Sunday, September 28, 2008

Changeling

My favourite roleplaying game has been Changeling: the Dreaming, ever since it was released back in 1995. I am among the legion of fans who was upset by the way that White Wolf neglected it after the second edition was released, before finally cancelling it right in the middle of an incomplete meta-plot story arc. But what's so great about this game?

Well, for me, the first appeal was that it was about faeries. I have been a fan of faeries (NB: the original celtic vision of faeries, as elves, goblins, trolls, merfolk, &c., not the sanitised victorian image of Tinkerbell) for some time now. So it was only natural that I should be drawn to a game that allows you to actually play one.

Secondly, I became enraptured with the game's focus on dreams and creativity. For those not familiar with the game, Changelings require a special magical energy called "Glamour," which is the force engendered by human dreams and creativity, as well as things like love, and hope. Artists and dreamers generate Glamour, which Changelings can then collect to sustain themselves, as well as to fuel their Cantrips.

The first edition rulebook was saturated with the theme of "never grow up." It constantly spoke of the magical innocence of childhood, which over time is eroded by the banality of adulthood. This theme was much less present in the second edition, as the game accepted (rightly so, in my opinion) more of the mature dreams and creativity that is possible in grown-ups. But it still emphasised the more positive aspects of being human.

However, what has come to be, in my opinion, the most compelling factor in Changeling is this: nothing is impossible. I'm not just referring to magical feats that the characters can perform; I refer to chimerical reality.

In Changeling, the dreams of humans and fae can take form and come to life. These dreams given substance are known as chimarae. A chimera can be anything at all, from the small (a sentient bee) to the enormous (a talking mountain); from the mundane (a watch or a sword) to the fantastical (a creature with a body of blue flame, just as one example). Chimerae exist in a seperate "plane" of existence, superimposed over the "real" or mundane world. The way I like to think of it is that chimerical reality is a parallel plane, and changelings exist both in that plane and the standard "real world" at the same time; thus they can (for example) see, simultaneously and in the same place, a Wal-Mart and a great red dragon.

However, there is more depth to Chimerical reality. It extends beyond this world and into a place where the mundane world does not exist. Changelings can travel to this area, known as "the Dreaming," and leave their human existence behind for a time. Things are more possible here, where they don't have to balance two different co-existing worlds.

What does this mean in terms of what I was saying about "nothing is impossible?" Simply this: if a human dreams it, it exists, at least for a while, somewhere in the Dreaming. So it's quite possible to find a device that resembles a rutubaga with a digital readout that can answer any question you ask it. Or anything else you can possibly imagine. And if you consider how many humans likely dream about Star Trek, I'm sure you can guess that the Starship Enterprise exists somewhere in the dreaming.

This enables Changeling to come as close as possible to being a universal-genre game without actually being a universal-genre game. Consider this: changeling society is modelled quite heavily on medieval romanticism, complete with kings and queens, knights carrying swords, and peasants doing all the hard work. Yet this society exists in the modern world. So just as the basic foundations of the game, you have a group of knights in armour brandishing swords to defeat the dragon in the middle of Times Square in New York City. And that's just to start.

Many changelings reject the psuedo-medieval fantasy idiom in favour of other themes. Pirate changelings are quite common. Still others prefer to embrace the glamour of the 1960s. There are even those who embrace the modern world and live fully within it. So if you want, you can run a semi-"historical" game set in 2008. Pirates on the high seas! Just avoid the modern cruise liners running from Miami to Freeport. Elven warrior bards questing to rescue the fair maiden from the evil ogre king! Never mind that that "dungeon" is really the steam tunnels under the local university campus...

I myself once ran a character named Sarah Storm, who was a cyberpunk piskie. In her mortal guise, she was merely a vagabond and thief, but in her fae mien, she was an elite decker, with a sentient cyberdeck named TIM (Tactical Initiatives Metaphysics). She had a chimerical cybernetic implant that allowed her to connect her brain directly to TIM and run the net through a 3D virtual reality graphic interface just like in the novels of William Gibson. She also possessed a laser gun. These things were chimerical; they did not exist to human eyes, but other changelings saw them, and to a changeling, they were quite real. So they were powered by magic rather than electricity, but still, she was a cyberpunk decker running around in modern Manhattan.

And when you leave the world behind to enter the Dreaming, the possibilities become even more endless. Are those chimerae you're encountering? Or aliens? The true nature of the NPCs is less important than their form; you can fly an X-wing fighter through the far reaches of space, fighting wookies and droids with laser pistols and lightsabers. So what if they're really just chimerae?

And the best part is when you start mixing genres. Why not have a Roman legionnaire using a disruptor pistol to fight off the cylon warriors and rescue the princess who's being held in a sensory deprivation chamber in the underwater fortress of the evil vampire king?

This is just a glimpse into what is possible in Changeling. If you haven't given it a try, I suggest you do so.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gender Gaming

Something else I've often thought was fun was to play a character of the opposite gender. I've done this several times, and I always enjoy it. In fact, many of my favourite characters have been female. Of all the Werewolf: The Apocalypse characters I've played, I liked Michelle the best. One of my favourite Changeling characters was Sarah Storm, the piskey hacker with a sentient chimerical computer.

This probably appeals most to Method Actors, who enjoy stretching their dramatic and psychological muscles with the challenge of getting into a different mindset (and playing the opposite gender IS a different mindset; if you don't believe me, just read Sperm are from Men, Eggs are from Women by Joe Quirk and Self Made Man by Norah Vincent). Storytellers are also quite fond of the challenge, as it affords them new opportunities to develop and explore the storylines of their games. The other types may or may not be interested in trying this out, but are generally indifferent. Butt Kickers and Power Gamers, in particular, aren't likely to care, as the gender of the character killing monsters has no real bearing on whether the characters are effectively killing monsters.

But I personally think it's a great way to expand the game. There are a lot of things to keep in mind, of course. It may be hard to do this with your particular gaming group. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about gamers being reclusive geeks with no real experience interacting with women whatsoever, and so the only way they have of perceiving females is as objects of desire. Such persons can't meaningfully interact with women, and if there is a female character in the party, they're likely to say things such as, "I do her!" Never mind foreplay, developing a relationship, taking her to dinner first, et c.

This stereotype is somewhat unfounded, and as gaming becomes more accepted and more popular, the stereotype becomes less and less valid. But there ARE some out there who work that way. Obviously, if your gaming group is such a one, then perhaps playing a female is not really a good idea.

Keep in mind that there ARE major differences in the way that men and women work. Just one (and it's kind of a pity, really, that this has to be the first mentioned, but given the above stereotypes, perhaps its best and safest that it is) would be attitudes towards sex. As one psychologist said to me, "Men feel close because they have sex. Women have sex because they feel close." Obviously, there are always exceptions (on both sides of the equation), but if you're a man playing a woman, chances are your character isn't going to go looking for a lot of casual sex. So don't do it. Or at least, try not to fall into the trap of having a sex-crazed character who bangs anyone she meets. Such women do exist, of course, but they tend to be the minority.

Another difference is the way men and women handle conflict. Men prefer the brute force method, whereas women are more cerebral (though by no means less vicious; a female's social manoeuvering and psycho-emotional attacks can be every bit as cutting as a male's phsyical fights). Also, men tend to be more bound by rules than women (especially in a fight). Men, for some reason that I don't fully understand, develop all these rules about what is and what is not acceptable when you're trying to kill your enemy. If you watch a street fight between two men, there are many advantages they they simply refuse to take over their opponent. Striking the genitals, aiming for other vulnerable targets such as the eyes, biting, et c. These are just some of the things that men choose not to do, because it violates the "code of conduct" that they've developed. Women don't have such a code; there have been fights between two females in which combs are used as weapons; they'll tangle the comb into their adversary's hair, twist it around a few times to get it firmly caught, then yank as hard as they can. Females take a lot more to get to the point of physical violence, but once they do, there WILL be blood.

There are many other differences between the two; just a couple minor examples are that men are better at three dimensional spatial reasoning, while women are better are multi-tasking. But if you are able to at least start to comprehend the differences, and to apply them to your character, then playing the opposite gender can be a challenging but rewarding experience.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Multiple Characters

Something I enjoy doing on occasion is playing two characters at the same time. I haven't done it very often, but it's usually quite fun when I do get a chance.

The appeal of running multiple characters differs depending on player type. Butt kickers might like the chance to kill twice as many monsters as normal. Power gamers have two paths to glory that they can walk at the same time. Tacticians have all sorts of added strategic advantages from having more than one person working on a plan. Method actors, or course, are likely to relish the increased difficulty from handling two personas at the same time. And so on.

"But, Mister Game Dork Sir," I hear you say, "Doesn't that mean you're getting twice as much action as the other players?"

