Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Jeff's Gameblog: Amber Alert

Seriously, what happened? I go away from the Internets for half a week and it's gone. Was there some spectacular crash and burn or a breaking of a sword over the knee?

I am in distress enough to break my rule on posting dumb mini-posts (which I break enough anyway).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Online Gaming, a Modest Proposal

Apparently Chinese prisons are taking “grinding” to a whole new level.

According to an article in the UK daily Guardian Wednesday:
As a prisoner at the Jixi labour camp, Liu Dali would slog through tough days breaking rocks and digging trenches in the open cast coalmines of north-east China. By night, he would slay demons, battle goblins and cast spells.
Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games [mostly World of Warcraft according to another report. – ed.] to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.
"Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labor," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off...
"If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things," he said.
I personally dislike in great heaping buckets all those online gaming beasts with their ungainly “M” starting acronyms—for me it's a sitting for hours at a blinking screen kinda thing—but...but...

I am at a loss for words for something that reads more like Swift's satire than a stone-cold, tangible-real outcome of a corner of the gaming industry.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Whither the Domain Game?

Back when I was in college I had a running joke of a game with my jaded friends about small talk and dull conversation in general. I don't remember how it started, but we started substituting third-person generic phrases for the actual words themselves.

Thus instead of bitching about how hot the summer was in Texas (duh), my friend would say something like, “me commenting on obvious weather pattern” to which I would respond: “me agreeing and following with a bad joke about the two seasons in Texas. Me starting long, pointless observation about dream. ”

In the last four days I have received no less than five separate nudges from readers and Domain Game players in the last four days about where the project is to which I say, “me giving halfhearted excuse about real life distractions getting in the way of promised gaming work.”

Where is the Domain Game is at currently:

Sourcebook Writing. I have been mostly concentrating less on the fun work of game design and more on the necessary, but tedious work of writing all the exposition-style paragraphs to tie together the various subsystems and kooky ideas into a coherent product. 

Long story short is that when you are working on a product that is purely a labor of hobbyist love this kind of work is a lot slower than planned.

I will probably switch back to doing finishing the more fun promised subsystems (“Pendragon D&D” campaign time; the fantasy supplement for the mini rules; hex-filling for natural resources; espionage; etc.) this week just to keep the wind in my sails.

North Texas RPG Con. Highly unlikely that I will finish the DG sourcebook work in time for unrolling at the Con since that is less than two weeks away at this point—unless the wind picks up and I have a long streak this week. 

At any rate I am planning on having an interest meeting to discuss the project—fueled by drinks—on Saturday night at the Con, any and all readers are welcome to join.

Artwork. Some progress on this front, the drawing presented here is a draft sketch for the supplement by that notorious pie lover Johnathan Bingham . It shows an actual play example from the playtest, The Drune's creepy Thujans arriving by mysterious obelisk in the campaign world of Nowhere.

Playtest Game. The play-by-post is dragging a bit, slowed down by some late turn posting by players and me not riding herd really. I started gaming out the results of the expeditions' third month in Nowhere yesterday, so we are moving again.

If folks are interested—and the players give me permission--I will start posting highlights from the hundreds of pages of action the game has produced to date. 

Me saying that work continues and expressing excitement. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Zero-Level Play

Each cycle of hype and release of new old-styled, commercially-produced rpgs elicits a (mostly) silent groan from me. Seems like one can not toss the proverbial stone into the OSR blogosphere without hitting a post about LotFP Grindhouse or Dungeon Crawl Classics. Cranky contrarian thoughts aside though, its undeniable especially in DCC's case there are some intriguing ideas percolating in the minds of Goodman Games.

For one, the game looks like it is expanding gameplay “downward” (much in the way that I have been thinking about rediscovering or unlocking gameplay upward in the Domain Game) to “zero-level play,” a concept I have been interested in ever since seeing Lenard Lakofka's overly-complex system in Dragon magazine way back when. 

I really like the idea of players going down even deeper into schlubiness; exploring their own origin story at the table. Rather than just talk about it, I reworked, trimmed down and synthesized some of my own chargen subsystems as a starting point for some simple guidelines for such play for older edition D&D.

The PDF for the full zero-level system can be downloaded here. Feel free to chime in about any suggestions.

Rules for Zero-Level Play
  • All characters start at zero-level “normal men” with 1d6 hit points and Neutral alignment.

  • Zero-level characters can be rolled using the alternate chargen and equipment tables below (see PDF).

  • Human or elven characters with INT 13 or over start with one cantrip (0-level MU spell) OR human characters with WIS 13 or over start with one orison (0 level Cleric spell). Only one such type of spell can be chosen. See this BFRPG supplement for a list of spells (or use a comparable system).

