Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why I Was Disappointed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Disclaimer: Out of respect for those who are somehow reading this without seeing it first, I shall keep this post as reasonably spoiler-free as possible. If "as reasonably spoiler-free as possible" does not sound good enough to you, then please move on!

I appear to be in a very slight minority of people who were not OMG'd by the latest Star Wars film. There is no denying (to me, at least), that The Force Awakens has some great characters. Rey is probably my new favorite hero in the Star Wars universe. Finn and Poe are cool. And even Kylo Ren is a compelling villain. There is also no denying that the "practical" special effects are outstanding. I won't even contest the whole vaunted "Star Wars feel, man!" that many people squeal in their social media mini-reviews of the film. All of that is true, in my eyes, and very good.

So what the hell's my problem? I'm not going to get into specifics because I do want to keep this blog spoiler-free, so I'll just say this: Episode VII, when you look past all the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, tells a weak story. Too weak, for my liking.

Originality is not the beef here; it's delivery. Can you define the plot of the Force Awakens in one sentence? Um..."Freedom fighters desperately try to stop a mega-weapon from being unleashed on the universe?" Is that really fair to the best parts of TFA? Hell; that synopsis isn't even fair to the TITLE. Does a story need to be summarized in one sentence to be good? That's a whole 'nuther can of worms, but the short answer is "yes." Yes, it does. 

"They've got to set up the next trilogy!" No, they don't. "Setting up future films" is not a story. It's an excuse.

"It's supposed to be cyclical; that's a theme in Star Wars?" Stop deluding yourself. There are plenty of movies that illustrate the cyclical nature of the human experience that actually, you know, DO IT, and not just throw it out there like putting a rug over a stain on the floor. City of God is a brilliant, powerful movie about the cyclical nature of violence. But there are no cool action figures for City of God, so, you know, it's just a movie. 

"Good stories are all about character!" No. I'm so sick and tired of hearing this. Good stories are NOT good characters. The only thing that's a good story is a good story.

Is it fair to put TFA on blast for something so few stories can get right? Probably not...and I don't give a shit. The Star Wars franchise is orders of magnitude larger than virtually any other intellectual property out there. It has nearly unlimited resources. Therefore, I have set the very highest bar for it, and I'm disappointed to say, it failed to deliver. I'm glad all the kids and fanboys and families enjoyed it, and I certainly don't mean to disrespect any of them (or you, Dear Reader, if you're one of them), but we deserve better. For all that money, for all that hype, we deserve better. If Pixar can crank out movies like Toy Story and Up that are both entertaining and powerfully moving, then Star Wars can do the same.

I find your lack of story disturbing...

Friday, December 18, 2015

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

I've had something of a JRPG revival going on the past month or so. I've been logging on some serious hours on Final Fantasy XIV. On my 3DS, Xenoblade Chronicles and Shin Megami Tensei IV are in heavy rotation, while on the PS Vita, I'm playing quite a bit of Persona 3. And as we speak, I'm downloading Final Fantasy X HD for it. If I commit to playing it, it will be the third time I've gone completely through the game. To date, it is the only video game I've ever had the patience and motivation to beat a second time, a distinction I intend to impress upon Metal Gear Solid V, as well, when I buy it for the PC and play through it (I own and have beaten the Xbox One version, already).

Why the sudden love for Japanese videogames? I think it has something to do with the "weird" factor. It is refreshing to have a completely different change of pace. If we're being honest here, I'm sure on some deep psychological level there's something comforting and distracting about it, too. I find it difficult to indulge in things I used to do when I was still together with my wife. Even things she wasn't directly involved in, like tabletop RPGs or World of Warcraft. I'm not trying to say I was traumatized or something and now those things bring back painful memories; that's not really fair to her or to me, nor is it completely accurate (I have no problems with watching certain TV shows we used to watch together, for example). I guess I'm trying to say that, right now, there is something especially rewarding to me about going outside of my comfort zone and discovering (or re-discovering) something different and new to me.

Going back to games for a moment, even the particular way I used to enjoy games has changed subtly but noticeably. I'm much less enthused about learning new boardgames these days; I'd rather get good at the ones I have and learn them cold. Same thing with role-playing games; my love of reading/learning new games has disappeared, replaced with an unusually strong devotion to just three titles: Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and World of Darkness (now currently known as the Chronicles of Darkness). 

I am a big fan of change. I like watching my own brain go through new processes and approach life from different angles. It's one of my defining characteristics, I think. And, being me, I can't help but marvel a little at how my life situation is changing the way I approach, play, and appreciate gaming.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Power of Passion

When I was a kid, I was in Forensics Club. It's like Track & Field but for geeks; a bunch of different events, you choose your event, you compete against other students, blah blah blah. My category was informative speech. My speech was on thrill-seeking as a sport. This was the 90's; bungee jumping was all the rage, Point Break was a box office hit, and I thought it was all totally rad.

In the one meet I did, I had three opponents. One did her speech on bats. Another on nuclear energy. Another on the Titanic. All three of them had posterboards and slides. All three of them had memorized every word of their speeches and recited them like trained dogs, complete with putting their head down and closing their eyes when the speech was done. All three of them were in formal attire, ties and all.

I didn't get the memo. I didn't make a single poster or chart or anything. I was in jeans and a t-shirt. I hadn't even memorized my speech; I read it off index cards. I rehearsed it once, in front of the teacher, two hours before the competition. I was mortified as I watched their polished, perfected presentations through three rounds of competition and then I, who looked and acted like I had just wandered into the wrong room, stood before an adult judge and bumbled my way through a speech about skydiving.

Finally, at the end of the evening, the winners for each event were announced. When it was time for the informative speech event, I was so embarrassed I barely could handle standing on stage while they announced the winner, who would definitely not be me.

Except it was. Not only did I win, I was the only participant in the entire meet who scored perfect 10's in all three rounds of competition.

I was stunned. I could not for the life of me figure out how this happened. Did they take pity on me? Did they think I had some kind of developmental disorder or something? The judges gave me their scoring sheets and I desperately looked for an explanation.

What I found written repeatedly on all three sheets were "This is so cool!" "You are so excited by your topic, and it's infectious!" "You clearly cared about your topic and explained WHY to me!" "It was so much fun seeing you burst about bungee jumping!" "I loved Point Break, too!"

It's funny; when you're young, you learn these lessons, and they never leave you. No matter what the logic is, no matter how times change, sometimes you learn something as a kid that goes on to define almost everything you do. Here's what I learned that day: nothing matters except passion. If doing something takes away from the passion, then it's not helping, it's hindering. I understand now what I didn't back then: those other three kids, they choose topics that they thought they could sell to the judges. They stressed and obsessed about their visual aids and their attire. They didn't worry about the right thing: whether or not they actually gave a damn about bats, or the sinking of the Titanic (that third kid did care about nuclear energy, though. A lot. He went into pretty gross detail on what nuclear radiation can do to a human body. I think that might have actually been his big problem).

I was going to tie all this back into role-playing, but I kind of forgot what my point was, so I'll let you, Dear Reader, figure out why you just read this.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Three Pillars

In Dungeons & Dragons, the whole design philosophy of fifth edition has been placed upon three pillars: exploration, social interaction, and combat. In a similar fashion, my very life is now balanced upon three pillars: Gaming, work, and drinking.

With exploration, D&D talks about maps, encounters, and travel to foreign lands. With gaming, I get distance from life's shit through escapism (chiefly through videogames), a creative outlet in role-playing games, and a means of interacting with people on a safe and confident level, through RPGs or boardgames.

With social interaction, D&D highlights role-playing, the value of NPCs, and being able to do in general non-combat-y interpersonal things, like interrogating people or conning their way past guards. With my work, I have a stable institution that supports my lifestyle, a place to hone and practice my skills in writing and editing, and a social/interpersonal outlet that isn't strictly revolving around the other two pillars.

And combat, of course, is D&D's bread and butter, where the action is, what the game is probably most famous (or infamous) for. All the numbers and planning and character development gets ultimately challenged and tested in D&D's combat encounters. With drinking, I have my wild card; a little liquid courage that allows me to reach out, connect with people I wouldn't normally connect with, and be vulnerable when I'd otherwise be closed off. It's scary, even a little dangerous...but so is combat in D&D, amiright?

D&D is at its best when adventures, characters, and campaigns are balanced on those three pillars. My life, I think, is the same. I'm at my happiest when I'm playing good games with good people (or alone, sometimes), when I'm productive and a part of the team at work, and when I'm having good laughs and connecting with friends while I drink.

But that's not where I'm at, completely, right now. My life is in a little bit of flux at the moment. Like an adventure with too much combat, I've been drinking a bit too much lately. I want to control that. And, just like a D&D adventure, when one side gets out of balance, you re-balance amongst the other two pillars. As I ramp down my drinking, I must step up my game at work and throw myself harder into my gaming to compensate.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Oh, the Irony...

...a game about zombies is consuming my brain.

