Thursday, June 30, 2011

Another Origins Find

I became more sympathetic to the people with the rolling luggage at Origins after I started down the boardgame path. The simple reality is that if you're carrying more than one full sized boardgame, you're going to be hard pressed to find an efficient solution for carrying them. This became apparent after I picked up Ascension and the other awesome boardgame of the con (more on that in a second) and I tried to carry both around. My backpack was no use, and while I made use of my Reddoxx CPA Briefcase (which is freaking immense) one day, it was sufficiently full that there was no room for additional purchases.

So, with that in mind, I'm willing to change my stance on rolling luggage at conventions. You still need to steer clear of crowded areas (like the dealers room) with it, but if you are board-game or wargame focused, I concede the necessity. However, I offer an important caveat - don't overload them. If you're using a clever arrangement of bungie cords to try to hold two stacks of games side-by-side then you're asking for trouble. One game is going to come loose, and then it's all going to go to hell. Unless you are literally stocking a booth, stick to a single stack.

All of this also has reminded me of the importance of after-market repackaging, which is a really fancy way of saying "Putting a game in a smaller box". I love that games are getting these great organizing trays, but that's only really used to me if I play the game at home. If I ever want to take the game anywhere (like a convention or a friend's house) then it's worth my while to try to compress it down into something more portable. A few game-makers have caught onto this. The ascension bundle I got came with a box for just this purchase, and I know that AEG makes the boxes for it's game expansions with compact storage in mind.

Which comes to the other great find of the convention, Seven Wonders. This is a development game that feels a bit like the slimmed down love child of Civilization and Race for the Galaxy, which puts it precisely in my sweet spot. Still, as I mentioned regarding Ascension, merely being a good game is not enough anymore, and 7W delivered on two particular vectors.

The first is that it's fast. Gameplay is listed as a half hour, and even with learning, our first games were done in under 40 minutes. Fast is a big deal for me, and would probably have been enough, but it was driven home by the second point: That time doesn't change as you add more players. It's just as fast (or nearly so) with 7 people as it is with 3 (technically, it also supports 2, but I haven't tried the 2 player rules yet). This is accomplished by changing the deck size based on the number of people, which in turn keeps the number of turns constant. Since turns are simultaneous, the only thing that really slows down play is that guy who takes forever to make decisions. Sadly, there is only so much you can do about that, except perhaps keep playing until he feels comfortable enough to play fast.

Setup and breakdown could be a little more efficient, and to be totally frank, will probably be helped by shifting it to a custom box, but that's a small detail. Apparently the first expansion is about to hit the market (Asmodee had them at Origins, but weren't selling them when I talked to them) but there's some worry it's going to change the game too drastically. I'm willing to hold out and see before picking it up.

Anyway, it was a good purchase, and you can apparently get it for as little as $35, which is a good price. at $40 I felt ok with it, though at $50 I might have hesitated. Your yardstick may vary of course, but if you get a chance, it's worth a play.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I go to Origins for the conversations, and the winner was one of the big ad hoc roundtables on Sunday night. Great talk for lots of great reasons, but the thing that really struck me came afterwards, on the way back to the hotel. Amanda Valentine, editor to the stars, remarked on how much she had enjoyed the conversation and, notably, how much she had felt a part of it rather than excluded because she was a woman. Now, on the face of it, this was great - I'm really glad that was the case, and I can safely say that it was not because anyone made any special effort to accommodate her. It was just the sort of conversation where people are thoughtful and respectful and topics wander the map, and that's kind of as it should be.

But my heart sank some. Not because she was wrong - she wasn't - and not even because in this hobby it was something that merited mention. Rather, it made me think about the makeup of the conversation. It included over a dozen people at various points, only two of which were women.

This is a little disturbing to me because, up to that point, it had been a pretty much perfect conversation in my eyes. Noting that gap called out two things. The first was a blind spot on my part, and while that's always jarring, that's just something to live with and learn from. The second, and perhaps more interesting and actionable item, was my asking of myself who else should have been there.

See, the rub is that I actually know a number of female game designers, writers and the like, and they're pretty awesome (and despite appearances, only _some_ of them are named Emily). Of those I know, very few were at Origins, so it would have been hard for them to get in on the conversation, which is a decent intellectual answer, but emotionally leaves me wondering if I'm just facing another blind spot. I met a lot of guys at Origins, but I can only think of three women (Amanda, who came with Evil Hat, an editor from Outrider Studios whose name escapes me and who I met in the context of speaking to her husband, and Miranda Horner, who has a list of RPG credits as long as my arm) I spent any time talking to.

It is entirely possible to write this off as a function of the gender ratio at the convention, which I presume to skew male without any real evidence to back that up. The temptation to do so is rooted firmly in the squoodgy uncertainty that dwelling on this evokes. If I think about this in terms of bringing women into gaming, it's this huge, impossible problem.

But thankfully, that's not it.

See, the reality is I'm a selfish bastard, and I'm in this for cool ass conversations with cool ass people. I WANT Emily Care Boss, Jess Hartley, Filamena Young, Julia Ellingbone, Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat, Amy Garcia and many, many, many, many, others to be in on these conversations because they make it more awesome. I don't worry about the absence of women in this conversations for some abstract reason, I worry because I fear there are awesome people out there who I'm not dragging into the circle because I don't know about them! (I worry about it with guys too, of course, but when it comes to guys, let's just say I have a very wide shot selection.)

So, help me sate my selfishness. Who should I be following? Who should I be looking forward to dragging into crazy ass conversations at cons? Who should be on my radar but isn't (possibly because I'm a dumbass).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cool Things at Origins

This was my first big convention in memory with no responsibilities, which made it weird. The biggest obvious effect was that my sense of time got absolutely shot. Summer sunlight plus being further west (plus a light right outside my hotel window) meant all my cues for telling the time were shot. This was a little problematic, and I missed one of my evening video calls home to the kid as a result, but once I became aware of it, I compensated.

I didn't play a single RPG while I was at the con. This hadn't been the plan, but it was a result of my really enthusiastically diving into the card and boardgame side of things this year, enough so that I shelled out for a board room pass to be able to try different games form their library. This lead to one of the real finds of the con, Ascension.

Ascension is a card game in the general Dominion/Thunderstone family, where a lot of the play revolves around accruing cards and then using them to win. I've heard them called deck building games, and it's not a great term but it will do. Ascension was getting some decent push on the floor as they were premiering their first expansion at Origins, so I was curious. I tried it, and I promptly walked to the floor and bought the whole set, so safe to say I liked it.

