Friday, March 28, 2014

The Will to Lead

For me, the hardest part about running an RPG is, more often than not, the leadership role I have to take. Of course I don't have to take that role, but if I don't, the game suffers. Oftentimes, the game doesn't happen at all if I don't take charge and say "We're playing THIS game, on THIS day, with THESE rules." It's not about ego, or any particular compulsion to be in charge or in control; it's simply that I've discovered, time and again, that tabletop gamers tend to be an unfocused lot, and without someone steering the ship, that ship is very likely to hit a sandbar and sink (sinking, in this case, being playing Carcassone). 

I'm terrible with logistics, and my prep is a constant weak spot in my GMing, but that leadership role is the hardest. It requires confidence; confidence in yourself, in the game you're running, in just believing that everyone is going to have a great time, yourself included. I know there are a lot of GMs out there who don't take the leadership role at all; they just play the game like everyone else, only doing it from the other side of the GM's screen. For whatever reason, I can't do that. Perhaps it's because I just GM by force of personality, rather than through intelligence or careful prep. What I mean by that is I often feel like a session goes well when I believe it's going well, and they go poorly when I believe they aren't. Very rare is the time that everyone except me had a good time playing an RPG; likewise, if I had a great time, I can tell everyone else did, too.

I haven't been playing many RPGs these days because my confidence hasn't been very high. My confidence hasn't been very high because of the personal stuff I've talked about already. For the past couple of weeks, just getting out of bed has taken about all the spirit I have. This is also why I've been leaning on boardgames so much these past few weeks; they give me the social connection without needing to assume that pro-active, leadership position I need to have to run an RPG.

Problem now is, I'm starting to miss 'em. In the world of tabletop entertainment, there is nothing like a good role-playing game. The intersection of creativity and logic and communication and camaraderie is unrivaled by any other tabletop game out there. Yes, the games can take awhile to learn; yes, they can be a pain to prep for; yes, they can require a commitment that can leave out just about anyone who can't make a weekly obligation. But, as I've said before, the juice is worth the squeeze.

So how do I get back in the saddle? Where do I get the confidence to step behind the screen again and start running a game? Here are some of my ideas:

1. Zombies. As I've said before, I've got a thing for zombies. Zombies are comfortable. They fit me, like an undead sweater. Perhaps playing an RPG about/involving zombies would engage me on an interest level high enough to raise my morale and give me the confidence to lead. I know a few of my players are kinda done with the whole zombie craze (for the record: I was into zombies BEFORE they were cool, alright? Long before The Walking Dead), but it might be worth it just to go there with whomever is willing to go there with me. I play a zombie game or two, get my mojo back, then move on to something less-played-out.

2. Low-prep. Since prep is such a big issue with me, something with little to no prep would be a nice way to ease back in. So, why not my zombie apocalypse hack World Gone Mad? That's a possibility, but then I run into this...

3. Shiny and new. I really geek out over brand new RPGs (whether they just came out or have been out and are merely new to me). So being able to dive into a new RPG and try it out, one that's simple enough to understand and have low-prep for, but deep enough to qualify as a "complete RPG" and not some mini-game, would be great. 

4. By invite only. My nerd rolodex (Nerdolex?) is pretty deep now from a year+ of playing for the public. So maybe, rather than chancing a bad crew (or, even worse, no crew) in a public meetup, maybe I just send out email invites to those I want to play the game.

If you, Dear Reader, can think of ways for me to get my groove back, I am, as always, all ears.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Benevolent Chief

Currently, I'm reading Robin Laws fascinating new RPG, Hillfolk. Hillfolk may be the first "hardcore" story game I've ever seen. There are very few rules, yet very detailed procedures on how to resolve conficts between players. Such procedures are necessary because in Hillfolk, all of the players contribute equally to the story. The GM acts more like a referee/guide. Yes; there are some important calls the GM has to make, and those calls can have a significant impact on the story being told, but overall, the GM is right there in the trenches with the players, describing scenes and placing characters.

Maybe it's my age or my playing style, but I'm having a really hard time with this. I have always had a hard time with player agency (the practice within an RPG of giving players creative control beyond their own characters). I am a writer by trade. I have spent my professional/educational life learning how to put a good story together. It's what I do. And while I may not be the best at it, I AM good at it. Honestly, it's why I put these RPG sessions together. I'm not too good at very many things, but running an RPG, for better or for worse, is one of them. It's also why I play in so few of them. I'm more comfortable behind the scenes, crafting the story and pulling the strings. I don't consider my RPG adventures collaborative stories. I consider them stories told by me, stories that the players can actually enter, interact with, and even bend to their own will.

That last point is important. I don't railroad my players. I am ready, willing, and able to burn my own story right down to the ground the moment my players come up with something better, more compelling, than what I had planned. I have played with groups full of creative types who have all kinds of ideas on what they want to see in their games. When they're at the table, I tend to put my notes away and just roll with it.

