Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lessons Learned

So I just beat Knights of the Old Republic. I mean seriously, something like 20 minutes ago as of the time I started typing, I finished Knights of the Old Republic. Yep, I just beat an eight year old game, which is about 25 years in Computer Time.

Anyway, the point is, it's a very, very well done game. It was never boring, many of the characters were actually interesting, and it makes some impressive efforts investigating the good/evil dichotomy. I've written down a number of the things that made the story so compelling and the game so fun to play, which I will share with you now, and descriptions on how to adapt these things for tabletoppin':

  • Upgrades, upgrades, upgrades: Through the use of workbenches, the main character can upgrade certain special items. This means that instead of going out on quests to replace your Lightsaber +1 with a Lightsaber +2, you can use items gained from quests (scopes, armor reinforcement) to improve some of the unique items you already have. In my Deadlands game, I've used this idea once already to give the posse a telescopic scope for one of their rifles. It could be used for special ammunition, gems to place in a sword's pommel, or "trauma plates" on wears under armor. The whole point of this upgrade system is that the items are interchangeable between the gear most of the party carries.
  • Quests give you items, not gold: I appreciated that you mostly undertook quests for unique items or favors instead of gold/credits.
  • Frenemies: Even people who oppose you want things from you. Only the villains want only to stand in your way.
  • The Sith are all dicks: This is an important note that I hadn't thought about. Many times, there's a push to make villains sympathetic or identifiable somehow. For instance, in Inglourious Basterds, the Nazi soldiers usually come across as a lot more likable than the heroes. Not so with KOTOR, where all of the Sith, from their despicable leader Darth Malek to the lowest footsoldier are all just fucking awful people who kick babies and kittens and never show any remorse for their actions. The Republic and even the Jedi Council are portrayed as fallible and human, which makes them all the more interesting to work for.
  • Most of the PCs have cool sidequests based on their backstories: This is, of course, a staple of roleplaying games, and I think it's well-executed here. Almost every time you level up, your comrades reveal something about themselves, and if you talk to them often enough you eventually unlock their side quests. It's a great way to take advantage of their disparate personalities and skills.
Inspiration can be found everywhere - if you ever have an emotional reaction to a video game, piece of music, novel, comic book, or any other piece of art, take a moment to think about why that is and then use your findings to better your game.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A too little too late 4e revelation

I was very, very drunk several months ago and read the whole Dark Sun book for 4e, and finally I realized what had been nagging me about 4th edition.

As some of my long time readers may recall, I have been more than willing to give 4e the benefit of the doubt. I was not terribly attached to 3.5 once one ventured outside the core books and Complete Guides, as I thought a lot of the OGL settings, supplements, and even 3rd party licencee material was pretty crappy - so I guess you could say that the fandom ruined the pretty decent rule set.

Just as there are artists who are not "actor's directors," there are games that aren't really "GM friendly." 3.5 was a blast to play and a Goddamn nightmare to gamemaster. Even with pregenerated monsters and traps, creating a quick adventure was a fucking ordeal. And forget creating your own monsters, unless you've got a lot of time on your hands and a really solid grasp on the rules.

4e is much easier to gamemaster and a little easier to create bad guys for, since there's finally some clear guidelines on what is appropriate per character level. The "it's too videogamey" complaints never resonated with me, since hey we all enjoy playing video games.

The problem, though, is that with OGL and 3rd party licensees all but shut down by 4th edition, it's become more clear that all creative decisions with 4e were business choices and not hobby choices. There's an important distinction there.

Tabletop roleplaying games are decidedly a hobby market much like model railroads, craft projects, and baseball card collecting. But those other fields have never willingly done anything that would alienate their fan base - they find out what their small but devoted group of followers wants, then they deliver improvements on their products to stay ahead of their competitors. Roleplaying games are an odd beast because purportedly, all the aspiring gamer needs is the core rules and some imagination. A product you only need to buy once is bad for business, of course.

Here's where my being drunk and reading Dark Sun while I sober up comes in. I realized that in order to play Dark Sun, I needed several other products besides the core books. I also realized that Dark Sun was released to play to the cherished memories of older gamers, the very people WOTC should avoid alienating. The product you are really selling is nostalgia, which doesn't require innovation; Dark Sun sells itself. However, in order to recapture your memories of playing Dark Sun with 4e, you need a bunch of other books, and that is where the brilliance lies. Same with Eberron, same with anything they release. Settings no longer contain everything you need to play the setting, and who besides a pair writer has time to develop a deep, innovative, and interesting setting on their own these days?

