Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Recommendation -- Toolcards

One of the things I've been avoiding for the past year or so is Kickstarter. I've been happy to make myself available to friends as a stretch goal, as if getting an adventure written by me was something to chase after.... However, I didn't want to get sucked into actually backing any projects. One of the things I work on assiduously, from a personal development perspective, is the Delphic exhortation to "Know Thyself." I try to figure out where my emotions or actions are coming from -- honestly, clearly, directly. So I knew that once I started backing projects on Kickstarter, I'd never stop. The genii would be out of the bottle.

How right I was.

A long time ago, Wizards of the Coast (prior to being acquired by Hasbro) put out a roleplaying game called Everway. I thought it had a lot of potential, not the least of which was because it emphasized the use of cards (because, you know, WotC). You were encouraged to use cards -- any cards -- to create your character. I liked it because it allowed you to take images from any trading card game and use them in Everway -- expanded versatility. It also gave the whole thing a Tarot card feel. I'm a fan of the archetypal aspects of the Tarot, in the Jungian sense. 

But, that's not what I learned from Everway. Jonathan Tweet (or was it Greg Stolze) was working on the first supplement for the game, and he talked in an interview about the concept of "breaking the egg." By putting two disparate words or ideas together, the human mind tries to reconcile those two elements into one. It's why we think two completely unrelated events actually have a causative relationship because one follows after another. However, it's that process of combination that "breaks the egg" and inspiration pops out. 

I ran out and bought a bunch of those magnetic poetry sets and tossed them on my 'fridge. They cover a lot of different subjects. When I got tired of writing and needed a break, I'd go out to get some coffee, and put two words together at random. Then, I'd try to figure out what the phrase meant. So you might pick "love" and "knife"... what is a "love knife?" Maybe it's a blade crafted to kill your rival in romance. Maybe it's a foul, cursed blade created by the Witches of the Dark Glade to kill a lover who has cheated... Anyway, I'd never have thought of that if I didn't "break the egg." 

Which brings me, the long way around, to Toolcards

Designed by jim pinto (yes, he spells it that way), Toolcards are a way for the GM to quickly and easily come up with those elements he can't create on his own. You know how it goes. The party meets a mysterious stranger; the stranger is only there to drop a clue and walk off. However, the party takes a liking to him, asks a million questions, and now you've got an NPC for which you have NO information. Or maybe someone finds a magic item, something minor, and you decide to dress it up a bit. After all, how many freaking +1 daggers can you have? But, you have no idea how to give this particular +1 dagger some character.... 

In these cases, you go to the Toolcards

Each card has two sides -- a high fantasy side, and a low fantasy side. That right there is pretty genius, because it makes the cards useful to any kind of campaign. Each card has nine different elements. They're just bits of information. Like a name. And a monster. There are more "flavorful" elements, such as a magic item or atmospheric element (such as "rattling chains"). What you do with these elements is up to you. For example, maybe the rattling chains are the predominant sound you hear on the docks; maybe they presage a vengeful ghost. 

Going back to the names and monsters for a bit. On the sample card pinto mocked up, he's got "Balemir, the Rainshaper." What the hell is a "Rainshaper?" The sample monster isn't just "goblin" or "skeleton." It's something like "vengeance troll." What's a "vengeance troll?!" It's that kind of "breaking the egg" that's got me excited about Toolcards. They prompt you to think. To be creative

And, in my campaign, the Rainshapers are an order of Druids who specialize in making it rain. And vengeance trolls are a magical creature you summon to kill the object of your revenge; they just keep on coming... 

So far, the Kickstarter has unlocked cards suitable for wards, dooms, and potion. More are on the way. And even these are pretty terrific, because you don't necessarily need to use the doom cards to predict a doom. You can draw a doom card for a magic item, thus "breaking the egg" even further. "You find a sword with two stars engraved near the hilt..." Or "you drink the potion and red boils appear on your neck..." 

In an environment where we see yet another elf archer and the taverns are filled with mysterious strangers -- in a world where we've seen all the fantasy tropes before -- Toolcards are a way to spice things up. To make something new. To breathe some life into your games. Heck, I might use these when creating my next player character, too. So they're useful to you players, as well. 