A couple of months ago, I made some very heavy RPG commitments in an effort to keep myself busy and happy. I had a Trail of Cthulhu game every other Sunday, a Shadowrun game scheduled for the "off" Sundays, a Wednesday night Marvel Heroic game, and a monthly D&D game.

The monthly D&D game was supposed to be the dump game. I would put it on for the public, bring in new players, then up-sell them on one of my other games. That way, I would keep a steady influx of new players, filtered through what I perceived as my least-important gaming commitment.

Because I was so dis-interested in running D&D (but motivated by the promise of new players), I asked myself a simple question: what would it take to get me excited about D&D?

If you've been reading a bit, then you probably know that I have two consistent loves: Lovecraftian horror and zombies. I was already scratching the Lovecraft itch with Trail of Cthulhu, but the zombie crave had been left unsatisfied for years. Previous attempts at launching a zombie apocalypse RPG always fell through.

And then, almost as fast as I asked myself the question, the answer was clear: I would run a zombie apocalypse in D&D.

Billing the public game on Meetup as "Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead," I grabbed my notebook and immediately started free-associating everything my mind could come up with about both zombie apocalypses and fantasy fiction. The first hurdle I jumped over was the cliche trap. A fantasy world full of zombies isn't exactly ground-breaking. Neither genre on its own is known for innovation. That's fine, I said to myself. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here, I'm just grafting something I something I'm not that crazy about, swords-and-sorcery fantasy.

The next hurdle was the technology one. There is something raw, creative, and freeing to me about just jotting non-sensical notes into a notebook. The less-organized, the better, I thought. Embrace the chaos. I didn't even bother with a regular notebook; I took a bunch of printer paper, hole punched the top left corner of the entire bunch, then slapped a book binding clip onto it. Done. I wrote the campaign's name..."The Darkest Age," based on a not-funny joke in my head about the only thing being darker than the Dark Age was an age of zombies...and began scribbling.

The night before the game, I had Dawn of the Dead on in the background while I went back through my notes, scratching out the stuff that wouldn't work, rewriting and refining the stuff that would. I came up with a simple, charged situation...the PCs were stuck in a halfling village when the zombies came...and was just ready to go for broke.

Meanwhile, on the Meetup page, the popularity of both D&D and zombie apocalypses was clearly evident. I had to turn off RSVPs once I hit the 12 player mark. This lead to the third major hurdle: I had too many players. That's just about the most awesome problem a DM can have, but it's a problem, nevertheless. So I dealt with that the same way I dealt with the other two problems: acknowledging it was going to be a problem, and charging right into it. I knew there was no practical way I was going to run a solid game of D&D with 12 players. Even the 12 players must have known that. So I was going to run a game resembling D&D. Still using the 5e ruleset, I whipped together a bunch of minigames, house rules, and ways to divide and conquer my players.

Then, it was game-time. I had two players who couldn't make it, dropping me to a smaller-but-still-virtually-unmanageable ten players. They showed up, grabbed a pre-gen, tweaked it to their liking, and off we went.

The first game went down exactly how it sounds here: a chaotic mess, a veritble kitchen sink of tropes, cliches, and genre conventions hurled against the wall, and me eagerly examining the mess to see what stuck.

The players loved it. They went on and on about how much fun it was. In my after-game critique where I go around and ask every player to tell me one thing they liked and one thing they disliked, the only consistent thing that came up in the dislike column was that it wasn't a "traditional" enough game. They all understood why it was non-traditional, but nevertheless; they signed up for D&D, not this bizarre amalgamation of freestyle roleplaying and minigames I hammered together under the banner of D&D. They all loved it, and they were eager to see what I'd do with D&D proper. By the end of it, I was eager to see that, too.

So The Darkest Age went from my "RPGing for dummies" game to the one I looked forward to the most. When I told everyone the game would only be monthly, several players were disappointed.

And then, two days later, I got an email from one of this game's players: Nathaniel, a 10-year-old boy who played a monk. He was, to date, the youngest player I've ever had at an RPG event. He asked me if I would please consider making the next game sooner. My heart melted. "What are you doing next weekend?" I responded.

My mind went into overdrive. I whipped out my jumbled pile of papers called a "notebook," scribbled yet more ideas, and this time refined it with the D&D ruleset. I threw together some dungeons. I read the rules on encounter building and made different configurations of zombies to fight. I took the things that worked about the first game, refined them, and kept them in. I took the things that didn't work and filtered them out.

The main thing that didn't work about the first game was the size of the group. But all ten players in the group were awesome, I didn't want to cut a single one of them, no matter what. So I did the necessary thing: I scheduled back-to-back games, taking five players for each. It ended up working out to four in one game and seven in the other (a friend of mine jumped in). Both games went great. And now, here I am.

In two days, we start the third session of Dungeons & Dragons: The Darkest Age. In two weeks, I am within a mere four sessions of my longest-running campaign. And I could not be more excited for it. All of my notes, combined with answers I took from my players, were pooled together and whipped into an Obsidian Portal page, which you can look at here. It contains a wiki of all the major stuff we've learned about the world so far, full character sheets for several of the players in my game, and some brief summaries of the two sessions thus far. The other games...Trail of Cthulhu, Marvel, by one have fallen out of my mind. There is nothing left in my brain now except zombies. Hence the irony.

In over 20 years of roleplaying, this may just be the best thing I've ever done.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Making Battle Not Boring

One of the big turn-offs to me about fantasy roleplaying, D&D in particular, is combat. It's supposed to be one of the pillars upon which the genre (if not the entire hobby) is built on.

The problem is simple: I take my RPG cues from storytelling. Motivation, drama, tension, and action are the pillars of my games. D&D and its entire sub-genre more often than not take their cues from gaming, particularly wargaming/minis gaming. 

The simple solution to this is "play something else." There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other RPGs out there that handle combat more like I want it to be handled (two of the hottest games in the hobby that aren't D&D right now spring immediately to mind: Dungeon World and Fate Core). However, my problem has a particular wrinkle: my own, private Prime Directive, to bring as many new people into the hobby as possible. I can do that with those other games, but the path of least resistance is D&D. It can be hard to be a coffee drinker if you don't like Starbucks.

So I've started to wonder: how do I make myself like Starbucks? How do I reconcile my narrative, story-driven mind with the more tactical play of D&D? Following is what I've come up with. Please, Dear Reader, look over this wild combat concoction and tell me what you think. Specifically, I'm looking for red flags that jump right off the screen, stuff you know may be a problem right off the bat. I realize playtesting is where the rubber meets the road, but maybe a few of you can help me with the initial stuff before we even get to that point.

The point of this system is to create a combat system that is fast, fun, and interesting, where narrative doesn't have to take a backseat to dice rolling, and a system that is tactically rich but can take place entirely within "the theater of the mind" without need for maps or minis. Whatever else this system does or does not do, if it does those things, I'll consider it successful.

And so, I give you Dungeons & Dragons Narrative Combat.