  • Any character with DEX 13 or over can attempt thief skills at -4%, all others at -10%. (Hear Noise is the same as first-level.)

  • A zero-level character receives no extra AC benefits from armor heavier than chain mail due to unfamiliarity with its usage. Similarly use of weapons over 1d6 in damage convey a -1 to damage.

  • At the completion of the party's first successful adventure (this can span multiple sessions at the GM's discretion) and a year of training the character levels up to 1st level. In consultation with GM, player picks class and alignment based on performance and experience in the adventure. Fighter and other warrior types receive an extra hitpoint after training, magic-users lose one from making deals with various eldritch forces. All other class abilities for 1st level characters are assumed as normal.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Good and Bad News from Glorantha

First the “bad news” (suppose it could be good news depending on your perspective). It looks like Glorantha's Second Age is coming to an end...at least in its Mongoose incarnation.

In a recent announcement Mongoose stated:
We have recently announced that Mongoose and Issaries have mutually decided to part ways which, on the face of things, means no more RuneQuest and Glorantha (at least, from us). However, Mongoose retains ownership of the (frankly, absolutely cracking) core rules system which we intend to keep as our central fantasy roleplaying game mechanics. We will therefore be republishing the current RuneQuest II core rules as the Wayfarer rules system (as Traveller covers science fiction, Wayfarer seemed the logical choice for fantasy!).
Sounds too like the designer of MQII Loz, aka Lawrence Whitaker, is jumping ship to work with Moon Design Productions (the current purveyors of the more traditional Third Age Glorantha stuff). Whitaker's project for Moon Design is to design a supplement around the notorious anti-hero Harreck the Beserk in which players will "join Harrek as he sails around the world, sacking cities and pillaging them, fighting gods and stealing magical secrets, breaking ancient kingdoms and making new empires." Now that's unabashedly good news in my opinion.

Where does RQ and Glorantha go from here? What's the juicy backstory here?

On a side note, it's interesting that they have chosen to co-opt one of the homebrew names being used by people working on fantasy variants of Classical Traveller. Wonder if we will see some hybridization in the future? Personally I would find a RQ-like game with some creeping Traveller mechanics—especially with its characteristic mini-games like character generation—to be something really intriguing.

Now the “good news.” Looks like the smartphone adaption of Glorantha classic computer game King of Dragon Pass is getting closer to completion. Game designer David Dunham has said recently on his design that he was working on the last step of putting together a new manual—and opening a second round of testing.

BTW David is selling some of the gorgeous original artwork from the game here on Etsy. Your chance to get some wonderful work and help support the man driving this project. (I got the above piece titled “Rival Council” from him last week in the interest of full disclosure.)

A busy week ahead for me here as I clear out this backlog of half-baked drafts for this blog–and try and juggle an intense real-world political campaign.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jeff Jones Covers

One thing I was remiss on with yesterday's tribute to Jeffrey Catherine Jones (who passed yesterday) was paying homage to the amazing—and prolific--work she did on covers for speculative fiction paperbacks. Looking through my shelves I was a little stunned on how many of the old favorites were his work--many that I didn't even notice the credit until last night.

So a walk through many of those greatest covers before moving on to a more substantive post.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jeffery Jones Has Passed

With sadness I noticed on The Warlock's Homebrew that we lost another of the great old swords and sorcery cover artists. Jeffrey Catherine Jones (not to be confused with Jeffrey Jones, the actor and convicted sex offender of Ferris Bueller fame) passed away from “complications from emphysema” early today.

Jones was probably best known in our circles for her work on the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser covers for the old Ace paperbacks (that I posted about here, if tangentially), but she also did a great deal of jaw-droppingly wonderful—if increasingly moody--fantasy-inspired work over her career.

As a tribute here are just a few of my favorites.  

Creepoid of Gor?

You might remember a few months back when I posted about how a hyped-out sadomasochism scandal sunk Runequest IV—and the life of its designer. Recently my Seattle friend Scott (aka Scalydemon) pointed out in a Dragonsfoot thread discussing whether John Norman's Gor books would make for a good fantasy rpg setting (or not) another alleged sex torture and assault case.

Cover art from Tarnsmen of Gor
Personally I have found the Gor stuff to be profoundly silly—and harmless—geek wish fulfillment, more offensive if anything for the quasi-fascist jawing about natural order than the soft-core BDSM. 