But here's the thing: it's a great game, but that wasn't enough. There are LOTS of great, fun, well designed games out there, so many that it has become the minimum I look for in a game. It needs to be a great game, but it also needs to do something else, and Ascension pulled that off. Specifically, it's got a lot of the fun of Dominion or Thuderstone without being nearly as much of a pain in the ass. Setup and breakdown (which are my biggest annoyance with those other games) is quick and easy, meaning it's a game that I can actually _play_ with a minimum of friction, and that's fantastic.

Not to say it's flawless. The art on the cards is uneven, and unfortunately some of the worst art is on the most common cards. They also clearly changed card printers between the initial game and the expansion, and the expansion cards are a tiny bit smaller and not necessarily perfectly color matched. Both problems go away when you sleeve the cards (which i did, since they don't feel like they can take as much abuse as I'd dish out) but it's a bit annoying that it makes sleeves a very near necessity rather than just a nice to have.

Still, I'm glad I got it, and I look forward to playing it more in the future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

So That Happened

I usually skip the actual Origins awards ceremony. I'd pretend that this is some hipster douchebag, too cool for the event sort of thing but the reality is that in past years I have never been able to actually find the ceremony, and directions didn't seem to help. This was the first year i actually found it (and the beer garden), so that was a good reason to go.

Even so, I was mostly just there to cheer on Fred, who was inducting Erick Wujick into the Origins Hall of Fame (and rightly so). I sat in the back and had brought along my copy of Ascension and a big stack of card sleeves - an awards ceremony seemed exactly the right opportunity to sleeve up all those cards. And it was. Things started reasonably on time, and James Earnest lives up to his reputation as a great MC, and I was cheerfully ripping through those cards, and then the Damndest thing happened: we won.

The Dresden files RPG was up for the Origins award for best RPG and best RPG supplement. The competitions in both categories was crazy fierce, and I was pretty sure we had no chance - in fact, I had a high level of confidence in who we would lose too in each category. Pathfinder was just going to crush is in Best Supplement, and Best RPG was a toss up: DC adventures, unless Green Ronin split their vote between that and Dragon Age, in which case, Gamma World would take it. I was so very, very wrong.

So, now I have two statues, or at least two I share with Fred, Lenny, Clark, Amanda, Ken, Ryan, Chad, Genevieve and of course, Jim. This is pretty fantastic. I have no ideas what it _means_ - Origins award provides no useful predictor on how the other awards of the season will fall out, and I have no idea if it means a sales bump, but i don't really *need* to know those things. This crazy idea that started with a trio of friends running Amber LARPs and a long drive to Tahoe managed to do this thing, and if you asked the people on that trip if they could have ever imagined this, they would have laughed and laughed. This is something that happens to other people.

But, I guess maybe it isn't. Might be a lesson in that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad Business

So, I was standing at an Origins booth and noticed they had some Osprey books for $15 each, a mild discount. Osprey books are cool little military-focused history resources, so I starter looking, and saw an interesting looking one on the fortifications of the Incas, so I pick it up and wait to pay the man. He's busily playing a mini's game, so I decide to be patient, and look over the bookshelf and find another book I want to get, so I pick it up and wait some more.

Guy keeps playing his game. That's cool, I'm patient, and while I'm waiting, I succumb to impulse and pick up two more books. So there I am, standing there with $60 of product in my hands, and the guy keeps playing.

I wait, and after a while I'm a little bit less in the sweep of "oh cool" and I put back the two extra books I picked up. He's still playing.

After a bit longer, I decide, ok, I only really need one, so I set aside the second. He's still playing.

So I wait a while longer, at which point I decide "To hell with this", put down the book and wander off.

Origins has been overall quite fantastic, but that example was pretty much going to stick with me.

Or so I thought. That bit of lighthearted bad-business ended up feeling very small late in the day when word hit the bars about the WOTC layoffs. It's way to early to say anything more than it's disturbing, and that I wish the best for all those affected. Good luck to you all.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Building the Conspiracy

As I mentioned conspiracies the other day, I figured I'd share a trick for constructing them which makes them easy to construct yet consistent enough to maintain a "The Truth Is Out There" vibe.

Start off with a secret - If your familiar with the Shock RPG, consider this a single shock. It's some thing or event which changes everything and upends all previous assumptions. Good examples include Aliens having landed, people developing psychic powers, time travel being possible, demons being real or something like that. If it's a big enough deal that it could be a premise for a game all by itself, that's probably a good secret.

Write it down in the middle of a piece of paper or on it's own index card. That's your premise, now comes the tricky part. Think of three or four new secrets that derive from that first one. They might be extrapolation (If demons are real, then maybe some magic is real and vampires are real). They might be consequence (Telepaths run the spy agencies and telekinetics control gambling and sports). They might be limitations (it's only possible to view through time, or it's only possible to travel with organic material). Whatever. Come up with a handful of these.

These seed secrets are your real baseline. You want to use each one as the truth that you build a conspiracy around. Based on this seed, some group is doing something. Vampires hunt in the shadows, treasure hunters are searching through time for secrets and so on.

Once you've got a spread, pick one of them and present it to the players as "the secret" and construct a game around that. You'll go into play with a handful of related secrets and a truth that players can eventually dig down to reach.

Given that, here are three more tweaks,

First, as proposed, I imagine the GM is doing this in secret because the players want to be surprised. This is not the only way to do it. If the group likes having meta-knowledge, then they may want to be in on it. Alternately, if the group wants more of a "Faction War" kind of game (like Feng Shui) this can do the job.

Second, complicated secrets can be cool, and sometimes a seed secret is interesting enough that you might want to make it the central secret. As an example, in the Terminator franchise, the base secret might be that Time Travel is possibe, but the real secret is that there's an AI in the future sending machines back in time to try to keep itself from being destroyed.

Third, which is related - you can actually repeat this process as many times as you like to create more complicated secrets. If you do this, not every secret needs to be its own conspiracy. Some may be shared secrets or otherwise part of the landscape (like time travel in Terminator) that may need to be discovered, but not necessarily unraveled.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Can't You Change The World?

Wednesday morning at Origins is not an exciting time. The sad people who failed to file their paperwork online (like me) get to stand in line a lot (and, as ever, convention lines are such a perfect microcosm of the hobby) but once that's done, it's all "Ok, time for breakfast and wondering what to do today". That's about where I am. I've sat down in the Origins Food Court (which is probably the best food court I've ever seen - it's at least 50% real food) with an omelette and coffee and about 65 minutes before this is supposed to post. So, not much convention to write about yet, but thankfully, something's been niggling at me.

