Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Danger of Nostalgia

It must have been cool to live in the 1940's and 50's and experience the original Batman and Superman comic books. Imagine being there, and experiencing their introductions first-hand, in a world that never saw them before.

It was cool growing up in the late 70's, and experiencing the golden age of roleplaying games. Going to the hobby store every week, and picking up a new game covering a new era or fantasy was cool and exciting.

I love my nostalgia, and I even love the new incarnations of Batman and D&D - but there is a danger here. Who is our generation's Batman-style hero? What new roleplaying game defines today? Repeating the past is just that, you take a new spin on an idea that has been around for a while. The danger is you are giving up the chance to create something new, something that has meaning today, and something that reflects on people's dreams and feelings now.

On the negative side, how many more superhero movie and RPG reboots do we need? I'm sure every generation would like their own spin put upon the Joker, Superman, and three kobolds in a room - but really, where is that something new? What monsters are we afraid of? What heroes do we want to be in return?

There are new ideas and heroes out there, one could say World of Warcraft defined its generation in place of an RPG; and Jack Bauer of 24 was our hero. Both of those pulled from the past for themes and inspiration, but they were new creations for our generation. You do get into the question of, "Really, what can you say is new?" Everything builds upon our past, and you can say the superheroes of today were based upon the Greek gods of ancient times. We subconsciously borrow our legends, our experiences define who we are, and we create the new from the old.

There is nothing wrong with reinterpreting the past and enjoying it. The danger comes when that is all that you do. For creative people, and creative gamers, we have to answer our generation's call when we hear it, and take a new course into uncharted lands. The next great superhero, the next great RPG, and the next great thing waiting to be discovered is just over that hill, waiting for you to find it.

Don't let the past slow you down.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Buffet Game Worlds and Be-alls

There is a trend in MMOs and roleplaying games to create "be-all" game worlds. These worlds contain a little bit of everything, such as a European area, Egyptian area, Gothic horror area, and so on - just like a buffet with a little bit of every food you can imagine. The world is everything to everybody, and has something for everyone. It is a challenging goal to make it all work together, and it represents a strategy to appeal to every gamer, no matter what the interest. The world taken as a whole is like a giant theme park, with adventure zones covering every possible era of fantasy history, adventuring concept, and sociological structure.

Good examples of be-all world design are Blizzard's World of Warcraft, the original D&D Mystara campaign, and even Paizo's Golarion world setting. In each of these worlds, there are areas covering any type of culture and adventure area imaginable. Of course, the MMO games are a bit more limited in what they can do, but you can see the influences of the buffet-style world clearly in the variety of zones and cities in the game.

Put aside the realism argument against worlds of these types, of course they are not realistic and not based on anything - this is fantasy. The best analogy in a way is the 'real world' with its variety of cultures and lands, but an important difference is that these game worlds typically borrow from every era of history, and create their little version of it in a geographically limited area. Everything works together, and sort of all gets along. A good explanation for why this is so often goes, "Contact is limited between the cultures."

SBRPG never envisioned designing a be-all world for the setting the gaming group creates. Each game world is unique, has a single flavor, and is a one-shot affair. Of course, you can go ahead and create any world you want, and are not limited to fitting in the new creation into an already crowded map. You lose the ability for one group of adventurers to journey to new lands, but then again, every world you create is a new land itself, and any new lands in them are truly unexplored and fresh.

A dedicated game world towards one type of adventure, such as Gothic horror, only lets you play in that theme. The upside is that there are no distractions or escapes either, there is no hopping over to the super-magic kingdom for help curing vampirism, or grabbing a bunch of steampunk weapons to take care of Count Dracula. You are stuck dealing with where you are at, and players need to focus on the world within the theme it was created in. It is a trade off, you lose the buffet of themes and lands, but you gain a focus and detailed world within one unified game world.

All-in-one world design also has the risk of turning the play experience into a Disney-world experience, like a theme park where you go on different rides, experience different zones, and never really feel there is a unified whole to the world. Be-all are fun worlds to create and play in, but sometimes I appreciate a world designed carefully around one theme, focused and coherent, and purposefully not trying to appeal to everybody.

The danger of trying to please everybody, yet pleasing none applies here - some worlds do it, and many others do not. Then again, if everyone else is trying to create that perfect be-all game world, wouldn't yours be different if you didn't? Do what you love, focus on one thing, and do it well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Verbal Combat

One of the interesting parts about online roleplaying inside of MMOs is watching player creativity. Since characters in MMOs have varying levels and gear, when two players want their players to fight, it isn't always fair to just /duel and be done with it. Players have come up with interesting verbal combat systems using chat alone. Here's how it works:

"My elf thrusts with his rapier, lunging in a fierce attack!"