Much of the writing and lifestyle cries out for satire, like the tone-perfect and hilarious Houseplants of Gor. The setting itself with its ancient-world trappings and clearly-written REH-like undertones had some potential (I hear, I could never get past the first even as an undersexed teen). 

Still, to each their own. 

The facts though of this particular case are troubling (but as always people have a right to a presumption of innocence). According to the Seattle popo, the accused man allegedly picked up a 24-year old streetwalker for “sexual role playing” took her back to his creepy bondage trailer and did a number of unsavory acts to her for over eight hours. Yuck.

What's interesting to me is only in passing does the Seattle local daily pick up on what just a 15 years ago would likely have been a front and center bait fest: the fact that the defendant was self-professedly into a lifestyle based on the Gor books. It's mentioned in brief way down in the order of the inverted pyramid as a passing and related fact. I breathed a sigh of relief for one.

In the former case the defendant was ultimately cleared, yet the prosecutors and press went to town on him—and front and center in that hype was the lurid tie-on to fantasy role-playing games. Clearly the recent case is head shoulders higher on the creepometer than the one in the 90s, so its curious to me how little grist is made of the Gorean connection other than as a factual side angle.

Has society finally moved on from fantasy role-playing as a whipping boy (no pun intended)?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fog of War and Campaign Settings

In the past two years my reading habits seem to have gotten stuck in a feedback loop with my gaming. If I pick up a book nine times out of ten its often because of a tangential interest kicked off from either the campaign or this blog (or your blog for that matter). Just as inevitably what I read—and its often nothing as obvious as a fantasy novel—fires up whole new areas of thought that color my gaming.

Last night my mind got stuck on a paragraph in When China Ruled the Seas, a history of the massive expeditions that the Chinese Emperor sent to the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the early 15th century. Describing the world view of the Chinese prior to this time period the author says this:
To Confucius in the sixth century B.C., China was the entire world. He called it “The Middle Kingdom,” “The Multitude of Great States,” or simply “All Under Heaven.” Beyond the borders of the empire lay...only wilderness and lawless, barbarian tribes. For time and time again, out of the steppes and bleak wilderness deserts, came marauding herdsmen, wild men dressed in animal skins who brought destruction and despair. To the east, across the endless oceans, lay only the fantasies and dreams of foolish rulers.
I love this passage, it draws a clear, evocative image of how limited the cultural horizons—both self-imposed and more objective--were for many nations for most of human history. The fog lay thick and heavy around the borders of the Middle Kingdom, so thick even that they could think themselves to be the only existent human civilization.

This kind of stuff is pregnant with possibility for fantasy gaming: maybe the world view is correct, there is nothing else out there. This is it and beyond lies vast tracts of true wilderness, getting weirder and more alien and dangerous the further you travel from the one bastion of human civilization. Or maybe like our world, it's just isolation and the world is girdled with large stretches of varied civilization with vastly diverse cultures.

The uncertainty is what's key, it gives player-driven exploration a vast new dimension of meaning. It's not about filling in some hex contents on a map where most of the boundaries are already known, it's about answering an unknown quite big in its implications. 

Yet, I have been scratching my head trying to think of examples in fantasy settings or campaigns that nail this. Think about most settings you have encountered. How limited was the worldview of the players?

In my experience, it's a good deal more extensive than that of above. Even the most foggy of players' maps often have a precision of cartography and cultural knowledge far beyond that of the early Renaissance of western Europe (when the study of cannon trajectories and world-trotting ways of that time revolutionized map making). 

Outside of a handful of settings, the only really effective examples I can think of come more from the science fantasy of Gamma World—in which a common starting point was being a member of a primitive tribe that knew little about the lands outside of a couple walking days--than the multitude of fantasy rpgs.

So far my own home campaign hasn't strayed much outside of the environs of a 100-mile stretch of a border region. The nature of the bottom-up creation has limited much of their knowledge to the sprawling overkingdom that they are on the fringes of with some passing mentions of only one other exotic human civilization, the Scarlet Sultanate.

I am inclined to leave it there—unless they feel the urge to push the boundaries. Maybe it isn't just the just-in-time nature of my world design leaving the edges undefined, maybe there really isn't anything else out there but the howling wilderness. Or maybe not.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Second Take on Charisma

Blogger assures us that the deleted posts and comments will be up “shortly”, since they have been saying this from the beginning of the blackout (which I perversely enjoyed) my confidence is not riding high on this one. So here goes one repost of the two missing.

Wednesday we discussed an alternative view of Charisma, today I thought I would restate my musings more directly as a rules variant. Any feedback, as always, is appreciated. (I'm still trying to work out the mechanical effects of CHA in directing larger groups as per Scott's suggestion yesterday.)

