Sunday, November 12, 2017

Risk Rolling D&D

One of the many things that has always irked me about D&D lies at the core of the system. The d20 roll. If you have a character with a Strength of 3 arm wrestling a character with a Strength of 18, it’s pretty obvious who should win. Until you start checking their ability scores and comparing the totals.

The weaker character suffers a -4. The stronger character gains a +4 (according to 5e rules). That’s an eight point spread. To win the match all the weaker character has to do is roll 9 points better than the strong one - 20 vs 11, 15 vs 6, 10 vs 1 - all amounts to a win for the weaker character. This is where a lot of D&D’s goofiness comes from.

There is simply too much randomness in the d20 roll.

THE RISK ROLL

My answer is called risk rolling. It’s very simple but you need one six sider you can tell apart from all the others. This is the Sign Die. You always roll it in tandem with another die called the Risk Die which is the amount of risk your character is willing to take in order to succeed.

Little Risk = 1d4.
Medium Risk = 1d6.
Large Risk = 1d8.
High Risk = 1d10.
Big Risk = 1d12.
Huge Risk = 1d20.
Massive Risk = 1d30. 

If the sign die rolls an even number then the risk die becomes a bonus. If odd it's a penalty.

So Bob has a Strength of 14 and is trying to kick in a door. The GM says he needs an 18 or better to do so. Bob rolls the sign die and a 1d10 for the risk die. The sign die rolls a 4 and the 1d10 a 6 giving him a +6 bonus. Checkwise, 14 + 6 = 20. He beats the 18, passes the check and kicks in the door.

(not exactly Bob but you get the point.)

For combat you use your Strength score for melee attacks or your Dexterity for ranged attacks. Plus other related bonuses except for those normally coming from Str & Dex, of course. Defeat your opponent's ascending armor class and the hit succeeds!


CRITICAL FAIL

The controlling factor in all of this is the critical fail. Any time you end up with a zero or less that is a critical fail. Bob could have rolled the 1d30 and had an easier time breaking down the door, but if he rolled a -14 or worse it would result in a critical fail. The farther below zero the score goes the more disasterous the fail. Just a few points below zero and Bob might have sprained an ankle. Ten or more points and he would probably break a leg.


WHY IT WORKS

For one thing, you are always rolling two dice which to me feels like a more substantial roll. There is something eternal about dice needing to be rolled in pairs. A single die roll just feels strange.

Risk rolling also seems more realistic. I don’t know of any formal explanation for what the d20 roll represents. I guess it is random factors that might come into play. But with risk rolling, the die roll is something specific, something a character has some control over. Risking it all in order to succeed. A certain tension arises as we watch to see what die a player picks as their risk die.

Also risk rolling frees people, players as well as the DM, from having to roll the dice for pointless checks. If you have an Intelligence of 15 there really is no point in rolling the dice to beat something with a DC of 15 or less. You simply succeed, end of story.

Last but not least! It also means there is always a chance you will succeed, however slim. It circumvents the problem of fighting a monster whose AC is too high to hit. Watch out evil Drow overlords, that d30 is coming for you.

(better make it two d30's)


WHY IT MIGHT NOT WORK

Risk rolling is different and people generally don’t do different. The d20 system has been around for years and is dug in deeper than a tick on a stirge. You don’t have to actually think about what you are doing when rolling a d20. You just roll it and deal with it. Ho-hum.

Risk Rolling also involves subtraction. IMHO people love adding but are not so keen on subtraction, especially when the total drops below zero. It’s a minor annoyance but like a pair of new shoes it may take some getting used to.

Finally, there is no rolling a 20 and auto-succeeding. However, a good substitute might be exploding dice. Whenever the Risk Die rolls the best it can roll as a bonus you may opt to risk roll again. Roll high and it keeps going like a strip of firecrackers. Roll a penalty? That demolishes your lead, and that's why the exploding roll is an option.

AND THAT’S IT

Try it some time and tell me what you think!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Why Do I Care About 3-Hole Punches?



We screwed up.

