Friday, October 31, 2008

The Benny Economy in Savage Worlds

Last night, amid much negotiation and impassioned discussion, our group hit upon a cool new house rule for our Savage Worlds game.

We’re calling it the Benny Economy, and it expands upon an existing mechanic in SW that gives each player three “bennies” at the outset of the game. These are tokens, stones, glass beads, whatever, and they can be “spent” for rerolls and damage soaks, kind of like hero points in Mutants & Masterminds or fate chips points in Deadlands. And since the GM is encouraged to give out extra bennies during the session for good roleplaying or problem solving, these resources are meant to be spent, not hoarded.

The GM gets bennies too, to be spent by his minions and NPCs, usually one per PC at the table, plus a couple more for each big monster or villain.

Last night, though, we hit upon a much more dynamic way of spending bennies: When a PC spends a benny, it’s added to the GM’s stock. Likewise, when the GM spends a benny, it’s passed on to the PC most directly involved with the action.

So we’ve established a free-flowing metagame economy whereby the GM can inject a little fiat into the game — but only by passing on a minor advantage to the characters. And when the players need a hail-mary roll, they can try for it — but next time they might not be so lucky. Plus, the players around the table can watch the GM’s benny pile wax and wane throughout the game, so they’ll know at a glance how many resources the referee can bring to bear on a particular scenario.

Admittedly, this mechanic has virtually no grounding in the story or plot. It’s just a cool metagame notion that, for us, seems more engaging than the rules as written in the SW book. What do you think?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Keeping Stuff Random

These days, I’m rediscovering the magic of the random encounter table. This old-fashioned game tool is nothing if not time-tested and (mostly) campaign-approved by several decades’ worth of gamers.

But the aspect that’s most appealing to me is that it removes the GM from the position of lobbing threats toward the players. Instead, it’s the game world itself that offers the threat — and the story! I’ve been fine-tuning Autumn Frontiers with random tables in an effort to create clear distinctions between the mildy dangerous areas of the map and the truly deadly regions. I’d like to implement “danger gradients” to the wilderness, which Ben Robbins describes as logical threat progressions, intended to give the world a sense of order and make it feel like more than just a map full of encounters strung together. Mountain hobgoblins generally won’t come along when the players are campaigning through the swamp, but there’s a good chance these same protagonists might patrol the foothills of their chosen mountain range.

This is somewhat more difficult to implement in Savage Worlds, which doesn’t use encounter levels or rank monsters according to how appropriate they are for characters of a given level. But in a way, it’s even more exciting, because I can stock the map with an eye toward Gygaxian naturalism and let the players figure things out.

But I like that no one really knows what’s going to come along when the dice are cast. Random encounters add a level of danger and mystery to the game that’s made all the more real when the players understand that even the GM can’t see everything coming. That’s not to say the GM should treat every random result as gospel; it’s important to keep things appropriate to the particular setting (merfolk raiders coming along when the party is adventuring in the high plains? Maybe not.). But respecting the random encounter keeps everyone on their toes, which in turn leads to that all-important byproduct of roleplaying: adventure!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spells Inspired by Heavy Metal, Part One

Ever since Jim Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess casually tossed out a half-dozen OD&D spells based entirely on metal song titles, I’ve been excited to try my hand at this sort of music-infused creativity. These spells were all created in about 30 minutes, intended for use in the Savage Worlds ruleset. The band names for each song are included in parentheses. Consider this the first entry in an irregular series; I'll write up more as the mood strikes me.

Rust of Coming Ages (Serenity)
Rank: Veteran
Power Points: 5
Range: Smarts, Circular radius centered on caster
Duration: Instant
Description: The spell causes objects within the caster’s Smarts radius to age instantaneously. Most metal objects will corrode and rust; leather will break; wood will rot and degrade. Gear that is already ancient (like heirloom weapons or artifacts) will crumble into dust. Weapons that aren’t destroyed will have their damage decreased by one die (down to a minimum of d4) and exhibit extreme signs of aging, making them worth one-fourth their average resale value. These weapons have a 30% chance of breaking each time they are used in combat.