  1. Initiative....there is none. When monsters show up, the DM sets up a situation (e.g. "Zombies pour out of the barricaded building! One of them lunges for you; what do you do?") the player responds (e.g. "I pull out my sword and chop it's head off!") that action resolves, and the DM repeats with another narratively acrobatic segue (e.g. "Critical hit! You lop off the zombie's head, it flips through the air, rolls along the ground and lands at Thormar's feet. Thormar, would do you want to do?") The DM may have to work with the circumstances, but typically the DM should let all the players go first, then all the monsters (this produces the least amount of complaining about the lack of initiative!)
  2. Monsters of the same type always get combined into one mega-monster who, on its turn, gets a number of actions equal to the actual amount of monsters in play. The hit points of each individual monster gets added together. So if five zombies descend on a group of adventurers, and each zombie has 20 hit points, then the PCs are squaring off against one 100hp zombie that can perform five actions on its turn.
    1. As enough damage is done to kill a particular monster, the DM describes that monster dying and now the mega-monster has one less action. So following the previous example, that 100hp zombie, for every 20 points of damage it takes, one of the zombies dies and the mega-zombie monster gets one less attack.
    2. It's important to note here that there isn't literally a zombie made of other zombies in the fiction. In the fiction, it's still five zombies, all acting independently. We consider these five zombies one mega-zombie for statistical purposes only. 
    3. Damage, status effects, or targeted special abilities always apply to the same monster. For example, Zombie A is engaged with Thormar. Thormar hits it for 10 damage. Evelyn fires an arrow at Zombie B and hits it for 10 damage. The DM says Evelyn's arrow goes straight into the zombie's eye socket and it keels over, dead. On Thormar's next turn, Thormar inflicts another 10 damage to Zombie A. The DM describes how Thormar buries his axe deep into the zombie's chest, but the zombie keeps attacking! So even though Thormar did 20 damage to Zombie A over the course of two attacks, the first 10 he did combined with the 10 that Evelyn did to kill one zombie. In the narrative, it just looks like Evelyn got a lucky hit with her bow and Thormar is fighting a particularly nasty zombie.
  3. On a character's turn, instead of attacking, they can perform a tactic. A tactic is some stunt taken to support the fight, such as trying to flank a monster, disarming a bandit, tripping an ogre, etc. 
    1. When a player wants to make a manuever, that player describes the manuever he/she wants to make, e.g. "I try to flank the orcs."
    2. The player then makes a DC 10 ability score check. The ability score used is determined by the action taken. In our example above, the DM says that since the character in question is trying to sneak around to the orc's flank, he calls for a Dexterity check. The DC should always stay at 10, but if the player's manuever is particularly difficult for some reason, the DM can assign disadvantage. Manuevers easy enough to justify advantage or a DC lower than 10 should be automatic, without a roll (but still requiring an action).
    3. If the player succeeds, he gets to place his tactic on his target. The DM takes out an index card and writes "flanked" and places the card on his orcs. If the player fails, he was noticed or otherwise rendered unable to pull off the tactic.
  4. The exact mechanical effects of a successful manuever can vary from tactic to tactic based on the tactic used, the environment surrounding the character, etc. However most tactics can typically just boil down to advantage on taking paricular actions against the target, or disadvantage when the target wants to take a particular action.
    1. To suit the particular needs of an adventure or campaign, a DM may need to pre-establish a few of the more commonly-employed tactics. For example, if a particular group of adventurers are constantly getting over their head and find themselves fleeing combats, the DM may want to decide ahead of time how that works as a manuever (for the record, I'd simply state that a character applies the "fleeing" condition on themselves, and as long as that condition exists, the character is considered out of the fight. If all characters in the party put a "fleeing" condition on themselves, then combat ends).
  5. Instead of creating a tactic, on a character's turn they can try to counter a tactic currently in play. For example, on the orc's turn, the DM uses one of the orcs' actions to counter the "flanked" tactic. 
    1. This works the exact same way as creating a tactic, but in reverse. The character describes how they're countering the tactic, the DM determines what ability score needs to be checked, the character rolls against DC 10, and if they succeed, the tactic is countered and removed from play. If it fails, the tactic remains on, and the DM explains what happened.
  6. At the DM's discretion, if a tactic could be justified thorugh use of a trained skill, the DM may allow the character to use his/her proficiency bonus during the tactoc check, as well.
Again, please let me know what you think, if you see any issues with it right away, or if there are any ways I could improve it. Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Something Real

Role-playing games are this meeting point, this nexus of creativity and camaraderie and drama and art. It's not just a story: if you want a good story, there are thousands of them at your local library. It's not just a game, either: if you want one of those, there are thousands of them on your preferred video game console. And it's not just hanging out with your friends, either; if you want that, there are bars! And it's not just creating art, either; you don't need rules or even friends to tell a good story or draw a beautiful picture.

To really understand the magic and grace of a tabletop roleplaying game, you have to understand how all of those elements interact with each other in concert. They are exponentially greater than the sum of their parts. Good RPGing is always, always a three-way dance between the players, the story, and the game. A deficiency in one area...say, a game doesn't have good enough rules...can be compensated in another area...the group house-rules it, or the story dictates how it should be handled. The unfortunate side of this, though, is that the various elements are always trying to undercut the roles of each other. Game designers are trying to make games where story doesn't matter; groups are trying to downplay the significance of story to make the system cooler; and the dramatic needs of a story often run against what the players want, or what the game allows.

But the correct answer always has been and always will be a balance. A deliberate, delicate, symbiotic relationship between all three.

Understanding this is important. Why? Because a tabletop RPG, done correctly with all those elements in the right balance, is it. THE EXPERIENCE. There is nothing else like it in the world. Take the human, electric energy of a live concert. Then imagine yourself as part of the band. Then imagine that you're playing alongside your friends. And the crowd is packed, elbow-to-elbow, with the shit of life; the crabby coworkers, the boring professors, the abtuse family members. You are impressing the hell out of them with your performance, but like any good art, it's not about them. Fuck them. It's about you, you and your friends, doing something that cannot be recorded, cannot be DVR'd, cannot be bottled up and done again and again and again. It's special, it's magic, it's unique, and it's you. Every session ever only happens once and never happens again. 

That's what at stake here when we think about what an RPG is.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Squared Circle

I am into dark, intense, brooding shit. TV shows like Breaking Bad. Roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu. Videogames like the Arkham Batman games. I'm not particularly proud of this, but it's what I gravitate towards. The heart wants what it wants.

There is, however, one odd anamoly in my predictable tastes. One special part of my heart devoted to something a little bit different. That, for me, is professional wrestling; specifically, World Wrestling Entertainment, the WWE.

Why this paradoxical appreciation for a "sport" that's often considered campy, crass, or even just plain stupid? Let me count the ways:

1. There's nothing else like it out there. I will admit that the WWE is deserving of much of the criticisms that people level against it. The thing about, though, is that when the WWE gets it right, when they actually deliver on what it is they do? It is something the likes of which you'll never see anywhere else. Not in a play. Not at the circus. Not at a UFC fighting match, or a boxing match, or an action movie, or even a videogame. Watching two (or more) pro wrestlers land these sick moves, and telling a story of conflict right there on the canvas is an entertainment experience that is truly one of a kind. It's worth putting up with hours of fluff to get to just those few precious minutes of something amazing.

2. They're changing with the times. There used to be a time when being a woman in wrestling meant a few options, none of them very good. Nowadays, the women's wrestlers in the WWE are getting to the same level as the stuff put on by the men. Their rosters are getting bigger, their personalities and mic skills are getting better, and the in-the-ring athleticism? Off the hook! The WWE still has some problems...particularly with men/women of color and how they tend to get portrayed...but they've come a long way.

3. The Reality Era. The WWE is in what has been dubbed "the Reality Era" right now. That means that pro wrestling these days is as much about those behind the curtain as it is those in front of it. Long, long gone are the days where announcers were trying to convince us that the Undertaker is really some kind of wrestling zombie. Nowadays, pro wrestlers have big, bold personalities, but they are still fundamentally human, and that makes them relatable and exciting to watch. Of course there are still a few throwbacks (Bray Wyatt, to name one), but their stage presence is precisely that: a throwback to a different time, meant to be "old school" and for the hardcore to appreciate.

4. Story First. The one thing missing from sports, the thing that sets the WWE apart, is story. Sure, the stories may not always be all that great, but just the fact that they exist is something special. And we're not just talking a story contructed by announcers and producers to give context to a game; we're talking about an honest to God story, with protagonists, antagonists, themes, and tones. I'd probably watch a lot more football if that were the case in the NFL!

I do not expect too many people to get into the WWE. And I am definitely not saying that it's good, beginning to end. But when I think about all my fellow geeks out there who talk the same way about their anime shows and their SyFy channel TV shows, I think to myself, "Why not wrestling?"

Monday, July 13, 2015

In/Out of the Zone

On Saturday, I attempted to play a game of the Dragon Age RPG. I got maybe an hour into the adventure before I tapped out and called a boardgame audible.

What happened? It wasn't the game. Dragon Age, as you'll read in my Geek Native review, is an excellent RPG and the system seemed to be working very well in the short time that I used it. It wasn't the players, either. They were all sufficiently enthused, made their own characters, and were ready and willing to play. It was me.

I wrote before about how important comfort level is for a GM. An uncomfortable GM is a distracted GM, and a distracted GM usually doesn't run an adventure well, or at all, in my case. It doesn't matter how trite or idiosyncratic a GM's tastes are; it's all a part of that particular GM's style, and if those quirks aren't catered to, the game will suffer as a result. I'm not happy about this, but I accept it. It's far easier than trying to change. I'm not even sure if I can change, when it comes to this.

So what are my particular idiosyncries that, being ignored, led to my aborted game? They are as follows:

1. Tech at the table. Including my own, there were three laptops up and on at our four-person table. I know all too well the seductive allure of the internet, and I simply can't be comfortable knowing that my players may or may not be listening or caring about the adventure. I need all eyes on me! I don't mind the occasional glance at your phone, but computers and tablets are the line for me. I don't want to see them when it's game-time. I tried to be cool with it, though, because...

2. No hardcopy. Since the Dragon Age RPG isn't out in hardcopy yet, all I had was the pdf file. This was why I allowed the laptops; since there were no hardcopies of the book, I wanted several copies of the pdf open for quick reference. This proved to be a mistake, for reason 1, above. From now on, I simply will not play an RPG if I don't have a hardcopy of it at the table, whether I own it, someone else owns it, or if it's simply a printout of a pdf. Having tech at the table, as well as fumbling through a 400+ page file, just isn't good enough for my game.

3. Published adventure. I was running "Invisible Chains," the intro adventure in the back of the book. I read the adventure completely and didn't need to reference it much as we played, but I still felt uncomfortable trying to follow work I didn't create. I've struggled for years trying to allow myself to be comfortable running modules. It would make my GMing job SO much easier! Alas, I simply cannot do it. I'm drawn to GMing because of the creative process, its collaborative nature combined with the adjudication of a rules system. The creative side of my brain likes this controlled environment in which to create, and the logical side of my brain likes the rules system that adds strategy and unpredictability to the mix. Studying a published adventure instead of creating my own disturbs that balance, making me uncomfortable, and the game suffers as a result.