I enjoyed the recent BBC series "Sherlock", a modern re-imaging of Sherlock Holmes. It's only 3 episodes (whose quality I would sequentially characterize as fantastic-ok-great) and available on netflix streaming. I strongly recommend it, for a variety of reasons.

One element in particular has stuck with me though, that of conspiracy. It is clear over the course of the episodes that there is something bigger, just out of sight, and while that something is predictable to any Holmes fan, it's handling is excellent. What particularly grabs me is that Holmes feels like his awesomeness has elevated him, but in doing so has brought him close enough to something that had previously been too high to see. It's an idea I love: that reaching the apex of awesome reveals to you the next mountain to climb.

This idea is relevant to any game with super-competent PCs (Leverage, for example) and it's an extension of a classic questions pressed through a strange lens. If these guys are this good (and by this good I mean cinematically good, which is another way to say "explainable super powers") then why haven't they changed the world?

One answer - one that makes for a specific but very interesting style of play - is that other people of similar competence got there first with the same idea. That is to say, cinematic competence can be fuel for a conspiracy game just as surely as any supernatural element can be.

What's fun about this is that it's very easy to flesh out the NPCs and their capabilities, because you just have to ask yourself the simple question of what your characters would need to do to change the world, then assume these guys have already done it. Your character might be badass enough to build up vast wealth and a personal spy organization - and those are great goals - but it gets complicated when there's somebody out there who has already done this.

And it gets doubly interesting when the fact that you're doing this means that you're drawing their attention.

This mode works fantastically for "high level" play in a reasonably mundane setting (like the real world) because it solves the two big problems that comes with that. First, it introduces challenges which _don't_ undercut the awesomeness of the players, and in fact, reinforce it. Moriarty's not terrifying because he's smarter than Holmes, he's terrifying because he's _as smart_. Same for your PCs.

Second, it addresses the XP issue. There comes a point where just buying up skills feels like throwing points away because everything important is maxed out. This model give the opportunity to start investing XP in the world (building up your resources, base, followers or the like).

Anyway, there is obviously more to this in a good conspiracy game, but for the time being just think about what it means to have other people in the world who are as good as your PCs - just a few of them - and what that means for the world and for your group.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Off to Origins

Hitting the road this morning, and in the flurry of packing, blogging got misplaced. Looks liek I'll be writing from the con!

Just to follow up on the bag things, I'm going to call out a few essentials that I try to bring, both to the con and to the floor.

Power Strip and Ethernet Cable - Both for the hotel room. Power outlets are often in short supply and wireless is often unreliable (or expensive). Coming prepared for both saves many headaches.

Throat drops - I tend to bring one bag of cough drops, one bag of vitamin c drops, and mix it up. By day 3 of talking over crowds, they're something you're very grateful for.

Water Bottle - Pick one your bag can handle - a big bottle may last you longer on a refill, but it's not worth it if it's just a hassle to tote.

Quarters - Hotel laundry Machines. Lockers. Lots of random stuff out there uses quarters, so I keep a few on hand.

Gas-X - Look, reality is you're going to be eating different food than you're used to, and it's going to take an intestinal toll. Take steps not to share your pain. This is over and above the usual rules about essential con hygiene.

Index Cards - After Dice and Pencils, these are the most useful thing you can have for any game. Write characters on them, fold them and use them as name cards, tear them up to make tokens - whatever. They're a fantastic all-purpose fallback.

Gadgets - There are few specific gadgets you need at the con, but a few needs that gadgets can meet. Some way to get information, communicate with people and maybe take pictures is enough. A smartphone can do this, though so can a laptop and regular phone, or a camera and an ipad or god knows what else. Don't pack gadgets to pack gadgets, figure out your needs, then pack the tools that address them.

Speaking of which, I should note that I won't be watching twitter for the week. I'll keep an eye out for @mentions and direct messages, but anything in the main twitter stream is going to be a loss. But I will check comments here, so if there's a questions about Origins you'd like me to answer, then feel free to ask!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Con Bag

Someone asked, and that's all the excuse I need for some unrestrained bag nerdery. The topic of what to carry at a convention and how to carry is is one that I have given utterly unreasonable amounts of thought to, and I share some of the fruits of it here. If you're about to go to a convention (like, say, Origins) and are considering what you're going to carry around, then hopefully this might help.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you need a bag at all. If you don't intend to run any games (including pickup ones) and you don't intend to buy anything, then the reality is you probably won't need to. Stick a notebook, pen & Pencil, phone and maybe a few dice in your pocket and you're good to go. If you can get one of those cool badge holders with pockets (they might have them with the Origins Merchandise, they might not) then that can even make it easier. This is, honestly a nice way to go if you can pull it off.

One tip that may help at Gencon but not at Origins - if you can get one of the pay-lockers on site, that can allow you to get by with a very minimal carry since you can drop your purchases off at a locker rather than tote them around.

Ok, for the rest of us, there tend to be two big reasons to carry a bag: to be prepared, and to shop.

Shopping is the simpler scenario. For all that a bag may feel awkward, I promise you it feels worlds better than a cheap plastic grocery bag carrying a heavy load of books or boardgames, especially given the certainty that a sharp corner is going to poke through sooner or later. If you've always got a bag, life gets much easier, though there are alternatives. If you plan your shopping (for example, knowing you'll only shop on the first or last day of the convention) then you might be able to forgo the bag except on that day.

You'll want to pick a bag that matches your shopping interests. If you're just looking for CCGs and maybe a book or two, as small bag will be fine. If you're looking for boardgames or planning to make a lot of purchases, then plan for something bigger. More on that in a minute.

Being prepared is a much fuzzier thing, and I will wager that most of us carrying bags are doing it for this reason.

Now, first and foremost, if you have a fixed kit, then you already know what you need. If you're going to be running a game, then you need certain supplies. If you absolutely must have your iPad, you need a bag that can handle it. If you have needs you explicitly must meet, then those obviously supersede any advice I can give.

But for those of you with a less fixed set of needs, let me run through some options.

First off, try to use as small a bag as you can get away with. Big bags a great, but they get heavy as you spend your time walking around. If you're packing several games "just in case" then you might want to consider packing only one or two, and rotating them out on a daily basis.

To my mind, the perfect con bag is vertical satchel style, just big enough to hold a D&D book. Something like the Ducti Utility Messenger, the Duluth Field Bag, or the Tom Bihn Cafe Bag or Risretto. They're big enough to hold the essentials for a game, but small enough that even if you stuff them to the gills, they'll only get so full. However, there is a problem.

