Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Open Platform Model and Labyrinth Lord

Another fun article today, check this out:

Especially this point:
The second goal was to create a brand and free license to allow publishers (and self publishers) to create and publish their own books that are compatible with the old rules.
This is what I love. Brand altruism towards other publishers and individuals looking to create, sell, and share freely if they so choose is what I like about some games, especially the OSR and OGL publishers. It is what attracts me to Pathfinder and what attracts me to Labyrinth Lord as well. You can make adventures, compatible games, settings, characters, and whatever else you desire and you are free to share or sell, publish on a blog or print in a book, whatever you want to do.

I don't like it when D&D locks up some monsters, classes, numbers, character creation options, and content behind product identity. I feel a little bad when Pathfinder's campaign setting is locked up in the same way. Some games do better than others, but the ambiguity is what bothers me.

As a game and a creator of things which I love to share, I hate having to double-check or second-guess myself to see if something is okay to share or publish. I really dislike that feeling. It feels too 'gimme' for me, too locked in the old, bad days of the hobby where publishers acted as gatekeepers and dictated what we could create and share.

Freedom to Create = Real Value

To me, if a book is 100% sharable and OGL and I can use it as a base to create and share from, it is a super-high value to me. I feel even putting 10% of a game's content behind a product identity clause reduces its 'creator's value' drastically for me to half or less, because now everything comes under scrutiny and question. It may still be a fun and well put-together game, but I don't want the well poisoned and I want to be able to create, speak of, and share anything I wish without that voice in the back of my head saying, "maybe you can't do that."

I don't have the time to pick through what I can and cannot do anymore, and games that took the time to work all that out and give me a solid and open base? Priceless. Saves me a lot of time. Frees my mind for creativity instead of picking through reference documents, websites, and guesses on what can and cannot be done.

Fun Games are Still Fun

Creator's value is different than play value, obviously. I still enjoy games that are locked up behind product identity, and even others that have no OGL or sharing options. It is like playing an exclusive console game to one platform, they are often well done and are showcases of fun and gameplay. But a locked-up RPG or tabletop game as something I would put time into creating for? I don't have the time to invest in creations that would be just for me these days. If I can share everything? That has real value, because I feel we live in a different world these days.

The value of a game in an online world is the amount of content in it free to be shared and built upon by a community of fans and third-party publishers.

You Mean, I Can Create Too...?

I read articles like this and it makes me want to write games to support this model. That is the power here of an open system, everyone can participate and everyone can play. Add to that supporting the game with free no-art rules downloads and options to support the creators (and artists) through buying the hardcover? That is the fan altruism that keeps these games on my shelf and makes me pull them out every so often to play and consider the possibilities. It is also the power that keeps these games relevant in a day and age when new editions come along, other editions grow in popularity, and new games come along and take away attention.

There is a value here in still having this option, and because the retro-clones are based in the feeling of a set place and time, they don't really need to be changed every few years to freshen them up or attract players. People may play the new stuff, but eventually when they mature and start looking for options to give back, create, and share, the old-school games (and the community looking modern games, to be fair) will still be here and waiting with open arms.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Genesys: The Toolkit Layer

I read the entire Genesys book last night and the above image I feel best summarizes my feelings about the game. I love the system, I love the macro-situation creating dice, and I like the idea of this being a generic system...

...but? The game, by itself, is missing what I like to call "the toolkit layer." This is all the setting-specific information that makes character builds matter - weapons, armor, equipment, gear, powers, magic items, foes, monsters, creatures, vehicles, mounts, and all that other fun setting-specific stuff that makes character builds matter.

How can I build a Wild West gunfighter and specialize in a, where is the six-gun, scattergun, lever-action, horse, throwing hatchet, knife, buffalo rifle, TNT stick...? You get my point, without all these cool "rules-ed out" items and things to build characters around, what is there to do?

As a game master, it puts me in a really bad situation without having setting-specific information because I have to wing it. And when I wing it, nothing really has a cool defined list of attributes and features that the players can look at and sort through as they build their characters. As a game master, it is easier for me to create adventures with a full toolkit, because I can better design opponents and encounters when I have a huge box of toys to play with, all fully-statted out and working with the rules so both me and my players understand how they work with the game's systems.