But not every player I come across is like that. I'm not always in a room full of aspiring creators who want to flex those muscles in a game. Sometimes, I'm in a room with people who just want to be entertained. Creating a character, making a few decisions, and rolling some dice are all they really want to do. They're not interested in world creation; they're interested in world exploration. I host a lot of public games, and a lot of the people I put on a game for are just looking for a fun afternoon, something more invovled than a boardgame but less exhausting than creating their own story.

Do I regret buying Hillfolk? Of course not. Robin Laws is one of the best game designers out there, and even if I never play Hillfolk, his thoughts on story structure are brilliant and worth studying, for RPG gamers and storytellers alike. I bought Hillfolk because I was looking for the next evolution of story gaming. It's already been established with me that I do not care for overly "crunchy" games that have tons of rules for everything. I want a game that gets the rules out of the way and allows me to focus on the story, but still has that framework for me to fall back on when I need it. It's unfortunate that Hillfolk may enter the same dubious place of honor as Numenera or Rotted Capes as games that I love but will probably never play. But, thankfully, I'm oftentimes wrong.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Virtual Exodus

This past year, I've been more outgoing and social then I've ever been at any other point in my life. Tabletop gaming has been my primary hobby for the past year and a half. I have either hosted or attended public events almost every week/weekend in 2013, sometimes twice or even three times in one week. When my wife and I separated, I thought that further embracing this lifestyle, allowing myself to just get swept up in a current of boardgames and role-playing games, could help keep me sane.

It has not. Turns out the byproduct of all this planning and hopping around...stress...has hit heavy levels with me. I'm not normally a stressed-out dude. If anything, my problem is I don't stress enough. But constantly juggling full-time work, full-time grad school, and a lively social calendar have left me depleted. I'm not sure how much longer I can do this.

Of course, I know that a hobby isn't the only thing I need to stay afloat in this confusing and dark time. I need to take care of my body. I need to talk to someone (a therapist). I know. I get it. But for whatever reason, I am a gamer. It's what I do. It's how I define myself. If that isn't working, then my depression becomes systemic.

So it's time to get back to basics. It's time to go back to Azeroth.

In 2004, my girlfriend (then wife, now estranged wife) and I split up. It was a devastating time for me. There were few points of light/beacons of hope during that period. One of those few beacons was a little computer game called World of Warcraft. I bought it the day it came out, my love of Diablo II and Warcraft III providing all the assurance I needed that the game was going to be fantastic. I was more right than I could have possibly known at that time.

When we got back together a year later, we decided that we simply couldn't live without each other. And so we got married. I had dropped out of college and wasn't particularly motivated to go back. But I wanted a real career, and my pathetic skill set wasn't going to get me anywhere fast. So I enlisted in the Army. That was one of the hardest things I ever did. Between my inherent lack of respect for authority, I was also a life-long couch potato with literally zero athletic training or experience. I endured many humiliations and hardships in Basic Training alone. And through it all, two things kept me sane: my wife, and Tarsus of Dalaran, my warrior alter-ego in World of Warcraft. 

The game was still pretty new at the time. I was one of the few guys in my platoon who had played it. As we'd sit there, waiting to get our weapons from the arms locker or waiting for transport to bring us back from the training range, I would tell them stories about the game, the same way someone who had spent a year in Tokyo might tell you stories about all the amazing and bizarre things they had seen. I remember one time in particular, during weapons draw, where we saw the sun rising over the horizon.

"Huh," I said. "In WoW (so many of the stories I told in Basic started like that: 'this one time, while playing WoW...'), the clock in the server syncs with real time in that server's time zone. I was playing WoW all night, hunting murlocs and exploring the Deadmines, and then watched the sun rise in the game over the plains of Westfall."

"The sun rose in the game?" said this one private next to me. "Like, in real time?"

"Yep," I said.

When I came back from basic training (nearly 40 pounds lighter than when I entered, by the way), it was a beautiful reunion, both with my wife, and with my game.

The years following Basic were also very difficult. Time and again, whenever things got bad, I would inevitably drift back to World of Warcraft. It would work its magic on me, and for just a little while, whatever was bumming me out would be distant in my mind.

Now, ten years later, dark times are upon me again. My wife and I have separated. I have been a listless and depressed shell of a human being for many weeks. And so I have finally returned to Azeroth, looking for an escape from the more miserable parts of my life.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rise From Your Grave

I have been thinking a lot about World Gone Mad, my hack of Apocalypse World/Dungeon World lately. A friend out there in the community has been talking a lot with me about bringing the game to Kickstarter and ultimately getting it published. One of my oldest lifetime goals is to become a published author. I never thought in a million years that would be as a role-playing game designer. And now, it could become a possibility. Whoa!

One of my many concerns about getting WGM published, though, is if it's been playtested enough. The game is a hack of an existing, well-established (and extremely awesome) game already in print, so in theory there's not a whole lot to test. In practice, though, I made a lot of variations on the engine to better fit both the setting and my own playstyle. These changes should probably be tested pretty vigourously to make sure they work the way I want them to.