"My paladin dodges to the side, the rapier cleanly piercing his cloak, leaving a one-foot gash in it. In return, he spins, and swings his hammer low."

"My elf notices that, and plants a foot on the hammer as it swings by, backflipping ten feet away. The landing left him off balance, so he takes a moment to right himself."

"My paladin charges...."

George hates these fights, and thinks they are lame. I enjoy watching them, and all the creative moves players come up with, even if they are sometimes silly. Needless to say, they are strange affairs, and if handled improperly, lead to misunderstandings and fights. Watching people mature enough to play through is rare, but always fun.

Good verbal combat involves a tiny "loss" if you dodge an attack, such as the gash in the cloak, or the elf landing off balance. These little losses add up, and good verbal sparring actually increases the amount of the loss, or the amount of risk generated in accepting it. It is an interesting price to pay for avoiding a blow, and even taking a blow can be considered a loss after a while. Great players will fight on after one or two blows, and usually the third time is the knockout.

As a fight goes on, one side or the other will 'know' when they are defeated, and prepare for the end. Usually, these fights don't end in death, possibly a wounded escape, capture, or some other meaningful loss to RP. Perhaps the 'story' that led them to fight will be 'won' by the victor, and then revenge will be plotted, and another epic fight setup sometime in the future.

Verbal combat has never really been done too well outside of MMOs. There are a couple of pen-and-paper systems that rely on verbal stunting, and other systems that award dice for creative combat moves, but none really that setup the rules for verbal fights, tell people of the way it works, and then let them go to town. It is an interesting invention inside of the limited world of MMOs, and worth understanding from a purely self-built game mechanic point of view.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Action Heroes

We just finished watching the 80's classic Robocop last night, bookeneded with the new Captain America movie the day before. Both movies are actually similar in many ways. It is interesting to examine the movies and the eras, and the popular types of action heroes through the last few decades. These impact players of roleplaying games, players like to emulate what they see on the big screen, and the big screen defines popular culture for the current generation. Let's look at the last three decades of action movies (loosely), and relate these to roleplaying games. Note that I am pulling from a wide swath of movies, and there will always be exceptions during a particular period. These heroes may have existed before their time, but they were at their heights of popularity during the times mentioned.

The 80s - Idealists: Action movie heroes during this decade generally fought for ideals. Despite everything that happened to Robocop, he still adhered to the concept of service and justice beyond the treachery, dystrophy, and future shock around him. Ideals, and sacrificing for the big picture were considered heroic ideals, possibly spurred on by the ideological conflict of the Cold War. Heroes lived for the big picture, and sacrificing for the big picture defined heroism.

The 90s - Lone Wolves: The movie Die Hard changed everything with action movies, and the lone wolf was born. While still motivated by the larger ideals, the lone wolf fought for more personal reasons. The system was corrupt, and a personal victory defined heroism. There was a subtle shift from self-sacrifice to self-righteousness here, the larger than life hero was right because he or she was powerful, smart, and wronged by the system. An ideal can't solve the problem, only the hero can.

The 00s - The Monsters We Became: If a villain and hero stand around saying "you made me" and increasingly justify their actions because of each other, you are firmly in the 00s or action movie hero. You see this a lot in the new Batman movies (the '88 Batman was ahead of its time here too), the TV series 24, the Punisher, or any number of other movies and books. The action hero is now the monster, who's actions are justified by the horror unleashed by the bad guys. This type of hero is popular partly because of current events, such as barbaric acts of terror in real life, wars, or other real-world events that cause the culture to seek vengeance. It is always hardest to pin down the era you are closest to, but this is my feeling about current movies and trends, and pretty close to the actual action-hero culture.

These hero-types extend down into the types of heroes players play in roleplaying games, everyone wants to be inspired by the big screen, so players can subconsciously mimic their big-screen heroes. You can see this in the "lawful good - vanquish evil" parties of adventurers in the original D&D, the lone wolf heroes of Vampire: The Masquerade, and the I-am-a-monster character builds of DnD4, you can see some of the influences from pop-culture into the world of roleplaying games.