I wouldn’t realize this until a few decades after the fact but yeah - back in the day - my friends and I made the same mistake that everybody seems to have made with the D&D boxed sets, specifically B/X D&D. We assumed that “Basic” was code for “Baby” and “Advanced” was code for “Adult.” And by being in Junior High, we weren’t interested in playing anything that had been made for us. We wanted the real deal! The true unfiltered raw reality of tabletop fantasy! We wanted to play the adult version of our favorite game and had little tolerance for anyone interested in Baby D&D.


(we weren't too keen on muppet babies either)

Being this way we totally missed the point that B/X D&D was an improvement of AD&D, a filtration of it, a purification of it. It only seemed natural that the best version of the game should be the one bound up in hard covers. Books were special. A hard bound book was one you would be proud to display in a bookcase. Its presence in your home marked you as a fine upstanding citizen, an unpretentious intellectual, a pillar of the community.

Paperbacks are trash!

Lurid titles sold on dime store racks, destined to end up in a basket beside the toilet before finding their true destiny in some sea-gull infested landfill. Nothing good ever comes wrapped in paper.

And so, many of us came to the hobby through our B/X boxed sets, fell in love with the game and “moved up” to playing AD&D just as quickly as we could afford to. In so doing, we not only missed out on a better version of the game but we also missed something else, something a bit more sublime that no one ever seems to mention. Something which would not work with a hardcover.




The B/X books had been drilled with a 3 hole punch and designed so you could take them apart and keep them in a binder. As it says on page B3, at the front of the basic rulebook…

“Each rule booklet is drilled with holes, so that if desired, the pages may be cut apart and rearranged in a ring binder. To cut the pages apart either scissors or a razor knife and a ruler may be used. Whenever possible, the other rule booklets will be divided into the same eight parts to make them easy to combine into one larger set of rules. Every page of the D&D BASIC rules are numbered B#, and each page also lists the section it is from.”

Sure enough, each page tells you what section it belongs to, and this was carried over into the Expert manual. As well as a caveat that T$R is not responsible for you damaging your own books by following their advice. As a kid, I noticed the three hole punches. I even went on to massacre many of my other gaming books by trying to punch holes in them, sometimes rather messily.

(hey, give me a break, I was only in the 6th grade)

But somehow I missed the part about taking the books apart or why anyone would ever want to. I just popped whole books into a binder and beamed with a genuine lack of clue.

Then I moved onto AD&D.

Because it’s Advanced!

Assuming my hunches are true, the grand vision wrapped up in these punch holes which we may have missed is the idea that the game should grow with the group that plays it, that people should be home-brewing rules and tailoring what they have towards their own use, without any regard to how people may be playing it across town, out of state, or around the world.

For most people in the early 80’s, games still came in a Parker Brothers box. They were iconic, unmoving, unchanging, oblivious to the desires of the people who played them. The kids who played SORRY! in the 1950’s would play the same exact game as senior citizens many decades later.

(yes, Sorry! Teaching generations of kids that it's perfectly okay to be total dicks to each other just so long as you apologize afterwards)

D&D was different. It didn’t have a board. It could go anywhere and do anything. B/X D&D took this one step further by creating a rule book which was just as unbound as the rules themselves. If we had bothered to slice apart our rulebooks and added to them as we went, this would have created a tome, a grimoire filled with tabbed separators for magic, monsters, treasure and characters. There would be pages hanging out of it like lunchmeat in a dagwood sandwich. It would grow to become a crazy rag-tag representation of the world, a unique artifact of our imaginations at work held together by glue stick, mucilage and page reinforcement rings. And that would be a good thing.

Think of the way people approach tabletop role playing games. Someone on the B/X design team must have noticed this right off the bat. Beginning players want simple games. Give me a pre-made character, tell me what dice to roll and I will pick up the rest along the way. This is the reason why traditional characters begin at first level and work their way upwards. It’s not because 1st level is the easiest (it isn’t). It 's because first level is the least complicated of all the levels to run. Here is the rub though, as rules are acquired and come to be understood they also lose their compelling nature. People start to wonder what else can be done with the game. How about swimming, spelunking or wilderness survival? How do I raise an army? How do I manage a kingdom? What other creatures are there besides orcs, goblins and skeletons? Being a fighter is boring. What other classes can I play? Races? Multi-classes?

Complexity adds interest.