Take, for example, experience gain. In Apocalypse World and many of its siblings, experience is gained in two ways: by rolling a "6" or less on the dice, or by completing quests/learning something about the world/completing an adventure. In World Gone Mad, experience is acquired through what I've called "Character Moves." A character move is basically a plotline from a good zombie movie (think Milestones from Marvel Superheroic Role-Playing, if you're familiar with that system). Character Moves can only be done once per session, but each character has three or four of them, plus there's a mutual one, Bonding with Another Survivor, that can be done multiple times for multiple survivors in your group. The Cynic, for example (I'll get into playbooks in a later post) has a Character Move called "You've GOT to be fucking kidding me," where he gains XP when he refuses to do something beneficial for a trivial reason. Another example is the Thinker, who has a Character Move called "It Killed the Cat." When that character puts himself or others in danger to learn something, he/she marks XP.

This is the only way to gain experience in my game (although the current draft still uses the "mark XP if you roll a six or less" rule; I intend on removing it).

The rationale behind that is so players are motivated to actively drive the story forward, and when they do, they are rewarded. So if I'm playing the Cynic, for example, I am looking for active instances where I can pull off that Character Move and mark XP. The GM (or Zombie-Master, ZM, in my game!) knows the players are doing this, and so can build the story from the players' efforts to pull off their character moves for XP. Multiply this by however many players are in the group, all looking for chances to do their character moves, and the ZM should, in theory, have a game that practically runs itself.

I plan on writing more about World Gone Mad in the coming weeks, as I think about the game more and trick invite people to play the game with me. If you, Dear Reader, are interested at all in the game, just post a comment and I'll send you the link to the Google Drive folder where all the info is kept. If you're completely new to the Apocalypse Engine, you can go here to see the mighty Dungeon World, in all its splendor, in web format and completely free. That link takes you to the introduction; simply follow the links at the top of the page to see the rules, playbooks, and other awesome stuff.

I also want to take this little stretch of digital space to recognize and appreciate +Vincent Baker, the creator of Apocalypse World. None of this would exist without him. Without his game, and its amazing sibling made by +Adam Koebel and +Sage LaTorra, I probably would not have re-entered the world of RPG greatness.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Tabletop Gamer's Guide to Etiquette

In this "living" blog post, I will be placing all my collected bits of advice on how to not be a dick at a tabletop gaming event right here. As with my glossary of tabletop lingo, these social mores are heavily influenced by my own personal bias, does not represent a comprehensive list (yet), and are often widely open to interpretation. If you think of any pointers you think I should include, or amendments to points already made, please let me know!

If you find yourself committing some of these party fouls, you're not a bad person. Heck; you might even be one of my good friends. Some of these are nothing more than pet peeves that can be ignored in the right context or relationship. Others, however, are far more egregious. I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to determine the difference.

Etiquette for Outside the Game:

1. Try not to be late to a tabletop event. I've posted about this before, but basically tabletop events aren't like a more casual show-up-and-bullshit hangout. These are games that cannot typically begin without you; or, in the case of a public gathering, it's a group of people looking for more to begin a game. Be on time, or, as your jerk supervisor at work may "advise" you, be ten minutes early. If you are going to be late, try and communicate as clearly and accurately as possible to someone at the event (preferably the event's host or organizer) that you're running late.

2. Scout the route. If you're going to go to a venue you've never been to before, try and learn the route before you go. That way you minimize the chances of getting lost the day of the event and, as a result, show up late (which as we see from point 1, is a party foul in itself). If you have time, actually go to the venue the day before the event, so you physically travel the route and maybe can develop a sense of how to get there. As with point 1, above, if you do get lost, communicate that right away to someone at the event. Most of the time, they'd rather send out a search party for you then let you figure it out yourself and end up late!

2. Bring something for the group. An economy size bag of generic potato chips is cheap and can do the trick just fine. You could also, of course, always cook something. If everyone does this, you'd have a veritable banquet that allows everyone to chow and game at the same time, without having to stop and order food or take a break for lunch or whatever. Bonus points if you bring actual food! Oh, and unless the host specifically requests you to, bringing the game(s) is not "bringing something." Nice try, though.

3. If the venue is somewhere commercial, like a shop or a restuarant, buy something. It doesn't have to be anything big. Just show the proprietor that you appreciate his or her allowing your group to game there. Whether it's a drink at a restuarant or a couple of dice from a hobby shop, something is better than nothing, and, as with "2" above, if everyone does it, it'll be a pretty good night for the owner!

4. Wear nametags (and if you're a host, provide them for the group). Try and learn other people's names, and try to throw yours out there as much as possible. I myself am terrible with names, but I'm working on it.

