Archive for December, 2010


Hard gaming with Monopoly

December 20, 2010

If America were a game of Monopoly:

The money and jail rules are pretty awesome, but this is extra bonus:

5. Settling disputes: If there is a dispute between players, it is put to a vote. (See Voting below).

6. Changing rules: If a player asks for a rule change, it is put to a vote (See Voting below).

7. Voting: To win a vote a motion must get at least 5.1 votes. Each player gets the following number of votes:

8.2 white
1.3 black
0.4 yellow
0.1 red

This wouldn’t be a fun game, but it pretty much well reflects the issues of institutionalized racism. Sadly, it would be a poor education game, since these issues are pretty easy to discover with even casual research and thought- and the people who would need it the most will simply go, “These numbers are made up, it’s not true, etc. etc.”

There’s also the issue that yes, people don’t work as racial monoliths, on the other hand, privileged people DO favor the status quo.

For games that are more fun and educational at the same time, I’d recommend Steal Away Jordan, The Drifter’s Escape, and (sadly, no longer available online) Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog. (ETA: Dog Eat Dog is back, currently as a Kickstarter: )


Hard gaming

December 16, 2010

US News on Brenda Brathwaite’s designs:

Train has proven the most controversial, particularly because of Brathwaite’s decision to formally conceal the subject until late in the game. Critics say it’s a bait and switch. “If, following a game of chess, I declare all the white pieces were homosexuals, should the black player experience any guilt for their participation in systematic homophobia?” asks Stewart Woods, a board-game scholar at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology.

But the surprise some players experience at discovering the game’s subject may result more from their own ignorance than an intentional trick in Brathwaite’s design. “There’s nothing about this game that doesn’t scream, ‘I’m about the Holocaust,’” Brathwaite says, and she has a point: The game’s symbolism—from the broken window to the boxcars to the yellow pawns—isn’t exactly concealed.

While I get the mainstream news reaction “ZOMG WHAT IS THIS GAME ABOUT?!?” reaction, I kinda have to look at fellow gamers who’ve played Puerto Rico and similar colonization games and what they thought those games were about this whole time.

And, of course, there’s always the stupid folks who imagine that the answer is some sort of sanitized world free of problematic material, when really, and always, the question is why so MUCH of it is prevalent and unremarked.

Which is also why I pulled that specific quote. It’s a funny bit of denialism in that- to claim it’s a left field switcheroo…when, as she says, the game is drenched in the symbolism.

I don’t think Brathwaite’s work is exceptional art, or even a good way to necessarily educate about history and problematic elements, but I do think it’s notable especially in contrast to all the other problematic stuff that draws no attention at all.


Doing things the hard way

December 14, 2010

Today’s Penny Arcade on GM Burnout is funny and sad.

I point back to Jono’s big chart, although, in this case, it doesn’t even need to be about Illusionism- it’s just hard to constantly be the sole player for prepping and churning up the interesting events every week, week after week.

The thing that rpgs excel at is the variability and non-repeatability in play experiences – which, if you’re playing a game that has the GM as the primary contributer of events, you are forced to come up with new material all the time.

This can be extremely taxing if the goal is also to create “just tough enough” challenges against a group that is evolving in ability, and inconsistent in capability from week to week.

For me, as much as I enjoy a good crunchy, gamist game, I know I don’t have the wherewithal to keep it going for long.

And not only that, I also still hold a lot of that expectations in terms of gamer baggage- everytime I sit down to play Universalis or Primetime Adventures, I’m amazed at how little work it takes to have a great time. I get anxious, afraid I didn’t prep enough, not sure if I’ll be able to wing it – and then it goes smoothly and whatever rough bumps are so small, no one notices it.

Granted, part of that was playing with people who want to play the same game, but the other part was playing games that push everyone to contribute, where the interesting events are pushed by the GM alone.

GM burnout is something I don’t really deal with anymore. If I don’t want to GM, it’s only because I also enjoy playing, rather than feeling drained by the level of work put in.


