Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Board Game Review: Bananagrams

To be fair, this isn't really a board game, as there's no board. The game equipment consists entirely of 144 letter tiles and a banana-shaped zipper bag in which they are all stored. Even so, it's a lot of fun, and I'm going to review it for you now.

For starters, we have the statistics

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Expected Length of Game Play: around fifteen minutes.

The game is amazingly simple. All the letters are placed face down in the centre of the play area. Each player takes some tiles (the number depends on how many players there are). Someone calls 'Split!' and all players turn over their tiles. Each player uses his tiles independently and simultaneously to create a crossword-style grid of words. When a player uses the last of his tiles, he calls 'Peel,' and all players take another tile from the centre. If you have a tile you don't like, you can return it in exchange for three new tiles.

Once there are more players than tiles remaining in the centre, the first person to use his last tile calls 'Bananas!' The other players then get to inspect his grid. If there are any errors (proper nouns, misspelled words, non-words, &c.), that player is out and the remaining players continue. If there are no errors, he wins that round.

That's all there is to it.

This game is fun and easy, and best of all, amazingly portable. The bag containing all the tiles can easily be carried with you, and in fact, one of the rules variants is designed to keep you entertained at a restaurant while waiting for your food!

If you want to try it before you buy it (and I recommend that you buy it; it's a worthwhile investment!), there is a facebook application that excellently models the physical game.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Google Wave

Hello and welcome to another installment of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner. First, a quick note: I'm sorry it's been two months since I last updated this blog. I recently got a new job which has been taking up a large quantity of my time and the vast majority of my energy. Every time I sit at the computer, I think to myself, I should update my blog. But I just don't have the mental energy to think of something to say. So, for that reason, I'm going to change the way I update this. It's not going to be an 'every Sunday' activity. I will update this blog when I have something to say. Hopefully that will be roughly once a week, but probably not. Just be aware. It may be easier for you to use the RSS feed or to use your Google account to follow me. That way, when I update, you know, without having to come here to check for yourself.

Now, on to the actual post. I have recently been able to get on the test version of Google Wave. This excites me because I read an article about gaming on the Wave. I have managed to find some people who are interested in trying this with me, so hopefully once everyone has activated their Google account and shared their contact information, we can begin the preliminary details of deciding exactly which game we're playing, agreeing on ground rules, and character creation.

What really amazes me about this is how some people, especially some of the more hard-core gaming fanatics that I know, are opposed to the idea of gaming on Wave. I mentioned on Facebook that I was trying to get people to join me for a play-by-email game on Wave. This seems remarkably obvious to me, since Wave allows for easier organisation of the emails in the gaming thread, messages to specific people in the same thread, and simple and easy integration of images and other objects within the messages themselves.

So imagine my surprise when one of my friends replies, 'Google wave seems like it would be a better tool for prep and between game stuff.' Perhaps he's suggesting that PBeM is not as viable as in-person tabletop gaming (which, honestly, I'd prefer, but I have to take what I can get). But it really sounds to me like he's suggesting that Wave would not work as well as regular email for PBeM games. Which seems silly to me.

Anyway, I think the potential for Wave in gaming is incredible, and hopefully I'll be able to share the results of my experiments here at some point in the near future. Incidentally, if anyone else is interested (or even if you just want an invite), let me know. Maybe we can work something out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Time Traveller's Wife

I saw The Time Traveller's Wife recently. I thought it was a good film. I'm hard pressed to decide if it was sci-fi, drama, or romance. But it was intelligent and well written. And it got me thinking. I recently wrote a post about playing characters with attachments to other characters. Never mind the story potential that exists simply in a character with uncontrollable psi powers (in case you don't know, the male lead in the Time Traveller's Wife is a timeporter, but can't control when he ports, or to what destination, or for how long), this plot made me consider the idea of running totally mundane characters who have to deal with their relationships with people who are always off doing something dangerous.

Just think of how many people are married to soldiers in active military duty. It's a hard life, but certainly it can be interesting to examine the dynamics of their relationship. Think about the scores of women who were constantly afraid that their husband would die in World War II. What about the drama of a joyful reunion when the soldiers returned home? Or even worse, the misery of a family who received a telegram informing them that their husband/son/father would never return home? Surely there's some story possibilities in these sorts of relationships?

Now multiply that times the woman who's married to a superhero. Marvel is one of the few places I'm aware of where this sort of dynamic has been touched on, in that Spider-Man developed a relationship to a mundane, and even eventually married her. I've seen a number of relationship develop between supers (Cyclops and Jean Grey, as one example, or even Disney's The Incredibles), but not many between superheroes and normals. Superman's relation to Lois Lane never even went really all that far, at least not of which I'm aware.

Anyway. I think it's an interesting idea for a game. Maybe play the wife (or, if we want to break the mould a little more, the husband) of a powerful secret agent who's always being sent on dangerous missions in enemy territory. Or the father of a superhero who constantly fights against powerful villains. Maybe your character is the child of a vampire who's trying to avoid a group of vampire hunters.

If you've never read Neil Gaiman's Stardust, I recommend that you do (the film version isn't nearly as good; it lost a lot of the essential Gaiman quality in being translated to the big screen -- and for that matter, if you do read it, be sure to get a copy that has the beautiful illustrations by Charles Vess). It's the story of a young man, Tristram Thorn, who is the offspring of a mortal man and a faerie woman. He is raised ignorant of his heritage until he makes a rash promise and is obligated to travel to the realm of faerie. It is there that he meets his mother for the first time, and even then, doesn't realise that she's his mother until some time later.

The story is wonderful in itself, but think of the potential for games if we tweaked the premise slightly. The main character is the child of a human/fae pairing, and his mother has left him with his father in the "real" world before returning to faerie. The two worlds only ever meet once every seven years, for one day, and it is on that day that the child gets to visit with his mother. Imagine the story potential!

Anyway, I think that's an interesting idea. Maybe someone can make a game out of this. If you do, I'd love to hear about it!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dice

Few items are as representative of the hobby of gaming as a whole as dice. Apart from those few games that use diceless systems (such as Amber Diceless Roleplaying) or alternate systems (I've heard of a game based on playing cards, though I can't remember what it was called), every game requires the use of the SPRNGMs (Sacred Plastic Random Number Generation Modules, as a friend used to call them). The only other items needed are some books, paper, and pencil. None of which are unique to gaming. Some games require maps and miniatures, but most can get along fine without. So really, if there is to be a symbol of gaming, it should probably be those wonderful little polyhedrons.

Some have expressed surprise at my adoration of the little numerical blobs; as I am generally a proponent of story over combat, my friends seem to think that I would be anti-dice. But I'm not! I tend to love the look of them, and have a small collection (I tend to only add interesting or unusual dice, so it's nowhere near as impressive as the one detailed at http://www.thedicecollector.com). I have a few d6s made from brass, some oversized ones, a small bag of twenty tiny (about 3mm across each) six siders, a d24, 2d7, two dice that are designed to be spun like tops rather than rolled (1d6 and 1d8), a d30, and a couple of dice-in-dice (one that is a small d6 inside a larger d6, one that is a small d10 inside a larger d10, and one that is two small d6 inside a larger d6).

My personal favourite is the d10, because it looks the nicest, and makes a great top! Although I'm fond of the d8 as well, just because I have a fondness for the d8. Although there's something to be said for the d4 (you have to love a die that can be used as a caltrop!). I continually fantasize about designing a game that uses an obscure type of die (I'd love to write a game based on the d30, or even better, the d14).

I once saw a video of Louis Zocchi talking about the science of dice and why most of the dice you buy at a game store are unreliable. It was very interesting, and the next time I have a chance (or the need) to buy dice, I'm going to try to buy his. I am a bit of a dice fetishist, I will admit. I even have an idea for a set of furniture either built from or designed to look like dice.