5. Ask people questions. Even if you don't care about the other people there, fake it (though if you really don't care about the other people there, you should probably just invest in an iPad.) Ask them what they do for a living. Ask them if they've been to this meetup before. Ask them what game they're hoping to play today/tonight. Who knows: you might end up caring! My little metagame is I try and learn at least one interesting thing about every single person I play a game with, without actually asking them "what's interesting about you?" Besides, learning details makes it easier to remember their name and if you find yourself talking to someone the next day about the game, you'll remember your opponents better!

Etiquette for Inside the Game:

1. Help with Setup and Takedown. This one's pretty obvious, but if one person is cracking open a box and setting it up to play, jump into that pile of bits and start helping! If you don't know what to do, just ask. If the person setting up doesn't know what you can do (either because setup is simple or they're figuring it out as they go), start organizing stuff into piles of stuff that look like each other. That's always useful. Same during takedown; do whatever you can to help minimize time spent organizing stuff. I consider it a Dick Move to work the room while the game you're going to play is being set up by others, and a Double Dick Move if you just shove off from the table after it's over and continue to schmooze while others put it away. There is one exception, though: if you're at a public event, your game ends, and you want to jump into a spot on a game that's just opening. If you communicate that as the reason you're bailing from take-down, personally I'm okay with it.

2. Save your criticisms for after the game. If you think a mechanic is broken or a theme is not well-established or the production quality of the bits isn't up to snuff, keep your mouth shut till the end of the game. Nobody likes hearing that the game they're spending time on right now is sub-par. All your criticism will do is bum out people who are actually having fun. Mind you, I'm talking about your own, personal opinion of the game. Rules and basic strategy questions should be asked as soon as they come to you.

3. If you're not having fun, quit. This is a very controversial piece of advice, but hear me out, here. A bad mood is contagious; if someone at the table isn't having a good time, it risks contaminating everyone else's good time, too. If you are genuinely not enjoying yourself while part of a game, you should bow out of the game, for your own sake as well as everyone else's sake. That being said, try and pay close attention to the game as it begins and try and determine if you're going to like it before you get in too deep. Though I would rather someone leave in the middle if they're not having fun, leaving in the middle can upset a game's balance of play, so don't do it unless you're definitely not having fun. How do you know? If you're thinking about leaving, ask yourself one simple question: would I be having fun if I were winning? If the answer is yes, you need to suck it up, roll those dice, and go for the win! If the answer is no (or you already are winning and still not having fun) then you should probably just go.

4. Learn the difference between "good-natured trash talk" and "just being a dick." There are no hard and fast guidelines here; you just have to try your best at reading your opponents and see if you're bugging them. If you are, then stop. If you don't know, stop anyway. Everyone will have a good time regardless of your trash talking; so why risk ruining someone's good time because you think you're being funny, or witty, or whatever? For this point, "trash talking" means basically any kind of adversarial attitude towards another gamer, whether it's taunting, mocking, or even "playfully" calling them a douchebag.

5. Share the awesome. This is mostly an RPG etiquette item, but it can apply to some boardgames, as well. If you appear to be doing more talking than anyone else at the table, take a little vow of silence break and let some other people say/do something. If everyone else at the table is shy, look for an opportunity to help them out of their shell. Since they've come to a social gathering, they definitely want to be sociable, so it's okay to ask them plenty of questions and listen to their answers.  

Once More Onto the Geek

So a few weeks ago, I hosted a boardgaming event that didn't go too well. A couple of weeks later, and here I am, about to try it again. I've created an event I'm hosting for this Sunday (here's the ad, if you care to see). Honestly, I'm pretty nervous about this. I had originally just intended on joining another meetup the same day, for once just being a player at one of these things instead of a host. But the temptation to host is strong; when it goes well, it goes really well. So I've decided to give it another shot.

I've thought of a few things that I want to keep in mind for this next meetup. I can't guarantee that this time will be any better than the last, but I hope by thinking about these few things I can maximize the chances of this Sunday being awesome:

1. I'm in a (slightly) better place. Things are still pretty rough for me, but they've gotten better over the past few weeks. I'm in a better place, so hopefully my attitude will be better and I'll be more receptive to simply having fun.

2. I'm pushing a more specific agenda. As you might see from looking at the ad, I'm putting my most-want-to-play game, Terra Mystica, right up front, sharing room with the event name and everything. I'm hoping this focus will attract like minds who want to play the game. This doesn't necessarily mean good or bad people are going to show, but at least everyone signing up knows right from the start that this is the game I want to play. I figure, even if a group of Them show up, I should still have a reasonable amount of fun, as long as we're playing Terra Mystica and I keep an open mind. Speaking of Terra Mystica...