I urge you to give them a look, and remember my words: Break that egg

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Playtesting Thoughts

Ok. You guys just aren't getting the message here. I've been flogging Sara Bakay's IndieGoGo fundraiser for a month now, and she's not getting many donations. I've been sharing all kinds of game developer wisdom here, to challenge your thought processes and give you advice. I can see by the stats that Google helpfully tracks for me that a lot of you are reading this stuff. That's not translating into donations. 

Think of it like a tip jar. Did you like something you read here? Did you learn something? Were you entertained? Then throw a buck in the jar. If all of you guys who found my site by Googling Natalie Portman's tummy region had kicked in a buck, Sara would have an extra $100. (I tried talking her into a belly button photo. No dice. Sorry. And my black eye is healing nicely, thank you.) 

However, that gave me an idea. 

Randomly scattered through all the links on this page is one link to a free porn website. It's hidden somewhere in this article. Click on all the links to find it. 

Now, for today's article

The feedback came in on the initial draft of the Torn Armor rules. Needless to say, we got a lot of comments about "it's" versus "its" and "your" versus "you're." And we appreciate that. We really do. You were supposed to be playtesting the game. You know, trying it out with your own miniatures, rolling dice... You know, playing the game. Though I really appreciate the people who pointed out that the em-dash on page 12 didn't carry over when converted to InDesign. 

I had this experience with the playtesters for the Star Trek RPG (the second one, for Decipher). We had a bunch of groups to whom we sent out a draft of the rules. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, I contacted several of these groups. 

Me: "How's the playtesting going?"

Playtester GM: "Well, the group just beamed down to Thalos IX and they encountered this alien culture based on old re-runs of the Teletubbies..."

Me: "Great! You use the planet creation rules?"

GM: "Nah."

Me: "How about the alien creation rules?"

GM: "Oh, they're a Romulan offshoot, so I just used the Romulans." 

Me: "So. How's combat working for you?"

GM: "Well, we've only played about five sessions, and we haven't gotten into a fight yet...." 

That's when I realized. They were playing a campaign. Like you would normally do. That's not what playtesting is about. Playtesting is creating 30 player characters to see if you can break the character creation system. It's about just running fights to see if you can break the combat system. You all sit down one day to create planets, to see if the planet creation rules work.... You don't play the game

This is how it works in the computer game industry. They get 40 guys in a room and hand them a worksheet. On this worksheet are a number of tasks they have to complete. Stuff like "Go to the northeast corner of the room and swing your sword left. Now swing it right. Now swing it forward.... Any glitches?!" Or "fight the dingus monster on level 12. 300 times. Any glitches?!" Sounds fun right. Playtesters in the video game industry aren't running around playing networked Halo the way you and I would. They have a list of tasks. If they want to keep their jobs, they'd better come back with a filled out worksheet. 

In other words, this isn't just a way for you to get to play cool games before everyone else does. Playtesters are supposed to be trying to break the system. They're supposed to report back about any poorly written rules. They're supposed to let us know that when you combine the rule on page 12 with the rule on page 32, the orcs always win. And you guys wonder why there are so many broken RPGs out there.... 

Fortunately, we got some good feedback on Torn Armor. Useful stuff. We've tightened up the consistency of game terms. We now always use the same sentence structure when describing rules that work on the same principle. We made sure the Sisk always lose. Because Spartans are Alyssa's favorite thing, and we can't let her have nice things. I've spent the better part of the week combing through the rules and fixing them. In some cases, the rules were really unclear. In others, they were being used in ways we didn't anticipate. All in all, it's been a good process. I want to thank all of you out there for participating. 

By now you've gotten to the end of this article, and you're still looking for hot, nubile teens. You've also realized, after going to Sara's IndieGoGo dozens of times that there is NO porn link hidden here. But you should have gotten the idea that you should effing contribute to her campaign. Seriously. Don't tell me you don't have a dollar. 

How could you say no to this punim? 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Dominance of Fantasy

One of the things I've been struggling with lately is the question of science fiction roleplaying games. I've been thinking about several science fiction projects that I have in mind. In fact, I am drawn to science fiction games more so than swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and found myself picking up and flipping through more scifi RPGs than any other when I was at the Complete Strategist. I wanted to pick up the latest editions of Traveller and GURPS Space, and kept flipping through In Flames and Cosmic Patrol; I actually picked up a copy of something called Human Contact. 

