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!