Monthly Archives: May 2011

The First Metric: Engagement

Ok, chewing on the list from last week, I’m not sure I’ve got a final 5, but there are definitely a few standouts as good candidates, so I want to pick one of those and drill into it a bit. The first one on my mind is one that is implicit in a few of the items on the list, but was not called out as its own thing (but probably should have been) and that’s the issue of player engagement. Phrased as a question, it would probably be “How engaged was every player at the table?”

Now, practically, what you’re really asking is “How engaged was the least engaged player?” but that sounds kind of negative phrased that way, so I’d just keep that in mind.

Anyway, none of this is very useful if we can’t make it measurable, but this is thankfully made a little bit easier by the use of a compressed scale. So, we need to decide what we mean by engagement, and what a 0, 1 or 2 means. I’m starting with this one because I think it’s probably one of the simplest ones to measure, since I think it’s probably an 80/20 split.

The largest part is participation: did the players participate in the game? While what exactly participation might entail can vary from game to game, it’s pretty easy to suss out. Look at the activities engaged in by the players at large (talking in scenes, sharing ideas, taking action in combat) and use that as the checklist for each player. As a baseline, it will be pretty easy to judge the level of participation.

Now, there’s a catch to this: it is easy to equate participation with extraversion, and we all know quiet players who are less likely to step up and participate, but that’s what they want, and that’s ok, right? Well….no. That’s the easy out. It is far to easy to attribute someone’s lack of participation to their disinterest or introversion than it is to try to figure out what’s going on and try to draw them in. I don’t want to go off on a full-fledged tangent here, since the act of drawing out reticent players is a nuanced and involved one, but the short form is that there are so many possible ways that your game is discouraging engagement (speed of play, extroverted or “overly-helpful” players, high pressure) that you can’t take a pass on this metric just because someone “is like that”.

Yes, at some point, if you’ve tried everything and really wrestled with the issue, you can write it off, but it’s pretty much on your conscience to determine when that is.

Anyway, the other element of engagement is the ephemeral moment of cool. If everyone participated, that’s well and good, but did everyone get to do something cool? Does everyone have a moment that they can take away as their moment to shine? This is, admittedly, somewhat subjective, but I don’t think it’s too hard to measure.

So, with that in mind, I figure the engagement element looks something like this:

How engaged was every player at the table?
0 – Long stretches without participation.
1 – Everyone participated
2 – Everyone participated and had a moment of cool

This one is also pretty easily flipped from the GM to the individual player, if that’s the goal. I’m not sure it is, but I’m filing that possibility in my back pocket.

Anyway, I think this is a pretty good example of the idea. The question is slightly fuzzy, but the compressed scale makes it easy to answer with minimal wiggle room. So I ask, does this make the implementation of the model any clearer?

The Other Kind Of Nerdy Stuff

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone for the fantastic feedback I got to yesterday’s question. If you commented, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider weighing in!

I’m hoping to have a new list next week, but I want to talk about a few points that have come up, both general and specific, that hopefully will illustrate my thinking in this. As with the list itself, none of these are set in stone, and I think there’s some value in having them out there.

First and foremost, the final list will be neither perfect nor comprehensive. I’m hoping it will cover a broad swath of things, but exceptions will (must!) exist to its scope. This is a liberating point, since the alternative is almost nightmarish in its complexity, but it also has a more subtle element. The simple fact is that whatever final list I settle on, it will almost certainly be both too long and too short, and it will have the wrong elements. This is just a natural function of trying to impose simplified reporting on a complex system – it’s lossy and by definition incorrect. That means that a lot of objections and counter arguments are at least as correct as whatever position I put forward because, ultimately, we’re all talking about different ways to be wrong.

This is not an argument for relativism, it just demands different rigor. I will try to make sure I have a good (and well communicated) reason for what I do, but it is entirely reasonable for someone to have different priorities which would suggest a different methodology. That is totally cool, and I’m glad they care enough to have an opinion. I absolutely agree that there are other factors to look at, and that a GM-centric perspective has profound and specific flaws. But that will never not be the case – making a choice to pick a focus is not a rejection of those facts, but a matter of acknowledging it and doing something anyway out of necessity.

