Monthly Archives: February 2010

Serious Play

I always enjoy the Penny Arcade comic, but I often get something useful out of the column as well. Today’s in particular got me thinking. He was inspired by another post about the “daddening” of video games (the idea that in video games it is becoming more common that you play someoen who is a father than someone whose father is an important part of the story) and more generally observed that there are issues which are common and powerful but which are rarely touched upon in video games. Issues like relationships, marriage, family, kids and so on. A lot of it rings equally true for RPGs, and that got me thinking.

First off, I need to echo the sentiment that getting married and having a child were both genuine thresholds for me. before actually crossing them, their meaning were pretty nominal to me. I got their importance on paper, but it was very different for me to actually do it.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to apply that general lens to my games. I can think of many game I’ve played that were generational in nature, literally or symbolically, but they almost always revolve around the emergence of the new generation[1]. Sure, there’s always the occasional jokey one-off, of playing an Amber game where you’re elders dealing with these wacky kids, but it’s not quite the same.

Now, some of this is kind of understandable. Players should be the focus of play, and kids take focus. It’s hard to make kids as important as they should be without that overshadowing your going out and shooting orcs or whatever, and more the introduction of kids introduces all kinds of questions like “how responsible is it, really, to go out and shoot orcs when you have a kid at home?”

At its worse, the introduction of family and kids seems like a threat to suck the fun out of a game in favor of the mundane details of life we may be playing to escape. It’s only natural to flinch in the face of this, but it might be worth overcoming that reaction. No, no one wants to be playing a glorified versionof house, but the same things that make a ‘family’ game challenging can make it awesome. Consider:

  • Heroes with families have something to go home to. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll reiterate: having a reason to *not* adventure demands that the reasons for an adventure be good ones. This makes for more work for the GM, but it’s “eat your vegetables” kind of work – the reward is more than worth it.
  • On the flipside, heroes with families tend to be more engaged once you get them on board. If this is tied to the health and happiness of their wife or kid? The heroes are all in.
  • Players are used to lacking authority but having freedom. Parents have just enough authority to be frustrated by its lack, and trade that off with responsibility. This is frustrating, but also makes for some interesting play.

That said, I’m not suggesting this is something that suits every game. But look at the thresholds you and your group have crossed, and consider how that might alter your play. Before i was married, a plot centered around a wedding was just color to me, but having actually gone through one (with all the madness that entails) it would not be hard to hook me into caring a lot whether or not the wedding goes off well. Kidnapping someone’s spouse? Standard trope of villainy, but allow me a second to think of that in terms of my wife? It is ON.

There’s a lot more to this than just spouses and kids. As we get older and our understanding of our parents change from our own experience, it get harder to rage against surrogate father figures in a game[2]. The richness of generational play starts becoming more evident as your own place shifts away from the edge of the generational spread.

1 – The only game I can think of that bridges this gap smoothly is Changeling: The Lost. It’s not truly a generational game, but it offers a premise whose meaning depends upon where you are in life. The game begins with the presumption that you have been taken away from everything important in your life by a powerful being and used as its plaything. Meanwhile, a duplicate is living your life in your stead.For one type of players, the driving motivations fury at this powerful figure who has been bossing you around. For another, the prospect of what you are losing in your life is genuinely horrifying. Players with strong ties (which usually means having gotten past the point in your life where you’re striking out on your own) can get entirely gut punched by that sense of loss. It’s a magnificent idea and a magnificent game.

2 – I watched “Big Fish” with my dad. it’s a beautiful movie, and if it does not move you then, in the words of Pete Thurston “you might want ot call a doctor because you’re probably dead inside”. It’s a generational story of stories, and my dad’s comment at the end was that he’s no longer sure if he was the dad or the son (in the film). At the time, I knew where I stood, but it’s been a few years, and I now have a son of my own who is going to make me ask the same question someday.

EDIT: I read this again and I fear it might sound like “You need kids and a marriage to get this deep stuff” and that’s not the point at all. What I’m saying is look at what has become important in your life. Maybe it’s a family and kids, maybe its something else, but whatever it is you can use the WAYS it’s important to you and your players to tell stories that resonate more with them.

