Monday, May 31, 2010

Monday Monday

I had almost forgotten I should post today. As such, expect randomness.

Three day weekend and I'm off on the road, posting once again through blogpress on the iPad. Excepting the fact that it can't do formatting (which I miss for my footnotes) this is actually surprisingly robust (though the dedicated Wordpress software seems a bit stronger), So that said, Monday will be my fifth day on the road, and I haven't really missed my laptop at all. The only thing I want it for is to review the photographs I've taken, but that's not really a pressing concern. It can easily wait until I'm home at my desk.

That said, it has hardly been a fair test. Because I've been visiting family, the amount of time I'd WANT to spend on a computer has been pretty minimal. That means that while I've consumed (read comments and email, mostly) I have not really had time to sit down and produce, so comments (some substantial and interesting) and emails (ditto) have gone unanswered. That's a shame, but it's not something I can really blame on the Ipad.

The external keyboard setup is mostly proving superior to toting around a laptop excepting in a few situations. So long as there's a work surface, it rocks, but for more awkward positions (like in bed) it's rough.

Connectivity's been a bit of an issue, but it's Vermont, and it's been equally problematic on my Verizon phone, so no points lost there.

As a random aside, this is the first long trip we've taken with NO physical maps in the car, depending entirely on my droid or the ipad for maps. It was good we had redundancy, but it turned out we could rely on one or the other wherever we went, even up into the mountains or out on the Champlain islands.

As with all trips to Vermont, it was marred by the sheer volume of things that I didn't get to go see or do, but it was better than usual. If you're in Burlington, the aquarium on the waterfront (which was new to me) is a fantastic place to take a kid. Jamie had an absolute blast, pointing at the glass and loudly declaring "Ish! Ish!"

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cutting Grass and Pruning Daisies

I'm on the road and trying out the blogging software on my ipad - it seems functional if unexciting, but I'll keep it brief today if only to avoid surprises.

I want to bring up one last point on the topic of balance, possibly the most important point. A lot of the behaviors I've mentioned as being unbalancing are not necessarily bad behaviors in their own right. They only become problematic when only one person engages in them.

In a system that rests on mechanical balance, having one character who is too badass is a problem, but having EVERYONE be crazy badass is a feature. Having one character who has so many interesting plot hooks and background elements that they constantly drive play can get awkward. If everyone has plot hooks that drive play, that's a good thing.[1]

There is an instinct when we see something out of place (and most things that mess with balance seem out of place) to knock it back into line. Things that stick out too far get lopped off. As a generalization, this is a bit of tricky business - sometimes the outlier is really a problem[2] - but sometimes its where things are potentially exceptional.

So with that in mind, the next time you see an unbalanced behavior in a game or at your table, ask yourself whether that behavior is bad on its own rights. If it's a behavior you'd like to see more of from your players, then look at the imbalance as an opportunity to help the rest of your group reap the same benefits.

Obviously, this is a tricky line to watch. Communicating to your players i important, but you don't want to give them the sense that they suck and you're trying to fix them. That suggests a show-don't-tell approach, of illustrating the benefits of the imbalanced behaviors, but that runs the risk of just looking like favoritism.

I'd suggest treating your players like they're *already* doing what you're looking for, and just forgetting to mention it. Ask them questions and treat them like they're already awesome, and you'll be surprised just how quickly they prove you right.

1- This is, curiously, why I consider phased character creation to be a balancing mechanism. By tying everyone's stories together, you make it impossible for any one story to take off without taking everyone else along with.

2 - Razzin-Frazzin Kender

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Balance and Kender

Is there really a problem out there of people saying "I'd really like to play a less powerful character than the rest of the group, but gosh darn it the rules won't let me"? Is this something that comes up so often that it's an issue? Because I have to admit I've never really encountered this problem, except in a very specific sort of way.

I don't think I'm the outlier here, and with that in mind, I'm really leery of the idea of using the idea that people want to play less capable characters as the basis for discarding the entire idea of balance. It feels like the wedge point of a crowbar sort of argument, setting you up so that once you agree balance isn't important for the inevitable "So you won't mind if..." that gives the GM's girlfriend a demigod to play.

In my reality at least, balance issues come up because of one of two things (which are in some ways the same thing) - a player wants his character to be more powerful, or he wants him to be more unique.

More powerful is actually the easy one to solve, since it is usually a function of players who have spent too much time playing games where you start out as a sack of suck. Very few modern games support that model anymore, and even the worst offenders of the past (D&D and White Wolf) have moved beyond it[1]. Most games allow for a starting character to be capable enough to satisfy most itches.

You'll occasionally bump your nose up against certain absolutist ideas like "I want to be the best swordsman in the world." Some systems support this out of the box, others do so with minimal tweaking, others are just going to jam up on it (4e, for example, simply cannot usefully support that concept). When you encounter an idea like this expressed clearly, it's usually pretty easy to work with, so long as you choose the right tool.

But all in all? Power is easy. Uniqueness is much more complicated.

Right off the bat, uniqueness can be hard to spot because it can look like a grab for power. A player looking to take powers that are not normally available, or mixing inappropriate magics or the like may seem to be trying to grab power[2] but that's not always the case. In many cases, a player will try to pick something pretty far outside the box of playability for other reasons. Some players just gravitate towards a type, and try to shoehorn it into everything. Others have particular ideas about creativity they're expressing in this way. Others want their character to stand out in some way, and are going for uniqueness.

This is where the most subtle challenge to the very idea of game balance can really come to bear. Some of these concerns are easily addressed: players who want their character to be unique have often faced the same bad experiences as the people who have dealt with weenie characters. Again, modern games tend to do a better job of putting characters into the spotlight, so there should be less need to get attention through extreme measures.

It's the other motives that are more problematic, because they speak to player motivation, and as noted yesterday, balance is REALLY all about the players and their level of engagement. The player who wants the weird, far out thing is probably excited about it, and excitement is powerful currency, but it's how we end up with Kender.

Kender, for those unfamiliar, are the halflings of the Dragonlance setting. In older editions, they're a mechanical nightmare and more problematically are all fearless kleptomaniacs. This means that when there's one in your group, you can expect them to promptly grab the spotlight and keep it permanently affixed to themselves. Try to focus on someone else? All the Kender needs to do is steal something from a party ember or do something stupidly reckless and it's back where it belongs.

Now, it's easy to say that the kender issue is a social one, and needs to be addressed by speaking to the the player. That's certainly part of the issue, but that lets the game itself off a little bit too easy. If the game is going to leave kerosene and fireworks on the table, focusing entirely on the player's matchbook solves only half the problem.

And that's where this comes back to that elusive issue of game balance. One other reason to keep a game balanced is to keep any one player from hijacking the game (or at least to help give them less of a shield to hide behind when called out on that behavior). And that's where we get into some interesting social territory. The character with the greatest ability to hijack the game is rarely the most powerful one (unless the power discrepancy is truly huge) and may even be the weakest one[3] if balance is purely mechanical[4]. Note that while the kender has some mechanical issues, it's real problems are separate form that. A mechanical balancing system won't stop a behavioral issue, at least not directly.

Now, as I said yesterday, no system is going to solve all these problems, but it's worth understanding what these problems are so you can better assess whether the tools you have are going to help or hinder the process.

1 - There's a reasonable argument that 4E has not moved as far beyond it as it first appears, but characters do start with more options, and can no longer be killed by a bag of cats. I call that progress.

2 - Because, of course, forbidden combinations with obscure powers are usually where the genuine abuses of a system come up. Thankfully, you can usually tell when a player is picking combos for abusive reasons because, well, it won't be the first time. Say no or talk about it or do whatever you need. The only time it's a real worry is if your player tries to trick you, pretending they're not looking at combos. At that point, their ass may need a good bouncing.

3 - One great passive-aggressive attention-getting tactic is to play the victim. All a player needs to do is throw himself into situations where he needs to be rescued to keep the focus on himself, and he can hide behind his weakness if challenged.

4 - One more excellent argument for balance existing on the player level, not the character level.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Balance is one of the big goblins of game design. Over the past decade or so, its position as a sacred institution has been (thankfully) tarnished, so it's no longer an automatic assumption that every character needs to be balanced with every other character in a strict technical sense. More than any game, I point to Eden's Buffy RPG for driving this point home, with an explicit power level split offset by other play elements. But the funny thing is it's an old idea. One of the cornerstones of old school D&D, the magic user, was based on a foundation of imbalance[1]. Depending on level, you could expect him to be far less or far more effective than other party members.

Now, like all such ideas, there's a bit of a pendulum effect to it. Once you get discard the idea of effectiveness-based balance, it's not a long trip to treating it as a bad or restrictive thing - something to be discarded. I understand that impulse, but it's overkill, and to understand why it's worth pulling back a bit to examine the thinking behind balance.

See, Balance is a means to an end, and that end is this: everyone playing should have a fair chance at having a good time. If you have wildly disparate power levels in a game with a strong combat element (think D&D) then you end up in an Angel Summoner & BMX Bandit(vid link) situation, where one character solves problems and others get to watch. That's a bad outcome based on the fact that it's a less fun outcome.