Yet, it is only a percieved complexity brought about by that ever-increasing binder of stuff. Someone new to the group, shown the teetering collection of “rules” would probably run away screaming and rightfully so. But for those who had been there from the start, who slowly waded into the system, picking it up in bits and pieces, it all makes perfect sense.
(just don't try to play it like jenga)

Alhough it doesn't say it anywhere, B/X D&D is a game designed to be added to by its players. In theory, you could even reset the B/X D&D system, to let a new and different game world grow out of it, one very different from the one before. All you needed was another booklet to slice apart and a new binder to keep it all in.

Of course, none of this would have made T$R a dime. It may have even cost them money through production fees and complaints about kids destroying their own books probably didn't sit well either. From what I’ve been able to gather from the internet (and thanks to everyone who responded to my queries) The punching began just before B/X D&D with a number of what you might call support modules for AD&D notably the Rogues Gallery and the Monster & Treasure assortment. My copy of the Rogues Gallery was published in 1980 and it mentions B1.) In Search of the Unknown but doesn’t list B2.) Keep on the Borderlands on the back cover, so I think it’s safe to assume that the Gallery came first. Some copies of Star Frontiers came with three-hole punching but there is nothing in the rules which acknowledges it or recommends taking the book apart (aside from some reference material in the center of the expanded rule book). The last punched product from the golden age seems to be the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log from 1983, which on the first page states...
These sheets have been drilled for use in a three -ringed binder but have not been perforated for removal. Do not tear these pages out. It is intended that all pages remain together to proveide an ongoing history of a campaign.
Yeah, there must have been complaints. After that you have to skip ahead almost a decade to get to the Monsterous Compendium for AD&D 2nd edition. I missed this one. Many claim its pages were weak and the books were prone to falling apart. So, so much for that.

All of which makes me think of the endless sluice flow of gaming material that floods the market on a regular basis. As I write, people have started to show some fatigue with D&D 5e and many are making the leap onto that bright and shiny new thing from Paizo called Starfinder. Just a few months out of the gate and there are at least fifteen different books you can buy for it. Financially, I'm sure it is essential for the companies to produce as much as possible as quickly as possible before the buzz gives out, yet I'm just not sure if it is all that great for the games themselves. There is no wading into it, no personal involvement. Like a trip to Disney world, it's not actually something you helped create. It's just a nice looking place you had some fun at while away on staycation.

There's definitely something missing.

Lacking.

Maybe.

Maybe what we need is not another great new game system or a revamping of an old one, but just a better binding system for the one we have been playing. A better way to organize all the stuff that goes into the games we love. One that won't fall apart if you drop it in the hall.

I’ll have to think about that.

Quick Addendum! Tim tells me not to forget that the Rolemaster Standard System books were drilled for holes. Oh. Wait. Just like he's written down there in the comments section. Okay, so, nevermind.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why Are You Playing By The Rules?


This blog post was inspired by something said in a vblog over at Shaun Plays White Plume Mountain Notes #10. Spoiler alert!

Shaun is talking about DM-ing a party which has just encountered the vampire at the end of the mud room - the one with the giant discs hanging from chains. The encounter went well enough for the vampire, not so well for the players who were forced to rout.

After the encounter was over, one of Shaun’s players wondered if the vampire’s charm powers should have worked on his character because he was a dwarf and dwarves are short while vampires (of the - Vlad vants to suck your blaad - sort) are typically tall. The DM did mention the need to make eye contact for the power to work and the two were not exactly standing eye to eye.

Around minute 33 in the video, Shaun gets exasperated and says roughly this, “so, remember your players are a lot of the time thinking from - they’re taking in all of these realistic factors - you know I’m coming at it from the rules. They’re coming at it from you know, ‘would this really have happened’ players are always looking for an advantage for their characters, let’s just be honest, so I just kinda thought about it, and there is nothing which says different sized characters cannot look each other in the eye.

I’m not here to hop on Shaun. I have really enjoyed his adventure coverage, and I do agree with him in that a vampire could easily stoop down to look the dwarf in the eyes. What interests me here is the disconnect between reality and the rules and how Shaun has chosen to handle it. With every intervention of reality he heads to the rule books to see how they say it should be handled. This is something which has irked me from the very beginning, as in from the first game of D&D I ever played. It’s something which has always been there and simply never seems to go away.