You see, science fiction is the vector through which I came to roleplaying games. I used to watch a lot of Star Trek and Space: 1999. In fact, this was the only kind of speculative fiction TV you could find back in the day. There was no Xena, Hercules, or Game of Thrones on TV. It was all scifi. I suspect it was the same for many of you. If you wanted swords-and-sorcery fantasy, you had to rely on books. To be honest, I only started reading fantasy after starting to play D&D. 

So why is our hobby dominated by swords-and-sorcery RPGs? 

I think it has to do with the nature of the genres. You can boil down the tropes of fantasy into an over-arching, generic model much easier than you can with scifi. Lord of the Rings, Conan, Game of Thrones -- they all have the same basic elements. Fighters. Wizards. Swords. Chainmail. So it's easier to watch Game of Thrones and say "oh, Tyrion is a fighter with a short sword" and make that. Not so with science fiction. You can't "genericize" it very well. 

Let's look at the two biggest scifi settings -- Star Trek and Star Wars.

Star Wars: What do you think of when you think of Star Wars? You think of lightsabers, space planes streaking across the stars. Blasters zapping everywhere. You think action. You think adventure. You think scoundrels and rebels and Jedi in a small ship, having adventures. 

Star Trek: What do you think about Star Trek? Phasers, transporters, and a new planet every week. There's a lot of talk. It's more cerebral. There's some kind of moral or ethical problem to be addressed. You're part of an organization, and you're on a big ship, and going on some kind of mission assigned to you by Starfleet. 

How in the heck do you reconcile those two very different science fiction properties into one generic RPG? Even if you did, half your group would want to play Star Wars and the other half Star Trek; then what do you do?

More so than fantasy, science fiction is rooted in its setting. Think about all the great scifi settings out there. Transhumanity. Blue Planet. Fading Suns. Traveller. Star Wars. Necropolis. There's some great scifi gaming right there. But you really can't play Blue Planet using the Star Wars rules. Well, you can, but now you're buying two games, and combining them. 

If you want to play Game of Thrones, all you've got to do is pick up Pathfinder and start making characters. You don't have to do any conversion work; in fact, you don't have to do any work at all. There's no explaining to do, really. In fact, I've started many D&D campaigns where I didn't have the slightest clue about the world at large. Was the kingdom ruled by a king? A council of wizards? Where was the nearest city? Who cares, just roll the dice. We'll figure it out as we go along. 

But with science fiction, you have to say something like "Ok, we're going to play Traveller, but not in the Traveller universe. We're going to set it on a colony on a planet that's mostly water..." You can't just wing it. You immediately start to get questions. Is there a galactic empire? Are the corporations in charge? Where are we? What are we doing? Is my fighter just a guy with a gun, or is he a stormtrooper, or a bounty hunter, or a security guard? 

You can't start out by saying "you're a corporate security guard" because automatically you ask "which company? What do they do?" You've got to start with "you're a corporate security guard on Pandora, where RDA mines unobtanium, which is extremely important." There's more set up required. The setting, by and large, sells the property and sells the game. 

And if that game isn't well-received, well, you don't get the sales. You end up creating a niche product. Something that sells far less than Swords and Sorcery. Which is why fantasy dominates our hobby. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Game Library

As I mentioned yesterday, I went to Complete Strategist in order to search for some old, out-of-print roleplaying games. (Gee, I wonder what those are; I wish someone would write a paragraph or two defining it for me...) I wasn't looking for anything specific, just browsing for stuff I knew was out-of-print. For example, I wish I had picked up the original Arduin RPG when it first came out, rather than being obsessed with AD&D as a teenager. Now, 20 years later, I want to read them and I can't find them. (And, before someone suggests pdfs of older games, I really detest the format.) 