It's with this in mind that a lot of models have been create to support balance. As another example, if a game has other avenues of play than combat (like social or political), the idea became that you could achieve balance by allowing characters to excel within their specific arena. The combat guy gets to shine in fights, the talker gets to shine in social situations and so on. This can work, but it takes a LOT of effort. One arena (often combat) can overwhelm the others if the game's mechanics lean that way or if the stakes are higher.[2] A good GM can juggle this, but doing so is almost always a function of GM skill, and that's not a great thing to depend on in a design.

An interesting corner got turned when some games opened up a different venue and moved the issue of balance onto the player. The idea, generally speaking, is that every player has equal (or at least equitable) power or authority, even if their characters do not. This model can range from Buffy (Slayer is more powerful, supporting characters get more 'drama points') to full on hippie ideas like giving players narrative authority.

None of these solutions work in every game, but I think the last one is very informative, even if its never used. The emphasis that it's the players who need equal time is of critical importance because it comes back to the original problem: keeping everyone engaged. It's easy to get bogged down in the details of a specific power or specific rule and forget that the reason you're doing all this is to keep your players engaged.

Now, why is all this necessary? Can't a good GM fairly distribute spotlight time at the table? Well...not really.

It's not that the skill doesn't exist, but to do it well we need to be much better at self assessment than any of us can reasonably expect to be. As a GM, we're going to be drawn to the problem cases or the things that we think take things in an interesting direction. Those are good impulses, but they mean we are vulnerable to spotlight hogs, and we're going to misjudge how fairly we distribute the time.

All of which is to say that you want to have some manner of focus balancing mechanic, even if it's a simple as "This is Bob's spotlight episode." Mechanical balance or distinct roles are perfectly valid ways to handle this (something 4e thrives on), it's just not the only way. So take a look at some of your other games[3] and think about how they hand (implicitly or explicitly) keeping everyone at the table engaged. You might pick up a trick or two.

1 - Ars Magica also had a profound disparity, but its handling was still overall equitable.
2 - This is, in my mind, why 4e is designed to be a pretty weak system outside of combat. The balance is _explicitly_ within the scope of combat, and stepping too far outside that sphere risks disrupting the finely tuned machine.

3 - If Primetime Adventures 3e were out right now, I'd plug it here. But it's not, so I can't. Instead, I'll say this: if you ever get a chance to read a copy of PTA (any edition), stop and look at the spotlight rules. They're genuinely brilliant.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More on the Current Game

Started chargen for the Cold Wars semi-supers game last night, but did not finish it. I'm taking it a reminder that when we play, we need to start at 7:30 on the nose or we're just not going to have enough time to play much of anything.

I finished drafting up the skill list, pretty much at the last minute. Ended up slightly shorter than I expected, and it's this:

Technician (includes vehicles)

(Politician is distinguished from diplomat as being on the administrative and legal side of matters, while diplomat covers most social skills).

With only 7 skills, that means the breakdown is 1:2:3 - 1 world class(+6), 2 highly trained(+4), 3 trained (+2) and one outlier (+0).

Fred also made an interesting suggestion for the combat system, specifically to not allow consequences to stack (that is, you can't take more than one on a given hit). Makes big hits scarier, and it may do what I need.

The Characters
Grey Waters - Field Analyst
Grey went to college on a government scholarship where he tested well. REALLY well. Well enough to inspire an NSA/CIA turf war before it was discovered his analyses were potentially superhuman, at which point The Program got Dibs. He can make very accurate big picture predictions, and see trending, but there is always some key element of uncertainty in them.
Callsign: Grey Cat (He requested Schrodinger, but the office typewriter has no umlaut, so he got stuck with Cat instead)
Aspects: People are hard, groups are easy
"I'm sort of a big picture guy"
The facts speak for themselves

Anna Sorosky (ne Peka, ne Rivers) - Linguist, Communications
Anna's a Russian expatriate who somehow holds dual citizenship. She's from a large Jewish family, and her parents took her to America when she was young so her father, a scientist, could work for the government. The family consensus is he works on nuclear weapons, but no one knows for sure. She made a very Russian hippie in her youth, but her father managed to get her a job transcribing recorded phone calls from Russia for the government. While on the job, she ended up transcribing a conversation that wasn't recorded and revealing a mole in the program, and her talent for listening in on radio waves. From there, she was quickly ushered into The Program.
Callsign: Antenna
Aspects: Matryoshka
Everyone's Only Human

Colonel Rufus "Bull" Lake - Goddamned Hero
Rufus was born on a family farm in Arrowhead, MIssouri in 1920 and served with honor in WWII, first in North Africa and then later in Italy (Where he earned the nickname "The Water Bull of Cassino"). His acts of heroism got him put on the short list for the super soldier program which the army had started in anticipation of the brutal fighting expected to take Japan. The program was rendered moot by the atomic bomb, but by then he and a few others had already been altered. Now 60 years old, he looks 40, but remains in the field due to a number of impolitic decisions.
Callsign: TBD
Aspects: Far from home, far from ordinary
I'm a goddamned hero
Decisions are worth the consequences

Flashpoint #1: 1976
(This was the third phase of chargen, the team's first mission together.)
Bull's old team was transporting a Mark in Central America when things went pear shaped. The Mark in question looks like an 8 year old girl and causes earthquakes whenever she touches the ground, and the longer she went between touches, the larger the quake), and when she was taken, it unleashed a giant earthquake in Guatemala, killing thousands. Bull's team died, and he barely survived. With his new team (Grey and Anna) they managed to track the Mark to China and stage a rescue. It went badly. They were taken prisoner, and faced a decision to either unleash the mark (who had been suspended in the air for months at this point, building up an immense charge). They chose to save her, unleashing an earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people[1], and managed to escape. The coda was the boat they took her home on was the first place she had been able to run and play like a kid ever, because the water diminished her impact.

We'll be doing the next two phases in email, and then picking up Monday after the holiday.

1 - Both earthquakes are historical events, two of the nastiest earthquakes in history taking place in the same year, with the Tangshan earthquake being especially horrific. To be frank, I feel a little bit dodgy about this. Purely fictionalized events I can deal with, but these are real tragedies, well within living memory. It seems disrespectful to repurpose them this way. I may take future disasters a little further afield.

Monday, May 24, 2010

System for Tonight

So, my wife asked me what system I'd be using to run tonight's game. My answer "probably a Fate mod." Her reply, "Why would you mod Fate?" left me staring a little blankly because, as I eventually said "I've never NOT modded Fate. I'm not even sure there is such a thing as unmodded Fate in my mind." And it's true. Even the "purest" version of Fate, the 2.0 ruleset, is mostly just a book of options. 7 Magic systems, 3 combat models and rather than a skill list, a section on how to create skill lists. SOTC and Dresden are more specific builds, as are games like Diaspora and Starblazers, but when all is said and done, Fate remains an idea defined by its exceptions. And I'm ok with that.

So, a few thoughts on the exceptions for chargen tonight:


I'm going to take some of my ideas about tiering and use them to create a modified pyramid that has three levels: You're good at this, You're notably awesome at this, and you are truly world class at this. I'll be doing either a 4:2:1 or 5:3:1 distribution of these, depending on how long the final skill list ends up being, but the real mechanical tweak I'm going to pull here is numerical: those tiers are going to be valued at +2, +4 and +6. Yes, that means the steps of the skill ladder will actually be broader than the results ladder, and will also go higher than is normally the case.

There are a few things I expect to come of this. First, the fact that it make an aspect invocation equal to a tier step is nice symmetry, but only directly important because of aspect tweaking (see below). More, it's going to emphasize the importance of skill levels, but even more, it opens up an interesting option. It's my expectation that it won't be hard to pick up a +1 bonus, from tools, situation or the like, but even if there are multiple sources, that bonus will never go above +1 (though it may be possible to use extra bonuses to offset penalties). Being able to casually hand out that bonus as a reward is a nice tool, especially since doing so does not break the overall model.

Better yet, the underlying thinking is really this: the +1 bonus is easy to get by being interesting. Being clever or cool, or even using gadgets, is all interesting to me. My expectation is that my players will be interesting the vast majority of the time, and as such they will get this reward the vast majority of the time. The limitation keeps that bonus from being a "The most creative guy gets all the toys" that Exalted stunting allows, but it scales to work at all skill levels. The one qualifier is that It will probably be easier to get the bonus at low levels than at high ones. if you have a +2, then almost anything will help. If you have a +6, trivial junk isn't as much of a help.[1]


Couple aspect changes. First, because this is a less heroic game, there's going to be a restriction on aspect stacking and some tweaks in terminology. You utilize your aspects, finesse allies and location aspects and you exploit enemies aspects. On a given roll, you can utilize and finesse only once. You can exploit as many times as there are aspects to use.

This is a theme reinforcer. Discovering secrets (finding people's aspects) is more powerful than leveraging your own advantages, which you are kind of presumed to to.

Additionally, each character may have one low-key super power, and I'm just going to reflect that with an aspect. With only 3 players, I can get away with that kind of subjective approach, allowing the invocation (sorry, Utilization) for effect to have deeper impacts than normal. Might also allow it a larger than +2 bonus when appropriate.