Anyway, I mention all this to underscore that I find disagreement intensely useful in this process, but also to say that just because I am not swayed is not me asserting that I disagree with a position, but just that it may not fit with the goal I’m trying to accomplish.

Second, the final list needs to be short, but the route to get there should be long. A long list is not practical, just because any final list needs to be simple enough to keep in mind without excess bookkeeping. However, I want to get to that list by distilling as many ideas and perspectives as I can, in hopes that it will make the final list better.

Third, there are a few criteria for what needs to go on the list, and these are where a lot of wrongness is going to come up. First and foremost, they need to be at least reasonably specific. The goal is not to ask “How many time did you encounter an adrenaline rush in play?” because that sort of specificity is a bookkeeping nightmare. At the same time “did you have fun?” is too broad to be useful (no matter how important it is). To come back to the Apgar score, while it is a measure of the child’s health, “How healthy is the child?” is not one of the questions. The purpose of the more specific questions is to build an aggregate approximation of an answer.

This means that picking the questions will be a balancing act. They need to be concrete enough to have an answer that is either mostly objective or, if subjective, not too muddled. That’s a challenge, and it’s a big part of the fourth point.

Fourth, one of the subtle things about the Apgar score is that each element is rated very simply as 0, 1 or 2. It’s a little bit more than a Yes/No question, but still very simple. 0 is notably bad, 2 is notably good, and 1 is in the middle. A compressed scale like this strips an answer of nuance, but it has the advantage of smoothing out a lot of subjectivity by reducing a lot of border cases. Was something notably good? Give it a 2. Was it notably bad? Give it a 0. Otherwise, give it a 1. yes, absolutely, there’s a little room for waffling, but nowhere near the kind of problems and complexities that emerge if you were to ask someone to rate the experience from 1 to 10.

This simplicity of rating is another reason why you don’t want the questions to be too complex – it doesn’t tolerate “But” answers. For example, if the question is “Did you have fun?” and the player thinks “Well, the fight was awesome, but the scene in the market REALLY dragged. Guess I’ll call it a 1.” then the answer is non-informative. Ideally you want a question for each major “but” that’s likely to arise.

Lastly, I am not looking to create any new definitions or models of play. One important thing about this is that even if we end up with a good working list, it will not be definitive. I’m trying to report on actual play, and create categories to simplify that reporting, not to define it or set rules for how these are the 5 things that “make” a GM or whatever. I just want to be able to talk about tools.

Anyway, thank you again for all the feedback. I especially want to call out some of the cool links in the comments to others who have had similar thoughts, including Tim White and some folks at Story Games.

Rating the Unratable

I think I’ve mentioned before that if you haven’t read it, Atul Gawande’s Better is a great book about how things can get systematically improved. It focuses on medicine, but it’s one of those all-purpose insightful books.

Anyway, one section that really stuck with me was the Apgar score (article version here, for the curious) . For the unfamiliar, this is a rating given to babies when they’re born and a minute afterwards. It rates five things (Complexion, Pulse, Movement, Breathing and Irritability) to quickly generate a score from 0-10. In and of itself it’s not a very detailed piece of information, but it’s simple, easy to asess, easy to communicate, and generally makes an excellent shorthand for the child’s health.

Now, the specifics of the Apgar score are pretty interesting in their own right, but what’s much more interesting is positive impact it had on successful births. In an illustration of the trusim that you must measure something in order to improve it, Apgar scores gave hospitals a yardstick to measure their performance by, so they had something concrete to improve and to judge results by.

What gets me, and what brings this across to gaming for me, is that part of the success lay in the somewhat arbitrary nature of the scoring system. There are a bazillion variables at play when a baby is born, and picking those 5 and saying their the ones to score is, from a certain perspective, almost capricious. But, as with a lot of things, it seems to be one of those cases where making a good decision is a much better path than indefinite delay in trying to find the perfect solution.

So, with that in mind, I’m busting out a list of things GMs do. It’s probably a bad list, but I want to start somewhere. Honestly, I doubt we can come to something nearly as useful as the Apgar score, and even if we come up with a list, there’s a whole question of how to use it, but dammit, you have to start somewhere.