I wasn't shopping for current stuff, mostly because I prefer to patronize Zombie Planet for stuff that's currently available. That's what makes Complete Strategist so great. It's actually a horrible place when it comes to floor layout and organization; customer service is spotty. And I swear someone there actually took a dump in his pants yesterday, because the place stank. CS, however, almost never throws anything away. Ever. And they still charge cover price. So that $10 Talislanta book I bought actually still cost me $10. 

Why was I shopping to fill my game library, you may ask. When I moved from Los Angeles to NYC, I sold most of my game library to cut down on shipping costs. What I kept ended up going into storage, and was lost due to circumstances beyond my control. I still have some games, but not a very deep collection. This is a problem because I don't read games the same way you do. For me, it's a reference library. It's this aspect I want to talk to you about today.

Every gamer I know already has an extensive game library. I know because many of my friends on Facebook post pictures of their game libraries. If you're going to be in the business, you'll need an extensive library, if only because you'll need to look up something for the game on which you're working. You kind of need a bunch of Pathfinder books if you're going to write for Pathfinder. Duh. 

When I'm working on something, however, I also look to other game lines to see what they did and how they did it. I was working on "alternate forms of damage" recently, and I had books from four different game lines on my desk. Maybe you're designing a new mechanic, and you realize that it should work like Sanity from Call of Cthulhu. So it's good to have that book on your shelf. 

But here's the thing. I recently saw a message from someone in the business, and they said something to the effect of "I don't have Call of Cthulhu. It's not my type of game. My character got killed by a vampire in the first 15 minutes, so I don't like it." 

Uh, what?!

You're not playing Call of Cthulhu. Who gives a damn if you like it? But you should know about it. It's not about what you like or dislike; it's about knowing what's on the market, and how it works. I'm not a fan of the Palladium system, for example, but I still own Palladium games. If you don't know how Palladium or Call of Cthulhu work, and why, then you're not a professional. You're a dilettante. 

So, you should have an extensive game library. This should consist of the classics -- Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Vampire.... The games that have achieved iconic status. I'm not going to provide a full list here, because those tend to be subjective. I, for one, think Deadlands should be on that list; you may not. However, you should still own Deadlands (for the reason alluded to above). 

Your library, however, shouldn't just consist of the gems, those games that are really great when it comes to their rules or settings. You should also collect the dreck. And I don't mean the stuff that's really great that you just don't like (like my friend and Call of Cthulhu). I mean the crap. The games that are painful to read, because the writing is so turgid, the art is horrible, and the concept so fatally flawed. Because the only way you're going to learn is by also reading the garbage out there. 

This is, in fact, why I was searching for out-of-print games. Not only was I looking for the greats that had the misfortune to fall out-of-print (and I'm going back to Complete Strategist to replace the original Deadlands books that I lost), but I was also on the hunt for games that deserve their out-of-print status. Again, I'm not making a list. (But, I'm looking at you, Rolemaster). Do I even need to explain why bad games are as valuable as good games? 


And lastly, a piece of administrative business. Eighty people to date have read my interview with Sara Bakay. Ninety-six of you read my ode to miniatures, and Torn Armor. In the 12-hours since I posted my hate for "what is roleplaying," twenty-three of you have read it. But you're NOT clicking the link and making a donation to the Sara Bakay New York Dreams campaign. 

Seriously. Click the picture of the smoking hot girl in the white man's shirt on the top right of this page and make a donation. Help out a friend of mine. Even a dollar will help. You're reading the blog. You're liking the blog. In return, I'm asking you to donate a dollar to my friend's efforts to realize her acting dream. If each of you who read about Torn Armor had made a $1 donation, she'd be almost $100 closer to her goal. Think of it like a tip jar. 

A Pet Peeve

Today, I spend the better part of an afternoon browsing through my local game store. You’d think I’d have a better selection of game stores, what with living here in NYC, but rents are high and the profit margins on games are pretty low. In NYC, there’s really only one place to go, and that would be Complete Strategist. Many years ago, I wrote about this store, so I won’t rehash it here; you can go find it if you’re interested.

So, I spent the afternoon at the Complete Strategist, looking for old, out-of-print games. More on that later. (In fact, the entire experience has spawned several ideas for future blogs.) Over the course of the afternoon, several interesting small-press, indie RPGs caught my eye. I picked each of them up and flipped through them. Cosmic Patrol. InHuman. Aeternal Legends….