Combat's going to be nasty. Nasty enough that I rarely expect it to last more than a round or two. Still pondering how to reflect that. One option is to use the -2/-4/-6 system with a zero length stress track. I think that's going to be my fallback, but I'm not entirely sure that it quite gets me what I need. One option is a more brutal reduction set (-1/-3/-5) but I really need to think what I want fights to look like. Do I want brutal and lethal but action-ey (think Bourne) or do i want death to come from a snub nosed revolver in a dark alley (which would suggest an even more lethal system).

Still pondering this one.


Don't actually anticipate using stunts. Again, with a 3 person game, interpretive aspect use covers all the reason's I'd want stunts.

Obviously, I'm still sorting out the details, and will be until the last possible minute, but i figured I'd share a snapshot of where it stands in my brain this morning.

1 - This is totally a subjective, GM-driven kind of thing, and as such not really a fair rule per se, but I think the narrative sensibilities of it will be transparent enough.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ipad Follow Up

Man, this has been a long week. I've been sick since Saturday and I think this is the first day I may have finally fully shaken it. I feel like I've been running with three engines down, so as we come into Friday, I'm going abit less thoughtful and a bit more nerdy, and following up on my previous post about my experience with the iPad.

I've now had a lot more time to use it in what I consider a "Grown up" context, that is to say in my day job, and by and large I have gotten more impressed with it, but certain small things have gotten on my nerves.

First and foremost - the wifi thing. The ipad's handling of wifi connections is flaky at best. There seem to be several underlying expressions of this - DHCP issues and such - but my sense is that it all stems from overzealous power management. I suspect it lets wifi connections die when you're not using them, and then is pretty bad about re-establishing them, sometimes losing networks entirely. This would be crappy for another product but it's terrible for apple whose selling point is that this stuff is supposed to work. They apparently have a fix in the works, but I'm not holding my breath.

It's not a crippling problem, but it's definitely an annoying one, especially in the absence of multi-tasking. Having to swap apps to the "Settings" app to fix a network connection (for me, swapping to airplane mode then back fixes everything) is clunky and frustrating.

Thankfully, it's only a fraction of the experience, even less so than normal for me because I have the 3g model, so I only notice wifi shenanigans when I'm at home. 3g has been totally worth the investment, and at the price, I end up feeling like I'm overpaying for my phone (which is to say, I'm happy to pay for the ipad, and if contracts allowed, I'd probably switch to a less smart phone to more than make up for the cost of connectivity). It has weird hiccups, like any cellular coverage, but since I don't live in NYC or San Francisco, it holds up pretty well. It does have weird limits - I discovered today you can't buy apps over 20 megs over it, for example - and it makes for choppy video streaming, but it's worked reliably enough that I look forward to having it for connectivity on the road.

Speaking of which, HOLY CRAP the GPS is good, especially compared to my droid. I can literally zoom in on google maps picture view and watch it accurately reflect me walking around the house. Combined with the 3g, it's the ultimate triptych. When my family goes driving (which we do for fun), my wife drives and I navigate, which usually means I have to deal with map books or google maps printouts. Ditching all that and just using the ipad is an unbelievable upgrade.

The external bluetooth keyboard continues to hold up very well - I find I actually very much enjoy writing on it. I've seen the case made that if you use the external kb a lot you'd be better off with a macbook air, but I don't see it. I get plenty of use out of the iPad in normal form, but have the keyboard on hand to write and take notes (and their combined footprint is still crazy small). My only complaint is that the keyboard was not designed for travel, and it's very easy for it to get turned on in my bag. Once it's on, it syncs itself, and when I pull out the ipad, I discover I'm getting no onscreen keyboard because it thinks I have the keyboard out. Fixable, but annoying. On the whole, keyboard support in the apps is kind of lacking, but I hope that changes with time.

I'm still using the kindle for most of my reading, but I have ended up doing a little reading form the Ipad and I could see it growing on me. Still, Kindle's benefits are just overwhelming for now.

Battery life is still awesome. I have charging stations in a few locations, just to be safe, but keeping it charged is mostly just an afterthought.

Anyway, onto the real rub of it: Apps

I have, er, 68 apps installed over and above the ones it came with. Scarily, this is fewer than are on my iPod Touch. I am an absolute junkie for trying out new apps to try to find just the right tool for my needs. I'm not going to run through them all, but I'll hit the highlights:

Kindle, Netflix, ABC Player, Comix and Goodreader - I'm not even going to bother talking about these except to say that every iPad should have them for reasons that become apparent almost immediately.

Note Taking - This is the category where I have the most contenders. They're all pretty similar structurally - like the built in Notes app with more features. Some offer interesting organization schemas (the corkboard of Corkulous), some offer the ability to insert images (Sundry Notes, Sketchnotes, Paperdesk) or record (Soundpaper). There are even some mind mapping apps (Mindnode and iThoughtsHD) which work less well than you'd imagine, but are kind of neat. None of these are bad (though Sundry Notes seems to trip over its own features and some of them lack any means to export content - a death knell for me) I have settled on the simplest yet best looking of the lot, Notably. It just handles text, and it does that well. Solid reliability wins out for me when I need to take notes in a meeting. That said, nothing handles tabs and outlining in a way that's actually well suited to notetaking, so I'm still on the lookout.

Writing - I'm ok using Notably for longer writing as well, but I did shell out $10 for a copy of Pages, so I keep trying to use it, and it keeps being...kind of ok. I have some apps designed to play well with google docs (GoDocs, Office2 HD) but mostly they just suggest to me how good google docs integration _could_ be. Net result being I have done writing in everything from Pages to a email composition window, and it's all pretty much the same. I'd kill for Scrivener lite.

Art - Sketchbook pro pretty much kicks everything else's ass in this category, but I do want to mention Penultimate, which is a virtual notebook that you scribble in with a sharpie (your finger). It's great setup, and in a true stylus environment, it'd be genuinely brilliant. I haven't picked up the $50 omnigraffle software yet because, well, $50, but I keep eyeing it.

Play - Plants v.s Zombies works great in this medium. Nothing else has really grabbed me yet.

Blogging - The Wordpress app is decent is you want to do simple things, but that's about all you're going to find. I picked up BlogPress to see if I could use it with this blog, and while I technically can, it does all its drafting locally, which is useless (at least for me)

Health -Most of the good iphone apps for fitness have not yet made it to the ipad, and those that have are mostly plugins for subscription services. No winners here yet.

Communication - IM+ lite for IM, skype (iphone version) for skype. Twitter...well, I have Tweetdeck, Twitteriffic and Twittelator installed. Twitellator is the prettiest, but most useless. Tweetdeck _should_ be the best, but the inability to casually see conversations kills it for me. Twitteriffic (pro in my case) is the only Good Enough solution at the moment, though I keep checking Tweetdeck in hopes for magical improvements.

Tasks - Remember the Milk has no Ipad app yet, and Toodledo is its poor cousin. I don't want to spend $20 on Things, so I have settled on Appigo's ToDo, which is functionally strong (but not overwhelmingly so) and visually VERY appealing. Well worth the $5.

Content - Most of my content comes over safari, but exceptions include the NPR app, Weatherbug, and my profoundly beloved Instapaper.

Other - I've got Bento and Keynote, but haven't messed with them much yet. Got some dice apps, but none grab me at this point. I have the software for Square, but am still waiting for the swiper. The one random thinkg I need to plug is Starwalk. This is one of those apps that truly needs to be seen to be believed - just hold it up, and it's a window into the sky. I have not seen anything more magical.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's an Adventure Worth

Commercially, adventures are a paradox. When you talk to people about what game products they want (especially older gamers who are more likely to be pressed for time) one of the first things they'll say is "Adventures". But, historically, adventures really don't sell well. A recent breakdown from Black Diamond Games runs some numbers that illustrate this pretty well, and also give a decent breakdown of why this is. The biggest reason is obvious in retrospect - in a group of 5 people for a random system, you probably have 4-5 copies of any "core" books. Supplemental books have one likely purchaser (the GM) and usually at least one other likely purchaser (other GMs in the group, or people who dig that particular topic). Adventures have an audience limited entirely to the GM, and only some GMs will buy any adventure for a host of reasons.

Given that adventures are also usually smaller and less expensive, that makes them low-volume, low-margin products. Plus, (and this is more 4e specific) they compete with free material from sources like dungeon magazine. At first glance, that may seem like a reason for an independent person to bother with getting into, but I'd argue that the reality is the opposite for two reasons.

First, while the market for PDFs is not universal, I think people are a lot more open to trying electronic products for things they consider "disposable", like adventures. Second, while a larger company cannot reasonably consider producing a three to five dollar product and still making their nut, a lone enthusiast can do that and make a fair return. The appeal of the 4e[1] market is that even a small slice of it is pretty large on the scale that small game publisher's operate on. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but the point is that as a small publisher looking to publish electronically, the "adventures don't sell" adage is less of a barrier than you might think.