Charisma is a combination of status and reputation--and the confidence and skill-set of leading that flows from this. In game this is represented by an attribute that ebbs and flows with the relative success –or failure—of the character. CHA is rolled as normal at the beginning of a character's career, but is modified by the following factors:

1. The character's repute grows alongside his personal power. At levels 4,8,12,16, 20, 24 and so on, CHA increases by one point. A level drain or other in-game mechanic that drops a character under one of these benchmarks will also reduce the CHA bonus. A 4th level thief, for instance, hit by a wight and dropped to 3rd level will forfeit the bonus until she regains her former level.

2. Status grows with “conspicuous consumption”. A character's CHA is raised one point if a character posses a flashy, obvious magic item OR expensive clothing/armor AND impressive dwelling worth at the minimum 2,000-5,000 gp. This is a one-time bonus which is forfeited if the item(s) is lost.

This bonus is relative to the particular society at the GM's discretion. In the case of magic items, for instance, a character would only be allowed a bonus in an high magic society if he possessed an obvious magic item of great power. The relative value of luxurious clothing and dwelling are set by the particulars of that culture: a sizable mead-hall and rich fur coat in a Nordic-like barbarian society or a stately manse and fine velveteen toga in a highly-urbane one.

3. A character gains or loses CHA with the fortunes of on-the-ground leadership. At the end of an adventure or expedition (a convenient, exp-awarding stopping point that can span several sessions), the party's leader, caller, or spokesperson makes a roll for a CHA gain or loss. (The party's overall leader is determined by the players prior to play of that adventure.)

If the adventure is deemed a success by the GM the player adds one point of CHA if the player rolls a percentile dice under his existing CHA score. If it is a failure than the leader subtracts 1-3 CHA (as determined by the GM) unless he rolls under his existing CHA score PLUS his level. (The chutzpah of a character with a high Charisma allows him to spin success or failure better.) This roll can be modified by the GM to reflect in-game circumstances (leading larger than usual bodies, severity of challenge, etc.).

Example: Mogg the Mendicant, a 6th level Cleric with a 14 CHA, was nominated by his party to be the Year-King of their recent expedition to the dead city of Chaon Gacca in Tasuun. The expedition was a total flop, several party members went to meet the Makers and the loot was sparse. Mogg did however captain a pirated war-galley and a company of pole-armed Wombatmen over the course of the adventure, so the GM deems that he will get a +3 to his saving roll. To not lose CHA, he must roll under a 23 (14+6+3). He unhappily rolls a 90 and is saddled with a loss of two CHA by the GM.

CHA perks:
Starting at fourth level a character with a CHA 12 and over will become reasonably well-known (respected and/or feared) in a 20-mile radius from their base of operations. The GM will modify reactions, hiring, and other functions inside this radius in favor of the character on a case by case basis.

Also starting at fourth level characters with a CHA 15 and over will also become eligible to be appointed to a minor post of authority in or around their base of operations. The actual position (title, responsibilities, and rewards) will vary according to the particulars of a campaign and the character. A ranger could become the town's warden in a local forest or a thief a banker or other scalawag for instance.

Starting at 8th level, characters with 15 and over CHA will become eligible to enter the lower ranks of the nobility or other suitably impressive position in society. As above the particulars will vary according to the campaign.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Variant View of Charisma

While I am a lover of classic rpgs (and their neo-classical offspring), I tend to not be an ideologue about it. I don't need elaborate justifications or polemics setting my why up against this or that new edition strawman mainly because I feel it comes down to a matter of taste. I enjoy the crisp, tart bubbly taste of a cheap Vinho Verde wine, many don't; so what really in the great cosmic scheme of things.

Attribute scores--especially the subjective, mental ones like INT, WIS, and CHA--are the exceptions. I just plain don't like how they tend to stand-in for player skill in newer games. 

My mind rails against it and its implications, a trend made even worse by each iteration's tendency to up the power scale of each. Bonuses for exceptional scores raise across the board, generation becomes more generous, and abilities can not only be improved but be hiked in relatively short periods of time.

The power arc doesn't just increase with each upping of the ante, the connection between the actual, existing wiles of a player and his alter ego grows wider and wider. To back my dogmatic preference I often zoom back to the oldest editions, the ones with the strictest chargen and flattest power arcs for attributes.

That all said, I am by nature a dude not terribly comfortable with orthodox--I do love me some tinkering. I like innovation and playing around with the concepts and I really love when you can mine the past's experimental bits to play around with the game s themselves.

