Archive for the 'Roleplaying with Kids' Category

17
May
13

Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.

17
Apr
13

Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.

21
Oct
12

the incredibly murderous hulk (Civil War 1)

stamford meets the rampaging hulk

We started in medias res: the Hulk on an insane rampage in downtown Stamford, CT.  Enter the X-Men, lured here by bad information, and desperately trying to stop the carnage.  Before play even begins, the Hulk has killed the Beast, Shadowcat, and dozens of civilians.  Our scene distinctions?  “Half the city is on fire,” “Downed power lines,” and “The streets are choked with rubble.”  The Hulk has crushed Cyclops’s ruby visor, and hurled Colossus into the middle of the Long Island Sound, where he’s rapidly sinking.  Storm, already frustrated by the Black Panther’s cold feet about their impending wedding, can’t react quickly enough.  It’s a bad place to begin!

Ultimately the players spent nearly all of their energy trying to rescue Colossus.  They weren’t comics-readers, and I should have reminded them that Colossus is able to hold his breath for an awfully long time.   Cyclops commandeered a sonar-equipped cigarette boat from the marina, while Storm created a whirlpool.

The Hulk then tried to stun everyone with a cannonball leap into the Sound.  Storm, at this point boiling over with fury, tried to freeze the Sound and trap the Hulk in ice, but he leaped out and icicles cut Storm pretty badly.  As Colossus climbed up the anchor Cyclops lowered to assist him, the Hulk smashed through their boat on his way down, stranding all of the mutants at sea.  Cyclops confessed to Storm, before they were about to die, that he had always loved her.

Curtain!  More later.

piecemeal review of marvel heroic rpg – civil war event

I have a lot to say about the Civil War Event book, much too much for a single blog post.  To make a serial review palatable to readers I’m going to try to flavor it a bit with our actual play, as well as some adaptation notes and write-ups.

To begin with: I did not read the Marvel Civil War comic books, which were published sometime around 2006.  This Civil War Event RPG thing is my first real exposure to it, other than an occasional Wikipedia browse.  And I have to say, I really feel bad for the RPG designers.  The Marvel Civil War really sounds like a storytelling train wreck, even worse than the late-80’s Claremont Crossovers that basically drove me out of reading comics regularly.

I can imagine the pitch meeting at the Marvel offices very easily.  “Our company became famous in the 1960’s by having heroes fight other heroes.  First, in the Fantastic Four itself, where the traumatized astronauts were constantly at each other’s throats, and then bringing in heroes from other titles for cross-promotion.  But over the decades this has become the cliche Misunderstanding Fight, with little provocation, no decisive outcome, and no lasting consequences.  What if we revisited that–but with everybody fighting everybody, over genuine conflicts of interest, with definite winners and losers, and the whole line changes as a result?”

In broad terms, it’s a fine idea, and exactly what I as a reader would like to see.  But it sounds like the thing really fell apart in execution.  The deal with the Marvel Civil War is that a terrible, 9/11 style tragedy befalls Marvel World, and American population finally decides, “Look, these people need to at least give us their names and addresses.”

So, as the writer, you’ve got to think up a high-stakes, super-tragedy that horrifies the nation.  And you come up with: a super villain nobody remembers murders a team of super heroes no one cares about, as well as half a city that has never mattered in the setting.

That.  Sucks.  (Oh, and spoilers I guess.)

This is the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of having a randomly encountered giant centipede kill an unnamed hireling torch-bearer.  It is . . . a mild misfortune, not a tragedy, and certainly not something to spend much table-time on.  (The poor hireling would be lucky if we don’t laugh over his corpse, frankly.)

Yet spinning out from this terrible humanitarian disaster (which surely must happen every third Tuesday in Marvel World) is an absolutely bewildering number of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots as every single magazine published by Marvel Comics gets drawn into the fray.  As brilliant as the Marvel Civil War concept sounds in principle, in execution (at least from what I can gather) it sure looks convoluted, disjointed, and heavy-handed in execution.