3. Terra Mystica is awesome. Seriously. It's good. Last session, I pushed Mansions of Madness. Mansions is a good game, but it's not what I'd call a "franchise" game. A franchise game is my own lingo for a game that essentially creates its own parties. People will show up specifically for that game and that game alone. Settlers of Catan and Carcassone are franchise games. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has been like that around here, too, and so (for awhile, at least) was Lords of Waterdeep. And now, Terra Mystica is most-definitely a franchise game. As I just said a paragraph ago, even if I personally don't like the people who show up, as long as we're all playing this, there's a pretty good chance I'm going to have a good time. Mansions of Madness, on the other hand, is a game that's much more dependent on the gamers you've got with you to make the game great. That makes sense, since Mansions is essentially a mini-RPG, and most RPGs require a good group to make them really shine.

4. I passive-aggressively suggested punctuality. I'm not a punctual person, but I have always considered it a party foul to show up late to a boardgaming event. A boardgaming event, you see, requires several people to commit to a complete game. This is hard to do when not everyone is available, especially if you're counting on people to be there who are then late. If you show up late, you have now created an awkward situation; someone's either got to let you into their already-in-progress game, potentially changing the dynamics of that game, or you've got to sit there and twiddle your thumbs until a game ends. (the exception to this is if the group is huge, say over 30 people, in which case there's a reasonable chance you could show up late and still find a group to link up with). Since this was one of the problems with the previous meetup, I have now politely insinuated that showing up on time is a good idea. Are you automatically an asshole if you show up a few minutes late? Of course not! But if you waltz in at the hour-and-a-half mark and see no one's available (even if one of the "groups" is a single dude who's in the middle of a solo game), then that's on you, buddy! This bugs me alot because as the host, I want to make sure everyone's having a good time. But if you're showing up that late, that makes my job a bit harder, and there's even a chance doing so could impact other people's good times. I resent having to make hard decisions!

Anyways, keeping these things in mind, I'm really looking forward to having a (hopefully) good Sunday. And if you happen to live in the D.C. area and have nothing to do, come on over! I promise I will NOT blog about you behind your back!

After-Session Update (written March 25)

It went pretty well! There was one last-second cancellation that brought the group to six. Of the six who showed, there was only one of Them. That one...the narcoleptic and/or drugged out girl who seemed to over-compensate on virtually every comment from last time...was definitely the least-bad of the three, and with only her this time, it was a much more enjoyable experience.

The rough part was the game. Terra Mystica only does five, and there were six of us. Back when I thought there was seven, I had intended to split the group into two three-person groups. I'd then play Terra Mystica with each group, back-to-back, while the group not playing could play something else. But when that one person cancelled, I was down to six. So, of course, I did the only logical move...I sat out the game, and taught the other five to play.

Thankfully, I didn't have to sit out the entire game. One of the players had to leave early (at about the halfway point), so I jumped in on his spot. I went on to win the game! Though the win is a little hollow because I only played half, it was still pretty nice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Boardgame: the Videogame

Back in the olden days of the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo...even to the less-old-but-still-old days of the Playstation 1, Nintendo 64, even onto the PS2 and the original Xbox...the idea of a boardgame on a videogame console was absolutely absurd. Sure; the occasional copy of Monopoly or Clue may have shown up, but those were almost uniformly inferior to simply playing the real thing on your dining room table. Even if a good boardgame could manifest itself on those systems, back then the idea seemed backward. Why would you play a videogame version of Risk when you could play Starcraft with someone anywhere in the world?

But today, both technology and boardgaming have come a long way. And oddly, (or perhaps inevitably) this hobby and that technology are beginning to converge. High-definition picture makes for sharp, clear images of all the fine print commonly found in a boardgame, stuff that would really hurt the eyes on an old-school, low-def screen. Touchscreens make manipulating the various bits on the board intuitive and easy. Throw in high-powered processors and graphics technology, and now a boardgame on modern technology can actively provide advantages above and beyond their "analog" brethren, such as background music, sophisticated computer opponents (AI), animated boards and special effects.

Will technology ever be able to replace boardgames? That's a silly question when thinking pragmatically; if we're still reading books on paper, we'll still be playing games on a board. But let's think theoretically for a moment. I thought of this over the weekend, while playing Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and Lords of Waterdeep on my tablet. While playing them, I came to the starting revelation that I like both of them MORE than their "real-life" counterparts. Ascension is a deck-building game, and in the app, all the shuffling is done for you. All the cards are already arranged, and all the resources and special abilities of cards as you play them are calculated for you. In the case of Lords of Waterdeep, the game is almost exactly the same, but the board has some cool little animated details, there's some "people doing stuff on the sly" background music, and the game can be played through asynchronous multiplayer (meaning the game pauses until whomever's turn it is goes, then you're notified when it's your turn). You can play multiple games at the same time, and fill the downtime with a match against up to four AI opponents of varying ability.