Shadowgate (Battlelore)
Rank: Seasoned
Power Points: 3, 5 vs. an undead Wild Card
Range: Smarts, in a straight line from caster
Duration: 1 round
Description: When faced with undead creatures, the caster is able to open a gaping pit beneath the fiends, allowing the infernal darkness to reclaim its minions. On a successful Arcane roll, an inky black chasm opens at the feet of the target, which must then make an Agility check or fall in. With a raise, the check must be made at a –2 penalty. On a critical failure (snake eyes in Savage Worlds) the pit opens normally, but disgorges another undead foe instead of reclaiming one (GM's choice).

How Heavy This Axe (The Sword)
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 1 per damage die
Range: Touch
Duration: 1 day
Description: By touching a weapon or item, the spellcaster is able to increase or decrease its relative weight as perceived by the bearer. This weight change is variable, but can be no more than half of the object’s original weight.

The Fire Still Burns (DragonForce)
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 2
Range: Touch
Duration: As long as fuel is available
Description: By holding a piece of charred wood or fuel in his hands, the caster is able to kindle a new flame. The flame must have been extinguished within a number of hours equal to the caster’s Smarts.

Spirit of the Hawk (Falconer)
Rank: Seasoned
Power Points: 4
Range: Line of Sight
Duration: Smarts in minutes
Description: The druid is able to see through the eyes of a soaring hawk or other bird. The caster cannot control this animal, however.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Getting Fantasy Miniatures for Cheap

I love gaming with miniatures, even if it’s just to help everyone around the table visualize important characters and monsters. Sure, cardboard counters are cheaper and easier to play with, but the wargamer in me really grooves on using actual sculpted miniatures for roleplaying.

Finding cheap miniatures, then, has become an amusing quest for me; at GenCon, I probably spent an hour pawing through huge bins of plastic D&D minis, all priced two for a dollar. I ended up with eight new additions to my collection — mainly because I spent most of my time helping fellow prospectors track down figures for their collections. (“Anyone need another Skulking Ghroll? I’ve got two over here!”)

Anyway, for groups looking for another outlet for cheap plastic minis, check out the MageKnight auctions on eBay. Most gamers fondly remember MageKnight as the pioneering clicky-base game that shot itself in the face with a career-ending rules revamp. Folks still play MageKnight, but there’s not a whole lot of demand left for the figures themselves, which started out looking kind of shoddy but got increasingly better as time went on. Even better, there are literally hundreds of different models in the series, representing dozens of races and factions and equipment combinations. I just won an auction for two dozen undead-themed characters and another dozen male human adventurers — for about the price of a single D&D Minis booster box.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

RPGS, Greek Tragedy, and Greenspan

I was watching the Newshour with Jim Lehrer tonight, and it triggered some "deep thoughts" about rpgs. The Newshour showed Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress today about the economic collapse. Greenspan talked about his shock that his "ideology" had proven wrong - that his free market view of the world had led to terrible and unpredictable consequences. Of course, the media jumped on this, because who wants an ideologue guiding economic policy? But as a social scientist, I have much empathy for Greenspan. If you listen beyond the sound bytes, he was really talking about his theoretical model through which he views the world, which is supported by an ample amount of empirical and historical evidence (yeah yeah, his model involves some problems clearly, but that's not what this post is about). Really, theoretical models are one of the central tools of social science, and when one confronts problems with their basic assumptions, it causes serious shock. Greenspan indicated as much.

(Bear with me, we're getting to rpgs.)

This Greenspan stuff in turn reminded me of Greek tragedy, which I used to read and teach. One central feature of Greek tragedy (and the Iliad) is playing out what happens when humans meet their conceptual limitations - when they realizd that the most fundamental things they believe are wrong (you know, like when you realize that your lover is your mom). That's when shit hits the fan. Part of the point is that we're just human; we're not gods. And a key different between humans and gods is the ability to know or see the world for what it is. Our worldviews always have flaws, and as humans, we always need theoretical worldviews to organize and even form what we know and see. That just a fundamentally shitty part of being human.

(Here's the rpg part.)

