Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dungeons & Delicious Fudge

The concept of "fudging" die rolls as a dungeon master is a difficult thing to discuss without misrepresenting my position.  The dice absolutely have to be sacrosanct.  The random number generation aspect of the hobby, in conjunction with a robust set of rules, provides verisimilitude, and verisimilitude is what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game, and not a collaborative improvisational storytelling coffee klatch.  I hate the term "fudging;" in an attempt to make the act sound like it is not as serious as cheating, I think it trivializes a devastating responsibility.

The dungeon master cannot cheat.  I do not mean they should not cheat; I mean that for a dungeon master to cheat is an impossibility.  You might just as easily say that the Chance deck in Monopoly cheats, or the board text in the Game of Life.  The dungeon master is not a game player, they are the living execution of the rules.  To suggest otherwise calls into question the very core of the hobby: what makes it fundamentally superior to video gaming.

A dungeon master can make mistakes.  A dungeon master can be terrible.  In more contemporary parlance, the dungeon master is the CPU that runs the game's code, and they can be susceptible to glitches and overheating like any other processor.  But they have a substantial advantage over a computer -- they can think.

Ignoring the results of a die roll is not something that should ever be taken lightly.  It is not a betrayal of trust, it is the essence of trust.  It should only be invoked when the alternative is miserable, and a good dungeon master is trusted by their players to make that judgment, not to always be honest.  Honesty is a terrible trait for a storyteller to have.  No one wants honest stories.

In an honest story, the hero dies when he rolls a natural 1 on his Perception check and has his throat slit in the night by a kobold.  In an honest story, the climactic encounter against the villain is over in a round when he fails his Intelligence save and the Mystic mind-controls him off the balcony and onto the rocks ten stories below.

If you'll excuse the rhetoric, it blows my everloving mind that anyone could ever trust their dice, or authors whom they've never even met, to run their games for their players better than they could.  The system is not worthy of trust.  It is not sapient; it is not conscious of the events at the table; it is a poorly playtested and edited set of rules in a book written long before the campaign even began, which relies on shoddily manufactured plastic polygons to generate simple numbers for the abstraction of the incredibly complex interface of aptitude, skill, and chance.

You need a system to adjudicate all the crap that doesn't matter, for a sense of realism, and that realism is important.  But if you let realism decide even the most critical elements of your story, everyone is in for a dull ride.  If you're a good dungeon master, when the chips are down the system doesn't matter.  If you're a bad dungeon master, no system will save you.

For the love of Gygax, if it was as simple as books and dice, players wouldn't need dungeon masters.  I'm not saying 'don't roll' -- I am definitely not saying 'don't roll' -- but if you roll and the result doesn't make good sense, don't 'domo arigato Mr. Roboto' it, step up and KICK ASS.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Caller Role in Dungeons & Dragons

Do any of you fellow children of the mid-20th century (whether actual or spiritual) remember the role of Caller? Do any of you still use it in play?

For those of you who don't remember or are unfamiliar, the Caller was a player job in the same vein as Mapper. Instead of being the player with good spatial sense, a pencil, and a pad of graph paper, they were the player with good organizational skills, a projecting voice, and a knack for reaching compromise.

It was the Caller's job to listen to the party when the Dungeon Master had presented them with a choice, get a sense of the group's opinions and reasoning, suggest a unified course of action, and then report that action to the Dungeon Master once something resembling consensus had been reached. 

The Caller was also originally responsible for tracking player-character actions in combat, at a time when players were expected to commit to an action before initiative was rolled, and lose that action if it became irrelevant or impossible during the course of the round! (That rule really sped up combat, but at a pretty severe cost in fun.) 

For some reason the concept of the Caller seems to have fallen out of contemporary D&D. I hear a lot of Dungeon Masters talking about co-DMs, or assistant DMs, or even just players monitoring the party's initiative track, but generally these roles seem to be about assisting with combat or narrative flow, when I think the Caller's greatest advantage was the impact they had on session-to-session party choices. The Caller also had no Dungeon Master knowledge of the campaign, which was a major consideration.

Investigate the mines or the sewers? Torture the prisoner? Trust the NPC? Right or left at a T intersection? Every Dungeon Master knows that these questions can stop a group cold for valuable minutes. They can try to guide the party through the decision, but it can be a tightrope. On the one side, the party is reading every word for hints about what lies ahead. On the other, there is inherent bias toward directing the PCs at the more interesting choice. 

Combined, these two risks virtually guarantee that some decisions will be impacted by metaknowledge of the campaign. Having a player mediate these decisions is valuable not only to a Dungeon Master's peace of mind but to a party's organic enjoyment of the campaign.

I bring this up because I was recently lamenting to one of my players that our current group could use a Caller, and I was surprised to learn that he was unfamiliar with the concept. He is not much younger than me but entered the hobby later in life and through Palladium rather than TSR products.