When I started on thel ist I realized that the biggest muddle I encountered was between the GM’s “Solo fun” (that is, design work) and actual play at the table. Both are important, but since I’m trying to take a practical tack on this, I chose to think in terms of how play went at the table. That is, I’m looking to rate things that the GM does in play, perhaps as a list to run through at the end of a session and see how each of these things went.

Removing those non-table elements shortened the list dramatically, but I still don’t feel it’s as solid as it could be, but here it is:

  • Playing interesting NPCs (Strong character voice)
  • Setting Presentation (how well does the world hang together?)
  • Scene setting
  • Engaging challenges (Puzzles, fights)
  • Rules mastery
  • Humor
  • Creating Emotional engagement
  • EDIT BASED ON MANY COMMENTS – Maintaining Focus/Pacing.

So what on that sucks, and what is it missing? Or is the entire methodology flawed, and the list should be entirely different?

Streamlining Snags

4e classes are interesting because, by and large, they’re pretty distinctive. There comes a point in play when you know they’re working. The Barbarian rounds a corner and becomes a damage output machine. The Warden stands his ground against an impossible foe. The Warlock kills a lot of people, really horribly. It’s the point where you really feel like the class has paid off.

It’s a weird moment and hard to pin down. For some classes it seems to work right out the gate, while others seem to depend on a bit of maturation of feats and powers for things to gel. But it kind of fascinates me because it speaks directly to the idea of what the class is and what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s also kind of important because it reveals one of the big problems with playing a “stripped down” version of 4e. The fact that the essential elements of different classes can be found in different places can make it very hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

And, in fact, it even gets more complicated than that when you start drilling into specific classes. Some classes have very different “builds” within their possibilities. Rangers are probably the most obvious of these, but really almost any split stat class (especially Clerics) have some of this. Essentials muddies this picture, of course, but as long as WOTC keeps saying it’s not a replacement, I’ll work with that. Also, honestly, there are some classes that I’m not 100% sure about what they’re supposed to feel like.

This is probably a limitation on my part, rather than a bigger issue with the game. For example, as much as I _love_ the Battlemind mechanically, I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be like. The Warden and Swordmage have some very distinctive elements that distinguish them from a Paladin or Fighter, but I don’t actually get what makes a Battlemind a Battlemind. Yes, it’s Psionic typed, but that’s not an answer in and of itself.

Now, assuming one was thinking about doing a streamlined 4e (perish the thought!) it would be perfectly reasonable to just set aside things like the Battlemind as problem cases, but that sort of saps the fun out of the whole process.

So I put this out there – Can anyone make a pitch to me about what the essential nature of the Battlemind (or, really, any Psionic class) is? And similarly I ask, are there any other classes that people have trouble seeing the shape of?

Ease Vs. Simplicity

So, here’s the assertion I made on Twitter yesterday, for all to see: 4e is easier for me to run than Risus. Risus is just abut the simplest RPG I know that I still consider functional, so this is a specific example of a generalization, that 4e is the easiest game for me to GM.

Obviously, that’s stupid.

The reality is that the rules of Risus are shorter than the blog post is going to be. In contrast, 4e is a MASSIVE amount of rules content to be read, absorbed and implemented. How could 4e be easier?

So, first and foremost let’s set aside how easy or hard the system is to learn. That may impact adoption, but it doesn’t impact how much work it is to run. 4e Still has lots of rules, but let’s not worry about how long it takes to read them.

Similarly, let’s set aside skill and just assume a high level of rules familiarity, whether it be with Risus, 4e or whatever game you are comparing it to in your head. This doesn’t mean having all the rules in brain, but rather that you have enough rules that rules questions don’t negatively impact play. Whether you pull this off through knowledge or technique doesn’t really matter. Plus, frankly, if I were talking about the role of system mastery, I’d probably be more inclined towards games I wrote.

So here’s the thing – Risus is unquestionably _simpler_ than 4e. That means that a lot of tasks (adjudication, resolution and bookkeeping) are a lot faster and have fewer moving parts. A fight in Risus can be finished in a matter of minutes while the same fight in 4e might take an hour or more. At first blush, that seems like a strike against D&D, but take a moment to zoom back to the large question, that of effort.

