Monday, July 30, 2007

D&D Social Interaction II: A Response

I don't think 2nd Edition or 3rd Edition are really "D&D." They are games that try to emulate D&D, but both have so many "patches" to cover the wholes in regular D&D, that effectively, it's not the same game anymore.

3.0 would have been an earth-shattering product in 1990 when 2nd edition released. Now it's a tiring game that is losing steam because the momentum that got us into 3.0 is slowly fading... and it isn't enough to keep us there.

Too many bad ideas in too many 3rd party products have splintered the idea of what d&d potential is, that no one publisher is really making the dark, assyria-inspired, fallen kingdoms, d&d of the 1970s.

A game, even without a world, must have flavor. 3.0 didn't have flavor, but the ADs in charge of the game are slowly adding one to all the 3.5 products that come out.

The flavor is transparent. They call it "punk" in their style guides and as the artists to add more warhammer-inspired imagery to the game.

But this has little to do with 1/2 the mechanics of the game, which are mired in minutia. The rules for attack of opportunity and grappling have to be the stupidiest things i've ever seen in a professional product.

These need to be fixed. Badly.

My concepts for fixing the social system actually make the game more D&D than ever. 1st edition has almost ZERO rules for interaction, bluffing, diplomacy, and so on. Certainly gathering information was a seat of the pants exercise by DMs with little to no understanding of game balance.

Even to this day, charisma is a useless stat, maybe even more so than the original game which gave my followers a bonus to morale saves. Now it modifiers six skills that i would never put on any character sheet in 3.5.

D&D must remain slightly generic in order to maximize sales. Thousands of fans already have their home-brew worlds. They don't need Eberron (and really... who does?), or Grayhawk or Earthdawn or these other products.

But it must also inspire flavor. There must be a theme. And that theme should enhance game-design whenever possible.

If we remove specialized classes from the game (bard, barbarian, druid, monk, paladin) and pull back the point of the remaining classes, we see that Cha and Wis have no place in the game. We see that none of these classes cares about "Bluffing" guards or rolling a die to see what they overhear in a tavern.

The players of these characters might, but the design of these characters (to date) has not. Clerics have a WIS bonus to spells, in order to distinguish WIS from INT. Otherwise, they are the same stat. And clerics are a whole 'nother discussion for another time.

While my ideas cannot help all D&D players, I believe they can help most. They streamline play without changing the game into something else. Yes, I realize that a character sheet with CHA on it doesn't feel like D&D, but four different skills to interact with people doesn't feel like D&D either.

Look for more ideas from me in coming months, especially as 4th Edition gets closer.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Fellowship of the Lost

Below is a post I made to the story-games.com forum. I am reposting it here, because the Fellowship post (at the end) was kind of juicy.

Let me use three examples of TYPES of games I run (as I try not to use the same methods over and over) and maybe that'll frame the conversation a little differently.

Let's say I'm running Warhammer Fantasy (or something similar). The PCs start as complete neophytes. This is purposeful. WHFRP's entire game world is built on this model. Life is cheap. Social darwinsim. All that. Eventually the PCs start caring about the world around them and grow in power so they can affect the world around them. This isn't for everyone, I recognize.

Now. At the end of any of my game sessions, there should be numerous dangling plot-threads, NPCs that have gotten away, and plenty of questions that the PCs want answered. This is how i run. It's not how everyone runs the game. The campaign ends when I see it's time to end it, and I start building momentum for the finale. The game always end with at least two villains to thwart and not all of them within arm's reach (no time to kill everything). Its very possible the characters can die trying to "win." It is very likely, they will be affected by the story.

Now. Let's say I'm running an Indie RPG. Dogs is a good example. Because I really like it and I have enough command of the rules to tinker.

I love to tinker.