I've had so much fun thinking about Greek tragedy over the years and seeing things play out similarly on the global stage in recent months (only from an intellectual standpoint, duh), that I wonder if these kinds of themes could be integrated into rpgs. In a way that's actually fun. Could I fruitfully play a character that this kind of tragedy happens to? Would it just be stupid?

In our "old school" game right now, this kind of game may not work. I'm playing a holy roller paladin with no doubt about his worldview, so he'd be perfect for this kind of tragedy at first glance. But I'm having the most fun gaming that I think I've had since I started playing with some of my current group a couple years ago. Much of my fun comes from kicking ass and talking in goofy voices - not deep philosophical intersections between gaming and tragedy. Also, we're using Savage Worlds, so there's no mechanical support for this kind of thing (is there anywhere and is it fun if it's out there?).

But here's another idea: It may be possible to implement something like this as a GM - somehow turning the basic assumptions of the world upside down in a way that creates a crisis for characters to deal with. (Pat - I'm not encouraging you to do this for our current game, because it's great like it is.) The rpg version of an economic crisis. That way, we could still have raucous fun without getting bogged down in the depression of it all. So it would still be fun. But would it have enough tragedy in the game to bring out the themes I'm interested in?

I just don't know, and I'm probably out thinking myself what this post. Maybe I should just stick to channeling my inner 13 year old.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The One-Two Approach to Starting a Campaign

Our group has stumbled across a simple, effective tool for generating excitement about a new campaign. It is this:

When starting a new game, try to get in two quick back-to-back sessions before settling into a comfortable gaming schedule.

For Autumn Frontiers, we managed (by pure luck, it seems) to play on a Thursday and then again the following Saturday. Two sessions in less than five days -- that was a herculean scheduling feat. But it managed to stoke the imaginations of both the players and the GM, thereby giving legs to a campaign that might otherwise have muddled along. I had to plan for two separate sessions, and the players got a chance to fine-tune their character concept with the followup session on Saturday.

It's a simple thing, but I'm glad our busy lives allowed for a quick burst of gaming to start off a new campaign.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Last Weekend's Old-School Gaming Moment

Yep, we had our first great old-school gaming moment last weekend. The first of many, I hope, from Autumn Frontiers, my Savage Worlds/Points of Light sandbox mashup.

The players were exploring a ruined holdfast situated in some forested hills. As near as the PCs could tell, the crumbling, three-story tower and half-collapsed curtain wall had been built — and then abandoned? — centuries ago by a dwarven culture. The drum tower itself was in particularly bad shape, with heaps of rubble and collapsed masonry everywhere, not to mention gaping holes in the floor and ceiling.

The dwarves had stashed several sealed cauldrons of tar in various places around the holdfast, perhaps intended to be used to defend against invaders at some unknowable point in the past. The players found these cauldrons and deduced their contents after a little experimenting. (“I sprinkle some of our magic ice powder into the black liquid. It turns into a crystal? OK, I use my sword to spill a little bit on the floor and light it on fire. Cool, it burns! Must be tar or pitch.”)

Using ropes, the players were able to work their way into the squat tower. They explored the top level (replete with battlements and a commanding view of the surrounding countryside) and headed on down to the first floor, which was partially built into the hillside. Over the years, a small stream had pushed through the tower’s thick stone wall and now flowed slowly through this chamber. Roots hung from the ceiling and moss grew on the heaps of broken masonry piled everywhere. It was dark and dank.

So it was no surprise that this fetid chamber should be home to a colony of oil beetles, huge and black with glistening carapaces. The players locked swords with these beasts for a few rounds, but common sense quickly won out. They darted back upstairs, whereupon the paladin and the druid began dragging one of the heavy cauldrons to the edge of a large hole in the floor...that led down to the beetle-infested first level. While they were doing this, the thief and the wizard mounted a determined defense against the enraged beetles, which were now swarming up a crumbling spiral staircase onto the second level.

After a few close calls, the characters managed to tilt the cauldron over the lip of the maw, sending a hundred or so gallons of black tar spilling down into the depths of the beetle hive. The druid tossed in a torch, and the rest is history. I didn’t even roll — those beetles didn’t have a chance. They squealed and hissed and burst from the heat as their innards boiled.