The second edition of Runequest provides one of them for that most egregrious of skill-substituting attributes, Charisma. On the face of it, RQ is a singularly bad place for me given my prejudice: it was one of the first games to allow players to increase attributes with training after all.

But it had a really interesting and quirky approach to Charisma that jives with my own feelings about how to use it. CHA in that edition wasn't a simple mechanical player carrot to be improved at a player's leisure, but a variable one reflecting the ebbs and flows of a character's reputation, leadership, and visible power. It didn't just go up, it when down when the tide went out for a character.

Let me show you the passage to illustrate my point:
Charisma is a nebulous quality, and increasing or decreasing it is often up to the referee's whimsy. However, the following instances can have effect.
a. Each 25% skill with Oratory learned increases CHA by 1 point...
b. Each 25% increase in use of one's main weapon (after 50%) adds 1 point.
c. Possession of good, showy, magical objects raises CHA by 1 point. Just 1 point is gained here. It does not matter if the character has one or one hundred showy items.
d. Successful leadership of an expedition (i.e. the loss/gain ratio is satisfactory) can add a point...A character may roll his CHA as a percent or less for a gain or the Referee may have some other criterion.
e. Unsuccessful leadership can lose CHA. A really disastrous expedition can cause the leader to have to make his CHA as a percentage or lose 1 to 3 CHA.
Reading over that selection and my mind already schemes ways to introduce these rules into my old school D&D campaigns.

Let's start with the first two. Now obviously we don't have a skill-based game, but class level is a convenient stand in for both concepts. As a character's personal power increases so does his reputation. A fighter who is a meaner mother with that broadsword is a woman who can capture the attention of the people around her more effectively, as does a more powerful spellcaster and a more skilled thief.

D&D tends to have different play stages every four levels, let's say CHA raises 1 point at 4th, 8th, 12th, and so on levels.

Now about magic items, this is a slam-dunk winner for me. I love that it implies a campaign where magic items are not in great abundance and where most people would be in awe of a stick that can produce great balls of fire or a sword that gives off a flashy blue aura. Rule stands as written (perhaps modified about how relatively high or low magic a particular society is: +1 for only a particularly powerful magic item in a high magic one or +2 in a very low one).

The last two are ones I love very much, leadership becomes the two-edged gamble it is in real life. Lead well and your charisma increases, people like to follow the kinds of leaders that bring success and disdain those that fail even more quickly. Again this stands as written though my head wants to throw in heaps of modifiers (I guess that's where the ref's “other criterion” comes into play.)

I like how a conception of Charisma like this essentially becomes a reflection of how well a player navigates the challenges of a game world. As such it creates more of a linkage between the player's skill and his alter ego, rather than decreases it. Even better it solidifies the notion that the characters don't exist in a social vacuum, but that Charisma is the reflection of a welter of social factors that has reality in the game itself (Alexis of Tao of D&D has an insightful series of posts aexploring some of these dimensions here). 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Accidental Worldbuilding

Orson Scott Card tells a story about how he accidentally glommed onto the story kernel for his 1983 fantasy novel Hart's Hope from a mistake he once made doodling a map.

The story begins with him explaining how his doodling invariably coalesces into coastlines, mountains, and other accoutrements of an imaginary map—and how a lucky find of a large ream of over-sized onion paper in an old theater slated for demolition fueled these doodles into larger-scale productions.

Over a lonely weekend in 1979 he found himself suddenly drawing out city blocks rather than forests or rivers. The street map was followed by straight thick lines for a city wall, rough squares for towers and, then on to gates which he preceded to name and then give concepts for each. One gate located near hundreds of smaller little squares for houses (that he then assumed to be the poor section of the city due to their size) he names the Piss Gate, another by an area that looks like market's to him the Asses Gate.

So far an interesting story about organic brainstorming, but then he screws up:
“There was one gate that, in the process of drawing, that I had accidentally drawn with no gap between the towers guarding it. Even after slightly redrawing the towers, there was no gap between them. Unless I resorted to Liquid Paper, that entrance to the city was spoiled. Except that I believe that when it comes to storytelling...that mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. After all a mistake wasn't planned. It isn't likely to be cliché. All you have to do is think of a reason why the mistake isn't a mistake at all, and you might have something fresh and wonderful...So I thought—what if this gate had been permanently closed off? I drew houses right across off both faces of the gate.”
He goes on to recount how this gate was closed off and wonderfully how much of a central shaping idea this became to the novel that developed out of this lazy day doodle.

