Thursday, July 31, 2008

The great rail(roading) wars

As a player, I can handle quite a bit of plot railroading as long as it’s interspersed with cinematic scenes and meaty roleplaying. Because of this, I probably inject a tiny bit too much control over the games I run — but then again, maybe not, seeing as how I’m so painfully conscious of it.

But there comes a point, even for me, when the game is lost; when the GM seems hell-bent on “running us through an adventure,” rather than crafting a nuanced, shared story with the players. This happened last weekend during a game I was playing (not GMing, thankfully). There was a crystal-clear moment when all the players caught each other’s eyes and shared a thought: “This is not working.” We were being force-fed the plot in huge, detail-starved chunks. Entire scenes would be glossed over in the GM’s haste to move us through the story — which, I should point out, was a premade adventure from the RPG's publisher. The thing was, I’ve been gaming with this group off and on for more than a year, and I’ve seen some fairly obvious instances of plot railroading from the GM before. This was several orders of magnitude worse. It was deeply unsatisfying, and a good object lesson about what not to do in an RPG.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Steampunk literary newsletter released

How much do I like steampunk? Well, not enough to buy a pair of anachronistic goggles (though I had many opportunities at Wizardworld Chicago this year) but I'm still a big fan of the genre, both as a literary category and a roleplaying style. And this month sees the release of the Gatehouse Gazette, a newsletter devoted casting a critical eye on the burgeoning steampunk/dieselpunk movement.

It's a sharp-looking document that illustrates just how specialized web publishing has become. Used to be, to even produce something like the Gatehouse Gazette and have it reach its intended audience, the chronically understaffed editorial team would have to cough up several hundred bucks (minimum!) for printing and distribution -- and then hope readers would pluck off the shelf of their local alt bookstore. Not anymore! The first issue is available as a free download and includes (among other things) a lengthy interview about exactly what constitutes 'dieselpunk' as a sub-genre of steampunk. Hint: it's considerably darker and more pulpy than traditional steampunk.

From a roleplaying perspective, this newsletter has a handful of juicy RPG bits, but I'll be the first to admit that some of the topics delve a little deeper into the genre than I'd care to go. Nevertheless, I'll eagerly await the second installment.

This is a gaming philosophy

OK, so I promise this blog isn’t going to become a link-farm for noisms over at Monsters & Manuals, but I find myself returning again and again to his post from a couple weeks ago about creating your own gaming philosophy. That’s something I’ve never really dabbled in, mainly because I never really had a stable group to inspire me.

Now, though, I’m starting to give it some more thought. I’ve been gaming with the same core group of dudes for more than a year (with a much larger cast of additional players rotating in and out), and I’m starting to formulate my own gaming philosophy. Here’s a rough draft of the thesis sentence:

Be on the same page.

I mean this both literally and metaphorically. My best games (both as player and GM) have come about when everyone around the table knows what they’re getting themselves into. This can be as simple as a broad genre (steampunk) or a specific sub-setting (the Five Fingers port city in the Iron Kingdoms setting). The campaign itself should adhere to this rule, too: it’s troublesome and ultimately not so fun if a minority group of players has wildly different expectations about the gameplay and/or ruleset being used.

For my own part, I’ve been a fairly conformist player: I’m happy to reshape my characters within the first few adventures to fit the direction the story seems to be going. In my Mutants & Masterminds campaign for example, my Swamp Thing-inspired tree-dude morphed from an aimless beatstick into a more focused support character (with requisite healing and protection powers) shortly after his introduction. This transition didn’t offend me as a player, and I’ve derived even more satisfaction from the game as a result.

Now, none of this is meant to suggest that originality and character-driven stories have no part in today’s RPGs. Rather, it’s intended to point out that there are a series of small, mostly painless discussions that players and GMs ought to have before embarking on a new game because they can head off potentially larger problems down the road.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The end of equipment lists

In my unending quest to find (and use!) cool new game mechanics, I’ve happened upon a real gem from the Gumshoe System. This ruleset, dreamed up by Robin D. Laws and implemented in Fear Itself, The Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu, is designed for investigative campaigns — not hack-n-slash battlemap adventures. As such, the system strips out a lot of the crunchier record-keeping elements, including the notion of equipment lists. Instead, each player has the Preparedness skill; this single stat reflects his or her ability to show up equipped with the right tool for the job.