Podcasts and Me

The sad reality is that I don’t listen to as many gaming podcasts as I used to, mostly because my favorites (‘Have Games, Will Travel’, it’s sequel ‘For a Few games More’, Sons of Kryos and the Durham 3) are more or less done and many of the remaining ones I enjoy are nearing completion (Ryan Macklin’s Master Plan), intermittently updated (That’s how We Roll) or in unknown status (Theory from the Closet).

There are still a few consistent ones. I try to stay up with Voice of the Revolution, the IPR podcast, but I admit I am not too diligent about it, partly because I track a lot of that stuff through other channels. 2d6 feet in a Random Direction is always solid, but after that I taper off. There are several good podcasts I check up on regularily, bt don’t subscribe, notablye: The Ogre Cave, Independant Insurgency, The Game Master Show, Canon Puncture, Stabbing Contest and All Games Considered. They’re all solid, and I keep hearing great things about Return to Northmoor, but the problem is I kind of got burned when I branched out and started looking for other gaming podcasts. I found one, which shall remain nameless, that really put me off the whole thing. Listening to it went something like this:

Host 1: So, I enjoyed the writing on this game, but I think it meandered a bit.
Host 2: I agree. The author clearly had some solid ideas, but wasn’t really clear on how to express them.


H1: The good news is a lot of the confusion doesn’t actually come up in play.

H2: Howso? It seems like it would really throw things off.


H1: A lot of the confusing stuff handles edge cases that really didn’t come up at the table.

I’ll spare you any further transcription. The bottom line is that I’ve ended up feeling a bit alienated from gaming podcasts, and given the sheer volume of them, I’ve been hesitant to dip my toes back in the water because sorting through them promises to be daunting at best and outright painful at worst. This makes me feel crappy because there are many I’m genuinely curious about (Walking Eye, Eddy Webb’s White Wolf Podcast, Open Design, Dial P for Pulp, Green Ronin’s Podcast, other’s I’m totally forgetting).

I also have a little less time for Podcasts these days. I changed jobs a while back, and my commute is shorter now, and that throws a wrench in my listening habits. It definitely makes me much more time sensitive, and it attracts me to the 5 minute podcasts of the Grammar Girl or Get It Done Guy, which i can mainline much more easily. Anything over a half hour is a commitment I am hesitant to make. That said, if I find something good, I will commit to mainlining it, and I’ve been working through three seasons of Terry O’Reilly’s “Age of Persuasion” podcast and enjoying the hell out of it.

And that, by the by, tangentially touches on something about podcasts. Gaming is the biggest hobby in my life, and a huge part of my life in general, and as a result, I get less out of 15 minutes of gaming talk than I do out of 15 minutes talking about something I don’t already know intimately. There are lots of gaming podcasts I enjoy as I would a friendly conversation, but which I’m only going to get so much out of the time spent. This is no sleight to those podcasts; as much as it would be nice if every media was tuned to my taste and needs, that’s not a reasonable expectation. But it does mean that gaming podcsts have a harder time fighting for a slice of my attention as a result.

The ones that succeed have, to get all marketing-ey, a unique selling proposition. Things like Paul Tevis’s depth of boardgame knowledge, Chris Hanrahan’s hands-on retail experience, or nearly anyone’s genuine passion for a specific topic are what I need to elevate a podcast from “this is good” to “I need to be listening to this”.

That said, I’m open minded. Suggest a podcast in the comments. Whichever one gets the most suggestsions, I will commit to giving it a serious listen.

When the fall is all there is, it matters

Gamers crave absolution.

For an array of reasons, we don’t like to lose. Some of that comes from the “game” part of the hobby but that’s not all of it. We most get into this because we have ideas of heroes triumphing over overwhelming odds through pluck, cunning and sheer force of will, and we don’t want to come up short[1]. We want to hold the line. We won’t let it happen on our watch. We will run barefoot across broken glass in Nakatomi plaza because somebody has to.

This creates a lot of problems, especially when you’re trying to do something that depends on players losing. I’m not talking about randomly losing a fight or pulling off a TPK, but rather the kind of defeats and setbacks that mark the second act of a lot of stories. Even the most trivial of these sorts of problems will often be met by players digging in their heels, putting up their fists, and refusing to let it happen.

At this point, things get ugly. Even if the GM is totally fighting fair, the players may be angry and resentful, and accusations are likely to be thrown about (or worse, linger unspoken). The easy fix for this is, of course, to skip the second act entirely, and that solution works – it’s demonstrably worked just fine for gaming for decades – but sometimes you just want to push it a little farther.