In dogs, the PCs make their characters ahead of time, from home, and we roleplay the first few days of their campaign lives through e-mails and when they finally meet, they have more command of their character's voice. Unless your gaming with actors, most people (I've found) need a few hours to really find their voice. The PCs meet, through the church/mission/temple and are told... spread god's word. They aren't told how. They aren't told where. And they aren't railroaded or shoehorned. Hell, if I do my job right, I've made 10 towns for them to visit and I let them choose one. But I probably wouldn't do that much prep-work.

Seeing what the PCs are doing, I'm likely to throw subplots at them, tailored to their characters. I'm likely to distract their "plans" with minor moral inconveniences (timmy fell in a well? and he's a sodomite?). I'm likely to expose them to events outside the "walls" of their world. I'm likely to drop them on the edge of a civil war or some large scale event that's about to affect their world in meaningful ways.

And with the right players, I'm likely to do nothing and just sit back and watch them take over.

Because I believe (and this is just my POV) that dogs cannot be campaigned forever, at a certain point I need to start wrapping it up, which means ratcheting the tension and abbreviating the amount of things they can do with their time. This is all administrative folderol. There's no way to write rules for it. You just have to sense what your players can handle and what they need.

Now. Let's say I'm running Vampire (or any city-oriented game). My city games are massive relationship mapping undertakings (not that I ever used this term until I met Josh). It's sort of like playing a tabletop version of Elder Scrolls (or whatever that video game was called). But instead of worrying about hit points and skills, you are concerned about standing and ambition. Other characters in the world are moving just as fast as you are. They are not just sitting in a night club somewhere waiting for the stereotypical meeting with the heroes while strippers giggle behind them in some Michael Bay-esque self-efacing charade. Instead, the NPCs are out collecting friends, buying stolen weapons, importing drugs, stealing candy from babies, and essentially upsetting the balance of the game's ecosystem. If the PCs sit back and do nothing, the world is still going to change. If the PCs get involved, the world is going to change more.

Short of ziplocking me right into a game box, though, I've yet to find a way to do this... but I'm working on it. COIL will be my first attempt at multi-character storytelling and city-wide roleplaying.

With the exception of Dogs, my games do not have a set "plot." I have world laws that I must adhere to (so I can't cheat anyone) and a paper-mache story framework that I can tear apart and mold into something else at a moment's notice, but I rarely have a plot the first night we game. In other words, imagine you wake up one morning and you don't want to go to work... what do you do instead? The game is a blank canvas. Once the PCs begin to poke and probe the game world do I get a sense of what they really want to do and how I want to pace the game.

And even with dogs, I don't force-feed them anything. But I build a settlement for them to explore.

These styles, do not play well in 4 hours. A lot is lost when you only have enough time to reveal characters, unearth the plot, uncover one or two complications, and footrace your way to finale.

That's my impression anyway.

Although, I hear the 8-hour Mountain Witch games at the local con are great, however. Because they have more "stages."

And of course, combine all of this with... I write RPG material (both mainstream and smallpress), fiction, essays, poetry, comic book scripts, movie reviews, and game convention adventures... all to completely different audiences... you can understand why I would ask these questions.

Finally, to address your comments about the Fellowship. This game isn't about winning and beating Nezzeroth. In a lot of ways, they can't fully win. But that's sort hard to explain without saying too much. Essentially, the game is about, what do you do... when you've spent 26 years of your life failing over and over and finally you get a lucky break and then that lucky break starts to smell like all the other lucky breaks... when do you say, enough? when do you say, where has my life gone? when do you say, the world isn't worth saving? why should i do this when no one cares? The world of Raavnia (the one I built that it's set in) doesn't hail adventurers as savoirs, but instead treats them with scorn, because they always bring more trouble then they are worth. The PCs (despite their valiant quest... and it's quite complex... the character sheet is 4-5 pages) are just another band of opportunists.

In short hand, imagine a fantasy version of Wild Bunch, where no one has ever seen the Mexican army, and William Holden is an indecisive idealist, Ben Johnson is an eastern orthodox priest who has turned his whole life upside down to be part of this fruitless quest, Warren Oates is repressed and outcast dwarf ashamed of his and Ernest Borgnine is Steve Buscemi in Ghost World (providing some of levity to the tone of the game). There's one more character, but I don't have an equivalent for her.