Here is the problem as I see it.

Players often don’t know the rules of the games they play and this is a good thing. It doesn’t take too much knowledge of “the way the game is supposed to be played” to turn an ordinary player into a rules lawyer who will suck the life out of a game quicker than any vampire. In my world, the perfect player understands what is on their character sheet and how to make it work within the context of the system. After that they do what many of us old school gamers have been doing since the latter half of the last century - we play by way of what we know of reality to handle the rest.

(The Rules Lawyer Rises from his Stack of Books)

Dungeon Masters - it is assumed - do know the rules or at least are willing to stop and look them up when needed. This is great, except that every time a DM does this it is like hitting the pause button on a movie everyone is trying to watch. It wastes times and sparks contention, especially since what the DM often finds is still something which needs to be jury-rigged to fit the situation at hand.

So why bother?

Because of his need to play by the rules, Shaun wasted valuable time and mental energy milling over everything he knew of the game, searching for something which might apply before going with the obvious: the vampire stoops down to look the dwarf in the eyes.

If this were my game, the dwarven player would probably have squeaked out, “I close my eyes and look away!” Which is where I would think - sure, why not?, if it works for a medusa why not a vampire - and say, “alright, give me a dex check to see if you can do it in time, and realize that you are now fighting blindly.”

The dwarven player, knowing a to-hit penalty is hot on his heels would then say, “um, but isn’t this corridor super narrow? If no one can get past me to help fight him, how could I miss with my attack. I mean, he’s right there in front of me.”

To which I would say, “alright, nix the blind fighting but you’re still going to have to give me a dex check.”

Reality beats rules.

Consider how much time it would take to go through the books and find justification for every little needling thing mentioned in my expansion on this encounter. It could easily turn a few seconds into an hour without returning any extra value to the game.

So, why do we play by the rules?

Consistency? Fair play? Time honored tradition? Learned reflex action? Bragging Rights? Is it because we are afraid that if we make it through White Plume Mountain without playing Rules As Written people will accuse us of cheating?

If you are playing - reality beats rules - you are still playing by way of some very serious rules, aka all that we know of reality. If anything, playing this way more than validates your claim to conquest than does someone who finagles their way to victory through loopholes and oversites haphazardly printed in the rule books.

Yes Gerry, I am talking about the Dust of Sneezing and Choking.

I have not forgotten.

We play by the rules in the books because many of us, especially the old school guys, are instinctively tuned to treat this kind of play as a sport. Yes, it has been written over and over that there are no winners or losers in role playing games. Which, of course, does nothing to explain why good old fashioned AD&D was fraught with competitive modules and modules with tournament rules assigning points to actions so at the end of an adventure we could all look back, tally up our numbers, and figure out who the best player was. But whaddyagonna do?

(In truth, I hate the whole obligatory lets pepper the blog post with images only remotely related to the text so it doesn't look like a big wall of wordage, but whaddyagonna do?)

Maybe a case can be made for playing Rules As Written in order to experience a game as it was originally conceived. Maybe the system itself has an underlying pattern of rule interactions which will be disrupted if one of them is left out. But, is it really worth it?

The biggest enemy of the table top role playing game, aside from people being unable to show up, is time suck. White Plume Mountain is one of my all time favorite adventures. I played it after-school in Junior High during the early 80’s. It probably took us four or five sessions to clean the mountain out. Did we play by the rules? I’m sure we thought we did, but with AD&D you never could tell. Shane is currently on his eleventh session and his players haven't even gotten to the crab bubble yet. Knowing who we were at twelve and thirteen years old, if we had played that closely to the rules and taken that much time to get through the mountain, I fear we would have died of boredom before it was over.

And that is not the way to win these kinds of games.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Life Explained by a Single Garfield Cartoon







All apologies to Jim Davis, but what can I say?
I was given a new espresso machine for my birthday
and it has been working it's wonders.

Monday, July 3, 2017

DnD Breeyark!

Wow, what a big beautiful pantload of possibility. I’m not being snide. I’m actually trying to be honest and somewhat level-headed about this, but isn’t it just like D&D to produce something which looks really good on the surface but is clunky and - dare I say - medieval beneath the frosting?