This is where absolution comes in.

The trick is that defeat is not about the characters, it is about the players, and as a GM, you need to address those players. You need to get across that the tragedy is coming, whatever the characters do. It is not on their heads, so with that settled, are they willing to get onboard with making it awesome?

It’s a simple proposition, but one that is not natural to all players, but usually one or two in a group can pick it up pretty easily, and they provide an example for the rest. An example of what? That’s the trick: once players have bought into the idea that things are going to go bad, you need to give them the ability to really direct how badly it goes. Given that, players will generally be much, much nastier to themselves than you would EVER be willing to be.

It’s one of those balancing acts of trust and control. Because they know the outcome, the trust level is high, but they still want to maintain control. They’re willing to fail, but they need to be allowed to fail big. By absolving them of the normal responsibilities that come with failure, you free them to go for the gusto in ways they never can normally[2].

One of the best examples of this is in Exalted. It is a fact of the setting that the Solar Exalts of the the First Age fell, and the heroes of the game (by default) are the reincarnations of those dead heroes. Because they’re tied to that past life, it is not uncommon for events from the first age to come up, most notably in how the character died back then. Players given leeway to describe how that went will, provided they’ve bought into the idea, make sure their own falls are magnificent, enthusiastically throwing themselves into their character’s death because they accept it as inevitable. There is no way for them to be so cunning or charming or stubborn that it won’t happen, and with that relation, they seize on the one thing they can do, which is to make it awesome.

1 – This is, incidentally, one of the hardest parts of trying to use fighting anime (and other fighting material) as source material for gaming. For all it’s visual awesomeness, the default mode is that the hero gets beat to crap, but won’t give up and fights harder at the end, and that’s enough to win. Very dramatic, but it makes for crappy play.

2 – The closest you can come is announcing that this is the last session of a game. That can, at times, be intensely liberating.

My Gaming DNA

One of the questions form yesterday tickled my fancy, so I’m going to talk about the games I’ve loved.

I started out with D&D, which I got into because another kid at summer camp had it when I was, like, 8 or 9. The thing I noticed was the diagram of the dragon’s breath weapon shapes, and for some reason that struck me as particularly awesome. I think my parents ended up getting me the red box (Erol Otus cover) which I literally read by flashlight, under my covers because it was SO AWESOME. I later got the Expert set, which totally blew my mind, especially the magic items. I’d though the Gauntlets of Ogre Power were awesome, but then I saw the Staff of Wizardry![1]

At the same time, a cool older kid (the son of one of my dad’s co-workers) showed me there was this whole _other_ D&D, with illusionists and rangers and stuff. So from about age 10 to 13, my understanding of D&D came from the boxes, half remembered bits read from the Players Handbook, a copy of the Monster Manual that I bought at Waldenbooks (because I had the money and didn’t know which book to buy), a copy of one of the Slave Lords modules I got _somewhere_, then eventually a DMG my parents got me for Christmas and eventually a PHB gifted from that same older kid.

Tellingly, at no point during this period did I actually play D&D. I made a LOT of a characters (mostly Rangers named Aragorn who rode silver dragons) and rules for things like a Jedi class. I did play some other games – One friend got a Star Trek RPG, and it was totally incomprehensible to is, but it had ship weapon systems, so we used those to make a ship to ship combat game, that later became a giant Robot Fighting game[2]. At anther summer camp, I got to read the James Bond RPG (notably the Q manual) and Top Secret, and made a lot of Spy Cars, and even played in a sort of ad-hoc Top Secret game with no sheets or rules, just us talking. I lost.

During High School I actually got around to playing D&D, and if you think this has been stereotypical so far, you ain’t seen nothing yet. We played D&D with all the bad habits you can imagine. We had party members who existed to steal from party members. We screwed up the Dragonlance Modules. We arranged mass suicide so we could bring in new characters when we lost all our gear n the Slave Lords modules. We were _terrible_, but we had a lot of fun.

College was when I started branching out more. I met a lot of folks through the UVM Science Fiction and Fantasy in Literature program, and got exposed to many new games[3] like Champions, Star Wars, DC Heroes, Traveller, GURPS, Vampire, Paranoia Shadowrun and such, but the big go-to game for the group was Rolemaster. We played the hell out of Rolemaster, with a constantly evolving set of house rules designed to fix problems and to reflect the game currently being played. Those were some of the best games of my life, the sort I still have War Stories from.