Card's story really grabbed me, for it nailed articulately something I never quite put into words about designing adventure sites. For one I always, always start with maps. Often I have some hazy idea, usually a mood or a mental snap-shop of some particular place that I have seen with my own eyes, but sometimes I don't even have that. Sometimes it's just something like, I really need an adventuring locale near this town that the party is headed to (this being the art of just-in-time production) and it needs to be something about about such and such sized.

So it always starts with doodles on graph paper, and with the same shaky hand that can't seem to paint the pants of a mini without splashing onto a belt or boot, I often screw up. The sloping walls of an alien domed city get distorted and become a long oblong. Truth be told, I don't always embrace the creative misfire-- often it just ends up getting filed in the circular metal file in a tight, waded-up ball. But it happens enough that I can identify with his story.

That ugly oblong gets extended and suddenly instead of the rather worn-out old school idea of a domed city squatting on an island in an underground lake, I have a mysterious domed pleasure barge silently, eerily marooned on a sandbar. I love the accidents that surprise me, they feel fresh--and they always infuse more life and energy into the locale when the players visit them because they excite me. The accident becomes a way to shed off the cliches, a break with habit and the game takes on a bit more sheen as a result. 

Does this ring true to any of you? Do your mistakes take on their own shape, bringing some fresh new angles? How much do you embrace—or disdain--accident in the making of your worlds?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Such, Such Were the Joys

Grandpa D&D is going to tell another story today. When I was a kid, modules were a nickle and...

Because I put it down for so long, I forget sometimes why fantasy gaming held such a powerful hold on me in my preteen years—and why it has recaptured me decades later. Alan Fine in his uneven study of fantasy role-playing games in the early 80s talks about some of the supposed psychological underpinnings of the attraction of these game to us. According to him, “it is sometimes suggested that [fantasy roleplaying] games are similar to psychodrama...in which participants act out reactions to psychiatrically significant events.”

I don't need to fork over a hundred bucks and lie lengthwise on a comfy leather chair to get at the psychiatrically significant events that led me to take up D&D in 1980. They were a combination of both the negative (the crash, bam, boom of my parents divorce) and the positive (the where, what, and when of my childhood following it).

Lucky for you, I won't inflict you with a long whine about the former, the stick. The carrot that attracted me to the game was the simple fact that I was positively swimming in fantasy when I first cracked open that Holmes basic set.

See, right after my folks split up, my father (yes, my Vietnam-vet, D&D-playin' dad) took off to the sunny environs of Southern California to try and make it as a writer. Trying his best to keep a connection with us, he started sending us a serialized fantasy novel in his letters that starred my brother and I. The book was called the Tumbo, after the Africanized evil tree spirit that dominates the book as the nemesis. My stand-in character was named The Professor, my brother Wild Bill.

Our literary alter-egos were whisked away into this fantasy world after climbing a diseased pecan tree that had been polluted by the Tumbo. I forget the rest, but there is the meeting of a young woman who masters songs that have powers to fight the evil and other adventures.

Linked to the Tumbo book in time were these series of summers we started spending with dad out in LA. The first two were straight from a children's book--at least in setting if not in plot line.

My dad was struggling, working odd jobs some in the film industry, some painting houses. He moved in with one of his best friends from school days in Austin, David. David was (or is still I suppose though he teaches at UNLV) a classic B movie director. 

David's house was this ramshackle three-story mansion built in 1902 right into the side of a mountain. It sat--perched really--on an acre of land all at a steep 30-degree angle to the road, which itself plunged precipitously down to the end of the canyon.

And what an acre! It was completely, outlandishly overgrown with dense bamboo groves, lemon trees, live oak, poison ivy, and chaparral higher up where the more native desert mountain environ encroached. In other words, it was paradise for a boy inclined to an overactive imagination.

The house was the same and more. It had a seemingly innumerable amount of rooms: rooms that opened onto big sweeping balconies, tight little nooks of rooms under staircases, mysterious locked basement rooms with dusted over windows.

Slightly creepy in the day, at night it became downright terrifying to that same kid with the overactive imagination. Between each of the floors of the house were crawl spaces and in those crawl spaces were all kinds of animals. Racoons? Possums? Rats? Never really knew, but it makes me shiver a little to think of it even now. I slept on a bunk bed on the top and would hear the patter all night. Couple that with all the creaky, spooky noises an old house perched on a slope can make when the wind is up and I would be so scared shitless I couldn't sleep.

That bedroom was where we first started playing the game. How could you not imagine fantasy alter-egos battling and exploring your way through vast, eerie dungeons and haunted thickets in such a place? Fantasy hung in the air, it was a daily encounter. Under such conditions, it bored its way straight into my psyche, let go for a good long while, and then came back in full force years later enough to make me dream, play, and write even about it as a much older man.