I was actually worried about going to the site. By all means it sounds a lot like what I have been doing with the Agama and what Mark Abrams has been doing with his Elthos Project. In light of it all, we’re just field mice scurrying from the shadow of a lumbering Tarrasque who for some reason or another has chosen to wander into our favorite pasture. It is a big deal, because it is D&D and like it or not, what D&D does the rest of the TTRPG world needs to react to. Honestly, I do think that what D&D Beyond is attempting to do is the future of the hobby.

But wow, what a mess.



EFFICIENCY IS MEASURED IN MOUSE CLICKS.
As in a lack thereof. This is my own personal law of web design. The more mouse clicks it takes to do anything the less likely anyone will be willing to do it. D&D Beyond has you constantly clicking on needless things. There are green plus signs all over the place and these really should be something that floats downward when you mouse over them. Instead you end up clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking.

DUDE, WHERE’S MY STUFF?
It is fairly easy to switch between characters. Two clicks and you’re done. However, I created a magical item called the Abacus of Awesomeness (it’s solar powered!) and for a while I could not figure out how to get back to it. There is a menu item for “My Characters” under Characters so you would think that there would be a “My Items” link under Items where the “Create a Magic Item” link is. No. Instead you have to go to “My Homebrew Creations” under “My Content.”

So much for pattern recognition.

For the life of me I still cannot figure out how to give the Abacus of Awesomeness to Pidgeon Head, my Aaracokra (Aracokera? Arakocra? Let’s just call it what it is - a Kenku) Paladin. The manage equipment panel is laughably inept. The three green plus buttons for “Attuned Magical Items” makes about as much sense as the three shells from Demolition Man.



Adding equipment is a chore. Click. Scroll scroll scroll. Click. Click. Scroll scroll scroll. Click. Click. Scroll scroll scroll. Click. Click. Scroll scroll scroll. Click. Click. Scroll scroll scroll. Click.
How many suits of armor does there need to be in this game? Why does Armor of Vulnerability even exist? Do I sound like my dad when he first had to figure out how voice mail worked?

Yes, I guess I do.

QUESTION MARKS?
The site is peppered with little black question marks that provide insight in the form of a pop-up hint. Kudos for that, except they never seem to be where you need them to be. Thank you D&D Beyond for defining the word “Description” I was truly lost on that one. Now how about explaining the “Other Modifier” boxes in character abilities. Or how to add the Abacus of Awesomeness to my Aarakenku?

Another thing they forgot to do is put a half second delay on the mouse-over of the hint display. This keeps tips from popping up whenever you mouse over them. Trivial detail, but these things will gang up on you.

THE STUPIDITY OF THE SMART PHONE STRIKES AGAIN.
On the whole, aside from a need to be pretty (because it’s all about being pretty these days), I think many of D&D Beyond’s design problems stem from the need to work on a smartphone as well as a laptop and in some archaic corners of the world a desktop computer (remember those?). There are just some things ill-fitted to a postage stamp sized screen and designing stuff for a role playing game definitely feels like one of them.

Or possibly the design team is smoking crack.

It’s hard to say.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Of Audiences and Anchovies

Not too long ago I made a cake.

It was a rainy day and we had a box of “Duncan Hines Decadent Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcake Mix” collecting dust in the cupboard. I opened the box to find two bags, the bigger of which was frosting mix. The batter mix was dinky. Not a good sign.

Oh well, I whipped it all up to create a pink slop tasting strangely reminiscent of Froot Loops. Thinking it needed some help, I chopped up some strawberries and mixed them in. It created just enough batter to cover the bottoms of two cake tins. In the oven they went.

While the cake was cooking I turned my attention to the frosting. The white bag? It was basically powdered sugar. Blended with a stick of softened butter and some water it created a substance resembling frosting but one so sickeningly sweet it actually hurt to eat it.

Knowing this would not do, I warmed up a block of cream cheese and blended it in with the juice of a lime. Better. It created something like a key lime frosting, yet it was still missing something. I bopped around the kitchen trying to figure out what. Maple Syrup? Cumin? Oregano? Vanilla Extract? Then I saw it, a tall bottle of a dark brown fluid with a bright golden cephalopod on the label.