But if you are looking at publishing an adventure there's a lot of baggage to get rid of. There is an idea of a "Standard adventure format" that almost everyone who has played D&D is familiar with. It's a few pages of backstory that may or may not ever come up in play[2], then a map or three with a number key and each room detailed as an encounter. Add in perhaps one transit zone (an outdoor map with, like, 4 encounters), a random table or two, and an appendix with stats for monsters and treasures, and you're done.

This. Is. Crap.

At this point there are decades of habit attached to this form, and it's easy enough to do not-badly that we will probably never be rid of it, but man, if this is what you're planning to do for your adventure, then just stop for a second and think. Consider the differences between 4e and first edition D&D. Consider the differences between how you play now and how you played back when you started gaming.[3] If it's apparent to you that things have changed drastically over that time, then ask yourself why the adventures haven't.

Now, this is not entirely fair. There have been interesting adventures that have really tried push the boundaries of the form, but they exist primarily as one-offs and oddities. Sometimes this is because the alternate solutions were not very good (remember adventures coming packed with sound effect CDs?) but more often it's because it's a lot simpler to stick to a template, and none of the deviations from the template were such great commercial successes to demand change.[4] And, of course, some of the adventures in this classic format have been genuinely good. Even more of them have been made good through the talents of committed DMs and excited players and that muddies the waters a little.

The point at the end of this is simple: do not feel bound by the structure of traditional adventures as you create your own. Look at your own notes and preparation and consider whether you could make an adventure that looks more those. Look at the things you need to copy or mark up in an adventure and ask yourself why they're not right there in the module. Make the adventure that would be useful at your table today, not at a table in Wisconsin in 1979.

To that end, here are a few points to think about.

Kill Boxed Text - seriously. This is a terrible legacy of the days when it was critically important to mention that there were exactly 7 torches on the eastern wall. Every time I think we're past this particular chestnut, it springs up somewhere else. Instead, consider using that wordspace for something that's actually useful to the GM's and the players. Use it to frame the encounter as a scene, giving the GM an idea of how it's expected things will unfold, and ways it will probably go wrong. This might take the form of tactical advice, or it might be a description to the GM that is actually interesting enough that he doesn't need boxed text.

That's the real kicker of course. Things which actually grab the GM and player attention don't need boxed text. Boxed text is a way to convey the boring stuff. And you gotta ask: if it's boring, do you really need it in your game?

Take Advantage of The Format - If your PDF adventure looks like a book that hasn't been printed, you've wasted an opportunity. You aren't bound by the need to make a specific page count or to conserve whitespace. Consider that a PDF lets you do something as simple as put each encounter on its own page so the GM can easily reference them at the table. That's HUGELY more convenient. In fact, if you assume that people might want to print the useful parts of the PDF, you can go a step further and make sure to include space for notes, tracking damage and anything else. Include handouts because, dammit, if you're printing stuff out anyway, then handouts are AWESOME.

And hell, if you've got the technical chops, make the PDF have a few bells and whistles too. Note sections, checkmark boxes to track monster hit points and power use. This isn't mandatory, but it's certainly a nice bonus.

The challenge, to my mind, is this: can you make your adventure so the GM doesn't need to bring any other paper to the table? Can he print out what he needs, use it for notation, and be done? Consider all the things that you, as a GM, keep track of during an adventure[5], and what that would suggest. It's daunting, but amazing once you realize it's doable.

Play With Structure - Dungeons are great, but they're only one way to make for good adventures. Look at things like rich locations (Hammerfast), Flowcharts (White Wolf's SAS, 3e's SPeaker in dreams), Hard & Soft Points (Alderac's 7th Sea/L5R adventures), Plot Points (Savage Worlds), Three Fight Scenes (Feng Shui) and many more for ideas of ways to present information. And this leads into the next point:

Steal Good Ideas - Read adventures from games you don't play. It's an amazingly informative thing to do, because in the absence of an understanding of mechanics, the heart of the adventure is laid bear, and sometimes wonderful and sometimes it's just embarrassing to see. There have been a lot of good ideas in adventure design in a lot of different places, but not many of them have trickled back up to D&D adventure design. This is an opportunity for you. Companies may trademarks terms (Pinnacle has apparently trademarked "Plot Point Adventures") but the general method of presentation can be reused freely, just call it something else.

Repurpose Existing Tools - There are certain classic elements to an adventure like the overland map, the hometown, the random encounter tables and so on that are not bad ideas, they just have been treated badly in the traditional format[6]. Fleshing out any of these elements in unexpected ways can bear unexpected use.

Consider Usage - How many good fight scenes can you get in over the course of one session? Me, if I want them to be really good and compelling, we're talking 2, maybe 3 in one sitting. Certainly I can squeeze in more if they're just gimmicky little fights, but I don't like even bothering with those. Plus, if the non-fight stuff is actually going to be interesting, that chews up time too. So with that in mind, how much use do you think a 47 room dungeon is to me? Deferred reward is nice to a point, but something like that is going to take me weeks to go through[7], and I promise you that in several weeks, my players expect a LOT more. If one of my games were to go 6 weeks without some sort of major turn, I'd have a mutiny on my hands. 6 weeks in a dungeon? Hell no.

Now, that's just me. Maybe you go through fights more quickly. Maybe you're more comfortable with small, fast fights rather than big setpieces. it doesn't matter. What does matter is that people actually need to play this adventure, and that's going to take time. With that in mind, consider each encounter: is this awesome enough to merit me spending my time on, or is it just a speedbump between me and the good stuff? There's a completist urge to put a monster in every room, to make the player fight every inch of the way to the end, and that's got its place, but I don't need to pay you money for a mediocre, time-chewing experience. If it's not going to make the adventure more awesome, just skip it, no matter how much you feel it "needs" to be there.

1 - I'm couching this primarily in 4e terms because it's easier than speaking generally, but a lot of this will apply to any other game as well. Some things are different - I'd be very leery of publishing adventures for a non-open game system, for example, because of IP issues - but the broad strokes are the same. Plus, there's a nice law of inverses at work - other games have smaller markets, yes, but they also tend to be proportionally hungrier for adventures.

2- And if it does come up, it may just take the form of an infodump from an old sage or the like. That is not a meaningful improvement over "never coming up".

3 - If not, the old school renaissance is probably more up your alley. Totally cool if so, but that's not something I can offer much insight on.

4 - That said, man, I am hoping that 4e's new Adventure Site model sells well. Most interesting shift in published adventures since White Wolf's SAS.

5 - When I was running exalted (a white wolf system that uses lots of d10s) i did all my prep on special paper that I'd prepared by printing in advance. I created a left hand sidebar that was 10 characters wide and filled it with random numbers. Since exalted required a lot of die rolling, I used the paper to save myself headaches - if I needed to roll 5 dice, i could just cross off the next 5 numbers and use those as rolls. Something like this for 4e would be a little trickier, but still totally doable.

6 - To this day, I think that X1: The Isle of Dread, is one of the most brilliant adventures of all time, which is absolutely GUTTED by the necessities of presentation.

7 - And going through it will reveal that it's 10% awesome and 90% filler. I'd rather have a 4 room dungeon that's 100% awesome and be done in 1 or two session, simple as that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Third Party, Fourth Edition

Back when One Bad Egg shut its doors, it was a decision based on the nature of the third party marketplace for 4e products. The products we were most interested in, ones with fiddly bits to plug into the game like the magnificent Hard Boiled Armies[1]. It only had a small amount of mechanical crunch, but what it had needed to be able to plug back into character creation, and that's where the rub came up. Our sense was that between DDI and the character builder, there was not much room for third party material that would get reflected on the character sheet.

The thinking was simple. Character builder is well designed to handle all the complexities of 4e chargen, including making sure that all bonuses get reflected automatically when appropriate. This is great, but since it doesn't support third party material[2], and everything is so tightly integrated, if you see one cool third party thing you like, you need to discard the character builder entirely to get it. That's a sucky tradeoff. Character builder keeps things manageable as the body of 4e lore gets bigger, and it's really good at that. So good that We couldn't imagine anyone discarding it.

So, we saw the writing on the wall and shut down. It was sad, but that's the biz. In retrospect, I still feel like it was the right call, as the trend seems to have held up, and some of the problems expected have also materialized from it.[3] But I still think about it sometime.

See, there are a lot of things the current structure makes impractical for third party publishing; classes, races, paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, powers and magic items[4] most notably. These are all the elements which, if someone wants to use, they can't use the Character Builder. But that does leave a few things on the table. To break it down a little, let's use the one specific example: Monsters.

Monsters are the first thing that spring to mind. Monsters are mechanically self contained, and the fact that WOTC hasn't built an integrated encounter builder (yet) means there's no real overhead difference between using a WOTC monster and a third party monster, excepting the ease-of-use issue of copying and pasting out of the compendium.[5] Monsters are a great playground to kick around interesting mechanical elements - they're just _fun_ to build - but a pure monster product is only going to go so far. Because it's so easy to reskin and tweak monsters in existing products, the entire usage pattern of monster books has changed. In previous editions, only a fraction of a monster book could ever practically be used, but now you can potentially use EVERY monster in the book (limited by level range), even if it doesn't suit your campaign because you can reskin it. This means that monster books of the past (here are MORE MONSTERS! We'll just throw them at the wall and as long as a few of them stick, you'll feel you got your money's worth!) are no longer a useful model. The bar is a little higher, and the competition is fiercer - your monster idea is entering an environment of plenty, not one of scarcity - so it needs to rock.