Let’s take as our baseline that great adventuring staple, the dungeon crawl. It is, I hope, a given that 4e is pretty well designed for this sort of game, so I don’t need to do much for it. In contrast, Risus is going make for an interesting time with the same dungeon because, frankly, it will be a hell of a lot more boring. Fights in Risus are not interesting in and of themselves – they’re interesting because of the context, the stakes, and the player investment in the situation. Risus is just a resolution layer on top of those things, and as a result you’ll find that Risus dungeon crawls tend to be much shorter than those in 4e.

From a certain perspective, that remains a great argument in favor of Risus, but again, let’s zoom back to what’s really going on. I, as a person, want to create an entertaining experience for my friends for the next, say, three to four hours, but I’m tired and drained (and maybe old and drunk) so I’m not really on my game. This is where things start going wrong. The apparent ease of Risus starts becoming a burden because all that speed, efficiency and focus means more work for me.

In contrast, consider the 4e Game. If I must do prep, it’s about as complicated as ordering dinner (Go to DDI, find some monsters of the right level, print and go). It’s more work to dig out the minis and maps than it is to come up with fodder for 2 or 3 encounters, and the rub is that 2 or 3 encounters is, in 4e, a pretty full session. 4e fills the time, and for the tired, lazy GM, that’s a godsend.

Now, there are lots of other games with long combats, some with simpler rules than 4e, so what makes 4e stand out? Honestly, it’s that once the fight starts, I can lean on the system to do a lot of the things the GM would normally have to do to keep a fight interesting. Pacing, balance, spotlight, dynamism – these all will flow naturally in a 4e fight, even in one designed with half a brain.

In short, 4e provides the greatest payout for the least amount of work.

But (and of course there’s a but) don’t draw too many conclusions from that. It doesn’t mean, for example, that 4e offers the most bang for your buck, at least in part because the work to payoff ratio drops off almost immediately. The strength of te infrastructure becomes something you eventually have to work against to achieve your goal.

There is a point (for me) where putting the same effort into a Risus game and a 4e game produces a better Risus game, but that point is definitely somewhere past the brain-dead, bone tired state where I really wish I was playing 4e because it would make my life much easier.

Kings Landing vs. Gloomwrought

I’ve been enjoying the hell out of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and predictably, it makes me want to run a game in that style. Put a pin in that.

I also just got the Shadowfell boxed set, primarily because it promised to have a lot more details about Gloomwrought, a city in the Shadowfell. For non 4e Folks, the Shadowfell is the dark shadow of the world, another dimension that lies close to death. It’s not necessarily evil so much as a place that lots of bad things call home. Anyway, the little bit of information we got about Gloomwrought in the Manual of the Planes had intrigued me enough to consider using it as a base for a game, and I am always a sucker for city books, so I was pretty much a guaranteed sale.

It’s pretty good. The box itself is a little disappointing since it’s not really designed for storage (and especially suffers in contrast to the fantastic boxes used for the Essentials line) but I recognize that there was almost certainly a cost component to that. It’s not amazing, and if you’re not already interested in some Shadowfell play, I’m not sure I could really recommend it, but if you’re gung ho to get some shadowy heroics on (almost as if there were a book about that) then it’s a good resource.

The biggest thing I can say about it is that it’s very much a 4e product, almost to an extreme. This isn’t a criticism – it’s is a 4e products after all – but it’s an observation that was useful to me in putting my finger on what I felt was missing. To boil it down to a single point, it’s the food.

Gloomwrought is on a dark plane of near-death, surrounded by miles of deadly swamp, on the coast of a dark and dangerous sea. From a purely practical perspective, it has no means of sustaining a population, yet it does. Now, an observation like this tends to elicit two big responses, so let me get ahead of those.

1. That’s boring.
Yes, I suppose it is. Logistics is dull stuff, especially when we’re talking about what is essentially a magical city in a magical world in a magical game. It is not exactly cheating to say “It’s magic” and leave it at that. The purpose of the city is, after all, just to provide a flavorful backdrop to the set pieces that make for fun and engaging 4e play. To this I say, yes, completely, and that’s why I say it’s a very 4e sort of product. It is a product of game logic, and that’s really cool so long as that’s your priority.