If you don’t know already, Fish Sauce is fermented anchovy juice. It smells like King Kong’s armpit and tastes like the bottom of a dead fish tank, but in small amounts it can provide an amazing sense of depth to anything it is added to.

I tossed in a teaspoon and then another, test tasting both times. The general rule with fish sauce is if you add so much that people can tell it is in there then you’ve added too much. Of course, once you have added too much fish sauce there is no way to get it back out.

Just for good measure I tossed in a third teaspoon and then a small splash.

Taste….

The frosting is fantastic!!!!!

The cake came out. The frosting went on. What I ended up with was a very low, two layer tart-like strawberry cake which was a hit with everyone who tried a slice. I didn’t tell anyone the secret ingredient. For all they knew Duncan Hines Decadent Cake Mixes were bliss in a box. So....

What does this have to do with anything?

It has to do with the questionable sage-old advice of Know Your Audience. Not once during the making of the cake did I stop to think about who might be eating it. All of the taste judgments were my own and largely done without a thought. The only time I came close to second guessing my embellishments was with the fish sauce. I know my sister hates the stuff. Thanks to a bad encounter with a Fillet-O-Fish circa 1981, she cannot stand anything which comes from the sea. However, she also lives seven states away, and she probably still would have loved it because there was nothing fishy about the frosting. Nothing about the cake even remotely smacked of anchovies. Now if I had opened up a tin and laid the little fishes on top, pizza style, you probably wouldn’t be reading this because I would be locked away in an insane asylum.

When it comes to writing, whether it be for a story or a game, I step into the bubble of that world and separate myself from that big tangled mess of publishing and audiences and sales figures and such. I concentrate on making whatever it is the best I can by way of what I know. I simply cannot think creatively and also think about what my audience may think of it at the same time, not that I even know who my audience is to begin with. Duncan Hines may have millions to blow on focus groups and taste tests and production studies. I do not. And yet, what did all of that polling ultimately produce for them? A chintzy, bland, overly sweet cake mix which needed a whole lot of dressing up before it could even be considered edible. Anyone who buys a box on the basis of what I created is going to be sorely disappointed.

You can never truly know who your audience is. You can fool yourself into thinking that you do, but often all this does is cause a creator to file down the edges on whatever it is they are creating and lose that edge. So my alternative to Know your Audience is

Be your own Audience, but mind the Anchovies.

Being your own audience means that whatever you are creating needs to appeal to your own sensibilities above all others. Any time you find yourself writing something you don’t like but can justify by way of “this is what my audience wants.”

Just stop already.

I’m not saying you are wrong, but the world is littered with crappy things which could have been great had they been made by people who actually cared about such things. Look at the Top 40 music of pretty much any decade. Maybe you might get a handful of interesting songs, but most are just tunes made for the masses with about as much integrity as a cake mix.


Now listen to the song Big Balls by AC/DC. In it Bon Scott sounds like demoniac Winnie the Pooh. The rest of the band sounds like they just learned to play their instruments a few weeks ago. The song is not going to win any awards but the band is having so much fun it is hard not to enjoy it. Likewise, AC/DC may not be the best band of all time but the music they made was ultimately what they wanted to hear. They never sang a love ballad. They never cut a disco track. They never tried to rap. But if they had, it probably would have worked because that is what they wanted to do. AC/DC were never slaves to the fashion of the day.

But what about the Anchovies?

We all have anchovies. An anchovy is anything you love for one reason or another which other people might find distasteful. It is when dealing with anchovies that you have to realize that other people exist and that their hurt feelings may come back to haunt you.



In my novella Supernova, one of the main characters is Lt. Theresa “Tits” O'Shaughnessy. She is an anchovy. She is a blonde bombshell with big breasts and a demeanor that will never let you forget it. If you think I didn’t sweat over the thought of people reading up to her then putting down the book and swearing never to read anything I write ever again - you would be wrong. The world no longer cares for characters like Lt. Theresa "Tits" O'Shaughnessy but I was not about to give her up. She is there because the story needs her to be there. Ultimately, I did finagle the issue to make her presence a bit more palatable, but I don't think I filed off any of her edges. Only the other characters call her Tits, the author always writes O’Shaughnessy, over and over and over again (actually, I think I just wrote OS and then did a find/replace to fix it. Typing the name O’Shaughnessy is a repetitive action injury waiting to happen). She is also one of the smarter characters in the patrol. Anyone who accuses her of being a walking dumb blonde joke is playing off of their own bad attitudes rather than mine. Still. In our current climate where people are burned at the stake for making micro-aggressions against the masses - you have to mind your anchovies.