It was a elegant solution that I didn’t really see coming — and it’s also a strong argument in favor of logical dungeons built for particular purposes, with lots of options for enterprising players. In this case, the dwarven holdfast was meant to defend against something, so it was only logical that the battlements should have cauldrons of tar ready to be dumped on invaders at a moment’s notice. Turns out the “invaders” were inside the tower itself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Back in the Hot Seat After a Long Absence

More than a year after I GMed my last multi-session RPG, I sat down with a group of friends last night to delve into Autumn Frontiers, my new fantasy sandbox campaign.

It’s difficult to express how much my gaming ethos has changed over the weeks and months that I’ve been brainstorming and sketching out this setting. In years past, I produced self-contained adventures that — while drenched in detail and very engrossing — offered little in terms of sandbox play. This was fine, because the players I gamed with were part of this paradigm as well. With few exceptions, they expected a “plot” and were only too happy to move along it.

Since then, though, my sentiments have changed. Starting with a chance encounter at Ars Ludi, I’ve voraciously sought out articles and blog posts from the likes of James Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, Ben Robbins, Rob Conley and Sham the Quixotic Referee. Their quirky return-to-yer-roots notions really set off a cavalcade of ideas in my head — made all the more relevant when you consider that I missed old-school D&D entirely, having started playing RPGs in 1994 with d6 Star Wars. The whole effort was made manifest when I picked up Goodman Games’ Points of Light supplement (co-authored by Rob Conley, btw). My game grew legs and took off, if only in my head. And even if the players barely scratch the surface of the world, it was certainly worth it.

And so, on a Thursday night in October, we met at Ben’s place in Chicago. Four players showed, including two I’ve never gamemastered for. With little more than character sheets, a rulebook and a blank hex map, we cranked up the heavy metal and got to gaming.

It ranks as one of the most singularly satisfying GM experiences of my life. Everyone was in-character and one the same level — namely, a semi-campy mashup of Conan-style swaggering, played out against the backdrop of a frightened, depopulated medieval frontier village. The “tavern” where the party met was just few rough-hewn benches tucked in the corner of the village blacksmith’s shop; Garron, the one-armed forgemaster, sold ale by the mug and kept his smithy ringing late into the night, helping weary travelers shake off the cold with beer and helpful gossip.

Each player had received a randomly generated rumor via email in the week prior to the session, and they eagerly presented these hints in-character as the PCs gathered in Garron’s workshop. There was a great moment when the highborn wizard harumphed about not wanting to go risk his skin exploring the ruins of Tora Norrith, but the spirit of adventure on out in the end. The PCs agreed to depart at sunrise, and we had a nice little scene where the characters bedded down in an abandoned barracks.

The overland trip to Tora Norrith (just a few hours' hike, given the topography) was an absolutely golden wilderness scene, festooned with Survival rolls, foraging attempts and even some discovery (the druid stumbled across an ancient quarry site carved with dwarven runes; the thief had the presence of mind to make a charcoal rubbing of these runes, which will help out immensely if they choose to investigate further).

We had a few stumbles with the Savage Worlds rules, including forgetting all about the soak roll when the druid took a crossbow bolt to the chest (he survived). And I’m still learning how to effectively run NPC enemies in Savage Worlds. But all in all, it was a great first adventure and — get this — our next session is scheduled for this Saturday! So soon — gotta go prep!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dungeon Vermin in Savage Worlds

I’ve been enjoying some of the posts lately about “dungeon vermin” — giant beetles, centipedes, rats, scorpions and other creepy crawlies that adventurers are sure to find in most ancient catacombs. So I started thinking about how to incorporate these suckers into Savage Worlds, the system of choice for my upcoming fantasy game. There’s not telling how much dungeon-delving the PCs will do, but if they do venture underground, I like the idea of having a thriving ecosystem waiting for them down there.

The key with dungeon vermin — near as I can tell — is that they’re not threatening on their own, but they’re able to endanger the party in certain situations (right after a big battle, for example, when the exhausted, drained characters blunder into a pit filled with giant leeches).