Legolas is a virgin in my game. Does that count for anything?

Now. Taking a step back. The Fellowship of the Lost follows all the criterion of a story-game (in my opinion... last time we played we rolled dice four times in twelve hours), but it has none of the schwa of an indie game (although I could very easily run it with mountain witch). Does that forsake it from being playable con game fair because neither the SG nor non-SG crowd find it in their comfort zones?

Does playing a vampire game where you're not answering to the prince and being handed quests every session detract from the vtm model enough? or too much?

Is fantasy so passe and/or apocryphal that any game with spells is going to be ostracized out of hat?

Is there a theme that would capture your attention in a convention book (or anywhere) to steal 14 hours of your time that isn't World of Warcraft?

If these questions aren't relevant to you, can you see how they might be relevant to someone you know? Does that influence your fun?

(I'm really just typing questions now. I've written a lot here and I hope you feel comfortable addressing more than just these last questions I've raised.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

D&D Social Interaction


As everyone knows by now, I want to remove Wis and Cha from D&D. In fact, if I could, all three MENTAL attributes would be removed from the game and be replaced with a Social token system.

Weapons and magic would become skills, so the more skill points you spend on magic, the better you are at casting spells. This is the equivalent of a spell bonus from a high INT.

In order to emulate the loss of Charisma, everyone gets Social tokens (at least 1), based on how many point you put into this state during character creation. You can't have more than 5. The Social tokens are used anytime the PCs are engaged in a social situation. They are effectively a WIN of socializing. But they are also used in place of knowledge (arcana) and all those other useless skills that get rolled once per session.

They help with languages too.

Oversimplification.
We need to know where the orc camp is. I ask around. Spend a token. Ah. Found a map.

Talk to the guard over there. See if he'll let us in. Spend a token.

I know a little bit of the orc language. It sounds like their inviting us in for cookies. Spends token. Nope. They want to eat the gnome. My mistake.

Can you cut the price on this sword by 10%?

Hey. Monster. Look over there.

These runes look familiar.

I have a friend in BlackGard that knows a guy who lived a girl who owned a shop that sold those magical components. They also took in black pearls in trade and even blessed magic items. No lie.

And so on.

It's just theory at the moment. I'm redesigning it as we speak.

ADDENDUM: Check out this thread on enworld.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Marketing to Gamers: A Theory

Paul Tevis and I were "chattin' it up" today in an all anime catgirl chat room .... er... um...

moving on...

We were discussing Convention attendance and what sorts of games people play.

I asserted that people wanted episodic Buffy-style games, with little depth or planning. Most people wanted to minimize their exposure to new ideas, even though they wouldn't mind playing a NEW game. Dogs, for instance, might draw in players because of the theme or mechanics, but the game SHOULD and MUST adhere to a typical THREE ACT RPG session, lest people be confused. The villain must be clear cut and the decisions on who to kill and who to save be obvious.

Anything else might leave people wondering if they had a good time.

Paul contended that people want to have fun, but they don't want to risk have just a little fun for a game that is radically different from their "comfort zone." (I'm paraphrazing. Paul's a big kid. He can make his own assertions.)

Anyway.

Imagine the following scenario. GM lists FOUR games in a local convention catalog. Maybe his name is even listed next to the events. Doesn't matter. All of the descriptions are pulled directly from the backs of the rulebooks. All identical to the last time he ran games at the con. All with zero or little prep and most requiring the players to make characters when they sit down. It's not unrealistic and I know some good GMs that do this on a regular basis.

My opinion is three-fold.

One. I think people like rolling dice. It does not matter how compelling a story is. If they get to roll dice and take umbrage with GOOD and BAD die rolls (especially good), then they have "won something" somehow. This means that games with little-to-no die rolling may not be received as well as token, freeform, diceless, experimental, or "arbitrary" games [Mark Valiantos' Satanic Mills uses no dice and it's awesome.]