What a game.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

B is for Bandwagon

What? You say you haven't had enough of the A-Z blogging contest?

Time to start it all back up: over, and over, and over again like a bad Bill Murray movie.

Speaking of things that get stuck in your noggin whether you want them to or not, I caught this D&D-refic spoof of the ubiquitous hip-hop song, "Like a G6" by Far East Movement, over at Victor Raymond's blog.  

Dancing With Myself

Others have yakked at length about how learning to play D&D was essentially an exercise in oral tradition. There is a large grain of truth there—I learned to play and grow as a GM in that way—but there were other games in that time that I learned completely alone, straight from reading the books. Traveller was the first.

One of the strengths of that system, at least at the time I encountered it in 1981, was that it took great pains to set out ways that people could learn the game on their own. The Deluxe little black box set I first purchased didn't just throw in an extra introductory book (Book 0 no less), it also had a slim pamphlet titled simply Understanding Traveller.

Most of the pamphlet is fairly pedestrian, a quick if well-organized introduction to the product line and official setting, but for one remarkable subsection on how to learn the game. (The entire booklet can be found downloaded here if you are so inclined; pages 8 and 9 are the most relevant. )

Remarkable because instead of just counseling a referee to run some kind of quick, training wheels scenario it laid out an entire 15-part curriculum to master the working parts of the system. Even more interesting, given the subject of Monday's exploration of mini-games, is the embrace of each part as an exercise to be “played between a referee and a group of players, without a referee, or even alone”. In other words, each step was owned as a separate mini-game, self-contained enough to function as something interesting in itself.

Take step one (and the most immediately obvious example) on character generation: “The challenge to create an excellent character, and then muster-out before failing a survival or aging throw can make this an interesting activity, even solitaire [my emphasis for when I switch gears later]. Keep records of the characters generated to use them later...as non-player characters.”

This approach repeats itself in later steps for designing starships, practicing combat, trading, etc: each step a game in itself with its own rules and goals. (“Assume you have a Free Trader starship; start out in your subsector buying trade goods and travelling to new ports to sell them...Keep track of profits and losses, and continue until you go broke or make a fortune.”)

Again marvelously for rolling up star systems: Generate a subsector of perhaps 30 stellar systems, and record the results for later adventures. Before putting away this list, use it to strain your imagination: examine the characteristics for each world, and try and imagine the circumstances which make it the way is described.”

The point is here not to heap praise on a three-decades old gaming product (Lord knows, we have enough of those posts in our circles), but the potential, broader implications of this approach.

There's much that is wonderful about what solo mini-gaming can provide in the way of a tutorial: an alternative to the dull info-dump way of learning a game (or a setting as we will see in my upcoming post about the Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks); a rejection of universal mechanics; an organic approach to building your first campaign—and an extension of the gaming experience to the GM himself.

[Sudden harsh, grinding sound of gears.]

RPGs have settled into in the main very conventional boxes for the whole experience: play is for the players, design for the GM. Mini-games were part of the rpg experience when there was more blur between these roles.

As that blur has diminished, the GM's experience has become mostly a solitary pursuit. Like a writer, a GM mostly experiences the campaign as a series of behind-the-scenes design processes. And like a writer, his payback, the enjoyment of seeing the creation transferred and interacted with by the players, is quick, fleeting, and never enough. It has its joys--some quite deep even--but it's not mostly not the ludic joy of playing a game.

Why not make parts of that design process a game too?

I like the idea of a challenge for a GM that is commonplace for players of classic rpg: how do I make sense of these random rolls? What kinds of layers of flavor and detail can I make out of these game abstractions in this mini-game? How can the campaign evolve out of my own playing out of the possibilities of this or that action by an NPC actor?

Unconsciously this is what has been happening in the play-test part of the Domain Game. As the gameplay has unfolded I have found myself wanting to play too, so I restlessly carve out spaces. I play out my own mini-games, miniatures skirmishes like the Battle on the Golden Barge —and have even gone to extent of drawing up my own NPC expedition to Nowhere, a new realm whose own tribulations and explorations may in time become intertwined with that of the players.

Why should players have all the fun?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

South Texas Mini-Con?

I've noticed a modest little uptick in the last two months of readers in my immediate geographic area, which got me thinking again (well that and wind of the Southern Cal mini-con) about regional gaming events. Two years in a row we've managed to pull off afterglow events for old school gamers at Scholz BierGarten's in Austin following on the heels of the North Texas RPG Con. 

Now I'm thinking perhaps its time to share the love in the city where I currently hang my hat.