One of the advantages of a bag like that is that it can be hung at the shoulder or cross body. This is very important if you're going to walk around a lot - a cross-body carry means that you're not constantly readjusting the strap. The problem is that this simply won't work for everyone. Specifically, large men (like myself) and many women will encounter issues with the strap going across the chest. Even if it's comfortable, it can look very awkward. Now, you can mitigate this by getting a bag with a "grippy" shoulder strap (the Redoxx Gator is fantastic for this) so you can have a stable one-shoulder carry, but it's not quite the same.

Now, I should also add that I'm biased in favor of the vertical bags because they hang better, and for the guys, they are less likely to look like a purse (a silly but very real concern). Horizontal bags can work just fine, but they tend to be bigger, and that can be an issue.

There are definitely some great messenger style bags - I'd be remiss not to mention the entire Timbuk2 line, and the remarkably spacious Bag of Holding - but I can't recommend them as con bags in good conscience.

I can hear some protests there, so let me step back a minute. These are great bags. I have several and I love them, and part of what I love is how much crap they can hold. The danger with any such bag is that it's really easy to overload yourself. Even carried messenger style, they get really heavy over the course of a day. If you're confident that you can maintain bag discipline or that you REALLY need the space, then go for it, but otherwise, I'd steer clear unless you want days full of back pain.

One aside about this - a lot of "messenger bags" are really just laptop cases. That's fine day to day, but really think about whether you need your laptop on the convention floor, and if you don't, that might be a good excuse to trim down your bag.

Now, this is where I have to admit something - one reason people choose messenger bags is that they just look cooler than backpacks or rolling carts. I can't argue with that. That timbuk2 slung across your back suggests your about to jaunt off on your mountain bike to jump off a cliff while pounding an energy drink. The backpack suggests you packed a lunch.

If this is really your hangup, then you really have two options. Option 1: just embrace it, and use a bag you think is awesome. Your back may hurt, but it's a fair trade. Option 2: just get over it and accept this is a convention, not a fashion show.

Now, I'm going to steer you away from rollers in general. I recognize they're necessary sometimes, either for physical reasons or because you're carrying miniature armies, but otherwise they're problematic. They're hard to handle on stairs and escalators, they're problematic if you need to leave the convention floor. Only do it if you must.

For the rest of us, the boring, reliable backpack is often the best choice. It doesn't get in your way when walking, you need to be a little mindful of it in crowds, but not too much so, and if you foolishly overfill it, it's not going to suck as much as it would to be carrying it any other way.

Lot of comments there, so let me boil it down. Use the smallest bag you can get away with and still comfortably carry, but if you need to have a more-than-small bag, I strongly suggest using a backpack.

Given that I hit the road tomorrow, I think I may follow this up with a bit of a discussion of what's worth putting in that bag. But in the meantime, what's your con bag? I'm not worried if it contradicts my suggestion - I know a well loved bag trumps all - but I'm curious what works well for people.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gah, Origins!

I only just looked at the Calendar and discovered that Origins has snuck up on me.

I love the summer conventions, but since the birth of my son, it's been simply impractical to try to go to both Origins and Gencon. Each one represents a week away form my wife and kid, and what's more, a week of extra parenting duty for my wife. So far as I'm concerned, she's a saint to put up with it for one convention, and she already put up with it for PAX-East. So, given that, I face the annual decision of Gencon vs. Origins, and I almost always choose Origins.

This is a fairly idiosyncratic choice. Gencon is absolutely bigger and more important. If you've got a product to launch, Gencon is the place to sell it. If you need to professionally network or see things you'll see nowhere else, Gencon is the place. Origins is simply not as big a deal (though it's still a pretty big deal), but that's part of the appeal for me, and that's doubly true this year. This Origins, I've got nothing to sell. No new releases to promote, no booth to man - I'll be going as a civilian.

Now, I could talk about a lot of fine differences in culture between the two conventions, or wax rhapsodic about the food available at Origins, but the reality is much simpler for me. At Gencon, I do a lot of stuff and see a lot of people, but at Origins, I actually get to talk to people. That's huge. Other things like playing games or seminars are a lot of fun, and I'll seek them out, but the heart of any convention for me is any time I get to sit down in a circle with a handful of people who are passionate about games and just shoot the breeze.

So, anyway, I'll be there. I'd tell you to look or me, but I'm an overweight white guy with a beard and glasses, so I tend to blend in like a ninja in this highly specialized environment. But if you do happen to find me, say hi. I am not hard to get talking.

Anyway, that means I need to go into this weekend with thoughts of packing. I put an unreasonable amount of thought into my choice of bag for the convention floor, but dammit, a man must have priorities!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

An Honor to Make the List

If you were to ask most gamers about RPG awards they would probably mention the Origin Awards or the Ennies. If they're in a certain segment, they might mention the Indie awards or the Golden Geek awards. But if they mention the Diana Jones awards, then you can be sure that they're a big freaking nerd.

The Diana Jones award may be the most mysterious of the RPG awards. A secretive council of gaming luminaries (no, I don't know who they are) hash out a short list of nominees, then give the award to one of them at Gencon. There are no categories, and no particular limits on what might be nominated. Most of the nominations are for games, but they can be for stranger things - ideas, projects, podcasts, organizations, people - anything related to gaming is on the table. It's not a popular award, or a structured award, and I'm not even sure whether it can be neatly summarized. In the way that some actor's are "an actor's actor", the DJA feels like the deep geek's deep geek's award.

Every year, the Diana Jones shortlist seems like a summary of what has been great and interesting in the past year. Running back through the shortlists of years past provides a snapshot of each year in turn and a sense of what sort of fantastic things have been going on. This year, Evil Hat made it onto that list with The Dresden Files RPG.

As ever, the rest of the list is fantastic as well. Sorencrane's Freemarket, Bully Pulpit's Fiasco, Catacombs from Sands of Time and Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, from Cranio Creation. Now, coming clean, I don't know Catacombs or Aliens, but their mere presence on the list is enough to encourage me to go correct that.

All of which is to say - wow. It's amazing to be on that list. I am utterly blown away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stuffing the Underpants

Great comments on yesterday's post, at least some of which speak to the subject of today's post - what to do once you've got your underpants gnome plan in place. It's all well and good for me to say "Come up with a plan, then fill in the gaps that present themselves" but it might be a little unfair to not provide at least a little guidance on how to do so, and what you can do once you've got the trick working.

First, one of the easiest and most powerful tricks you can do is run through the list of your characters and ask yourself "Where does this plan intersect with this character?". Does it threaten someone or something they value? Does it use something they want? Is it taking place in their favorite restaurant? Would it just REALLY annoy them? Or perhaps does it have an element, such as an end, they might be inclined to support? If you don't have a good answer for one character, that's ok. If you don't have a good answer for any of your characters, then perhaps you need to consider the plan.