And that’s a really hard problem when trying to do an RPG adaptation.  I feel bad for everyone at Margaret Weis Productions who worked on this, because I suspect they have a better sense of storytelling than the people who actually work at Marvel Comics, and it would have been so tempting to change stuff, but then the die-hard fans would never let them hear the end of it, and who knows what it would do to their license.

That said: the Civil War Event book does a really good job of conveying numerous settings and factions in the Marvel World.  In combination with the scenes mostly described in a play-this-in-any-order-that-makes-sense sort of way, you get certain features of Sandbox Play, though I’ll argue in a later post that this is tricky to truly pull off.  The designers also present you with several different options for each scene, so if (like me) you read the official version and say, “WTF, that’s incredibly stupid,” usually there’s at least one or two ideas that make the scene not only palatable but potentially very cool.

One choice the Civil War Event book makes, which I think is very wise, is to completely frame out the terrible humanitarian tragedy.  Your players aren’t involved in it in any way: they’re doing their usual super hero thing beforehand, and then they get this terrible news, and the story picks up from there.  Usually, if there’s something in an RPG scenario that’s just gotta happen, it’s best to frame past it, so that you don’t have player agency conflicting with the plot’s entire premise.  It was a good choice.  But one I had to undo.

adaptation notes

Tavis’s son is extremely energetic, and a huge fan of the Hulk.  (Hollywood, if you had to cast a ten year old boy to play the Hulk in a movie, this is your kid.)  I’ve wanted to play a game with Tavis’s family for a while now, and it struck me that the Hulk is the perfect guy to unwittingly cause a humanitarian disaster: it’s pretty much his whole deal.

In fact, the Hulk himself is pretty much the poster child for the Marvel Civil War: here’s a dude who saves the world on a regular basis, but in doing so is enormously destructive, presumably leaving a terrible death toll in his wake.  And half the time, he’s a fugitive running around completely unsupervised and almost anything could set him off.

This was enormously clarifying.  The Marvel Civil War, once you get past its dumb-ass club-foot political commentary about the War on Terror, is ultimately a question about the responsible use of anger and violence.  And that’s the core of the Hulk as a character, and the core to most of his supporting cast over the years.  So our game would star the Hulk and his gang, doing their thing.  I explained that we’d begin with the Hulk on a rampage, probably against super heroes who would suffer terribly and die, and then we’d “officially” begin in the aftermath of this rampage with the Hulk’s friends, our real PC’s, showing up on the scene.

(Selecting one group of characters to focus on is pretty helpful here: the Civil War Event book gives you player characters as diverse as Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and the Wasp, none of whom have much of anything in common, and who drag in a whole bunch of totally unrelated stuff.  Again, the designers had to offer a whole bunch of playable characters, but I think this much freedom is a mistake in actual practice and takes away thematic focus.)

But if you’re going to have the Hulk destroy a town and kill a team of super heroes that people care about, who should he kill?  Well: the Civil War is really an Avengers-type of deal, so we probably want to save those characters for later.  The Hulk and the Thing have a huge rivalry, and I didn’t want to give that up so early, which rules out the Fantastic Four.  That leaves the X-Men, who don’t have any strong Hulk connections and thus can be torn out of the universe fairly easily.  Plus 1986 Mutant Massacre storyline, in which the X-Men get completely crippled and broken, blew me away as a kid.  (In the main Civil War storyline, there is growing tension with Atlantis because the Sub-Mariner’s cousin died in Stamford.  Here, killing Storm obliges me to swap in Wakanda for Atlantis, which is just as well.)

links to downloads

Here is the Hulk, courtesy of the good people at Margaret Weis Productions.

Here is my scene-write up for the Battle of Stamford.

My list of Hulk supporting cast, to be featured as PC’s throughout the event.  Most of these characters have official stats now, but I had to make up some for Samson, Sabra, and Scorpion, which are linked out.  (I actually don’t remember ever reading any stories about Samson, Sabra, or the Scorpion, so I kind of made up something that seemed plausible.)