Each of them included my pet peeve: They included a “what is a roleplaying game” section, where each saw fit to define what an RPG is to the reader.



Time to put on my ragehat.

Look, I bought your game in a game store. Your game isn’t on sale at Barnes & Noble or Target. I’m not accidentally picking it up, thinking I’m buying the latest crap novel from Stephanie Meyer. I’m not getting it home, opening it up, and saying “HEY! What the hell is this?!”

Grandma didn’t wander into the game store by mistake, just grab something for little Timmy, and leave. Most game stores would sent grandma running screaming into the night as soon as she walked in. Which means that the chance of some friend or relative accidentally buying your game, with no idea what it was, are virtually zero.

Your customer knows what an RPG is. Your customer likely told grandma to buy the game for them. Or, they spent grandma’s $10 birthday check on your game on their own.

Seriously. Stop telling me what an RPG is. Or what polyhedral dice are. Or that I need pencils. I know. Again: bought your game in a freaking game store.

Moreover, I hate to dash your hopes, but no one is coming to your game cold. You are not an entry point to the hobby. Unless your game is called “D&D” or “Pathfinder” (or maybe even “Vampire”), the only people buying your product are already gamers. Like it or not, Pathfinder is a foundational product; it is how most people learn about RPGs. In that case, Pathfinder needs to define what an RPG is to its audience.

You do not.

No one is picking up your game about roleplaying socks in a drawer, no matter how innovative or insightful to the human condition, without already knowing what an RPG is. No one is being introduced to the hobby through your game about roleplaying bellybutton lint. Sorry.

One last time: bought your game in a game store, and already know what an RPG is.

I especially liked the indie game that said "we're not going to tell you what roleplaying is" then proceeded to tell me what roleplaying is. 

What I really find interesting, from an intellectual perspective, is how you people define roleplaying. They’re all virtually the same. Group of people. Storytelling. Gamemaster. Dice. No winners…. You’re not adding any new insight into the nature of roleplaying with your screed. Really, can’t we just settle on one definition, put it on a website someplace, and just put the URL somewhere in the text.

Call it “Don’t know what roleplaying is? Then how the f@&k did you get this book in the first place?!”

If one more small press, indie game tells me that dice are multi-sided polyhedrals used to randomly generate a number, I’m going to go to that person’s house and shove a 12-sider up their ass. 

Really the last time: If a customer is holding your game about playing psychopaths trapped on a life raft, they’re standing in a game store, and already know what roleplaying is. Trust me. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

An Interview

In my time, I’ve done a few interviews. I’m not sure why anyone would care to hear my opinions on anything (and why are you here, anyway?), but I did them. Well, two interviews. I did two interviews: one for Star Trek Magazine and one for some obscure website I don’t even remember.

What I found odd about the process is that, first of all, the questions weren’t very insightful. They were actually kind of boring. What’s your favorite Star Trek episode? If you had a choice, which alien would you bang – the hot drill thrall in silver lame, or the green Orion slave girl? (Answer, the drill thrall.) Second, the questions were always emailed to me, which made for very long responses. Give a writer a question, and he turns it into a novel. I think my answers ended up being like ten pages long….

So, you’d think I’d learned my lesson when I decided to conduct an interview of my own. Nope. Boring questions. And e-mail. However, the subject is interesting; we here at Dangerous Games have spent a lot of time and energy promoting Sara Bakay. I thought, with a week left to her IndieGogo fundraising campaign, it was time to give you all a closer look at who she is.

Stop clicking on the picture. You'll go blind. 

 Yes, it’s game/nerd related.