How to represent this in Savage Worlds? The best way, I think, is with the Shaken mechanic. Savage Worlds doesn’t use hit points; rather, each character has three wounds representing progressive levels of injury. Shaken is a sort of pre-wounded condition that limits a character’s actions and makes it much easier to subsequently wound him.

So, rather than stat out full blocks for each type of dungeon vermin, I think I’ll simply give them an attack rating, a toughness score and a custom Edge (read: feat) that limits any successful damage roll to Shaken. This makes them superbly annoying, occasionally deadly — but never to be ignored.

Think of the insect pit scene in King Kong — the characters were on the ropes, exhausted, and the scary bugs thought they had an easy meal on their hands until the rest of the party showed up and massacred the insects. But not before the swarming bugs managed to snack on a few adventurers. Dungeon vermin should be a low-level background threat for most of the game, except for that one-in-a-hundred situation where the Shaken result combines with some other unforseen scenario to make the players really sweat.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Playing With Half A Group

Scheduling (and all the woes therein) has been a common theme here at RPG Diehard. Both Ben and I have lamented the challenges involved with simply gathering a group of players together, to say nothing of the actual art of playing the game.

For Autumn Frontiers, my new Points of Light/Savage Worlds campaign, I’m going to try my hardest to stick to a regular, reliable schedule. And the more I think about that, the more I think that that’s probably going to necessitate playing without all the players present, at least every now and then.

This is going to be a bit of a change for my group; over the years, we've been pretty easy-going and only too happy to continually postpone a session to make sure everyone's around the table. What that's resulted in, however, is a whole lot of polite emails and not very much gaming. Time for a change?

If handled properly, I think this sort of play can actually serve to enhance the immersive, survival-based fantasy game I’m hoping to run with this group. If we’re set to start at 7 p.m. and a player can’t make it until 8:30, that’s fine — the game will proceed, and I (the GM) will play their character. Or another player; it doesn't matter. The point is that the game is ongoing even when the player is absent — not in a punitive way, though, because that would be cruel. Then, when the player does show up, he’ll enter the game in media res — maybe in the middle of a mountaintop chase, or maybe in the middle of a tense lockpicking moment.

Part of me wants to put my foot down and say “Alright, we’re playing every Thursday; no compromises.” But that’s not fair to adult players who have lives and spouses and jobs; moreover, I’m just as likely to cancel a regular game at some point too. I’m curious how you might handle a group that’s chronically difficult to schedule. Do you regularly play with half a group?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Join Us Or DIE!!!"

The words just tumbled out of my mouth, and I regretted them as soon as I uttered them. I was GMing what looked like our final session of Wild Talents (transhuman, far future, sci fi version) for at least a while (and perhaps forever). These were the words of the Big Bad, the leader of the invading, universe hopping, barbarian, alien horde, and these guys were flat out stronger than the PCs. At least one of the PCs didn't like the position he was put in - he felt as if he were offered no choice and was essentially being railroaded to "join," and this is literally the last thing I want in a game. For a second, I thought about taking it all back, but hell, I was the GM, and I wouldn't allow a PC to do take backseys on an important decision made in the heat of the moment. In the end, a compromise was struck between the PCs and the Big Bad - the PCs joined, and the aliens would only occupy their universe for 5-10 thousand years on the way to domination of reality. In retrospect, I don't think my decision was that bad. Here are a couple factors to help you decide:

1) The PCs were more physically powerful than anything else in the game thus far, and flat out dominated (partially because of the version of the rules we were playing with). There were lots of diplomatic ramifications of the use of extreme force throughout the game, but the PCs could physically overcome anything until the alien horde. They knew it was coming, but didn't know how powerful it was.

2) The PCs largely ignored the horde, focusing instead on local diplomatic issues and immediate threats, until it hit them in the face. Part of our game setup was the impending threat of the horde, so it's not like they missed any hints.

3) We had intended to hack in Burning Wheel's social combat rules, because they're great (and work much better than their mechanically similar cousin rules for real combat, IMHO), but I forgot all about this until afterwards. That's a shame, because diplomacy was what won the day in the end (well, sort of won).