Granted all of this is a very loose analogy, and it is very difficult to talk about since you are literally covering 30 years of popular culture and gaming, but the influences are there. The influences do extend down into how roleplaying games are written and sold, and which ones become popular. Games speak to their audiences, and audiences pick the games that speak to them. Be mindful of the era a roleplaying game was written in when you tear apart its design, and also the movies, books, and television shows which were popular during the time. Roleplaying is fantasy fulfillment, and the fantasies the game satiates are directly related to the time the game was written in.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Generic Character Designs, Good?

There's a fun and fascinating quote over on the Wikipedia page for Mission Impossible (TV Show) that mentions the creator of the show deliberately told the writers not to focus on the character's backgrounds, keeping them semi-generic so the focus could remain on the caper. Watching the series on Netflix, this seems to have extended both backwards and forwards in time, none of the characters had a real history to them, and they never really developed meaningful relationships with each other or others outside their group.

To some, this seemed surface and shallow. Leaving these characters as almost generic stereotypes was dramatically unsatisfying, as you could never see someone's daughter, or have two of the cast members have a continuing romance. You could never make any real deep connection to the characters (though many did), and the dramatic payoff from normal human interactions never happened.

In another sense, keeping these characters as generic stand-ins for an anybody made the series more approachable to the audience. In a sense, if the team's resident disguise person was an 'anybody' - that anybody could be you. In a sense, superheroes in their modern 'reboot' incarnation are the same way, they are almost generic ideals that people can imagine themselves as being. The fantasy fulfillment of being a superhero drives the popularity of these figures, and since any one of them could be rebooted with a different origin - that origin could just be you.

Another reason for keeping the characters generic and stereotypes of specialist was the format. Episodic television that could be picked up at any time was a lot easier to get into if the characters had generic roles, and you can see this in use in many television shows, such as Star Trek. Kirk is the dashing captain, Spock is the logical science officer, and Scotty is the hard drinking engineer. These characters as well are pretty generic is a sense, and they start each episode more-or-less anew.

Stop, pivot, and apply this to roleplaying games. In an 'episodic adventure' role-playing game, why would we need characters with detailed back stories and continuing story lines? The old-school D&D fit this model well, with most fighters being fighters, and most mages being the same as each other. Your party's thief was your combination con man, sneaky guy, and trap specialist. Any thief fit this role well, and there was no need for backgrounds or future histories. Your class was your role.

Shift forward to modern roleplaying games, with detailed character builds, backgrounds, and huge arcing story lines written into modules. These are all very dramatically satisfying, excellent for novelizations, and definite crowd pleasers. But in a sense, they are less optimal for episodic adventures. All of a sudden, not all thieves are the same, we need to worry about character builds, and my thief may not know how to pick locks. Your character's applicability to a role depends on your character build, which makes the game less appealing to those looking for quick episodic content.

Do detailed characters take away from the plot? You could make an argument here, if a majority of the rules for a game are for character builds and options, the focus of the game shifts to 'hero building' rather than 'adventures.' Are you building a character to solve problems, or encouraging the player to solve the problem. Does my build limit the ways I can solve a problem, be it combat, social, or puzzle? This all can be summed up by the question, 'Who is solving the next problem? The character build or the player?'

Does detailed specific character builds reduce a players connection to the game? Not exactly, but the strength of the connection between the player and the character is very strong, just like the connection between a reader and a character in a novel. But one could say the player's connection with the game's concept is weakened a bit. Since not anybody can be a hero, these people have to come from specific world, backgrounds, and skill sets - since I as myself will never have access to these, my connection to these fantasy worlds and situations will be weakened somewhat.

It's a fascinating thought, and one with interesting applications when designing role-playing games.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Get There From Here

If there are four words which describe a game design philosophy succinctly, for us, they have to be "Get there from here."

Back in Maine, they had a saying, "You can't get there from here." Maine's coast is a maze of inlets, islands, rivers, and confusing roads. You can have two towns 10 miles apart, and it takes 50 miles of driving to get from one to the other. Tourists asking for directions would often be told, "You can't get there from here" in such situations, where they were hopelessly lost, and needed to backtrack a long way to get where they were going.

"Get there from here" is the opposite, and in game design means, "You can get the same or similar play experience easier, faster, and with less hassle using another game." Take basic dungeoneering, for example. If I were to play a simple "explore the dungeon and take the treasure game" with a new group of players, would I use full-featured game such as Pathfinder or d20 SRD, or a simpler retro-clone such as Labyrinth Lord? For me, the answer is simple, I would use Labyrinth Lord. The game is simple to understand, fast to roll characters up in, and simple to play. More importantly, it simulates 90% of the "dungeon action" I am looking for with this group, without going into complicated areas like skill points, thousands of spells to read, and a huge framework of character creation rules. Labyrinth Lord "gets there from here" a lot easier than other games, when all I am looking for is the basic dungeon experience.