Well, maybe. Obviously, it does have to be handled with care. One way of dealing with this problem is running a group in which all the players have two characters. This can be pretty advanced, and not an exercise for inexperienced gamers. Another option is to play in a group that doesn't mind one player running two characters. You may have to find just the right mix of gamers for this one to work. You can always work with the player running two characters to ensure that he (or she) is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the other players, and doesn't overshadow them with his two characters.

But the rewards of playing two characters can be worth the extra work. And it does take extra work. You've got more than one position on the map to consider, you've got two personalities to act out, you've got separate experience point totals to keep track of... but the thrill of playing two characters can often be incentive enough on its own to make it worth while.

Of course, one important thing to keep in mind is that if your character interacts with another PC, then another player is involved in the action of the game. However, if you have two characters, and they're interacting with each other but not with the other PCs, then you're monopolising the game and shutting out the other players. This is especially easy to do when your two characters already have some sort of bond; for example, you might be playing spouses. This is a common trend for characters being run by a single player.

But since we're talking about a challenge anyway, why not take it up a step? Play two character that have no bond to each other, but have a bond with one of the other PCs? Or, for even more difficulty, try playing characters that instead (or perhaps in addition) don't get along? Maybe they're mortal enemies who are forced by circumstance to work together for a common goal, perhaps temporarily but possibly on a long term basis?

Anyway, these are some things to think about, and maybe you'll try them one day. Even if it doesn't work out, you'll be able to say you've done something that most gamers haven't.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Gaming Environment

I forgot to post on Sunday. Damn. I'm really sorry. I even had a topic ready to go and everything. Stupid hectic life being busy and everything...

Anyway. I recently heard about the Sultan. For those who don't want to follow the link, it's being billed as the Ultimate Gaming Table. The surface is a backlit dry-erase surface, which can be covered with a custom-fit felt top. The sides are loaded with cubby holes for books, drinks, dice, pencils, et c. There are dice rolling pockets along the edges, desks that pull out from the side, and all sorts of goodness. It's currently selling for almost $10,000.

This got me to thinking about an idea that I once toyed with along with some friends of mine. We wanted to line the floor of a room with mattresses, install a bowl in the centre of the floor along with a few convenient pockets in which to roll dice, and litter the room with beanbag furniture. The walls would be covered with bookshelves that were loaded with gaming books. There would be hooks from which hung clipboards that held the character sheets, so the players could just come in, grab the clipboard with their character on it, and go.

Granted, this is sort of more akin to the style of gaming that we generally preferred. Others need the table for their miniatures and maps and stuff. We didn't usually mess with that very much. We were into the more narrative descriptive games.

But this got me to wondering. If you could design your ultimate gaming room, what would it look like? What would you put in it? Leave me a comment and let me know. I'm interested to find out.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Films

Before I start, I'd like to point out that I've just recently discovered http://games.asobrain.com, where you can log in to play, for free, online versions of Settlers of Catan, as well as Carcassone and a couple other silly games. They don't CALL them Catan or Carcassone; they call them Xplorers and Toulouse, since they aren't actually approved, associated, or licensed by the creators of Catan or Carcassone. But they're the same games, all right. You can play basically with any of the expansions, and you can play against human players or against bots or both. My fans should log in and play with me sometime!

Anyway, on to the topic of today's essay. I started thinking about films about gamers the last few days, over the course of two separate events. The first is that I felt the need to watch Über Goober. The second is that my wife found a video on YouTube that was an ad for a "series" called Gamerz.

Über Goober
is a documentary about gamers. It examines the three main types: historical miniatures war gamers, roleplayers, and LARPers. It was made by non-gamers, so it does a good job of looking at gamers from the outside and examining them in a truly impartial way, exploring humour based on gamers both mainstream (like when Lisa Simpson asks a guy wearing a helmet and a shirt that says "Game Master" if she can sit with him, and he says, "Yes, IF you can answer me these questions three. Question the first..." and she says "never mind," and walks away) and gamer humour (like the Dork Tower comic). It also examines the controversy involved in gaming, like the James Dallas Egbert III fiasco, as well as the role played (hah!) by gaming in the Columbine shootings and the religious backlash against gamers.

It's a great film, at times funny, at times heartwarming, and at times it made me want to scream "What the hell is wrong with you?" Listening to the two guys representing Christian organisations against gaming, one of which used to be a GM, talk about some of the scenarios he ran, and thinking, "What was WRONG with you that you ran games like that?" He was talking about a raiding party taking a caravan of 50 women hostage to use as sex slaves at one point. Not the sort of game I'd ever want to play...

Anyway, it's a good movie, and I recommend it.

I also saw a film called The Gamers a few years ago. It's a short movie about a group of college students playing D&D in the dorms. Five principal actors play the gaming group; one is the DM, the others are the players, and also play the PCs as they act out the story of their adventuring party. It's very funny, and a lot of fun. You can see the trailer, although it is NSFW, based on the language used in the trailer.

They've just released the sequel, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising as well. I'd very much like to see that at some point.

This just brings me to Mazes and Monsters, the atrocious made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks made in 1982 (warning: the link above contains spoilers; if you want a synopsis without spoilers, try the IMDB link instead). It was basically the erroneous reports of the Dallas Egbert events expanded into a horrible untruth. I'd like to watch it at some point, just to see for myself how bad it is. I'm hoping for the humour-derived-from-people-talking-about-something-they-don't-understand aspect of it.

Anyway, I'm going to finish now with my reference to Gamerz. This is apparently an online series made by some people I used to know. I thought it was going to be about paper-and-pencil gaming, but no, it turns out to be about slackers sitting on a sofa playing the Xbox. Which goes back to what I was saying a few weeks ago about computer gaming. Once again, true gaming is marginalised. Oh well...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Board Game Review - Settlers of Catan

It's been a while since I've reviewed any board games, so I think it's time to do so now. Let's do Settlers of Catan today. I realise that if you're reading this blog, chances are good that you've played this game before. Still, it's a great game, and I like it a lot, so I'm going to review it anyway.

Remember the review system? Here we go:

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: I'm torn between giving this game a rating of "Nice" and "Average."
Expected Length of Game Play: an hour and a half

Here's what happens: The game board is made up of a series of hexagonal tiles. Nineteen of these represent land, and are arranged to form a vaguely circular island, surrounded by the remaining eighteen tiles, which represent water. The land tiles can be mountains, hills, plains, pasture, or forest, with a single tile representing a desert. The players start with two settlements that they place, in turn, on the board. Settlements are placed at the junction of three tiles, not on the tiles themselves, and no settlement can be adjacent to any other settlement, your own or another player's. Settlements, by the way, are represented by small wooden houses in your colour. Also present in this game are roads, which are small square dowels, also in your colour. You get one for each settlement at the beginning.

Also arranged on the playing field are a series of numbered tokens, one for each non-desert land tile. These contain the numbers 2 through 12, skipping only seven. Each player is given resources corresponding to the three tiles on which his second settlement is placed.

A player's turn consists of two stages. First, he rolls 2d6. Whatever number comes up determines which tiles produce resources. So, for example, if a 5 is rolled, all tiles that have a 5 produce the appropriate resources, and any players with settlements on those tiles receive a card to represent that resource. Pastures produce wool, fields produce wheat, forests produce wood, hills produce clay, and mountains produce stone. If a player has two settlements on a producing tile, then he receives two of that resource. Three settlements produce three resources. And so forth.

Notice that there is no 7 token. This is where the robber comes in. The robber is a black pawn that starts in the desert. Whenever a 7 is rolled, the current player activates the robber. This involves three steps: first, all players with more than seven resource cards in their hand must discard half of those cards (round down, their choice). Second, the player moves the robber to another land tile (he cannot return the robber to the desert once it has left that tile, and he cannot leave the robber on its current location). Third, he steals one resource card at random from one player who has a settlement on that tile. In addition, no tile produces any resources so long as the robber is on that tile.

Once the dice have been rolled and the resources distributed or the robber dealt with, the player moves on to the second stage of his turn. At this point, the player may do two actions, as much as he likes (and is able), in any order he likes. He may A) trade resources, and B) build.

Trading is simple: he may trade whatever resources he likes to another player for any resources. The only rule regarding what he may trade is that both players must agree to it. Thus, if both players are willing, it is perfectly legal to trade eight ore cards and a wool card for a single wheat card. Note that while the current player may trade with whoever he wishes, the other players may not trade with each other; they may only trade with the current player.

If you are unwilling or unable to trade with the other players, you can also trade with the bank. Any player may, on his turn, spend four of any single resource to purchase a single resource of any type. This becomes more economical if you have ports; half of the ocean tiles represent ports, and a player who has a settlement on this tile gains the advantage of that port. There are two kinds of ports: the three-for-one and the two-for-one. Three-for-one ports let you trade with the bank at a discount; you need only spend three of a single resource to purchase a resource card. Two-for-one ports are more specific. Each two-for-one port is associated with a single resource type, and a player with a settlement on that port can trade two of that resource for one of any other type. For example, a player with a settlement on the wheat port can trade two wheat to the bank for one of any of the other resources.