Upon explaining the idea behind the Caller, he reacted with a revulsion that genuinely surprised me. At first I had a wrong sense of why he was upset, and tried to explain that 'Calling' isn't an in-character task. While it is certainly possible that the Caller's character is also the party leader, this isn't a requirement, so naming a Caller is not equivalent to making one PC dictator for life.

But my friend corrected me, saying that he understood the concept but that he couldn't imagine trusting a fellow player with that kind of control. This floored me, as I'd never considered that someone might perceive the Caller as being "in control." I had stated that the Caller was occasionally responsible for forcing the party minority into a choice when there was no agreement on a path forward, but doesn't that happen anyway, only much more slowly, without a Caller?

What worried my friend was that a Caller with a bias could exclude individual players from participating in the campaign. I see the risk, but feel like such behavior would be transparent, and would lead to censure of the offending Caller, if not removal from the group! It would be a simple enough matter to rotate Caller responsibilities, to avoid even sensible players developing an undesirable ego about their role in the group. 

Of course, the flip side of that compromise is that just like most parties have a born Mapper, most parties also have a born Caller, and by not utilizing them a Dungeon Master is not taking best advantage of his resources.

All in all, I think my opinion on the value of a Caller still stands, despite this new perspective on the risks of assigning one. They provide a valuable service not only to the Dungeon Master but also to their fellow players, by keeping play moving through decision points rather than bogging down in minutia and disagreement. Not every group needs a Caller, of course, but I imagine there are quite a few struggling along without one.

But perhaps I spend too little time playing to see why the Caller might rub the other players the wrong way. I'd be interested in hearing feedback from other Dungeon Masters and players about whether they are currently utilizing a Caller in their games and how beneficial or detrimental they feel the role is to play.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gen Con 2014 Very Important Gamer Program Impressions

I was a VIG attendee at Gen Con 2014, and the one question I got asked more than any other at the show, more often even than “Where’d you get that awesome fez?” (Fez-O-Rama, of course), was “Is it worth it?”  I promised myself I’d make this post when badge preregistration was about to reopen again so I could share my impressions of the program.

Short version: the program is fun, but vastly overpriced and overvalued.  I won't be renewing my badge, and it will be returning to this year's pool.  (You're welcome.)  But I recommend reading on.

I’m glad I participated in the VIG program once – I don’t make it to Gen Con often and it was kind of enjoyable to be elite for a weekend.  Overall, I think the program has some things going for it, but there are two major caveats.  One, for $575 the program should be an overwhelmingly positive addition to the Gen Con experience, and when all is said and done it’s more what you make of it.  If you're not focused on it, it can be kind of a mixed bag.  Two, despite being targeted at the hardcore Gen Con attendee, I feel like they are the least likely to get the most benefit out of the badge, because they are likely too busy doing Gen Con things to take advantage of the benefits of the program.

My advice to anyone considering joining the program this year is this: only do it if you’ve got $575 to lose, and only if you’re willing to schedule your Gen Con experience around the VIG perks.  Otherwise, no, it’s not worth it.

I want to be clear that this is my impression.  I definitely met other VIGs at the con who would disagree with me.  I met one VIG in particular who was traveling from Calgary, Alberta, with his wife, two kids, and a trailer full of goods for auction.  He thought of the program as a virtual necessity, and I completely understand why!  But for me, someone who gets out to Gen Con maybe once a decade, and packs the experience as full of events as possible, I felt like the VIG badge was sadly surplus to my requirements.

I’ll go down the list:

Hotel Registration
The housing draw was still stressful, and I know some VIGs didn’t end up with downtown housing, although it is my understanding that the Gen Con folks bent over backward to fix that error.  I personally got a fantastic room, so close to the action it was practically in the convention center.  That said, it was not the nicest room any of my friends got.

Verdict: Point in favor, if barely.  I think I got pretty lucky.  I am sure housing draw is better for VIGs than it is for everyone else but it is still no fun at all.  Still, I know guaranteed (?) downtown housing is the biggest draw to the fellow from Calgary.

4-Day Access + Benefits
I don’t recall getting a badge holder, but there is a nice brass pin.

Verdict: Neutral; I wouldn’t have missed the brass pin (or badge holder).

VIG Lounge
Some of my VIG Companions reported getting real use out of the Lounge, and agree that it is a nice perk.  Personally I was on my feet the entire convention, running from event to event, and barely managed to stop in to pick up my swag bag.  When I was stopped, I was showering or sleeping.  If I had not had my entire convention planned out in advance, I think I would have been very grateful for the registration tables in the Lounge but as it was I did not spend much time there at all.  I did make use of the bag check on one occasion and was grateful for it, and the people working there were extremely helpful and pleasant.