I definitley don't think we've gotten to the point yet where people will just start bringing tablets to meetup groups instead of actual boardgames, but I wonder if that will ever happen. Some of these games, like the two I mentioned above, benefit greatly from the enhancements the digital medium bring. But will anything be able to replace the tactile, human component of sitting around a table with some friends and sharing your collective attention on one thing? That's the tough part for me. In a "pass-and-play" game of Lords of Waterdeep on your iPad, what are the other four guys/gals doing around the table/couch/whatever when it's not their turn? They don't have intrigue cards to look at, points to calculate, empty spaces on the board they're hoping no one notices...they'll just be sitting there. And if they're not just sitting there, then their attention is split with whatever they're doing between turns. So for that reason alone, I think boardgame apps, as awesome as they are, will for now only be a way to play a good boardgame solo, rather than replacing their wood and cardboard counterparts.

That is, of course, until the world's first table-sized tablet shows up....

Friday, March 14, 2014

My Blog is Writing Checks That my Ass Can't Cash

I spent a little time this afternoon updating old blog entries. Checking for grammar, readability, that kinda thing. In doing so, I've noticed that there are a number of entries where I talked about a plan I intended on doing, and it just didn't fall through. There was a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine game I haven' run yet. An Iron Kingdoms game I haven't run yet. A project involving writing adventures for Covert Ops, which I haven't even tried to do. And then, there's the ill-fated "Eight-Game Plan" for which I have run approximately none of those games. If I had named the post "Eight RPGs I'll Never Run Again, for Reasons Varying from I No Longer Like Them to I Don't Want to Work on Them Anymore," then that entry would be dead accurate. Unfortunately, that entry is the exact opposite.

Quite frankly, I fucking HATE this about me. It's something I have done my ENTIRE life, well beyond the tabletop. I get all jazzed up about an idea, I say a bunch of shit that, even as I say it, I know there's little chance of it happening, and sure enough, it doesn't happen. Sometimes it's truly embarrassing how little time it takes me to realize that's not going to happen. Sometimes, I lose the desire to do whatever the hell it is I said I was going to do from the very moment I commit to it, as if the very act of saying "I'm going to do this!" suddenly sucks the motivation right out of me.

I'm 35 years old now. Though I'm definitely not too old to change, it would, at this point in my life, be easier to accept it and work around it than change it. So how do I do that? How do I look someone (even myself) right in the face and say "I love this game. But it's gonna be awhile befor eI ever play it again...if ever." I don't seem to have an ability to get that real. Not to get too far away from the nerdy tabletop fun, but one of my goals in my life right now is to have more self-respect. I want to own who I am, and take responsibility for my actions. That's hard for me to do, as I have habits that end up making me feel the opposite.

Normally, at this point in the blog post, I would come up with a four or five item list of things I'm going to do to help me realize this goal. But I don't want to do that today. The last thing I want to see right now is another blog post with a list of things I was supposed to do on it, that I'll re-read three months from now and think "Ha! Good one, Me Three Months Ago!" So I'll just end it like this: if I promised you, Dear Reader, something that I have not made good on yet? I'm sorry. Thank you for your patience and understanding. I'm not going to tell you when I'll make good...hell, at this point, I can't even tell you IF I'll ever make good on whatever it is I promised...but know that I am as disappointed in myself as you may be. And if you're not disappointed, thank you for being cool. I sincerely hope I can actually make good on something for you, someday.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Hunger For More

After reading not one but two gushy posts this morning about how great Sentinels of the Multiverse is, I have jumped off the fence and fully decided to purchase it. I was about to pull the trigger at Amazon when I realized that, just two days ago, I purchased Terra Mystica. I haven't even played it yet. I haven't even opened it yet. When I got home last night, waiting for me on the doorstep was the "Forbidden Laboratory" expansion for Mansions of Madness. That's still in its shipping box. On my bookshelf next to Battlestar Galactica is the "Daybreak" expansion. Unplayed (though I have, at least, opened the box on that one), and I've owned it for nearly three weeks, now. And here I was, about to order up yet another boardgame. Ashamed of myself, I closed the window (but not without putting Sentinels on my wishlist first, to be ready to purchase once this bout of shame is gone). And all of that is just the boardgaming side of my hobby.

At this point, I would not be surprised at all if I discovered that I spend more time researching games and shopping for them than I do actually playing them.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration (maybe). But I do spend an incredible amount of time acquiring new Things instead of appreciating/valuing the Things currently in my possession. "Things" in this case is, of course, games. Why is that? Why can I not be happy with what I have? Why do I spend so much time obsessing over what to get next instead of what to play next? What the hell is wrong with me?

Okay, so let's be nice to myself here for a second and realize just a few little details. For one thing, the "Forbidden Alchemy" expansion was purchased because it was on sale for a ridiculous price. I would not have purchased it otherwise. All bills are paid. I have no financial trouble of any kind. All other spending is within normal, budgeted levels. That excuses me from worrying about this habit putting me in any trouble. But I'm still left with the why. 