Building involves spending your resources to purchase new roads, settlements, cities, or development cards. You must build a road (roads must be placed along the edge of tiles, never crossing a tile) to the location in which you want to build a new settlement before you can build one. This is a major point of strategy: if you can arrange your pieces in such a way that another player cannot build roads to a new location, he is no longer able to build settlements. Roads cost one clay and one wood.

Settlements are the main thrust of the game, as they give you resources and victory points (more on this in a moment). They cost one each of wood, wheat, wool, and clay.

Cities are, in essence, upgraded settlements. They are not built on their own, but are instead used to replace an existing settlement. This has two advantages: it gives you two resources when an adjacent tile produces, and it is worth two victory points. Cities cost three wheat and two ore.

Development cards are the "wild cards" of the game. They cost one each of wheat, stone, and wool. There are three types: the first is a soldier. You may play a soldier on your turn to move the robber and steal a resource card from a player with a settlement on the new tile (it is, in effect, the same as rolling a 7, except that nobody loses half of their cards). Don't discard a soldier card once you've played it; although you get no further benefit from it, you might get the "Largest Army" card later on.

The second type is victory point cards. These are rare, but there are development cards that are simply worth a victory point.

The third type is what I call the "Wild Cards." You simply play them and follow the instructions. They include: Year of Plenty - you gain two resource cards of your choice; Monopoly - all players give you all resource cards of a single type that they possess; and Road Building - you place two road segments as if you'd just built them.

Once you've finished trading and/or building, you pass the dice to the next player, who rolls them to begin his turn.

The object of the game is to be the first player to earn ten victory points. Victory points are earned in the following ways: Each settlement is worth one point (thus, the game begins with all players having two points), each city is worth two points, and each Victory Point Card is worth one victory point. In addition, there are the "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" cards. Each of these two cards is worth two Victory Points. Whichever player has the longest road of at least five continuous segments gets the Longest Road card (the card can be stolen by another player who exceeds your current longest road section). The player who has played the most Soldier cards gets the Largest Army card, so long as he has played at least three Soldier cards. This too can be stolen, if someone plays more than you.

The basic game is designed for three or four players, although an expansion has been released that allows for up to six players by increasing the number of tiles in the game board, as well as the number of resource and development cards. There is also the Seafarers expansion (and the 5-6 player Seafarers Expansion) that allows players to build ships across the ocean and explore new territory. There is also the "Cities and Knights of Catan" expansion, which has a lot of additions and alterations, mostly centred around upgrading cities to metropolises and using Knights to defend against the robber and to attack other players. There's also the Catan Card Game, the Catan Dice Game, a kid's version of the game, and several spinoffs, including the "Starfarers of Catan" and "Settlers of the Stone Age," to name just a few.

I really like this game, although the randomness does on occasion screw things up quite horribly (I've seen a game where the dice simply refused to give one of the players any resource cards at all, and at the end of the game, she still only had the starting two points and had managed only to build a couple of road segments). It's fun to plan and scheme, and as one friend put it, "it doesn't sound like it'd be fun, you know, trading wheat and wool and stuff, but once I played it, I loved it!"

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A brief rant on computer games

I have a great t-shirt. It was given to me by a friend of mine; it had Igor from Dork Tower sitting on a street corner holding a sign that reads, "Will game for food."

I wear this shirt rather frequently. People see this shirt and think I'm talking about computer games (there was one memorable incident when I was wearing it in a gambling town in Colorado, and someone thought it was in reference to casinos).

I don't generally care for computer games, and I'll tell you why: it's not because of the graphics. It's not because of the gameplay, or the mechanics, or even necessarily the story. It's because of the replay value. Most computer games (especially if we're talking about console gaming, like the PlayStation or XBox or Nintendo) are story-based RPGs. They DO have some non-linear games, like the Wii Fit (which has me scratching my head; yes, it's a good idea, but where did anyone get the idea that this was a GAME?), or old classics like Tetris and Intelligent Qube (there was a great game; the only game for the PlayStation that I really liked, and no one else liked it, so it didn't sell), or things like Mario Kart. But most of them are the sort of story-based games like Final Fantasy or The Elder Scrolls. And in my opinion, once you've played the game once, why play it again? You've seen the story. These sorts of games seem to me more like a very long movie, only at several points, you have to undergo some sort of task or else figure out where to go and what to do to get to the next part of the movie, and if you fail, you have to try again until you get it right. That seems kind of silly to me.

There's no replay value to these games. Puzzle games and adventure games and strategy games... these are more interesting to me. It's not the same every time; it varies from game to game. There's no need to sell off the old game once you've beaten it.

Granted, there are a few exceptions. Chrono Trigger, for example, has several points where your decisions affect the ending in certain ways. I still like the old Burn:Cycle game, even though it's especially formulaic and composed of a "railroad plot." But mostly, the few computer games I actually play are Doom (the original, and that's rare any more; I know where all the monsters are, and it's too easy to kill them if I'm ready for them) and Civilization II.

That's why, when I list the breeds of Game Dorks (Roleplaying, LARP, Wargaming, and Miniatures), I do not mention computer gaming. It's not really a form of gaming. Gaming involves dice or some other determinant factor of random chance, and no computers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Interactive

Some of you may have seen this video already:



For those of you who haven't, and don't want to spend 16 minutes watching it (I think you should; it's an encouraging look at the future of societal entertainment), the basic gist of it is this: People are no longer content to simply sit back and consume entertainment that has been produced by someone else; they are realising that they enjoy producing entertainment of their own.

YouTube is just one example. Most of what is posted on YouTube is mindless drivel, a bunch of spastic adolescents filming themselves chatting and then sticking it up for everyone to see, as if anyone aside from themselves cares about who Lucy's sleeping with this week. But there's some great stuff on there as well. Tony vs. Paul is just one example of the cool things that amateurs are doing now. Ping Pong Ball Manipulation is another. There are many more examples.

Anyway, the point is that people don't want to have only non-interactive entertainment any more. The speaker's new motto is: we're looking for the mouse (this comes from the story of a four year old girl who, while watching TV, starts rooting around in the cables behind the TV set looking for the mouse; as he puts it, "Four year olds know this: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken.") His prediction is that the future will be successful for those creators who find a way to locate all the places where the audience has been locked out and invite the audience in. No longer do you just sit back and watch the story, but you can participate in it as well!

Which brings me to MY point: isn't that what Role-Playing Games ARE? Since the 70s, gamers have been enjoying interactive storytelling around the gaming table every week. Probably every night. Could it be that society is becoming more open to the idea that RPGs are worthwhile forms of entertainment? You're not just watching the story (or reading the story or listening to the story), you're INVOLVED in it! You affect the outcome! You control one (sometimes more) of the characters, and have power over where the story goes!

Granted, this depends on a lot of factors, not limited to what game you're playing, who you're playing with, and who the GM is, but still, that's what RPGs are, at the core: interactive storytelling.

Of course, the hobby has a lot to overcome before it can be accepted as a mainstream hobby. Besides the misconceptions and resulting negative stereotypes that have plagued gaming for years (the case of James Dallas Egbert III is just one example), there's the difficulties I mentioned in a previous post. Plus, there's the fact that by far the most common and popular RPG is still Dungeons and Dragons, which, while I'm not suggesting that it's not a good game, has problems of its own, not the least of which is that it's a fantasy game, and the general public still looks askance at anything from the fantasy genre. This is becoming less of an issue with the success of the
Lord of the Rings film series, and maybe in time, fantasy will not be irrevocably tied in people's minds with socially inept nerds sitting around in their parents' basement on a Saturday night with their dice and their miniatures.

Perhaps gaming companies can use this as a new marketing strategy. We have a long way to go before this can be successful, but dare I hope, that as we enter the 21st century, we realise that THIS IS OUR TIME?

Ah, I'm probably being overly idealistic. But it's a worthwhile thought, eh?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Munchkin Quest

I just read a review for the forthcoming "Munchkin Quest" board game by Steve Jackson Games.

For those that don't know, this game is, in essence, converting their popular "Munchkin" series of games into a board game. The Munchkin games started with the first Munchkin set, and was supplemented by six expansions, all of these being set in a typical fantasy setting. The idea is that it's making fun of the standard D&D game, which is a bunch of power gamers and/or butt kickers running around a dungeon killing monsters and taking their treasure. The cliché is "Open door, insert sword, collect treasure." And Munchkin trades heavily on that cliché.

The game consists of two decks of cards: the first is the "Door" cards. Your turn consists of "kicking down a door" (drawing a door card). Most of these are monsters, which you fight by comparing your level to the monster's level; the higher level wins. If you win, you are rewarded with an increase to your level and a number of "Treasure" cards (the other deck). If you lose, you have a chance to run away, and if you blow that as well, then "Bad Stuff" happens (exactly what Bad Stuff depends on the monster you're fighting). If the door card is not a monster, it will serve as a "game effects" card, allowing you to affect the game play in some way.

