Monthly Archives: April 2010

Who Can Resist Lists?

Someone was talking about people’s lists of top ten worst RPGs. That prospect didn’t appeal to me, but I admit that I have a fondness for lists, so I thought I’d take the idea and turn it into something a little more productive. Thus, I present the top ten most educational RPGs (in a bad way).
10 Most Educational RPGs (In a bad way)
1. Secrets of Zir’an
This was a pretty awesome game. A pretty solid, non d20 system with some genuinely clever mechanics. It had a setting that was full of airships and final fantasy elements and other fun things. But an interesting printing idea which should have put subtle silver decoration behind the text ended up being printed so strongly as to render large portions of the text unreadable.
The Lesson: A printer’s proof is the best investment you can make in publishing your game.
2. Everway
Everway was a brilliant game, but it was best described as requiring that you “pack Jonathan Tweet in each box.” Produced by Wizards of the Coast, it was very much NOT D&D. A fantasy game with minimal setting and a notable absence of European influence, it was full of interesting hippie ideas like diceless resolution, inspirational cards. It was fantastic and critically acclaimed, but it was just a bit too “out there” for the target audience.
The Lesson: All the production value and distribution in the world won’t help if you go too far afield from your audience’s expectations.
3. Aria
Aria is a game full of interesting ideas about building cultures and generational play. Even outside of the broad strokes, there were clever little tricks to it, like the idea of “normal” stats as the ones that the character has not bought. However, it was written in a painfully academic style, and it completely reinvented the entire terminology of gaming in an intensely overwrought fashion (it wasn’t a game, it was the Canticle of the Monomyth). The use of jargon is so thick and painful that it’s almost unreadable.
The Lesson: Try not to reinvent all the wheels at once.
4. Amber DRPG
I love the Amber DRPG, and the lessons it teaches are subtle, especially because they are often taught by showing you the wrong thing so profoundly that the correction is goes in useful directions. Most notably, the game is a giant manual on how to gracefully and elegantly screw your players over as hard as possible for fun. This is, in fact, incredibly useful to know how to do, but the adversarial posture it promotes with it is outright mean spirited.
The Lesson: The lessons you teach go deeper than the rules of the game.
5. Nobilis 1e
Nobilis was brilliant but, to put is simply, utterly incomprehensible. If you’ve read second edition, and thought it was kind of trippy, I promise you it had nothing on the first edition.
The Lesson: The changes from first to second edition (besides layout) are almost all a result of a profound editing job. Bruce Baugh deserves a medal for the editing job he did in producing second edition. It is probably the clearest example of the value of a good editor.
6. Hunter: The Reckoning
Hunter was a nicely subdued game of fairly underpowered good guys trying to hold the line against the much bigger, scarier World of Darkness, or at least that’s what it was if you read the books. If you looked at the art, it was a game of huge guns, explosions, tattoos and boobs. This discrepancy was a little jarring, to say the least.
The Lesson: Art direction is really that important.
7. Gamma World 6th
Ignore the naysayers. This was a genuinely awesome, brilliant post-apocalyptic game that would have been broadly recognized as such if it had been called something other than Gamma World. To fans, GW is a game of metal bending rabbits, double brains and general wahoo weirdness. GW6 was a serious, thoughtful, often quite disturbing study of post-apocalyptic play, but that’s not what people wanted.
The Lesson: If existing expectations of what something should look like are passionately held, defying those expectations is risky at best, no matter how good the product.
8. Deleria (Not Delerium – I should have checked my bookshelf)
This was the right game at the right time. It came out just as Urban Fantasy was starting to experience a big resurgence. It promised something that felt like the World of Darkness, only through a lens of light, color, music and beauty. It had fantastic art, neat ideas, and it’s utterly unreadable (Edit: To be fair: Much of the fiction is just fine – it’s the rules that totally tripped me). It is really clear that it makes sense to the writer, but that personal understanding did not translate into something broadly approachable.
The Lesson: Write for yourself first, but don’t let your passion interfere with clarity.
9. Marvel Super Heroes
This is the recent one, which used stones as its diceless resolution mechanism. It did decently well, was kind of fun and playable, and all in all was a good game, and it died on the vine because it’s sales – while just fine for an RPG – were piss poor for a comic book (the yardstick its publishers were using).
The Lesson: RPG success is not that big in the grand scheme of things.
10. Most Licensed Games
Too many possible targets to pick only one, (and I have ulterior motives in being a little diplomatic on this) so I’ll just cut right to the lesson.
The Lesson: A generic game is almost always the wrong choice for a licensed product. The same licence that attracts and excites players creates an expectation for the game. The game needs to reflect the things that make the license exciting.