Verdict: Point in favor, but be aware that the use you get out of the Lounge is inversely proportional to how busy you are.  If you’re participating in an event, you are by definition not sitting on a bean bag, surfing free wifi, and enjoying a complimentary beverage.

Exclusive VIG Pack (Swag Bag)
I think this is probably the most coveted thing about the VIG program, but I think for a lot of people that desirability will turn out to be an illusion.  The thing to remember here is that Gen Con is a multi-purpose convention.  You have TCG players, board gamers, roleplayers, wargamers – there’s a lot of overlap but there is also a lot of diversity.  The swag bag reflects that diversity.  I am all of the above to a greater or lesser degree, and even so 80% of the swag bag was nothing I was interested in.  This is completely understandable, but simultaneously pretty disappointing.  The best thing about the swag bag was the bag itself – the Gen Con canvas messenger bags are awesome.

Verdict: Neutral.  Free stuff is good, but when it ends up left in your hotel room to save luggage space or traded on Board Game Geek as soon as you get home it’s not a big positive.

Early Exhibit Hall Access
One hour on one day is no kind of early access to a space the size of the Gen Con exhibit hall.  I will admit that it allowed me to snag a copy of Dead of Winter, because I knew exactly what I was looking for and where it was, but you should expect to spend a good sized chunk of the early access hour in a queue that wraps around half the convention center.  The Gen Con staff did a great job at expediting this process, but we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of people.  Every VIG wants to take advantage of this perk.  There aren’t enough doors in the world.

Verdict: Point against.  I’m not saying that one hour wasn’t nice, but I’m also not saying it was anywhere near enough.

VIG Reserved Event Seating
Who are these people who can show up 30 minutes early to a slot at Gen Con?

Verdict: Neutral.  Better seating is better seating, no doubt, but I don’t know if it’s worth a half slot of sitting around.

VIG Mixer
I planned to go but was too busy to make it!  You should be sensing a theme, here.

Verdict: Can’t say, but it’s worth reiterating that getting the most out of your VIG badge means making time to do so.

$10 System Credit
I am trying to be evenhanded, here, but I have to declare that I thought this was a little insulting even before I paid for the badge.  I mean, what’s $10 into $575?  Less than 2%?  And in store credit?  I make it to Gen Con about once a decade, so this ten bucks is going to be sitting in my account for a long time.

Verdict: Point against.  If you can make the badge cheaper, make it cheaper.  Don’t do whatever this is.

VIG Exclusive Events
I had hoped to do the True Dungeon this year, and appreciated the VIG-only slots, but ultimately it didn’t make the cut.

Verdict: Point in favor; access to hard to get tickets is definitely the biggest selling point of the VIG badge.

“Members Only” VIG Forum
A lot like the regular forum, only with less people complaining about how hard it is to get a VIG badge. *rimshot*

Verdict: Neutral.

First Chance at a VIG Package for 2015!
I feel very strongly that this is bad policy.  I’m sure Gen Con has its reasons, but I don’t feel like creating an elite class is the right move for our community.  I'd rather see as many people as possible get the opportunity to have this experience and decide for themselves if it is something they want to pursue year-to-year.

Verdict: Point against, although it’s not really a problem with the program so much as a bad feel about the administration of the program.

VIG Companion Packages
My VIG Companions all agreed that their perks were a good deal for the $100+ they paid for the privilege.  I am glad.

Verdict: Point in favor, although you should note that $100 is a lot less to pay than $575.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Market Effect II

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like I had anything worthwhile to say about video games, but here we are again. Thanks for reading.

When talking about Mass Effect 3 I think it’s important to first address the elephant in the room – the ending. In case you haven’t heard, it is apparently very unpopular, and a movement has sprung up to convince BioWare to change it.

Without spoiling it for anyone I can safely say this: the real problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3 is not that it is narratively poor – it logically follows the story. It is that it is inherently unsatisfying. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, but I dislike the ending. I can appreciate the novel on its artistic merit, even agree with the way the story went, without enjoying it.

I think the real, compelling question that Mass Effect 3 and the subsequent fan frenzy over the ending ask is, “is it enough for the ending of a video game to stand on artistic merit?” Novels and movies represent a few hours of investment and require no real effort to reach the ending.

By the time you close up shop in Mass Effect 3, you’ve probably logged 150 or so hours of active playtime into the game’s universe, and that only accounts for a single complete playthrough. That is more than six full days, or almost four 40-hour work weeks. Is it worth investing that kind of time in a story that ends on a gut punch?

I can’t answer that question for anyone else, but for my part, I will think hard before getting invested in another of BioWare’s game franchises, or, at the very least, I will enter into the next devil’s contract with a better understanding of what to expect from the designers.