During this time, the Amber DRPG also came out, something I had been very excited for, both out of my love of the books and my curiosity about dicelessness. My attempts to actually run the game failed miserably, but I did get involved in playing AmberMUSH, which was good and bad in many ways.

The real zenslap for me came near the end of college when, intrigued by the back copy and some comments online by Bryant Durrell, I picked up a copy of Over the Edge. Holy crap, that book totally upended my view of games. Sure, the setting was cool and all, but the potent, elegant minimalism of the design absolutely knocked my socks off.

After college I moved to DC and hooked up with some people I’d met on AmberMUSH, and got involved with a very large monthly game involving about 20 people form up and down the east coast who got together, played all day Saturday, drank all night, had breakfast and hangovers on Sunday. It was awesome, all the more because it was really more adult gaming than I was used to. The social element of the game was as big a deal as the game itself, and I really dug that. I also ended up as one of the GMs because, well, I had a knack.

Years of Amber followed. There were other games, sure – Feng Shui was a big hit, and I actually ran some very successful Rolemaster games – but Amber was the default mode of the group. But the thing about Amber is that it’s really, really easy to retool. We ran Amber under a ton of different systems, most of them being weird hybrids of ideas stolen from the game book I’d most recently read [4].

Somewhere in here I also started paying attention to what people were doing on the Internet. Fudge was fascinating, and Ron Edwards and John Wick were both writing interesting things in random places. But I tried to stick to the edges. For me, was a place for reviews, not forums.

Anyway, towards the end of my time in Maryland, Fred Hicks ran a great Amber game called “Crown of Amber”, using Fudge. it was a lot of fun, but what was most telling was that when it came time to end it, Fred ran a final session to actually bring everything to a conclusion. This blew my mind, and when 3e came out, one of my priorities with the Big Epic Game I ran was to have a satisfying conclusion. It worked out OK, I think. That same game also lead to Fred wanting to run another Amber game, Born to Be Kings. FATE was basically invented for that game lut of a long car ride to Lake Tahoe where (Fred and I geeked so hard that it drove his (infinitely tolerant) wife to the other car.

From that point on, things have taken a weird route, weird enough to probably merit their own post someday. But I figure that’s a decent snapshot to get a sense how the hell I ended up here.

Extra Bonus: Games I Can Remember That Have Blown Open The Top of My Head[5]

  • Over the Edge
  • Amber DRPG
  • Feng Shui
  • Fading Suns
  • Run Out The Guns
  • Everway
  • Dark Space
  • Trollbabe
  • Donjon
  • Birthright (Setting)
  • Planescape (Setting)
  • Silver Age Sentinels
  • Aria
  • Heroquest
  • Changeling (both versions)

1 – One of my great regrets is that I left the expert box, with all content, on top of the heater one day. it singed a bit, but more importantly, all my dice (my crayoned dice at that) melted.

2 – Which I then programmed. In BASIC. On my Commodore 64.

3 – Including a bootlegged French game on of the guys was translating called “Magnas Veritas” which was more fully titled “Magnas Veritas: In Nomine Satanis”, which lead to a big of cognitive dissonance for me a few years later.

4 – I did not make much money, but every payday I took the Metro to Twinbook and walked over to Dream Wizards to see what my extra cash could buy me. Over time, that made for a lot of books.

5 – List is far from comprehensive. I’ll be regretting absences all day.


Ok, so it’s a non-post-post, but I am willing to blame the complexities tied to 30 inches of snow.

But to be fair to anyone who actually reads this, if you’ve got a question you want to see me try to answer in the main blog, go ahead and ask in comments. I’ll do my level best.

The Price of Books

Writers are, unsurprisingly, good at crafting a narrative. As such, the writers have managed to steer the ship of the Amazon story much more effectively than either Amazon or Macmillain. It’s no shock that this narrative favors Macmillan – almost everything about ebook pricing is hypothetical, but amazon not selling books is a direct threat to authors. Its reasonable that they favor the side that keeps selling their books.