For the record, there are many side games (just a few examples: Star Munchkin - the same game in a sci-fi space setting, Munchkin Fu - a martial arts setting, Munchkin Bites - a horror setting, and Super Munchkin - a four colour superhero comic setting), some of which have expansions of their own. All these spin-offs are compatible, so you can mix your Munchkin sets together and end up with a vampire half-elf/half-dwarf cleric with x-ray vision that knows kung-fu and has a laser pistol, a shoe phone, and a suit of power armour fighting cute fluffy tentacled monsters from outer space who are hanging out in a dungeon with their sarape-wearing companions... you get the idea.

So it seems that this is a natural leap to board game format. Munchkin Quest consists of a series of dungeon room tiles, connected by doors, and on your turn, you can move about the dungeon exploring new rooms and fighting the monsters within to gain levels. As in the card game, you can bribe the other players to help you, and the other players can choose to help, or even to help the monster instead.

It seems to me that the humour in the game (it is meant to be a comedy game) is based mostly on the silly nature of the cards (the horror edition, for example, has a card called the Schadenfreudian Slip, which is an underdress that gives you a bonus when Bad Stuff happens to other players), but is intended to be funny in the way that the cards interact and the players are constantly backstabbing each other.

Which leads to one of the biggest complaints of the game (my own, as well as the reviewers): the game ends up being a sort of "Who's closest to winning? Let's all team up against him!" And of course, once a new player is closest to winning, the players team up against HIM, and so forth, until the players have run out of cards that they can use to stop the other players from winning, and whoever happens to be in the lead then becomes the winner. The reviewer calls this the "4th Player Wins" scenario (and by the way, is the same reason I didn't like the game "Kill Dr. Lucky," which I'll tell you about at some other time).

For me, though, in addition to the 4th Player Wins problem, there's the fact that the people who love Munchkin tend to be power-gamers and butt-kickers, who love the game not because it's funny, but because it's another venue for them to engage in their oh-so-beloved activity of opening doors, inserting swords, and collecting treasure. This means that the game takes HOURS to play, with very little return on investment (for my taste, that means humour), and the reviewer says that the board game takes twice as long to play. Which means that I'll be sad to have to pass on Munchkin Quest, but unfortunately, that's the way it looks at the moment.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

My modified Changeling combat system

Last week, I mentioned briefly that I had devised a system for combat that suited my idea of how combat should work. I suppose this week, it would be a good idea to share that with you. So I will.

Ok, so this is intended for use in Changeling. I'm sure it would work equally well in the other Storyteller System games, especially the 2nd edition original World of Darkness lines. But I have no doubt that it could also be adapted for other systems as well. As noted earlier, this is an amalgamation of the Storyteller System, GURPS, Exalted, and Blue Planet's Synergy System.

First step is to determine initiative. I sill like the old "Roll Wits + Alertness (difficulty 4)" idea, although you can just as easily use the Revised edition's "Add Dexterity + Wits + the result of 1d10" version. In the former situation, you'd subtract your result from 10, and in the latter, you'd subtract from 20. This gives you the number of the starting "tick." The GM will count from zero, and when he reaches your tick, your character takes his action. After you've completed your action, you add the "action speed" of the action you just took (like maybe a two for shooting a gum, or a 5 for swinging a battle-axe, or a 10 for climbing a tree, or so on... I haven't ever actually seen a list of the suggested action speeds from Exalted, so I'm just guessing here) to the tick you just acted on. This can be modified by your Wits, or Dexterity, or both, to indicate that some characters can move and react faster than others. Like maybe if you have a Wits + Dexterity of seven, you can subtract one from all Action speeds. Or something like that.

By the way, I saw a suggestion that rather than counting and keeping track of numbers, you simply have a wheel drawn on a piece of paper, with a token for each character (PCs and NPCs both) on the wheel... the fastest character goes on a random spot with the other characters an appropriate number of spaces further along the wheel in a clockwise manner, and a "point marker" indicating where the current tick is. When each character completes his action, you move his token an appropriate number of spaces further along the wheel. This way, you don't have to worry about numbers, and can easily skip over ticks where no one acts. I thought it was a good idea.

Anyway, so once it gets to your turn, you have to act. With most actions (non-combat actions, such as driving a car or operating a computer), you simply roll and either succeed or fail. With combat actions (shooting a gun, swinging a sword, punching, et c.), you'll have to work out attack, dodge, and damage. Here's what I have in mind:

First, each character gets one basic action and one "defensive" action. If the basic action is a combat action (an attack of some sort) then he can use the defensive action for one of these actions:

  • A second attack
  • An active defence (dodging, parrying, blocking with a shield, et c.) against a single attack between this action and his next tick
  • Moving at half the normal movement rate
  • A +2 dice bonus to the attack
  • +4 damage if the attack is successful

Alternately, the character can use the basic action to defend (dodging, parrying, blocking, et c.) and use the defensive action to dodge, parry, or block a second incoming attack. He can also sacrifice the defensive action for a +2 bonus to the defence.

Ok, so here's how attacking works: The attacking character rolls his attack roll. The defending character rolls his defence, if he has an action available for it and chooses to use it. The defending player's successes are subtracted from the attacker's. If the attacker has successes remaining, then the attack is successful. Add the remaining successes from the attack roll to half the damage rating of the weapon being used (round up), subtract the defending player's Stamina + Armour if he has any, and that's the target number for the "damage roll." The defending player rolls 3d10, counting the above number as the difficulty.

If you get three successes, nothing happens. If there are two successes, the player suffers a point of wounding. Mark this on the character sheet's Health Level as normal (In this system, you only use this to keep track of your wound modifiers - it has nothing to do with death, crippling, et c.). On one success, you suffer a point of wounding, and the area hit by the attack is disabled (decide this however you see fit). If you get no successes, then you suffer a point of wounding AND you are knocked unconcious. If you do not receive medical attention immediately, you take one point of wounding every five ticks.

If you reach Incapacitated on the Health Level chart, you must roll Stamina (difficulty 7 + one fifth the the number of ticks since you reached Incapacitated) to stay conscious. This is assuming you're not already unconcious. Once unconscious, you will die in 25 - (your Stamina x5) ticks unless you receive medical attention.

There. That's my system. What do you think?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The nature of the hobby?

You may have already read this, but there was an interesting article a few weeks ago describing the way that gamers can be a bunch of pretentious blowhards. The author accomplished this by examining this analogy: RPGs, like cookbooks, are a series of seemingly rigid rules that, in practise, "require a certain amount of adaptation for your own tastes." So if people treated cookbooks like they treat gaming books, it would sound pretty horrible, wouldn't it? You can read it to see for yourself.

If you don't remember, I posted some time ago about the different gamer types. The vast majority of gamers are either butt-kickers or power gamers. By far the minority are the storytellers and method actors. (Granted, for the purposes of this argument, I am ignoring the casual gamer.) Given that the butt-kickers and power-gamers prefer hard core rules systems, which empower their particular emotional desire to game in the first place, while storytellers and method actors dislike hard core rules on account of their desire to play less combat-centred storylines, it is not surprising that this should be the case. For the butt-kickers and power gamers, the rules are everything, because it's the exacting script by which they create havoc and chaos.

But you can see the point, can't you? Sometimes they tend to focus on the rules to the exclusion of their own ability to enjoy the game. They tend to forget that the rules, especially in RPGs, are meant to be modified to suit the needs of your particular group. But with the need for rules that most gamers feel, especially the fanatical devotion to the canon as laid out by the authors of the game in question, adaptation and modification are not seen as options.

Which is a shame, really. I myself still play 2nd edition Changeling. Most of the fans of Changeling set about to alter the rules they play with to accomodate the 3rd edition changes being made in Changeling's sister games, Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage at that time. If that's what they want, fine. But most of the changes were changes that I didn't like (most notably the damage systems, which I've ranted about in other places, so I'll spare you for the moment). So I left it as it was.

I have strongly considered finding a way to fuse the Blue Planet damage system onto the Changeling system, and I also like the Exalted system of initiative. I have devised a streamlined system of combat adapted from the Storyteller System, GURPS, and my own ideas of what combat should be like. I haven't had a chance to try these, since I've not had a group for which to run a Changeling game since I devised the idea. But I have certainly altered the rules to fit the needs of my game.

That may make me an outcast among other hardcore gamers. But oh well.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Damage Systems

Something that never occurred to me until I played Blue Planet: Humans don't have a sliding scale of damage. If you shoot a person in the hand, then the other hand, then the foot, then the other foot, you're not really bringing that person any closer to death. Perhaps the person is more likely to die from shock, but generally, if that's likely, then they would probably die from shock after being shot once in the hand. There are documented cases of that happening.

On the other hand, a single shot to the torso is quite likely to kill a person, especially if it hits lungs or the heart. A head shot is most likely of all to kill a person. But the weapon isn't doing more damage, it's just hitting in different places.