We will often break a game down into its core activities, and then separate out all the rules and fluff. You isolate the core of why you are playing, and then contrast that with other games that do the same thing. If the other game is simpler, and gets you to the fun faster, that game does a better job at delivering the fun. Of course, if you are a fan of a rule set, "get there from here" does not change that, but it is important to understand the complexity you pay to reach the fun you desire. A lot of games don't understand this math, or it gets lost in a sea of expansions and options.

"Get there from here" can also be applied to rule design. Does the rule system you are building for a game deliver the intended outcome simply and without too much trouble? Or does the rules subsystem require a huge complicated procedure that could be optimized and streamlined? If the point is the complexity, that is one thing; but if the fun of the game is elsewhere, why spend the time when a simple rule will suffice?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Virtual Tabletops

Just found a cool virtual tabletop site over at Paizo also announced their own Virtual Tabletop, and Wizards has just cancelled their VTT project. We used to run demo sessions of SBRPG via virtual tabletop a long time ago, so these are cool and interesting for us. They are definitely cool, and allow groups of players around the world to play together.

I have heard the largest problem was not the virtual tabletop, but finding games and joining them. Running an online pen-and-paper game is a lot of work for a referee, and at any one time, there are few referees to run games with. If there was some way of making this task simpler, maybe through prepackaged modules for use with a VTT, this would be an easier thing to get going. Another idea is to run a 'drop in and play' game on a regular schedule, but you would need a community and forum to put that together with.

You don't need an automated system, like a MMO, where players can join, have random encounters, and play without a referee. Automated play leads to automated players, and you need that one-one-one between players, the referee, and the rules. When you get into a system that was programmed against you, the natural human response is to test that programming, break it, and beat the game. With a referee, it all changes, and the magic of social interaction happens.

I would love to run a couple games of anything via VTT, and I may do so in the future someday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Where Do I Go Next?

George and I were having fun playing adventure modules for other games with the Delta rules set, sort of as a playtest and study in adventure design. We ran into a couple that dropped you off a cliff in certain parts when the characters were wondering, "Where do we go next?"

It hurts when the referee can't figure it out in a short amount of time, and I ended up just fudging it and making-a-long-story-short. I short-circuited the player experience, and directed the group to the next encounter. Ouch. That hurts two-fold:
  1. It robs the players of figuring things out
  2. The players are playing for the next encounter, instead of being immersed in the world
These short-circuits where the referee has a NPC wander in and say, "Hey guys! I found the secret goblin camp, c'mon!" really rob the immersion of the game. They are equivalent of an actor in the movie breaking the fourth wall, and addressing the audience. The players now know they are being led, and play shifts to 'find the next encounter.' The feeling of freedom and the whole sandbox experience is taken away, and players feel railroaded.

An odd situation happens when the players figure out what encounters are in the module, versus what ones are made up by the referee. Ideally, these should be both treated as equals, but we have played with some groups that did not like extra encounters to be added to the module. I admit, it is a rare occurrence, but disconcerting when the referee's additions are treated as less-than-equal. Again, this is a tangent case, but an interesting one that deserves mention.

The ideal adventure feels natural, and gives the referee scripted situations, along with more open areas where players can explore, find off-the-beaten-path areas, and do a couple optional quests on the side. The module should encourage creativity, and give the referee ideas for areas to further flesh out and other things for players to do. We found ourselves in one case searching through the module's area descriptions looking for fun 'adventure areas' and could not find any. Of course, I could use GM Fiat and just create one, but for a written adventure, I award bonus points for the writer's suggestions and hooks that fit in with the overall adventure.

Good adventures are like good stories, they have a natural flow, and always keep you wondering, 'what's next?' ...and letting you know when the time is right.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting Off the Train

We were in our local hobby shop the other day, and had a discussion with a fellow game-master about the Pathfinder adventure path The Jade Regent. The GM mentioned he didn't like the adventure, since the story required the PCs to travel with a convoy of NPCs to the farthest reaches north, cross the arctic, and save the princess. The players did not like the NPCs, balked at getting on the convoy, and just wanted to run off and do something else.