These are not men with an interest in amusing you – these are men with an unexpectedly grim philosophy regarding the sanctity of narrative. As a writer I can respect that, but when I spend the kind of time and energy I’ve spent on Mass Effect I expect a pat on the back. I like happy endings – so sue me. Or, you know, donate to Child’s Play with a note attached saying I should change my attitude. It could work.

As for the complaint that the ending does not reflect the choices you have made throughout the story, I think that is a more difficult judgment call. BioWare could have limited the ending options for anyone who hadn’t played the original Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, but doing so would have offended my sensibilities – I believe that when you pay for a thing you should get the whole thing.

It’s part and parcel to why I am opposed to EULAs, “online activation codes,” and to a lesser extent DLC on the whole. Not supporting BioWare in this would be hypocritical.

In the end, Mass Effect 3 does involve the choices you made in the first and second games to a great degree, and it engages them in a quantitative way that does ultimately influence how the end of the game plays out. I did successfully complete the game, but my understanding is that it is absolutely possible to fail, and for that reason I have to dismiss this particular grievance as spurious.

Your choices from all three games do affect the ending of Mass Effect 3 – just not the actual events of the successful ending, which one could argue have been narratively set in stone since long before the main character was even born.

With the matter of the ending dealt with, I have to say that overall, Mass Effect 3 kind of disappointed me. The game has none of the elegance of its immediate predecessor, replaced by rampant sentiment and unrepentant gut punches so frequent that they almost (almost, mind you) become ineffective.

On top of this, the game engine itself is a disaster, with a quest log that's almost as unusable as the inventory system from the original Mass Effect, and frequent freezes (and one legitimate crash to the main menu!) on the Xbox. I’ve never seen that happen before, and installing doesn’t seem to help. I’m told these things are less of an issue in the PC version of the game.

Ultimately, Mass Effect is another great trilogy that will go down in history with a second chapter that is the best out of three. But Mass Effect 3 is still playable and fun and engaging, and worth some bucks, particularly for the multiplayer, which almost feels like the main purpose of the software, it's so well implemented. It's just not a five-star game like Mass Effect 2.

My biggest complaints are that while missions in Mass Effect 2 ended at the perfect length, just as they were getting obnoxious, Mass Effect 3 throws this design concept right out the window in favor of Deep Meaningful Combat – long, confusing battles against powerful foes and challenging environments, meant to evoke hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds but that are ultimately just frustrating.

The game also uses slow-motion to turn pivotal and dramatic combat moments into thinly veiled reflex minigames. Coupled with get-up-and-make-a-sandwich load times when you fail, the game’s overall approach to combat makes for an annoying disappointment.

Note: I am not “into” Mass Effect’s combat engine – it is possible that these sort of things might entertain more tactically minded players. As a casual gamer who generally plays this trilogy on Normal difficulty, I found it very difficult to stomach.

The narrative of Mass Effect 3 is ultimately its greatest strength, as it has been throughout the trilogy – while it suffers from some of the same opening cognitive dissonance present in the beginning of Mass Effect 2, this is forgivable considering the interactive nature of the story. The writers undertook a tremendous challenge in bringing the variable events in the games to life, and overall I think they did a quality job. The game’s story, while excessively sentimental, is a worthwhile capstone to a living universe.

Bottom line: I give Mass Effect 3.5 stars – the game is worth playing, but it requires a lot of patience with both the technology and the game balance. It just doesn’t quite deserve that fourth star.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

PS3 Backwards Compatibility Update

Oddly enough, this Sony update comes to us from SEGA. The prominent third-party game publisher's press site leaked rough minutes from a meeting with Sony that were promptly downloaded by the good folks at Objectif-SEGA.

The memo includes a lot of information that was probably supposed to stay secret, but the important bit is that it sounds like the rumors of Playstation 2 games for premium download on the Playstation Network are true, and that Sony will be rolling out their newly patented software emulation to support the initiative.

Of course, the trouble is that this is no kind of news at all for anyone who likes money. The useful information is still being omitted: will this Playstation 3 software emulation support playing PS2 games on disc? If it won't, it is still crippled functionality being marketed as a feature.

Demand more, people.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mass Market Effect

This is going to be brief.

Mass Effect has what is probably the best combat system ever developed for a console/computer roleplaying game.

This does not mean it warranted a premium-downloadable-content bot-match arena.

BioWare, I love you guys, and I realize you're neck-deep in bringing us Mass Effect 2, right now, but could you at least warn a die-hard fan that his $5 won't net him any storyline content?

Caveat emptor, I suppose.

Speaking of Mass Effect 2, I'm a bit nervous that the new plot seems to involve an entirely new crew, and that the plot seems to diverge from the Reaper threat established in the first game. I have no doubt that the game will be excellent -- BioWare has a nearly spotless track record -- but I am disappointed that many mysteries that went unsolved in the first game will continue to be unsolved at least until the third game in the trilogy, and that relationships forged in the first Mass Effect will only have passing impact on Mass Effect 2.