2. You just need to be creative.
That is to say, the fact that it’s not mentioned does not mean it can’t be done. And yes, any GM worth her salt can fill this gap if she decides that it’s important. Gloomwrought has a lot of interdimensional traffic, so that allows a certain amount of handwavium. I admit that’s the most boring answer, and in my mind I totally demand that Gloomwrought have a robust whaling (sort of) industry. The idea of the crews of small boats to capture, kill and render the kinds of things that live at the bottom of the seas of the Shadowfell is compelling as hell to me. And I’m sure other folks have other ideas that excite them. I am not asserting that it can’t be done, I’m just saying it’s not a priority in the product.

Purely as a matter of taste, I like to know where the food comes from. This is where the Game of Thrones thing comes back, and which may be the most essential difference between episodic/setpiece play and contextual play is where the problems of play come from. In a contextual game (which may or may not be a sandbox), the way the world works is the engine of events. This requires a lot of work and a lot of stuff that’s just never going to come up at the table, and it can often get quite terrible when the game is all about showing off the GM’s creation. 4e (and episodic play in general) avoids a lot of these potential problems by skipping over them entirely, and that’s a good and clever design. But if you actually want to risk those problems because, to your mind, the payout is Game of Thrones, then you need to get down in the mud.

Now, as an aside, this has nothing to do with the level of fantasy. Sigil (the central city of Planescape) was far more wahoo than Gloomwrought, but it _also_ had very specific constraints on where things like food and water came from, constraints that could impact play and even became important to published material. Exalted is chock ful of super magical stuff in a world where sewage still needs to go somewhere. At the same time, Lankhmar (one of my favorite cities of fantasy) had only what politics, geography and infrastructure were needed for the current adventure of Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. The issue is not one of magic, it’s one of narrative.

Which is why, btw, if you hear this as a condemnation of Gloomwrought, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. That I would not play it as written is a function of _my_ taste, and the distinction between contextual play and setpieces is not about one being better than the other, it’s about recognizing which you, as a player and a GM, might enjoy more or less. If you want one and get the other, you’re going to get frustrated. And yes, it ties into your game choice. Any game can be played any way, but 4e’s strengths are all about how well it handles episodic play. In a 4e game, it doesn’t need to matter where the food comes from, and that’s good because a lot of players don’t care either.

All of which is to say, the better you understand what you want, the more useful products like Gloomwrought will be to you. Knowing what it _doesn’t_ do for me is incredibly useful if I decide to use it, because I know where to start cutting (or adding).

The Power of Precision

I am a terrible typist. My touch typing is bad enough that I still look at the keyboard most of the time just to speed things up, and the result is a cavalcade of stupid editing mistakes that hurt my writing in very concrete ways. This is not news to me – when I MUSHed, there was never any way I could secretly play a character because sooner or later my flipper typing would give me away. I never stressed about it too much. Friends and acquaintances can quickly pick up that I am not actually the literary troglodyte that my text sometimes painted a picture of. I could dismiss it as a small thing, and if it really bothered someone, that was their problem, not mine.

This was a very stupid position.

Obviously, now that I am now cranking out this blog 5 days a week I need to address the reality that every post is potentially someone’s first exposure to me. That’s a change in situation that demands that I really pay attention to this problem, but as any regular reader knows, I clearly haven’t. I mean, it’s better than my MUSHing days, but it’s still pretty embarassing at times. That’s bad for me, and bad for anyone I want to reach, and the only way it’s going to change is if I make the effort, accept the slog of improving my touch typing and – perhaps most importantly – really understand why I need to do this.

See, the reality is that none of us have enough time. Yes, sure, we waste some of it, but we fill it up all the same. Meanwhile, we’re constantly bombarded with things demanding our attention, some important, some trivial. We develop tricks and tools for dealing with this barrage, and the people who are most successful at grabbing a slice of our time are the ones who understand that the narrow end of the wedge needs to be polished to such a shine that it catches our eye. We develop impressions almost immediately, and we’re actively looking for reasons to dismiss any given distraction. Too long? Bad format? Obvious typos? Give us an excuse and we’ll dump your brilliant idea in the dustbin.

This is unfair, but it is also life.