Unfortunately, that’s resulted in the sense that Amazon blinking was some kind of victory for authors[1], and that worries me. First and foremost, there’s a big echo chamber in effect here: the book trade has definitely convinced the book trade that this story went a certain way, but that perception is not reflected quite so fervently in the public press. Sure, there are a few op-ed pieces from authors espousing the party line, but the actual news stories are a lot less invested.

And this leads to things like the declaration of the death of the $9.99 ebook, a declaration that is, I think, a bit presumptive. I’ve said before that I’m sympathetic to the cost of ebooks being non-zero, but the fact that book nerds grasp the fine points of the pricing enough to appreciate that does not mean that knowledge is widespread[2]. Here’s an unfortunate reality: the readers who make up the ebook market are never going to be more saavy than they are today. It is currently a field full of early adopters, and that means there’s a high proportion of knowledgeable folks. If the ebook market grows, its going to grow to the people who do not give a crap about the problems of production and distribution: they are people who will look at a product and simply decide if it is too expensive or not based on its own merits.

These people are going to be hard pressed to justify spending $15 on a computer file.

And the thing is, the publishers are more ok with this than not. If the whole ebook idea were to just die, they’d mostly be ok with that – lord knows they were happy to see it happen the first time. Sure, there’s be the O’Reillys of the world who might soldier on, but for most big publishers, it’s a big unknown that threatens to disrupt their already tenuous business model. Amazon and the kindle made it necessary for them to address the market, but if they can keep it priced high enough to stay a niche market, then that works well for them.

Of course, there’s no real chance of that happening.

Book pricing doesn’t follow the same rules that many other products have. If I want to buy a book, say Gladwell’s “Blink”, then it has a price set by the publisher. I might get a better or worse deal based on how steep a discount an individual reseller offers[3] but the base price of the book is fixed. There is no secondary company offering me the same book with a different cover for a lower price tag, or another company offering me the same book with extra bells and whistles for the same price. There’s one source, and it dictates the price, without competition.[4]

So now these books are going to move to the ipad at a price set by the publisher, and it’ll be high. This’ll hurt the larger ebook market[5] and that’s going to murder the kindle in the short run. The kindle is expensive, and reasonably priced books are part of its value proposition. The iPad, on the other hand, only has ebooks as an incidental aside, so their price has no part in its value proposition. That is to say, if ebooks are $15, then I might decide not to get a kindle because the total price is too high, but that same price point is unlikely to affect my purchase of an ipad because that’s only tangential to why I’m making the purchase.

But here’s the problem: The value of ebooks is arbitrary.

Consider for a moment a copy of “Blink”. Now imagine a book of the same size filled entirely with thousands of lines of “row, Row, Row your boat”. Now, there is a _cost_ difference in producing these two books (paying the write, editor and so on), but per the echo chamber above, no one outside the book trade really gives a crap about that. For the book buyer, looking at these on the shelf, there is a value difference between these two books that he’s willing to put a price tag on, but it’s always a question what that price point will be. If you price the real book for $15 and the junk book for $0.01, the buyer will balk. The junk book may be junk, but it’s clearly worth more than a penny – clearly the difference is just markup. So you try to close that gap.

Now, there _is_ some price point at which the customer will be comfortable, but how your reach it can be rough. Remember, there’s no competition, so the market can’t really decide what your book is worth, except possibly in terms of other books (is Blink worth more or less than The Tipping Point?). The alternative is that you fix prices.

Now, publishers have been fixing prices forever, so they’re ok with this, but that old model doesn’t hold up as well online, partly because there’s greater visibility, but partly because the feedback cycle is faster. Basically, you need to set a perceived reasonable price (as Apple did with 99 cent music tracks) or else you’ll experience a race for the bottom as everyone involved moves to compete on price.

And this is why punting Amazon may ultimately hurt the publishers. The terms were not what they wanted, but Amazon had been very successfully creating a default perceived value for an ebook at 10 bucks. That seems like a terrible thing when you think you can get more than that for an ebook, but its going to look MUCH better when the price you can expect to sell for starts getting lower.

Am I confident that book prices will get driven lower than $10? Absolutely. They will get driven as low as they can while still turning a profit for the publishers[6] unless something artificially keeps them higher. Right now there are a lot of inefficiencies tied up in legacy business (y’know, actual books) but those will get trimmed down with time, technology and outsourcing and prices will reflect that[7] (again, unless they are artificially set in some fashion). Right now, book prices are something of a walled garden more than a marketplace, because the book trade wouldn’t survive in its current form in a true market.[8]

I worry that publishers are making a decision in favor of short term gain and fear of change that is, ultimately, going to hurt themselves and the book trade immeasurably. That this may mean greater opportunity for small publishers with new ideas and greater flexibility is cold comfort at best.