Sure, you could say that rolling more damage indicates that the bullet strikes a more vulnerable spot. For example, in D&D with its flat scale of a certain number of hit points, a sword strike that does one point of damage might be described as hitting the person in the finger, while a hit that did ten points could be said to have struck the ribcage. And maybe that works, but I still find I'm not overly fond of that idea.

GURPS has a bit more depth. They still have a set scale of so many hit points, but the advanced rules system (which is optional, for those who want this level of complexity in their rules) includes hit location. A normal attack is rolled on the hit location chart, and certain areas have limitations. For example, a hand can only take damage equal to one third of your character's total hit points before it is disabled, and can take no more damage. Further points of damage to that area, from the original attack or any subsequent attacks, are ignored. Contrariwise, damage done to the vital areas is doubled, and the victim must roll to remain conscious. And so forth. An attacking character can choose to target a specific area (like the head), with a penalty to their attack roll dependant on the area being attacked (-2 to the roll, for example, to attack the torso, but -5 to attack the hand or -8 to target the vital organs; I may be misremembering the exact penalties, but you get the idea).

That system works better, in my opinion, although it's a lot to think about, a lot to keep track of, and a lot of die rolling for each combat action. Granted, combat is the core system out of which role-playing games grew, but that's a rant for another time. Here, I wish to describe a system that I found that I think works very well: the system in Blue Planet.

The basic idea here is that each weapon is given a "lethality rating." Each time you are attacked, you roll 3d10 with a target number equal to the weapon's lethality rating, minus your constitution bonus and any armour that you may have. If one die comes up as a "success" (that is, has a result lower than the target number), you suffer a light wound, which is a -1 penalty to all rolls until that wound is healed. If two dice come up as a success, then the wounded area is disabled. If three dice come up as a success, then you are going to die unless you receive immediate medical attention (and sometimes, even that won't help).

This elegant system emulates real life damage much better than the Hit Point system, I think. It's possible (although unlikely) to die from a single knife wound to the foot, and it's also possible (although again unlikely) to suffer multiple major gunshots to the torso and still stand to keep fighting. Both of these scenarios have been seen in real life.

No more worrying about "I'm on my last hit point! If I take any more damage, I will die!" I personally like this system. I would worry about the wound penalties piling up after a while (i.e., what happens when you've taken fifteen light wounds, and are rolling at -15 on a d10? I mean, sure, if you're taking that many wounds, you're likely to have suffered a critical wound already, but it is possible, you know!).

Anyway, that's my thought on damage systems.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

DM of the Rings

I'm sure anyone who's ever played D&D knows that the original premise of the game was Lord of the Rings. Especially if you've ever seen the original first edition rules, that try very hard to guide everyone into following the archetypes as seen in the books. Later additions were made, expansions added, alternate ideas tacked on, and now the game is much more open than it originally was.

The focus of the game has changed as well from the original point of Tolkien's works. In the books, it was all about the battle of good vs. evil. The game became an adventure of slaying monsters and collecting treasure.

Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in the webcomic DM of the Rings by Shamus Young. He describes the point of the comic perfectly in the first strip, so I'll let his words stand for themselves.

But my point is this: so many works (both in RPGs and in literature) are so thoroughly derivative of JRR Tolkien's works that the term "fantasy" has come to be a very cliché term. Whereas it once meant "the creative imagination," or "a capricious or fantastic idea," it now means "a work of fiction involving magic that takes place in a pseudo-medieval (or, on occasion, based on other periods or places in history, such as Roman or middle-eastern) setting and often involves supernatural creatures like elves and dwarves, especially as seen in Lord of the Rings."

Personally, I've always been a big fan of the power of creativity, and so I don't like to limit myself to works that are more or less derivative of Tolkien. It's part of why I'm such a fan of The Dark Crystal: it's fantasy that doesn't pull its inspiration from Tolkien. I'd LOVE to see a role-playing game based on that film (I once tried to devise a GURPS write-up for the Dark Crystal world, but it failed due to lack of interest).

I've even tried to create my own role-playing game that was entirely my own devising (it's harder than you might think). Sadly, I gave that up after reading this sentence (from Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering by Robin Laws): "North American audiences... will give up their beloved archetypes when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers." They don't care for creativity and ingenuity. They want the same thing they've always had, and novelty be damned.

Oh well. At any rate, that's a brief rant on my opinion of the nature of the fantasy genre. It's in your head now, so you're stuck with it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Board Game Review - Betrayal at House on the Hill

At long last, I have internet at home again. This means that I can start updating this site again. I'll try to maintain my rigorous schedule of one post every Sunday.

So for my return post, I'll review Betrayal at House on the Hill. This is nominally a horror game, but I always prefer to think of it as an adventure game. What appeals to me is not the horror genre aspect, but the surprise twists of the scenarios.

First, let's get the proper statistics here:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 4
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Pretty.
Expected Length of Game Play: one hour.

So what is this game? Well, to start, it's played on a board of tiles. Each represents a room in a haunted mansion. You choose a character (there are six templates with two variations on each: strong, smart, and balanced in each gender) and place the appropriate painted plastic figurine in the entrance hall. You have a tile that displays your strength, speed, sanity, and knowledge on sliding scales with your starting value clearly marked. At the start of the game, the entrance hall (along with the two attached rooms: the foyer and the grand staircase) is the only room on the ground floor, while the Basement Landing and Upper Floor Stairway are set aside to represent the appropriate levels. On your turn, you move through the mansion exploring rooms. When you move through a door into an area not yet represented by a tile (an "unexplored room"), you draw a new tile from the room stack and place it in the newly explored area.

Most rooms have one of three symbols on them. If you are the first person to enter a room with such a symbol, your movement stops and you draw an appropriate card. After carrying out the instructions on the card, your turn ends. The first symbol is a spiral: this represents an Event. You draw an event card and follow the instructions. Usually, this is a Bad Thing, and you have to roll to see if your character can avoid the disastrous consequences of the bad event. If you don't, you usually lose points in one of your stats. However, if you succeed, then often you get a bonus to a stat.

The second symbol is a steer skull. This represents an item card. If you are lucky enough to find a room with an item symbol, you draw an item card and place it face up in front of you. Your character now has access to that item (which can be anything from the simple and mundane (such as a candle), to the very useful (such as a revolver), to an item of questionable use (such as the Blood Dagger), to the surreal (such as the Toy Monkey).

The last symbol is the raven, which represents the Omen Cards. With one exception, Omen cards are helpful. They can represent items, which are either useful or give you a bonus to some stat, or they can be companions, which generally raise one or more stats (and sometimes also gives you a small penalty to another stat; the Madman raises your strength but lowers your sanity), and sometimes have useful abilities of their own (the dog can travel up to six rooms away to fetch items for you).

However, the real effect of omen cards is to trigger the Haunt. Each time a player draws an Omen card, he must roll six dice. If the total is less than the number of Omen cards drawn so far this game by all players, then the Haunt begins. That is, you look in the rule book for the chart that details which scenario you will be using. For example, if the haunt is triggered when someone draws the Madman Omen in the Kitchen, you'll be playing the "Supper's Ready" scenario, while the Girl card in the Conservatory will trigger the "Hell's Fiddler" scenario.

In each case, the chart also tells you which player is the Traitor. The Traitor takes the "traitor's tome" and leaves the room to read the instructions for the scenario. The rest of the players (the Heroes) read their instructions in the Heroes' Handbook. This details what the objective is for each player for the rest of the game. From there on, it's a case of the Traitor versus the Heroes.

This tactic of having different scenarios is the game's strong point. I like the idea of not knowing what the objective will be when the game begins. It's exciting not knowing who will become the traitor.

The flexibility that allows this is the game's weak point as well, however. In order to accommodate so many possible scenarios, the rules have to be left somewhat vague, and this can be confusing at times. It has been remarked that the new rules added in each scenario can be quite confusing (and given the nature of some of the scenarios, I have to agree). Also, there are quite a few errata (which is available at the Avalon Hill website, but still, it's just a bit of a problem).

In all, I like this game. It's a fun way to spend an hour or so. But it's best not attempted with more than one new player who's used to complex games of this type.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Delays

By the way, I have no internet at home at the moment, and don't expect to have internet at home for a week or two. So don't expect any posts for a while.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Board Game Review - Labyrinth

Oh my goodness... has it really been three weeks without a post? Bad, bad Game Dork!

I'm really sorry. I'll try not to let it happen again.

So for this week, let's go with a really simple review of a great board game:
Labyrinth. If you need it, the rating system is here.

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes

Labyrinth, despite the name, has nothing in common with the Jim Henson movie. It is more akin to the original Dungeon & Dragons roleplaying game. The board represents a labyrinth of stone corridors, and the players move through the maze collecting treasure. However (and here is the defining characteristic of the game), the labyrinth is a magical place that is constantly shifting, and so not every part is accessible at any given time. The board is an innovative design; there is an actual board, but the game takes place on a series of square tiles, each of which displays a portion of stone corridors in one of several arrangements (including a straight passageway, a right angle turn, and a T-junction). Sixteen of these tiles are permanently affixed to the board itself, while the others are placed at random in the rows and columns to fill the remainder of the playing area. To give you a better idea, a picture of the board is provided below.