So if a player needs a chemical torch to illuminate a dark, underwater grotto (as happened in a recent Fear Itself adventure I played), it’s just a die roll away. Clearly, the more complex and/or inappropriate the tool, the tougher the die roll will be, thus countering situations where a highly Prepared player might produce a seemingly endless array of useful, situation-specific gadgets from his or her pocket, just in time to save the group, ad nauseum: the “rocket launcher in your pants” effect, if you’ll permit me to coin a term.

And as much as I like equipment lists and all the bean counting that goes into them, I also really like the Preparedness stat — mainly because it encourages improvisation on the part of both player and GM. A mousy librarian facing down a flesh-eating zombie might not be able to roll high enough to pull a loaded revolver out of her purse — but she stands a pretty good chance of finding an oversized letter opener perfect for skewering an undead abomination.


In other news, I talked myself out of buying Little Fears, a wonderful little horror game I played back in 2003, at the used book store, by arguing that I've got so many books on my shelf and it would just sit there and ... it's a really cool game and ... maybe it'll still be there if I go back tomorrow ...

Friday, July 25, 2008

One more gaming store for Chicago

It appears this is the summer of hopeful gaming retail openings, at least here in Chicago.

I’ve learned that a second retail store, Black Sun Games, is moving quickly to open its doors in the Albany Park/North Park/Ravenswood area. The address is 5426 N. Kedzie Ave., but I’m afraid I know even less about this new store than I did about Gamer’s Asylum.

From what I can gather, though, the store is interested in both Warmachine and D&D, two mainstay game properties that that ought to draw in a sizable fan base. Brandon, the owner, is active on a D&D-themed Meetup group, and I’ve heard secondhand that he’s willing to host game groups at the store ASAP (but no sales for now, alas, owing to Chicago’s archaic permitting process).

The best part is that this location is so close I can ride my bike to it, which of course conjures up all sorts of nostalgic images of city kids pedaling down the sidewalk with backpacks brimming with D&D books. Good times, for sure — though I’m not sure I’d have much luck biking down the street with 30 pounds of painted pewter strapped to my back.

Bottom line: As with the Gamer’s Asylum announcement, this is just great news. Tabletop gaming is an inherently social pastime, and it’s critical to have a welcoming, clean and vibrant retail outlet to foster participation. Chicago has long been a bit of a game-store desert.

It’s tough to run an effective brick-and-mortar store in today’s culture of online commerce and 3-day shipping. I recognize the dedication required to make game retailing work, and I’m willing to open my checkbook to support both Black Sun Games and Gamer’s Asylum if they can create a friendly, reliable retail presence near my ‘hood.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dr. Manhattan is naked, blue and perfect

I’ve never been so happy to see a naked man.

Wait, wait, let me explain. I’m referring to Dr. Manhattan’s appearance in the first Watchmen trailer, which blitzed the internets Thursday ahead of an official theatrical premiere before The Dark Knight.

Watchmen is easily my favorite graphic novel, but the beloved series has had a rough ride through Hollywood over the last dozen years or so. As such, I’ve been following the development of Zack Snyder’s adaptation very closely. At WizardWorld Chicago last month, I browsed a gallery of Watchmen toys and statuettes — noting with apprehension that Dr. Manhattan’s merchandise was conspicuously absent from the lineup. I asked a guy from DC Direct about this omission, and he told me he was sworn to secrecy about the visual look of Manhattan.

This was troubling to me. See, Dr. Manhattan’s most identifiable characteristic is that he spends most of the series naked. It’s not a fashion statement; rather, it’s meant to illustrate the fact that’s he’s so far beyond human comprehension that trivial things like clothing doesn’t concern him anymore. He watches quarks and muons flicker through subatomic nuclei; he walks on Mars and assembles microcomputers with his mind. He’s a being who has more in common with God than with humans, and clothing is simply an afterthought.

All this played through my head as I considered what Manhattan might look like — because clearly some decision had been made, otherwise why not show him along with the rest of the character photos that were released earlier this year? And now his toy is absent from an important merchandising lineup? I was worried, to say the least.