Again, I must stress that I'm not happy about these quirks of mine, and if I could change them, I would. But I can't. Or at least, it seems easier for me to live with them than to change them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Third Law

I have a hard time getting into science fiction. I sit down to watch a sci-fi show, or read a sci-fi book, or play a sci-fi game, or whatever. A few minutes in, my mind starts picking at the seams of the fiction: why are noises in space? How did these aliens evolve almost exactly the same way we did? How does that laser gun work?

I doubt I'm alone, here, and I daresay this is one of the reasons fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, particularly in RPGs. When it comes to portraying imaginary worlds, fantasy has the distinct advantage of being able to handwave everything with magic. Why are there dwarves? Magic! How can people come back from the dead? Magic! What made those monsters? Magic! Science cannot handwave.

Or...can it? I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws. In particular, I think of the third one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This has become a big lynchpin saying of geek culture these days. Monte Cook cites the quote as the very inspiration for Numenera. This quote is used to justify virtually the entire existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as openly declared in the first Thor movie. What's tricky for me (and, I presume, others) is that this quote is easy to apply outside of ourselves, but much harder to understand when we're the ones being wowed with that "sufficiently advanced technology."

Science fiction, at its best, poses imaginary answers to real questions. I think that idea gets lost underneath the barrage of laser swords and green-skinned aliens, but in our modern age, I think it's more important than ever for sci-fi to remember that. We're a more cynical, sophisticated audience these days. You can't play so fast-and-loose anymore with your pulp sci-fi and expect to draw a big crowd (unless, of course, we're talking about Star Wars, perhaps the biggest example ever of "the exception that proves the rule.") We all have to remember Clark's Third Law.

So keeping that law in mind, I am trying to let myself enjoy science-fiction...and, more importantly in my case, science-fiction roleplaying. When I find my mind starting to spin around the physics of it all, I reset with a simple "Third Law, Ed. Third law!"

Monday, June 29, 2015

Imperial Weekend

On Saturday, I got four other friends together and played my first game of Twilight Imperium (TI). I've heard some call TI one of the greatest boardgames ever made. Those are big words, but after just one playthrough, I can at least see where they're coming from.

Twilight Imperium is basically the daddy of all empire-building boardgames, figuratively in scope, literally in that it was Fantasy Flight Games' first release, the game that literally built the company back in 1997. In Twilight Imperium, you take one of ten alien races through an epic game of conquest. Starting from just your home system, you strike out across the galaxy, absorbing new planets into your empire. You conduct trade, research new technology, vote on the intergalactic council, and wage war with and against your fellow players. The goal of the game is simple: get ten victory points, by fulfilling the requirements of the publicy-available objective cards and/or the secret objective card you're dealt during the game's setup.

In the hobby's current environment of kumbiya/cooperative/semi-cooperative/multiplayer solitaire gaming that lasts an hour or less, TI is something of a throwback. Our game lasted almost exactly eight hours, from setup to takedown. Though we all went as long as we could without sending out the warships, myself and my buddy next to me (Red) eventually had to go to war, as he noticed that I was running away with the lead and would easily win the game if I weren't stopped. My other friend (Yellow) noticed this, too, and before I knew it, I was waging war on two fronts, with the other two players (Purple and Blue) quietly and tensely positioning themselves for the fallout. Red eliminated me, revealed that eliminating a player was his secret objective, and won the game. Had he failed to eliminate me that round, I would have won. It came down to literally one battle, one massive battle that I had little hope of winning, but if even one unit would have survived, I would have taken it all. Alas, it was not meant to be. A Shakespearean ending, for a boardgame.

I've only ever gotten to play games this epic just a handful of times in my life, and each time, it's a landmark experience. I spent Sunday doing my laundry and playing WoW, and in the back of my mind the entire day, I kept thinking about that game. How it could have gone differently so many different ways. That's always one of the great things about an empire builder; they're games built on moments, some of them so subtle you don't even realize how earth-shaking they were until you look back. At one point, Yellow stole a substantial amount of money from Purple. Purple was barricaded by empty space and relatively isolated, so it didn't seem like a big deal to me at the time, but Yellow was able to use those stolen resources to build the dreaded War Sun, which he used to raze the systems along my border. Had he not made that seemingly-petty move, I might have been able to hold him off, fight Red to a standstill, and win the game myself.

I was getting ganged-up on for almost half the game, but it was my own fault for jumping to a lead so aggresively. I had seven victory points while everyone else had 2 to 4. I should have known advancing so quickly would put a target on my head, but my strategy was reckless and simple: race to a quick lead and get so far ahead that I'll win before anyone could stop me. And it almost worked.

As far as rules go, there was a lot of bumbling through the game (as is natural of a first play of a game so epic in scope), but we caught most instances of shenanigans and were able to correct them on the spot, so I feel confident that we were, for the most part, playing correctly. There are two issues I ran into though, so if you, Dear Reader, know the answer, I'd love to hear it:

1. When a player is eliminated, does it happen immediately or during the end of the turn? Ultimately, this didn't matter, but it almost did, and it'd be good to know for the future. I assume the elimination is immediate, but some ambigous language in the manual makes it sound like that's not necessarily the case. Also, I wonder if it would break the game too much to allow an "eliminated" player to remain in the game, just unable to have a board presence (still able to select strategy cards, however). I think this would be interesting in that the "eliminated" player could still exert substantial leverage over the game, and possibly even still win.

2. Speaking of winning....objective cards (public and private) appear to be the only way to score points. Yet playing the Imperial strategy card appears to be the only way to bring out objective cards. Is that true? If that is true, I guess that means the game only ever moves forward when people select the Imperial card. And if that's the case, then it seems pretty damn important that every round, someone selects the Imperial card, or else the game will not progress.

I think it speaks to the quality of the game that I could go on and on and on about this one game, but I'm going to stop here, for now. If you have a chance to get Twilight Imperium to the table, absolutely, positively do so. It'll take your entire afternoon, but it'll be worth every single minute.

Friday, June 26, 2015

And Other Drugs

My last time GMing was back in April, if I remember correctly. In other words, too long. It's time to come back.

My plan for July is start a game on Tuesday evenings. After my friend's Star Wars game concludes in August, I'm going to start another game on Sundays. 

The question, as always, is what to play? 

Let me circle back to that question in a moment. Right now, I want to talk about my gamer-ADD. As I've written before, I've had a very difficult time committing to one RPG because I want to play them all, all the time. As it turns out, my gamer-ADD isn't a joke; I literally have been diagnosed with ADD by my psychiatrist. Inattentive ADHD, to be exact. I didn't even know that was a thing. 

If you didn't, either, here's what I discovered. The stereotype of ADD is the hyper-active kid who bounces off the walls and can't sit still long enough to focus on something. That stereotype, however, is just that: a stereotype. Turns out there are several forms of ADD. The form I have, inattentive ADHD, basically boils down to this: I can't focus on stuff that doesn't sufficiently stimulate me. I begin to wander off. Do other things. In other words, I can't pay attention to shit that I find boring.

I thought that was life! I thought everyone was like that. I didn't know people could routinely focus on boring shit and make it work. I seriously, literally thought that people who become doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, or whatever either had an undying passion for their vocation or had a natural gift for their chosen discipline and focusing wasn't so difficult for them. That has definitely been the case with my writing. I just thought the world worked like that. 

I finally got my eyes opened by a friend of mine. When, after a few drinks, I drunkenly slurred that I can't handle doing boring shit, she laughed at me and said I must have ADHD. I went to my psychiatrist a week later and told her about this conversation. She gave me a questionaire. I filled it out, my doctor glanced at the answers for barely a minute and said "yep, you definitely have the symptoms of inattentive ADHD." Two days later, I'm taking Adderall.

I'm not ready to say that Adderall has radically changed my life, but things are definitely different now. All the little reasons why I wouldn't want to do something seem so trivial and minor now. When I don't have something to do, I actually seek out things to do, rather than just putzing around. Chores and menial tasks...I used to have to force myself to do them. Now I'll do them naturally, without even thinking about them. I'm not necessarily more energetic; I'm just less lazy, if that makes any sense. The way I feel about things hasn't changed, my mood isn't really affected; just my general capacity to physically, logistically handle life's little hurdles has transformed. It's pretty bad-ass.

And now, it's going to apply to my hobby, too. I've been joking with my friends that thanks to Adderall, I'm actually going to be able to stick with a campaign, long-term. I'm not going to just ditch a game the moment it's not amusing me anymore; I'll actually be able to build something that lasts and persists, through lazy moods and bad days and the distraction of shiny new games. 