Second: The underpants gnomes need not be villains. Underpants planning can apply equally well to heroic or even indifferent outcomes. The characters may even find themselves as the agents responsible for delivering someone else's UG plan, which can get very interesting if they don't have the whole picture. One of the most classic twists is to have the player's handle step 2, not realizing that step 3 is something horrible.

As an aside, because it's a classic, it's kind of overdone and ham-fisted. If you must do a twist, have step 3 be something reasonably value neutral (like getting the bad guy a resource or removing an obstacle) but which will then be used in the unstated step 4. Also, if you do this, plan for your players figuring it out, and see if you can give them the tools to screw the guy who's trying to screw them. Few payoffs are as satisfying.

Third, though related to the second: The steps need not be uniformly bad or good. As Joe pointed out in the comments, having a REALLY ADMIRABLE step 3 paired with an UTTERLY ABHORRENT step 2 can make for a powerful mix. Similarly, a benign step 2 with a bad step 3 can be a great play driver. Not just for the twist scenario, as above, but even when played straight by an NPC willing to say "Yes, this bad thing will come of it, but compare that to all the good you'll do!". Fun stuff!

Fourth, and this one definitely got tipped in the comments, the true secret of the Underpants Gnomes is that you really only need to be concrete about step 1 and 3. When someone has a premise and a goal, things can go wrong in the middle, but they can regroup and keep trying to pursue the goal. As a GM, this means that so long as you keep your eye on step 3, you can be flexible about the shape that step 2 takes, possibly even requiring multiple attempts at step 2. Goals make much better planning aids than processes in this regard.

Fifth and last - once you have the trick of it, start juggling. Underpants Gnome Plans are surprisingly easy to maintain once you have them in play, so start introducing a few more. Where one such plan can blossom into a decently fleshed out arc, several of them can turn into the kind of tapestry that keeps a world feeling alive and in motion while giving the GM a bottomless bucket of resources to draw on to keep things moving.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Underpants Adventures

Very interesting post about what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels that's worth a read for writers and GMs. It boils down to a pretty simple point - if you start with a simple plot, it allows for the characters and story to grow more complex in the telling, but if you start with an overly complex plot, then you've pretty much put a block on those things.

I've always subscribed to the idea that your players should be the most interesting characters in your game, and this advice applies to them as well. Starting from a simple plot creates an opportunity for your game to grow in directions that reflect you and your players.

If you want a practical way to go about this, consider the Underpants Gnome school of adventure design.

Satire aside, the 3 step plan is useful for almost any plot. Start with a villain, whoever it is, and give them a plan that really is as simple as:
  1. Do something simple
  2. Do something complicated
  3. Achieve goal

This is usually easiest if you start from the goal, since that tends to suggest the previous steps. With that in mind, I strongly suggest a concrete goal - "power" (or even "profit") tend to be so amorphous as goals that they don't really suggest a course of action. If a goal of that sort is what you're looking for, then try to pick some manner of specific implementation of it, like leveling up or stealing a particular treasure.

This process is made much simpler if you embrace the cheese. There is a natural inclination to try to make the plots smart, coherent or clever, but realize that a lot of great plots have almost embarrassingly simple underpants structure. Y'know - Take Ring, Throw it in a Volcano, Free Middle Earth. Look at that example and consider how far short of the true complexity of the story that falls - the good parts lie in that difference.

Thus, start with something like:
  1. Kidnap Orphans
  2. Sacrifice them to Orcus
  3. Gain Undead Army

On paper, this looks like the basis of something pretty cheesy, but it need not be. Challenge yourself and consider how this framework might make for a good story. The villain might be interesting, the orphans in question might have compelling stories, the sacrifice might require all sorts of logistics to pull off, maybe the use the army will be put to is interesting. Whatever. The point is it can be done.

The trick is that you don't need to solve all of the problems up front. The underpants plan should seem unworkable on the face of it because it leaves unanswered questions. Answering those questions is a driver of play.

Monday, June 13, 2011

All About the Glasses

If you haven't yet, it's pretty interesting to check out people's answers to Friday's question, where I asked: If you were to play a game set in the DC comics universe, how quickly would you figure out that Clark Kent is Superman?

When I initially asked the question, I was just thinking of it as a simple example of how to apply narrative logic to play (not recognizing them is, in most circumstances, narrative appropriate) without needing to stress yourself out. However, the answers I've gotten to this question have really suggested to me that this may be an incredibly informative question to ask at the beginning of a campaign. It's a question with no wrong answer, but each right answer reveals a very different relationship with the fiction of the game.

Some of the big groupings I saw break down like this.

For some people (including myself), the answer is "never" (with minor qualifications, such as if he reveals himself). This is full trope buy in - treating the narrative logic of the setting as something as concrete as the logic of physics.

There were also several "Never, except..." answers that broke into two categories, tropes and stories. For the first, they would see through it if it was their particular trope (that is, if they were Batman). I tend to consider this the same as the first group, just elaborating on their position. The second group was a bit more varied, but in general they would not notice unless their personal story took thing sin that direction. As a category it's maddeningly fuzzy, but I seperate it out from the tropers because while it's also narrative logic, it's narrative logic based on a different priority stack. That is to say, it prioritizes the personal story over the setting story.

Some people nitpicked the question. You might think this does not reveal much about their play, but then you'd probably realize that yes, it probably does.

Another group viewed things through a very practical lens, and felt it really just depended on how much time and exposure they had, but given both, they would work it out because it's just logical. These pragmatists are more or less the opposite pole from the tropers, and aren't invested in the narrative logic of things.

Now, these groups were all more or less what I expected to hear from, but there were two other groups that surprised me as common responses, not just odd one-offs.

The first are the "immediately, unless..." crowd. At first blush they seem like the pragmatists, but they actually are totally willing to be "nevers" if they can can given an excuse, however thin. Super hynotism, superspeed, kryptonian muscle control or even really good acting - as long as some sort of explanation is in place, they're willing to suspend disbelief and buy into it. That is to say, they're willing to buy into comic book logic more than any abstract about narrative.

The second are what I consider "Immediately, because...". For them it's not about the logic, it's that breaking the premise is a desirable outcome. They are using the setting specifically so they can move things around, shake them up, and even break things.

Now, I'm not going to bother with naming these groups in any systematic way - that would be kind of silly, but I want to highlight a thing or two. See, a lot of people were surprised at how others answered, and it seems like the kind of surprise you don't want to have happen at your table. I can absolutely think of problems that have emerged in games I play that were a result of a single "Immediately, because..." player, not because that player was bad or problematic, but because his expectation differed so much from the rest of the table.