Let's take Mansions of Madness for just one moment. That game comes with five different mysteries. Each mystery has several variable details to ensure a different game every time, even within the same mystery. So assuming three completely different game experiences were to come from every playthrough of every mission, I've got at least 15 unique playthroughs of Mansions, not counting any variations to games as a result of player groups. And that's a severely conservative estimate, by all accounts. I, however, have only played one of the missions, several times, with different groups of players and different variables. So I haven't even played Mansions a third of the amount of times it can sustain before running out of new experiences. Yet an expansion for it, adding five new mysteries, new cards, clues, characters, mechanics, the whole shebang, is sitting on the floor of my room. I did just say I got it as a bargain...but if you buy something you don't need, then it's not really a bargain, is it?

I also will try to remind myself that I'm still dealing with some Stuff right now. Good ol' fashioned "retail therapy" is always a fine distraction. But when is enough, enough? For now, I'll try and remember something a wise person once told me. "Ed, the answer to every 'why' question is always the same: because."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eff the critics

If you click around my blog, you'll notice that I had, in the past, attempted to write two other blogs, about book and film criticism, respectively. So yeah, I like to voice my opinion about stuff. But I have never, ever tried to write any critiques of tabletop games. You'd think in this blog, such reviews would be a natural fit. So why don't I?

The answer is simple, albeit controversial: I don't believe in reviews of tabletop games. I mean, I DO believe they exist, since I've seen and read them, of course; but I don't believe in any one person's ability to give a complete and fair review.

To explain this, I'm going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here, so bear with me. You see, art, as it exists in literary and film formats, is static. Two people can watch the same movie and, all other things being equal, will have the same experience. They may differ as to how much they appreciate that experience, but it's the same experience. Videogames are similar in that way...Call of Duty is always Call of Duty, regardless of who you are, how you experience it, and what you expect from it. So all of these things can be fairly reviewed, based on the vision the creators had, and their attempts to actualize that vision. When a seasoned critic...not some random dude on the internet, but a pro, your Roger Eberts, your James a film, they are essentially answering the question did this film/book/videogame do what it set out to do? Their entire review is a yes or no answer to that question, and how the critic came to that answer.

That question cannot be answered for tabletop games, however, because tabletop games are fully interactive, in a way videogames are not. The designer of a tabletop game, even a fairly rigid boardgame, can have no complete idea about how their game is going to be played once it's out in the wild. One can play a World of Darkness horror game as slapstick comedy without changing a single rule. The designer may have intended for their game to be horror, but the players are using it for comedy. And if it's working and the players are having fun with it, then the designer did not fail. His product is simply being used in an unintentional way.

Thus, tabletop games are not art. And if you accept my definition of a review as an answer to the question "did it work?", then a tabeltop game cannot be fairly reviewed, because the answer in the case of every tabletop game is "depends on the players." 

So, all that being said, I'm going to throw out a couple of caveats, then publish this and get flamed by the entire tabletop community (well I guess I'm being a little arrogant here, as I doubt even 1% of the entire tabletop community reads this). The caveats are as follows:

1. Tabletop reviews do have value. A review of a tabletop RPG/boardgame can serve as a very detailed, very informative evaluation of all the various aspects of that game. It can't answer the question "Will you like it?" because that, as explained before, depends on how you use it, but a review can make some specific statements about the quality of the artwork, the clarity of the rules, the production value, etc.

2. Reviews are a valid way to communicate your feelings on a game. One could argue that a review is just one dude's opinion. If you believe that, then nothing's different for tabletop reviews: it's still just one dude's opinion. The "your mileage may vary" caveat may be much bigger in a tabletop review than other kinds of reviews, but it's still, at the end of the day, your opinion. I can't stress this second caveat enough, because I do believe there is room for two definitions of reviews. So if you happen to believe that a review is indeed nothing more than one dude's opinion, we automatically agree to disagree. (And, incidentially, I apologize that you read an entire blog entry arguing with that definition).

3. Tabletop games aren't art. They're something more. Something better. Alot of people are probably going to be pissed about my denouncement of tabletop gaming as not art, but let's not get out of control here: "not art" doesn't mean "it sucks." It means just that: "not art." Sofas are awesome. But they are not art. A good set of power tools are awesome. But they are not art. A 50-inch LCD TV is awesome. But it aint' art. So it is with tabletop games. I love them more than any human being should ever love an inanimate object. But that doesn't make them art. For what it's worth, I think tabletop games are something better than art, because they foster creativity and interaction with others. Art can do that, too, but tabletop games are designed for it, whereas art, typically, is not.

And, one last caveat:

4. Who the hell am I? I am not Roger Ebert. I am not a game designer. I have not published anything significant, by any definition. Although I do have a Bachelors degree in Writing and am one semester away from a Masters degree in it, I have no specialized knowledge beyond that about what art is, or isn't. I am just one of those random dudes on the internet keeping a blog. So if you disagree with me, all that's fundamentally happened here is this: you don't feel the same way as Some Other Guy. So there's no need to hate. Right? RIGHT?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Me & Them

I have hosted public tabletop games for over a year now. In that year, I have been very lucky in meeting some great people, many of whom have gone on to become good friends of mine. I have been lucky in that I haven't come across too many of the gamers that I'll simply call "Them."