There are ways to address this. If you are in a position to understand and control people’s exposure to your idea (such as in a 30 second add), then you can really focus on that. But if you have a bigger idea (such as a blog post or a game) then there’s no way to tell which part is going to make an impression. That’s the basic unfairness – if you want people to spend even a little of their time on you, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time on making that possible.

It’s easy to rail against this, to decry it as focusing on trivialities and demand to be judged on the merits of your ideas or content. And, hey, sometimes that happens, especially with people who already like you (*cough*closedsystem*cough*), but don’t bet on it.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. This is something you can use to your advantage, so long as you’re willing to put in some work. As noted above, there are times when you can control which snippet someone is going to see, and those situations are powerful. One of the most potent tools you can use in this situation is the question.

I think we’ve all been in the situation where we’ve been asked for “feedback” and handed someone’s 50 pages of text. We might like this person and mean well by them, but that’s a lot of work and a very fuzzy goal. Even if I read the text and provide comments, there’s a real risk that it won’t be satisfying to either of us. But imagine that the requester had a single question. This doesn’t reduce the amount of effort I must put forward (I still have to read a lot), but it makes me much more likely to do it because the task is now discrete. I know what I’m doing, and I will know when I’m done. This makes me MUCH more likely to actually do it.

So put that trick in your back pocket for next time you’re looking for help. Ask yourself: if you could get the answer to just one question from this guy, what would it be? The world is full of people who want to help you out, but who are also struggling with their own lives and schedules. Make it easier for them to help you by making things as clear as possible. Even if they don’t surprise you with more than you ask for, you greatly increase your chances of getting what you need.

All you need to do is figure out what that is.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Unrelated to anything in today’s post: Chuck Wendig’s Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey goes on sale today. Because the universe has a sense of humor, Chuck’s a little distracted today by the arrival of something even better than a book, his first kid. He’s a fantastic writer (and, duh, you should buy the book) but he’s going to be an even better dad, so I want to wish him all the luck in the world with both of these heroic endeavors.

Science of Sub-Genres

Ok, so given that it’s hard for gamers to broadly define what sci-fi is, it’s worth calling out a pair of sub-genres which have managed to escape this problem.

First off, Cyberpunk is recognizably its own thing. While it has many influences, and even a few flagships of its own, the idea has never cemented into a single vision. There are trappings which recur (the net, cyberware, corporations, suburban visions of urbanism and such) but exceptions also abound, especially where the boundary between cyberpunk and “near future sci-fi” gets fuzzy. What’s curious about Cyberpunk is that I think it’s benefitted a lot from competing yet overlapping visions. This is as true of the source material (say, Gibson vs. Sterling) as it is of the gaming material (Cyberpunk 2020 vs Shadowrun, say). Where the split between Star Wars and Star Trek leaves only a small amount of overlap, cyberpunk material swims in the same pool, but it’s a varied enough pool that it’s not disruptive when a specific example reveals the thing that makes it different (like biotech, aliens or magic). This is kind of cool, and it explains why an idea which is basically a past vision of the future remains so potent for us.

The second big genre is military sci fi. In books, this is a huge swath of stuff, and it has lots of recurring elements. There’s actually less gear porn than you’d expect, but also a lot more politics. If there’s any one thing that keeps military sci-fi from being coherent it’s that the particular ethos that the specific tactical genius of that particular series endorses is such a moving target. The weird thing, however, is that this is not something that’s made a lot of transition into gaming, which seems odd, because the trappings are definitely a good match.

I think there are two big factors at work here. First, if this is your genre, there’s a god chance that you can just play GURPS and be happy with it. There are a lot of assumptions baked into that statement, but I think there’s more than a little truth to it.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I have very rarely seen military sci-fi structured in a way that I would consider group friendly. The role of the protagonist – usually a military genius isolated and unrecognized because of [shortcoming that is a problem in the setting but which we, the reader, think should not be held against them] – is also the role of commander. Other characters might be important, but they must either be subordinate (bodyguards, soldiers and the like) or outside of the world that important things happen in (love interests and politicians, mostly). Not to say you can’t come up with a group for play in many of these settings – it’s easy to do – but doing so requires you do something different than follow the normal shape of the fiction.