As an aside, every gamer knows the guy with the "worst die-luck ever." Yawn.

Two. I think gamers would rather be "pacified" with their entertainment, rather than risk something with a high good/bad ratio of fun. This extends to all nerds. Comic book fans. Anime fans. Check out Marvel comics or any robot anime. How many people just want a solid movie, rather than risk seeing something like Ghost Rider or Fantastic Four which has SUCK written all over it, but might have a gem. Okay. Bad example. How many people would watch an Anime named HIDE AND SEEK instead of an anime named GUNDAM 7000XYZ.

HIDE AND SEEK (to me) is the best anime I've ever seen. GUNDAM 7000XYZ is the same tired old crap GUNDAM always makes. But it's safe, because you know how it's going to end.

To use a gaming analogy, imagine an RPG session where the PCs have to kill an NPC, but they don't know which one is truly evil... everything is hearsay and conjecture. The game is no longer a morally BLACK/WHITE game with an obvious LICH adversary.

How unfulfilled would a gamer feel, knowing that his/her decision might have far-reaching and unpredictable implications?

That's HUGE.

Which brings me to my final point.

Three. I think people are very concerned about their own fun, but maybe not the fun of everyone they are playing with. They might even show up for selfish reasons. This is not an attack. Additionally, many people lacks the skills necessary to evaluate and explain why they love or hate something. They just do... and they form opinions quickly... that cannot be changed. D&D Sucks and that's the end of it. Mad Scientists ruin games. End of discussion. Charisma is a useless stat. Move on.

Game industry companies deal with this ALL THE TIME.

It's a fascinating phenomenon. I doubt Pepsi has this problem.

You have a consumer base that can form opinions without tests, without evaluation, and without education. I don't need to know how to write a story, but I can certainly evaluate that THIS ONE is stupid.

And it basically means you have to always be perfect, all the time. Or at the very least mediocre. You can't risk telling a new kind of story and you're unlikely to expand your threshold of acceptability. Mixing mediums is acceptable, so long as the story ends the same way a D&D game would. Otherwise your book on halfling druid machine monkey men not be taken as seriously as it should.

Anyway. This is not a slight against anyone. But it's slowly becoming a more important part of making/running/enjoying games with others that I find limits my exposure to big ideas or unconventional stories.

This is an unofficial observation/theory. No lab tests were done. No formal studies were conducted. No panels were developed to investigate how accurate these opinions might be in relation to the real thing.

No animals were harmed in this post.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Stranglehold to Release


I've been pretty quiet about this game, because I wasn't sure if I'd get it done in time for GenCon. But I'm in the home stretch, so I'm going to jink this project by announcing it on here.

And story-games.com

Stranglehold is my new wrestling roleplaying game. And yes, I realize there are TONS of wrestling games out there (good and bad), but this is the only one that allows you to RUN a league and emulate an evening of wrestling. Instead of roleplaying a single wrestler, you are the booker who manages a stable of wrestlers, taking on the role of each during important points in the evening.

Stranglehold is about SMACKDOWN, it's not about the Hulkster.

It's the first step in my move to create more and more Macro-oriented games.

Anyway. I'm only printing 50 copies for GENCON ($20 each) and the official edition will be out by the end of the year.

More news soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tide of Iron

I just purchased Fantasy Flight's TIDE OF IRON today, without having ever played it.

Purely on theme.

It weighs almost 15 pounds (I think).

It'll be a while before I get the time to open or play this game, but I think it's gorgeous. The cover is well-rendered and the back of the box hints at some pretty pretty pieces.

I'm sure I could have gotten a deal at GenCon from any of the kids at FFG, but then... how would i get it home?

Anyway. Looking forward to playing it in late August. Ha.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gamer Bling is Up

I made this logo about a year ago. But the site is finally up. Go to the about page to read a joke about me. And pass on Bolme's site to everyone you know.