Roleplaying is strange like that, players can up and decide to go east when the path leads west, decide the plot of the movie isn't for them, and frequently revel in the chance to take the railroad off road. Pathfinder's adventure paths are kind of like mini-movies, and you think by agreeing to play one, players would suspend their free spirits for a while, and play through and see what happens. We didn't really delve too deeply into the circumstances, and the GM could have been using the adventure as his weekly session, so there are a couple unknowns there, to be honest.

We wrote SBRPG with the spirit of player freedom as one of the central concepts in the game. We explicitly say that GMs should not write adventures, period. All interaction in the game's sandbox should be through the game's internal faction system, and players should get out there and makes things happen. It is a different take from most games, in that SBRPG requires players to be active participants in the world, with only minimal plot decisions being made by the referee. The referee can set the stage, like having the crying dame setup the next mystery for the private eye to solve, but beyond that point, the players should drive the action.

It requires strong improvisational skills from the referee, the ability to track plots, and quickly come up with 'what's next?' The referee can set the stage for the next part, such as the car chase by the bad guys trying to silence the gumshoe, the frantic call by the lady in red saying someone is following her, and the big reveal by the bad guy and mad scientist attempting to escape in the building-top zeppelin. 'What's next' can be mini-scenarios, story parts, and anything in the dramatic book that advances the plot (or not, it depends). Getting to these points is up to the players, and they need to be active participants in the story.

It is different than your traditional dungeon experience, where players can only go where the tunnel leads next, or an event-based story where players proceed from one prepackaged situation to the next. The closest analogy for SBRPG's gameplay is to the Grand Theft Auto games, where the player is the motivator, and the sandbox provides endless opportunities for danger, involvement, natural hazards, monsters, NPC interaction, and fun activities. The price players must pay is adopting the 'go out there and do something' play style, and the GM determines 'what's next.'

Saturday, August 11, 2012

D = A Game's Database of Content

Every roleplaying game has a 'database' of content included with the game. All the powers, weapons, gear, skills, conditions, monsters, treasures, and even the rules are individual 'entries' in your game's master 'database' of content. Let's break this down for a game, and come up with variables to express them:
C = classes
S = skills
R = game rules
P = powers
F = feats and traits
L = leveling and progression
M = monsters
T = treasures
E = equipment
W = world rules
N = NPC rules
D = all the above sets of information, the game's master database
D = C + S + R + P + L + F + L + M + T + E + W + N ....and so on
Each individual item is an entry in one of these lists, such as a tower shield being equipment item #334, or E[334] in programming terms. Let's say our game has six shields in it, and they all work in different ways. Our buckler could give a -1 to hit in melee, our tower shield is handled in the ranged rules, and so on. Our game now adopts six special cases for all the shield types, and now we have to maintain these rules from now on. If we come up with one rule that handles all shields, and adjusts each shield based on type, we have simplified our design a little bit. Now we can reference one main rule for all shields, and adjust based on shield size and type.

DnD4 had a huge problem with their database of rules, and this extended in an endless series of updates, errata releases, patches to the online character designer, and changes after release. Their design theory was 'each power or equipment item was like a magic card,' and the card had special rules for use. The game had thousands of powers and equipment items, and by the time you started playing with a book, it was most likely out of date. The only real way to design a character was via the character builder, which had all the updates - the books did not.

To be fair, this was Wizards' business model, to sell DnD Insider subscriptions, and make the game play the best when you had access to the online tools. It's a valid strategy, with one flaw - they printed books. The huge database of game material became the Insider selling point, and also the downfall of the books. To be fair, you can play without DnDI, but it is not the same when you play with a group, and appreciate the speed and flexibility the designer gives you.

How do you solve the complexity problem? This problem has been solved before, in programming with design patterns and object oriented design. Think about the shield problem, if all shields work the same, and they only differ on a couple variables, you can make the shield rule an 'object' and limit the data to variations of the base object. You should define the entire game along the object-oriented theory, with simple, common rules used for the base cases, and limit special cases as much as possible.

We can solve the 'update' problem by keeping data apart from the rules, such as making equipment and spell lists online-only downloads. This way, if there are updates, your books remain valid, and you can print out the updated material you need from the Internet. Keep a basic, generic list of items in the basic rules, just as examples - but keep the huge 'download and print' items separate so these can be maintained and updated better.

If you are trying for an online, community-based game, you may not print books at all, and just sell access to the community. The rules would be free, and the value is held in the community and the tools which support play. You could say the pen-and-paper rules should be 'free-to-play' and focus on creating a community where roleplayers can gather, discuss, and play together.