I'm not sure what exactly I'm going to play once I begin a regular session (Adderall may help with my follow-through, but the decision-making is still all me), but I am confident that whatever I choose is going to be awesome. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I'm a fan of capitalism. I don't think it's necessarily wrong for a company to want to make a dollar. But these days, especially with the massive role marketing/advertising and social media play in our lives, it feels like there's been a shift. How good a product is seems less important today than how easy it is to sell that product. From a certain point of view, this makes sense; you can't guarantee quality, afterall, but you can guarantee an aggressive, annoying marketing campaign. And from an investor's point of view, the latter is actually more attractive than the former, since the latter can be counted on, and even if the former is available, someone's gotta sell that shit.

Absolutely no where in the world is this clearer to me than in videogames. Two little concepts...DLC and Free-to-Play...have taken some good intentions (more of what you love, play what you want at no cost to you) and paved a road straight to hell with them. Desiging a game used to be about fun. Now it seems, more often than not, desiging a game is akin to creating some kind of money farm to reap maximum profit for minimum work. Games used to be like books; you sit down with one, you enjoy it, you move onto the next one. Now, games are like businesses; you invest time and/or money in the game, you turn a profit (fun) from the game; you invest more to get more, then you walk away when it's no longer profitable (fun). 

Gamers are no longer gamers. Gamers are now customers. Me, personally, I don't like it. I guess I'm a reader, not an investor.

The most insidious part of all of this is how easily defensible it is. "If you don't want it, don't buy it!" "No one's forcing you to pay for anything!" "Play it for free, and if you don't like it, quit at any time!" "There's plenty of content in the basic game!" These lines are so easy to spit up, game companies don't even have to say them: gamers will say them to other gamers who complain. How fucked up is that? 

I miss the Good Ol' Days when customers wanted things as cheap as possible, and companies/corporations wanted to sell them as expensively as they could get away with. Now, the lines have blurred. Some great stuff is free. Some stuff you already paid money for is going to ask you for more money. The lines have blurred, and I'm not entirely certain any of us are better off for it. Well, not us gamers, anyway. 


Monday, June 22, 2015

A Whole Bunch of Tools

The weight of words can be weird, sometimes. When you have a game that is hundreds of pages of rules upon rules upon rules, but then a paragraph in the beginning (or end, or wherever) states "hey, these are just tools, the GM has the authority to run the game however he/she wants," which one do you take more seriously? The D20 Dynasty that started in the early 2000s is where the scales got tipped, to where the rules became so big and bold and clear that the "these are just tools" print looked limp and faded, by comparison.

Part of what makes a GM's job so damn hard is in recognizing that aforementioned truth. A game can be 500 pages of solid rules, but when that game hits the table, it's the GM who actually manages what rules are used, how they are used, and why they should be used. The players have three choices: they can accept that and enjoy the game as the GM runs it, they can negotiate with the GM to adjust the adherence level to the rules, or they can find another GM.

So when should a GM use a rule? Here are two of my general guidelines:

1. When using the rule would add to the fun. Every rookie GM knows to throw a rule out if it's bogging down a table, but sometimes rules can add tension, excitement, and drama to a game. If that's the case, then be sure to play with them. Here's a mistake I still struggle with sometimes: when a combat starts going long and I just want to get on with the game, I'll suddenly turn the PCs into killing machines and let them rip apart their opponents. Or their opponents suddenly become cowards and run away, screaming. Inevitably, at least one or two players will grumble that the combat felt cheap. And they're right. I endeavor to push my shit aside, and be able to play the game as it's written. The players are expecting a big, tactical fight? Then I should be ready to give them one, with all the rules that fight entails.

2. When the rules help reinforce tone or theme. Picture a group of PCs making an ardous journey across a harsh land. Should food, water, and encumbrance matter? You bet your dice sack they should! The scarcity of those supplies and the capabilities of the travelers are part of the reason the journey is so ardous. If you're doing a game where survival in the face of grim adversity is a theme, then any rule that helps reinforce that grim adversity, no matter how far out of your wheelhouse, should be considered, if not flat-out used. Doing anything less is a disservice to yourself and the game.

3. When not using a rule would screw over a player. It's generally understood that a GM hand-waving his way through an adventure is all fun and games until suddenly someone gets shafted by it. Take the awesome ace starfighter pilot who suddenly doesn't get to use any of his skillset because you didn't read the space combat rules carefully enough and just decide that he automatically blows up the bad guys. See there? Even if your hand-waving benefits the player, you've denied them a chance to shine, because of your "artistic freedoms," and that ain't cool. If you tell a player that making a space ace is a fine and valid choice, then you, not the player, need to be ready for the consequences of that decision.

And, for clarity, here are some guidelines on when they should not be used. As I alluded to above, "when rules prevent the game from being fun" is generic, cliche advice that I shall ignore, though I do technically agree with it:

1. When the rule moves outside your game's focus. This is kind of the opposite of my second point, above. Say a big action scene takes place at a pier. You expect dead bodies and disabled parties to be regularly thrown in the water. But what you didn't expect was a fleeing thug to dive into the water, and one of your bloodthirsty PCs diving in after her! So do you start looking up the rules for underwater combat? Hell no! That's not what you signed on for. That's not what the scene was about. The water was supposed to be a detail, not the arena itself, so in this situation, you do whatever feels right. Whether that's automatically letting the PC kill her, whether it's ruling that the thug is a freakishly good swimmer and pulls way too far away from a PC before he can even get close, whether you just want to throw some light penalties on the situation and play it out....whatever. But the point is, you never let rules steal away the focus of your game.

2. When a player is meta-gaming you. This sounds like it's intentional, but it's often not. I once had a player who would load himself up like a walking gun store with every character he made, even if they weren't gunmen (though they were typically gunmen). He did this because he knew I didn't care about encumbrance or weapon rarities at the time. It became a joke; sometimes for a laugh, me and the group would just ask him to read off his equipment list. It was hilarious. Now, of course, I didn't mind it too much, becuase my adventures back then seldom had much combat, and he was aware of that going in, so no harm, no foul. But nowadays, I tend to run more balanced games, and therefore I expect my players to be more balanced, too. I still hand-wave encumbrance, but you better believe if someone starts using that to their advantage I will crack down on them. I don't mean that you suddenly have to start playing by a rule you're not comfortable with just to keep your players in line, but you do need to make sure, as I've said above, that your actions (or non-actions) don't lead to unintended consequences.

3. When the rule would contradict previous rulings. This also is pretty GMing 101 advice, but unlike the bit about fun, I'll go ahead and repeat this one. If you decided you're not going to make a big deal about people grappling each other in combat, and your PCs are using that against you and choking out your every monster, you can't suddenly break out the grappling rules during the next fight and expect everyone to be cool with it. It's not their fault you got lazy. In this situation, you're going to have to just drag yourself to the finish line for that night's session, go over those rules next time, and let the player knows well in advance that that shit ain't going to fly next time.

One last thing I wanted to say. A lot of new games these days have backlashed against the rules-first approach ushered in by the D20 Dynasty and simply offer thin, waif-like corebooks that just don't have that many rules in there to worry about. And some people...notably, gamers who came into the hobby during the Dynasty's hayday...have rejoiced over this renaissance. It's absolutely fantastic that there are some sharp, story-first games out there who are helping gamers realize that little "rules are tools" paragraph should be the biggest, not the smallest, of the text in most games. It's great that there are whole games out there embracing this concept from the jump. But, gamers, remember you can in fact have it both ways. You can take a heavy game, flip through it, say "hey, I don't want to use most of this shit, but I do want to use some of it," and play it (provided your players are cool with your interpretation). You don't necessarily need to convert it, and you definitely don't need to just ignore it, or worse, hate on it for being something you're not into. So play whatever you want, however you want to play it, and let the people who matter the most to you...your players...tell you if you're doing it right.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A New Venue

At Auburn Village, the condo community I call home, we have a new community manager. This manager is decisively less-cool than the former manager. The former manager allowed me to keep a single application on file with a security deposit to have a standing Sunday afternoon reservation for the local community room. This stable venue allowed me to run week after week of tabletop gaming. The new community manager will not do it, insisting on a new application and a new deposit check every week.

This isn't a huge deal, in the grand scheme of things, but it's a big enough deal to make me start thinking of other viable venues. I want to start hosting tabletop games for the public again soon, so it's time to start looking at my options:

1. My home. With the missus gone, I now have no reason I can't just invite people over and host games right from the comfort of my own home. There are two problems with this, however. Firstly, I only have enough space to comfortably accomodate about four gamers, and my games tend to run five or more, espeically the more popular ones like D&D. Secondly, this would entail opening up my home to strangers. I'm not super-keen on that. I'm not sure if there's any particular concern I have, so much as I'm just generally uncomfortable with the idea. As for the venue's size, I could just run four-player games, I suppose...

