run.

There is no feeling I hate more than coming up on a game I need to run when I'm this drained. You scramble and try to pull it together, but you know you're just not going to be able to really put your back in it, and it's probably going to suck as a result. Still, you gotta do something.

Everyone's got their own tricks for dealing with this situations. Some people like to turn to pre-published adventures in these situations, but I've never quite gotten my head around that. If I'm too tired to plan, I'm definitely not going to have the energy to read and capture the intent of someone else's adventure, to say nothing of finding a way to tie it to my game[1].

I admit I'm not above proposing a different game for the evening, but assuming I do need to go forward, I reach deep into the bag of tricks.

First option is one that I am eternally grateful to Robin Laws for laying out in Feng Shui. Pick 3 interesting fight scene locations, then just come up with enough of an excuse to thread them together. Fight scenes can be used pretty flexibly in this regard to cover any kind of set piece, like an investigation or a party. The trick is that each scene needs a gimmick, just one, to make it something more than generic. A fight scene needs to be in an interesting location, a party might be a masquerade, an investigation might be on the clock. If the gimmick pops, the scene tend to take care of themselves as players bounce off the unique element and make their own fun.

If that seems like too much work, or if the game is at a point where that's not much of an option, my next favorite cheat is to give the players a goal and resources but a muddy path to doing it. This is kind of shameless, but it means a large portion of the session will be occupied by player driven action as they plan and prepare. You don't want to do it too often, and you need to make sure the payoff is worth it [2] but it can be a fun distraction, and since your job is mostly to answer questions, it's a lot less work.[3]

If I'm really desperate, I'll steal. From books, movies, TV, or even old games I've run or played. You need to be aware of what your players are familiar with, and you definitely need to be careful to not do do the same thing twice, but this can be the easiest thing of all, but only if something jumps out at you as a good match[4].

Lastly, I'm willing to hit the eject button if things really go south. You don't do this lightly - people have held up their end of the bargain, and you should respect that - but if the game is getting to the point where it's less fun to be playign then no, then it's time to say "Guys, I'm just not feeling it tonight. Who's up for some Dominion?". If it's going as badly as you think, then they'll be happy to take you up on it.

1 - Part of this is because adventures are horribly presented. Even really good ones tend to be total crap in this regard. Part of this is because the needs for reading are not the needs for use, but more it's because we default to the gygaxian map and key model. Most good adventures have some sort of thread running through it, but even if the author explicitly calls it out, you still end up having to piece things together from the corners of the encounters. When I make an adventure for myself, my goal is to create a situation and wrap my head around all the parts, so I can roll with things. The method of presentation for most adventures supports a sequence of events, which is all well and good, but getting the complete picture into your head is hard in the best of situations. When you're tired? No chance.

2 - Protip - end the episode on a cliffhanger, and do the payout next session when you're on your game.

3 - One other dirty trick to make any investigative game work is to just say yes. Your players will ask if things are so, just say yes. Roll with it, and the story writes itself, at least so long as they don't catch on that you're doing it.

4 - Another Protip - Stealing from movies is great because you can call it an "Homage".

Thursday, March 4, 2010

We Know Each Other

I made a comment yesterday in twitter that needs some expansion. I remarked on how "You all know each other" is a trend I have really, really enjoyed in supers stuff, both comics and games. Without an explanation, this sounds like just another version of "you all meet in a tavern" but it's actually something else entirely. It's the idea that the supers[1] are part of a community. It is not merely that the PCs all know each other, rather that they are all parts of the same community, so they know (and, importantly, are known) the whole community. A member of the group who is not a member of the community is an anomaly.

Comics have always been elevated by their relationships. These relationships keep the stories from being something more than just guys in tights fighting it out. One of the best examples of this is Doctor Doom. As a villain, he is often a template for characters that are identical in almost every way, yet fall completely flat on the page. Even Doom himself can fall flat, serving as Generic Big Bad Guy Stand In. But in the Fantastic Four, he comes to life - he's compelling and gripping. A lot of people like to attribute that to a rich backstory[2] but I think it's something much simpler.

He *really* hates Reed Richards. Not in a grand, huge, villainous laugh sort of way but in the intensely personal, mundane way that you hate that jerk from college. That hate manifests in a number of ways, some mundane, some profound, but it's always there, and it brings the character to life.

This is far form the only such example of characters in comics being brought to life by their relationships. Bruce and Clark are vasty more interesting to me than Superman and Batman ever were. Professor X and Magneto were at their most interesting as good friends with a single bright point of disagreement[3]. Lex Luthor gets better every time his gripe with superman gets more personal (and more motivated than YOU MADE ME BALD!)[4].