But that's my thought on the matter. I love dice. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tylenol

Something I used to do on occasion was to play in a "Tylenol" game. This gets its name from the premise that you'd find what appeared to be a bottle of Tylenol on the counter with a label that says, "Eat me." On taking one of the pills, you'd find yourself transported to a game world, transformed into one of the denizens. It is the ultimate form of the "If you were a character in (game x), what would you be?" Obviously, most games are played in D&D, but I've played tylenol games in a number of other settings, and most of them don't even require the bottle of tylenol to get there! For example, in Vampire, you can just be embraced. Any sort of game that involves a trasnfiguration like that can work just as well. 

If you didn't already know and haven't figured it out yet, a Tylenol game in one in which you play yourself. Rather than creating a character as normal, you simply list those stats that you actually have. Then apply modifications to adjust for the in-game characteristics (for example, maybe you'd apply the elven racial template).

I've played in a few, though I only really remember two, and one of them I was running, so I wasn't really playing, although I did have myself written up as a character and was involved in the story. It can be fun on occasion to experience the vicarious adventures as yourself, but depending on what player type you are, it may or may not be a plausibly realistic depiction of how you'd actually behave. But games aren't meant to be psychological tools; they're supposed to be fun! So who cares how plausible it is?

In both of the games in which I was involved, the system used was the original World of Darkness. There's no reason it can't be done in any setting, though. One of the most intriguing concepts for me is a GURPS Time Travel Tylenol. How fun would it be to go traipsing through history? Why write up a character to do this when you can just do it yourself?

An interesting idea, at any rate.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Favourite Characters

I was reading a blog today about "Awesome things I've done in a game." This got me to thinking about some awesome things I've done, and I realise that more than awesome things, I'm drawn to awesome characters. I say this because the vast majority of entries in my version of this list was "played Character X."
So I decided that for today's entry, I would post a list of my ten favourite characters. These aren't all characters that I've run, but they're characters that I really like and remember with some sort of fondness. We'll start with:
  1. Sarah Storm. Game: Changeling: The Dreaming. Player: Me. Overview: Piskie grump. This character was inspired by two simultaneous events. First, I read an entry on the White Wolf forum that was talking about how Changeling is a purely fantasy game. As I've mentioned here before, Changeling is as close as you can get to a universal-genre system without actually being a universal-genre system. So I wanted to disprove this statement. Secondly, a friend of mine complained that I am incapable of and/or unwilling to play combat capable characters. I wanted to prove him wrong too (for the record, I don't dislike combat-capable characters; I demand deep, well-rounded, dynamic characters, and so prefer to avoid gun bunnies). Anyway, so I made a cyberpunk piskie; her Chrysalis was triggered by William Gibson's Neuromancer, and her dream dance spawned TIM, the sentient chimerical cyberdeck. She has a chimerical cybereye through which she can interface both with TIM and with her treasure: a ray gun. She's smart, sassy, doesn't take any lip from anyone. Plus: Cyberpunk piskie!
  2. Howls at Hells. Game: Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Player: John Trobare. Overview: Fianna theurge. Somehow, this character developed an enemy who happened to be a mummy. At one point, the mummy gouged out Howls-at-Hells's eyes and replaced them with burning coals. Howls at Hells never removed them, so sometimes when it rains, he has what appears to be black tears streaming down his face. An angry, bitter, cynical old werewolf who, I will admit, derived half his charm from the fact that he befriended Jurgi Deathbringer.
  3. Michelle (aka Tetenkerh -- "Talks to the Night"). Game: Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Player: Me. Overview: Lupus Silent Strider theurge. Not long after Werewolf was released, my friends started playing, but I was hesistant to try because it seemed so combat-intensive. One night, they convinced me to try it, and I read through the rule book looking for something that would interest me. I eventually decided on the Silent Strider Theurge path, and Michelle was born. She started with a Gnosis of 6, which was unheard of in my gaming group at that time (Gnosis is not helpful in killing monsters). My GM, when examining my character, said "Nice Gnosis!" and I beamed as if he had complimented my manhood. I played her many times, and she ended up having her face melted off by a Nexus Crawler, siring offspring (two of whom turned out to be true Garou), and gaining a Wyrm taint which she purged in the silver fires of Erebus.
  4. Parenthella Wynd. Game: Vampire: The Masquerade. Player: Stephanie Kammerlocher. Overview: Lasombra. She was a business executive who was embraced into the Sabbat, and became the leader of the Crimson Menagerie pack. The perfect combination of ruthless, practical, a good leader, and feminine power, she ran the pack with great efficiency while still... ahem, entertaining a number of lovers. She was an interesting, dynamic, and well-rounded character, and I was always interested to see what she was thinking or doing next.
  5. Footharoothrai Keekail. Game: GURPS. Player: Me. Overview: Polyglot Navarlian pilot. My friend ran a GURPS Space game in which the players created their own alien races. I created the Navarlians, a race of small creatures who lived on a planet where they were the favourite prey of a predator against which they have no natural defenses. The only way they were able to survive was to develop an intellect that enabled them to develop artificial defences. Keekail eventually ended up being the captain of the Unity (and later, the Unity II), the starship that was a joint project of the United Trade Alliance. The game was really cool, although there's not a whole lot specifically I can point to as examples of this. One of my favourite things about the Navarlians was that I developed a way for them to have three genders.
  6. The Motion. Game: Marvel Super Heroes. Player: Me. Overview: Able to generate and control kinetic energy. I never actually got to play him, but I thought he was a neat idea for super powers. Imagine how powerful he would be: any person or object in motion, he could control the direction and speed of that movement. Even if the target wasn't moving, he could impart movement into the target with a simple kinetic bolt. If I ever do get to play in a super-powered campaign, I really want to play him.
  7. (I really wish I remembered his name). Game: GURPS. Player: Mark Jackson. Overview: A bodyguard/troubleshooter for Louis XIV. I ran a time travel game in which the characters were collected from various points throughout history and went on a series of missions to rescue other time travellers that had been lost in history. Generally suave and cool-headed, he was everything you want in an 18th century swashbuckler. He was the heart of the party, and saved their butts on more than one occasion. In the beginning, when he was approached by the Time Team recruiter, he was scepitcal of the thought of time travel, so he flipped a coin and timeported while the coin was at the apex. At the end of the campaign, before he accepted a permanent position with the Time Team, he went back to the point he left so that he could catch the coin he had flipped.
  8. (Not only do I not remember her name, the player doesn't remember either!). Game: Changeling, the Dreaming. Player: Jenny Lang. Overview: Childling Sluagh Shadow Court assassin. Some friends tried to run a Shadow Court game, and Jenny was inspired by the character template in the Shadow Court sourcebook, so she created a childling sluagh who saw the world as a video game. Only twice did she get played, but during that one brief period, she uttered a phrase that made gaming history. At the end of a firefight, when the PCs had emerged victorious and all their opponents were dead or fled, this precocious little girl looks up and says, "Level complete." And the other players died laughing.
  9. Shamooqua. Game: Changeling: The Dreaming. Player: John Trobare. Overview: Every horrible stereotype about black women that you can imagine. She was hugely obese, made love to every male that was unable to escape, and had a chimerical gorilla that followed her around with theme music blaring from speakers mounted on his back. She was an offensive character, but she was funny as hell to watch.
  10. Alexis. Game: Generic World of Darkness. Player: NPC run by the GM: John Trobare. Overview: a precocious mortal child. You know, I just talked about her in my last entry, so I won't bore you with the story again.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Loner

I am reminded of an article I read once (I don't remember where I read it) that was talking about the tendency of gaming characters to be loners. It's really not surprising that in games which emphasise the free-wheeling high powered adventure, characters are likely to be free-wheeling sort of people with no bonds to hold them down. After all, it's really not likely that a middle-age middle-class middle management corporate drone is able to just pick up at random and fly to Rome to help stop an international espionage plot. Better to have a young, fit, unmarried guy with no restrictions on his ability to plunge headlong into excitement.

But there's something to be said for breaking the mould a little. I once played in a rather non-standard game; it was a crossover of all the World of Darkness games, and though we started out as mortals, we soon ended up with the three main players running a Vampire, a Mage, and a Werewolf. My character, the vampire, was a teenager plagued with family issues resulting from a murder that he witnessed, so has had to move in with the other characters. The mage was a married guy, and after a couple of years of in-game time, he ended up with a daughter. I still remember the daughter, Alexis; she was a a very smart and capable kid.