2. The Landing. Not far from where I live is a small underground mall. I've written about it before. In this mall is a giant open space with tables and chairs where people are allowed to just sit and hang out. The Friday boardgaming meetups I frequent are held in this area. They require no special permission or anything; you just show up, grab a table, and do your thing. The main advantage here is that the Landing is highly accessible, being connected to the Metro. Also, being in a mall, there is near-instant access to food and drink from a variety of places. And the space issue mentioned above would be a non-issue here. The main disadvantage to the Landing is that it's public. I can't control the space, so if some class fieldtrip happens to be hanging out there (as is often the case on Fridays), the Landing will be loud and its normally-abundant seating may become a premium. Plus, strangers may just wander up to our game, but I'm not actually too worried about that, I love engaging people about the game, anyway. What I may have to do is launch a couple of Sunday afternoon scouting sessions at the Landing over the next couple of weeks and see what kind of atmosphere I can expect. If it is as quiet as it normally is (on non-Fridays, that is) then this could be the best contender.

3. The library. Before the community room, I used to cycle through libraries every Sunday. I'd book a conference room for an event with my "Interactive Fiction Club," then have at it. Libraries are awesome places. I actually really enjoyed going to them. The problem is, every library in the area will not allow a standing reservation, and competition can be really tight sometimes (many a plan has been ruined because of the damn Northern Virginia Knitting Group!) Sometimes, I'd have to juggle several libraries at once to shake loose a reservation; an option no longer feasible to me, without a car. So this option isn't really on the table, except for the one library in walking distance, and that would of course be subject to the availability of whatever rooms they have.

4. The Internet. Tabletop RPGing across the internet has become a big deal over the past several years, for obvious reasons: game with your friends across the world, don't have to leave your home, etc. My problem with this option has always been that doing it face-to-face is just better. Given the choice between an in-person game with affable strangers versus an online game with actual friends, I often would opt for the strangers! But beggars can't be choosers, so maybe its time to actually look into online play as an option. Besides, this would allow me to be able to play with some really great people, anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No, You Can't...

...that's what my depression feels like, sometimes. Like a little voice in the back of my head, whispering "No, you can't."

No, you can't live with someone.

No, you can't live alone.

No, you can't be a part of things.

No, you can't be normal.

No, you can't decide what "normal" even means.

No. You just can't.

It's gotten worse, since my wife left. Though I'm sure her absence hasn't helped, I don't actually think it's losing her that's made it worse. I think her absence has just let it go unchecked. I have no one to bother being in a good mood for anymore. But if I need someone else to get myself in a better mood, then am I really in a good mood at all?

Aside from the whole separation thing, life ain't too bad for me. Work is going fine. I've begun looking into some adjunct teaching positions at the local community colleges. I see my friends on the weekends, binge-watch Netflix and play videogames during the weeks, all that stuff. I even talk to my wife, almost every night, and we have a great time video chatting with each other. The depression is just there. Like any really shitty condition, there really aren't any good reasons why it's there. It just is.

And I know what I'm supposed to do. And I'm doing it. I'm talking to my psychiatrist to further adjust my medications. I'm hanging out with my friends and trying to have a life. I'm talking to a therapist every Friday afternoon. There's not a whole lot left for me to do except to follow the plan and survive. 

The tough part, I think, is that I feel like my depression is evolving with me. Like its learning to use my own weapons against me. A lot of depressed people, for example, have these expectations about what they're supposed to be. They think they're "supposed" to be normal, or they think they're "supposed" to be happy. I know better than that. I know that I don't have to be anything I don't want to be. But the depression takes that, it mutates it, and the thought that comes out is "If you don't have to be anything special, then why don't you just stop trying?" Maybe that's why smarter people suffer more from depression. Because the depression in those bigger brains are more capable of overcoming treatment. I don't know where I fit in that, but either way, it sucks.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Enter the Nexus

I mentioned a few days ago that I had recently begun playing Blizzard's latest videogame, Heroes of the Storm (HotS)

This game is consuming my life! In the past three days since I started playing it, I've played it every morning before work, I've brought my laptop to work and played it on my lunch, and I usually play at least one game when I get home in the evening. I'm boardgaming Friday evening and continuing to play in my friend's Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game on Sunday. But Saturday? My plans for this Saturday include waking up, plopping myself in front of my computer, and playing it until I go to bed. I might...might...stop and eat, at some point.

I have never been into MOBAs. But now, what with being single and all, and not really having anything else to do at the moment, playing HotS and studying up on this strange new world (to me) of MOBAs has proven to be that addicting little mixture of right place, right time.

For those not familiar, a MOBA, or "Massively Online Battle Arena," is an intoxicating love child of a real-time strategy game and an RPG. In it, you control a single character on a team with up to four other players. You have a base with a core of some kind in it. Your objective is to blow up the enemy team's core. Periodically, your base pumps out bands of soldiers who march like lemmings down the main lanes of the map to your opponent's base to do battle. You can defeat these soldiers, as well as enemy players, for experience points to level up your hero. Also scattered across the map are neutral units who you can defeat (or, in Heroes of the Storm's case, recruit) for additional XP and support. In HotS, you also have optional objectives that upon completion will grant your team critical support in your attempts to destroy your opponents' base. These objectives vary from map to map, but they generally boil down to gathering X number of things, destroying Y number of neutral units, or controlling Z number of strategic points across the map simultaneously.

In the past, MOBAs have been an ultra-competitive genre of game, downright hostile to new players who are often looked at as liabilities. HotS, in the genre-defying tradition of Blizzard's previous games Hearthstone and World of Warcraft, have removed the tall barriers to entry of this genre while still maintaining the core deep, addicting gameplay. They've done this through a series of simple, pragmatic changes to the genre paradign, polished and spit-shined to such a glossy sheen it makes its colleagues look like chumps. Here's one simple example: experience and levels. In other MOBAs, leveling is individual. This can lead to situations where you have one hot shot on your team that's several levels above the rest of your team. You can imagine the unfun scenarios this could cause. In HotS, however, leveling happens as a team. Even if you do have one hot-shot making all the kills, the experience he's earning from those kills gets spread to every player on the team. The result is every player levels up at the same time and, from a technical perspective, at least, every hero is as capable as the next from the beginning of the match to the end.

That "technical perspective" bit is extremely important. In HotS, just because you're the same level as another hero, it does not mean you are equal to that hero. Positioning in a battle is important. Knowing what your abilities do and when to use them (and when not to use them) is vitally important. Knowing what your opponents are capable of is important. Knowing the layout of the map is important. MOBAs are games that reward you for geeking out on that kind of stuff. And that's where these games become so damn addicting!

Unfortunately, in a tight game, MOBAs can punish you for not knowing that kind of stuff, too. In this latter aspect, HotS is far more forgiving than its contemporaries, but you still need to know your stuff if you want to rise to a respectable level of play. In one of my earlier games, for example, I played as a healer, and all I did was stick to a nearby hero, conserve my mana by only using my healing spell, and just kept patching up the hero I was following. In a traditional RPG, I'd be doing fine. Here, I was sucking. Why? Because my healing spell has a 10-second cooldown, and I just sat there, doing nothing, as that single spell recharged. I should have been supporting that hero in other ways, using my other spells, or even just sitting within auto-attack range and letting my auto attack contribute to his sick damage numbers. We lost that game. I don't completely blame myself, but I definitely contributed to that loss.

Even a simple and relatively trivial occurence like death is a strategic consideration in a MOBA. In HotS, when you die, the sizeable amount of XP awarded for your demise is valuable XP that can help your opponents get a further advantage over your team. So the ol' game-honored tradition of going down guns-blazing no matter what is not always a great idea here. Sometimes, running away and retreating to a defensible position where you can heal up is actually critical, to not just your personal success, but to the entire team's. Not to mention that at the later stages of a match, death can actually keep you out of the action longer than a strategic retreat to your base.

HotS is a more casual game than other MOBAs, but it definitely is not a game you can completely play casually. Not unless you want a bunch of nerd rage thrown at you, anyway.You may have heard about the legendary lack of social graces of MOBA players. And I can tell you, based on HotS alone, it's true. MOBA players are some of the nastiest, meanest, most emotionally-unstable gamers I've ever come across. When I wasn't into MOBAs, I used to say a lot of judgy things about how pathetic MOBA players were. However, I get that nerd rage, now. I still, of course, think it is extremely rude and immature to yell at someone in chat, and I definitely think people who do that need to step away from the keyboard for a moment, but I understand that frustration now. MOBAs are a genre of game that pushes you to learn from your mistakes, play to win, and work as a team. Where it gets frustrating is when you do all of that properly and still lose because someone else on your team isn't up to snuff. You can spend hours upon hours getting every aspect of play right, then get your ass handed to you because you've got one or two people on your team who merrily chime "Relax, it's just a game!" as they blunder their way through the match. Again; NO excuse for terrible behavior, but if you've ever wondered where it comes from, there it is.