Epimas game bundles

December 13, 2010

12 indie games at low prices

Epimas is the time of the year when you buy roleplaying games for your loved ones at a greatly reduced cost and receive those same games for yourself, for free!

The bundles include 3/$15, 6/$25 or 12 games for $40.

The games this year are:

1,001 Nights
Apocalypse World
Bliss Stage
Dogs in the Vineyard
Dread House
Mist-Robed Gate
My Life with Master
Shock: (with Human Contact Preview)
Steal Away Jordan
Time & Temp


Into the Far West getting the side eye

December 12, 2010

Into the Far West had me hesitantly excited, after all, Wuxia + Wild West is a good idea, and one which stuff like The Good, the Bad, and the Weird show you can do in awesome ways.

…but then:

What is the role of American Indians or analogues group in the setting?

There is no analogue. For three reasons:

1) American Indians did not feature for the most part in Spaghetti Westerns — usually due to a lack of Europeans who could convincingly play them. The stories just didn’t concentrate on that part of the West, as a result — which added to the Spaghetti Western’s odd sense of dislocation.

2) There is really no accompanying analog in Wuxia stories — and we’re shooting for the overlap between the two genres.

3) RPGs already have some frankly troublesome issues surrounding portrayals of minorities/”the other”, and I didn’t want to contribute to that. You’ll also note from our artwork that we’re going with a cross-cultural look to our characters — similar to the BBC’s decision of “colorblind casting” on their series.

…so… you trust yourself enough to incorporate wuxia, and asian influences without being problematic… but not Indians?

This is sounding a lot like Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child where people want a twee Wild West without all those troublesome Indians.

In this case, asians are being used as the Model Minority even in a fictional fashion to replace the scarier Indians.

I’d imagine if you’re building a setting that is not-earth, why not include Indians? Indians who aren’t losing a war of genocide and displacement, in fact, a world without such a war?

To repeat the Penny Arcade analogy about the power to create and making wackness:

“This is like having the ability to shape being from non-being at the subatomic level, and the first thing you decide to make is AIDS.”

Sigh. I’m tired of having to keep coming back to the options of either invisibility or stereotypes. For a hobby “limited only by your imagination”, people seem to have rather narrow confines.


How to Videos

December 10, 2010

I ended up seeing a thread asking about strategy and advice for the Arkham Horror Boardgame, and someone linked a series of How to Play videos on Boardgame Geek (through Youtube).

This is what we need to start doing. While we have people just starting to podcast whole games, or even do some video of play, having a step-by-step procedural walkthrough is a damn good idea, especially if you follow it with an example.


Creative Agendas

December 3, 2010

Creative Agenda

One of the most useful and most misunderstood ideas to come out of the Forge is the idea of Creative Agenda.

Let’s start this way: think back to a time, when you’ve played a roleplaying game and the entire group played great;

– Everyone knew what the game was “about”
– Everyone knew what “good play” looked like for this game and pursued it
– Everyone WANTED this game to work THIS way

This is what it looks like when you’ve got a functioning Creative Agenda – regardless of whether the group ever talked about what it would look like, or not.

Here’s three commonly recognized Creative Agendas:


Gamism is an easy to understand Creative Agenda; it’s identical to every form of “game” outside of roleplaying – there’s a challenge to be overcome and the fun is in overcoming it well! Chess, cards, boardgames, are all examples of this in action.

Gamism tends to catch a bad rap, yet, ironically, it’s the Creative Agenda that often sees the most functional play because it’s so widespread as an understanding of “what you do with a game”.

And that’s not to say gamism is a simple thing, either. Within it, not only do you have a lot of variation, much along the lines of the Timmy, Johnny, Spike preferences from Magic the Gathering, but also players love to get specific about what -kinds- of challenges and tactics are interesting to them – which is where you see divides – D&D gamist players talking about the choices and strategies in AD&D 1st Edition vs. 3rd. Edition vs. 4th edition is a good example.


Simulationist play specifically puts “fidelity” above everything else. Fidelity could be to a setting, to a genre, to “realism”, to immersion. While all roleplaying has limits on what could or couldn’t happen in play, simulationism puts the fidelity above all else.