In fact, one of my favourite moments from that game was when she fell into a well. Her dad lept in after her, only to find that she had been caught on some crossbeams halfway down the shaft while he had fallen all the way to the bottom. He assurred her that my character was on his way down to rescue her, and told her to just hold still. She responded by saying, "No $#!+, daddy!"

My point is, having family members in game can add to the excitement, and don't necessarily serve as impediments. There's a disadvantage in GURPS that allows your character to have a ward; usually a child, but potentially any sort of person that depends on him for survival. Perhaps he's caring for his grandmother, who's confined to a wheelchair. Perhaps he's a foster parent. Perhaps his wife is blind. There are lots of possibilities. But I've never seen that disadvantage purchased. I haven't had an opportunity to take it myself; the few games in which I've been able to play have been suitable for a character with a dependant.

But even barring the ward option, there's always the potential for partners. I've seen characters with boyfriends or girlfriends, but only twice that I recall have I seen married characters (in one case, two of the players were playing characters who were married to each other).

But I think it's worth a shot. Maybe James Bond would never be able to work as a married man, but there are plenty of games in which having someone that must be accomodated with every adventure can add to the enjoyment. Give it a try! You might find that it makes for a better story!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deities

Here's an interesting concept: gods. Most often, this shows up in fantasy gaming, where clerics have divine powers (often including the ability to cast certain magic spells) granted by their deities.

Most games don't give much thought to how exactly this works. Do these gods exist? If so, do they all exist, or do certain pantheons exist while others are simply the imagination of their followers? If more than one pantheon exists, how do they interact?

I think that the most elegant analysis of this conundrum is the cosmology created by Rich Burlew (ok, heavily borrowed by Rich Burlew from many already existing sources) for The Order of the Stick. If you read his entire ouvere, you eventually learn that "in the beginning," so to speak, there were four pantheons of gods who created the world. Their inability to co-operate resulted in the slaying of the Gods of the West (based on real-world Greek gods; Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares, &c.). The remaining pantheons (North, based on Norse mythology; Odin, Thor, Loki, &c. -- East, based on Babylonian mythology; Marduk, Isthar, Tiamat, &c. -- and South; based on Chinese mythology; the "twelve gods" include Dragon, Rat, Pig, Monkey, &c.) thus agreed to stay in their respective areas and not interfere directly in the regions of the other groups. This is why clerics are important; they can be the agent of their gods in other places.

Later, the goblins and elves developed gods of their own too, who were grudgingly welcomed into the celestial realms.

Anyway, this is much more thought and much more cohesive than I've seen in the theology of any other setting. But it raises so many questions. For starters, most of the gods listed in the D&D player's handbook are not described as belonging to any specific pantheon, which makes me wonder: do these clerics belong to monotheistic religions? If not, where are the other gods? Or are the gods all part of the same pantheon? In which case, why do clerics only serve one god? Sure, servants of (for example) Aphrodite focus all their work to their primary deity, but they still believe in the others.

And the thing that bothers me most is this: clerics of differing deities don't ever seem to get into conflicts with one another. The cleric of Kord never seems to have a problem with being in the same party as a cleric of Ehlonna, and so forth. From my experience with real-world religion, that would be a totally unacceptable situation for any priest or other religious leader.

So this leads me to wonder a number of things. What about other genres? Why not have clerics in settings apart from fantasy? (Shadowrun, by the way, has come closest to this, with their "shamans," but still...) Why are there no clerics in a pulp adventure Indiana Jones-style game? What about the clerics in four-colour superhero comic settings? Wouldn't it be interesting to see a cleric in a wild west adventure?

Also, how do these powers work? If the gods actually exist, and you've resolved the issues addressed above, fine, but what if they don't? Is it just a fancy dress for normal magic? Is it psionic in nature? Is there something else at work?

I'd like to see some of these points worked out in a fantasy game at some point (actually, I have worked out what I believe to be a holistic basis for this matter in the GURPS Fantasy game I've designed, but I don't want to reveal that yet for fear of spoiling the fun for a group, should one ever arise that'd be willing to try this game). And I also think it would be interesting to see a Christian priest, a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim Imam, a Wiccan priestess, and a Buddhist Lama joining a modern-day adventuring party and using their divine magic to further the mission of the party. Wouldn't that be something?

Yeah, ok, maybe it's just me.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Magic Systems

I often find myself thinking about magic systems in games. I've seen many. Just a couple:

  • D&D: Spells are divided into levels, with certain spells available at each level depending on your class. You can cast so many spells of each level per day of game time.
  • GURPS: Spells are divided into colleges, which are really only important as organisational tools. You learn each spell individually in the same way as skills, using weaker spells as prerequisites for more powerful spells. Casting spells costs Fatigue Points, which are based on your character's Strength.
  • Shadowrun: There is a spell list. You can learn any spell you like. When you cast a spell, you have to roll (the exact roll depends on which spell you're casting) to determine the effects of "drain."
  • Ars Magica: There are five "verbs" and ten "nouns," with varying ratings in each. To cast a spell, you roll a number of dice equal to the verb + noun.
  • Mage: There are nine spheres that govern all possible magical effects. The higher your rating in a sphere, the more control you have over that realm. Roll your Arete (magical awareness) to cast spells.
  • Talislanta: there are twelve "modes," which cover different potential actions (such as Attack, Defend, Heal, Move, Illusion, &c.). Roll your rating in the appropriate mode to cast a spell.

There's a lot of variation there. I've even seen a book (Authentic Thaumaturgy) written by a man with a degree in Magic describing how to use "real world" magic systems as a basis for gaming magic.

In game terms, there's something to be said for each. The GURPS and D&D systems leave no question as to what you character can and can't do, but require memorising lenghty lists of spells. Talislanta and Mage are more freeform, which can be intimidating to less creative players, but frees you from the limitations and burdens of spell lists.

In "reality," I am of the belief that humans have the power to affect the universe through their perceptions. To put it in crude terms, when everyone believed the world was flat, the world was flat, and it was only when they "realised" that it was round did it become round. In that sense, the Mage system best models my theory.

I've devised an even more freeform system based on this belief: you have one rating (something like "Essence"), and you roll it to cast a spell. You don't need to learn a specific spell or study a particular realm of magic; if you can imagine it, you can do it. The downside is that the human mind isn't meant to handle this sort of fluid reality, so each time you cast a spell, you accrue a number of Insanity Points (the more powerful the effect, the more IPs you gain). Every ten points, you gain a new derangement. Once you have 100 IPs, you're totally insane and no longer useable as a PC.

I've also wondered about technology as magic. Maybe that magic pain-relief potion just happens to be made from willow bark, a known source of aspirin? Or the lightning-bolt-casting magic wand is a primitive taser made from "medieval" materials? Wizard's guilds don't teach "spell lists," they teach an advanced technology that is only viewed as magic because nobody outside the wizard's guilds knows what's really going on?

Anyway, interesting ideas. Maybe you can use some in a game that you run.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Historical Gaming

You know, I have all these historical setting books for GURPS: Middle Ages, Aztecs, Ice Age, Celtic Myth... and as much as I really enjoy history, I can't for the life of me think of what to do with these settings. Perhaps part of the problem is that what interests me about history is the way that people used to live.

There's a museum near my home that has a gallery that is a series of exhibits showing how people cleaned in years prior. There's a section dedicated to laundry, another for vacuuming, sweeping, and mopping, and a section on toilets. This gallery is the most interesting part of the museum to me; seeing how people lived in the past is amazing. The day-to-day basics of things-you-take-for-granted activities, like food and accomodations, are what fascinate me. I've been working over this past month with another museum in town doing demonstrations of how the Romans cooked, and the sorts of food they would have eaten, from the poorest to the richest. There's also a replica Viking village not too far from here that allows people to rent the site for overnight excursions; twice now, I've been able to go out and be a Norseman for a night, and sleep in a Viking house.