This is why I think it's a great question to ask before a campaign, but I think it's a question to re-ask, perhaps tuned to your specific campaign, every time you start something new. See, there's an inclination to think that these are player types, but that's just not the case. Some players might always pick the same things, but others will change choices dramatically as you move from genre to genre. Supers, for example, already calls for a certain level of suspension of disbelief from its enthusiastic fans, and someone who might willingly buy that glasses conceal Superman's true identity would NEVER tolerate that kind of "Disguise" in their urban horror or sword & Sorcery game.

Anyway, it's a question I encourage you to ask your players. Feel free to refine it as you see fit, but Clark Kent's glasses are a sufficiently universal symbol that there aren't many people who won't "get" the question as asked (so long as they "get" playing an RPG).

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Quick Survery

Connectivity precludes a full post today, so I'm going to ask a question. I asked the same question on Twitter, and I intend to write about the answers I got, but I figured I'd ask here, both for those who don't use twitter and for those who do but want more than 140 chars to explain their position. So here's the question:

If you were to play a game set in the DC comics universe, how quickly would you figure out that Clark Kent is Superman? Presume that you are in a position to interact with both - You're Metropolis PD, Daily Planet Staff or one of the other interesting citizens of Metropolis.

If the answer changes based on situation (such as depending on the character you're playing) then feel free to say as much. Similarly, if there's a reasonably simple "it depends" go ahead and let me know. That said, don't worry about obvious exceptions like him directly revealing it to you.

The answers I've gotten so far have been incredibly informative to me, and I can only imagine that a little more room to speak will make them moreso.


PS - And because, as noted on twitter, I'm not looking to trick anybody, I'll reveal my answer up front: Never.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Metrics

I was originally thinking of knocking our to metrics (Energy and Responsiveness) today before I realized one of them didn't work. Let me lay them out and maybe you can see why that happened.

Energy, which in my head I was kind of calling "Jazz" was a measure of how enthusiastic and engaged the table was at the end of the games.

0 - play has been flat or bad-tired.
1 - Play went ok
2 - Everyone's totally jazzed!

Bad-tired, btw, is important to distinguish from good-tired, which can fall under Jazzed. Bad tired is just beat and unresponsive. Good tired is the end-of-a-marathon kind of tired, where you're wiped but ecstatic.

Responsiveness is an idea that, like most of these, distilled from a number of other points and which might also be called flexibility. How well did the GM respond to player actions and incorporate player feedback and response?

0 - Everything went exactly as planned. Player diversions were brought back quickly into line.
1 - Player's surprised the GM, but GM rolled with it.
2 - Unexpected Player decisions dramatically impacted play in a non-punitive fashion.

Note the emphasis on surprise and unexpected in that. If the GM offers the players a choice and he's ready for the choice they make, that's things going as planned - that is to say, 0 does not automatically equate to a railroad. The non-punitive qualifier on 2 is probably unnecessary, but is just there for the GM who's "responsiveness" takes the form of punishing player choices (which is a total 0 move).

Ok, so given these two, energy and responsiveness, which one did I discard? Obviously, energy is something incredibly critical to judging how well a game went, while it's entirely possible to have an awesome game with a low responsiveness score, especially if the GM prepares well. So given that, why is it energy I'm dropping on the floor?

The answer to this is something which, I think, casts a light on why a lot of the metrics may seem less important than the things which determine how well a game went. Specifically, it's actionable. Consider: if your game has a low energy and the cause is not something obvious and external (like everyone being tired or hungover) then what steps do you do change that, to move a game from blah to jazzed? There's no one answer to that, in part because energy is an _outcome_ not something the GM _does_. Energy maybe a good thing to check to ask yourself if a game went well, but it's not useful to check if you're trying to figure out what you did.

In contrast, if I've got a low responsiveness and I want to change that, it's very easy to suggest a course of actions, even if it's as simple as "Listen to your players, respect their choices, and be prepared for them to take things in unexpected directions". Yes, those points can all be drilled into further - that's actually part of the point - but they're specific points with a specific goal. As such, they're actionable, which important to the ultimate goal of this, which is to say to be able talk in terms of things a GM can actually do rather than in terms of things they want to have happen.

The downside of that approach is that we end up with intuitive disconnects like this. Energy feels more important - it _feels_ like something we should be measure, in part because it reflects the outcome of many other successes and failures, so it seems like it should be a rich datapoint. The problem is (and this gets even nerdier) that it's actually a very lossy signal. Let's take three ways a game might be awesome - The GM might be brilliantly engaging, the adventure might be incredibly well designed, or the group might just really click with one another. Any one of those things, or a combination of them, could result in everyone being jazzed at the end of a game. But the fact that people are jazzed does not tell me which of those things happened. I might be able to intuit the answer form my recollection of the game, but even if I'm right, knowing that everyone was jazzed doesn't help me replicate it.

So energy is important, and in fact I think it's probably a critical thing to check if we assess how well a game went - something we might want to do down the line, especially since it makes an interesting second data point to compare with GM metrics - but it's not the answer to the question we're asking.

Make sense?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Roland Has No Horse

I love Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. I also hate it at times. As a whole, it runs the entire emotional gamut for me, form some of the most powerful, evocative stuff I've ever read to some things which stand out in my head as bright, burnign examples of how to do something absolutely terribly. I'm glad to have it in my heart though, at least in part because it brings me a certain amount of zen with the fact that Martin will probably never finish A Song of Ice and Fire, because I have seen what happens when you sprint to finish something that big.

Obviously, take that Dark Tower love and frequently view it through the filer of games. It fascinates me because it's something that is easy to capture the trappings of but difficult - maybe impossible - to capture the essence of. Maybe because it's hard to identify exactly what that essence is. The sense of loss? The mashing of worlds? The dark sensibilities? The iconic nature of the gunslinger? The extended universe? The world that's moved on? Maybe that last is the strongest in my mind, but it depends on so much that I can't build something on it.

That combination of potency with ephemera invites me to mash it up with other things. The very first hack I added to Feng Shui when I got it was a "no time" juncture where the world had moved on, pretty much a straight Dark Tower ripoff. It mixes beautifully with certain flavors of Amber, but one needs to like the flavor, since it can change things up.

Lately, I've been pondering the combination of the Dark Tower with Harry Connolly's stuff, at least in part because Connolly's vision of cosmic horror paired with human-level violence seems to capture so much of the spirit of things.