 

28
Apr
12

To Hell with ACKS, Let’s Play Scout Destroyer Unfathomable

Over at the Autarch forums there’s been some discussion of taking the Adventurer Conqueror King System past its current 14th level cap. There are many subtle design and setting-economy challenges involved, which pale before the question so what  comes after King then, huh, smart guy?Fortunately I have a ten year old supply of child labor around the house, which can be usefully put to work on thorny issues like these. As it happens, Javi already solved this one over a year ago. Hearing me talk about names for this thing I was working on, he was like “yeah that’s a pretty good system but it doesn’t go far enough.” Here are the expanded titles he rattled off :

  • -1: Egg
  • 0: Chip
  • 1: Scout
  • 2-3: Wanderer
  • 4: Adventurer
  • 5: Leader
  • 6: Commander
  • 7: Overtaker
  • 8-10: Conqueror
  • 11 – King
  • 12-13: Overlord
  • 14: Destroyer
  • 15: Legend
  • 16: Legend-King
  • 17: God
  • 18-21: Alpha God
  • 22: Controller
  • 23-24: Unfathomable

The first two things written here are eggs and chips, but I think that’s because I recorded this on the leftover Gary Con event ticket I was using for a grocery list.  I can see Eggs as a level title for a zero level character, but leveling up to Chips is harder to explain.

EDIT:

added my guess at their ACKS equivalents, and Egg and Chip 

07
Apr
12

Mixing Virtual and In-the-Room Players in a RPG Session

Tomorrow, Saturday April 7th from 3pm to 6pm Pacific Daylight Time, I will be running a Dwimmermount session using Adventurer Conqueror King on G+. In addition to the usual 4 other players that G+ bandwidth supports, my son Javi and from 1-4 of his cousins aged 10-14 will be joining the party.

When I played 4e with George Strayton’s group, one of the players was often George’s brother in LA, participating via videoconference. In this case, there were so many more people physically present that having one there virtually didn’t make much of an impact. I am interested to see what it will be like with a more even mix of PCs in the room and not. Does anyone else have experience with a similar setup?

As someone who likes to play with big tables, one of G+’s limitations that I chafe at the most is the bandwidth restriction that causes video to break down after about five different channels are active. However, a promising way around this is to have each channel represent multiple players. Following up on my recent exploration of using callers, presumably each group of people gathered around a computer would have one of them announcing their sub-party’s action to the Judge, who coordinates the inputs of everyone on G+ (as well as the players in the room with the Judge) and then describes the results to all.

This is something I’ll be looking to experiment with more in weeks to come. For now, if you’re interested and available Sat April 7th from 3-6 PM Reno, Nevada time  (which is to say, Sunday April 8 from 7-10 AM Seoul time) let me know in the comments or drop me a line at tavis.allison@gmail.com – if you can get some other players together to play in the room with you while we G+ with the players in the room with me, so much the better!

ADDENDUM: We’ll roll PCs at the start of the session, or you’re welcome to use a first- or second-level character from whatever fantasy RPG you like; I’ll work up more detailed FLAILSNAILS conventions if there’s demand. We’ll do mapping on paper held up to the camera and to the people in the room; dice will be done physically by whoever is making the roll, we’ll trust you.

05
Jan
12

On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity

Opening night gaming party for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward. Photo by Timothy Hutchings; pictured are Luke (Burning Wheel), Ray (Compleat Strategist), Stefan (Dwarven Forge), and Peter (Gen Con).

It is not interesting that a great time was had at Adventuring Parties’ event for the opening of Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward show at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. No reader of the Mule requires further proof that it is fun to get together with friends and make new ones by rolling dice and imagining adventures while eating chips and drinking beer. Should it surprise us that it is even more fun when you are also looking at fifteen monitors each displaying a different loop of gaming-related art and supplementing the usual gamer-snacks with wine and cheese?

What’s worth sharing is the knowledge I gained about party gaming. Around the time that the picture above was taken, I was talking about the basic problem faced by anyone who wants to sell roleplaying games as a product: no gamer actually needs a rulebook.  Poland’s first samizdat RPG proved the only thing you need is the idea that it’s possible to use dice and imagination to tell a collaborative story. If I’m correctly understanding the story I heard from some gamers in Krakow, no game-system texts made it across the Iron Curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Just the distant rumors of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons was enough for Polish gamers to whip up Kryształy Czasu and start playing. (The fact that it is known for having insanely complicated charts may be because engineering students had the best access to what their counterparts in the Western world of nerds were up to, or because trends in gaming exist independently of borders or causality).