(Of course, the reality is that the publishers are probably already colluding to create a fixed price structure on the ipad – it’s not going to be a coincidence that their best-sellers are all identically priced – and the question is whether they can get away with it in such a visible place as out in the open on the internet?)

1 – Because authors will see so much more money under this deal…OH WAIT.

2 – Especially since the information out there is laced with a lot of self-serving misinformation.

3 – This, by the way, is part of why the “The publisher takes all the risk, the retailer exploits them!” argument is not as strong as it looks. Retailers need high margins so they can offer deep discounts. This is not a terribly reasonable model.

4 – This is, by the way, why Amazon’s complaint about Macmillan’s monopoly on their own products is not as silly as it sounds on the surface. It’s into a great choice of words simply because it was so easily twisted into a joke, but this sort of exclusivity is actually a real problem, especially if you expect prices to be rational.

5 – Though that pain may mean more opportunity for the small players, and I’m good with that.

6 – The publishers, not the authors.

7 – I don’t see that going great for authors, but I may be cynical.

8 – And there’s a lot of pain associated with that. Publishers don’t come of great in my perspective, but they also get checks to authors and put books on shelves, many of which are _not_ going to be the next best seller. While, as companies, they don’t do this out of any generosity, the actual people involved tend to be real book lovers who have chosen this business because of their passion for it, not any sense that books will make you rich. If the book marketplace were to become rational, it would kill the midlist, at least for a while. That would suck immensely, and there’s no guarantee that what would come next would be any real improvement.

Live the Fantasy (Football)

I try not to mock things that other people find fun. I don’t always succeed, but it’s a good goal. See, I figure I’m totally happy to mock things people find important, because ‘important’ isn’t really that useful a yardstick – lots of dumb things are important. But “fun” is pretty meaningful, in part because it’s sincere – people don’t talk about the things they find fun to sound cool or to impress other people[1]

That sincerity is a big deal, because it’s not obvious why people find things fun, especially things you just don’t understand. The instinct is often to find ways to justify your original idea (that the thing isn’t fun and these people are wrong in some way) and look at it strictly through that lens, but I’ve consistently found it more valuable to really try to get my head around the fun people are having because that often gives me ideas I can steal for my own fun.

So I’ve been staring at Fantasy Football. Yes, I’ve passed around the jokes. It’s D&D for people who beat up D&D players in high school. It’s nerdier than D&D ever was, it just doesn’t know it. Har har.

But, man, people play it. Lots of people. People who would laugh in your face (or at least look very pained) if you were to print up the rules for this game, put it in a box, and expect them to play. That’s amazing, and it’s something that really makes me stop and think.

Now, the obvious explanation is that fantasy sports succeed because they’re tied to something people are already passionate about (sports franchises), it’s a social object (people can talk about it[2]) and by extension it’s socially acceptable. Those are all valid points, and while I am certain they’re contributors, they are equally true about the discussion of the games themselves – there is something more that comes out of the game element of it.

Fantasy Sports still take many forms, and there are lots of variants out there, but their general shape has evolved through heavy use and revisioning[3]. In many ways, they’re a better example of “Crowdsourcing” than anything the black turtleneck crowd would put forward (though that’s become less true as it’s gotten co-opted). For all that, I’d like to point to five things fantasy sports do that might provide useful lessons for other games.

Understanding is Not Required for Decisions
The rules you need to know to play a fantasy sport are incredibly simple. You have a list of players. From that list, decide how you want to fill a team roster this week. Bam. Done.

While it might be helpful towards your final score to understand what the numbers next to someone’s name are, it’s not necessary for you to be bale to play. You could pick people at random, because you like their team, because you like the sound of their names or because your cat told you to.

Perhaps even more potently, because the score you generate is based on events yet to come (who plays and how well) then there’s often a lot of luck in the decisions you make, enough so that *any* method of selection will probably produce enough hits and misses to feel satisfying.

This means that it is incredibly easy to start playing and probably do ok.

