Friday, May 30, 2008

Gamer's Asylum in Evanston, IL

There's a new gaming store opening June 1 in Evanton, IL called Gamer's Asylum. I can't really tell you any more about it, because it doesn't appear to have a Web presence (at least, not one that shows up on the first few pages of a Google search).

About all I have to go on is the intersection (Dempster Street and Chicago Avenue in Evanston) and my own somewhat hazy memory of driving past, seeing the sign and making a mental note to return and check it out this weekend. The sign also mentions that Gamer's Asylum will support Warmachine, a game I've sunk a considerable amount of money into, which is good because the next-closest gaming shop is 25 miles down the highway in Mount Prospect. Gamer's Asylum, if it opens as planned, will be about 15 minutes from my house. Nice!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why I Like Building Worlds. In Theory.

Reading Pat's recent post made me think about why I love collaborative world building in rpgs.  To get it out on the table: I like collaborative world building a whole lot more than playing in a prepackaged setting.  Some settings are especially good, and I don't have a problem playing in a setting under these conditions.  For example, I thought Eberron and Blue Planet were a whole lot of fun in terms of details, tone, and potential for lots of different kinds of games.  But many others - like the array of sourcebooks for Mutants and Masterminds or the splatbooks for Vampire - leave me completely cold.

As a player, I like collaborative world building for the reason Pat mentioned below - that players have buy-in and a stake in the story before the game even begins, and because it give players an opportunity to hardwire their characters into the world in a way that's not otherwise possible.  It's one thing to have a "relationship" with your mom, who's a reporter.  It's a whole other thing to have a "relationship" with your mom, who's a reporter for a monolithic, media corporation in a setting that's all about who controls information, because you built it that way.  That said, it's not that much more important to me as a player to game in a collaboratively built world.

As a GM, it's a different story.  A collaboratively built world does a couple of significant things for me.  First, it makes it easy for me to think of plot hooks and story threads that will motivate the characters to act and to force them into hard decisions.  Second, it helps me get what I want to out of rpgs.  Many players like watching their characters grow, building them up in a way that will make them more effective in the story and that makes sense given what happened to them (if they're not complete munchkins).  As a GM, I like the same thing for the world and for the story.  Collaborative world building gives me the outline and frame of a world we all care about, but it also give the me plenty of space to elaborate as the plot moves forward.  It gives me the freedom to build the world and story in a way that's going to be particularly effective, given what happens to the characters.  In my mind, building a world from scratch allows for more creativity and strategy on the part of the GM.  And it lets me watch my world grow.  In a sense, the world becomes my character, even if it's not defined by rigid categories like strength, intelligence, and wisdom.

But then again, I've only done this once as a GM (in a short Burning Wheel game that I'll discuss in a later post).  So this discussion is, as are most other things in my life, only in theory.

Old-school worldbuilding

It's really tough for me to claim the "old school" mantra for pretty much anything relating to gaming, seeing as how I picked up my first game book in 1995 (Star Wars d6, 2nd ed., revised & expanded). That's hardly old school. But looking back over my comparatively brief gaming career, I was out front in at least one trend: collaborative worldbuilding.

Games like Burning Wheel and Shock make a lot of hay over the opportunity to sit down with your buddies and build a complex gaming world from the ground up, and rightly so: It ties the players intimately to the setting and equips them (early on) with the tools they need to push the story forward.

For me, the opportunity to try this out came in 2002. I was in college at the University of Missouri and my local group was jonesing to try out Silver Age Sentinels, which most folks remember as the precursor to Mutants & Masterminds. At the time, we wanted a setting considerably darker than the Silver Age fare offered up in SAS. (Really, we wanted to play Watchmen.) We started tossing around ideas for the ideal setting, and before too long we were caught up in a full-blown collaborative worldbuilding effort.

The result was the world of the Sovereigns, a hard-edged team of supers who mixed 21st-century sensibilities with the heroic ideals of times past. I'm going to start posting bits and pieces of what eventually came to be known as our Sovereigns Sourcebook. It'll be tagged "Sovereigns," for ease of searching. Look for more over the weeks and months ahead.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Players vs. system, the eternal debate

Hi, I'm Ben, a new contributor on this blog.  First, I'd like to thank Pat for giving me the opportunity to contribute on such a high traffic site.  That said, I'd like to lay out some of my thoughts on system, growing from Pat's posts below.

Below, Pat argues that players in a rpg have a greater influence on an overall rpg experience than the system the players use.  As a lawyer and social scientist, I often think about the interaction of people and binding rules that govern behavior.  I'm not going to argue with Pat that the skills, knowledge, and dispositions of the players sitting around a table aren't very important, because I think they are - I think Pat's post well demonstrates this.  But I do believe that the system is very important as well.