So, if I haven't completely scared you away and you'd like to join me in Heroes of the Storm, but you're just as clueless as I am when it comes to this style of game, here are a couple of "by newb, for newbs" tips I have for you:

1. Play "Vs. AI" Mode. After you finish the tutorial, you basically have three options for games: tutorial games with just you versus the AI, co-op mode vs. the AI, and "quick matches" that pair you with other players for a regular match (there are other modes, but those aren't worth mentioning until you're ready). Until you learn the ropes, stick with the co-op vs. AI matches. They're boring at times, and can even be a little aggravating as you'll get stuck with a lot of other newbs making their dumb newb mistakes, but at least you'll get some time with your hero to learn how he/she/it works, and you can learn the map, and get a basic level of experience to work off of when you go against human opponents. But go to versus mode as soon as you can, because like I said, co-op gets boring fast (the AI is extremely ineffective, making games almost impossible to lose no matter how badly your team deserves to).

2. Pick one or two roles, and learn them: The dozens of heroes available for play in HotS are divided into four categories: Warriors, who have high hit points and are good at blocking/controlling enemies; Assassins, good at causing massive amounts of damage; Support, aiding the warriors and assassins through healing, enhancing their fighting capabilities, or crippling opponents; and Specialists, x-factor heroes who play very non-traditionally and add additional support to a team. As you bumble your way through co-op matches, learn which roles cater to your personal style and get familiar with the heroes who comprise that role. Me? As I stated before, I like to hang back and heal, but when I get tired of that and want to change it up, I go completely opposite; a close-range, high-damage assassin. Good competitive level play comes from knowing the nuances of all the roles, but that will come in time. For now, just focus on one or two of those roles and get good at them.

3. Read up. MOBAs in general have a ton of resources available across the net. Find them and read them! Each guide you come across is bound to have some little tips and tricks in them to help elevate your game. As I said before, MOBAs are a genre of game meant to be played for victory, and are at their most fun when you and your teammates know what they're doing and push themselves to win. So every second you spend studying the game when you're not playing it, whether it's reading about it or talking about it, can contribute to your dominance!

4. Use your down time. When you die in HotS, you spend a number of seconds out of the game before you're allowed to go back in. Don't just sit there; use that time. Follow your allies around the map. Bring up the talent panel and plan out your next couple of talent choices. Think about where you're going to go when you resurrect.

5. Do the objectives. Nothing gets a new HotS player cussed at faster than ignoring the map objectives. Don't. A quick little brief comes up on the loading screen; read it. If you have questions, ask your allies. If someone throws up a ping on the minimap, go to it. There is a time and place when you should push the lanes on a map instead of doing the objectives, but that's a concern for high-level play; as a newb, focus on the objectives, always.

6. Learn the mute button. Tab to bring up the scoreboard, then click the chat icon next to someone's name to mute them. Useful tool, trust me.

Of course, let us not forget that I am a newb, myself. So if there is any basic newb advice that you have for me, Dear Reader, I am, as always, all ears.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Board Report

In addition to the bevy of new videogames I've been playing, here are some of the boardgames I've been playing over the past month:

1. Funemployed. I just got my kickstarter copy of this, and it is AWESOME! It works like this: on your turn, you play a Job Opening card. Every other player has a hand of four cards, and must work the words on all four cards into a job interview with you. The twist is that the cards are ridiculous! For example, I applied for the job "gynecologist." My cards were "massage oil," "cavernous," "candy," and "smooth." Needless to say, I got the job. The game is the same raucous fun that Cards Against Humanity is, but it combines it with the creativity of Dixit. Much like those two games, the exact level of fun depends on how creative and silly and cool your group is. I had a great time with it, however, and my earlier claims that it will be the biggest party game of 2015 are claims that I still standby.

2. Fortune and Glory. Made by the same people who made Last Night on Earth (as evidenced by the cheesy photo stills used as art for the characters), Fortune and Glory is basically Eldritch Horror with Nazis and pulp adventure instead of elder gods and Lovecraftian horror. I've played it twice, once in its cooperative and competitive modes. I was not impressed either time. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with it; it's just a pretty standard adventure game, and I'm not big on adventure games, in general. While Eldritch Horror has some real cooperative/teamplay to it in trying to stop your chosen elder god, Fortune and Glory is more about globe-trotting, reading scenarios on cards, and then rolling dice for your abilities. In that respect, it's more like Arkham Horror, really, but the globe-trotting element to the game brings up Eldritch more readily.

3. Battlestar Galactica. This game, I'm ready to say, officially belongs in the top tier of "designer" boardgames, right up there with Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, or Pandemic. Everyone should play this game at least once. You may not necessarily like it, but you owe it to yourself to at least try it. I've suspected this for some time, but it was made clear to me this past weekend. We had seven players and the core game; I sat out to referee. And as a referee/observer, I was having as much fun watching as the others were playing. Possibly morseo, as the pressure of winning (as human or Cylon) was off of me and I could just enjoy the rampant paranoia running across the table. My only complaint with the game is that the human side has a brutal learning curve. That's not to say it's a difficult game; it's just that, from my observation, it takes several games to learn how to prioritize and work with the group properly to win. Since the board is naturally stacked against the players, all the Cylons have to do is wait for the right moment and push. I've played games of BSG where the Cylon(s) actively ignored being a Cylon and worked with the players until the last minute, and we still lost.

4. Arctic Scavengers. Hands-down my favorite deck builder, though it's such a unique and interesting game that calling it a "deck builder" is almost not fair. Scavengers is as much about reading the players as reading the cards. You can play games of Dominion or Ascension, never give a damn about what your opponents are doing, and still win. You can't do that in Arctic Scavengers. If you ignore the guy buying up all the medics, then you'll have no medicine to purchase other survivors. If you ignore the guy building schematics with his engineers, you're going to be stunned when he brings overwhelming amounts of firepower to a skirmish. If you focus exclusively on fighting power, you're going to end up with hand after hand of uselessness when you can't compete in the skirmish. It's the very epitome of "easy to learn, hard to master."

5. Shadowrun: Crossfire. I really, really like this game. Moreso than the Pathfinder game, which has a similar concept, or the Legendary games, which feel a little too loose for me. Crossfire is one of the few cooperative games I've played that's highly resistant to "alpha gamer syndrome;" the phenomenon in co-op games where the guy who knows the game best just tells everyone what to do. That can still happen in Crossfire, but typically there's just too much going on for that to be effective. Teamwork is important, and mastering the mechanics are important, too. Like BSG, the learning curve seems a little too steep at times, but still, this is a great co-op deckbuilder, perhaps one of the best.

In the coming weeks, I want boardgames with depth. I've always been into deeper games, but I'm feeling especially hungry for a challenge. At the same time, though, I want the game to be accessible; no abstract war games or superdense euros, please. Got a suggestion? Let me know!  

Monday, June 8, 2015

Eye of the Storm

With my recent separation and the horrible emptiness in my soul and what-not, like the lonely bachelor I now am, I have naturally gravitated back to video games. Tabletop RPGs, as I've said before, require a certain strength of will to run properly and I find them quite difficult to do when my life outside the game is in shambles. Besides, most of my friends are currently engaged in campaigns already, and I definitely don't have the wherewithal to "perform" for the public yet. So to the digital frontier I have gone. Following are my scattered thoughts on the various games I have used to occupy my time over the past several weeks:

1. The Sims 4: The Sims games are some of the only games I have ever played in 30+ years of gaming that make me genuinely laugh, hard. The latest one is no different. The new emotion system and the kinds of behavior/actions that unlock when a sim is happy, lonely, flirty (read: horny), or mad are absolutey hilarious. Plus, as has always been the case with the Sims games, the odd, quirky behavior Sims develop on their own, independent of any choices from me, are often brilliant. I already wrote a post about this, but as an example, my no-nonsene business sim likes to unwind after a hard day's work by trolling internet forums. It's hard for me to get too deep into this game, though, because the sadness I have over the idea of cleaning a virtual house when my own, real-life living space is in ruin gets to me a bit. Still, though, good times!

2. Pillars of Eternity: Old school CRPG gaming, reborn. The quality of the writing is what really gets me in this game. Like its ancestors Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, this is a game written so well I'd actually read a novel adaptation of it, if it were written by the same folk. My only issue with it is the gameplay is a little too true to its older roots. I know that's what a lot of people like, but I was kind of done with it after I beat Baldur's Gate II, and I haven't exactly been hankering for more since. Still, though, an awesome RPG, regardless of whether the nostalgia play means anything to you.

3. The Witcher III: Despite the rave reviews across the net, I'm having a hard time getting into this one. It just seems like too much...I wander around big fields grabbing flowers like some goth botany student, then I fight monsters with various degrees of competency, then I play a game-within-a-game with the merchant who has stuff I want but I'm perpetually broke and too worried I'll need something later to sell anything, and occasionally, I do a quest. I can definitely see the quality of this game but it's just not sinking its hooks into me. One would think a nice, deep, open-world RPG is exactly what I need right now, but alas, this ain't doing it.