There are a few ways to make this happen, and they reveal something you can expect to see again. Monsters will be a good sell if they include all the tools for making them useful to the DM. This might include things like background and ecology, but only if they translate into play - there are really good, play driving examples of monster ecology out there but there are many more hopelessly academic sounding wanks. Don't go this route just because you feel you have to. Similarly, it might include ways to tie the monster into the campiagn. As with ecologies, this is a little more hit or miss. Consider a brilliant product like Nevermet Press's The Desire - it's almost 60 pages dedicated to a specific recurring villain. It's *really* well done, well enough done that it will probably be a clear hit or a clear miss. If you can use it in your game, it's awesome, but if you can't, that's a lot of good material gone to waste (from the DM's perspective).

Of greatest use is anything that helps the DM actually build an encounter with the monster. That is, after all, where the rubber hits the road - The whole reason a DM wants to use your monster is because he has some cool idea for an encounter that it inspired. He might get that out of looking at the powers and thinking "ooh, I want to see that in a fight" but if you can make that easier for him? And if you can give him more than one way this critter could complicate a fight? Made of win.

And that's the truth of it. Beyond monsters you can have all manner of interesting products, from adventures to cards for tracking things to custom action points, but they're all just going to be novelties unless they *solve a problem*. 4e has a lot of smoothly integrated moving parts, but a few exposed rough surfaces, and if you want to sell a third party product[6], it needs to be part of the latter, not the former. This is rough because there's so much cool stuff in the smoothly moving parts, but it's reality. You need to look at what you bring to the table, what you *use* at the table that the game does not already provide. That's where you're going to find the products that people will want and use themselves, even if they don't really know they want it yet. And the good news is, if you're playing and running 4e regularly, you're already producing everything you need.

There's a bit of a stigma on the idea of publishing material from your own table. The idea is that you're just upjumping your own campaign, and that might have held some weight in the past when the game was very different, but nowadays? It's utter crap. If you do something at your table that is fun and useful for you, then the odds are very good it'd be fun and useful for someone else too. Whether it's a fun monster, a well-built skill challenge, an interesting encounter or just some best practice for tracking statuses or the like, other people could benefit from it. Sure, you can't productize everything, but why would you want to? Pick the few things that really made you think "This really worked" and see about putting them out there.

And don't be discouraged if there are no products like that already. That's a false barrier. A lot of this new 4e stuff doesn't work in old models (and oh, man, it gets painful when someone tries to force it to work) and we need to find the new models to express it. Shit, after all this time we still can't find consistently good ways to talk about skill challenges intelligently. This isn't because people haven't had good ideas, it's because no one has stepped forward with a "Skill Challenges, Dammit" product to start the conversation. Yes, it might not be well received. Any product you release might flop. But if you go into it with your eyes open and your passion engaged, you'll be amazed what might come of it.

Start the conversation.

1- I can safely call it magnificent because I never laid a finger on that one.
2- It does have a little space for freeform feats, but no mechanical support.

3- This is probably fodder for its own post at some point, but it comes down to this. 4e has reached a point of complexity where it is a software-assisted game. That's cool, to a point, because they've provided chargen software and an online database, and those are good things. It's also bad because it means another level of barrier to entry. The way you tip that balance is to leverage the software end of it into more of an asset - integrate the tools, make the more useful and more available. Unfortunately, that requires that WOTC either commit more resources in house or open up the toolset, and they seem disinclined to do either. It's a very businessey decision - development is not cheap and the return is questionable, so spending that money is out. Opening up the software might get the tools, but it also opens up the software and the data, potentially exposing the rules to piracy, business loss and other lawyerly scenarios. So they sit tight, and I think it's a great shame. 4E really is a fantastic game, but it could be doing more.

4 - This one is a real shame, but they plug into the character builder the same as everything else.

5 - Which is a point of reminder: If your pdf product doesn't allow copy & paste, it's a lot less useful to a GM building an encounter.

6 - If you don't want to sell it, if you're just writing it because you love it, then screw all this noise. Do what you dig.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The New Pitch

So, the new game's backdrop has been pitched and finalized. It may be a function of getting older, but I enjoy pre-play (as a social activity, not solo) much more these days, partly because it's an opportunity to bounce off the creativity of sharp people. When I was younger it was all about showing off the shiny things I'd made through play, and since I made pretty good things, that worked out ok. But now? I don't see as much satisfaction in that - I like the surprises that come out of brainstorming.

I started with a few seeds on the table: Feng Shui as Conspiracy, D&D without D&D, Some variant on Hunter or Mage and Amber, and we kicked them around for a while. The conspiratorial angle appealed, but the fear was Feng Shui was too much. More chewing ensued, and rehashing it all would probably not be terribly exciting, so I'll skip to the end: We settled on Cold War (1980s) minimal supers.

Premise is this. There are some number of really powerful supers out there, and - in America at least - they are by and large kept in boxes, controlled n some fashion, and only released when absolutely necessary (yes, the nuclear weapon analogy is intentional) and one or more teams of "Handlers" are responsible for looking into situations and ultimately for making the call on the ground whether or not to hit the button. The handlers have (or may have) low grade super powers - not enough to put them in a box, but enough to make them useful for field work and possibly enough to make them useful for dealing with the folks in the boxes.

I expect more details will get fleshed out over chargen (yes, TWO sessions of preplay! Madness!) but a few points established so far:
  • The handler team definitely works for the US. We discussed a Planetary/Global Frequency sort of vibe, but since we'd gravitated to the Cold War, we wanted to stick with that.
  • Majority of the Handler team must agree to deploy "Mark"
  • The people in boxes are designated "Mark I", "Mark II" and so on, so the handler colloquially refer to them as "Mark"
  • The handler team may have a designated Mark, or may be more general purpose. Undecided.
  • The Marks are people and even if not known now, they _can_ be known.
  • Other handler teams exist. Relationships TBD.
  • How other powers handle their Marks is an open question.
  • Origin of the Marks and powers intentionally hazy, possibly TBD in play. WWII seems an obvious culprit.

I have a few mindmaps running in my notebook of things that MIGHT be true, but nothing concrete yet - I want to leave things flexible until chargen finishes. In the meantime, I may be hitting Netflix for come good Cold War era Spy flicks. It's all still early yet, but I like this phase of things. All potential.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tiers of Damage

I've talked a little bit about tiers of ability in the past, but I was reading some old copies of Mage (the comic, not the RPG) this weekend and it got me thinking about handling them for super powers, or at least for toughness and damage type. The idea was inspirec by this: the hero of Mage is basically invulnerable - there are some caveats to it, but it really boils down to that - but he ends up getting severely injured when one of the bad guys manages to catch him off guard and nail him with his poisonous bone spur.

This ends up being a big plot point, life and death, yadda yadda yadda, but it also raises an interesting question of dramatic physics. It's a long-standing game idea that there's damage and then there's extra-damage. in the World of Darkness it's "aggravated damage"[1] but the idea is something you see in a lot of supers games. Bullets bounce harmlessly off the hero but when bad guys throw bolts of energy around it may be enough to actually bring some pain. Of course, it probably won't be enough, but there might be some things that are badass enough to do the damage.

Now, a lot of games will handle this with straight-up math. Invulnerability 7 vs. energy blast 4 works out badly for the energy blast. But me, I'm lazy, so I throw this back into a tiered approach, and it all really breaks down into three tiers: Normal, exceptional and named.[2] Let's take the idea of damage here. Normal damage is everything you might normally think of - guns, knives, car crashes and so on. Exceptional damage might be anything from flamethrowers to lasers to energy blasts to vorpal swords. Named damage is the category that either makes immediate sense or seems a little odd.

Assuming you find it odd, comic books are awash in excellent examples of this: compare superman's heat vision (exceptional) with Darkseid's Omega Beams (Names). Yes, in the math of comics, the omega beams are more powerful, but the important difference is that the Omega Beams are something that's talked about as their own things. SImilarly, compare a magic sword with Excalibur.

On the flip side, you can establish resistances along the same lines. Speaking broadly, a character might be resistant to normal damage, Exceptional damage or Named damage. THis ends up working interestingly depending on ho you handle the damage tiering. The normal assumption is that higher tiers do more damage, but that's not necessary. A laser beam is not going to make you _more_ dead than a bullet, but

Now, by itself, this isn't that useful except in the broadest of strokes, so it need another layer of tweaking, which breaks things into categories. Impact, fire, poison or whatever. The exact granularity of the categories is a function of the needs of the game. A concrete list is an option, but it's also easy to do this in an ad hoc fashion. To come back to the Mage example, you have a hero who is resistant to normal and exceptional damage, but the bad guy has one special "named" attack.

This is still only part of an idea, but I wanted to lay it out there because I feel like this is the edge of something that may yet fall into place.

1 - Invoking this reveals another tier - non-lethal damage. It's not really a part of this model because it's something of a one-off, but it's easy enough to make this a 4-step model.