It was very gratifying when Luke arrived in the middle of this conversation and, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I could collar him to make a point. His unhesitating reply to “what do gamers actually need?” was “More people to play with.”

So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?

We know from the general success of the RPG hobby industry to date that there is a role here for selling game systems: rulebooks and accessories and all kinds of support products. If we want to have more people to play baseball with, it helps if everyone shows up with their own mitt. And even though we don’t really need Big League Chew to play, it’s nice to have. So there is some correlation between how many businesses are trying to sell baseball equipment to people in our community and how easy it is to get a game together on any given sunny day.

The problem is that even a cursory look at the RPG industry shows that a product-driven business model can do as much to drive gamers apart as it does to bring them together at the gaming table.  The Open Gaming License was a great leap forward because it got manufacturers to collectively produce baseball equipment, instead of trying to market the Bases & Balls System to the customers they could splinter from the userbase for Advanced Balls & Bats. But new editions and meta-plot-driven supplement treadmills and requiring a deck of Dungeons & Dragons Fortune Cards to contain a multiple of 10 cards when they’re sold in decks of 8 are typically cases where the publishers’ need to make things outshines the customer’s’ need to buy them.

Last night’s Tower of Gygax event was many things in addition to fun. In part, it was another of my ongoing experiments in ways a business could meet its need to generate money by directly creating the play experience that’s the essence of what gamers need.

I started this post meaning to talk about the results of this experiement. Unfortunately I have to run out to get the stuff for Adventuring Parties’ afterschool class. One new, not unexpected data point is that doing stuff for kids remains the best source of revenue for a RPG service business that I know about. Here all my experimental data just confirms the example of the Roleplay Workshop, the Brooklyn Strategist, and their many counterparts in Israel: parents are accustomed to paying for their kids to have educational/wholesome/creative experiences. I was happy with some of the things I tried last night to get adult gamers to feel like having these experiences themselves was worth money, but the fact remains that we already know how to DIY our own balls and bats; the amount we’re willing to donate to a fun event like the Tower of Gygax seems like the same amount we might spend on Big League Chew.

Tonight’s event is an example of another reason product-based businesses are motivated to create opportunities for gamers to sit down and play: promotion. Here you’re not asking them to pay up front or during the event, because you have something you want them to buy later. In this case Adventuring Parties is promoting the distribution deal for Adventurer Conqueror King that Autarch just signed with Game Salute to get the hardback and PDF combo into stores where this buying and selling can happen. Hooray to Bits & Mortar for helping tie these two halves together! Here is the press release which has some details about tonight’s party.

When talking about money or politics, and their near cousins products and publicity, a hard-boiled tone tends to creep into one’s voice. Also when talking about two companies I’m part of as if they were separate things, I run the risk of A Scanner Darkly dissociation. Before I run off, here are some points I don’t want to be obscured:

  • Buying a shiny new (or enticingly old) product is an important source of a gamer’s recommended allowance of joy, and even if I think DIY playing together at the table should be at the base of this food pyramid, I don’t scorn those for whom buying things is their primary source of RPG fun.
  • The primary goal of just about everyone involved in producing new RPG materials, myself included, is that they want to make it easier to find players for their own favorite kind of baseball. We can’t talk about how business motives distort play without also talking about how individual motives to be like Gygax and have your name on the cover of a beloved gaming book distort business strategies.
  • The #1 way that adults spend money on their gaming hobby is by treating it as a business. Even though I know it will never be anywhere near as profitable as my day job, I passionately seek to get involved in just about every RPG business I can, whether it’s selling products or services or vapors, because I find this to be really, really fun. It’s almost as much fun as playing RPGs, it uses many of the same skills, and you can spend more time doing it.
  • Finally, a bit of hucksterism for the Roleplaying Retirement Home, coming soon, in which being off the hook business-wise means we will be able to spend as much time playing as we want. The return on our willingness to pay for our kids to have educational roleplaying experiences (aka babysitting) will be that they will pay for us to have dignified end-of-life experiences (aka babysitting). Suckers! I know there will be a potion of longevity in one of the many treasure hoards I will loot in my elder years. It will be a long time until you can pry the dice from my cold, dead hand.
23
Nov
11

my son the convention DM

This is Javi wearing his Halloween costume: a green slime in disguise. He will not be wearing it while DMing, as the mask makes it hard to see the numbers on the dice.