Alas, my lucky streak ended yesterday. I hosted a public boardgaming event. Out of six people who showed up, I would fully classify three of them as "Them." One of them spoke in a mumble, averted all eye contact, and didn't like Mansions of Madness because there wasn't enough strategy in it. So while the rest of us played Mansions, he played Marvel Legendary, solo. Another one rambled endlessly about herself, acted like she knew what everyone was talking about when she clearly didn't, and refused to acknowledge comprehension of anything she was being told, whether she got it or not. I caught her drowsing off at one point during our game of Mansions. The third showed up an hour and a half late with Twilight Struggle, a two-player only game well-known for its complexity and long length, then left about an hour later.

These are not necessarily bad people. I gotta say this again, lest you think I'm an asshole: these are not bad people. But they're not my people. They're not the people I hope to meet when I set these things up. Normally, I would have spent the whole afternoon making sure them and everyone affected by them were having a good time. But in my current emotional state these days, I just didn't have it in me. I just wanted to relax and have fun for a couple of hours. I was supposed to play Marvel Legendary on Friday, but I gave up my seat and taught the game instead of playing it. I don't regret that...I do it all the time...but at the end of the evening, teaching a game is not playing a game. So I was looking forward to this Sunday, and it kinda crapped out on me.

Though I have been exceptionally lucky with not encountering people like this too often, I'm left at a loss as to how I am supposed to deal with them when they enter the room. I am not so much of a dick that I'd tell them to leave, or ban them from games; but at the same time, I like keeping my events open to the public, and I myself don't want to become the stereotype of the "cliquey" gamer who only associates with people in his little circle and is not welcoming at all to newcomers.

Ultimately, I accept that this is part of what the hobby is about. Tabletop gaming is and always primarily will be a social activity so it is of course highly likely that, from time to time, I'm going to run across people I don't necessarily like. So, how do I deal with those people best?

Or is the problem just me?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Salvation in Creation

I have been fighting a losing battle this week. Depression over the current state of affairs of my the all-natural, organic depression I live with on a more or less daily basis...have laid siege to my mind. I haven't touched an RPG all week. All I've done is work, then retreat to my new home to play videogames and watch The Walking Dead until I fall asleep. Contact with other human beings seems like an ardous chore I can barely muster up the energy to do. My impulse control has greatly weakened in my efforts to find distraction. I have purchased...and several days later, iPad, and I've been on the cusp of pulling the trigger on a Playstation 4 for days. The only thing holding me back is the certain knowledge that it would not, indeed, make me feel any better. That, and the lack of decent launch titles.

Indeed, there seems to be little that can make me feel better. I only know of one thing: creating stuff. Anything, really. I hate to be the tortured artist stereotype, but sinking my teeth into a creative project seems to be one of the few things capable of fully, productively, and safely distracting me from my lack of shit-giving about life. So here is a short list (more, of course, for me than for you, dear reader) of projects I'd either like to begin work on or continue working on. Most of these, of course, involve tabletop gaming, my hobby that as of late has not been as effective as it normally is in situations such as this (probably because of the prerequisitie of other people needing to be involved), but there's a few non-gaming items on here, as well:

1. World Gone Mad. My zombie apocalypse hack of the brilliant Apocalypse World (that game, not my hack, being brilliant. Though I like my game, zombie apocalypse hacks for just about any RPG are a dime a dozen, so I'm not going to pretend I'm inventing the friggin' wheel here). I've written about the game a little bit before in the entry "An Engine of Joy", and I'm actually pretty proud of it. I have a few other ideas I want to get in writing, as well as begin screwing around with some amateur publishing/layout software and see if I can turn it into an honest book, rather than a directory on Google Drive full of separate files.

2. Cortex Plus hacking. Cortex Plus is an awesome RPG system that powers, amongst other things, the upcoming Firefly role-playing game. I've never had the pleasure of playing a Cortex game, and it looks just crazy fun, so I've wanted to put together a simple, low-drag hack to use with one of Cortex Plus's excellent, genre-specific iterations (Dramatic, for games revolving around relationships; Action, for games involving plot-driven action scenes, like many heist movies; and Heroic, for games of larger-than life characters performing feats defying the abilities of the average person-on-the-street). This hack will, of course, more than likely involve zombies.

3. My boardgame. For years I've been working on a project I call The Game of Love, a boardgame about romantic relationships. I lack any/all shop skills necessary to make a real boardgame, but I can make the rules and develop a concept, then possibly link up with others to make the physical game a reality.

4. My novel. Like any good (or not-so-good) writer, I've got a manuscript collecting dust deep in the bowels of my hard drive. I had a strong momentum and got it about a third of the way done before I fell into the amateur trap of going back and revising/editing the unfinished first part of the story; a foolish mistake that's led to my current, dead-in-the-water status with it. A dedicated redoubling of the efforts could get this thing rolling again, though.