Still, much remains to be seen. Mass Effect 2 is still largely an unknown quantity. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bassackwards

The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. Some of them are good. Most are not. Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Keller, claims that backwards compatibility is “not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing,” which is ridiculous, considering that the currently marketed PS3 units are not backwards compatible, so it is actually impossible for backwards compatibility to be a purchase intent driver. Good show, Mr. Keller.

Some fans claim that the need for backwards compatibility just isn’t there. That it is only relevant at the beginning of a console’s life, when there is not a sufficient catalog of next-gen titles to support the console. Others argue that no one wants to play last-gen games anymore, or that they just don’t even if they have the capacity. This is obviously not true, or Keller wouldn’t casually remark that “it’s all people ever talk about.” Frankly, that’d be a red flag for me if I worked in marketing. But then, I don’t. I’m not going to get into the quality or breadth of the PS3’s game library here – that’s too much a matter of opinion.

Here’s my take: a lack of backwards compatibility in a popular mainstream gaming console is dangerous. It’s obviously not going to bring about the end of days or anything, but from a consumer’s perspective we should all be concerned about it. It is functionality that should be included in next-gen consoles. We paid the money for the last-gen games; we should not lazily accept the loss of the ability to play them. Video games are not like books or movies or music. Books require no operating system to use, and paper is almost a universal medium. Movies and music can be copied from last-gen media onto next-gen media with a minimal loss of quality and no loss in utility. But a video game depends not only on the media it is printed on but also the operating system of the console or computer it was designed for. When that operating system becomes defunct, so does the game.

Yes, Playstation 2 systems cost $100 brand new, today. But what about tomorrow? When the consoles disappear, the Playstation 2 library is gone. There will be future attempts to resurrect it for the sake of nostalgia, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, but these downloadable content libraries are slow to grow, incomplete, and still dependent on yet another operating system – not to mention the fact that they require a second purchase of the game! Every time a console is made obsolete and its successor is not backwards compatible, hundreds of creative works are lost to the playing public, and their return is entirely dependent on the vagaries of manufacturer foresight. Video game console manufacturers are historically not the most foresighted organizations, as evidenced by Sony’s seemingly willful ignorance of their consumer base’s interest in backwards compatibility.

This concerns me. Video games are the books and movies of the next century. It is too easy to imagine a world where, say, the Lord of the Rings came out for George Allen & Unwin’s UnwinBox in 1954, but was never ported to Houghton Mifflin’s PlayMifflin 3 in the 1960s, and therefore failed to become the cultural phenomenon that inspired an entire genre of fiction as well as fantasy roleplaying. This is not an acceptable vision of the future of creative expression. This sort of thinking on the part of hardware manufacturers needs to stop.

Of course, John Keller is something of a denial expert, who passionately refuted the existence of the PSP Go! and PS3 Slim prior to the release of those two system revisions. Sony has a wonderfully self-aware commercial out now that captures the resultant hilarity far better than I ever could here. The only way to know for sure what the future holds is to wait and see.

But this gamer won't be buying a PS3 until backwards compatibility is confirmed.

Price Pointing

A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What’s another $16?

We Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the US around the inception of this latest generation of console gaming hardware in 2005 and 2006 when the price point for a new video game jumped from $49.99 to $59.99. I don’t remember a particular fuss being made about it at the time, although debate still rages in the community as to whether games were worth $50 in the first place. It’s this ‘price point’ mentality – this idea that no matter what the content of a video game (or, for that matter, a roleplaying sourcebook), it is worth a certain amount of money simply because it belongs to a certain class of commodity.

It is difficult to argue this point about video games because of the multiple genres involved, all of which have very different standards of quality. For instance, I may find it ridiculous that Halo 3, a ten-hour game, retails for the same price as Lost Odyssey, a 50-hour game, but that is largely because I am a roleplaying gamer, unlikely to get much enjoyment from Halo 3’s robust multiplayer system. But on the other hand, it is a often a challenge to find two games in the same genre that are wildly disparate in content, largely because the games with lesser content often suffer from other failings that cause them to be panned by the community.

Fortunately this generation of games has at least one example I am very familiar with. Take Shadowrun, another contemporary of Halo 3 that shares both the ‘shooter’ genre and Halo’s publisher, Microsoft. Shadowrun has no single-player content, which suggests a lower price point, but its matchmaking is also vastly inferior to Halo 3’s, and its bot AI is considered to be so bad that Halo 3’s complete lack of bot AI is preferable. These latter elements mandated a lower price point, and one was eventually reached – through market pressures. The game was retailing new at $29.99 only a few months following its release.

But the point is that both games started out at the same place, in terms of cost to the consumer: $59.99. Why was a game so clearly inferior to its contemporaries priced so highly?

