Archive for October, 2007



October 30, 2007

So what is it tabletop rpgs can do that no other medium can match?

I think it’s that tabletop rpgs have the ability for a group of people to quickly access their creativity and create stories and ideas unmatched by any other medium.  Videogames require their content be built according to the software and hardware limitations.  Boardgames and card games require physical components to be produced.  And even forum, email, and irc chat games which mirror tabletop rpgs just do the same thing, but slower.

At first I was thinking about player buy-in, but what is it that the players are buying into?  Creativity as a shared activity.   This ultimately is what I see being the only long term viable road for tabletop rpgs.  Maximizing on what these games can do.  You want something to exist in the game?  Say it and imagine it, that’s how easy it is.  Now, I don’t think that equal input is always going to be the best choice, but I definitely think that input must be guaranteed and meaningful within the context of the game and its goals.

Good games come from a set of good rules in play (Whether you recognize them or not, in a book, made up, or unspoken freeform rules), because those rules are what you use to organize the creativity in a way the group enjoys.   The role of a designer, then becomes to consider how  your rules organize creativity, how they shape it and help a group steer their creativity to their own maximum enjoyment.  The rules become the lens to focus the creativity.

The areas where you cannot input are boundaries, the spaces where you do input is where play happens.  Vincent called it the Fruitful Void, and I’m thinking more and more that this isn’t just crucial for design, but pretty much the heart of our hobby as something more than what can be produced in any other manner.


Arkham Horror vs. Call of Cthulhu

October 27, 2007

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve watched about 5 or 6 pretty heavy CoC players I know migrate from roleplaying CoC, to playing Arkham Horror.

It’s been a pretty fascinating change.  They’re all folks who are reaching/in their thirties, going deep into the career/children route, and their CoC play has fallen to quarterly or bi-annual events.  (mind you, they typically still found time for D&D, though they all griped about that being the only game they could consistently get play from… more on that later).   All of them hardcore immersionists and illusionists, who ultimately play in a social circle that effectively is about 3-4 different gaming groups.

So, Arkham Horror, the CoC boardgame comes out, and within 2 months regular play is happening.  In fact, weekly or bi-weekly games.  Mind you, Arkham Horror is about 3-6 hours of play by itself, so it’s not like its much shorter of a game.   Having played with them a few times, they’ve managed to pull consistently 4-8 players every time (most, as far as I can tell, also CoC rpg heads who’ve made the switch).

So is the issue time?  Not really.  Maybe commitment?  Well, given that enough people are consistently showing, I don’t think that’s the issue either.

If anything, I think it’s because, whether they’d admit it or not, Arkham Horror does CoC better than the rpg.  You work as a team of investigators, you research clues, you jump into strange places Man was Not Meant to Go, you go insane, fight/run from monsters, and either save the world from Ancient Evil or it gets destroyed.

You get the whole Lovecraftian experience, every time, every game.  Period.

Funny enough, they’ve never complained about the pre-generated characters, the set scenarios, lack of immersion, or the crunchiness of the mechanics (though, if it were an rpg, they’d cry blood over such things).  And while the argument can easily be made we’re comparing apples and oranges, the fact is they’ll consistantly choose Arkham Horror over playing CoC every time.  Clearly apples lose.

All of this points to the other beast which eats away at the general rpg gamer base- consistency.  People naturally gravitate towards entertainment which consistently hits their buttons.   If another game or type of game delivers more, more often, you’re going to see people go for it.

This isn’t a death knell for roleplaying, as much as yet another clarion call for simply better design and a wider view of the larger context of the culture and the hobby.


MMO’s and social gaming

October 18, 2007

A year or two back, a lot of folks were looking at how MMO’s were eating up the market base. One of the main ideas was that computers can handle crunchy rules very easily, letting people focus on play. While that is true, I think the bigger push comes from the ideas of the social impacts that make them a big draw.

Everyone points to the fact that a) you can play without being face to face, b) don’t have to do huge set up to play, c) can play anytime, etc. as big convenience reasons.

And these are all true. They completely fold in with the desires of the casual gamer, or at least the gamer who wants less effort to play (and that’s a fair goal in my book). You don’t have to deeply learn rules (FAQs solve that), you don’t have to remember a lot (the computer handles it), and ultimately, you can’t argue about the rules or have any conflict about why you’re there to play.

