Archive for March, 2013

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These Are Our Games Pay What You Want Sale

March 30, 2013

Ben Lehman’s done this before- put up all of his games for “Pay What You Will” – except this time, he’s going with the honor system – there’s a paypal link and a link at the bottom of every game page directly to the PDF – so you don’t have to wait at all.  TAO Games full list can be found here.

If nothing else, all of Ben’s games are vastly different in system and fictional tone – if you’re into trying out games that do a lot of different things, you should check them out.

Here’s some of my favorite games:

Polaris – Magical knights struggle to preserve their failing civilization as demons and apathy destroy it all.  The mechanics are all based on bargaining… with the demons in your heart.

Bliss Stage – Aliens have devastated humanity, and a few surviving teenagers find the technology to brain dive into the aliens’ dream world, fighting them with mecha built of their emotions. The relationship scenes you play in this game have made some of the best roleplaying moments I’ve ever seen.

Drifter’s Escape – A drifter rolls into town, just trying to get by, while The Man and The Devil each try to take his soul. An amazing game about power, evil, and the bargains we have to make to survive.

On the Ecology of the Mud Dragon – A silly game perfect for one shots and ridiculousness – crappy little dragons confused about the world try to “kidnap a princess”…and usually manage to only get themselves into trouble.

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The Fiction Hurdle

March 29, 2013

(Some more thoughts, along the lines of The Concept Hurdle)

Most of the time, if we’re going to sit down and watch a movie, or read a book, we want a little bit of an idea of what it’s about – this is simply to decide if we’re in the mood for this thing.

Unfortunately, what we’ve had historically is games mislabeling these things (“This is a game of wonderous fantasy adventure!” “Actually you grime around in a dark dungeon hoping not to die”), giving a direction with no advice how to get there (“Be heroic!”), or having no direction at all, and the group either has to develop their own tools or flounder.

Fiction Hurdle

The Fiction Hurdle is how a group needs to know the answers to these questions for satisfying and functional play:

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?

Typically, though, what we’ve seen happen is that many games leave this open without tools for negotiating it, and the default falls to a GM to establish these in play, with players who cannot pick up on the correct answers for the group (or refusing them) either being ejected from a group or grudgingly tolerated.

We’d also see that the usual fallbacks to solving this for traditional games were either to have an extensive set of fiction to establish the answers for these (“Read these 200 pages then you’ll get it!”) or to fall into a well established genre (“Golden Age Superheroes”, “Licensed-based game based on well known TV or book series”).

Knowing these is important regardless of whether you’re playing a player-input heavy game or a traditional “I control only my characters” kind of game – because even the players want to know what they’re getting into, and when games are significantly longer than movies, it’s a larger commitment of time and energy.

Design Standpoint

From a design standpoint, you want to either answer these completely and communicate it in your game, or, at least, answer it significantly and give tools for the group to finish the rest.   It certainly has to be more than “develop your play style” advice.

This stuff is communicated in: the tone throughout the book, the examples, play advice, example adventures/scenarios, example characters, fiction in the book, artwork and imagery.

(Small related note with regards to representation in games: under “What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?” if your game only presents white people, or men, in the artwork, that also says something… There’s a couple of games I point to where the text says “These are brown people” and the artwork only shows white people.  That’s pretty interesting in terms of what messages the game is presenting…)

Playing At the Table Standpoint

Part of what got me to thinking about this is that when a game is doing it’s job on this front, when I put together a quicksheet, it’s pretty much rules focused, but when a game is not doing it’s job, I have to lay out some of this in the quicksheet so the group can align in play.

Examples of the Hurdle

A few years back I was playtesting Dog Eat Dog – one of the players went into this elaborate description of building a cave hideout full of traps because it was clear he was thinking this game was some kind of survivalist thing when the game mechanics and structure, make such precautions useless, pointless, and counterproductive to the focus of play.   Basically, he didn’t know what kind of conflicts made sense for the game.

My first time running Dogs in the Vineyard, a player wanted to play an older, sinning Dog who basically broke all the rules all the time.   While this could be interesting at the edge of play, what it did was pull things off kilter – the player didn’t know what kind of protagonist made sense for the game.  (and, later, I’d see Vincent’s advice to simply play the game with the characters being simple Dogs – 19, fresh out of training, etc.).

For awhile, I played quite a few games of Falling Blossoms – a samurai game where the outcomes have a sort of back and forth bidding mechanic (“If X happens, then Y happens”).  The problem that would regularly occur is that we’d start sliding into gonzo territory (“Then the demons appear!”) which, in hindsight, made for a weaker game.  We didn’t know what kind of outcomes (or really, boundaries for outcomes) made sense for the game.

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GTFO

March 28, 2013

GTFO Kickstarter: a documentary about harassment

So really, it’s just a question of when male gamerdom will step up and stop being horrible. Same old privilege problem as always.