In the early years of being a parent, people would talk about how the first year of a child’s life was the best time of all. I believe that this nonsense is part of the directed forgetting we evolved so that humans will have multiple kids and ensure the survival of the species. If we really remembered what it was like to change our shirts six times a day because spit-up leaked through the cloth forever worn over our shoulders, and be woken up at each of the hours of the morning that go wee, wee, wee all the way home, procreation would come to an abrupt halt after we’d done it once.

The thing that kept me going through the various torments of early childhood was the knowledge that the best times were yet to come. Not wanting to be the kind of parent who already has their kid’s college picked out or expects them to follow precisely in their footsteps, I didn’t have specific moments in mind. However, this is definitely one of them: my nine-year-old will be DMing his first convention game next weekend at Anonycon in Stamford, CT. Here is the description we came up with for his event:

D&D Classic – The Dungeons of Ramburgh (D&D 4e)
By Javi Allison. The people of Ramburgh are being tormented by undead monsters from the desert. Will your heroes find fame and fortune in the streets of the city and the dungeons beyond, or will your corpse soon join the ranks of those shuffling toward Ramburgh? This adventure was developed and playtested in the D&D afterschool program at Hunter College Elementary School. Javi is one of the program’s most talented DMs, and will have adult help managing the rules (4E Essentials), but grownups should still expect a different kind of D&D: fresher, funnier, weirder! Paragon-tier pregens will be provided, or you can bring your favorite 11th level characters from LFR or your home game. (Reminder, LFR Characters cannot receive XP, GP or items from this adventure … but players can still have fun. ;-))

The reminder was thoughtfully added by the convention organizers, who put together a great event every year. I’m looking forward to it!

15
Aug
11

Gamerati Tour at NYC’s Compleat Strategist This Thursday

The Gamerati tour is coming to my home town on Thursday, and I’m looking forward to bringing my son and playing some games. If there’s interest, I will run a session of Adventurer Conqueror King, and I will also be trying to talk New York Red Box’s foner into bringing his Brickquest dungeons because my son can’t get enough of making custom mini-fig characters and then defeating monsters to use as spare parts for building new mutant mini-figs.

Here are some details of the event, courtesy of nerdNYC:

Win $25 gift certificate @ Compleat Strategist this Thursday!

How do I win?
– On Thursday, August 18th
– Between 3PM and 7PM
– Go to The Compleat Strategist
– @ 11 East 33rd St (btwn Madison & 5th Ave), NY, NY 10016
– Sign up for the Gamerati newsletter
– Play games!
– 4 random people will win $25 gift certificates (store credit)
– Winners are announced via email on Friday, August 19th

What’s the special occasion?
– The Gamerati Tour is coming to NYC!
– More info: http://tour.gamerati.com/About/
– The Gamerati is touring gaming stores across the US!
– Goal is to encourage gamers to support local gaming stores!

I hope to see some of y’all there!

18
May
11

Illusionism and Improvised Puzzles

A trilithion is three standing stones; a dolmen is a portal tomb. In play I called this a henge, which is wrong.

Like my previous post about illusionism, this is a reflection on the refereeing style I used for the last D&D birthday party James and I ran. To recap, the kids in my group rolled a wandering monster, which I decided to use to provide them with a map leading to the location of two magic items, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. James and I had prepared what these items did, but not where they might be found or what was defending them.

When the griffon-riding adventurers reached the hilltop where I’d told them the map said the horn of the valkyries was located,  I used a wipe-erase board to present the players with a situation map. “At the peak, you see a pair of standing stones, with a third stone laid across the top,” I said, drawing as I went. “Surrounding that is an area that’s scorched and burnt, parts of it are still smoking. You can see some dead bodies lying on the ground in this burnt area. Over here are trees that weren’t damaged by whatever happened here.”