Admittedly, in recent years we have seen game publishers set lower prices for ‘second-string’ video game titles, between $25 and $40, but this typically has nothing to do with quality or quantity of content and everything to do with brand. The big releases are all still right up there at $60, not including ‘special editions’ that can run anywhere from $70 to $120 or more. Now, I’m not saying that video games on average are not worth $60. That’s an argument for a different post, and probably a different blog. What I’m asking is, “Why is EVERY game worth $60?” It seems to me that gamers need to use some of that consumer market pressure that drove the price of Shadowrun down so quickly to convince game publishers that we are smart enough to notice that not all video games are equal. Maybe this means some of them will become more expensive than $60. But it sure as heck should mean that many of them become significantly less expensive.

This same phenomenon is visible in the roleplaying game industry. Wizards of the Coast raised the cost of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition, from $20 to $30, and we all grumbled but didn’t argue. Their press releases were right, after all – the price point on the books had not risen for twenty years. It was time. I do not begrudge companies responding to the forces of inflation. Now, books a fraction of the size of those core rulebooks retail for $35, and major sourcebooks can retail for as much as $50. But the real issue is that again, these numbers are irrespective of content! Page count for a $35 sourcebook can range anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. So I’m forced to ask, “Why?”

Why is a 100-page book worth the same amount of my money as a 300-page book? Why hasn’t the community used its collective consumer power to do something about this? Why are we so content to throw our money away on these hobbies?

It’s certainly not that we aren’t aware. People notice these things; I know they do. I’ve heard them complain. But no one ever seriously eschews making a purchase as a result. Video gamers might wait until a game hits the shelves used to pick up the occasional title, but if it is something we really want, we’ll buy it new – or as soon as it shows up used, in which case we’re essentially paying full price anyway, and for a lower-quality product.

Perhaps we ignore these ludicrous price-point strategies because we recognize that spending money on these things is a waste to begin with, and we acknowledge this at such a basic level that we are not enraged by the blatant discrepancies. Personally, I think it’s time we all got a bit more active and conscientious about the value of our dollars. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly we owe it to the hobby.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

D&D4: One Year On

It’s been a little more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, launched, and after six months of playing it regularly and six more of watching it evolve I think I have finally defined what it is I don’t like about it.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy D&D4. I’ve come to terms with it in a way that allows me to enjoy it a great deal as a sort of beer-and-pretzels, fantasy-combat board game, in the same vein as the old DUNGEON! game or the more recent Descent and Runebound. I’m not being flippant – I really do enjoy these games and I consider D&D4 to be one of the best. In a lot of ways, I’ve been waiting for a game like D&D4 my entire life. But I don’t consider D&D4 to be a roleplaying game.

I have to define ‘roleplaying game,’ because I’ve come to realize that the term means something different for everyone, and that my definition is somewhat more strict than most. First and foremost, I consider a roleplaying game to be a system of rules in which I feel comfortable telling an interactive story for the benefit of a group of players. It has been said that a good roleplayer doesn’t need rules to roleplay, and I agree with this sentiment – I spent much of my youth ‘roleplaying’ adventures with my friends in the woods behind my parents’ house – but roleplaying without rules is just improvisational acting, not a game. Likewise, a game like Dungeons & Dragons without rules for roleplaying is just a fantasy combat simulation.

When D&D was originally released back in 1974, that’s all it was – a fantasy mod for a squad-level medieval wargame. Even the concept of setting beyond a hole in the ground with a city nearby wouldn’t be published for another year. I bring up original D&D to illustrate that I’m not trying to make a value judgement or a comparison to the ‘good old days,’ here – just because a particular game is not roleplaying, or a spate of roleplaying is not a game, doesn’t imply that they are somehow diminished. They’re just in a different genre, by my definition.

I have a deep and abiding respect for Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace), and I shared many of his opinions, but this is one topic on which we differed. He was of the opinion that roleplaying was something that happened outside the rules. To me, that’s not a roleplaying game; that’s acting while wargaming. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is exactly how I tend to play the fantasy board games I love so much. But to me, a roleplaying game is a game that unifies roleplaying and combat under a single rule system, or at least with related rules systems. There need to be out-of-combat rules strict enough to provide challenge when performing tasks outside the dungeon, and in-combat rules relaxed enough to provide opportunity for character personality to emerge in battle. This is where D&D4 falls short for me, on both counts: its vestigial skill system and its exhaustive power list.