I should note, I’m sure there is some military sci-fi out there that doesn’t follow this model – it’s just that I’ve seen it so often that I kind of view it as baked in. If you’ve got a counter-example, then run it through this metric. How many strong relationships to characters have to people other than the main character, and how static are those? There will always be some – people have families and the occasional romance – but they aren’t particularly robust or fiction-driving, at least beyond their establishment. This is not a criticism of these books – I loves me some Vorkosigan – but just an observation on how they’re structured.

Now, as I thought about these things, it occurs to me that there’s a third sub-genre worth noting because it’s possible that it won’t be overwhelmed by its media, and that is of course the small, diverse ship crew working to get by. This is Firefly, certainly, and it’s a large swath of Traveller, and it’s going to be a big part of Bulldogs too, an dit probably needs a pithy name. It’s is an oddball because, to be honest, if there are books about this then I have not read them (and I’ll happily take suggestions). Maybe that means it’s not really even a sub-genre, it’s just a stump. Maybe it really just is the “Firefly” genre and that’s all there is to it. I honestly can’t tell from this vantage point, but it will be curious to see if this grows into its own thing, or if it’s just a cul de sac.

Flagship Sci Fi

Brennan Taylor just announced the kickstarter for Bulldogs, his Fate based RPG of kick ass sci fi. It’s for play in the Firefly kind of mode but with broader Sci-fi trappings. The best description I’ve seen to date is “The Han Solo RPG.” Fred’s been doing layout, so I’ve had the occasional illicit peek, and it looks fantastic (no surprise there) but it’s also going to be really interesting from a rules perspective. Brennan’s done some great things with ships and tech, but I’m most excited by what he’s done with the presentation of skills – something I intend to steal shamelessly down the line!

Anyway, I was happy to throw some money into that particular hat, but it also got me thinking. This is going to be the third big sci-fi title rolled out under Fate (the others being Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora). This is kind of interesting to me, especially in the context of sci-fi rpgs in general – specifically in terms of the relative lack of them. As delighted as I am with these games, I kind of wonder why it is that sci fi and fantasy follow such different paths in gaming.

The most obvious answer is that there’s never been a flagship sci-fi game the way that D&D was for fantasy[1] (and which, arguably, Vampire was for modern fantasy/horror), so the market’s never really had the opportunity to get traction. I think there’s something to that, but at the same time it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation – asking why there’s never been a sci-fi RPG flagship product brings us back to the first question.

It’s also possible to look to the roots of gaming, wargaming. Fantasy wargaming, as an extension of historical wargaming, was focused on individual troops in a way that made it a reasonable step to give them names and send them on adventures. Sci Fi wargaming has some of that, but that focus must be shared with vehicles (robots and spaceships) so the impetus went in a different direction. And, indeed, I can think of many flagship sci fi war-games, so it seems there may be something to this.

The problem is that if this were completely the case, I wouldn’t imagine we’d see any really successful sci-fi RPGs, yet we have: Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly have all put up big numbers at one time or another. So why hasn’t that meant more for sci-fi in general?

My hunch, and I clearly label it as such, points to the fact that these are all licensed products with a passionate fan base. Fantasy has similar iconic IP – Tolkien most obviously, but Howard, Lieber, Vance and others all merit mention, and their fingerprints are all over D&D. But, and this is critical, D&D is not a Tolkien RPG. It’s derivative as all hell, but that’s part of its charm. I wonder sometimes if Sci-Fi is less tolerant of knockoffs, especially in regards to Star Wars & Star Trek. They have such vast canons (layers of canons, even) that writing something derivative raises the question of why you left the core IP in the first place. A game that “rips off” either IP would be derided.

It’s with this in mind that I think a lot of the big successes have done little to help Sci-Fi RPGs as a whole. Firefly is not quite as bad, but the enthusiasm of its fans is a little volatile. Heck, I think a lot of what Fading Suns did right was derive from material that was popular but broadly unavailable for RPGs (specifically, Dune and Warhammer 40k) so there was less of this culture clash.

This problem is not just one for RPGs, but a tough part of the genre as well. If you ask what “Fantasy” is, there’s an easy stereotype to point to (Tolkien) and finer distinctions are left to the nerds[2]. If you ask the same about Sci Fi, it’s a lot fuzzier. Star Wars? Star Trek? Knight Rider? Lost in Space? Flash Gordon? Buck Rogers? The Foundation? Dune? Master Chief? Lots of good stuff, but there are so many icons that even the non-nerds mix them up. In that context, asking “What is a Sci Fi game?” introduces similar confusion.