Given that all of this was off the top of my head, what was I thinking? Here are the principles that I was using:

  1. Make it concrete. Drawing a map bought me a little time to think, but more importantly it gave the players a specific set of elements to work with – the trilithion, the burnt area, the zone of safety – each with a graphic reminder that these are the things we’re going to be interacting with in this scene. Vagueness is the enemy because it allows for an overwhelming number of possibilities; pinning myself down to these few elements was important for the same reason that improv actors start a sketch by having the audience provide them with a name, sentence, or concept that they’re going to riff on.
  2. Focus the mystery. The players’ goal is to snag the horn of the valkyries, but when they arrive it’s nowhere to be seen. That sets up a puzzle, which is great, but it also takes away the obvious path to the goal that’s motivating their efforts. I used the standing stones, a genre icon of the mysterious and otherworldly, to quickly suggest a new motivation. Without this hook, the search for the treasure might have become diffuse and frustrating.
  3. Set the stakes. The presence of the dead bodies establishes that something here is deadly; it sends the message to the players that they need to proceed with caution. (I’ve learned not to use the term “skeletons” when playing with kids, because that sends a different message: there’s something here to fight, yay!) I think it’s a good idea to signpost dangerous traps even when they’re planned ahead of time and thus somehow existing independently of me, but since I’m making this all up as I go along, I’d feel like a jerk if I just up and decided that touching the stones zaps you dead. Showing that someone made a wrong move and suffered lethal consequences lets me introduce consequences into play with a sense of fairness.
  4. Establish the limits. As a referee, I’ve learned that putting trash on the staircase will throw players into a frenzy of trying to figure out what’s going on. This can be useful when I don’t know what’s going on, because it buys me at least fifteen minutes to think and also spurs the players to generate lots of conjectures which I can use as inspiration. However, that kind of threat analysis can be paralyzing if it spins out of control. By drawing a perimeter of untouched trees around the area, I was signaling that this much at least is safe, you can get this close and try things out without fear,  in order to forestall an ever-widening panic zone.

So even though many of the kids in this group had never played D&D before, they immediately start thinking like adventurers, eagerly grappling with the problem of how to extract the maximum loot at minimal risk to themselves. Meanwhile, I’m improvising the situation, letting my reactions to their actions and ideas define what’s going on in the world we’re all imagining together.

    • Kids: Is there any writing on the stones?
    • Me: Yes, as you fly over them you can see runes carved into the front of each stone.  This is a no-brainer – it’s impressive how many conventions of the fantasy genre are already known to nine-year-olds – but I draw a sketch of the stones and rune-writing to make it concrete.
    • Kids: Can we read it?
    • Me: I don’t know, why would your character be able to? Throwing questions back is a good reflex for an improv referee. Apart from just buying time to think, it gets the players involved; few will pass up a chance to fill in the details of how and why their character is capable of fantastic deeds.
    • Kid #1: Because I’m a magic-user!  As noted previously, we didn’t have the kids do the character generation process that, from edition to edition, has made sitting down to play D&D ever more like filling out a tax form. However, it seems the basic ideas of classes are also part of the conventions third-graders have absorbed.
    • Me: You can tell that it’s magic writing, the kind that’s used in spells, but you’re not sure what it means. This is because I’m not sure yet either, but we’re closing in on the writing being part of a magical lock or trigger.
    • Kid #2: Let’s send the hippogriff we found down there and see if it gets burnt up!
    • Kid #1: No, it’s an animal and we made friends with it, we can’t make it get hurt!  Although Kid #2 clearly has enormous natural potential as a D&D adventurer, I’m impressed by Kid #1’s convictions. Alignment is another thing we haven’t introduced, but this kind of morality is something I want to encourage and explore…
    • Me: The letters on the top stone light up with a red glow.  So now I’ve decided that the trilithion is a gateway. Only those who prove themselves morally worthy will be allowed to pass through to the Rainbow Bridge, where the Valkyries wait to give the horn to true heroes.
    • Kid #2: Oooh! OK, I want to look at the dead bodies on the ground. Can I tell what killed them?
    • Me: You see the charred bones of humans; some are surrounded by melted metal that might have been armor and swords. These are mingled with what look like the bones of lions with wings. Reincorporation – taking things that have been established before and tying them back in as the story unfolds – is a powerful improv technique for creating meaning, depth, and coherence.
    • Kid #2: Hey, this is what happened to the rider of the griffon we captured! Those guys came here with the map to find the treasure, but they did something wrong and only that griffon escaped! This is good adventurer thinking, of the less morally-questionable variety that I want to reward…
    • Me: The letters on the left stone light up!
    • Kids: All right! What if there’s an item you’re supposed to put into the stones? Someone should fly down there and check it out. Not me, though, I don’t want to get burned!
    • Me: The letters on the last stone turn dark. Now these two are glowing red, but these are a deep black. I’ve decided that the last virtue the gate is looking for is courage, and am signifying that the players are displaying its opposite.
    • Kid #3: I’ll ride my griffon between the stones and see what happens! This kid also has a great D&D career ahead of him, although he’ll roll up a lot more new characters than the guy who herds livestock ahead of him into every potentially dangerous situation.
    • Me: As you bravely descend towards the stone, the runes on the last stone change from black to red. Your griffon soars between the stone, and everyone else sees you disappear! What you see is a rainbow stretching down from the clouds. A knight rides a horse down the rainbow, and as she draws near she takes off her helmet so that her long hair blows in the wind. “You have passed the test and proven yourself worthy of the Horn of the Valkyries,” she says. “You showed Compassion when you chose not to send the griffons to their deaths. You showed Intelligence when you learned from the mistakes of those who came before you. And you showed Courage when you approached the gate despite the danger.”