These are what interest me about history. I'm not so concerned with the kings, or the battles, or the laws and proclomations. It's the little things that we don't even really think about as being significant, but are a vast part of how the world changes over the years. We don't even think about how lucky we are to have washing machines...

But how does that apply to gaming? People don't game to indulge in the daily drudgery of menial labour. They want to escape from life, not live deeper in it!

One option is to make a more fantastic game from it, where the gods are real and have just as much influence on the world as the people, who can use magic and find enchanted items. But that spoils the appeal for me. The other option would be to play in a more realistic setting, but what would I do? What sort of stories would I tell? I fear that most players who'd be willing to join a historical game would be most interested in playing soldiers on a military campaign, or something along those lines.

I don't know. That's what I tend to think about whenever I read any of my gaming books.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fantasy

It all started with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote this epic saga, which captured the imagination of millions. Eventually, this lead to Dungeons and Dragons. Which, of course, spawned a great number of copycat games. Even today, when you use the word "fantasy," it conjures up images of a psuedo-medieval fantasy world populated not only by humans, but elves, dwarves, goblins, halflings, dragons, and a variety of other monsters.

But let's look at the definition of "fantasy." The creative imagination; unrestrained fancy. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the concept of high fantasy, in a Tolkien-esque setting. I'm just saying that it's not true fantasy. There's no longer anything creative about the typical elves-and-dwarves setting. It was created almost a century ago. Very little has been added to it.

This is one of the reasons I'm so fond of The Dark Crystal. It was new; the world had never before seen Gelflings, Skeksis, or Podlings. This is what I call "True Fantasy," the result of creative imagination, and unrestrained fancy. Rather than reuse what already existed, the creators developed something new.

I once tried to do this myself. I worked with some friends to try to create a setting that was "casually miraculous." There were six species in this world, all of which I tried to create from scratch. They were such bizarre people as a race of slug-like entities who vomited their offspring into a jai-alai style mitt and flung them as a weapon, or a living clay entity with no native shape. They lived in a world where the lowest moon orbited the planet in such a manner that every hundred years, it scraped across the peak of the tallest mountain, at which point it was possible to step from one to the other.

I was discouraged from this by a passage in Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering: "North American audiences... will give up their beloved archetypes when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers." Which made me wonder, what's the point of creating a unique world that doesn't fit into any existing preconceptions if nobody's going to buy it?

But I still maintain that fantasy, true fantasy, is not the typical elves-dwarves-trolls-&c. that we think of today.

I once looked into making a new but still accessible fantasy genre. I examined the way that Tolkien had created Middle Earth. He took a lot of elements from Norse Mythology (the elves from Alfheim and the dwarves from Nidavellir, as well as the archetype of the dragon guarding a hoard of gold), sprinkled in a dash of Celtic Mythology (the goblins), and created his own addition (the hobbits). Which started me to wondering if I could do something similar with other mythos.

My first attempt (prompted by a friend's suggestion) was Middle Eastern mythology. But after looking briefly into it, I realised that I didn't know enough about the culture or the mythology to do it any justice. Celtic mythology doesn't work well, since there aren't really any non-human races, unless you go for more recent folklore involving the fae, but that's been done (GURPS: Faerie, Dark Ages: Fae and, to a lesser extent, Changeling). Perhaps I could create something from Greek Mythology (using, for example, satyrs and centaurs), but even that would be perilously close to things like Hercules and Xena. Maybe I could work with Aztec mythology...

Also, why does it always have to be a psuedo-medieval theme? Never mind the occasionaly ham-fisted introduction of totally incompatable elements such as ninjas and samurai. Why not a fantasy world based on a Roman setting? This was touched on with the 7th Sea game, which was set in a high-seas piracy setting. But even that wasn't truly fantastical.

Anyway, I just thought this was food for thought.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Live Action

As most of you probably know, table-top roleplaying is just one way of gaming. There's also LARP. This comes in many forms. The two most common are fantasy roleplay, through societies such as IFGS, and Vampire. There's no real reason to limit it to those sorts of games; I don't see why a live-action Wild West game is out of the question.

Of course, if you want to get technical, "Cops and Robbers" is a form of LARP. So is "playing house" and all the other make-believe games that kids play. Which reminds me of an essay I read in one of my Changeling books...

Steve Herman writes in an article entitled "Oh Boy! A Cat's Eye Shooter!" from the Changeling Player's Guide about how the imagination, the firm belief in things wonderous and magical, is the most precious gift that people have, and the loss of that belief as we grow to adulthood is a terrible tragedy. The author describes how he and his fellow gamers got out their old toys, action figures and the like. They tried to play with them, as they had when they were younger. It wasn't fun for them. They couldn't "create jungles from houseplants or deserts from carpet."

So they returned to the table. They played Changeling; they found that wonder again. They tried to steal a Wayne Gretsky rookie card, and chased a purple Snozzwanger through the alleys.

Basically, that's what roleplaying is: adults participating in the old childhood games of make-believe. There are more rules, the stories told are more complex, and it often tends to be more violent (or, at least, the violence is greatly codified). But it's still make-believe.

So why not get up from the table and do it live-action?

Well, for one reason, there are many things that can't be done live-action. There was a Werewolf live-action game. But I can't help wondering: doesn't it hurt the suspension of disbelief when you're supposed to shift into your eight-foot tall death-machine wolf-man form? Or even into pure wolf form? What about fantasy games, where there are teleport spells and invisibility potions?

Some things are easy to overcome. IFGS uses foam-padded boffer weapons to simulate combat. Vampire disallows physical contact between players of any sort, at all, ever (which I personally think is a bad idea, but what do I know?). I've seen a live-action society that uses different coloured tennis balls (basically) to represent fireball spells, lightning bolt spells, and ice bolt spells. But how about that invisibility? One system has a rule in which a character crosses his arms over his chest to indicate that he is invisible. Awfully hard to separate player knowledge from character knowledge in that scenario, isn't it?

I don't know. I suppose there's something to be said for LARP, but I tried it once, and it didn't do much for me. I prefer not to have my imagination hampered by physical reality.

That was a really unfocussed and meandering post. I'm sorry. But there it is. So for now, until next week: Game on!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Film and Book

Hello, and welcome to another week of gaming essays. Sorry it's a day late; I was having all sorts of trouble thinking of a topic for this week. But I finally came up with one: gaming in the world of existing stories.

This has been done many times in the past; I'm sure some of us remember MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) from I.C.E. Of course, there's since been the new system released around the time of the Lord of the Rings films. There's also the Star Wars and Star Trek games, and the Buffy game, and there's been an adaptation of Hellboy for GURPS, and so forth... and that's not even counting the countless unofficial fan adaptations floating around the internet (like the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere). But we all see movies and TV shows or read books or comics and think to ourselves, "I want to play in that world!"

I, for example, have wanted to play in the world of The Dark Crystal for a very long time now. As I read Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, I see potential for that as well. I'm sure that other people have other ideas.

So this week, I'd like to hear from you, my readers. What story/movie/tv series/book/comic/etc do you want to see made into a game? Or, perhaps, you've even played in that setting?