I’ve been mocked, in the past, for wanting to expend character resources on a skill like ‘pottery,’ because doing so limits the dungeon-crawling efficiency of my character. But for me, creating a character is not about creating a single-purpose tool. My favorite campaigns are the ones where characters purchase homes, open businesses, and marry townsfolk (or other adventurers), and in so doing become relevant not only to the success of the campaign but to the success of the setting. In short, my favorite campaigns are the ones that encapsulate an entire life rather than individual dungeon escapades. I have trouble explaining this to other D&D players, I think because they consider activities like these to be external to the game, or at best a secondary game. But for me, spending hard-earned gold on a permanent home or business is just as viable an investment as purchasing a new weapon or suit of armor. I believe, therefore, that the same rules should govern both.

Most D&D4 gamers I speak to seem to agree that the skill system is crippled, but many of them don’t seem to mind it as its impact on traditional 4th Edition play is minimal. For me, the lack of a flexible, diverse skill system is damning – it robs me of even the most basic system of adjudication for non-combat actions. This is apparently not a common concern, but it is mine. If I want my character to make some money on the side shoeing horses, there should be a difficulty associated with the required tasks just as there is a difficulty associated with dungeon crawling. It’s all part of the same game.

My complaint with D&D4’s power list is more esoteric, and harder to explain. Players railing against D&D4 often claim that there is less choice involved in creating a D&D4 character than there was in previous editions of the game, and this is pretty patently untrue, as fans of the system are quick to point out. Wizards and clerics have lost a lot of options, but everyone else has definitely gained in the variety department. I think what my fellow discontents are trying to say, rather, is that in D&D4 all choices are laid out for the player, even hard coded, and there is no creativity involved in their selection.

In previous editions of D&D, players had fewer choices to make in the rules, but there was a lot of empty space in character generation as a result. Room to extrapolate on things. A character became a person not because he was extensively customized with established rules, but because he was so similar to every other member of his class and race that you had to look between the rules to personalize him. In D&D4, between powers and feats, characters are watertight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great game design. I just don’t think spamming ‘Twin Strike’ encourages creativity, and I consider creativity to be a very important part of roleplaying. Can you rename Twin Strike? Can you reflavor it? Sure, but at the end of the day, every power has its own established, unique rules for execution and result. There’s only so much modification you can do without changing the mechanics. The mechanics of a power are definitive.

I think the best way to illustrate this particular point is to suggest an alternative. Even if a player likes the power list as written, I doubt they would argue that it would not be even better to have the capacity to design custom powers for their characters. And that is the “choice” that my fellow discontents are missing in D&D4. When all attacks were a d20 roll against THAC0 followed by rolling weapon damage – or to put it another way, when there was only one rule for attacking – there was a lot more room for personal embellishment. Every attack was different because every attack could be – the d20 roll governed only its success or failure. The power list removes that wiggle room by rigidly defining a character’s options during combat, and discourages embellishment by providing an effortless and universally recognized alternative.

And that about sums it up. By my definition, D&D4 is not a roleplaying game. It seems to me that D&D4 cripples roleplaying coming and going, as its combat rules are too detailed and its out-of-combat rules not detailed enough. Now, plenty of people are roleplaying using the D&D4 rules and enjoying it, and I don’t mean this piece to suggest that they are somehow doing it wrong. As long as they are enjoying themselves, that’s the ultimate goal, and I am glad to see them achieving it. The above are just the reasons why the new system doesn’t work for me personally. I had hoped for a long time that an increased number of supplements would ‘rescue’ D&D4 for me, but these issues are fairly substantive, and present in the core of the system. It seems unlikely they will ever be “fixed” in this iteration of the game, so I continue to look elsewhere for a roleplaying game with a system that will support the kind of long-running immersive campaign I prefer to dungeon master. I will, however, continue to enjoy playing D&D4 modules for enjoyment’s sake.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jones the Cat on Gaming

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while – since shortly after we acquired our new kitten, Jones the Cat – but actually having a kitten around the house made me that famous extra bit busy that knocked this journal off the bottom of my high-priority list for a few months. My apologies; I’m going to try to get back into posting regularly again now that she’s been spayed and the stress is slowly wearing off. I’ve got a few things stored up that need to be given voice.

Jones the Cat is not named after T. S. Eliot’s Bustopher Jones, nor is she named after Ellen Ripley’s cat from the Alien franchise. I admit to being pleased by the unintended relationship with the latter.

Jones is named Jones the Cat to distinguish her from Reverend Jones, Jones the JP, and Jones the Prize Cabbage (which describes both his hobby and his personality). If you’ve not seen The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, it comes highly recommended. While it is at its core a romantic comedy, I suppose, it is also a really great look at how a village is a living entity and not just a collection of shops and an inn. So in that regard it might even have some roleplaying application, for fellow dungeon masters.

I’m writing about Jones because she’s unexpectedly taught me a great deal about gaming in the five months we’ve had her, and I think her lessons are worth spreading around. She has shown me that cats are consummate and capable gamers, and that I had forgotten a great deal about what that means.