I could wing it and make up stats on the fly for all my Wild West items, but I feel it does the players a disservice because they need to know about all this cool stuff before I make it up, because they are the ones who have to create characters to take advantage of all this stuff before I throw them into a situation where I say "oh yeah, that guy has a buffalo rifle" and they sit they feeling, "I wish I would have known about that cool piece of gear because I might have wanted to create a character who could use one and take advantage of the item with my character build."

You get into a situation where the player's first characters built for the game feel generic and not built for the world they live in, and only after playing a couple times do you build enough background data that the next set of characters will be able to take advantage of all of the stuff you house-ruled in, and you still risk not knowing about that next cool thing or situation characters may encounter (Gatling guns, derringers, poker games, quick draws, Calvary officers, Marshals, etc).

Six Sample Settings Included

To be fair, the game does come with six really basic sample settings with sample equipment and foe lists. They are by no means complete and I feel just serve as a starting point for you to create your own. They feel more like "sample adventure" seeders than "these are the official gear and stuff lists" for the game to me, because the fantasy section feels like it lacks enough for a long-term game for me. This will be solved one the fantasy book comes out later this year, so we shall see. I could wing fantasy better by pulling in tropes and creatures from other games, but again, these things mater when players build characters, so my default feeling is I want a complete "toolkit layer" before I start palying becuase it gives players more to work with than just a sample list plus "make the rest up."

The other sections for steampunk, modern, sci-fi, space opera, and other settings feel like similar "taster sections" for the genres than full-fledged support, and this is understandable because of their length and brevity. But again, I can't play with them as-is, because for the game to work at its best, I feel players need a full list of stuff, foes, gear, powers, and options to play with and design characters around.

I feel you get the best with this game when you can find an official toolkit (like the fantasy one coming with Terrinoth), or a fan-created one for a particular setting (which there are on the Genesys forums, and more are being shared there as time goes on). I feel the more detailed and more fully fleshed out the toolkit, the more fun you and your players will have with the game.

Contrast With FATE

FATE is a strange game, as it does away with the toolkit layer almost entirely. Weapons are weapons, gear is gear, and if you want a character build that takes advantage of something specific, you just take it as a character aspect or devise a stunt for a skill and you are good. If your character is a "Wild West big game hunter with a coon-skin cap" well then of course your character is going to be good with that buffalo rifle, you get your bonus then and there, and the world is good. Yee-haw, make it up, write something down, and keep playing.

I enjoy a more structured, mechanical game like Genesys where you can build a character to take advantage of a certain weapon or play style through stats, skills, talents, and gear - but you need that gear fully fleshed out in order to be able to build a character like that in the first place. With FATE, yes, things are less structured and therefore you get less of that "character build addiction and obsession" feeling you do with Genesys.

If I were doing pick-up-and-play games, I would use FATE because I do not need a lot to simulate anything. Everything is made up on the fly. I do not need a toolkit, just the English language and an understanding of "this would cover that." The game works well without toolkits and settings, and it is designed more to play off our assumptions and understandings of things through natural language constructs and "X to Y means Z" relationships.

If I want a longer-term game where players could get more deeply involved, I would more likely use Genesys with a fully-fleshed out toolkit and setting for the game, because that is where the players play and the referee derives inspiration from to create the challenges of the world. This is not to say Genesys is weak in any way, as if I had a Star Trek style toolkit I would jump on that and play Star Trek with "Genesys plus toolkit" a lot faster than "FATE plus nothing." I feel the support, and the quality level of that support, makes a huge difference.

But having that support I feels really matters, if it is my work, a fan work, or an official work.

Structured Builds vs. Do What You Want

To me, FATE is like a box of crayons plus some paper.

Genesys is like a video game console with controllers. The toolbox is like the video game cartridge you stick in the machine. Without a cartridge and a game to play, you have that excitement of having a cool game console, but nothing to play with it yet. The console is open enough you could write your own game or find something on the Internet to play, so there is still that DIY freedom.