D&D and You

The more you know.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Order of the Stick Question

okay. if you read OOTS and you read this blog, answer this question for me...

why isn't Roy's death more dramatic?

is it because death isn't final in fantasy settings? because healing fixes everything?!?!

twice now (end of 473 and 474), Roy's death has been the punch line of a joke.

instead, the drama has been deflated and Roy's become the "punk" of the story... i'm not sure if this was intended or not, or if because FANTASY settings in games are filled with so much magic, life and unlife aren't really dramatic events any longer.

i don't even see people on the boards talking about it in that context.

am i missing something?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Theory: The Orc Wars

We had a good session of M&M last night and afterwards James, Joel, Aaron and I stuck around and talked about game design for about two hours.

It's interesting to talk with people who AREN'T designers about what they like and why... finding out how many people still love the tick-tack nature of dungeons crawls and killing orcs.

I'm always amazed that games like World of Warcraft don't satisfy this ADVANCEMENT craving that exists in gamers and that stories and game style haven't evolved beyond "rescue the princess" or "kill the orcs."

When people talk about the "demise" of gaming, I always point to this as one of the causes. Gaming didn't grow up with the consumers. It didn't mature or evolve. The process of "counting" in gaming can be done so much faster in WoW or Everquest or Diablo or whatever you're playing, that tabletop gaming needs to emulate something else other than round after round of sword swings in order to resolve a mere fight with an orc.

The stories aren't more evolved than a Kevin Sorbo movie. The published material is more ego-centric than ever. And the small-minded nature of gameplay is getting smaller.

Before someone gets offended by that last statement, let me explain.

If someone released an RPG where you were a KING of a country, the majority of players would (within hours of playing) begin abusing their power and eventually want to get off the throne and kill something.

This sort of game probably wouldn't sell well if it were about ACTUALLY rulership.

However--this is just an estimate--90% of books publishing under the 3.0 and 3.5 dynasties were targeted at PLAYERS and not GMS, indicating a shift in marketing and publishing to garner more money from the consumer (make more books about the PCs and you can sell 3-5 times as many books).

And this shift leads to an more egocentric role where the books are written about NEW CLASSES and NEW FEATS which benefit players and less source material and world information which benefit the story.

I don't think I'm talking about anything new here.

But I think when you hear people talking about the industry "dying" you have to take that with a grain of salt... weigh that against an industry that hasn't grown up at all and that expects a game to sell, simply because they put it on a shelf somewhere.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chris Grun's Artwork

A friend in the gaming industry who's portfolio is just skyrocketing now.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Transformer's Review

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

It's 1AM on Tuesday. The movie came out 2 days early. Not sure why.

Anyway. I got to see the 8 PM showing of the movie most kids waited 20 years for.

Let me start by saying I was a GI Joe fan as a kid and I had passing interaction with the Transformers craze. I know the characters and that's about it. But, I was really really really excited about this one.

Stupid me.

This film is so good and so bad at the same time... the effects are amazing and the movie goes by quickly. Sadly, you can see Speilberg's AND Michael Bay's stink links all over it... and all at the same time. The main actor (Shia LaBeouf) steals (and carries) all 2.5 hours of this film, even when Turturo and Voight are choking on the ass gas emanating from Bay's poor direction and inability to rewrite crappy dialog.

You know... considering Turturo's career is almost over as an actor, he should probably reconsider these sorts of poorly thought out and poorly executed characters.

Just a suggestion.

The number of Bay/Bruckheimer stereotypes going on inside the GOVERNMENT in this film made me think I was watching Enemy of the State (directed by Tony Scott, but certainly with a little Bruckheimer-Devil on his shoulder twisting Scott's vision, much the way he twisted Bay into a D-class director).

But I digress.

The film opens chaotically, but fairly. In no time, we are pushed from character to character, trying to make sense of the ADD-riddled non-sense that Bay calls a scene. He can neither point a camera, nor direct an actor. What exactly was his function on this film?

Soon enough, we learn that there are ROBOTS on the planet, but we don't know why yet.

Mystery is good. That's fine. Continue.