Lesson 1: Frugality

Expensive toys are boring toys. Crumple some paper into a ball, and you have some real entertainment.

This is really the big one. Miniatures and map tiles and three-dimensional molded plastic dungeon walls are certainly very attractive, but they’re also expensive. Certain year-old popular roleplaying games are trying to convince you that you need these things to play, these days, and this could not be further from the truth. I think the jury is still out on whether combat visualization is necessary at all, even in new games, but assuming that you ascribe to the school of thought that it is, coins make perfectly good markers for characters and monsters. A piece of white paper with an inch grid drawn on it is sufficient for laying out most combats. I know there are dungeon masters out there who agree with me on this one: how many times have you painstakingly drawn a detailed, complex field of battle on a wet-erase mat only to have the entire battle use only the tiny open space in the lower-left corner of the map?

Remember that anyone can draw bushes and rocks, or use household objects to represent them. Remember that using a quarter to represent that orc isn’t any more disruptive to immersion than using the giant dire badger you got in the randomized booster of miniatures. Remember that, worse come to worst, you can even design your own rules.

I haven’t even touched on the absence of need to purchase pre-published modules and adventures, because I’ve always been a homebrewer, but it is just as true as the above that you can come up with your own stories. Money is strictly unnecessary to being a gamer.

Lesson 2: A Change in Scenery

If I drop the mouse here, it is a field mouse. If I carry the mouse over here, it is a rock mouse. If I bat the mouse into here, it is a cave mouse.

This rule applies more to wargaming than to roleplaying, but the same basic thought applies to both. A unit of soldiers changes entirely based on where and how it is fielded. Keep your mind open and your terrain modular, and the smallest number of miniatures can participate in an infinite number of sorties and conflicts. It’s not necessary to own multiple different large armies and several different detailed tabletops for the purposes of playing a wargame. Change the circumstances, and the same pieces can be rearranged into limitless combinations, each one sufficiently different from the last to be entertaining.

Lesson 3: Do What You Love

Play, play, play. Eat, eat, eat. Poop, poop, poop. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Play, play, play…

This is the lesson I have found most difficult to learn. Life is short. If you’re going to play, play. If you’re going to write, write. If you’re going to design, design. Better yet, do all three, when you feel like doing them. Being happy is just about the most important thing in the world.
It’s unfortunate that we do not have the same kind of leisure time that cats do – we have to look after ourselves. We have to work so that we can eat, and be clothed, and keep a roof over our heads. But that is all the more reason why we should use the time that is our own to do what we love, and have fun. Because if we work, and then come home and work more, what are we really accomplishing except our own misery and the misery of those around us?

Do what you love. Easier said than done, but worth striving for.

Lesson 4: Get Plenty of Sleep

I’m not tired, I’m just resting my eyezzzzzzzzz…

This is one we should all pay special attention to. No matter how good an idea staying up all night to game seems to be, it never quite works out. Playing without sleep sucks. Gaming, like most things, requires a certain amount of focus that is quickly lost after you’ve been awake for 16 hours. Caffeine only delays the inevitable and ultimately makes it worse. If you’re going to pull an all-nighter with your gaming pals, make sure you catnap in the afternoon or evening. It may feel like a waste of your time, but it’s going to be a bigger waste of everyone’s time if you’re falling asleep at the table. Dungeon master or player, or even if you’re just playing Halo, no one appreciates a gamer who can’t pay attention and stay focused.

Sleeping now means you can play later. It’s an exchange. Don’t short either activity.

Lesson 5: Hallucinate

This apartment is filled with bloodthirsty paper balls, bent on my death. I must destroy them.

This is the rule that fuels the others, and it should not require much explanation. You would not be a hobby gamer if you did not have an imagination, so use it! If something stops being fun, change it! Make up new rules, or a new situation, or new characters, or a new twist – a new anything! It doesn’t matter how stupid or insane it seems to you – you are predisposed to find your own ideas dumb, and you should not let that stop you. If it sounds like fun, it probably will be.

Remember being a kid, and running around the woods with a stick, pretending it was a sword? I’m not necessarily recommending that you join a live-action roleplaying game, here – the good ones are few and far between – but ask yourself why you think people who LARP are freaks, and reconsider those opinions. Try to tap into that childhood mindset and make it active again. Be willing to experiment, and more importantly to get hurt. When you fall down you can always get back up again. Get crazy. No one ever created anything of value by thinking like everyone else.

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UPDATE:

So much for the stress wearing off. Jones' keen gamer instincts have helped her to circumvent all five protective measures we've taken to prevent her from pulling out her stitches. I've already had to rush her back to the vet once. We're hopeful that her duct-tape-enhanced Elizabethan collar will hold until she gets the stitches out on Friday, but it is difficult to be optimistic in light of her terrifyingly advanced problem-solving ability. If anyone's reading this, your thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.