Weapons and 4E

Going to be nose to the grindstone this month, so odds are good that April is going to be full of fairly sparse posts. I’m still committed to writing every weekday, but my available time is going to finally force me to the kind of brevity I’ve been trying (and failing) to deliver.
So, today here’s a small trick for 4e. By now, everyone knows that you can get a huge amount of mileage out of the existing material by reskinning monsters.[1] Similarly, it’s not terribly hard to reskin races, powers or many other elements of the game. Because the mechanics are the bedrock of the game, you can make any change you want to the game provided you keep the mechanics unchanged.
So with that in mind, let me propose one fairly drastic reskinning: weapons.
Obviously, it’s pretty easy to just invent new weapons that use the stats of existing weapons, but which look and feel different. I’m thinking of something a bit more profound: you can replace weapons entirely with weapon styles.
The idea of weapon styles is pretty simple: you describe them in terms of their color – dirty fighting, martial arts, schools of combat or anything else that seems appropriate. When you do, pick a particular weapon, and use those stats to represent the style. Whatever weapon they use, they’ll use the stats of their base weapon.
For Example: The Pirate Style is based off the Rapier (D8/+3, Light Blade) and covers the range of pirate weapons: cutlasses, knives, hooks and belaying pins. Any time the character who is proficient in this style uses one of those weapons, it uses the stats of a rapier.
There are as many potential styles as there are weapons, and a character can use any style that uses the stats of a weapon he’s proficient in.[2]
One of the real virtues of a system like this is that it allows a lot of diversity in a game where there is more uniformity of weapons (think Samurai, Roman or Martial Arts stuff) because it still allows a wide range of fighting. Plus, in terms of sheer fun, you get players able to pick the weapon they think looks most cool for their character (or best suits their mini) without stressing about the right weapon being one they don’t like.[3] To my mind it also does a nice job of underscoring that it’s the warrior that’s dangerous, not the weapon.
Handling Special Cases
Dual Weapons – So you have a style in each hand. So long as that style is valid in the off hand, so be it.
Rogues & Daggers (and feats) – If a bonus applies to a weapon, it applies to the style based on the weapon.[4]
Magic Weapons – Given that magic weapon abilities are just layered on top of the weapon stats, there should be no real problems with that.[5]
Changing Styles – An interesting question: Can the character change styles midfight? I would totally say “yes” and just make the action equivalent to drawing a new weapon.
Kung Fu – Yes, you could do this to make an entirely martial arts game. Yes, that would be awesome. Yes that would also kind of undercut the monk. In my mind, that is too bad for the monk.
1- For the unfamiliar, this means using the stats of a monster but changing its description entirely to suit your needs. You need creepy shadow cultists? Use the Displacer Beast’s abilities, and just describe the attacks as bolts of shadow or something similar. If you’re not doing this, you’ll be amazed to see how much easier it makes the GM’s life.

2 – This means that characters can swap pretty freely among simple and martial weapons, and most of the interesting stuff is in the domain of Exotic Weapon Proficiencies

3 – That, by the way, reveals the really simple way to do this. When a character grabs a weapon, he picks its stats from anything of the same category. You want your dwarf to have an axe but with longsword stats? Done. You pick up an exotic weapon proficiency for your staff fighter and make staff stats match Bastard Sword stats? Done.

4 – Yes, this means dwarves and elves and other folks with those cool racial weapons get a little more flexibility, but honestly, they’re already pretty twinky.

5 – A more ambitious model might be to tie the magic to the style (which is to say, to tie it to the character, so that the character learns “+2 Flaming” and anything he picks up bursts into flame and gets a +2 bonus. Instead of finding new weapons, he finds the runes to let him learn new “magical styles”) but that’s the tip of a MUCH bigger iceberg.


Because I am a living cliche, I’m writing this from a Starbucks. No wifi but I’ll do a little dance to get this onto my phone and then onto the blog. It’s cumbersome, but I can live with it. I’m lucky to have a Starbucks close enough to my mechanic’s that I have a place to wait until my car is ready. Anyway that’s neither here nor there.

I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender the other day, and how it plays into my unified theory of skill levels. See, as much as we in RPGs like to have very finely graded levels of distinction between levels of ability, fiction tends to work in a slightly different way. Look at almost any movie or TV show and you’ll see that competence (usually expressed in terms of kung fu or other fighting skills) breaks down into broad tiers. (I’ve touched on this thought before, but it’s one I keep coming back to, for good reason.)