Sadly, the mystery is blown in a ubiquitous exposition scene and the rest of the film is just masturbation.

So. Without talking ad nauseum about the story, let's talk about the film's vapidness.

The Decepticons don't get any screen time except when it's time to fight and I have no idea who any of them are, indicating the production team's "inexperience" with special effects. And when the Autobots get screentime, they either can't talk (Bumblebee for instance), are ghetto (Jazz is black so all the negro children will buy his toy), or are bumbling idiots (everyone else but Optimus Prime). Making me think that perhaps no one that made this film was ever a child.

And apparently neither ILM or Speilberg has ever made a film with robots in them.

The Decepticons are nothing more than "bad guys" with no motivation, no dialog, and no names. A piece of information so evident that apparently at hour 1.9, someone in the editing room said... um... we should put their name on the screen as the Deux ex Machina rolls out for Act III.

Of course, there's plenty of sappiness in the film, too. The set-up for the finale is so obvious, I don't know what to say. If you don't see it coming, you need to return your brain for repair. And since no real emotion can emanate from the film, all you get are disingenuous feelings from everyone except Sam. So many human characters get shotgunned at the screen, so quickly, I don't recall a single name in the movie, BUT SAM... and you certainly don't care about anyone but Sam (not even his parents or his girl).

Having considerably grown up since working on HOLES -- when Prime and the rest of the "cast" introduce themselves to Sam, asking about magic glasses (god, I wish I were making that up), they all take on really insipid 10-year old marketing antics -- Shia must have felt right at home with the immature and insecure character "introduction" with annoying sickly and saccharine nicknames.

"I'm Jazz, because I like Jazz. I'm Tugboat, because my ass is fat. I'm X-Ray because I've got one eye. I'm stinky, because... I stink. I'm Michael Bay, because I'm a tool."

So many moments when you were supposed to be on your feet cheering, the film is merely "ho-hum." Bay misses every important emotional beat. Either because he can't focus what the movie is supposed to be about, because he can't choose what tone to give the film (it literally flips every 10 minues), or because the graphics and fight scenes are pretty much the same over and over... with no mounting tension. Every robot moves the same way and they all dodge bad guys the same way.

Does Bay know what a storyboard is?

Hell. Megatron is supposed to be the BAD GUY of the film and he gets ONE mention an hour into the movie by Optimus Prime and then we don't see him until hour TWO. At which point he utters five barely memorable lines and battles Optimus Prime in the same tired melee you've seen five previous times in the film between two other clumps of CGI.

Frankly, I'm confused as to why I said this film was good. It was enjoyable, but it barely qualifies as a movie. It has sounds and lights and noise that comes out of things that scream and bleed, but that's about it. There's no real cohesion and nothing resembling quality.

It's like a bag full of moist crap and everyone is marveling at the moisture.

The only true satisfaction I derived from this film came, when the first DECEPTICON (I think it was Soundwave or Buzzsaw or whoever the Helicopter is... yeah the movie was the inarticulate about it's content) came on the screen and transformed.

My wife grew up in South Korea and didn't come to the states until 1989, well-past the expiration on Transformer's fandom. So. She knew nothing of what was coming.

Nothing.

And her surprise and excitement was well-worth the price of admission.

So.

My advice to you.

Take a retard or caveman with you, so you can watch him enjoy the film.

Monday, July 02, 2007

City of Coil X: The Package

How it works together.

While I am presently running the City of Coil using D&D (we roll dice twice a session), I actually intend to develop a complex system of social interaction for a MASSIVE CITY, MULTI-CHARACTER RPG.

The details are sketchy at the moment, but the system will be fluid enough to do anything you want with it and allow NUMEROUS NPCS (technically infinite), while offering nothing in the way of complex spell lists or weapon lists.

More later.

I've also been bouncing around the idea of doing a POD/PDF book called D&D Lite. Or something similar. A stream-lined set of rules that mesh with everything you are presently using, but that make the game easier and faster to play... so you can get right into the story.

Comments or suggestions? Thoughts?