I'd love to hear it. But I think that's all I've got for the moment, so I will bid you farewell for the moment. Game on!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Adult Gaming

Greetings! This week, I felt it might be a good idea to discuss sex in gaming. Some of you may wonder why sex needs to be included in your games. Well, strictly speaking, it doesn't need to be included. But why not? The point of gaming is to have fun, right? And sex is fun, right? So why not combine the two?
Ok, I'll admit it. Probably the only players that will want to include sex in their games will be method actors and storytellers. Butt-kickers don't like the idea of their cathartic violence being interrupted for non-violent activities, like sex. Power gamers aren't interested in sex in their games because it does nothing to contribute to their character's power level. Tacticians aren't interested in sex because it has nothing to do with their quest to out-think their enemies. Specialists could go either way, depending on what sort of character they've chosen as their specialty; ninjas aren't known as great lovers, but some other types may (I've known a couple people who really enjoy playing were-cats in the White Wolf shapechanger game, and the were-cats are supposedly extremely sensual creatures).
But even so, sex does sometimes show up in games anyway. Sadly, it usually takes the form satarised by the Dead Alewives in their "Dungeons and Dragons" skit (on the off chance you haven't heard it before, it's been set to video here); "If there's any girls there I wanna do them!" Or, if you've seen The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising (and if you haven't, I recommend that you do; it's very good; the original is also worth watching), you'll remember the moment when one of the male characters decides to play a female, and (s)he and one of the male characters duck out of view to have sex while being given their mission by the king.
I think that sex can be more maturely and intelligently handled. Obviously, it's not necessary to go into details of what's going on, but perhaps, rather than saying, "I seduce the barmaid," you could actually roleplay the experience. I've done this a few times in the past; the most memorable time was when I was in a Vampire game in which we were playing a Sabbat pack called the Crimson Menagerie. My character, a Toreador antitribbu torture artist, had a sexual encounter with his sire, who was also a torture artist. The... foreplay... was interesting. But it was handled intelligently and maturely, and nobody was bothered.
Obviously, this is all dependent on having a group that is capable of handling the topic. Sadly, some people are distinctly uncomfortable with sexual issues. I won't go into my opinions of that state of affairs, but it should go without saying that if your players are disturbed with sex, then it should not be included in your game. Remember, the point of gaming is to have fun, not spend an evening fidgeting in your chair. And even if your group is capable of handling the issue well, there are still certain aspects of sex that may always be taboo (rape comes to mind).
That being said, there are a number of supplements out there that offer insight and advice into roleplaying sex. I have Naughty and Dice, and I enjoyed it (though a lot of the information in there is somewhat common sense, it was still interesting to read, and there was also a lot of new information in there, as well as some stuff for use in the d20 system). There's a netbook version of GURPS Sex that is a bit sparse and was designed for the old Third Edition, but provides specific mechanics for many sex-related issues in GURPS terms. And D&D has the Book of Erotic Fantasy that is a thorough look at sex in the D20 system. I'm sure there are more books out there of which I am unaware.
Anyway, if your group is up for it, perhaps injecting a little physical intimacy into your group can enhance the fun. Just remember not to enervate the enjoyment your players would be getting. And with that, I bid you a fond "Game on!"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Alignment

Hello again. Today, I found myself thinking about alignments. Not all games use alignments (in fact, depending on how you define "alignment," I've only played two games that use an alignment system at all), but they tend to be a focal topic in many discussions of gaming. The most prominent example of this is, of course, D&D, with their system of "good versus evil" and "law versus chaos." I will assume that if you're reading this, you already know how that system works; if not, it's easy enough to google it. The only other system of alignment in the practical sense that I've played has been in Changeling: The Dreaming where your character belongs to either the Seelie or Unseelie court.

In fact, it was in part the misunderstanding of Seelie vs. Unseelie that started me thinking about this subject. Many people who are unfamiliar with the Changeling system make the mistake of equating Seelie with good and Unseelie with evil, when that is not the case at all.

But how exactly does one define "good" and "evil?" This is a topic that I have discussed with friends in the past, and only one thing has become certain: there is no objective measure of good or evil. The terms are completely subjective; what one person thinks is evil, someone else will think of as good (or perhaps even as neither). But almost as important, the good/evil spectrum can be mapped out along many different lines.

In other words, if you were not allowed to use the phrase "good versus evil," what phrase would you use in its place? I'll give you a moment to think about that, before I come back to it. 

Of course, you have to wonder if alignment is really necessary. In D&D, it's used as a general guide to behaviour; certain acts are meant to be outside the scope of characters of certain alignments. In Changeling, it's intended as a partial definition of what it means to be fae; it's a quintessential part of what faeries are, bound up in their very natures. But GURPS does just fine without any alignment system. Instead, they have a series of mental and social advantages and disadvantages that demonstrate who your character is, and what he is and isn't capable of doing. Vampire uses a "nature and demeanour" system of psuedo-psychology that describes your behaviour in general terms. Shadowrun doesn't bother with it at all. 

Ok, have you considered the question from above yet? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. But here's what I've come up with: to most people, good versus evil means "good or bad." But what is good for one person is bad for another, and that's not the way it works in D&D (which is the point of this essay). Perhaps a more accurate reflection of the dichotomy is "holy versus unholy." That is, "good" is associated with heaven and the pleasant afterlife, while "evil" means hell, demons, infernal creatures, and eternal suffering after death.

Certainly, that's the way it works for paladins, who according to the rules are required to be Lawful Good. But if we step back and look at their behaviour in subjective terms, then we realise that paladins often act in evil ways. The best example I can think of to demonstrate this phenomenon is in Start of Darkness, the second prequel book for the Order of the Stick comic. This book follows the story of the comic's main villains before the events of the main comic begins. In this volume, there is an attack by paladins on a celebration being held by a bunch of goblins. In the objective definition of "good" as described by the rules, this is an acceptable act, since goblins are defined as evil, and the paladins are on a quest to rid the world of all evil. But from the perspective of the goblin children who just watched their extended family slaughtered for no reason other than having a different alignment, it doesn't sound so reasonable, does it? This is why I think it's better to equate good and evil with holy and unholy. The paladins are serving "holy" deities on a "holy" mission, while the goblins' god is a dark deity on an "unholy" mission.

Personally, I think the best definition of "good versus evil" is "serving others versus serving oneself." All the best examples of heroes are those who work for the benefit of others: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Spiderman... all of these work to protect or help other people at risk to themselves.

But there are other possible definitions. Some people equate "good" with "obeying the law," even if the law is a bad one. They thus see "evil" as "breaking the law." I have ranted on this subject elsewhere, so I will avoid doing so again. But in this definition, the spectrum runs from "following the rules" to "breaking the rules" (and, I would point out, I feel that this is a better parallel for the "Seelie versus Unseelie" measure than "good versus evil").

Another one that a lot of people tend to follow, but don't even think about, is "faction versus counterfaction." Many people ally themselves with a group or ideology, and view that as good, while perceiving opposing viewpoints as evil. A perfect example of this is the American attitude towards capitalism and communism. Especially back in the fifties and sixties, but even to a great extent today, Americans saw capitalism as "good" and communism as "evil." I'm quite certain that communist Russia saw the reverse to be true. In this aspect, the alignment issue becomes not so much a measure of right or wrong, but a question of "us versus them."

The last one I will list here is the idea of "cause versus purposelessness." For some people, having a cause for which to fight is good, while being idle, not having a cause, or fighting for no reason but the fight itself, is evil.

I don't really know what the point of all of this is, in game terms. But perhaps it's something to think about the next time you start wondering about alignment in a game. And with that, I bid you farewell for this week. Game on!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Music

Have you ever used music in a game? I've seen it done. I've done it myself a few times. Get just the right track going for that good battle scene, or play some regional music to set the mood...

I think the best success I had at this was when I was running a Mage game set in 1945. The players were trying to acquire artifacts that had been distributed around the world as they attempt to prevent a doomsday device from falling into enemy hands... in the course of this game, they travelled to Australia, Uzbekistan, a tiny island nation called Nauru, France, Prague, and New Mexico. For each game session, I put on a CD of the music appropriate to the location. In Australia, I had a CD of aboriginal music in the background. I found the top ten radio tracks from the US in 1945, as  well as the top ten radio hits in France the same year. And so forth.

But what I've always wanted to do was to create a "soundtrack." I'd like to have music appropriate to whatever scene is going on: rousing music for a battle scene, upbeat music for a travel scene, suspenseful music for a creepy scene, and so forth. I've tried a few times, but it's often quite difficult to achieve. For one, it's usually hard to switch CDs when you switch scenes (of course, with the advent of mp3 players, this is much easier now; just programme playlists for each type of mood). For another, what music do you choose?

Soundtracks are always good for this. Many movies have great music, and even if the movie wasn't of the same genre as the game you're playing, the music can still fit the mood! But don't overlook other sources as well.

Earlier today, I attended a performance of choral church music; it was stunning. And part of me thought, "This would be great for if the characters are in a cathedral at some point!" There's some really good classical music out there too. Another venue is folk music; the song "Fuggi Fuggi Fuggi" is a great tune for comedic scenes.