To some extent, this is old hat, but it's important because it's informed on the direction comics have been going. As these relationships develop, you start getting larger groups of people who are connected through their superness. Historically, the purpose of a team of superheroes was to take on threats they could not face individually, but more recent writers have been putting a lot more thought into what it means, socially, to be a part of one of these groups, especially n the face of the fact that most superheroes have pretty dysfunctional 'real' lives.

In many cases, the group has become a surrogate for the extended family. Especially groups that have had large, rotating rosters over the years (The Teen Titans and the X Men stand out in this regard). Treating them as more than members of a giant club[5] turns stories that would be banal into compelling tales. Even informal groups, like the Batman Family, or the various super heroes of Marvel's New York City can develop this kind of potency.

Unfortunately, when comics get mature enough to do this, editors usually take this as a sign that it's time for a culling. Nuanced networks of relationships don't bring in new fans, so things need to get simplified. Histories get retconned, characters get killed off[6], and the surrounding characters get rewritten or disposed of as "cheesy".

But the idea has taken root. You see it most often now in stories where supers are new to the world, maybe originated from a single source. JMS's Rising Stars and Supreme Power are great examples of this, and in RPGs, White Wolf's Abberant Setting has many elements of this too[7]. And I love it. I want to see it in more RPGs because, frankly, we can handle more nuance than comic book editors.

I've already seen this idea of membership in the extended group driven home very well in Amber, and I have also seen it brought to life in certain spins on the World of Darkness (new and old[8]). It can contextualize the world, and being stories to life by giving them faces you've seen before. It also lets the world reflect the actions of the players in a personal, recognizable way. Having peers means you can have peer recognition - that's a huge social incentive.

So, next time you're thinking about how your characters know each other, consider for a moment the possibility that they not only know each other - they know a lot of other people too, because they're all members of an extended group of some flavor[9].

1 - I say supers here because, in fiction, they're a discreet, identifiable group. A lot of these ideas could apply equally well to any other genre if the group is similarly identifiable (such as spies, criminals, members of the magical community or the like) but I use supers because they're on my mind and the examples are nicely colorful.

2 - Rich Backstories tend to be about as interesting in Comics as they are in RPGs, which is admittedly double edged. The story rarely grabs us, but the way it informs interactions can be compelling.

3 - This illustrates a kind of key point about talking about comics, which is that you are always wrong. Whatever you liked or didn't like gets sanded and revarnished over so many times that it effectively stops being relevant, and it may never be returned to. Comics can only be discussed as a series of snapshots, and you pick the snapshots you value most. When someone else picks a different set, then you might both be passionate fans who love the property but have (apparently) mutually exclusive views on it.

4 - A point that was reflected wonderfully by Rosenbaum's performance on the Lex, early seasons of Smallville.

5 - though, to be fair, The Legion of Super Heroes really _is_ a giant club, and part of why it works is because it embraces that role. Less family, more soap opera and more space awesome. Also, Karate Kid should TOTALLY fight an entire planet.

6 - The Teen Titans offer the best and the worst of it. One arc, the Technis Imperative, seems to be about an alien invasion, but is really about just how important the Titans are, as a family, to a bunch of kids who had pretty messed up childhoods, and how far they're willing to go for one of their own. Even more, it delves into the relationship with the previous generation (one of the writer's great turns is illustrating that the JLA has been an extended family too) and highlights where it is strongest and weakness, and why sometimes it needs to change. It is, to my mind, a very rewarding arc (that is, I suspect, pretty cheesy to those without any interest n the characters).

Contrast this with the events leading up to DC's latest rewrite. As fas as I can tell, DC decided that there were just too damn many titans, and had not one but two, back to back fights where the villain shows up, is badass, the titans declare that messing with one of them is messing with all of them, we get a huge splash page with lots of Titans, and then the villain proceeds to murder them. Literally. They pretty much just killed off characters left and right. It was dramatic and all, but it ultimately felt kind of tacky.

7 - Thinking about Aberrant was what got this all started. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Underkoffler's "Fanfare for the Amplified Man" campaign setting in Truth and Justice, which is basically this idea in pure form.

8 - The new Hunter's rules for the scale of your organization are perfect for reflecting elements of this idea mechanically.

9 - The Century Club doesn't _really_ count in this regard because there's no incentive to flesh out any membership beyond those who are playing. It's membership is really a convenience to allow for a rotating cast. But that's not to say it couldn't be used in this way with a little spin.