The arrangement of the permanently affixed tiles is such that there are three rows and three columns that can slide freely across the board in either direction. Furthermore, there is one tile more than will fit on the board.

This means that not all tiles match up with the adjacent tiles. This results in a constantly shifting and not-necessarily-fully-navigable layout to the dungeon maze. As you can see in the photo, the yellow piece has become trapped on a tile that does not connect to any other corridor.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives a stack of treasure cards. He is only allowed to look at the first one (thus ensuring that he cannot plan out lengthy chains of treasure collecting). Each treasure (and I use the term loosely; a few examples are a princess, a spider on a web, and a moth) is duplicated on one of the tiles in the dungeon. The four corners each have a coloured dot; the players start the game on the appropriate coloured dot.

A turn consists of two actions: first, the player takes the one tile that is not currently on the board and slides it into the board wherever he likes (the only restriction on this is that he cannot undo the last move that was made; that is, he cannot put the tile back where it just came from). This causes the entire row or column to slide one tile across the board. The shifting passages of the Labyrinth are resultantly altered with each player's turn. The board is conveniently marked with little arrows to enable players to know which columns and rows can be moved and which cannot (due to the presence of the permanently affixed tiles). They can be seen in the foreground of the above photo; they are the little yellow triangles on the edge of the board.

After having shifted the labyrinth, the player moves as far as he likes (or is able) along any corridor. If he lands on the treasure he is currently seeking, he turns that treasure card face-up next to his stack to indicate that he has claimed it. He can then look at the next card in his stack. When his movement ends (through reaching the end of a corridor, landing on his treasure, or player choice), the next player then takes the tile that was pushed out of the arrangement by the last player and takes his turn.

The game ends when one player collects all the treasure in his stack and returns to his starting point, thus becoming the winner.

The game is quite simple in play, and is (in my opinion) a lot of fun. It relies most heavily on spatial reasoning abilities, but strategy (finding ways to alter the corridors to impede your opponents' progress) and some amount of randomness (the initial layout of the dungeon is randomly determined, as well as which treasure cards are in your stack) play a factor as well. I played in a game in which it took me five turns to get to my first treasure, because the arrangement of tiles combined with the way in which the other players moved the tiles to keep me from finding a pathway to that first treasure for several turns. In this same game, another player managed to collect all six of his treasures within seven turns, because the layout simply happened to have passages leading to everything he needed.

This game lacks the in-depth gameplay of more intense board games like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Settlers of Catan, but is a remarkably enjoyable game despite its simplicity. The creators managed to find a perfect mechanic for an enjoyable evening's diversion and didn't need to dress it up with extra gimmicks.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

When Players Collide

I didn't post last week. I'm very sorry. Real Life got in the way.

This week, I'm going to look at conflicting gaming styles. Specifically, I think of the reasons that GMs run games, as compared to reasons that players play in those games.

One example: I had a GM once who loved the feelings of power he got from running the game and having absolute control over what happened. He loved the look of shock and amazement when he caused something to happen that the players not only did not expect, but could not reasonably be asked to expect. He was a very dramatic gamer, and loved the exquisite timing and flow of intrigue that came from having players at his mercy. I sometimes felt as if I was a plaything for a dark and cruel god.

Another GM I played under: he was an excellent storyteller. That is, he told excellent stories, and he told them well. The only problem was that sometimes his own strengths would get in the way. He was very good at predicting how people would react to certain situations, and excelled at arranging events in such a manner that the story would go in the direction he planned by giving the players just the right stimulus to nudge them in the direction that he wanted them to go. Unfortunately, after a while, it starts to feel like the players aren't really involved in the story at all; they're just there to serve the needs of the storyteller.

In Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, there is a suggestion that the purpose of the GM is to ensure that all players are having a good time. That means that if they players aren't enjoying themselves, you need to do something differently. All too often, the GM forgets that his players are trying to have fun as well, and he sends the story in a direction that will only please himself.

Granted, the GM should include himself in "the players;" that is, if the GM isn't having fun, he needs to do something new. This usually means finding a compromise between his desires and those of the players, but sometimes it might mean that he needs to stop GMing and let someone else hold the reins for a while.

A great suggestion also to be found in Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is the "choices" system. That is, if there's a character entering a scenario for which the GM hasn't prepared, he can think of four things very quickly: what would be the obvious result, what would be the challenging result, what would be the surprising result, and what would be the pleasing result? After you've thought of this, decide which would be the best option to go with, and use it. If it's really necessary, you can roll a die.


An example of this in action: The players have been researching a puzzle that, when solved, will lead them to the next part of the story. However, one night, they decide that they're tired of working on this enigma, and they want to go out for a night on the town. The obvious result is that they go out to a bar, have a few drinks, dance a bit, and come home, only to return to the puzzle the next day. The challenging result might be that they get stopped for drunk driving and wind up in jail. The surprising result might be their arch-enemy might be at the bar, and they get into a fight. The pleasing result might be that they meet some new friends (this route may depend on what sort of players you're working with; Method Actors are most likely to prefer making new friends, or other chances to allow their characters' personalities to shine, while Storytellers might prefer some new plot hooks that they can follow up later, and Power Gamers/Butt Kickers/Tacticians might like a drunken brawl to break out for some simple cathartic violence).


Given these choices, you decide not to go with the obvious solution; if they players just wanted to go right back to the puzzle, they wouldn't have set it aside in the first place. The challenging result probably seems a little heavy-handed, as if you're punishing them for taking a break from their task. The surprising result has some potential; however, you're not ready for an encounter with the villain just yet, as it would negatively affect the flow of the story you're telling. You don't see any likely problems from the pleasing result, so you think of a few interesting story tidbits to throw out to your players, and you're off for an evening of light-hearted adventure.

But the important thing to remember is that if someone's not having fun (whether it's you or one of your players), then something needs to change. Of course, if everyone's having fun, then you're doing things right, and you can ignore everything I said above!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gaming Costs

Today, I would like to talk about the high cost of gaming.

Gaming has always been an expensive hobby. In the documentary Über-Goober, one of the interviewees says that gaming saved her from a life of drugs. She follows this by saying, "How can you afford drugs when you're spending all your money on gaming books?

And I know this to be true. I've been there. I've been the one spending the majority of my weekly income on gaming paraphernalia. I used to get a new gaming book every week. I had quite a collection (much of which was lost when it was in the car that got repossessed).

But today, it seems as though a week's salary won't get you as much as it used to. Things have been easier for me since I stopped playing (or even attempting to play) collectible trading card games like Magic: the Gathering and Arcadia: the Wyld Hunt. And there aren't a lot of standard RPGs out at the moment that I feel a need to collect; the last two games that held enough of my interest to entice me into buying anything were Changeling: the Dreaming (which was put on hiatus and left languishing there until they ended that game line) and GURPS (which is in 4th edition as of a couple years ago, and all the GURPS products coming out at the moment either don't interest me or are basically compiling and updating 3rd edition products for the new edition, so I already have all of the material in these books). I don't play D&D, I'm not interested enough in Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun to buy any of the books, Little Fears folded, and I have only a passing interest in most of the other systems out there.

Even so, I see the kind of books on the gaming shelves, and I wonder why anyone would spend that much money. It's all fluff, pretty wrapping paper around a lack of content. Or maybe not a lack, but certainly not enough to justify the price tag.

Let me put it this way: in the old days of the original D&D, there were few if any illustrations, the pages were plain black text on white paper, crammed full of rules, background information, charts and lists, and the like. Some games eventually started making their books look nicer, but really, does that change the content that you're getting? Is there any more info in the fancy full-colour tomes replete with page backgrounds that use a lot of ink for no other purpose than to make the glossy colour pages look like antique parchment than there was on the plain black-on-white pages in the original D&D books?

So it seems to me that we're paying more money for the same level of rules.

But that brings me to another point. Why keep buying new rules systems at all? I feel that I have gotten to the point where anything that you'd want to do can be accomplished using a rules system that you already know. The d20 system, just as one example, has supplements allowing it to be used not just for fantasy, but also for modern, horror, science-fiction, and various other settings besides. The original Storyteller system was set in modern day, but later supplements have used the same system for Cyberpunk, Medieval, WWI, Wild West, Renaissance, mythic, space travel, superheroes, and pulp-adventure. And let's not even discuss universal systems such as GURPS, Torg, or Rifts.

So any system can be used for any setting. I once ran a GURPS Celtic Myth game using the Storyteller System, because it fit better with the mood I was trying to create.