If you were playing a Sim Star Wars game, the most important thing would be that play “feels” like Star Wars (whatever that means to your group).

If the dice or mechanics don’t consistently produce results that fit with “What Star Wars Feels Like” the group either fudges or changes the rules. If the choices players make for their characters don’t “feel like Star Wars” the players are either chastised or not invited back. This fidelity comes at the top of all things.

People often mistake Simulationism to be talking solely about realism or complex rules to simulate some genre, but in reality, whether the methods used are simple or complex, it’s about maintaining that fidelity that drives play.

Although widely supported in terms of general game advice, Simulationism often has a hard time forming functional play groups. Whereas Gamist play talks primarily about concrete procedures (in the form of mechanics), Simulationist play often has a wide range of things it COULD apply fidelity to, and rarely good tools to talk about it.

This is why you’ll run across groups, who, basically stick together in their small group, rarely admit new players, and play the One Game They’re Into, because they’ve often spent many years going through different players to find Just The Right People Who Get It.

In other words- the people who also buy into the same fidelity they’re looking for, and don’t attempt to break those boundaries, knowingly or unknowingly.


Narrativist play is about one thing above all else: protagonism.

Not “protagonism” as in heroism, but protagonism as focal character(s) who face conflict (-agon) and make choices and take action in the face of it.

The role of the protagonist, as hero, as villain, as noble, as flawed, as broken, as anything in-between is up in the air – the choices she makes, the actions – this is all going to show us who she is, or who she becomes in the process of the conflicts.

Notice that two things have to exist for this kind of play to work – the freedom to make choices, and conflicts which present choices. Most games out there often have advice about limiting or forcing choices and/or conflicts upon players which has often made Narrativism more difficult to maintain or talk about in the face of these assumed practices.

I can only talk about the long-running group I know- my own from the mid-90’s. We were splintered from general rpg culture primarily due to not wanting to deal with white gamer’s issues. I imagine other long standing groups were probably in the same situation as the Sim groups – isolated by virtue of lacking language and tools to consistently sort and teach their play to other gamers. For us, we had a good pool of non-gamers who joined which meant there was no clashes nor shortage of players to deal with.

Broad Descriptions

As I mentioned above- these are broad descriptions. You can easily find two Sim groups who would never play well together for other reasons- The Big Model talks about game play on several levels, issues like whether a game is crunchy/not crunchy, whether everyone should talk in first person or not, etc. there’s tons of other modifying factors that also help groups get on the same page or not.

That said, a lot of the writing about “problem players” often falls into clashes from those broad categories. When everyone is there for the same reason, those issues don’t even come up.

Describing Play

So, the important thing to remember is that Creative Agenda, and the whole Big Model Theory, is talking about the experience of a group playing a specific campaign. A different campaign, with the same game, or even same people, could end up with a different Creative Agenda.

That said, most people tend to really like only one or two Creative Agendas. This might make you a “Gamist Player” as much as liking to eat pasta makes you a “Pasta lover”… for some reason people like to use labels on each other and treat it like it was a bloodtype or something unchangeable. Whatever.


Go back and read that first section at the top of this post.

Good game design makes it easy for a group to get on the same page.

Historically roleplaying texts haven’t been so good at that, nor has the culture that has grown up around it, and people are often left to figure it out on their own.

All that said, a lot of modern design has been damn good at setting up better ways of hitting a specific Agenda, reliably. Games that consistently support a specific CA are often simply labeled as such, while games that do not are labeled “incoherent”. (As in, coherent vs. incoherent like light- a laser is coherent light – focused. Not coherent vs. incoherent like babbling.)

This is one of the reasons Reward systems can be a crucial organizing force in play- they provide a motivating direction for players, and at least, an idea of what “good play” looks like. The other side being the issue of Directive Rules, which sadly, are often the first ignored when people drift play without thinking.

Misunderstanding these ideas is how games like Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel get mistakenly labeled Gamist (for tactical combat rules) or Simulationist (because of charts and crunch) and not… well, Narrativist because the entire game rewards build on protagonists facing conflicts and making choices amongst goals and ideals.