The weird thing is that sometimes these mashups give me new insight. I was considering some explicit genre mashup, sci-fi in this case, and wondered what it might be like if the Dark Tower were on a physical planet somewhere rather than somewhere cross-dimensional. A lot of the ideas transfer well, but it required the introduction of an additional element - a ship - for Roland to get around.

That's a problem. Note that in the books Roland gets around by his own agency (walking) or is moved by others (Blaine) but he never has a horse in the sense that a true cowboy does, and there's a good reason for this. For the literary cowboy, the horse is a companion, and a very close one at that. Roland can't have a companion like that - it would be someone to share his journey with, which would undercut the point. It would be too close.

The ship illustrated this point because in science fiction, the ship is often a character (effectively). Firefly, Star Trek and Star Wars all illustrate this pretty well. It's not inevitable - you can have boring space ships - but if Roland had a named ship, one he might care about, it would be problematic in the same way a horse would.

Anyway, it's an itch I haven't successfully scratched yet, but the process of trying continues to be pretty darn fruitful.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Third Metric: Clarity

Chewing on the third metric, I'm looking at something that I'm going to call clarity but which I'm happy to find another name for if there are suggestions. it shows up in a few of the different points I mentioned, but the general idea of this: the GM is the stand in for the player's senses. She is their window to the world around them, and a lot of the game is going to depend on how well or poorly she does that.

The problem is that this is something that's best judged by the players. That's not a bad thing in its own right, but it's problematic for our purposes - we want the GM to be able to self-assess with at least a moderate sense of objectivity, so we need some metric to help the GM tell whether a given session has gone well or poorly, and I don't immediately see a good option.

The solution is to widen the net a little bit, and think about what we're looking at in general. We're trying to get a sense of how well the GM conveys the world. What does it look like when that fails?

Thinking as a player, this is really easy to point to - it's an undo situation. "Wait, what? I wouldn't have done X if I knew Y!", like "I wouldn't have tried out the window if I knew the ogre was right in front of it!"

Now, GMs handle these situations with differing degrees of grace, and I admit there's a danger that some GMs may not notice these situations, or may misattribute their cause, but calling it out like this hopefully helps any GM looking to rate herself. So let's call this our zero scenario.

What does it look like when the GM rocks at this? That's harder. Like a lot of good GMing, it's success is pretty seamless. The players had all the information they need to engage things, so it all just worked from their perspective. That's our 2 point scenario, but how do we spot it?

My suspicion is that you can tell the difference between a 1 and a 2 by the questions the players ask, specifically whether they ask for explanation versus clarification. Explanation (which usually sounds like "Hold on a second, [QUESTION]?") indicates that your first pass did not create a clear image for the players. Clarification is a question built upon the description - sort of a "tell me more about [THING]".

Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheat. We're indirectly using the players to judge this metric without explicitly asking them for a rating, but as noted at the beginning, they're the best source for this one. That part worries me less than the fact that this one may be a little bit harder for GMs to self-apply - it requires a decent recollection of the way the game went - and that may yet prove to be a real problem. Still, for the moment, I suggest.

0 - Player confusion regarding situation leads to complaints, retcons, arguments.
1 - Lack of clarity requires further explanations for players
2 - Sufficiently clear that questions focus on the situation as presented.

Honestly, this doesn't feel quite as solid as the last two metrics, but I think it's still in bounds. Still, I'm inclined to kick it a bit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day of Links

Got a lot of writing done this weekend, but none of it was for the blog, so today I'm goign to point to a few other interesting things out there.

  • I was interviewed over at, a Russian RPG site (scroll down to see the interview in english). I wish I could attribute it to my keen skills in Russian, but I have none. They went through the trouble of asking me some great questions and translating my crazily verbose responses, and it's an interesting read.

  • Jeremy Keller's Tech Noir Kickstarter went live and blew through its initial funding goal, and he's now working on additional goals. This game is totally worth checking out, and since he's designing in the open, you can read his beta stuff and see if it's to your taste. One thing I will say: watch the kickstarter video. Just wow.

  • David Hill launched his project the same day, the Guestbook Kickstarter, a quick-playing collectible social game.. David's project was one of the ones I was looking at when I started thinking about this new generation of collectibility in games. Worth a look, and doubly interesting for his open-ended model of success on Kickstarter.

  • Shockingly, things also happened in places other than Kickstarter. Adamant Entertainment launched their long-awaited western & wuxia mashup, Far West. They've been teasing this one for a while, so it's need to see the doors open up a bit.

  • Edit: Crud! Totally forgot about the Fiasco Companion pre-order!

So, I've been in a cave all weekend. What else is new and awesome this week?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Second Data Point: Rules Mastery

Car trouble this morning kept me away from the KB, so apologies for the late post. Today, we're going back to compiling the list of GM metrics.

So rules mastery is a little bit contentious as a datapoint, but I think it's an important one because it's not really about rules mastery so much as it's about how rules knowledge and handling impacts the game. That idea is probably easier to show than explain, so the rating basically breaks down as follows.

0 - Applied rules incorrectly or spent extensive time on reference or rules arguments.
1 - Rules reference* was required but did not impede the game
2 - Rules were correctly applied without reference.

* Reference defined as having to look outside the elements in play to get information. Referencing a character sheet or GM's screen (at least a good one) is not reference, but checking a book or website would be.

Laid out that way, I'll speak right to the obvious problem - this seems to suggest that ad hoc rulings and houserules are bad, because they elicit a lower score. That is, of course, utter bullshit. Ruling on the fly is something that you usually do to make a game more awesome, and it seems odd to penalize that.

The thing to highlight is that this is not a penalty, it's a measure of friction. If the game is demanding a lot of rulings then it might still be a lot of fun (based on how awesomely you make those ruling) but it's possible that there might be some disconnect betweent he game you want to run and the game you want to be using, and this reflects that. Both of the 0 behaviors are reflective of such a disconnect.

So what about house rules? For purposes of this test, house rules _are_ rules. They're the rules your using to run the game, and so long as everyone knows what they are, they don't count as avoiding the rules. That last is a bit of a hurdle for the GM who keeps everything in her head, but if a 0 score is enough to encourage that GM to share her thinking with players, then it's good incentive.

Now, to reveal my own misgiving, I'm uncertain about the inclusion of rules arguments in this, and may ultimately remove it. While rules arguments may reveal a disconnect with the rules, I think it's more likely they're reflective of a social problem, one that is only tangentially related to the rules.