Q: Why don’t we start off by asking you to tell us about yourself?
SB: I’m a very ambitious young woman, living in an extremely inconvenient small town. I’m sweet and creative, but I’m also strange and will punch you in the face if you mess with someone I love.
Q: The usual stereotype is that girls don’t play video games, but I understand you’re a gamer? Tell us how that started.
SB: From a very young age, I was introduced to awesome games like Frogger and Tetris. My family would compete against each other.
Q: What kinds of games do you like to play?
SB: I like a lot of simulation and role play games, but I can find joy in many different types.
Q: I hear you have a lot of game systems, can you give us a list?
SB: PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, Nintendo DS, WII, PS2, Xbox (original), Super Nintendo, and Gameboy Advance. I think that’s it, unless you count my computer (which I totally do).
Q: What is your favorite game system?
SB: If you count the computer, then I would choose that. If not, I guess I’m an Xbox girl, though I grew up more on Playstation.
Q: What is your favorite game, and why?
SB: Hmmm…. I spent years obsessed with The Sims. A year before it came out, I told my mom that I wish there was a game exactly like that. I’m not taking credit for inventing it, just simply stating that there was a need for it. I also love Kingdom Hearts.
Q: Have you ever played games like Dungeons and Dragons, or Magic: the Gathering?
SB: I never had time in high school to learn it, and no one else around here seems to play it.
Q: So, Gears of War or Halo?
SB: Definitely Gears of War.
Q: Are there any other kinds of games you like to play? Monopoly, chess, bridge…
SB: I LOVE board games. Unless you cheat (like my brother and cousin used to), I’m undefeated at Monopoly. I’ve played checkers and chess since I was a little girl. I also love Canasta, but I’m not great at it.
Q: Obviously, as a musician, you like to sing and dance. Do you play a lot of those kinds of games, too?
SB: I absolutely do. I own most of the games in that area. My favorite to sing/play music with is probably The Beatles Rockband, and I love the dancing games!
Q: So, you’re in Dodongo’s Cavern, and you’re being attacked by, well, dodongos, but you don’t have any bomb flowers. What do you do?
SB: Duh! I’d use my shrink ray to make the dodongos tiny little creatures, then I’d sell them on the black market.
Q: How did you get into acting?
SB: I was asked to participate in a church play when I was about 5. I had 3 lines (but I memorized every line in the whole play), and I was in it for a total of like 4 minutes. I still remember the feeling I had after I walked off stage. So awesome.
Q: Is there a particular role you like to play?
SB: I find that playing the villain is sooooo much fun! I do like to play the protagonist and under dog, too. I like having people root for me.
Q: What is your favorite movie?
SB: That is a difficult question for me. I CAN tell you that Inception, Pride and Prejudice, and Gone With the Wind are in my top 5.
Q: I understand you’re going to film an independent Tomb Raider movie, can you tell us about that?
SB: It’s a fan film in light of the recent release of the new video game. I am told that it takes place after the events in the video game. I’ll be getting the script this month, and I’ll know a little more then. I’m pretty excited to play Lara Croft. I grew up watching my brothers hang from cliffs and jump from rock to rock with these video games.
Q: Is there a particular actor who you admire, someone you want to emulate in some way?
SB: I’m not sure. I’ve never really focused my career on someone else, but I have an appreciation for a lot of other actors. Leonardo Dicaprio is super talented, and Zooey Dechanel is quirky and weird (as I presume myself sometimes). I admire that Meryl Streep doesn’t try to plastic surgery away all of her wrinkles, and I’m a big Julia Roberts fan.
Q: Why don’t you tell us a bit about the fundraiser?
SB: The fundraiser I’m doing is for a competition in New York. Ten people were chosen (myself included) out of hundreds to compete with actors all over the nation in front of agents, managers, and casting directors from big companies who are all looking for fresh faces. I have to raise a large amount of money in a short amount of time to pay for the trip, training, and all of the many necessities that come with it. This opportunity is pretty huge.
Q: What is the one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
SB: Seriously? One thing? I’m pretty odd. Hmm…. I usually always sneeze before I cry. If you hear “achoo!” then you better get the tissues.
Q: Batman or Superman?
SB: Definitely Batman. Not only is he super hot, but he has so many nifty gadgets and an awesome cave. If he can’t do something, Morgan Freeman will make another gadget so that he can.
Q: Star Trek or Star Wars?
SB: This is kind of a difficult one… I’m going to have to go with Star Wars (even though I own Spock ears). I was much more infatuated with the storyline of Star Wars as a child than Star Trek. They both have great strengths, though.
There you go! Likes Batman, Gears of War, and the Xbox. And also has more game systems than a teenaged Japanese boy. I think that's worth a contribution. Don't you?