At the top is the Supreme Badass. Not every story has one of these, and if it does, they are more likely to be a plot device than anything else. This is reserved for Old Masters and Immortal Generals and the like – they simply are so good that they can’t lose a fair fight (that’s an important distinction BTW). If this character is a protagonist, then the story is NOT about them fighting, though it may appear to be.

Next down is the Badass. Practically speaking, he can win every fight he’s in (within the reasonable bounds of genre) and fighting is his thing. Even if everyone else can fight, this guy stands out as THE warrior. It is rare that there be more than two of these in any story (one pro and one anti).

Next down are the Ass Kickers. These folks are not quite up to the badasses level but they can see it from here. There aren’t a lot of these, but there are enough that they’re recognizable. In term sof iconography, they are usually recognizable by their distinctive look. Even if they are members of a group, their uniform will usually be distinctive in some way.

Below that are the Warriors[1]. They’re trained , and they’re better than the average mook, but they’re not scary. In fiction, these guys generally represent special forces, and are often found in groups in similar (but distinctive) uniforms, such as musketeers, royal guards, templars and so on.

Below them are the Soldiers. These are rank and file fighting guys of entirely adequate skill. They tend to be faceless combatants[2].

Below them are Civilians, who might make a good mob or even be dangerous under a skilled leader, but aren’t too dangerous.

Least of all are the Incompetents, those who are actively BAD in a fight. Cowards and comic relief tend to fall into this category.

Now, what’s interesting is that this tiering resolves a lot of conflicts by itself: for the most part the guy in the next tier up is going to win the fight handily. Circumstances (injury, inspiration and so on) might temporarily shift tiers, but only so much. If someone is a tier above you, then you might be able to fight them fairly on the best day of your life, but you couldn’t guarantee a victory unless it was, perhaps, also the worst day of their life.

RPG-heads can probably see the mechanic there. It may be possible to increase your tier by one step, but that would be the limit. However, it can almost certainly be decreased by multiple steps by appropriate circumstances (like injury).

Given that framework, the interesting fights are the ones that take place within a tier (and sometimes between characters within a tier of each other). Why is that important? Well, consider this: historically, RPGs are built around the idea of a fair fight (as established by D&D). Numerous rules (sweeping, mooks and so on) have been introduced over the years to try to make these fights work more like they do in fiction, but a disconnect has remained: most fights in fiction are pretty fast, with a handful of exceptions when dramatically appropriate. A model like this gives good guidelines for which fights can be simply breezed past, and which should be zoomed in on.[3]

More broadly this model can be applied to answer one of th emost important questions of running a game: when shouldn’t you roll? In most other situations, like the use of skills we have some familiarity with, we can usually eyeball the situation and determine that we don’t need to go to dice. Combat and other circumstances we cannot identify with so easily tend to default to the dice, and that’s not always the right choice. A simple rubric like this can really help address this.

This will absolutely not work for every game. 4E, for example, should ALWAYS go to the dice for a fight because that’s why you’re playing 4E in the first place: the fights are awesome. 4E also assumes everyone is roughly equal in terms of badassness, just with different roles. A game like this assumes discrepancies between characters.

Those discrepancies also point to the other things a system like this requires. If it’s all on a single axis, this model kind of sucks. It requires multiple axes and different ways for characters to excel. This can be a simple as the Amber DRPG’s four stats or as nuanced as any skill system you can think of.[4]

What’s frustrating is that many games fit this model descriptively, but mechanically fall short. While there aren’t a lot of steps to this ladder, they are very far apart in terms of effect – much further apart than a small number of dice might suggest. [5]

Oy, ok, car’s almost ready. This is obviously, only one edge of a larger thought, but I wanted to lay it out there so I have some context for future noodling

1 – Sometimes there is an “Elite Warriors” tier over this one if the fiction is especially fighty, or if you have multiple elite groups that need distinction, like musketeers vs. cardinal’s guards.

2- Occasionally fiction respects the power of numbers to overcome a skill difference, but in more action-oriented genres, raw numbers rarely matter. Mechanically that means one of two things: in a “realistic” genre, superior numbers result in a tier bump. In more cinematic genres, the group produces a leader (or similar figure, like “The Big Guy”) who fights at the next tier up. The net result is the same, but the difference in color is important.