You don't need to buy new books. If you find a new setting you like, take the setting and apply a rules set that you already know to it. Save your money. And maybe, if you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can even create your own setting.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Play By Email

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner. This week, I want to talk a bit about PBeM. For those of you that don't know, that stands for "Play By eMail." See, gamers have been playing games via correspondence since the 60s, when players in wargames such as Diplomacy would operate across miles of distance by sending their moves to their opponent in the mail. The opponent would adjust his own board according to the instructions in the letter, and decide what his own move would be, and then mail that back to the other player, and so on.

RPGs, being as they are a growth of the wargaming community, would of course follow suit. And with the advent of email, it only made sense that this correspondence would move from the mail system to computers.

I am in a unique situation, in that I have moved out of my country of residence to a new continent, and have left all my former gaming partners behind. So it would seem that PBeM is an ideal solution for my gaming needs, as it allows me to play with people thousands of miles away in a different time zone. Unfortunately, none of my former gaming crew think that PBeM is a viable option. So today, I thought I'd talk a bit about PBeM.

Here's what happens: The GM starts off with a scenario that he describes at some length
(this is, of course, after all chargen has been completed). He details the situation for the players, and sends it off. The players then have a few days to confer with one another (usually via email themselves), then they type up their response and send it to the GM. In response, the GM will determine the outcome of their reactions, and send them another email containing yet another description of the scenario. Again, the players confer and decide on a course of action, which they then email back to the GM.

Usually, this works on a sort of schedule. Most PBeM games are "twice a week" sort of scenarios, running with the GM sending out his end of the game on Tuesdays and Fridays, and expecting a response from the players by the following Thursday or Monday.

Obviously, a PBeM game wouldn't work well with each email consisting of a single line of dialogue; the game would take forever. Instead, the players and the GM will have to trust each other to have a pretty good idea of what's reasonable and expected in the scenario, so that certain details can be filled in to speed play, enabling more content to be fit into a single email. This sort of game often lends itself well to Storyteller style of play, but Method Actors can find themselves enjoying it as well if they're willing to allow some level of leeway with the GM's treatment of their characters. Depending on the type, Specialists can enjoy this as well. Tacticians, Power Gamers, and Butt-Kickers would enjoy a different type of gaming, that almost becomes more like the traditional wargaming style of PBM.

There are lots of other things to think about, and many different ways to handle certain aspects of PBeM games (just one example: how do you deal with dice rolls?), but I don't want to write a novel with this post, so I'll leave you to do a bit of googling to find more information yourself. Suffice to say, PBeM games are a real and viable option. Maybe you should look into it!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Board Game Review - Carcassonne

Here we go again, with another week of Gaming stuff.

This week, I'm going to review the board game Carcassonne. For those of you who need it, you can still see my board game review system.

So here is my analysis of Carcassonne:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Expected Length: One hour

The game consists of a number of square tiles. Each one depicts a grassy field, a portion of a medieval walled city, or both. There may or may not be any roads on a certain tile, and some of the tiles that have no city segments may display a monastery. Each player has a number of small wooden people. One of these people is placed on the scoring track. The rest are used as markers throughout the game.

A single tile is laid in the playing area, and players take turns drawing a new tile and laying it next to a tile already in play. The new tile must line up with all features on the adjacent tile. That is, you cannot place a tile so that a city segment abuts a field, and if there is a road on one tile, there must be a continuing road on the adjacent tiles. After having placed a tile, that player has the option of putting one of his markers on that tile. He cannot put it on any tile aside from the one he just placed. When he places a marker, he must decide what role that marker will play. There are several options:

  • A marker placed on a road becomes a robber. Robbers are scored when the road is completed.
  • A marker placed on a city segment becomes a knight. Knights are scored when that city is completed.
  • A marker placed on a monastery becomes a monk. Monks are scored when the monastery has eight adjacent tiles.
  • A marker placed in a field becomes a farmer. Farmers are scored at the end of the game.
Roads are completed when both ends terminate in tiles showing an interruption (usually denoted by a marker on the tile, but also sometimes when the road enters a city gate). At that point, a robber scores a number of points equal to the number of tiles the road covers. Cities are complete when they are completely surrounded by an unbroken wall. At that point, knights score a number of points equal to the number of tiles that the city covers. Monks are worth eight points, when the monastery is completed by surrounding with adjacent tiles. Farmers are more complex, and will be discussed in a moment. In all these cases, after scoring your marker, you return it to your supply to be used again.

However, it is important to note that you cannot claim a city or road that already contains a marker, whether it be your own or an opponent's. The only way for two players to score the same city or road is if two separate sections are later joined by new tile placement. In this case, both players will score the same.

Farmers are different. For starters, they are placed on their side, rather than standing, to denote that they are not removed until the end of the game. This is the great weakness of farmers: they can be very valuable if played right, but sometimes, the fact that you are making a permanent sacrifice of one of your pieces can outweigh their value. The other scoring options are more flexible, since you get the marker back once they are scored. As with roads and cities, you cannot place a farmer on a tile if that tile is connected by an unbroken line of fields to a tile containing another marker. At the end of the game, farmers are worth two points for each completed city that they supply (that is, the city is connected by an unbroken line of fields to the tile containing that farmer). However, if more than one player is supplying a city (because of two sections being joined by subsequent tile placement), then only the player with a larger number of connected farmers gets the points.

This review (as any review of the game) is much harder to understand than actually playing the game. Once you've seen it demonstrated, everything makes much more sense.

My personal opinion of the game is that it's not bad, but it's not great either. The randomness of tile draw makes it difficult to plan where to place your markers. Several times, I would place a marker in what I thought was an ideal location, only to find that I was never able to score that marker because the quirks of the tiles drawn afterwards prevented that marker from ever being able to score. Granted, I've only played the game once and watched it played one other time, so I may grow to like the game more as I learn the idiosyncrasies of game play.

But that's my review. I hope you enjoyed it!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Anthropomorphics

It's Easter today! What goes with Easter? Bunnies! Why? Because the Christian Church stole the holiday from pagans, who celebrated Easter (or Ostara; nobody really knows what it was called before the Christians got hold of it. All are merely guesses) as a fertility rite. Thus, symbols of new spring (like baby bunnies and newborn chicks) were common, and the Church just knicked those and said, "They're symbols of Christ's resurrection! Yeah, that's it!"

So to tie in this week's gaming post with the bunny theme, I will discuss an idea that I worked on, briefly, with a friend of mine many years ago. The idea was "Anthropomorphics." We had originally intended it to be a GURPS sourcebook, but that idea never came to fruition.

The idea was that you would play animals. There were three campaign styles: realistic, cinematic, and silly. Realistic is just that: you play an animal in a realistic manner. This campaign style is generally best suited for people who (out of some masochistic reason) want to play someone's pet. However, it can include things such as the Watership Down setting. That is, all the characters are playing one type of animal, living in a colony (a warren of rabbits, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, et c.).

Cinematic campaigns have various levels. They all include some amount of unrealistic behaviour, from the simple and straightforward (such as Lassie, in which the animals behave normally aside from their ability to use rather human-like thought patterns and to communicate effectively with humans despite their lack of speech) to the more overt (such as films like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, in which the animals can speak to each other and exhibit remarkably human-like behaviour).

Silly campaigns are the straight-up unrealistic ones. The most obvious classification is the Saturday morning cartoons, with characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. It needn't be that overt, though; the film Mousetrap shows an example of a silly campaign without anthropomorphising the animals (physically, at least).

There are other potential uses for this idea as well. What about a person that gets transformed into an animal through some spell? Just one example is The Tenth Kingdom, in which Prince Wendell gets transformed into a dog for the majority of the series.

We had even started developing optional rules for cross-species communication. The basic idea was that, if using these rules, an animal could communicate with someone from the same genus but different species at a -2 penalty. Different genus but same family, -4. Different family, but same order, -6. And different order but same class, at -8. Thus, a house cat (class mammalia, order carnivora, family felidae, genus felis, species catus) would speak to other housecats normally, to a black-footed cat (genus felis, species nigripes) at -2, a tiger (family felidae, genus panthera) at -4, a dog (order carnivora, family canidae) at -6, and a lemur (class mammalia, order primates) at -8.

Anyway, not sure how interesting that is to anyone, but if you're interested, I recommend the Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan. It's good for descriptions of animals, as well as discerning their taxonomic classifications.

That's it for this week! See you next week.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

GURPS Divination: part 2

This week, I'm going to return to the GURPS Magic System for the Divination spell. If you need to review so you know what I'm talking about, you can read the original post. This week, I will detail those variations that involve telling the future by observing an event. We start with:

Alatimancy - This is one of three forms of divination involving salt. The first (alomancy) was detailed in the original post, and dealt with patterns in scattered salt. This variation is the reading of patterns formed in salt deposits left behind by the evaporation of salt water. It requires a special ceremonial bowl, and takes several hours (often a full day or more, if there is a large amount of water). The amount of water used depends on the nature of the question, as well as the level of detail desired. Prerequisites: 3 Water spells and 2 Earth spells.