One definition of illusionism says that

In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same.

I don’t think this kind of illusion of choice is what’s going on here. At some points during the discussion, the kids talked about just flying away from this situation and seeking out the cloak of shadows instead. If they’d done so, the consequences would not have been the same; the scenario didn’t require them to get either magic item, and I would have been just as happy to see them go flying around at random capturing Pokemon and beating up wandering monsters.

However, we are in the realm of “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players dream up,” which some of the commenters on the previous post had problems with. Justin Alexander said:

I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”. I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

And Stuart concurred:

Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.

I would be psyched to have Justin or Stuart playing in my game, so I want to figure out how I could keep them from getting so annoyed they would quit! Let’s first address the issues about honesty and disclosure by imagining that I was explicit about this at the start of the campaign: As you decide where to go in this sandbox, sometimes you’ll encounter pre-planned adventures I’ve placed in a location: modules prepared by others, or less often, completely written out by myself ahead of time. In this case, I’ll pretty faithfully stick to the text to decide what you find when you go there. Sometimes you’ll go places I haven’t prepped for, so I’ll use procedural generation and improv tools like wandering monsters, interpreted on the fly, to decide what you find. And sometimes, to give meaning to things that come up in play and to advance my own DM agendas, you’ll encounter the edges of stuff I’ve just made up, or for which I have some pre-existing ideas about what’s going on without having decided on all the details. I’ll do my best to conceal from you that this is what I’m doing because I want you to engage with these conspiracies, NPC machinations, events in the world, etc. in the same way you would if they were part of a pre-planned adventure, and because I want you to experience your character’s unraveling of this situation as if it were a discovery of something that existed in the world of the game even though it’s really an improvised co-creation.

For Justin and Stweart, and folks who share their feelings: Would this be the point at which you’d say “this isn’t a game I want to play,” or would you get annoyed only if the illusion kept slipping and making it apparent when the content was improvised? And do you foresee that becoming apparent because improvised stuff was annoyingly more shoddy or awkward than the stuff prepped ahead of time?

I feel like, for my style of DMing, the only way I’d include puzzles like the example above is to have them be more or less improvised. The closest approximation I can envision to the situation Stuart describes – wasting time solving a mystery that has no solution – sounds to me like what I fear would happen if I pre-scripted puzzles: wasting time trying to solve a mystery that has no solution that makes sense to the players. One great advantage of improvised mysteries is that they are guaranteed to have solutions that exist in the player’s minds, and specifically the best solution that evolves through play.