Perhaps some of you have heard of the D&D soundtrack? Not the film, but the "official roleplaying soundtrack" commissioned by Wizards of the Coast from Midnight Syndicate. It was pretty good, I thought. They covered most of the relevant themes. But in a single CD, that means there's not a lot of time devoted to each theme...

One more point before I let you go for the week. Remember the last post, where I talked about the GURPS Fantasy game where the players created their own races? One of the other players, the creator of the Ængoa, downloaded some audio files of elephants and used it to create "the music of the Ængoa." I was inspired, so I created the music of the Staglings. Another player asked me to make a track for his race, so I created a song for the Feyad-Akeen.

In my opinion, that's the way to go. Create your own music... easy to do with a lot of accesible software!

Anyway, that's it for this week. Until next time, game on!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Co-operation

Hello again! Here we go, off on another week of the Game Dork's diatribes essays! Today, I found myself thinking (don't ask me why) about a game I was in once. It was a GURPS Fantasy game, inspired in part by a previous GURPS Space game run by a different friend, where each player created his own alien race. There were some really neat species in that game... but one of the players liked the idea so much that he started a Fantasy game along the same lines. I still use two of the races from that game on occasion: my Staglings and John's  Ængoa.
But enough about the irrelevant details. The thing I was remembering was a conflict that arose from a concession that the GM gave to me: I had asked that there be no "common" language. Since, after all, there's no such thing as a "common" language in the real world; why on earth would there be one in any other world? I liked the challenge of finding ways to communicate without being able to assume that we could talk to anyone we met.
So when it came time to create a PC party, we had to address the issue of linguistics. How would the party communicate? Would we all learn a single shared language? Would we carry magic telepathic artefacts? Would one party member learn everyone's languages and act as translator?
And thus the source of the conflict: we were each playing a member of the species we had created. However, Mike's race (the Liebowitzians) and John's race (the aforementioned Ængoa) had developed an enmity towards one another. Thus, when it was suggested that the party all learn to speak Ængoan (a suggestion which the other players were happy to accept), Mike offered resistance. He attempted to convince us to learn a neutral "third-party" language that was not the native tongue for any of the characters.
Neither player would budge, so we had to develop a compromise. We finally decided to have three official party languages. Everyone would be required to learn at least one of them. We all expected that everyone would take Ængoan except Mike, who would take Old Imperial. Hopefully, one of the other characters would learn Old Imperial as well.
But the next week, Mike showed up with his new characters, and we were all surprised to see that his character spoke Ængoan. When asked why, he said, "Because it was obvious that that's what everyone else was going to speak." Which (finally) brings me to my point: If you knew that from the beginning, why did you cause so much difficulty?
I've said it before, but the point of gaming is to have fun. It's much easier to do that if we work together. Interparty conflicts are inevitable, but I really think that, on occasion, we might need to step back and say, "This may not be what my character would ideally want, but if I fudge it a bit for the sake of interparty harmony, this game will continue to be a lot more fun for both me and the other players." I know it can sometimes be hard for everyone to let go of their own needs and desires in the course of a game, but in the long run, it really does make things so much easier.
Another example from the same game: The party was charged with exploring one of a series of towers with bizarre mystical properties. However, during the journey to the tower, the PCs were continually getting sidetracked with superfluous encounters. I finally got so fed up with the delay in the story that my character used an invisibility spell to split off from the group and head to the tower on his own.
The game ended after that session, so nobody ever reached the tower. But it's the same thing: I could have handled that much better. I realised afterwards that it would have been nicer for me to bring up the issue to the other players: "Hey, guys, why are we messing around with these extra side stories instead of going to our actual destination?"
Anyway, it's something to think about. And with that, I will bring this entry to a close and bid you a fond "Game on!"

Monday, May 4, 2009

Board Game Review: Tara

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's rantings. Sorry it's a day late; yesterday was quite crazy.

Today, I will review the board game known by many different names (the box is labelled "Tara," but it also says "Project Kells." It's made by "Tailten Games." But if you open the box and read the rules, it claims the game is called "Sacred Hill," and suggests that you go to their websiteat projectkells.com but that redirects you to http://www.tailtengames.com so who knows what to call this game?).

The game itself, according to the rules booklet, is just one variant possible with the equipment provided, and the website has rules for a second, called "High Kings of Tara." In fact, several of the game components aren't used in "Sacred Hill" at all.

Anyway, before we go any further, let's get the statistics up here:

Strategy: 6
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty*
Expected Length of Game Play: one-half hour.

The game consists of a board with a series of square holes, into which fit the plastic playing pieces. These playing pieces are painted with either a red or a blue soft-corner square. The other important pieces are the "bridges," small plastic strips (also in either red or blue) which can be placed across two adjacent pieces to connect them in such a way that the two squares become a small celtic knot. An example of what I'm talking about can be seen on the Sacred Hill page (although the version pictured there is the deluxe version; I have the basic version in which the board is cardboard and the colour on the pieces is darker but more visible).

The game takes place in two stages: the first is manouevres. The two players take turns placing their pieces on the board wherever they like, so long as it is not closer than a knight's move (an L-shaped move of two spaces in one direction and one in a perpendicular direction) from any of their already-placed pieces. Once you can no longer place new pieces, you move to the second stage of the game: battles.

This name is a little misleading. In the battle stage, players place their pieces adjacent to already existing pieces on the board. When you place a piece, you must use the bridges to connect it to all of your pieces adjacent to the new piece. Thus, your pieces become linked together into larger and larger networks of celtic knotwork.

The reason I think the term "battles" is misleading is because the object of the game is to have the fewest number of "kingdoms." A kingdom is any single set of interconnected pieces of your own colour (the pieces, by the way, are called "ring forts" in the rulebook, while each space on the board is called a "hill"), whether it's a single unconnected ring fort, or a sprawling mass of twenty connected ring forts. Thus, it is generally not to your advantage to capture your opponents forts, unless doing so will enable you to connect two kingdoms that weren't previously connectable. However, it is often wise to have your own forts captured, as this reduces the number of kingdoms you possess.

You may only capture single unconnected ring forts. You do this by surrounding it on all available sides (four for a piece in the middle of the board, three for a piece on the side of the board, and two for a piece in the corner). On your turn, if you have any of your opponent's pieces "threatened" in this manner, you must capture it. This is done by removing the threatened ring fort and replacing it with one of your own. Capturing is done as your turn; that is, instead of placing a ring fort as normal.

As a result of this, it turns out that it is often preferable to develop a single ring fort into a kingdom and leave all your other unconnected ring forts alone as long as possible in the hopes that your opponent will have no choice but to capture them, thus reducing the number of your kingdoms. Likewise, you normally will want to avoid capturing your opponent's ring forts. This is especially true since the moment you connect two ring forts, even if there's only two forts in a kingdom, they cannot be captured.

Once there are no more empty spaces on the board, count up the number of kingdoms you have. Whichever player has fewer wins. If you have the same number of kingdoms, then the player with more territory (more ring forts on the board) wins. This is the one way in which capturing your opponent's forts is actually beneficial, but in my experience, it can be very hard to know when to go for the territory option as opposed to the number-of-kingdom options.

As for the asterisk noted under Appearance above, the game is visually quite remarkable. I was tempted to rate it as "Ideal," because the pieces are designed so that if you press down on one corner, it will tilt up and raise the opposite corner so that you can easily remove it from the board. I thought that was ingenious, but unfortunately, that design was hampered by the bridges used to connect the ring forts. They were designed to be easy to put in place, but in my experience, the design doesn't help as much as perhaps it could, but does almost reduce the attractiveness of the pieces.

Anyway, that's my review of Sacred Hill (or whichever other name you want to use for the game). If you like, you can see a Flash demo on their website. And with that, I bid you, Game on!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

PC Group

Hello, and welcome to another fun-filled week of the Game Dork's gaming corner! This week, I'm going to talk about the adventuring party.

You all know the scenario: "You're in a tavern. There's a mysterious stranger sitting alone in a corner." Or, perhaps, "Someone comes over to your table." And before long, this character is recruited to join a party of people he has never met before to go off on some whirlwind adventure of killing monsters and taking their treasure, with the added benefit of some extra prize at the end of the story.