4) The PCs saw themselves getting torn apart by the horde in space, but proceeded straight to their leader without any subtlety. One PC (the one who complained) actually set a charge on his ship to blow up if things went to hell. He didn't use it. Let's just say I would've looked favorably upon interesting decisions besides fight or talk (you know, like escape or something creative). Also, one of the PCs could construct teleporters in a single round.

5) I certainly could've said something else besides "join us or die" that would give the PCs other options. Like: "Go back to your leaders and tell them my proposal. You have 5 hours, Earthlings. Don't be late. AHAHAHAHAHA!!!" But then this would've become more like a choose your own adventure instead of a rpg, right?

6) We definitely wanted to finish off this arc so Pat can run his west marshes game he's been talking about.

7) I really had no preconception about how all of this would turn out, and I actually had a lot more adventure planned for the evening. But it was all moot after this encounter, and it seemed like the obvious stopping point for the arc because it changed the game world so drastically.

Looking back after writing all this, it certainly seems to me like I didn't screw up. Though, I'm sure the PCs would add in 7 more points that bolster their side. At the very least, this seems like the flip side of Pat's stormtrooper post below (man, his low-level survival game is going to be a hell of a contrast to Wild Talents - I definitely think it'll work better than WT because I'm much more of an abstract spacey type than the other players...and most people I know).

Anyway, I'd sure appreciate any feedback our readers. You know, in the name of trying to become a better GM and all.

Fantasy orcs and the stormtrooper syndrome

There are two types of orcs in fantasy roleplaying: the kind that PCs routinely slaughter by the dozens, and the kind that offer an unexpected (and thoroughly deadly) threat to players who were expecting the aforementioned variety. Which type you meet in your campaign depends largely on the stormtrooper syndrome.

In the d6 Star Wars RPG, players coined this rather hilarious observation to describe the notion that stormtroopers -- described in game material and official canon as elite soldiers armed with the best weapons and equipment-- couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. They were little more than scrubs whose flashy armor couldn't protect them from the heroes' blaster bolts; it took just a single shot to drop them, both in the movies and in the game.

Now, this worked fine for Star Wars players who wanted to emulate the best space-opera moments from the original trilogy. But a small subset of GMs chose to make stormtroopers powerful and rare, more like the intergalactic special forces they profess to be. In these games, regular Imperial Army troops filled the drop-like-flies stormtrooper role, and players quickly learned to dread seeing a flash of white armor in the distance.

It warms my heart when lowly fantasy orcs get this same treatment. I've modeled my own orcs on Fantasy Flight's Midnight campaign setting, which sees these brutes as the garrison troops of a victorious army, lording over the cowed populace and striding with confidence across the ravaged countryside -- kind of like how Middle Earth would have looked, had Sauron won.

Midnight's orcs got a stat boost, sure, but they got a much more subtle treatment in the fluff of the game. Simply put, they're terrifying, and everyone knows it. To the average commoners, orcs embody the horror and savagery that lurk just outside the town walls. A hero of great renown might be remembered in songs for facing down three or four of these monsters -- and dying in the process, of course.

These are the orcs of my campaign world. There will be plenty of low-level encounters populated by goblins and kobolds, sure, but the orc will be special.

[Image credit: ~Geistig, deviantART]

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Post-auction writeup: Loot, glorious loot

Yesterday was the fall gaming auction at Games Plus in Mt. Prospect, IL. I attended with an eye toward snatching up some useful and/or nostalgic items for cheap. In that respect, I was thoroughly successful. Here's what ended up in my adventurer's backpack at the end of the day:

  • Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition- $6
  • Dungeon Worlds: Catacombs - $1 (didn't really need it, but the price was right)
  • Wondrous Items of Power - $3 (terrible editing, but if I can rip even one good campaign idea out of this book, then it was worth the price)
  • Wreckage - $8 (small, quick board game of Mad Max-style vehicular combat; I've coveted this sucker for a long time)
  • Zombies!!! - $5 (waited and waited to snag this game for a decent price...success!)
  • Agone core book - $5 (OK, I thought I was bidding on Agon, and I didn't realize it until I'd already won the auction for this game. Eh.)
  • AD&D trading cards - $2 (couldn't say no, plus they'll be great for Everway)
  • Cracken's Threat Dossier - 50 cents (again, couldn't pass it up. I'll play d6 Star Wars again...I swear it)

And I didn't even hit my carry limit.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Of game stores I've known: Valhalla's Gate in Columbia, MO

Most gamers, if they’re lucky, can relate stories of the local gaming store that helped foster their participation in the hobby. I’m no different, and Sir Larkins’ recent post bemoaning the slow decline of brick-and-mortar retail shops has inspired me to write about my first (gaming) love.