4. Heroes of the Swarm: Now, surprisingly, this is really doing it for me right now, more than any other game mentioned here. Blizzard's latest game is two things I friggin' despise in today's gaming environment: free-to-play, and a MOBA. But, in typical Blizzard fashion, it bucks the downsides of both trends and creates a game that is both deep and accessible. Plus, being a hardcore Blizzard fanboy, it is loads of fun to watch Diablo chokeslam Kerrigan, a duel between Jim Raynor and Arthas, or a pandaren monk going toe-to-toe with an ultralisk! Reviews have been a little shaky across the net (critics seem particularly mixed on the game's emphasis on objective-based play, rather than the traditional MOBA paradign of just leveling up and crushing bases), but I absolutely love it. For better of for worse, this game is to MOBAs what WoW was to MMOs: a streamlined, approachable refinement of what was previously a hardcore-only genre.

5. World of Warcraft: The old stomping grounds, the game that was my previous remedy to shitty life situations, no longer appears to hold its magic. I think it's just too old now. I login, play for a few minutes, get bored, and go play something else. Again, it seems like a nice, time-consuming MMO would be just what the doctor ordered, but I have yet to find one that can hold my attention. It doesn't help that my new computer, a MacBook Pro, is, well, a Mac, immediately taking options like The Secret World and The Old Republic off the table. At least until I can get ahold of a copy of Windows and figure out this whole Boot Camp thing...

Anyways, if you, Dear Reader, have any suggestions or thoughts on my own experiences, I am of course all ears.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


My good buddy Boomer just posted a blog about his dislike of hitpoints. It's a great post. Go read it, then come back here and let me tell you why I like hit points.

One of the points my friend brings up is how RPGs often disintegrate into numbers, spreadsheets, and...perish the thought...a game. This is actually one reason why I like hit points. I have always believed that a good RPG is all three letters: The "RP" and the "G." One of the most common aspects of many games is the concept of resource management. Whether it's your pawns in a game of chess, mana in a game of Magic: The Gathering, or sheep in Settlers of Catan, a hallmark of great gaming is having a finite amount of Something with which you must manage successfully to achieve your goal (even if the goal is as lofty as "have fun.") One of the most fluid and vital resources that need to be managed in a good RPG is the player character's own life, his or her capability to continue to contribute to the game as it unfolds. To represent this as a dwindling pile of points is as straightforward and simple as it can get, and to date, I have not seen a better method. I agree with my buddy that the countdown clock introduced in Apocalypse World is a great alternative, but you strip away the flavor and it itself just boils down to little more than a small pile of hitpoints.

The real problem, I think...the thing that makes hit points so despised by those who despise that there really is no better way around them. There are workable alternatives, like the ones Boomer described in his blog post. But if you care at all about that "G" in "RPG," then you need some kind of Thing to manage, and the most logical candidate for that Thing is your PC's health, and the most logical way to monitor it is as a number of points that increase and decrease throughout play.

But I sympathize with Boomer and every other gamer who are anti-hit points. I have three suggestions, to him and anybody else struggling to narratively handle them:

1. Let the GM be the sole tracker of hit points. Keep your players' HP totals yourself. Do not ever give the players the exact numbers. This forces them to pay attention to your descriptions. This also has the bonus of adding a little tension to darker or more intense games as the players will always be wondering how much more punishment they can take. The downside to this technique, of course, is that it places more pressure on the GM; not only is it one more number the GM has to keep track of, but now there is narrative pressure on the GM to make sure that every wound is described in exacting detail, so that a 10-point axe hacking doesn't sound like a 2-point scratch.

2. Use hitpoints as shields. Hit points don't just have to mean a characters' physical condition; hit points can mean any and all potential assets a PC may have to avoid taking critical damage. This means that when a PC loses hitpoints, it's not necessarily damage; it's just one more resource taken away. For example, a halfing rogue gets hit for five points of damage. The GM describes the nimble rogue darting behind a nearby statue for cover, the orc's trailing axe hitting the marble and shattering the statue into a thousand pieces. No physical damage is actually taken, but that rogue is now one step closer to death, as his cover is now gone. If you read closely the explanation of hit points in various editions of D&D, this is actually how hit points are supposed to work. It wasn't until those damned video game RPGs came out that hit points begun getting this rap as just someone's physical capacity to take punishment. Think of hit points as money you use to bribe Death into letting you survive a bit longer.

3. Play the right game. If you're absolutely done with hit points but do not want to larp it up, then select an RPG where lethality is a choice rather than a consequence. Cortex Plus and Fate Core are two great examples of what I'm talking about. Both of those games barely even mention death in their corebooks: everything there is framed as "being taken out," which can mean anything from being too nervous to move to hovering at death's door. Interestingly, Apocalypse Engine games aren't very good at this. Personally I think it's because the emphasis on Apocalypse Engine games isn't story; it's the conversation amongst GM and players about a fictional world with fictional characters. There's a slight difference, so slight it barely matters, but the one place it does is hit points.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Wrong Side of History

What do the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games and the fifth edition of D&D have in common? Two things, one good, and one bad. The good thing is that they are both high-quality standard bearers of their respective genres, well-loved and heavily played.

The bad thing is that neither of them have official digital versions. And it's for this reason that neither of these games see heavy rotation at my table.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses virtually the same system as the FFG Star Wars game, but with one key difference: you can find WFRP at DriveThruRPG. That, in my admitedly-bizare opinion, makes this the better game.

About 98% of the things I read are in a digital format, either as a .pdf file or a .mobi file. It is much, much easier to carry my slender iPad Air with me on my daily commute than it is a full-sized hardcover book, not to mention more convenient for bed reading and night reading.When we look specifically at RPGs, I can keep entire product lines on my iPad and access them with just a couple of finger taps. And that's just straight up reading; if we start talking about hyper-linking, cross-referencing, and alternate formatting, we have a whole bevy of convenience options via tablet or PC that aren't available in a physical version.

Yet two of the hottest commercial role-playing games out today simply don't utilize these options. I'm sure their PR teams and their licensing teams and their design teams can roll out a whole cart of reasons why this is the case. All of them are bullshit, and I'm tired of hearing it. I'm tired of the big, resource rich titans, unable to get with the times, simply ignoring the writing on the wall and then acting like it's not a big deal.

I know the reality of things are a little more complex than this. But I also know that Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight Games are not merely bucking a trend; they are straight-up ignoring evolution for no better reason than they can afford to ignore it. Could you imagine where Evil Hat would be if they didn't make Fate Core available as a .pdf? Or Sage Kobold with Dungeon World? 

As a grown-ass man, I tend to be busy. My free time tends to come in spurts and clumps, not long stretches like it did when I was younger. It no longer makes any sense for me to carry around a heavy hardcover book (let alone several) just for those moments to come up when I can flip through them and prep for the next adventure. I need a format that utilizes the existing technology I have to work with me and help me get the most out of my time.

I'm not saying I'll never play D&D or Edge of the Empire ever again. Far from it; I'm currently in an EotE campaign, and I plan on starting a D&D campaign soon. But I plan on steering away from those games very, very soon, and when I do, I won't be looking back. In fact, for this reason, I'm thinking about switching my D&D campaign to 13th Age. About a year ago, I wrote that I was worried that 13th Age wouldn't be very successful because of D&D's sudden resurgence. But now, I'm actually thinking 13th Age has a great opportunity, here. As part of the Bits and Mortar Initiative, you can get free pdf copies of every physical book you buy from Pelgrane Press (13th Age's publisher). That is absolutely brilliant. Now there's a company that appreciates my time and wants me to make the most of it!

I love the Bits and Mortar Initiative so much that I'm tempted to exclusively only play games from companies that support it. Because that is modern design. You have the big, colorful, hard cover book for common use at the table, and the discrete, portable digital version while you're riding the bus to work.

So, again, it is absolute bullshit and backwards thinking that prevent these modern games from having a digital presence, so disappointing that it weighs against my inclination to run them (I should make it clear that my disdain only extends to GMing these games; if someone else wants to run them, then I shall gladly play in them!) Let me shoot down a couple of counter-points before I wrap it up, here:

1. I think D&D Basic is a great idea. But not great enough to be a total stand-in for the core game in digital form. When working on an adventure or just brushing up on rules, I do not want to worry about if "the basic version" has everything right. I also don't want to have my options reduced, and I definitely don't want a situation where I can cite a rule from the Basic file but have no damn idea where it can be found in the "real" books. So while the D&D Basic .pdf is, admittedly, a step in the right direction, it is not a valid solution in and of itself.

2. Scanned bootlegs. Seriously? Is this what we've come to, Wizards and Fantasy Flight? We're so scared about piracy that we're actually going to create a demand for it? This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say "backwards thinking." Bottom line: I don't do bootlegs. I just don't. Everybody's snobby about something. This is what I'm snobby about, okay?

3. I was talking with someone not too long ago about what it takes to be a good GM, and how to create more good GMs. One point I always come back to is this: a good GM has to be comfortable. It doesn't matter if I should be fine without the digital files: the fact is, I'm uncomfortable running a game without them. And if my sensibilities prevent a game from getting played, then my sensibilities should probably be addressed.

So, Wizards and FFG, I know you guys are capable of doing this. I know the reasons you don't. Please just let me know when you get your shit together, and I will be first in line to run your games. Until then...