Which is why, I suspect, that the fragmenting of game publishing is probably good for Sci Fi. It’s got a lot of voices that haven’t been served, and in this day and age, it’s good to see them get a chance.

There are, by the way, at least two glaring omissions in my thesis which I’ll get to tomorrow when I talk about Military Sci Fi and Cyberpunk.

[back] 1 – Some people might argue that Traveller was that game. I will concede that it’s important and iconic, but I would be hard pressed to suggest that it created a broader market for things that weren’t Traveller.

[back]2 – Specifically, the nerds who are indignant that I did not say “Howard”

The Root of Some Evil

I don’t much like the economy in 4e.

Now, it’s important to note that the 4e economy does -exactly- what it’s supposed to. Money (treasure in general) is an alternate reward system which, unlike XP, is fairly fungible but is still bounded by the general progression of things. That is to say, money is really just a system for maintaining gear, and gear is an essential part of a 4e character, so money is really ust another stat. As an abstraction, it works very well for 4e’s purposes. It’s neat, tidy and very efficient.

The problem is that, like my history, I like my economics to be kind of sloppy. It’s very much a subjective thing, but to me it’s an essential part of a living-breathing world. But doing that in games is tricky.

The first complication is that there are really two problems, and they need to be handled differently. The first is, curiously, too much money. 4e keeps this in check by keeping money fairly regimented and by guaranteeing that the increase in costs as you level up (as well as a few intentionally inefficient transactions hardcoded into the system) keeps you from stockpiling cash to get vastly superior gear, and that’s kind of a shame because it removes a lot of other options. Older versions of D&D had very specific (and to my mind, quite fun) rules for what you could do with that money, the big one being to build strongholds, forts and such. While it might be a little silly to get excited about buying imaginary real estate, I have to admit that I spent a lot of time pricing out castles in the old DMG, and it was a lot of fun.

The specifics of how the money gets spent aren’t hugely important – castle rules are neat, but they’re chrome – but the underlying idea is an important one: large amounts of money impact could be used to impact the setting. Maybe the impact was that you bought a town, maybe it was that Danny ocean was coming after your million GP hoard, maybe it was a big tax bill. Money was part of the world, and 4e’s tidy solution removes that, and you really don’t want to mess with it. Money is balanced as tightly as XP in 4e, and letting players save up to buy castles can wreak havoc when they decide to spend the money on gear.

The second complication is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s hard for 4e characters to be convincingly broke, because “broke” and “Encased in arcane armor of mithril and cold iron” don’t really go hand in hand. Now, while the too much money issue is something of a setting concern, too little money is a flavor one. I admit that I come from a school of Rolemaster and Fritz Leiber, where fighting dangerous things for questionable rewards is something people do because they can’t pay a bar tab, or because the alternative is getting a real job. Desperation is easy to achieve with a tight-fisted GM and a greedy world, but it’s a tonal shift that not every table is going to enjoy.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. 4e’s system also saves us all from adventuring parties who go through dungeons like locusts, looking to steal every piece of furniture and wall fixture because there’s money to be made. You laugh, but to every DM who’s ever had to calculate the value of 76 torch brackets, this change is a genuine relief. Just feel obliged to mention the upside there. It’s also possible to capture a lot of what I’m talking about by bypassing the economy entirely – strongholds can be won through play rather than bought, treasures can be intrinsically valuable rather than valuable for their cash, and desperation is easy to achieve when no one is particularly interested in buying your fancy pants armor and you only have a few days of food left.

That is to say, each specific issue can be addressed in turn, but the net result always leaves me cold. I like money to be meaningful, if only so that the greed of NPCs feels like something reasonable. This does not mean every game needs to be about scraping together a few copper to eat. Rather, it means that even in games of kings and princes, Shakespeare gotta get paid.

Bottom line, there’s no right answer to this. 4e’s system works, and I pick it out only because it’s economy is vastly better thought through than most other games. But I wonder what the role of money is in your game: Is it part of the world, part of your character, or just a means of keeping score?