You mine ore, beat up monsters, fly spaceships or whatever predefined options the videogame gives you… which leaves you completely open to focusing on hanging out, whether that happens to be as alternate personas or talking about work and family in real life.

This is actually the crucial part a lot of folks miss out on- the person who just games to hang out with their friends is best served by the MMO, and least served by face to face rpgs.

The actual play and the hanging out are not working through the same medium as you have in a tradtional roleplaying game. In many ways, like sports, you can do this activity and hang out at the same time. In the traditional tabletop game, you can talk to push along the game OR you can hang out (and people switch all the time, but ultimately you’re still using one channel alternately).

Aside from all the folks who are attracted to cool graphics and not having to learn a billion things to -get started- to play, MMO’s have eaten the people who just want to hang out with their friends.

The tabletop rpg groups that we’ll see 10, 20 years from now? Those are going to be groups where hanging out is -a- priority, just not -the- priority. Folks who just want to hang out and casually play games will have a million and one options online. We started to see this shift with videogames back in the 90’s but MMO’s and the casual online play have sealed it.

The draw of the actual game itself and the activity of it as a game of group creativity will have to be the anchor factors, at least to sustain the group as a gaming group in the long run.


Still trying…

October 14, 2007

…to wrap my head around statements made by various folks about “not being able to identify” with Steal Away Jordan as the reason to avoid the game in a hobby filled with games about playing deities, 1000 year old vampires, AI intelligences, aliens from other dimensions or even just child soldiers.

I don’t know. This thought came to me today as I picked up Grey Ranks and was reading it, thinking about the fact that I haven’t heard anyone complain that they weren’t interested in the game because it was “too Polish”.

This bullshit pretty much mirrors what a lot of my friends tell me goes on in other fandoms, fanfic, etc.

You know. That its easier to identify with non-existant things beyond the scope of human experience or even before solid written history rather than people we have pretty solid historical reference for.

Of course, generally, when it comes that, I’ve usually found it to be a problem of who or what gets defined as “human” these days.


Closed vs. Evolving rulesets

October 10, 2007

RPGs have a pretty fascinating history of design – until CCGs, this is the only hobby where many/most of the games have the expectation that further rules will be added to change the game in the future.

Most games you might play, of any type, are closed rulesets- the rules are designed and that’s the game.  Even if you add houserules, that’s your personal choice and not a design choice.  Chess is chess- you don’t get a yearly or quarterly “update” to supplement chess.

Most people expect the rules to a game to be the same and the idea of evolving or open rules that will see regular updates or have so many optional rules that they outnumber the basic rules is pretty foreign.

Not only that, but it’s a thousand times easier to build a workable set of rules that are closed than it is to build a set of rules that are modular and open enough to accept future designs.

From a gamist standpoint, it generally holds true that a successful game should be able to work as a fun core design, a closed one, if it’s also going to work as a fun evolving rule set.  That is, Magic the Gathering works well as a basic game, before you even add the millions of extra sets.  If the closed game is not fun, and you -have- to turn to the supplemental material for the fun part, you’ve got a fundamentally flawed design.

Another major point is that the difficulty is not just in the core game, but in making sure that the supplemental rules do not displace the core rules.  Many games suffer from “power creep”, in which new rules displace previous rules, often times rendering them completely ineffective or useless.   For CCGs, this isn’t -as bad-, since part of the game is building decks to meet these strategies.

For RPGs, though, it can be completely disasterous as a) players have to completely relearn new mechanics, b) long term strategic commitments (such as a character build) become useless and need to be replaced.  It’s not as easy as swapping some cards for a 30 minute game.

Historically though, few rpgs have been designed with explicit gamism in mind.  Most have a mixture of other goals in mind, which tends to lead to a mish-mash of rules that do not necesesarily balance from a gamist standpoint.   This is the area where you find communities of gamers sharply divided over what rules they will or will not use, seeing how some completely kick out other rules as viable options.

The onus falls upon each group to play the role of the designer by picking and choosing what rules actually function for their game goals.  This often involves weeks, months, or even years of playtime to hone this to a set they find fun.  Much of this becomes unspoken lessons picked up by the players, about which character builds to avoid, which play strategies work or don’t work, etc.

And then they get to do this over again when they choose to add a new set of rules…

At this point, though, this kind of design is legacy as opposed to well thought out.  Great strides have been made in design in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how evolving rule sets improve in the future, especially between the amount of play experiences we can pull from CCGs, MMO’s alone.