Bottom line though is that this is a measure of how much the application of rules (which is different than the actuality of the rules) impacts play. It definitely has a bias towards games with easier rules mastery (that is, light games), but since the yardstick is the impact on play, not the size of the rules, it's not as big a gap as all that. Curiously, this also biases towards good design - a well designed character sheet reduces the need for reference, and can potential bump up the score of a game as a result. It's a secondary effect, but a kind of interesting on.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Detour into Collectablity

Stepping away form the GM metrics thing today due to a topic that came up on twitter and demanded more than 140 characters.

The idea of a collectable RPG has been with us pretty much since the initial success of Magic: the Gathering. The idea of producing an RPG with a similar sales model - collectable elements, variable rarity, repeat sales - has always held an appeal, but has never really materialized. This is probably just as well, since I'm not sure the CCG model holds up well for RPGs, but the model is not the idea.

Lately, I've been starting to see collectability show up in RPGs from an entirely different angle, and it's kind of intriguing. I trace it back to Fiasco, which is not itself collectable, but which created the model that allowed it. Fiasco uses "playsets" as part of its model, and while the book comes with a number of playsets (and the forthcoming Fiasco Companion will have more) there have been many more playsets released on the internet. As rules material, these are more truly "modules" than published adventures which use the same term. They an be seamlessly swapped in and out, added or removed, all without changing the game.

When Apocalypse World came out, it followed a similar model with its "playbooks," each of which was basically a character class. As with playbooks, the core book came with several, more were released, and they could be seamlessly swapped in and out. Simple enough, except for one simple change: friction.

Playbooks and playsets tend to be pdfs, which means that distribution is easy - all it takes is someone putting them up for public consumption. The AW playbooks were never distributed that way. There is no central reference for them, nor place you can download them. They've been distributed under distinct circumstances (such as parts of promotional bundle) and, unless you actively follow the game online, it's hard to even know these are out there.

But they're not just thrown down a black hole. Instead, the expectation is that they will be freely swapped and shared from person to person. The files are still easily moved around, but the lack of central reference means that their distribution needs to be at least somewhat personal. That is to say, they're collectable, traded and swapped in a manner more reminiscent of bootleg tapes than CCGs.

This is an interesting model, and its strengths and weaknesses both tie to how well it pays off for the fan. Once a fan knows about these things, he needs to dig around to find out more (which is rewarding in and of itself), get his hands on one or more of them (rewarding for cachet) then share them (rewarding for being able to help). In short, there's a huge emotional payout for putting in the work (and, of course, keeping the game in mind). Certainly, some will be alienated by this - it takes time and effort to engage in this kind of viral marketing - but in a fashion similar to ARGs, the enthusiasm of those who buy in tends to offset any losses.

Obviously, there are some community-building benefits to this, but the biggest advantage is one of pure marketing. Forced scarcity is a classic way to increase demand, and this is a great example of it. I've been a believer in the commercial advantages of the "rules module" approach in general, but the introduction of scarcity & collectability is really the sharp end of really canny marketing.

A big part of what makes it work is that it needs to be paid for with effort and interest, not cash. Cash is nice, but invested effort guarantees future buyers, which means more cash. It also means you avoid backlash. For comparison, look at WOTC's cards for Gamma World and other products. The cards themselves follow the CCG model (where some are rarer and more powerful) but WOTC has been bending over backwards to NOT market them in that fashion. And for good reason - the idea of being able to buy a more powerful character doesn't sit well with most folks. Collectable rules modules get around this in two ways - first, they don't offer more power, just more options, but second (and perhaps more critically) they don't require money, they require investment. If there's a playbook you want and you don't have, you can get it, you just have to want it enough to hunt it down and initiate a trade (or make a request).

Which is to say, you can't really complain about it, because if you care enough to complain, why haven't you just used that effort to get the module?

I underscore that this is brilliant marketing. Consider: it's not going to be to everyone's taste. Everything I've listed as a benefit is going to be off putting to someone, but that very alienation is an essential element to making those who have invested feel like they're more on the inside. If we were dealing with just money, this would have nowhere near as potent an effect, but we're paying with things that carry much more weight (effort & investment) so it's a force multiplier.

Anyway, I expect to see more of this in the future. Even if it's not used to market a game, it's a great way to keep a fan base engaged, so there's a lot of advantage for a company that has a game that can support this and a willingness to put in the work. Hell, if anything, I expect to start seeing more interesting developments in the metagame that this kind of trading represents.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a game in the pipeline with some of these ideas in mind, Guestbook, a project from David Hill which is also doing something interestingly experimental on kickstarter.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More Nerdiness

Good discussion yesterday as I pulled out the first concrete question, and it made me realize a few other critical points that merit mention about this approach.

Your Score Is Not Your Fun - The Apgar score is not a direct measure of the child's health, it's just in the ballpark. Similarly, this score, whatever it will be, is not a measure of your fun. Just as a kid with a low Apgar score can turn out just fine, you might have a game with a terrible score that totally rocked. You might decide that means the score is meaningless, but to me, I'd look at it as a reason to ask "Well, these things didn't work, so what _did_ work so well to make it awesome?"

No One Gets a 10 - One other useful datapoint about the Apgar score is that it's really rare that a child get a 10 (or more accurately, a 10/10). Something is usually off, but that's expected. The same is going to be true of every game. Someone's going to be tired or distracted or having some kind of problems. The goal is nto to get a 10, it's to capture the state of things. The score is not the end point, but a midpoint measurement, and that's important for the next point.

We're Not Measuring One Game - The Apgar score is a handy shorthand in the delivery room, but it's real value is as a datapoint in a much larger dataset. If it's high, then it's probably not a big deal, but if it's low, then what? How do things go for the kid? From a hospital's perspective, if they want to improve, the score gives them a metric to shoot for, so that more kids with lower scores do better. The same is true of your game. Looking at your games over time and seeing what changes, what correlates with good and bad games, and thinking about that is going to be much more useful than rating one game and drawing big lessons from it. This is especially true if one metric doesn't seem to apply to your group - if it always comes in low, but you still have fun, then the score is not a criticism, it's just where your baseline is.

Who's Responsible for What? - Even though the GM is not solely responsible for everyone's fun, she would be well served to act as if she was. This is absolutely a personal bias, but I want to lay it out on the table. For the purposes of asking questions, I am assuming the GM is taking responsibility for everything, even though things will often be out of her control. This may seem unreasonable, but I want to point back at the rest of this post. If you end up giving a game a low score because one player was so hungover that it just dragged the whole session down, that's not your fault, but it still made for a bad session. The low score is not a criticism of the GM, it's a report of what happened. The hope is that it's useful data, not a judgement.

Tomorrow, I'll see about extracting a second yardstick.