Potential for Understanding is Bottomless
If, on the other hand, you want to really delve into the minutiae of the games, you absolutely can. There is more information (stats, news, personalities) than can ever be absorbed, and its utility as a predictive tool is questionable at best. But that’s not important. You can gravitate towards whatever level of understanding you are most comfortable with, and that will be a perfectly effective platform to play.

“Turns” are long in fantasy sports, and the window of when you need to act is fairly small. As with understanding, this supports many different levels of interest. The guy who just picks out of a hat the day before game day is taking his turn just as well as the guy who spends his week poring over ESPN looking for details.

But that also has an extra bonus: you can be playing the game even when you’re not playing the game. For a certain personality (like players of web-based games like Kingdom of Loathing) that’s huge. It’s a time-filling activity (to say nothing of fodder for discussion) and people are often desperate for that.

Cognitive Focus
It takes a fair amount of knowledge to appreciate most sports. Without it, football is just guys hitting each other, and baseball is a bunch of guys standing around in their pajamas.

The problem is that beyond a certain level of basic understanding, the potential depth of knowledge is HUGE – all the players and coaches, all their stats, all their careers.[4] The average fan is not going to have all that information.

Playing fantasy sports provides a narrow slice of that information you may want to care about – the stats and careers of the players on your roster. You can relax your brain a bit and worry less about the rest of the league, and just worry about “your guys.”[5]

Social Game is Supplemental
Like most good games, there is a technical game and a social game to fantasy sports. In this case, the social game is that of trading roster members with other players. Importantly, the Social game can _improve_ the technical game, but it is not *required*. This offers the best of both worlds – players how enjoy the social game can dive in, but more tentative players can stand back, or just dip a toe in if they’re inclined.

Using Tools
Fantasy sports are aggressive in their use of tools to make things easier. This is a good sentiment in general, but it also is interesting given how simple the actual act of playing is. If the tools were solely focuses on play, they would be small and sparse, but the reality is that they’re robust as all hell. That’s because the tools support play, not the game.

Looking at these all together, I want to call out the thread that runs through most of these[6]: letting the player find her own comfort level, and making that rewarding. This is not an idea I see a lot in most games, be they board, RP or video. The assumption of most published games is that there is a particular mode, and the player should be brought to it.

It’s not a bad assumption: the tradeoff for that expectation is that it guarantees a certain level of player investment in the game, at least in theory. Still, I can’t help but wonder what a game that takes these ideas to heart might look like.[7]

1 – Ok, they sometimes do, but not often, and you can tell. Usually it’s because they want to impress someone in particular, and I can forgive that since it’s usually under the “Trying to score” umbrella.

2 – And oh god they do. If you want to have your assumption that only geeks of various stripes drone on and on about minutiae nobody cares about from a game, hang out with some Fantasy football fans. I don’t say this to criticize the fans but rather to suggest that being a colossal dork is not something limited purely to geeks – it’s a human failing, albeit one needs an appropriate trigger.

3 – Rapid Revisioning is another great strength of this form. The rules are not terribly calcified, and there’s incentive to tune them every season. Since each season provides copious sample data, there is also enough data to base revisions on.

4 – Some people can rattle this stuff off, and I am in awe of them. It is the greatest proof I know that very few people are truly stupid, rather that people are very smart about things they actually care about, though that list may be quite short.

5 – Paradoxically, reducing interest in the sport at large serves to *increase* interest in the sport at large. Your narrow group of guys you care about give you a reason to care about games and teams you might previously have been indifferent to.

6 – But not all, I concede. Some of the lessons depend on the timeframe fantasy sports operate on, and that’s not necessarily applicable to all games. Not to say it can’t be informative – play during downtime between sessions is a surprisingly robust topic.

7 – To some extent, this is something Fred and I have kicked around a lot, leading to the initial idea of FATE as a “fractal” design. There’s an idealized game out there where character sheets trade off granularity for control, so one player might have a simple, Risus or OTE-like character sheet while another might have a vastly detailed one. As an example, imagine a World of Darkness game where my character sheet said “Ex-Soldier ********, Phone Phreak ******, Bully *****” and Fred had a fully filled out sheet. For 90% of the game, those two sheets could be used equally well with only a few rubrics in my head for handling odd cases. The advantage is that first sheet is appealing to one sort of player, but the second appeals to another. The ultimate question is how you turn those into a scale that people can find their place on.