What actually got me writing today is news out of Sweden about the direction the new owners of the World of Darkness are planning on taking the game in. They want to make it grittier, darker and more realistic (gee - how original - never heard that one before), but what has everyone up in arms is a change to the vampire clan Ventrue. Apparently, they now can only survive by sucking the blood of small children.

On my shelf, I do have a number of World of Darkness game books from the 1990’s. I’ve never actually played the game, I simply like the books. If you want to understand my generation when we were crazy young 20-somethings, you could do a whole lot worse. The point for now is that I do not actually care what happens to Vampire the Masquerade or the Ventrue clan. The idea of monsters feasting on the blood of children is as old as Hansel & Gretel, quite possibly older, but it’s important to remember that in a Vampire game you play the role of the vampire, not the vampire hunter. If your favorite vampire character is of the clan Ventrue - guess what she is going to have for dinner tonight, and tomorrow night? Night after night? For the rest of eternity? If she lasts that long….

Yeah, that is going to rub people the wrong way. By all appearances this is definitely a case of mishandled anchovies. Of course, it could also be nothing more than a misconstrued message. The info was gleaned from a mission statement of sorts and enhanced by good old fashioned internet rage. In so far as I can tell it is not yet a part of the game. Who knows, maybe they will be making some changes in light of it all. Or maybe not.

Be your own Audience, but mind the Anchovies.

Because while we are all far more similar than not, those little difference can go a very long way. And not everyone loves the anchovies….

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What's My Beef With Story Games?

The funny thing is that I feel as if I have written this blog post a thousand times over, but the truth is I haven’t done that yet. It is just something I keep thinking about and milling over and over and telling myself I will eventually write but never do.

Until now.

I cannot say I don’t like Story Games because I have never played one. I simply don’t like the idea of them.

“But Jerry!” You theoretically think to yourself. “How can you say that! You’ve been writing fiction since you were fifteen years old! By now it should be in your blood. You, of all people. You should love story gaming!”

Nope.

Stories are boring, boring and predictable. This doesn’t necessarily make reality interesting. There wouldn’t be a need for fiction if reality was a non-stop fireworks extravaganza, but most fiction fails to work. We get the premise. We watch the plot line rise and fall. It all culminates with some big conflict at the end and then the credits roll. Wheeee. It’s like a county fair roller coaster ride, but without the vaguely threatening advice to keep your head and arms inside the vehicle at all times. You’ve ridden this ride a thousand times before and will ride it a thousand times again. If it causes you to puke with excitement then you are probably an eight year old.

THE TWO FACTORS

Ultimately, there are two factors which make a story rise above the rest. The first is delivery, how the author chooses to put it into words. What the creator chooses to show and what they choose to leave out. This a game can give advice on but is probably best left untouched by the rules. I mean, look at Dungeon World. It is actually a pretty interesting system up to the point where it tries to control the way you and your friends converse. The whole Moves business. For me that is where Dungeon World drives off a cliff and makes a flaming plummet into the gully of somewhat creepy control-freak hipsterism.

The second factor is the semblance of a real event. I don’t mean Batman grittiness or the dull pseudo-intellectual posturing of countless Oscar best picture awards. That is cosmetic. That is about using an appearance of reality to dress up a wholly fictional pig (and when is reality ever as dark and gritty as Batman? Or even as dull and gray as any superhero movie these days? Different topic for some other time).

The semblance of a real event is all about getting people to accept what is being portrayed as if it were actually happening. Magic and super-powers are not real but they can be acceptable just so long as everything else continues to treat them as if they were real. Where a game or a story falters is usually where it fails to do this.

Why?

It falters because our imagination doesn’t want unreality to succeed. The human imagination may be able to visualize and rationalize some pretty incredible stuff, but ultimately it only cares about reality.

The imagination does not exist to entertain us. 