And then I read the creature guide where giant floating manta rays can teleport because they can, and then since I was still drunk I read most of the PHB and then it all finally fell into place, and after that it's a little fuzzy.

RPGs have done a very good job of adjusting to their now-more-mature target audience that no longer has twelve hour marathon sessions and probably has kids and bills (and, of course, disposable income). The disturbing new trend is not that things are easier, or that games are more user-friendly, or we've switched to a "rules versus rulings" point of view*. The disturbing trend, as far as I can track it, is that games are being run more responsibly and more like businesses, which now means that for us hobbyists, the business people have reclaimed what it means to innovate. Not to sound too Marxist here, but the major player in this fight has tried to seize the "means of production" (in this case, innovation) from of the "workers" (gamers). But there is a problem with that, and that problem is the truth all of us base our love for this hobby on: Everyone has an imagination.

If you think the hobby is stagnating, you're right, and the unfortunate truth here is that starts with you, the gamer. We have allowed ourselves to be provided for, to have whole worlds and books written for us to use, and then all of us complain about it. Well, let's knock it off, huh? Start simple: Buy a pocket notebook, use it only for gaming stuff. Write down thoughts and inspirational materials and movies people talk about and books people read and where you are when you think "hey this would be a cool place for a fight scene." Start there, then find a real human being you know in actual life to be your "bounce board" to share ideas with. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself creating a character class or a story arc or a setting. If everyone gets on board this, maybe we can recapture some of the magic that the hobby has lost, and maybe - just maybe - the people who are paid to do just that every day can be reminded that if they want our money then they have to once again be the best and brightest that nerddom has to offer.

*Rules vs Rulings: I am a "rulings" guy, I improvise a lot in my games and I'm very proud of that. All of my new players get upset when I deviate from the rules whenever it's not in their favor. Since this has happened with every one of my play groups, I have to believe the hobby has always been this way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Okay fine

After a nice mention from Tyson over at the Apathy Games blog, which I read daily (or close to), I am resolved to start making weekly Wednesday updates.

Today's post won't be terribly game related, but just something like a summary of my goals in writing for this blog. Though at the time of this writing, I just had a mental exercise idea, so actually I'll write that below.
1. Troubleshooting: My Deadlands group meets on Tuesdays, so while I would like to avoid play reports (which are often dry and boring to read), I may make mention of difficulties I encountered and how I solved them. The corollary is how I should have solved these difficulties.
2. Brainstorming: I often have talks with my brother, who is running an "Age of Mythology" style game; the two of us use each other as a sounding board about every week. I may post some of the ideas we toss around.
3. Lazy journaling: At present, I'm part of a sketch comedy troupe. I really should be doing the "daily journaling" thing to improve my writing, so I'll count these posts as "Wednesday" and my Deadlands notes as "Tuesday." There, I am learning to creatively shirk my duties. My duties to myself.
4. Escape: Without getting into details, my life is pretty awful at the moment; as almost all of us in this hobby recognize the need we share as nerds to escape reality early and often. Setting aside a few minutes to write a blog entry every week, not to mention the few minutes I spend collecting notes every day or so, should help.

And now, the mental exercise: There's a meme going around that says "look to your left, the first item you see is now your superhero identity." Okay, well, I am now going to turn the first item to the left of my computer into a player character race for Savage Worlds. Feel free to do the same for Pathfinder, 4th Edition, FUDGE, or the system of your choice.

Inspired by: a box of party toothpicks.
The Children are tree-like creatures possessed of a tall, slender, surprisingly heavy frame. Among the treepeople of the Northwestern forests, they have the only real reputation for friendliness and joviality, often acting as liaisons between the Ancient Trees and the Great Civilized Nations. The Children's society is unique in that it is largely centered around groups of friends rather than a traditional family structure; since the Children grow in groves from seeds that could have sprung from one of thousands of parents, perhaps there is some logic to this. It's not uncommon in the Northwest to find Children who have decided to spread their friendship to mixed-race adventuring parties.

Long Limbs: The Children have Reach +1 due to their long limbs. Their base Pace is 8.
Bark: The Children have +2 Armor due to their thick skin.
Caution, Flammable: Fire attacks add +1 to their chance of lighting one of the Children on fire.
Loyal (minor): Children of Jarden raised in the Northwest woods have the Loyal Hindrance. Exceptions exist, but must pick another Hindrance to compensate.
Unique Biology: The Children do not need to eat or breath, but being without oxygen or water causes them to suffer as if they were starving.