So here we go with the water testing. Any interest from folks out there in attending a one-day mini-con focusing on classic style gaming in San Antonio in mid to late July or early August? I'm thinking depending on turn out we would run at two-four games over the space of a day with a registration price of...well...free.

I myself am contemplating rolling out a good old-fashioned Braunstein (for the unwashed info here and here) set in the semi-ruined digs of the grand old byzantine city of Kozmarok to the south of the Hill Cantons. Perhaps we could swing some old school starship action out of our local doyen and a session or two of OD&D out of our Austin and Houston brethren?

What's not to love about this idea?

(Also while we are on local posts, y'all should duly check out the knitting blog of the Hill Cantons' resident amazon princess Barbarella here.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Games Inside Games

Hang around rpg Internet fishing holes for even a short time and you will inevitably hear character generation or trading rules in Traveller described as a “mini-game”. Like most jargon, few rarely bother to spell out what the term means.

My own less-than-educated guess takes the term as shorthand for a chart-heavy rules subsystem with just enough self-contained detail that it plays almost like a game inside a game. If I am not talking out of my rear area (always a distinct possibility), that kind of rpg component is a rare beast.

It wasn't always that way, first generation rpgs, successors to the marvelous chart-obsessed solo-wargaming traditions of the 60s and 70s, were heavy with them. Indeed some of the earliest like En Garde (1975) and its Dark Ages cousin Heroes (1979) were veritably collections of linked mini-games. Players of En Garde could roll their characters through most of their lives--joining a gentleman's club, visiting bawdyhouses, wooing lovers, duelling, etc--as 17th-Century French courtiers without ever feeling the hand of a GM.

I can understand why our games evolved away from them, having whole areas areas of play dominated by a series of charts doesn't scream buckets of fun to many people. But like other pieces that feel out of favor, I can't help but wonder (again) if the stick got bent too far (again).

Done well mini-games have the potential to expand rather than restrict the arena of play. They create the possibility of an “offstage” for a campaign, an area that a player can explore a campaign world outside the micro-focus that the gaming table typically delivers on.

Think of it this way, its a rare campaign where the GM fills up a session acting out 20-30 years of a characters life, an entire military campaign, or an off-season when the characters lounged around town. But you did this very thing each time you rolled up a Traveller character or pushed a pike “off-stage” in Empire of the Petal Throne with Mark Pettigrew's magnificent mini-game simulating the Tsolyani art of war.

Midkemia's Cities supplement (later ported whole cloth into Runequest) devoted almost 30 pages to a “Catch-up” mini-game—a series of imaginative (and dare I say fun) tables for players whose characters lag behind others in the campaign time frame (presumably a much bigger dilemma back in the day when our campaigns were big, sprawling, and messy affairs). A random roll here could make mean a player had to roll on a sub-chart for NPCs that they have offended, a roll there could bankrupt you and send you to debtors' prison as you waited for your comrades to return from the dungeon .

While some see “roll-playing” I see something brimming with hooks for the devious-minded GM. That little affair that forced you to muster out of the Imperial Navy; the bastard love-child you sired on the carousing table; the battlefield promotion you received last year in the Desert of Sighs: all those little rolls off-stage become grist for the play on-stage. They add on, expand the edges.

I am, of course, as Jim the Wampus likes to annoy me by pointing out, leading up to something. Tomorrow I will be picking the mini-game thread back up again and looking at some ways Adventures on Tekumel, an exemplary series of solo gamebooks from the early 1990s, created an alternative to info-dump setting exposition—and ways we can riff on experimental mini-games of our own.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone...Mayday, Mayday ...

This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone ...
Mayday, Mayday ...
we are under attack ...
main drive is gone ...
turret number one not responding ...
Mayday ...
losing cabin pressure fast ...
calling anyone ...
please help ...
This is Free Trader Beowulf ...
Mayday ..

So goes the cover quote (and yes, I apologize for the horrible May fool wordplay) for the black box of classic Traveller, a quote that sucked me in from the beginning. I have always been a sucker for the special evocative kind of paragraph that hits the tone just right in a game.

Years later and I still remember the feeling of reading in the original D&D intro (first read by me in Holmes Basic); Gygax's invocation of Blackmoor, the Egg of Coot, and the Great Kingdom and the dropping of pulp fantasy heroes I had yet to encounter: Burroughs' John Carter, Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and Howard's Conan. The doors opened up in my brain on reading them.

This being a lazy Sunday, let me just throw this up for conversation sake: what quotes from a gaming product grabbed you and didn't let go? Which ones blaze out of your memory years later? What had the power to evoke a sense of what it was all about and why?