It exists to let you and I see through real-life problems before they occur and become serious real-life fuck-ups. Using the imagination to think of the unthinkable registers as fun because ultimately this is the exercise of a time-tested survival mechanism. If we happen to dress it up in unicorns and rainbows - fine - just so long as the imagination gets to entertain itself by treating the proposed situation as a real life occurrence, then it will pat us on the head and reward us with that sweet sweet sense of fun.


HIGH PLAINS SAMURAI

The game that has me writing this rainy dull morning is a little story-telling game currently being kickstarted called High Plains Samurai. Since I am about to kick it in the proverbial nuts I’ll have to include a link to it and of course donate to it. Maybe you should to. It’s actually a pretty interesting concept - Samurai, Gangsters, Gunslingers and Barbarians in a Steam-Punk Post-Apocalyptic future.



The beef I have with HPS lies in the ScreenPlay engine where, to borrow directly from the kickstarter itself….

“Players take on the role of Writers working with the Director to draft complete stories of action, suspense, horror, and survival. Through their lead characters, Writers actively drive the story and create epic action sequences as the central storytellers; the Director reacts to their descriptions while simultaneously challenging their characters along the way. For every description moving the story forward, another player will deliver its outcome to push it further, react to events, and embellish details with camera angles, special effects, even a character's demise.”

Granted this doesn’t stray too far from the traditional tabletop RPG setup of Game Master and Player Characters but it does change the intention of the game itself. You are no longer playing What If, unless of course the what if premise is “what if we were writers and directors making a b-movie in Hollywood?” but without the whole matter of dealing with an out of control cocaine addiction, a six-figure divorce, and a screaming inferiority complex.

No. Ultimately you are trying to create a puppet show. “Wouldn’t it be cool if this were on film,” replaces “Wouldn’t it be cool if this were real.”

HPS promises high-octane, wire-fu action, which makes me think of the tree-top fight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the Jedi fight scenes from the Star Wars Prequels. They are impressive feats of film work but ultimately they ring hollow because you know we are only seeing them because some team of writers and directors checked the progress of the film and decided that at that point an eye candy filled fight scene was needed to keep things interesting.

It is just hard to get engrossed when you know all that is going on, when the outcome has already been decided in advance because one character is the hero of the movie and the others are not.

To be engrossed we need to think of all that is happening as if it were actually happening. We care about the characters because they are relatable and their survival is not guaranteed. We need to know what they are capable of and why the characters choose to ignore or capitalize on those capabilities.

And it all needs to make sense.


THE MAKING OF JAWS

A few days ago I rewatched for the n-teenth time the 1974 Spielberg classic JAWS. It’s become a start of summer tradition around here. JAWS is not the perfect movie but god knows it does come close. The DVD also includes a bonus feature called “The Making of JAWS” which I had never seen before, so this was a first for me.

JAWS was a movie plagued by problems from beginning to end. Everything gave Spielberg grief - the weather, the actors guild, the people of Martha’s Vineyards, the robotic shark - to the point where the movie almost did not get made. Interestingly enough, in watching the Making of JAWS I couldn’t help but feel that if everything had gone according to plan they would not have made nearly as good a movie. You would have seen much more of the shark, far more scenes of people being eaten, and far fewer scenes of the little things which make it such an interesting film - but are really just there to eat up time left open by the malfunctioning shark: Chief Brody mugging it up with his son, the shark hunters hamming it up below the deck of the Orca, the mayor talking about how much he cares for the people of Amity Island while blindly trotting through the middle of a high school marching band - these sort of things are normally left on the cutting room floor because they do not fit the bill of “what people come to see.” With us, their presence in the movie registers as out of place. This increases the sense of uncertainty which in turn increases the dramatic tension which we the viewers feel humming in our bones as we sit there and wonder if it will all end in the way that we expect it will end.

JAWS does end in the way you expect it to end,



But it’s not the ending that makes JAWS great. It is that sense of uncertainty.

They're definitely going to need a bigger boat.


Certainty is boredom incarnate.

The same goes for games. If you don’t have the threat of a possible TPK looming under the dark waters of your game like a great white shark with cold dead eyes and the iron scent of blood in its snout, then it won’t carry much weight. Who knows? Maybe High Plains Samurai has this. It does entail dice rolling after all. I guess there is only one way to find out….

Here's the Kickstarter link.