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Why Hide Fun pt. 2? The hurdle of character creation

March 17, 2013

One of the things that helps pick up play is just having characters ready to pull out. Because I was in an Avatar The Last Airbender mood, I thought, “Why don’t I stat up some of the characters in Smallville” since I already had a start of hacking the Pathways to do that?

Well. Sometimes things look easy until you try it. What the Pathways system does is provide colorful packages for basically bumping up dice, which isn’t too bad, conceptually, until you realize the full process is actually 40 decision points of picking a package, then assigning those steps or getting abilities each step of the way.

Simple tasks repeated 40 times are not so simple in gestalt – it’s tedious and decision fatigue begins to set in, as the choice of getting a new ability or pumping up a die size has to be made several times. In a lot of ways, the choices are made to seem more complex than they are, because you’re iteratively doing it over and over – instead of simply saying, “add 3” you get, “Add 1. Then Add 1. Then Add 1…”

Anyway, aside from showing off a major play issue for that game, it really highlighted the overall issue for a lot of roleplaying games – complicated character generation not only makes high demands of new players, it eats up a lot of time just to even get to play.

Although I can definitely admire the sorts of system mastery necessary to make a perfectly built character mechanically… it’s usually an impediment to play that usually involves 1000x more fiddling than payoff for everyone involved.

The longer the process is to prepare for play, the more you “hide the fun” from the actual experience of playing. Comparatively, right now the internet is tearing the hide out of EA for their newest SimCity game because it involves 20-30 minute waits before you can begin playing – how much is that the norm for roleplaying games in general? And not just mindless waiting, but having to choose and pick between mechanics that maybe you’re not familiar with and having to develop system mastery on top of it?

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Don’t hide fun

March 9, 2013

Years back, Clinton R. Nixon said something along the lines of (paraphrasing from memory): “If there’s a way to make the game not fun, why would you do that?” referring to social contracts and people in play.

I’ve been thinking about game texts, how many on my shelf tell you how the rules work, but not why you, as a player should care about rule A or rule B in the larger context of play. I’m realizing most of the quicksheets I write are not just how the rules work, but also “Here’s what you should do – which mechanical rewards to pursue, which situations to seek/avoid, to get to the fun part of play.”

Basically, it jumps the first 1-3 sessions of system mastery that players have to get through to even know what the hell they’re supposed to be doing with the system.

But… if you’re a game designer, why would you make the players have to flail around to find the fun in your game?

Understandably, in competitive games, you generally don’t explain all the higher level strategies because working that out is a part of the competition – but given the amount of games which are not Gamist, but Sim or Narrativist in design… hiding those things is counterproductive to getting to the fun part of play.

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Path of the Nokwazi – continuing play

March 1, 2013

We’ve hit our second session of our African Fantasy Riddle of Steel game.

Spiritual Attributes

Players are starting to really get into their SAs at this point. Looking for opportunities to work them all in and looking at changing some of them to meet who their character is or who they want their character to be. This is pretty much the heart of the game, so I’m glad everyone’s starting to click with it.

They’ve also begun spending down the SAs to make improvements to their characters, which is a crucial point – having to pick when and how to spend down dice which creates a flow to every character – a story arc of being down and out vs. being “powered up” with the extra dice.

Combat Strategies

One of the reasons I really like Riddle of Steel is that it does have a level of system mastery in the tactics of combat. It helps to know the rules and what you’re trying to do. This session involved a competition which involved wrestling crocodiles and then having a mock battle with wooden weapons – the players choose competitors who were quite skilled, and I played them smart.

We started using special Maneuvers and range became a key issue, and everyone started really thinking about “Do I want to spend those 2 dice to do this thing, or play it safer? And is it really safer to give this guy another chance to take a swing at me?” and all that kind of thinking. I’m pretty excited, because next time we play, I’m guessing the players are going to have thought a bit more about their strategies and turn up the heat.

I had to do a lot of work to clean up the maneuvers from the book as most of them were pretty badly designed so it’s good to see them running smooth in play. I’m sure we’ll find some bumps though.

Setting and prep

Prep has been pretty light – we’re running 90-ish minute games which means I simply need small situations and maybe 3-8 NPCs. Prep is about 30 minutes or less with most of it being pondering what’s better choices to use rather than stat juggling.

I’ve been running it as “each session = new place” but I might play around with the idea of a larger area (a nation, whatever) so I can start reusing some ideas or NPCs. If anything, I’ve been pretty light and weak on NPC characterization because it’s been “Hey, let’s all learn how the rules work, hey, let’s get right to the conflict” but one of the strengths of using SAs is NPC motivations become the source of conflict.

The other thing which has been a lot of fun is the “magic roll”. We’ve set the default setting to “magic exists, it’s just rare and people have a lot more beliefs about it than happen to be real” – so when players encounter something that might be magical, they roll a die and then we find out if it actually IS magical right then and there.

The surprise of the night was Bafana slamming a crocodile into submission and demanding to know where the Father of Crocodiles dwelled and having the defeated beast speak!

These are things I can’t prep for and make things pretty damn amazing.