2 - There's some unintentional overlap with the Amber DRPG item system here - it uses a similar tiered approach, and it's pretty elegant (if abusable, in its existing form) so its one of those things that's always rattling around in my head. Its biggest flaw is that it breaks its own rules in implementation, introducing further tiers to make NPCs more awesome.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Gamers Can Rule The World

I enjoy the webcomic xkcd, but it occasionally gets on my nerves with its nerd one-upmanship. This is not a huge deal because, hey, it's a nerd comic, you need to expect a certain amount of that. But there was a math uber alles one that sort of stuck in my craw for a while which I've now found peace with.

See, the bit I'd never realized[1] (and which I don't know if even the author has thought about) is that there's something not shown here, something which is only implied but which puts this in context. There's one other person here, one we're not seeing a little stick figure of, and that's the storyteller. That may seem a hokey term, so feel free to swap in writer or artist or whatever you like, but I'll stick with storyteller because I think that speaks to the heart of it: someone took this stuff, and made it say something.

None of this is meant as a sleight against any particular field. Storytelling is as much a part of math as it is cooking, politics or any other endeavor. None of them work without creating stories. Once you get past the abstracts and start talking about how an individual person understands things, that understanding takes the form of stories. Cause an effect is a story. The process for making things is a story. These stories may be boring or short, and they may violate every dramatic rule that we like to apply to fiction, but whatever form they take, they're how we see the world because we cannot actually perceive truth.[2]

Marketers, politicians and people in power know this, and have for a good long time. When you hear someone talking about spin or controlling the narrative, they're talking about the importance of stories. They're looking at a pile of stuff and trying to figure out how to turn it into a story that is compelling enough for people to buy into yet which serves their interests. Other people will look at the stuff and create different stories. Once these stories are out in the wild, they'll fight among themselves until one becomes 'true'. Even if some people still seek to look at the stuff, for most people the story is all that's going to matter.

There are examples of this everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Get up, walk around and look at a dozen things and tell yourself about them. Look at what you tell yourself, and stop and consider how much of that is a story. And here we come to the tough part.

As overwhelmingly powerful as this idea is, its a very difficult one to discuss in the wild. While almost anything can be used as evidence of it, actually doing so is going to risk the wrath of people who have bought that particular story.[3] The topic then becomes about the particular story rather than stories in general, and that's useless. So I'm going to risk it here, but be warned that I don't care much about the specific stories except as illustration.

As I write this, there's a bunch of oil spilling out of a pipe from an exploded oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While people are rushing to deal with the physical problems this represents, there is currently a kung-fu fight of epic proportions over the narrative of what all this means. BP, the company leasing the rig and the public face on this, wants the narrative to be about how responsive they've been and how they've kept this under control. Proponents of offshore drilling want to come up with a story that acknowledges this as bad but not something to reflect on offshore drilling in general. Opponents of offshore drilling want this story to be apocalyptic.

None of this even touches on smaller stories, like whose fault it is, or whether liberal commandos blew it up to discredit Obama's opening of offshore drilling.[4] Look at the responses from the gulf Governors, most of which are prepared for disaster, one of which is insisting nothing's wrong. Neither group can say they know what will happen, but each is positioning itself for the story they think is coming.

That's the real trick. You never can see the story mid-stream: story is only created after the fact. But it doesn't just happen - or rather, it doesn't just happen unless no one steps up. Stories are a lot like wet cement. While the events are happening, they're fluid and manipulable, but as time goes on and the story starts becoming more established, it gets harder and harder to change. For all the weaknesses of a 24 hour news cycle, the one strength is that we get to see the cement before it hardens, which means that the ultimate story can be created by anyone who can build something compelling enough.

As proof of this, look at the recent financial crisis. There has not been any single story more important than This American Life's Giant Pool of Money. Even if you haven't heard it, the people you've listened to have, and their stories have been shaped by it. This is not because it introduced new information, because NPR[5] has some special insight or because it shocked us in some way. It's because they told the story of the financial crisis so well that it could not be ignored.

And this is where I come back to gaming. If you game (or write, or create) then you live in the world of stories every day. Some people characterize that as escapist, but I like to think of it as boot camp for the real world. And by the real world, I mean the world of stories.

Power, influence and change have always come from stories, whether it was the story of the divine right of kings or the story of the founding fathers. Historically, those stories have been in the hands of only a few people, transmitted slowly and changing rarely. By the time they got to anyone else, they had already been told. Most people's stories were about getting them through the next week or next winter, and on those occasions when they were in a position to see these other stories, they were rarely in a position to change them, save under the most dramatic of circumstances.

But that's changed. If you're reading this, you're in a position to take advantage of that change. Stories travel fast now, reaching us before they've fully formed, and all the stories of the past are spread out before us, awaiting a critical eye. For better or for worse, the firmer your grasp on stories, the more you can do. This is not merely for novelists or screenwriters, it's something that can matter in every conversation and blog post, or even around your office. If you can see the world of stories, know the story you tell when you do everything from buy cereal to go to college, you can make a difference.

There's a cynical instinct to suggest that this is all about appearances, but that misses the key point, a point that makes gamers uniquely equipped to face this new reality. See, this is not about YOUR story, it's about everyone else's story. The story you tell yourself is compelling only to you. If you want your story to really work, it needs to be compelling for other people. You need to see the story they see.

So with all this in mind, a hobby that is all about extracting story from events and shifting perspective from yourself to someone else sounds like exactly the kind of training one might want to have.

1 - Other than the fact that Liberal Arts continue to get a bad rap
2 - If the instinctive response to this is that Math Is Truth, then we have a disconnect that's not worth arguing about. Really, that's true of any X Is Truth response, but mathematicians and fundamentalists are usually the only ones you really have to worry about it from.

3 - And I note, we ALL buy into stories - we need to, otherwise we become paralyzed an incapable of doing anything. The fact that someone has bought into a story does not make them irrational or unreasonable.

4 - Yes, it's been proposed, and it's a great illustration of something important. The fact that a story is crazy doesn't necessarily make it a bad story. Stuff like this can be sticky.

5 - Radio is an underestimated medium, whatever your political party. It is easy to dismiss NPR or conservative talk radio (especially whichever group you disagree with) but radio is such a limited medium that it demands the mastery of stories because it can't compensate for their absence with sleight of hand. Successful radio personalities craft compelling narratives; that's what
makes them successful. Even if you don't like their stories (or if you conflate their stories with truth), they're worth paying attention to if you want to see how they do it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Idea

I am at that exciting and antsy place that comes before starting a new game. Part of the problem is, of course, I'm not yet sure *which* game I'm working on. I have a few ideas, and I'll pitch them to the players, take their feedback and come up with something that we'll all dig.

I enjoy the pitching process. I don't have any really formal approach to it - sometimes the pitch is as simple as a line or two ("Feng Shui, only as serious conspiracy play rather than Hong Kong action"), sometimes it's a full write up (as in the case of Golden Century) but whatever it is it tends to summarize the bit that grabs me.

The rub of this is that I have the scattered debris of a fair number of campaigns lying around my notebooks. They're good ideas (or at least most of them are) but I'm unlikely to ever do anything with them. So I find myself wondering if this might be the basis for an experiment. Grab a few of the more fleshed out ones, like Golden Century, slap a CC license on them, and release them into the wild. Odds are good they would be met with a resounding "flop" noise, but all the same, I keep talking about how I think setting and situation design is the arena that really deserves exploration in the hobby. Maybe this would be a way to put my money where my mouth is.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Boring But Essential Piece

So, Evil Hat has a company Ipad. This is something Fred and I discussed during the pre-order period, and we concluded we would definitely get a 3g one for the business. Absolutely, some of the decision was impacted by our love of shiny objects, but the bulk of it was a business decision. The ipad seemed like exactly the right device to bring to a convention. You could show off products on the big, friendly screen. 3G meant being able to maintain connectivity in environments where the wifi is slim to nonexistent. Plus, mobile payments are a growing field, and we figured we could use one of the iphone apps to take credit card payments.

I'm not going to pretend we're big time convention veterans. We only go to a few conventions a year, and we have mostly operated under the IPR umbrella when we have. That said, due to Fred's relationship with IPR, we've been pretty cognizant of the business end of things, and one of the important lessons that comes of sales on the road is that taking plastic will net you sales you would not otherwise be able to manage, especially when the ATM runs out of cash (and the ATM will always run out of cash).

That said, taking credit cards is not necessarily as simple as all that. It costs money to make money, and in the case of businesses who don't move a large amount of money (like many game companies), the costs associated with taking credit cards can be high enough to offset any benefit. What costs? Well, historically you needed to get a merchant ID (that costs), pay a monthly fee (more $$$) and then you paid a certain amount of every transaction for the privilege. Plus, you needed to figure out how you would take the cards in the first place. You could get a card swiper, and while that's easiest for your customers, that's the most expensive option (plus you also need to account for how you'll print the receipt). If you've got a register that can handle it, you can punch in the card, but that register probably wasn't cheap, and you're going to pay more per transaction. Plus, in both cases, you need to figure out how to get the connection you need to make the transaction. All these complications are why a lot of folks use knucklebusters, which is to say card-imprints - those old devices that they put your card down on, then with a CHUNK-CHUNK take an imprint of onto carbon paper. That's easiest to set up, but it exposes you to fraud (nothing says the card has any money on it) and it has the highest interchange rate[1].

