Monthly Archives: July 2011

Legos vs Action Figures

When I was younger and just getting into RPGs, I read the hell out of the original Monster Manual, and not just for the naughty pictures. For the unfamiliar, monster entries used to be pretty short – an illustration, stat block and a very short descriptive block, often shorter than the stat block, and usually composed of a few sentences of description, and notes on special attacks and tactics.

That may sound a little dry, but I found it inspiring. Those few sentences of description were often quite colorful and suggested much more than they said. Each monster provided an invitation to flesh out the details surrounding it in your own imagination. And people did: the now-famous “ecology of…” line of articles was based almost entirely around the idea of taking that seed idea and expanding it extensively. Today’s monster books – illustrated by the fantastic work in the recent Monstrous Compendiums – come down somewhere between those two points, filling in enough detail to flesh thing sout without quite going to the extremes of writing 6 pages on the ecology of the darkmantle.

This range seems like a snapshot of one of the big questions of gaming, that of legos versus action figures. That is, should the game provide you the bits with which you can play the game in your head (legos, old monster manual) or should it provide you everything you need for the complete game (action figures, fleshed out monsters). Now, before you instinctively leap to legos as the better choice (as nerds are wont to do) I want to poin totu that while the Forgotten Realms may be an example of an action-figure style of play, so are many story games. It may seem odd to lump Fiasco in with Dungeon Crawling, but in this case they’re in the same bucket. Both provide the structure (in VASTLY different ways) rather than the parts. This, I hope, is a good illustration of why both approaches are fruitful and full of goodness. Anyone who as ever played with action figures knows there’s no shortage of imagination applied to the play, it’s just within the bounds (dare I say, creative constraints) of the form.

Hopefully that makes it clear that I don’t think the question is one of one versus the other. Both approaches have a place in gaming, and that’s good, because there are plenty of places where the distinction is hard to make. Take GURPS – the game is designed to be a lego, but any given setting book tends to be deep and rich enough to be all about the action figures. Sure, someone might deconstruct one for parts, but more likely, they’ll just mix them up (combining the G.I. Joes with the My Little Ponies, as it were). Rather, the question on my mind is what makes for a more broadly useful _product_.

Evidence points towards action figures. Fiction and structure make money, and at first glance, legos aren’t much fun for the uninitiated, but there’s a bit of a hidden trick to it. If the potential customer has something in their own imagination which they wish to capture, legos are the tool for it, and this is something that the sparse, almost accidental lego-ness of early games managed to capture. If you had an idea in mind, such as swinging a sword on adventures, then this gave you the tools to manifest that idea.

The curiosity, of course, is that those ideas came from other action figures – that is to say, fiction – as people built ideas based on wanting to play something inspired by their impressions of Lord of the Rings, Interview With a Vampire, Star Wars and anything else. On some level, that created a weird cycle of fiction –> Ideas –> Game built with legos –> Spinoff Fiction (novels, gamebooks) –> new Ideas. I admit that in this context, I become a little more patient with the infinitely-milked settings (Forgotten Realms, Star Wars Extended universe) but at the same time I cement more clearly why it’s not for me. I like my action figures, but when they become full on figurines, I’m out.

Teaching Vs. Learning Vs. Fiasco

Look, it’s just a given that Fiasco is brilliant. There’s no other game like it. That’s the baseline for discussion from my perspective. But there are some interesting discussions that flow from that, one of them being the prospect of Fiasco as a gateway game, one to draw in non-gamers.

This is an interesting proposition, and a compelling one. Fiasco has few rules to learn and is very flexible while still providing sufficient structure and rigidity to give play a direction. It has no GM so it’s dynamic is much more like the kind of game that people think of when they talk about games. It’s small, unthreatening, and as the number of playlets increases, more and more likely to have a specific implementation that appeals to a given potential player.

And yet, I am uncertain.

For all that Fiasco is quite simple, I wonder how much that simplicity is built upon a foundation of the language of RPGs. In comparison, when you read the rules to a board or card game, there’s a procedural element to it which presumes little knowledge beyond turn taking and card drawing. Most powerfully, this allows you to play games correctly without necessarily playing them well. That is to say, you can make poor decisions in a game of Monopoly or Magic and, while you may be more likely to lose as a result, the game will still proceed forward. For Fiasco (and RPGs in general), that cushion is not in place. It is entirely possible to grind a game to a halt without an understanding of what the next step can and should be.

Now, I think this is something worth remembering for all the folks who think there is only one true purpose for a GM. In many games, the GM’s most important role is to help get past those moments of freezing up and keep the game moving. Power, authority and all that are often just tools to serve that end.

To that end, many Fiasco games may well have a GM-in-all-but-name, the person who brought the book, explains the rules and so on, but then we’re talking about how _teachable_ the game is, which is subtly different from how well it can serve as a gateway.

This is not to say that I’m dismissing Fiasco as an introductory game. i think it’s a good one, and with direction and people inclined to teach, I think it’s fantastic. But I’m thinking about where it falls short with an eye on how those gaps might be filled.

Happy Fourth

I’m on the road today, so no post to speak of. Holiday weekend has been a ton of fun, but driving home probably won’t be. We’ll see if our route through the boonies saves us any hassle.

One small gaming note I will make: Since last week, I have confirmed that Ascension supports multiplayer on the ipad and iphone, and supports if very well. Well enough that I have almost a dozen games going at once. What’s more, I keep finding clever things about the interface. For example, if you double tap on a card, it zooms that card up. Normal enough. But if you swipe right or left on that zoomed image, you orate through zoomed images of other cards from that same context (like your hand or a discard pile). While less essential on the ipad, where there’s more space to touch things, this is incredibly handy on the iphone, especially if things get crowded on screen.

An IoS Find: Ascension

So, that game I talked about Tuesday, Ascension? Turns out they just rolled out an iOS version (for both ipad and iphone). It’s $5 and it’s fantastic, highly recommended.

Now, some of my enthusiasm is because it’s a great game. It’s not a CCG, so there’s no infinite booster purchasing, but the game is extensible with supplements (which are not in the app yet). Gameplay is fast and fun, and the time consuming elements (setup and scoring) are reduced to nothing with the app.

But I’m also enthused for reasons that have nothing to do with the game – this is a really well designed app, and it gives me a lot of hope for future card game apps. A few things of note:

* It works startlingly well on the iphone. That it works on the ipad is no great shock – lots of real estate after all – but I’ve played a few hands on my phone, and it’s been elegant as heck. Dealing with constructs is a little trickier, but otherwise, it worked great.

* There’s more than one way to do things. For almost every card in the game, you can use it by either double-tapping it (which zooms in to read) and tapping a button that appears next to it (which reads “Play”, “Capture” or whatever’s appropriate. However, you can also use card by dragging them to the appropriate area (play area, discard pile and so on). Either option would work just fine, but having both makes play much more smooth.

* The AI’s pretty good. Good enough that kicking it up to the medium level resulted in my ass getting kicked.

* Haven’t tried multiplayer yet, but I’m hopeful

Honestly, my only complaint is that (unlike, say, Carcassone) it’s hard to watch the AI and learn from it. I could probably accomplish this by slowing down the game (it’s in the options) but half the fun is the zippy gameplay, so I’ll take that tradeoff.

Anyway, thes developers behind this, Incinerator Studios, have another game in the pipeline, an IoS port of Summoner Wars, and if Ascension is any indication of the quality of their work, then I;m eager to see what they do next!