Anthracomancy - The observation of burning coal. Any coal will do, so long as the spell is properly enacted before igniting the coal. The spell requires at least an hour of observation. The answers to the caster's question are obtained by watching the movement of the coal and the behaviour of the fire as it burns. Prerequisites: 5 Fire spells and 3 Earth spells.

Capnomancy - Divination through the observation of smoke. Answers are revealed through watching the behaviour of the smoke as it rises from the fire, and through shapes seen in the smoke. Any fire will work, as long as it is outdoors. The spell takes ten minutes to cast, but is normally cast at -4 unless some sort of sacrifice is burned in the fire. A minor sacrifice (such as a loaf of bread) reduces the penalty to -2. A moderate sacrifice (such as an effigy that took time and care to create) will negate the penalty entirely. More substantial sacrifices (such as animals) will replace the penalty with a bonus, from +1 for a small, unimportant animal (like a sparrow) to +5 for a large and valuable animal (like a horse). Prerequisites: 5 Fire spells and 3 Air Spells.

Halomancy - The third and final divination involving salt, this is the act of throwing salt onto a fire and observing how it burns. Answers are revealed in the sounds and lights generated as the salt ignites. Casting takes 5 minutes. Prerequisites: 5 Fire spells and 5 Earth spells.

Lampadomancy - This is in essence a form of pyromancy, but whereas pyromancy uses a full flame, lampadomancy is based on the flame of a lantern or candle. Also, unlike Pyromancy (which involves staring into a fire until one sees visions or hears voices, Lampadomancy divines the future from the movement of the flame itself. Casting takes ten minutes. Prerequisites: 7 Fire Spells.

Lecanomancy - Divination by observing the ripples on the surface of water into which pebbles have been dropped. This requires a special ceremonial bowl and set of pebbles ($30). Casting takes five minutes. Prerequisites: 5 Water spells and 3 Earth Spells.

Sideromancy - This is the divination by burning straw. Normally, the straw is dropped onto a hot skillet, and will twist, blacken, and ignite, and the diviner receives his answers by observing these actions. If there is no skillet or other suitable surface available, the caster can cast the straw directly into a fire at -4 to skill. Prerequisites: 5 Plant spells and 4 Fire Spells.

Sycomancy - The name "Sycomancy" is derived from the Greek word "sukon," which means "fig." Originally, this form of divination was cast using fig leaves specifically, but it can be done with any leaves, or even with scraps of paper. In its purest form, the caster writes several possible answers to his question on a series of leaves, and the leaf that dries out first is the one that contains the correct answer. If using slips of paper, some other element must be introduced to replace the drying-out action; normally, this is done by rolling the papers and placing them in a sieve above steaming water, so that the first paper to unroll will reveal the answer. In any variation, one leaf (or paper) must be left blank. Watching leaves dry takes several days, but using papers and steam reduces the time to an hour. Prerequisites: 5 Plant Spells, 3 Water spells.

Ureamancy - Divination by observing fresh urine. Rather than scattering the urine (as in Urimancy), the urine itself is observed. Answers can be revealed in the colour, bubbles formed on the surface, and sometimes by taste. Casting takes 5 minutes (and someone who is currently capable of urinating, obviously -- the urine can't be more than a few minutes old!). Prerequisites: 5 Water spells and 5 Body Control spells.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Gamer Types

Greetings again to you, my faithful readers! This week, I shall discuss the Lawsian Gamer Types. A prominent creator of gaming resources in the gaming industry, named Robin Laws, wrote an amazingly useful book called Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering. Although this book is geared towards GMs, it has some very useful information for players as well.

One example of these doubly-applicable tidbits is the idea that gaming is supposed to be fun. You know, that sounds pretty obvious, but the problem is that a lot of people forget that gaming is a collaborative effort, and work hard to have fun at the other players' expense. The book suggests that everyone involved work to have fun together as a team, rather than antagonistically.

But that's not the topic of this week's rant.

Today, I thought I'd talk about Gamer Types. This was particularly useful for me, both as a GM and as a player. I'd struggled for years with the others in my gaming group, getting upset at them for ruining what I thought was an otherwise incredible game by insisting on doing nothing but killing the enemies for personal glory. It never occurred to me that different people play role-playing games for different reasons. And for that, I owe a debt to Robin Law.

So here we go. There are seven player types described in his book (which he says that he adapted from other sources, but I don't know what those sources are). They are as follows:

The Power Gamer


The Power Gamer comes to the gaming table because he enjoys the feeling of power that he gets from gaming. He tends to see his character as "a collection of super powers optimized for the acquisition of still more super powers." However success is defined in your particular gaming system, he wants more of it. This is the character that looks for ways to get great abilities at minimum cost. In D&D, he's obsessed with gaining more Feats (and spells, if playing a spellcaster class), and possibly even looking to gain Prestige Classes. In Vampire, he's after ever more dots in Disciplines and seeking to commit Diablerie as often as he can. In GURPS, he's after cool equipment, higher skill ratings, and spiffy advantages. Shadowrun sees him seeking newer and fancier cyberware and weapons. He games to be powerful, in whatever way power is defined in his game of choice.

The Butt-Kicker


Like the Power Gamer, the Butt-Kicker seeks power, but the Butt-Kicker always channels his power into the ability to commit massive acts of violence. Whereas the Power Gamer seeks power as defined by the game system (for example, he may desire political power in the heavy potential for political intrigue in Vampire), the Butt-Kicker only appreciates one sort of power: physical. No matter what game he's playing, he will write up a character that is capable of dishing out bloodshed and raining down the pain on his enemies. He only wants to play games in which the GM provides him with masses of enemies that he can kill (or at least seriously maim).

The Tactician


This player type seeks the thrill of the clever strategic gambit, the rush he gets from seeing his well-planned tactics result in a near-effortless victory for him and his companions. He prefers games in which he has many opportunities to use his mind, setting up plans and finding the best way to "win." This player type in particular loves to see the GM squirm as his plans are effortlessly foiled by a clever player. Anticlimax is the Tactician's ultimate success, as the tension of a climax is a result of uncertainty, and the Tactician lives to think up ways to guarantee success. He despises characterisation, because good characters are seldom tactically sound.

The Specialist


This is a sort of catch-all category. It describes those players who have a certain character type that they like to play, and want to play every time. The most common type of Specialist is, of course, the player who wants to be a ninja every time. I've known Specialists who insist on being magic-users in every game. I once knew someone who was a "fairy princess" Specialist. Whatever their chosen speciality, they want to find some way to make their character into that, regardless of setting. They're likely to play an Assamite in Vampire, or an Akashic Brother in Mage, or a physical adept in Shadowrun.

The Method Actor


Method Actors see gaming as a dramatic exercise, similar to acting on stage. For them, gaming is an improvisational theatre, and they game for the chance to develop a bond with their character. They develop complex personalities, and refuse to take any action that is out of character for their PC. Even if this derails the plot (which often leaves him at odds with the Storyteller [below]), or is tactically unsound (which causes tension with the Tacticians), or prevents combat (which rouses the ire of the Butt-Kicker). The character is everything to the Method Actor.

The Storyteller


Players of this ilk want a plot in their games. They expect the action to follow the format of a story, with exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution. Combat often bores them, unless it's essential for the storyline. They can be seen to break character if it is helpful to the story to do so. And they get angry at other player types when their actions ruin the flow of the story.

The Casual Gamer


These are the players who are gaming because it's what everyone else is doing. It's not something they dislike (else they wouldn't do it), they just don't have the passionate desire to game that other player types have. If everyone else games, so will the Casual Gamer. If no one else is gaming, the Casual Gamer will not be upset. Some people tend to see the Casual Gamer as unimportant, but they can often be vital to the survival of a gaming group, both in character (because they fill out the ranks and supply vital abilities that no other player has chosen) and out of character (because they tend to play important roles in the group's interpersonal dynamics).

Of course, it's entirely possible that you may be partially one type and partially another type. I, myself, am about 60% Storyteller and 40% Method Actor. For me, the most important thing is the story, but since I believe very strongly that the most important part of a story is plausible, believable characters, the Method Actor can be a large part of my personal dynamic. I will usually follow the needs of the story, but I have been known, on occasion, to be true to my character's personality even if it derails the plot.

Anyway, it's often a good idea to get a feel for which character type(s) you are. This makes it easier to find a gaming group that will satisfy you. I've been in more than one group where the enjoyment was ruined because I was pissed at the other players for killing everything in their path instead of finding a more plot-satisfying way of doing things. I GMed for a group for a while that was mostly storytellers and method actors, but there were two butt-kickers in the mix, and they caused a lot of tension with the other players. Eventually, the two butt-kickers dropped out of the group, and all subsequent sessions were seen as vastly improved. This is not because the butt-kickers were bad players, but because they wanted different things.

Anyway, this is something that everyone should think about. And that's this week's entry!