For character builders, Genesys has that Lego style appeal as well of building things and putting together character builds. But you need all those special pieces in the toolkit to be able to build anything really cool, and all those special parts like doors, hinges, windows, wheels, mini-figures, and plastic trees matter - more so than just the sample settings in the main book and their collection of straight blocks.

With FATE, I will just come up with and draw all those pieces myself when I draw my picture of my fire-station or whatever I want to "build."

Both are fun and have different strengths for what type of mood I am in and my current group of players, but they are different enough to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. I would not give up FATE because I now have Genesys, and I would not shelve Genesys because I prefer playing with fully fleshed out toolkits. Both are cool and have their places at our table.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mail Room: Genesys

Revised narrative system that powers Fantasy Flight's Star Wars role-playing games? Check.

Expensive dice? Check.

Dice app on my phone that does a faster, cheaper, and better job than the dice? Check.

But I still like the physical dice.

Generic system with a name that sounds like something Hollywood would slap on a movie franchise? Check.

Do we need another narrative storytelling system? Well, Fantasy Flight's game system that powers the Star Wars line was one we liked, and we could see using it for more than just the venerable and slightly culturally over-saturated franchise that we love.

Then again, I am still a fan of the old Expanded Universe, a work of so many different artists and creators that throwing it all away feels like trashing a shared creation that I grew up with and that defined my ideas of the franchise more than today's interpretations of a place that defined so many dreams and set the stage for so many role-playing adventures. It can be said the EU was defined by role-players and I feel was a more inclusive place for speculative fiction creators and game players alike.

So the game system we like gets a revision and a clean break from the licensed world. Was this something we always wanted to see?

Dedicated Fantasy World? Check.

This feels like a good break and evolution for the strong underlying system, and my initial reservations about "what do I do with this" were washed away when I heard that a companion volume, a fantasy world book covering the worlds created in Fantasy Flight's fantasy board games was being published this year called Realms of Terrinoth (covering Descent, Legacy of Dragonholt, Runebound, and Runewars).

Okay, we have a dedicated fantasy world with an admittedly strong and pedigreed line-up of source materials and games that were just begging to be explored and used as a base for storytelling. For me, it always feels better for a generic system to have some sort of 'official' setting for the game as it gives my investment a fall-back position in case the generic appeal wears off. And this feels like a good one since we were a fan of the Descent system and all the miniatures and games we played over the years. Color us interested and excited by this one, and to us, this at least has the same appeal of playing in a Warcraft style universe or even Warmachine.

The only problem is that I don't have this book in my hands yet, so I can't start diving in and planning some adventures. I do have some of the Descent boardgames, so that is a start, but I want to see what they do with a full-sized, dedicated rules-plus-world book with the production quality level that we saw with the Star Wars line.

Strong Fan Support? Check.

The second, and very surprising thing that attracts us to this game is the amount of fan-support this is getting from the Fantasy Flight forums themselves. There is a fifty-page free PDF of talents for character creation, fan-created worldbooks, conversion guides,  character sheets, and other resources. This is a really great sign of community support, and it raises my excitement level for using this system (which we already like and are used to after our Star Wars sessions).

The level of excitement and fan support really is a cool thing to see. I like this because it gives me confidence that there will be enough of a fan base to support this as a dedicated product line going forward, and I hope we will see a lot of nice, high-quality supplements released in the future.

Book Quality? Looks Good.

I have heard some complaints about the art-style in the Genesys book, that the art in some way seemed unfinished and it has this sketchy, sort of drafting-table industrial arts look. I actually like this style for the book, as the line-art plus unfinished nature of the art tells me "you finish the story." You color this in, you tell your adventures, you make it happen, and you craft your world. the book itself feels high-quality, at least equal to the Star Wars hardcovers we have in this line, and I just get that intangible feeling of crafts-work and attention to detail when flipping through this that I like.

Narrative Dice

And this seems like a revised game built on the lessons of the Star Wars line as well, with a lot simplified, streamlined, and cleaned up. Yes, this is a generic game, but it has this "do anything" feel like a "DIY movie game toolkit" that appeals to me for certain genres that doesn't seem like it needs a lot of work to get started.