I used to run stories like that. That was all my gaming group would ever do, when we started a game. We'd each write up our individual characters, and then the GM would have to scramble to find some way to get the characters together. Often, he'd fail, and the characters would realise they have no reason to work together, and the game would fall apart.

The first time we tried to do it differently was our failed experiment in actually using the pack rules from Werewolf. But later, I decided to try a more cohesive approach, and it worked very well, actually. Now I do it every time.

What I do is I sit the gaming group down before chargen and say, "Before you write up your characters, decide how your characters know each other. I don't care why you're all friends, but you're all part of some group that has been together for a while and is likely to stay together."

A few memorable ones:

  • the PCs were all actors in a performance troupe.
  • The PCs were soldiers in the same unit, still together years after their enlistment ended.
  • One PC ran a boarding house, and the others were all tenants in that house.

Once the players know how their characters are connected, they are free to write up whatever character they want. But having this pre-existing bond enabled me, as a storyteller, to skip the "You're going on a quest with these other people that you've never met before" stage and get right to the first plot hook.

As if that weren't incentive enough (and if you don't think it is, you've obviously never GMed for a typical gaming group), there's the added incentive that intra-party conflict is MUCH less likely. I once tried to GM a game of The Whispering Vault (in which the characters are spirits who form teams to seek, capture, and return rogue spirits who are plaguing the world). The very nature of this game involves groups of people working together. The first player writes up a character who he describes as a loner, as someone who prefers to work on his own.

How am I supposed to deal with that? I'm not running two games at the same time, here. You're either in the party or you're not. It's bad enough when the characters split up and you have some players sittling idly aside while the rest get to have all the fun. But to start the game that way and expect it to continue in that manner is just wrong.

I ended up starting that character by saying, "Normally, you like to work on your own, but you get the feeling that this adventure may be just a bit too big to handle by yourself." The player complained about me co-opting his character concept, but seriously, I've got a game to run here, and I don't need your maverick loose-cannon loner making it more difficult.

The advantage to the pre-existing party concept is that if you want to write up a loner character, you can. But you'll still have a connection to the other PCs, and a reason to work with them without it being out of character. Even real-life loners have SOME friends.

But that's my suggestion. Have the players define their own group before they even write up characters, so that they'll know their characters will work together (at least to an extent). It will make things so much easier in the long run.

And that's it for this week. Tune in again next week for more of the Gaming Corner! Until then, game on!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hack and Slash vs. Storytelling

For those who don't know, I haven't been able to do any gaming now for over two years. Moving to a new country can have that effect; I haven't yet been able to find anyone to game with over here. There's been talk about gaming via Skype, but that won't be for a while yet. It's kind of frustrating at times.

But it has given me plenty of time to analyse and think about gaming in more general, abstract terms. Especially since I recently acquired the second Order of the Stick prequel book, Start of Darkness. Reading that made me want to reread the entire series, which I've been doing. And as I read that story, I'm struck by the intense plotline.

For those that don't read it (and I highly recommend that you start), there's the good guys (the titular Order of the Stick), and then there are the main bad guys (the lich sorcerer Xykon and his goblin lackey Redcloak). But then there are the secondary bad guys, the Linear Guild. Then we have other key players, like the paladins of the Sapphire Guard, and the Thieves' Guild in Greysky City. Not to mention loads of bit players, like the oracle of Sunken Valley, the Cliffport City police force, and the bandits of Wooden Forest.

What I really like about OOTS is the way that the characters are dynamic, plausible, round characters with a lot of development and growth. The characters have changed over the 600+ installments of the series, and the group dynamics are always in flux. Despite being stick figures, author Rich Burlew is capable of making us feel real compassion for the characters. Even as early as strip number 56, he had fans outraged at the nearly-fatal betrayal of one of the OOTSers, and then in number 84, he had them crying with the "saddest. comic. ever."

This is particularly impressive given that when he started the comic, it was meant to be a series of unrelated strips poking fun at rules intricacies. But he introduced an overarching plotline with fully developed, rounded characters, plots, subplots, sidequests, romance, intrigue, betrayal, adventure, action, excitement... sorry. Got a little carried away there.

What intriuges me about this is that the same people who so dearly love this comic are those who very likely sit down at the gaming table for an evening of "kick in the door" style gaming. It just amazes me that the level of storycrafting that they so adore in OOTS should be so anethema to them when their own GM tries to introduce it into their games.

Just a little something I've been thinking about lately, as I devise intricate plotlines for a game that I will likely never run for a group that doesn't exist. Until next week, game on!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Resurrection

Welcome to another week of the game dork's gaming corner! Today is Easter, so I thought I'd talk about the "revolving door afterlife."

Specifically, I am thinking of games (most notably Dungeons and Dragons) in which a dead character can be brought back to life to continue adventuring. Often, this takes all the meaning out of death, since you just come right back again mere moments later and pick up as if nothing had ever happened.

I am particularly amused by a tiny detail (many people may even fail to notice it) in the book On the Origin of PCs, which is a prequel volume for the Order of the Stick. At one point, Roy is standing in a graveyard speaking to the tomb of his father. Off to the side is a plain tombstone labelled something like "Oortak the Unlucky: 1134-1152, 1152-1153, 1153-1153, 1154-1155, 1155-1155, 1155-1156" (I don't currently have the book; I've loaned it to a friend, or I'd go and find the actual inscription).

But it just proves my point: What's the point of death if you just come right back? Oops, a minor inconvenience, the cleric must use on of his spell slots (and if your group is keeping track of these things, enough gold to cover the material components). Now, on with the game!

I suspect that for a lot of people, especially the Power Gamers, it's just another form of video game. "I lost a life! I hope I get another 1-up soon!" Or, as someone in one of my gaming groups once said, "Can we save so we can reset if we screw up?"

I was in a game once in which my character died. It was totally my fault; I knew I was taking a major risk, and I rolled poorly, and so I died. I was all set to make a new character, when suddenly the GM started talking about how the character found himself in some sort of demonic underworld where some fiends were talking about how I was going to be their agent in the mortal world, and I was suddenly sent back with some nasty new flaws. I was particularly upset that my control over my character had been usurped, especially in such an unpleasant manner. The game session ended then, and we never returned to that story, else I would have had my character commit suicide.

Again, I think this is probably a result of the fact that I am a Storyteller/Method Actor, but I think that death, when it happens, should be a serious deal. I was GMing a Changeling game in which one of the characters died. I took the player aside and offered her two options: we could translate her character to Wraith, or we could write up a new character. She chose to play a wraith. She talked on occasion about finding a new body, but it never happened. For the rest of the story, she was a wraith.

But that's my theory. If a character dies, let them stay dead.

And with that, we conclude another week of gaming essays. Until next week, game on!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Realism

Welcome to another week of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner. Today, I'd like to talk about a realisation I had while rereading Order of the Stick for about the 27th time.

Many of the jokes in that comic revolve around idiosyncracies in the rules. The characters frequently make fun of the Attack of Opportunity rules in Dungeons and Dragons. They have often poked fun at experience points and the level system. These jokes are common topics of humour and/or complaint amongst gamers. People often complain that the rules system isn't realistic.

And yet it occurs to me that they're playing a game in which you take on the roles of elves, dwarves, orcs, and gnomes, encountering goblins, trolls, dragons, and umber hulks, fighting them with swords, magic spells, magic rings, and arrows.

I've mentioned this before, but I still find it quite amusing that people can get so upset over what they perceive to be flaws in the rules, or variations in the rules, or deviations from the rules... and so forth.

But it strikes me as particularly odd that people can get so hung up on realism in a game about mythological creatures casting spells at one another. Seriously, why get angry if the rules system does not accurately portray the effects of a halberd on the flesh of a living creature, when the same player will happily have his character wave his hands and chant in an ancient language that never existed in an attempt to cause a large quantity of electricity to jump from his fingertips and kill a zombie?