For the first four years of this decade, I lived in Columbia, MO while attending the University of Missouri. College helped rejuvenate my gaming appetite, but it wasn’t until the end of my tenure that I discovered Valhalla’s Gate, then a newcomer to the Columbia gaming scene (which is actually quite vibrant, having birthed several game publishing companies and nurtured many burgeoning designers).

The Gate, as it’s affectionately known, was then an upstart competing with the Danger Room, which occupied an enviable spot in downtown Columbia just across the street from MU’s campus. Despite all that, neither the Danger Room nor its successor entity could gain any real traction, and the downtown storefront closed around 2003 or so. From then on, Valhalla’s Gate was the only game in town, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The Gate had a lot going for it, starting with a huge retail footprint. This was key in a lot of ways. It let the owners take advantage of the store’s high ceiling heights to craft a well-lit, clean interior setup stuffed to the gills with merchandise. Every major element of the hobby got attention, some more than others. RPGs were huge, as were Games Workshop games. Clix-based games had their boomtime too, but they took up far less shelf space. Hobby supplies were next to terrain racks, and even less-popular miniatures games usually had a shelf or two.

What all of this meant was that the store offered a bewildering array of products distributed in a logical, well-organized store setup — as opposed to the pile-it-everywhere approach that smaller stores are sometimes stuck with. It didn’t hurt that the owners were fastidious about cleaning the place, which no doubt contributed to any number of impulse buys from impressed parents of young gamers.

And talk about game space: at any given time, the Gate had at least four fully prepped 8’ by 4’ wargame tables ready to go at a moment’s notice. Another three could be pressed into duty in 10 minutes. RPG and card gamers could pull up a chair to any of the dozen folding tables that populated the dedicated gaming room, which was separated from the retail salesfloor by a short hallway. Add in a (always clean) restroom and a couple vending machines, and it’s easy to see how this place was designed with the gamer in mind.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to land a job at Valhalla’s Gate as one of three part-time employees in the summer of 2003. In doing so, I had the opportunity to understand the store from the other side of counter. I saw how the owners made buying decisions, set up the monthly tournament schedules, organized the special orders and balanced their own personal/family lives in the process. The owners were/are all married couples with children and full-time jobs elsewhere, so life was hectic and they came to rely on the small staff of part-timers who crewed the place.

During my time there, we routinely hosted tournaments that drew gamers from as far away as St. Louis, Kansas City and Des Moines. We even had a father-and-son duo that made a weekly 180-mile round trip to play in the our Lord of the Rings CCG league.

I’ve not been back to the Gate in about three years, but it remains (in my mind, at least) the ideal model for game store retail operation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Breaking up is hard to do

I quit my Mutants & Masterminds game this past July after more than a year of reliable, bimonthly campaign play. I just wasn’t jazzed to play a superhero game any longer — and this ran contrary to the rest of the group’s members, who all wanted to continue M&M for the forseeable future.

So I quit — nicely, of course, but I still shocked the GM and a few players who didn’t know me quite so well. The rhetorical question I didn’t pose to them at the time was: What alternative would you have me do?

Do I stick with a game that’s just not my cup of tea right now, hoping that enthusiasm grabs me again? Do I bumble my way through the next few months of play, waiting for the GM to get the hint and start catering to me? In my opinion, that’s doing a disservice to the rest of the players — especially when they’ve expressed satisfaction with the direction the campaign is going and I’m the odd man out.

Luckily this wasn’t my only gaming group at the time, and I’ve since been able to play a bunch of new, cool games with friends new and old, to say nothing of my own impending fantasy campaign.

But what do you think? Is there some sort of unspoken gamer etiquette I trampled when I departed so precipitously? Would you have stayed?