When designing a game, part of the design is managing infinite complexity. How you manage this will be determined by how you want the game to be played and delivered. Some formats, like the ideal DnDI model, require a rethink, and allow you to have a more complex database. With a simple printed book roleplaying game, you need to make decisions to limit 'game database' complexity, since your format is much more limited and focused. Any way you can simplify the design and handled a lot with a little helps in all cases, since this streamlining makes the game easier to play and understand.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Difficulty Adjustment as a Game Balance Tool

There is a fascinating discussion over on the Pathfinder message boards. A GM has a fellow GM as a player in his game, and the GM-as-player has the opinion that 3.5 is horribly unbalanced towards casters, and wonders if Pathfinder follows the same design mantra. Notice here, we are not focusing on 3.5 or Pathfinder, we are talking about design.
Gauss (in the second post) says, "Also: Pathfinder almost universally dropped the CRs of monsters by 1. The effect of this is that monsters have slightly higher saves and more hitpoints. This benefits the martial classes."
Wow. Interesting take on this. Paizo dropped the power of an entire class by just adjusting encounter challenge ratings. This is a wonderful example of using difficulty to balance a class and its powers, without touching the powers or class itself.

Most game designers would first consider adjusting the powers, tweaking spell resistance rules, fixing the class, adjusting monster defenses, or any number of other fixes that would take a long time to iterate over the data in a game's lists. Game design is tough, and going back over your existing data can break lots of stuff. Instead, Paizo used their CR system, and tweaked it to put melee characters on an even keel with spellcasters - and they made the adjustment backwards on the existing system.

Examples of great game design techniques are hard to find, but I think we found one here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DnD 3.5 vs. Pathfinder 3.75

The goings on in DnD land are interesting, with Wizard's reprints of 3.5 with errata, and of course Pathfinder and its huge world. Is it the RPG equivalent of the Kristen Stewart and Robert Patterson breakup? Both companies make great stuff, and I don't really see this as a fight. One company is forging ahead on its own path, and Wizards seems to be tipping its hat at their success, while moving forward with DnD5.

Pathfinder and Paizo built an incredible world, with majestic support in their adventure paths. From all the things Paizo has said, Wizards has been very gracious with the timing of the breakup on Paizo and DnD, and letting the company forge ahead with their new direction. There were pain points where Paizo was left to fend for themselves, and ambiguity around DnD4, which seemed to have hurt. Paizo has built an incredible brand and customer loyalty, and that isn't going to change.

Wizards is in a position where they seem to be rebuilding bridges, and trying to hand out olive branches to fans of all editions. They reprinted the classic AD&D books, and have also went forward with the 3.5 reprints (with updates and errata, very nice touch). Wizards is focused on DnD5, but that seems a long time off, so the best route they can take to shepard the brand is to rebuild loyalty, and reprint old editions as favors to the community. It's a great move, and I love to see this.

I would love to see most every classic TSR and Wizards edition, module, and support book to be released as paid-for PDFs. Paizo's PDF support is great, and Wizards should step up with their back catalog. We live in the world of iPads and tablet readers, and cracking open a classic "Tomb of Horrors" module via PDF to play with the reprint AD&D hardcovers would be a treat. Let's add in TSR's back catalog of games like Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Gangbusters, Gamma World, and even the old TSR minigames to the mix as well - the more gaming history for sale the better.

I don't see having a huge back catalog of TSR and Wizards PDFs as hurting the demand for a DnD5, the DnD3 theory of "network effect" takes over - the more people playing any version of DnD, or similar RPG the higher the demand will be for the newest versions of the game. Availability drives interest, and keeping the old-school core players happy gives Wizards a solid base of advocates and heavy users. New players will always gravitate towards new editions of the game, to check out the new stuff, be cool, or differentiate themselves from the old-school crowd.

Instead of obsoleting old editions such as the DnD3.5 to 4 shift; celebrate the past, and support the communities around the older games with low-support-cost PDFs. Don't pull the 'older system' life support from your old-timers and force them to play the new edition; support them, sell to them, and let them be the wise old wizards that guide the next generation to roleplaying enlightenment.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Are the PCs Heroes or Survivors?

Some games assume the PCs are heroes, others simulate an environment and let the chips fall where they may. Others take a more adverse position on heroism, and discourage heroism and make players fight for survival against impossible odds. Let's break down the design of heroism in RPGs today.