I have relatively little experience designing pre-planned adventures, and when I do they don’t tend to include mysteries and puzzles. Presumably if I did, I’d have more of a sense of how to set it up so that the players found their way to the designated solution without getting frustrated or feeling railroaded. As it is, I’m much more comfortable letting both the puzzle and its solution arise during play. The balrog random encounter referenced in the last post became an awesome moral conundrum: will the players decide to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation by sacrificing innocent henchmen to demons? Trying to set up dilemmas like that seems better suited for games with our Indie Filth tag, and even there I often feel claustrophobic when gameplay always gets re-focused on building to the next opportunity to test the characters’ beliefs.

I’m happiest when unplanned elements suggest ways to create puzzles, because I feel like that way the context is appropriate to the situation they’re placed in and the content can reference stuff that we all obviously care about and have in the forefront of our consciousnesses. The fact that these puzzles will usually start with a great lead-in, but not know the great solution ahead of time, seems to me like a small price to pay. But I dig that folks I respect may feel differently, and am eager to understand why.

30
Mar
11

GeekDad: Getting Past Rules When DMing for Kids

The great blog on raising the next generation of nerds, GeekDad, has a post of mine today with advice on “How To Introduce a Kid to D&D Before He Goes Into Surgery“. That title is appropriate enough because it evokes the circumstances I had in mind when I gave this advice, but for a role-playing-savvy audience it might more specifically be called How To Move Past the Rules As Quickly as Possible and Break Through to Improv Psychodrama.

To unpack that from back to front, the reason I felt it was appropriate to reach for psychodrama was the circumstances. Here’s a kid who’s about to undergo a life-changing, potentially lethal experience, and what he wants to do beforehand is to play D&D for the first time. I’m never going to deny the life-affirming virtues of a simple, procedural, rules-bound dungeon crawl; but it seems to me like what this 11-year-old is reaching for is a chance not only to get outside himself into a world of fantasy, but to confront some particular fears and deal with issues of life and death, risk and survival while he’s there.

D&D is for sure a good vehicle for exploring this material, but I felt that it would emerge most strongly & truly by getting outside the confines of a pre-planned adventure and into player-driven improv. There’s a description of a psychologist using play therapy in the urban fantasy novel Minions of the Moon that really stuck with me – the idea that I retained being that when you set out a bunch of action figures and just start playing within this imaginary framework, if the kids’ alter ego reaches the treasure chest they’ve been seeking and you ask “what’s inside the chest?” the answer is going to be the thing that’s really on my mind.

The reason I talk mostly about getting past the rules, but not what to do once you’re into the improv, is that I was originally writing this advice for Edward Einhorn. When the father of the 11-year-old in question approached Edward about DMing this D&D game, I was the guy he thought to ask because I’d recently interviewed Edward about his excellent theatrical adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. That conversation became a lengthy discussion about role-playing games and how they relate to & differ from other kinds of performance art, so he knew that I knew D&D. For the same reason I knew that doing improv and letting narrative emerge from the kids playing their characters was going to be second nature for him. What seemed important to get across was that getting some level of familiarity with the rules should be seen as a necessary pre-condition to gaining the kids’ trust in the imaginary framework, without letting them become an end in themselves.

Finally, let’s talk about why I think it’s important in general to move past the rules. In the comments to the Boing Boing post about my previous post about gaming for kidsshadowfirebird said “How was this D&D? It was certainly role-playing, and I heartily approve. But.”

My experience has been that there’s basically no way to teach kids the full corpus of D&D rules (of any edition) in the time and attention span you’ve got available. It’s something they have to learn for themselves, by poring endlessly over arcane tomes and hashing out the implicatios through many hours of play. What you need to do is get them to hear the music, the sound of valkryies’ horns and axes clanging on shields, so that they’ll be inspired to invest that effort. Going as light on the rules as possible at first helps get kids hooked; once they’re D&D geeks there’ll be time enough for the geeky pleasures of rules-mastery.

I’m hoping with all my being that the kid Edward is going to be running this game for will pull through the surgery just fine and have a long, healthy life ahead of him to devote to rules-mastery or whatever else brings him joy.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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