This model, for all its craziness, works pretty well for a good size business. The costs of equipment, connectivity and regular fees can all get amortized pretty quickly, especially across a chain. Once a company reaches a certain size, they're much more concerned with reducing interchange because that's the biggest bite for them. Oh to have such problems. But for a small merchant, especially one who is selling things only occasionally?

With all this (and other factors I haven't even mentioned) in mind, the prospect of a way for a small merchant to take payments without paying through the nose is pretty appealing, and the good news is these options are starting to emerge. While they generally cost more per transaction, they reduce or remove the other fees in such a way as to make things much more cost-reasonable for a merchant who isn't producing the kind of volume in a year that a Target is seeing in a day.

So, I started looking into this, and two real contenders stood out: Intuit[2] and Square. Intuit's a known player in this space since they're the folks behind Quicken, and Square was created by a founder of Twitter (of all things) and is looking to shake up small payments.

Both of them offer pretty decent terms. Intuit's GoPayments is $12.95 a month, but it's month-to-month, so there's no setup or breakdown fee. It charges 1.7% + 30 cents for a swiped transaction and 2.7% + 30 cents for a keyed (the number is entered by hand) transaction. The big rub is that you need to buy your own card reader ($145, $220 if you want it to print receipts, which you probably do). But on the plus side the readers are bluetooth, and plug into a huge number of phones.

Square has no monthly fee and they offer a swiper for free (for Iphone, Ipad and apparently Android too) but they charge more per transaction: 2.75% + 15 cents swiped, 3.5% + 15 cents.[3] the swiper, it might be a tough call, but on the face of it, Square looks like a clear winner for smaller merchants, with things tilting more towards intuit the bigger you get.

Let's assume you're a game company with a $30 product and someone buys it by swiping a card: with Intuit you'd pay 81 cents per unit. With Square you're paying 97.5 cents. Not a huge difference, and it's going to take a long time to make up the difference in price from the monthly fee and buying the hardware. At $100 a sale, then it's 2 bucks for Intuit versus $2.90 for Square. Still not huge, but at roughly a dollar per transaction, it's only 250 sales or so before you make back your costs.

All of which is to say, it's worth looking at what you're selling and how much you expect to sell before picking an option. Take the DFRPG for example. Most sales will be $90 pairs of the two books, so, ballpark, Intuit starts being a better deal for us somewhere around the 300th sale. If we decide to bring 500 copies, then the decision on what service to use is a difference of almost $200 in our pocket. Yes, that's a small amount in terms of the whole of the game, or even the whole of the convention, but I say this: if you're a small game designer, I doubt you want to leave that $200 on the tables.

Now, these aren't the only options out there, and I don't want to pretend that they are, but I want to call a little attention to this very dry topic because it's one of the realities that you're going to have to deal with, whether you're a game designer, and artist or god knows what else, if you're looking to sell your stuff at a convention. Personally, I've signed up for Square just to see how it works out - never underestimate the power of free signup plus ease of use - but I'm still waiting on my swiper to arrive. I'll probably have more to say once it actually gets here.

1 - Interchange rate is the percentage of the transaction cost the merchant pays to the credit card processors. It's arcane, but the important part is that the riskier the transaction, the higher the rate. CNP (card not present) transactions and transactions where the card isn't authorized online are generally the riskiest, and thus elicit the highest fee.

2- And in the interest of full disclosure, I actually deal with Intuit's stuff in my day job, but not in a way that gives me any particular insight into this product.

3 - Square has no printed receipts, but it has a robust receipt-emailing capability. That's nicely futuristic, but I can see that being an issue.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Polishing The Iceberg

One of the hardest things to do in life is to think about what something you know well looks like to other people. First impressions - both the snap judgments and the longer initial exposure - matter a lot, and its worth taking the time to shift your perspective and consider how you and your project (whatever it is) looks to someone coming across it for the first time. Think of it like an inversion of the usual iceberg metaphor - rather than being all about the great depths hidden out of sight, it's more about figuring out which part sticks above the surface of the water and making sure that's eye-catching as possible.[1]

The hardest part to figure out with any project[2] is where people are going to be coming from the first time they find your work. Will they find it by Googling the title? Picking it up off a shelf to peruse? A review? A discussion on a forum? Downloading a preview? There's no way to know, and that leads to the first and most important rule: Every point of contact is somebody's first point of contact.

The bad news is this means more work for you. You can't just pick one thing, like the perfect back cover blurb or the ideal website and trust that it'll do the job. Yes, if you find a perfect pitch you can tilt attention in that direction (Such as reposting the blurb in other places, or making sure you always have a link to the website on hand) but that's still going to require a fair amount of work.

There are about a zillion specific things you can do to polish each of these facets, more than I could possibly go into in a single post, so let's step back to a high level and focus on the three big ones: you need to be clear, you need to be easy and you need to be human.

To understand what being clear means, ask yourself what you think when a friend suggests a book, movie or a game without any context. What are the things you want to know about it to be able to decide if it's for you? Obviously, you want to know as much as possible as quickly as possible, but you don't want to know too much. Movies are great for this - you go and catch a trailer online, and in the span of 3 minutes, you have a decent amount of data. For books, this is the back cover blurb. For games it's....well, we don't have anything like this for games[3], and that's kind of a problem. But whatever the form, that idea of something that can be quickly digested to give enough information to create interest, that's powerful.

But it doesn't always work. Some trailers are terrible. Some book blurbs are almost nonsensical in their desire to be prose stylings rather than merely informative. Like some reviewers, many blurb-writers make the mistake of trying to show how cool they are rather than helping or informing the reader. Don't do that. Be clear in the information you provide.

Easy is a corrolary of clear - you don't want to make a potential fan work to find what they need to know. Forums are great. Ornate websites are great. But if your answer to a potential question requires that someone visit a forum or navigate some whack-ass flash interface, that's a bad answer. "It's on the wiki" is not acceptable if you have any interest in turning a querant into a fan.

This one may be the most work, because everything you make easier for others is a little harder for you, and the reality is no matter how well you create the faq or how clearly you write things out, there are going to be questions that you haven't prepared for. When they come up, remind yourself that no matter how many questions you've fielded, this is the first one from this person's perspective, and how you answer it is how your company acts.

And that comes into the last one: be human. Make sure the face on your interactions is a human one rather than some sort of abstraction. This means a lot of predictable things, like being civil, but it also means copping to things. You're not going to be perfect, but that's only a problem if you act like your farts are lemon-scented. If you have a problem, hang a lantern on it - call it out and be at the front of the discussion. Not only is that more responsible, it helps you direct the conversation towards something useful rather than towards something toxic.

Now, here's the big trick. Yes, I will ultimately suggest doing all three of these things because they are the right thing to do in their own right, but if you're feeling crazily cynical about human nature and are driven purely by the bottom line, then i say this: do them anyway. Not because good presentation nets sales (though it does) but because this is makes your life easier. See, by providing these answers in a clear, easy and human fashion, you have enabled every person who has ever gotten an answer to speak on your behalf, with confidence. You can't watch every forum and every blog, and when a question about your product comes up, the more people who are capable of answering the question, the more likely someone will answer it. If you've been clear, it will be the right answer. If you've made it easy, they can find it. If you've been human, they're more likely to want to help.

Now, I like to think of this as positive reinforcement: treat people well and they treat you well. But if it's necessary for your worldview to think of this as shameless manipulating the masses to serve your needs[4] then feel free to think of it that way. Either way, you know what to do.

1 - Implicit in this is the assumption that the rest of your iceberg is going to be worthwhile. Icebergs that are all up on top abound in advertising and marketing, but that's not what we're talking about today. This is not a cynical ploy to draw attention to something worthless, this is a cynical ploy to draw attention to something valuable and useful.

2 - Project in this case might be a book, a game, a movie or really anything with a creator that might be bought, sold or given.

3 - Except when we steal it. Some games have useful back cover blurbs, some don't.

4 - Mwahahahahaha

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Subplot?

So, this is one of those tidbits that I had sort of recognized but never had actually seen called out until I read it in the late Blake Snyder's Save The Cat[1], but once I read it, I completely saw the logic to it. It goes something like this: when you watch a movie, it has a main plot (the "A Plot") which is what the movie is about. Defeat the evil overlord, let's say. But that won't be the only plot - there will be another story going on, usually a romance or coming-of-age sequence - which runs alongside the A plot. This "B plot" is the first big subplot of the movie, and it's rarely the last. There are usually several more subplots (C, D and so on) that might revolve around secondary characters resolving their own stories, and that's all well and good, but for the moment I just want to focus on the A and B plot threads to illustrate an idea.