Let's start with an example to draw out some ways in which system may matter:  Pat and I played in a Mutants and Masterminds game together for about a year and a half.  This game has very robust rules to support combat on a D&D style battle map (M&M is D20, after all).  But the game has very few mechanics to support social interaction or the effects of personal characteristics (like a nasty scare or fame) in the game.  Our GM had a great handle on the rules and could instantly process the interactions of different rules in new situations.  He ran a clean combat, and he didn't spend too long on non-combat scenes.  When he did spend time on non-combat scenes, it was pretty free form, and I was rarely left satisfied that my character was dealt with fairly or adequately.

I would argue that this situation demonstrates the importance of system.   Without mechanics that support or facilitate certain types of gameplay, this gameplay either didn't happen or happened in a free form and ultimately unsatisfying way.  With a different GM who cared and thought more about social scenes and personal characteristics, I might have had a more satisfying experience.  But even a game with players and a GM who really want to focus on social scenes and personal characteristics would benefit from mechanical support for these types of scenes.

Indeed, don't we often play particular games because we like the rules and the types of interactions they frame?  Yes, unless we're so in love with the game's setting that it just doesn't matter.   don't we play Settlers of Catan because we like the rules about expansion and building?  Yes,  unless we love bargaining with our friends and don't get other opportunities to do it.  Isn't engaging with the rules in strategic and creative ways a large part of what makes rpgs fun?  Yes, unless you're completely focused on story, story, story.  And even then, the rules can help turn story creation into a game.

The players are very important in rpgs, but much of the gaming experience results from the interaction between players and system.  When the system does not have robust rules to govern a type of situation, little attention or free form play in that type of situation results.  With a bevy of strong players, the free form play can be fun.  But the experience isn't always fun or fair, and it starts moving deeper into that grey area that's between gaming and making up stories.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons, Year Zero

Via Jeff’s Gameblog comes a post from SquareMans that hit me with an almost tangible wave of nostalgia. I’m not old enough to have enjoyed D&D back in its original, stapled-pamphlet iteration, but this account of a group of veteran gamers sitting down to engage in a little “roots gaming” really gave me pause, especially when considered in the context of Gary Gygax’s recent passing.

Amid the nostalgia and grandeur of old-school D&D is a bit of keen commentary from SquareMans about what can only be described as “rules creep” - the tendency to add layers and layers of nuanced rules to each subsequent RPG release. D&D 4E is almost upon us, and it’s worth remembering that there was a time when D&D was rules-lite and nearly every adventure ended in TPD - total party death.

The rules themselves were barely there. You had to make it all up. This put so much responsibility on the GM. He had to be entertaining, imaginative, fair, rational. In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game. The more game elements are objectively determined, written down in books, the less you have to rely on the GM. The less you need a really good GM to run the game. And yes, the more of a science it becomes, and less of an art. Running this game was an art form and only a few people could do it really well. There’s something magical about that. Newer versions become more systematized and therefore more people can play. Mediocre GMs can run good games. But, if I’m being honest with myself, something of the magic is lost. That feeling that most of this game lived in your mind. Because of that, I think, it was more real. As more and more of the game lived in the rules and on character sheets, it became a game instead of a world in your head.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Giving them their cookies

About five years ago, I played in a fun little steampunk game with a handful of gaming buddies. The setting was something the GM had cooked up himself: lots of airships and piracy, along with a dash of intrigue thrown in for good measure. What I remember most, though, was a phrase he had scrawled on a piece of paper and paper-clipped to his GM screen: “Give them their cookies.”

What followed was a bullet-point list of the specific in-game attributes that would please each character. Cookies, if you will. I was playing a technophile (it’s steampunk – how can you not?!), so my character was obsessed with collecting and cataloguing the various fiddly bits we came across during our adventures. My cookie, then, involved stumbling across people and items relating to engineering and mechanics. I’d get this nod from the GM at least once a session, and it never got old. Sometimes it even launched the campaign in an entirely new direction.

Some cookies, though, proved troublesome. My friend Brett tends to play anime-inspired samurai characters in every single game, regardless of the genre – and that befuddled our GM, seeing as how we were campaigning in a high-adventure faux-nautical setting. But he found a way to distill this samurai character down to his essential parts – honor, duty, loyalty – which then provided opportunities for a veritable double batch of gamer cookies.

In practice, cookies should be tangible things: a bag of gold, a rusty hauberk, a trophy lightsaber. Sometimes they can be people, organizations and contacts. A good rule of thumb is this: A well-designed cookie should always prompt the character to note something on their character sheet, be it a new piece of equipment or an important campaign note.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Don't game with lawyers

I'm not talking about rules lawyers; I'm talking about actual attorneys-at-law.

I'm a few adventures into a D&D 3.5 Midnight campaign, and all the other gamers are lawyers at a prominent downtown Chicago law firm. They work hard, often straight through the weekend whilst sleeping on cots in their offices, but they also make almost five times my salary. But it comes at a price.

We've tried repeatedly to schedule our latest adventure, only to have it derailed by depositions, due diligence surveys and unending document analysis. I feel for these guys, because their wives and girlfriends likely aren't getting much better treatment. We'll see if we can get a session in before the next total solar eclipse.