I realise this probably comes from the fact that I am a Storyteller/Method Actor, but can't we all calm down a little and just enjoy the story? Especially when the players who rant most vehemently about a rules flaw is also the most likely to unashamedly exploit a loophole to maximise the power of his own character.

Anyway, I think that's enough for this week. I'll see you here again next week.  Game on!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jurgi Deathbringer

Last week, I mentioned Jurgi Deathbringer. I think this week, I'll describe him in more detail.

As I said, Jurgi was a Werewolf character. I wrote him when my gaming group tried to use the pack rules for the first time, but chose a pack totem without waiting for me to get home from work. In a fit of anger, I tried to show them how stupid it is to play combat monsters. So I wrote the most min-maxed character I could.

He was an ahroun (the warrior caste) from the Get of Fenris tribe (the most savage, bloodthirsty, and warlike tribe there is, as well as one of the most arrogant). I maxed out his physical stats, gave him the lowest possible intelligence score, and then put all his social points into his appearance. Then I took the flaw "Hideous," which reduced his appearance to zero, resulting in a socially inept monster.

All his skill points went to combat abilities. All his gifts were combat optimised. And I gave him a hatred of every other were-creature that existed. My hope was the other players would see how ridiculous a character like this actually was, and start playing more realistic characters in the future.

My plan backfired.

They loved Jurgi. They thought he was hilarious. I only remember playing him once or twice, and I don't even remember any of the details of those sessions. But after that, he took on a life of his own.

John's character in that game was Howls at Hells, a bizarre character whose most memorable feature was his ongoing rivalry with a mummy. The mummy had once blinded Howls at Hells by replacing his eyes with burning coals. Howls at Hells had left the coals in his eye sockets, so that when it rained, he appeared to be crying thick black tears. Howls at Hells became fond of Jurgi for some reason. Later, when John GMed, he would often use Howls at Hells and Jurgi Deathbringer as NPCs.

Somewhere along the line (I think probably as a result of his name), Jurgi picked up a ludicrious accent that resembled the Muppets' Swedish Chef: Unicorn says I must heal him. Who must I heal?

My most vivid memory of Jurgi is when another character I was running encountered him and Howls at Hells. They had knocked on our door, and when we answered, Jurgi said, "I am Jurgi Deathbringer, Modi of the Get of Fenris." Howls at Hells snapped, "Don't say that, you idiot!" Jurgi answered, "Why not? It's my name." Howls at Hells put his head in his hand, sighed, and without looking up, said, "Look, Jurgi. A weresquirrel." Jurgi said, "Weresquirrel? I must kill it." And off he went...

I don't really know what the point of this is. But it was an interesting story, I thought. So now you're stuck with it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Surrogate Characters

Welcome to another week of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner! Today, I want to talk about an idea I had some years ago.

Some of you may remember that, when I described the different gamer types, I said that I was about 60% Storyteller and 40% Method Actor. This makes it hard for me when I'm in a gaming group that is mostly Butt-Kickers/Power Gamers/Tacticians. There was one occasion specifically when we were preparing to play a game of Werewolf. At that time, we were not using the pack rules (summary for those who need it: a gaming group in Werewolf: The Apocalypse is supposed to work together to create a pack of characters with a specific purpose, either long-term or short term, and each character should set aside some of their points to pool with the other players for the purpose of purchasing a "pack totem," a spirit that grants each pack member certain powers in exchange for following a particular code of behaviour). We would each just write up our individual characters, who would meet as normal and find themselves engaged in some adventure together.

I was excited by this, and was quite looking forward to the first session, where we were supposed to discuss the issue of pack totem and come to a consensus as to which spirit we would adopt as our patron. However, when I got home from work that evening, I was dismayed to hear that the other players had chosen a totem without my input. I was mostly upset that they had not bothered to include me in the discussions, but I was also upset that they had chosen Fenris, the most savage and warlike of the totems.

This led to the creation of Jurgi Deathbringer, but I'll detail him in another post. But it highlighted to me that my fellow gamers were not as story-driven as I was. At the time, since I was not the mature gamer that I am now, it didn't occur to me that some players like gaming just because they want to KILL (I'm avoiding quoting the Arlo Guthrie song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"). So I started thinking about how I could try to get the other games to appreciate a more story- and character-driven game. And I came up with this idea.

Get a group of gamers. Have each player create a character as normal. Then have each player pass their character to the player on their right. Have each player play the character they are now holding in their hands.

For some players (notably, the Power Gamers and Butt-Kickers), this won't make much difference. If they are unfortunate enough to be sitting next to a player who doesn't normally combat-optimise his characters, they may be frustrated by their inability to kill monsters. Otherwise, they will happily commit the same sort of violent mayhem they normally do, just using a different set of stats. Storytellers will likely enjoy the challenge, and Method Actors probably will as well, unless they get a standard two-dimensional character from a player who doesn't care for characterisation or plot. Tacticians and Specialists could go either way. Casual Gamers will probably not care.

But, if you have a willing group, this could be a potentially exciting exercise. I haven't yet had a chance to try this technique myself, but I would still like to at some point.

So, I encourage you to try it for yourself, and let me know how it works for you, and I'll see you here again next week!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Board Game Review - Kill Dr. Lucky

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned the game Kill Dr. Lucky. I think the time has come for me to review that game. The system, for those who need it.

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Average
Expected Length of Game Play: one-half hour to one hour.

Kill Dr. Lucky is intended to be a "prequel" to
Clue (which is known outside of the United States, for reasons that I don't pretend to understand, as Cluedo). It is an inversion of Clue, in that the players are not trying to find out who killed the victim, but are trying to kill the victim themselves!

The game is produced by Cheapass Games, and it shows. The "board" is a folded paper map of a mansion. The only other items in the game set (aside from the rules, of course) is a set of cards. Players must provide their own tokens to represent their pawns on the board.

Game play is simple: move through the mansion. Dr. Lucky moves one space on each player's turn, following a predetermined path through the mansion, and moves an additional space after each failed murder attempt. As the game progresses, players draw cards. Some of the cards represent weapons, which can be used to attempt to kill Dr. Lucky. You may only make this attempt when you are alone in a room with Dr. Lucky, and no other player can see into your current room. That is, none of the other player's pieces are in a room that has "line of sight" into your room (this is my second biggest complaint for this game; on a paper map of rooms of irregular size and shape, it can sometimes be difficult, and usually annoying, to determine who has line of sight).

The majority of the cards, however, are "failure" cards. When a player attempts to kill Dr. Lucky, the other players have one opportunity each, in clockwise order, to play a single failure card. If the combined value of the failure cards played against an attempt equals or exceeds the value of the attack, then the attempt fails, and Dr. Lucky moves a room away.

This forms the core element of the game: a player attempts to kill Dr. Lucky, and the other players play failure cards to prevent it. Theoretically, a player can opt to play no failure cards, as a bluff attempt, or to deplete other players' hands, or just to maintain their own reserve. However, given that an insufficient number of Failure cards will result in the attacking player's victory (and thus, the end of the game), it is unlikely that many players will do this often.

Thus, we have what is my biggest complaint of the game: it ends up being a "Who's the first one with a chance to kill Dr. Lucky after the card deck has been emptied?" scenario. I think the game had potential, but by the end, I just wanted to say, "We can skip all the boring parts where we play cards and jump to the part where we see who's the first alone with him when there are no cards available." The game would have been faster (and in my opinion, more enjoyable, though not much so) if the cards had been eliminated completely. First one in the room with him wins!


This is referred to by a reviewer on boardgamegeek.com as the '4th player wins' effect: when a player tries to manouevre themselves into 4th place in order to win the game. I mentioned this briefly in my post about Munchkin Quest. The winner is not determined by the actions or decisions taken by the player, but by the order in which you happen to go.

Of course, there are other draws for this game. Some people are amused by the role-reversal from standard
Clue, and by the attempts at humour written on the failure cards, or enjoy games of luck (i.e., games with a high Randomness rating). I'm not one of those. But if you are, then you may enjoy this game. I'd like to hear it if so; please remember that there are comment links on this (and every other) post. Don't be afraid to use them!

So that's all for this week. Until next week: Game on!