Heroic Games: Some games are designed so the PCs are heroes, better than the average person. Characters are meant to fight, survive, and beat scores of enemies in an average adventure. Think of an action videogame, where the PCs are heroes that advance through endless waves of opponents. The challenge of these games is judging the enemy's strength in real time, and give yourself a tactical advantage in every encounter. Games like DnD4, the classic Space Opera, Star Frontiers, the original Marvel Super Heroes, and d6 System are great examples of heroic games. One of my favorite "heroic game" quotes is from Space Opera, where the give PC's a +10% chance to hit in close combat, just because close combat is dangerous and PC's are supposed to be the heroes. Heroic games are great "party games" where you have players new to roleplaying, or groups that just want to have a great time.

Simulation Games: Some games put PCs and enemies on the same level, and let the toughest survive. The goal of these games is place everyone on the same level, everyone is spun up using the same rules, and neither side gets a special advantage. The challenge not only becomes tactics, but resource management and knowing how to beat the other side based on the enemy's strengths and weaknesses. You have to know your builds, know your rules, and know your enemy to survive. The rules are still fair, and combat is not discouraged - there is a good bit of survivability, if you know what you are doing. Good example of simulation games are Pathfinder/DnD3, Traveller, the James Bond RPG, the classic Aftermath, Top Secret, Gangbusters, and even SBRPG. Simulation games appeal to the tactical gamer, groups that like to build characters well, understand the rules, and beat the enemies at their own game.

Realistic Games: If a game has a quote, "combat is real and deadly," chances are this is a game designed to be realistic. Combat is discouraged, and damages are high. Combat is not a game, and if you get the first shot or blow in, you have the advantage, and will probably win. The original GURPS, Mercenaries Spies and Private Eyes, FASA's Star Trek, and Call of Cthulhu are good examples of this type of game. If you browse to the weapons section, and see the average rifle doing twice the damage as a PC has hit points, you are probably reading a realistic game. Relaistic games are a tough sell with a lot of groups, nobody likes their character getting one-shotted, and the appeal comes from a more interaction and mental layer. The roleplaying is the star here, and the rules are secondary.

The design of a RPG should fit its theme, and enhance the story. If the game simulates realistic espionage during the Cold War, you can't have PCs running around and surviving like James Bond. That may be fun, and fit the design of the latter James Bond movies, but it's not what you want to do for this game. You would want cloak-and-dagger stuff, with combat being deadly and real, and danger at every turn. Staying out of combat is survival - and smart play. Regardless, this type of game would not appeal to a group of excitement-driven players, it would be more intellectual and slow paced.

It's interesting too, when you think about James Bond - the early movies definitely are realistic affairs, where a pistol kills in one shot, and the action is subtle and muted, perfect fodder for a realistic game. The latter James Bond movies (excluding the current trilogy) are straight up action movies like Rambo, with James running through machine-gun fire multiple times during a movie, dual wielding guns, and enough explosions to level a copper mine. If you're thinking this is more heroic gaming, you are on the right track. The genre of James Bond has moved along, and it would be difficult for one game to simulate all the movies without a lot of configuration to handle different eras.

There are a couple things to remember here, like understanding what type of game you are playing, and making sure your group likes that type of game. We have played many games with groups that didn't fly well, many times because the group expected something else, like an action-hungry group wanting to kill sea-monsters in Cthulhu's port of Innsmouth. While that would be cool in an action-minded sense, the original game really didn't intend the game to be a DnD4 style monster hunt. At times, you will need to make adjustments to a game to fit the group's expectations, and even switch games to something that fits better depending on how things go.

Friday, August 3, 2012

System Games and Books

Gaming evolves, but like classic novels, some games become timeless. This is the paradox of role playing games; companies like to think of game as platforms, while players like to think of them as books. A platform can go out of date, be replaced, updated to a new version, and a new and better platform released. A book is a book, and it never really goes out of date. Sure, there may be no new support for an old game, but time does not wither the written word, it enshrines creative works such as games.

With the 'games as platform' side, you see the World of Darkness, Hero System, DnD4 and 5, GURPS (to an extent), Traveller (new versions), and other roleplaying game systems being marketed as 'gaming platforms.' Typically, you will get platform arguments like, "finding players is important" or "support and new content is key for interest."  It's all well and good, companies need to make new stuff to sell stuff, and honestly, there are room for improvements in every game.