Then I saw the trailer. And I saw Manhattan, in all his blueberry-nude glory. And I rested easy that night, knowing that Watchmen — my Watchmen, thank you very much — is in good hands.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Euro-inspired fantasy gaming

I spent most of last week listening to the double-CD compilation album John Barleycorn Reborn, described by Warren Ellis as "dark folk" and subtitled "dark britannica." It's good stuff -- full of haunting, percussive melodies about fertility, sacrifice and the clash of Christianity with pagan Britain's roots.

It's got me jazzed to play some sort of proto-medieval fantasy game, one rooted in shamanistic magic, maybe with some sort of conquest element thrown in, that pits a peaceful indigenous people against some sort of inexorable invading force. I really dig the idea of an agrarian culture imbued with some sort commonly used, everyday magic -- that then crashes up against the spears and horses of some marauding force. It's a story that's formed the basis of any number of films; the three that come to mind right now are Dances With Wolves, 10,000 B.C. and Pathfinder. Never thought I'd ever find a reason to mention those last two in a sentence, but whatever....

Ars Magica evokes this setting really well, as does Tribe 8 (though the setting is dramatically different). There's got to be something out there more rooted in history and ancient cultures. Any other games out there that offer a little Euro-inspired fantasy?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

How diverse is your gaming group?

Mr. noisms over at Monsters & Manuals wrote up an interesting response to an ongoing discussion about race in D&D, and how the industry as a whole tends to default to the well-muscled white male human fighter -- despite the fact that we're playing a game that lets us pretend to be all kinds of much-more-interesting stuff: elves, Norse gods, well-intentioned aliens...heck, even grammar-school kids!

It got me thinking about the various gaming groups I've been a part of since 2000, when I started college and my gaming career began in earnest. I first fell in with a group of very creative and successful game publishers, who had recently collaborated on several acclaimed gaming projects. They were all about 7 or 8 years older than me, and they really helped give me a boost into the hobby. Looking back, they were -- quite literally -- the "Old Boys Club" of that small college town. That's the phrase my friend (himself a member of the club) used when reflecting on these inspiring fellows.

Fast-forward to Chicago. As I mentioned over at Monsters & Manuals, my most recent Mutants & Masterminds group was composed of one white dude, one white Jewish dude, one white chick, two Puerto Rican dudes and one black dude. Pretty much nothing was off-limits, and the mirth around the gaming table could get pretty raunchy at times. It was a slice of pure Americana, I think.

How about you guys? Can you top my group in terms of sheer diversity? Surely there's someone out there who's had Russians, Inuits and Sumo wrestlers rolling dice around the same table...

Monday, July 7, 2008

It's All about Timing or When It Rains, It Pours

I read a decent number of websites about gaming.  Some of them recount actual play, and some of them analyze actual play.  Others discuss sweet power arrays for characters and tactical options, while still others theorize about character driven play and collaboratively creating plot.  With all of these sites, I generally find it to be the case that gamers are a problem-focused lot.  Many gamers are problem solvers - they're good at identifying problems in their gaming and figuring out how to address them (e.g. how the kill that monster better/faster, how to design a system that makes a game more character driven and fitting a setting).  And out of these two skills - problem identification and solving - gamers are often best at the former.  We're just a naturally negative lot.  

All of this brings me to my current gaming problem, which seems to be a strange duck: After half of year of sporadic play, two games that have the vibe of regularity about them are vying for the same slot.  And one of my buddies who's in both games (and is almost always free to game) maybe can't make either.  

Forget about the substantive problems of gaming.  We should just be grateful when we get the opportunity to sit down around the table with 5 friends, all who have busy schedules, and roll fistfuls of dice.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Heroes: Who needs 'em?

I've been on the receiving end of a little (friendly) guff lately from my local game group. See, they caught on to the fact that I like playing heroic characters and generally follow a do-good path through most RPGs I play. In general, this interest in all things "hero" is made manifest across all the game genres I enjoy: fantasy, superhero, dark sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, steampunk and more.

But my guys aren't cutting me any slack for our upcoming Wild Talents game; they're urging me to get away from my roots and play a good, old-fashioned "morally gray" PC. As it stands now, I'm going to go along with it and play a warrior-statesman modeled on none other Grand Admiral Thrawn. (Ours is a sci-fi setting in the far future, so it works.)

I'm going to stop this post before it becomes a "Here is my character/Let me show him to you" entry. But count on more thoughts and reactions from me as I take my first baby steps into the wide world of morally gray play.