Yes, the dice are relatively expensive. And yes, you likely need two sets if you are serious here. I can see that as a problem for some players as we played with groups in the past who can't afford to spend that much on dice for a weekly game. The 5-dollar app-store app for both Android and iOS works well, and better than physical dice in some cases (when a lot of dice are being rolled and the app auto-tallies and sorts the result), so that is an option. If I had to play this with strangers or semi-regular groups I would take an old tablet, install the app, and leave that on the table for players to use if they didn't have dice. And no playing games or surfing the web on it either!
Part of why we like the system lies with the dice and how we liked they had this "macro" element to them in regards to storytelling. As a player, you could lay out a big course of action, such as, "I go to the red light district and start asking around if anyone saw the strange man in town with the scar on his eye and red cape." You make a Streetwise roll, and the dice not only determine success, they also direct the game master if anything else - good or bad - happened. Not only that, the possible good or bad related events also have their magnitude of goodness or badness all determined on the same roll.

Do the bad guys show up and try and stop you? Do you get a lucky break and find someone who knows something? Do you find the bad guy himself and get the jump on him? Do you wander into an ambush? Do you find another piece of information relating to something else you are looking into? Are you hot on the trail or following a dead end? Do you attract attention from other bad guys in the area? Does a street thief try to pickpocket you? Do you have a chance to assist a fellow citizen in need from a snatched purse? Does nothing happen and you get no where?

One roll - that first Streetwise roll - determines all that. You have to be able to 'read' the dice, but this is a skill that we found we picked up quickly for all the fun this interpretation delivers. You also have to be able to accept atomic success, where you do not let repeated Streetwise rolls force the issue, as letting players try and try again reduces the impact of each narrative result and practically guarantees success with that sort of 'take a 20' thinking.

You get your roll, this happens, and if you fail try something else. A good referee should be able to keep things from dead-ending, but I feel you have to make macro rolls like this mean something, good or bad, and not let players buffalo their way through a situation by letting them roll and re-roll the same skill until they get the result they desire, all while trying to ignore or minimize negative consequences.

We felt the game works better if you really celebrate the results and make them mean something. The minute you roll the dice repeatedly to get the result you want while ignoring negative consequences or minimizing positive results the game loses its charm. It pays here to aggregate, keep tries to one per skill, and really describe the result as best you can without picking up the dice to 'try again' or 'roll the dice to interpret or clear up the first roll'.

Let the dice stand. Let that course of action matter. If you fail, try something else.

The dice also scale pretty well into the micro, turn-by-turn combat style of roll, although we feel there is still a little bit of a macro feel to combat where you are not going blow-by-blow but more action-scene by action-scene and determining the winners and losers of each scene rather than 'this blow penetrated my right flank, hitting my plate torso guard and puncturing my spleen' sort of combat result.

To be fair, I need to read the game to see if there are any further clarifications to what we found worked well when we were playing Star Wars with this system, as I am sure there are some suggestions and directions in the game that they found and shared in this revision of the rules. But really, when you ask yourself, 'why play this game?' the dice and the wide variety of narrative results they produce should be considered. It is a vastly different experience than a d20 system when done right, and it is a huge part of the appeal of this system for us, more so than a simpler narrative system such as FATE or other generic games.

Though FATE has some cool dice too, especially the metal ones we collected.

More Soon...

This looks like a fun game, and I am looking forward to diving in and reading this from cover to cover. I like the system, my players have bought into this with Star Wars, and the idea of using the same narrative dice system for other games and worlds with that same action-movie vibe really has me excited. I was surprised by this, and my expectations were this was another game I would read for fun and eventually shelve, but my mind now is racing with possibilities and all of the adventures we could have and stories we could tell with this one.

That keeps this one on my table and the cover calling us to crack it open and find a world to explore. When the dedicated fantasy world comes out this year, hopefully soon, that will be a whole new world to explore that we are sort-of familiar with but entirely unprepared for - and that is an exciting thing as well. Overall, I am impressed with this one and very pleasantly surprised by both the quality and possibilities of this, along with how well the fans of this game stepped up to support it. Nicely done, and a game I am looking forward to play.