There's an instinct to think of the B plot as chrome, or as something that's shamelessly added to appeal to a demographic. If the A plot is about space ninjas punching giant robots, then the addition of a romantic B plot can seem like a blatant way to try to sell the story to wives and girlfriends.[2] And, heck, it can be that. I just saw Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus this weekend, and in addition to being hilariously in its awfulness, it was a reminder that just because something has been released doesn't mean it did everything right.

The trick of it is this: the A plot is doomed, especially in adventure flicks. The hero can't overcome the villain, at least not the way he is when things start out. He's too busy whining about power converters or is otherwise lacking in what is necessary (resolve, skill, information or the like). The B plot is where he gains that thing he's missing. It may be as crass as finding out the weakness of the villain because he rescued just the right orphan, he might learn valuable lessons about life and friendship, he might find a reason to fight or it might be something else entirely[3]. The exact details of this aren't important as much as the idea that the B plot provides the key for resolving the A plot.

With that realization, you then open up a better understanding of the role of other subplots. They may help the A plot resolve, or they may help the B plot resolve so that it, in turn, can help the A plot resolve. These plots are all threaded together like a series of slipknots - if you just tug on the A it will never come loose, but if you tug on them in the right order, it all just opens up.

While this may be unfamiliar language, the basic model here is something that most GMs are familiar with, since this is classic MacGuffin adventure model. The only way to kill the Dark Lord is with the Sword of Weeping Widows, but the only way to find the resting place of the sword is to as the Oracle of On'lev, but to find the oracle you need a map from the library of Farmount, which is currently in enemy hands. It's quite direct and linear, but it's a series of plot and subplots all the same. The A plot (kill the dark lord) requires the B plot (Get the sword!) be resolved, which in turn requires the C plot (Find the sword's location from the oracle) and the D plot (Get the map to the Oracle) to be resolved.

In the classic D&D sense, each subplot equates to a dungeon and it's a pretty solid model to provide a framework to tie together adventures, but I'm calling attention to the larger model because it suggests two ways you can improve the experience.

The first is simple and easy to implement - there's no need for these things to be purely linear - a given element may require two or three things to resolve it, which allows you to branch out and give players the freedom to explore things in the order they like. If, for example, the location of the sword was known, but the Oracle and the Library both needed to be checked to get it back, players could choose which one to pursue first rather than follow a dictated order. Yes, on some level this is just a bit of sleight of hand, but there is always going to be a balancing act between keeping adventures interesting and leading players by the nose, so when you can err in favor of giving them some leeway, you should.

The second is a little bit more of a stretch, so bear with me. One of the problems with a lot of classic adventures is the question of why the characters are the ones dealing with this. Certainly, well motivated characters have reasons that they might be taking action, and that works very well on a personal scale, but if you're talking the kind of heroic threats that are such a staple of gaming, there's a question of why someone who's more powerful, smarter and possibly better looking (that is to say, an NPC) isn't dealing with this problem?

This question is especially problematic in heavily populated published settings[4] and level-based games. Certainly there are ways to make excuses for why no one is intervening[5] but they get strained after a while. So with that in mind, the answer may be found in a B plot that is more like those found in the movies than in the usual module. When the B plot is just another adventure, then yes, anyone with the skill could resolve it. But when the B plot is tied to a personal issue, like a relationship between a PC and an NPC, then only that PC can resolve it. Now there's a reason it's his story, and not Badass McNpc's.

On some level this is just a reminder that plots need to be personal, but it's also a tool to help keep that from being too ham-handed. The temptation is to make the A plot personal, and that can get rough because there are only so many ways to tie a PC to the main plot that haven't been done to death. There can only be so many chosen ones or children of prophecy before it gets cliché. Making the B plot personal gives you a hook for players without it being so blatant. When a childhood friend is The Big Villain, that can work maybe once if you're lucky. If a childhood friend is a lieutenant for The Big Villain and I someone you can talk to? Less of a stretch, and opens much more interesting doors.

Plus, it helps the world hang together a bit better. If the PCs really are interesting (and they should be) they should have a network of friends and family, and it's only natural that those friends and family end up in interesting places. If your PC trained at the best military academy in the world, then OF COURSE some of his classmates are going to be recruited by bad guys - is the bad guy really looking to recruit the second best? Things like this let you reinforce the ways in which the PCs are exceptional by demonstrating that people who share an attribute with them are well regarded for it.[6]

All of which is to say, next time you pull together an adventure, ask yourself what your b plot is, and how it matters to at least one of your characters.

1 - A wonderful book on screenwriting, one of my favorites.

2 - Yes, in reality, there are plenty of wives and girlfriends who would cheerfully pay money to watch space ninjas punch giant robots, but I think you understand my point.

3 - For less adventurey movies, this may be more subtle, but for action movies this tends to be pretty cut and dried.

4 - By which I really mean The Forgotten Realms, of course.

5- Including the ultimate "screw you" of "They're doing more important things". Thanks for underscoring what a bunch of useless chumps we are!

6 - One trick for this that doesn't show up in much fiction but is incredibly useful in gaming is the combinative element of the party members. One way to truly guarantee that the party are the only folks who could have resolved this is with each sub-plot keying off a different member of the party. Consider, the example of the school friend who's now an enemy general. The PC warrior has an in with him, but arguably so does anyone else from that school. However, if the second subplot element (say, his fondness to Ialantian artifacts)[7] is one that a second PC in the group can address, then the set of people who could solve this problem has just dropped by another order of magnitude. In one sweep you've cemented the player's position AND acknowledged their backgrounds.

7 - This, by the way, is one of the greatest arguments for supporting color within a system. Combat abilities are nice in combat, but allowing characters avenues for external interests and connections makes for vastly better (read, less generic) plots.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies

3e’s introduction of Prestige Classes was a kind of neat idea, full of promise, that never really paid off. Most of them were bad, and a few of them were truly broken, and in large part they ended up existing solely to see what kind of abusive combinations people could come up with.

At first glance, Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies were supposed to fix that, and they kind of do. Since they can’t be combined the way Prestige Classes were, there’s less room for abuse, and since everyone gets them (and they’re layered on top of your normal class) it seems more equitable. And mechanically, it mostly works out. There are a few exceptions – every “broken” character I’ve seen for 4e depends on one or more of the three unique sources of powers (Race, Paragon path and Epic Destiny) combined in weird ways, but even those have usually depended on a creative misreading of the rules. By and large, they’re a mechanical improvement.

But they still fall flat for me. This is another case of the color going one way and the system going another, and someday I’ll make peace with that, but probably not today. The thing is this: some paragon paths are transparently just wrappers around a mechanic[1] but most of them have some element of story to them. Yes, sometimes that story is a bit of a headscratcher, but mostly they’re interesting elements that might add something fun to the world. But that’s where the break down. First, if the powers for the PP are a bad match for your character, it doesn’t matter HOW good the color is, it’s not worth picking up. The powers are just too important to play to pick something blatantly ineffective. Other games can support non-optimal choices to varying degrees, but not 4E.

Second, since this choice is not made until 11th level, any plot elements that the Paragon path introduce end up coming out of left field. If I knew from the outset that a player was going to pick a particular Paragon Path, then it would be possible to introduce those elements into play over the course of the game. If you’re going to become a pit fighter, maybe I’ll have you fight in a pit. If you’re going to join the Cerulean Order, maybe I’ll actually take steps to actually introduce the Cerulean Order into the game.

As with many things in 4E, the first problem is easily enough solved with reskinning. Just say to the GM “I want the background from this Paragon path, but the powers from this Paragon Path” and bam, you’re good. It might take a little tweaking, so a Dwarven Kensai might actually be a an axe-master, but that’s pretty trivial.

Solving the second problem’s a little more involved. You could just have players tell you what Paragon path they’re going for, but in many cases they may not know yet. Back when I was actually writing 4e Products I had an idea I rather liked which I know throw out into the wild. I always thought that Paragon Paths could come with feats, or more specifically, one feat per Paragon Path, offering something useful that synced with the powers and abilities of the Paragon Path. They’d be on the same level as racial feats, that is to say, intentionally a little bit better than regular feats because they reinforce a theme. They’d be handy for characters and, more importantly, they would flag to the DM that the player was going in that direction, so he could start introducing those elements earlier on in the game.

All of these concerns apply to epic destinies as well, and there’s a case t be made that the same solutions could apply. I could see it. But I admit I’m tempted to do something weirder and just let players pick up Epic Destinies at level 1 (as if level 1 were level 21).

Sounds dangerous, I know. Players will get some kind of death resistance and may pick up a big whammy of a power, but to be frank, it’s only one whammy (and in many cases, it’s not much of a whammy, since it tends to rely on other powers – though it may then be many whammies). It’s a power bump, no question, but it also lets you START stories about the children of gods and chosen saints rather than discover those stories 20 levels in. [2]

Honestly, I like the direction that Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies seem to indicate. And if you actually just want to start a game at level 11 or 21, they work fantastically, at least in part because they suggest that the history of the character has lead to this starting point. It's my hope that, with a little tweaking, that that can also be accomplished through play.

1- And I’m ok with this. Honest crunch is not a bad thing.

2- If the mechanical element worries you, spread out the rewards so they’re over 30 levels not 10, and that should mitigate things enough.