With 'systems,' theories define success, and the danger of marketing witchcraft creeps into game design. A publisher may make their game overly complex to achieve 'system lock in', and also to take away time and mental effort needed to learn and play other games. Game companies may push a lot of books to increase 'investment' in the system, both monetary and mental for players and game masters. Companies and fans can create 'system wars' to draw attention to themselves, and shut out third parties not involved in the 'battle between the systems.' Other terms like 'shelf space', 'awareness', 'platform support' and other mojo terms appear and take meaning in physical products.

For more on this, please read the Wikipedia article on lock-in, and also the related articles on the bottom of the link. You'll find a lot of the terms used in current roleplaying game design, such as EEE, network effect, and even path dependence. They are fascinating subjects, with both good and evil sides associated to their use, and even unintentional market choice. Again, these aren't 'wrong' or 'bad' concepts when relating to system games, although they can be used that way.

Ignoring marketing 101, let's sit back and look at 'games as books.' My second edition of TSR's Top Secret sits on my gaming shelf, as timeless and secure as a copy of 'Moby Dick' would. I can pick it up, spin up some characters, teach the basics to a new group of players, and start having fun. Who cares that it is a 32-year old game set in the 1970's and 80's? It doesn't really matter no new modules are made for the game anymore, or there are a miniscule amount of players in the world. It is a book, and a game, meant to be taught and played until the paper turns yellow, decays, and turns into dust. Platform support, lock in, and investment mean nothing to me.

The old-school movement supports the 'games as books' theory, and tries to make new versions of old games available to play for a new generation. They give out the rules for free, and publish books and modules on the side to support the authors. It is a laudable goal, because with many of the old games, the books are hard to acquire, and not readily available for new players. Anyone with a printer and a computer can play. Some companies also distribute old editions via paid-for PDFs on sites like RPGNow, which is another avenue for keeping the 'game as book' alive.

Freedom is important, along with choice. Games can be both systems and books, and it's rough to be dragged into the mental trap of system advocates and marketers just because they say something is cool. Read, explore, think, and pick a game you like. Teach it to a new group of players, and don't be afraid to express your interest and support. Players and game companies need to be more open, celebrate our history, and explore the classics of the tabletop world.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chocolate Frosting in Dungeon Encounters

Let's pause the game design discussion for a moment, and talk about refereeing. This is brought up by the thoughts on toy-box designs we just had, and I felt it was an interesting discussion tangentially related to all that.

I had this discussion with George last night, and it seems like a lost point on many published modules and adventures. If you are playing a fantasy game, and enter a crypt of undead- sealed off for 500 years. Let's say the first room is a trap where the doors seal and a flood of skeletons surge into the chamber, weapons ready, and the dust of tombs floating in the air.

I asked George, "Shouldn't those weapons be rusted to nothingness, and the skeletons fragile and their bones snap if tested?" George agreed, and I called the concept the "chocolate frosting" on the encounter - that extra special detail you normally wouldn't have thought of, that when added, makes sense and actually enhances the experience.

Sure, having the skeleton's weapons break when they hit the characters' weapons and armor sure reduces the difficulty of the encounter, and snapping arms off of the undead during grapple attempts kinda defeats the purpose of the skeletons grabbing for the characters in the first place - but it is cool, and it fits the encounter. If you need to, increase the difficulty with a hazard, trap, or more skeletons - but keep the chocolate frosting on the encounter to maintain the unique and memorable quality.

Let's take the opposite approach, and equip the skeletons with brand-new weapons, give them full hit points, and normal grapple attempt chances - book standard stuff. Boring stuff actually, without special flavor and this certainly won't be remembered like the previous version. There is something about the ferocity of an undead creation attacking as it breaks up and crumbles away that is so horrifying, it will stick in the player's minds for a long time. This is the stuff legends are made of, and great storytelling.

You can put chocolate frosting on any encounter with a little thought and imagination. Lizardmen in a swamp? Let's make them hunters, with spears coated in paralyzing poison, bolas, and hooked nets. Coat their skin in a slippery slime, either natural or applied before the hunt, and give them a couple archers with arrows that explode into a pungent skunk-like tracking scent that lasts for days. What was once ordinary is now cool and unique, and will stick in you player's minds (and their character's nostrils) for a long time.

Craft your encounters and situations like you would make a cake, don't just stop with the book-standard creatures and opponents - put that extra layer of detail and super-specialness on them that fits who they are and what they are doing. Your players will love your work, and you will get that extra-special feeling of satisfaction that a master chef gets with a perfectly-crafted dish.