3 – Another genre decision is whether you only do fights at the same tier, or if you do fights in adjacent tiers as well. There’s a philosophical question to this as well as a mechanical one – what does fighting an underdog look like? For heroes fighting an underdog is usually a sure thing but may cost time or resources, but it might feel pointless. But when heroes _are_ the underdog, they totally want a shot at the guy. How you want to handle that suggests a lot about your game.

4 – In fact, this system is a great litmus test for any skill system. If you can’t imagine these kinds of tiers within a skill, reconsider whether that skill should be on the list or if perhaps it should be rolled into another skill where you can imagine it.

5 – Fudge actually handles this decently well, but Fate less so. Aspects wreak holy havoc with this model, at least as presented in SOTC. But that’s not the only way to handle aspects.

Useful Stuff for DFRPG

So, I want to thank everyone for the kind comments yesterday, and I want to underscore that as much as the piracy thing bothered me, it’s a very small thing in the grand scheme. Dresden looks great and is rolling out on time, I’m writing for another game I’m in love with, and I love in a day and age where I can turn my love of these games into something. All in all, I’m WAY ahead on points.

So with that in mind, let me turn the light on a few positive and interesting things about the DFRPG on the off chance they’ve escaped notice.

First, if you have not read Fred’s post on Sausage and the DFRPG, it’s absolutely worth a look if you have any interest at all in the business side of RPGs. He drills down into our costs, sales and all sorts of other very concrete and very specific information. While it’s an incidental benefit that this also makes our pricing transparent, the reason for putting this out there is simpler than that. Fred has taken steps at every turn to keep our numbers transparent, posting quarterly sales numbers and delving into pricing with details whenever possible. Why? Because this information is a pain in the ass to get. The hobby has no real commercial trade publications or standards, so the only concrete information you’re going to get is what people release. When we started out, we could find barely any data to go on, and that was incredibly frustrating. We made a number of mistakes as we stumbled in the dark, and while none of them were fatal, they could have been easily avoided with a little more information. So we do what we do in order to help the next guy, and thankfully, more and more small press folks have been more and more transparent over the past few years. It’s a good thing.

Second, if the $90 price tag for both DFRPG books is too much to stomach, consider getting just one. We handled the divide pretty clearly so that if you’re just interested in the next iteration of Fate, then you can buy the “Your Story” book and be satisfied.[1] If you’re purely in it for the Dresden side of things, “Our World” can scratch that itch – it’s like a fan guide with stats. Yes, you’ll miss out on free shipping, but you can avoid that by preordering through your local store.

And that’s the third thing: The local stores. We love game stores. Love love love them. But we do a lot of business on the internet, and that can create problems. For example, when we offer a free PDF with the purchase of one of our games online, that’s easy to do because the infrastructure’s in place. But that’s kind of harsh on the store owner, who only has the print product to sell – at the same price, his product is worth less because it doesn’t come with the free bonus.

But as I said, we love game stores, so we offer the Evil Hat free PDF Guarantee. If you buy a copy of one of our game in a brick and mortar store, then have the store mail us (or otherwise provide proof of purchase) and we’ll send you a PDF. Simple as that. Unfortunately, this is a pretty manual process – we have to get the emails, check them out, then set up the freebie on a case by case basis. That’s ok for the volume of our current product, but for the Dresden pre-order it’s untenable. It would require store owners to mail us every time someone preordered (which is inconvenient for them) and require us to set up distribution (which is inconvenient in many ways), so Fred hit upon a brilliantly crude (in the William Gibson sense) solution: we make the pdf available to store owners and let them burn CDs for folks who preorder. Simple as that. It wouldn’t have worked even a few years ago, but CD burning is so trivial these days that this works out ok. Net result, people get games, game stores get business, everyone wins.

But if the books are still too much, then heres #4: rest assured the PDFs will be available for purchase, once the book goes on sale (late June: Origins is the target launch). I have no idea how much they’ll cost, but we’re not big fans of egregiously overcharging for PDFs, so rest assured the price will be reasonable.

And if that’s still to much, then consider #5: it’s still open content. Admittedly, it’s muddled in the books because we can’t (and wouldn’t) open up Jim’s content, so we can’t just put up the text as an SRD as we did for Spirit of the Century, but the rules are under the OGL from day one, and will eventually be in an easier to absorb format (maybe an SRD, maybe in FATE 3 – hard to say right now). That is, I admit, a priority that is going to wait until the book is actually out the door.

So, I hope at least some of that was useful or informative. Me, I’m chomping at the bit to get my hands on a physical copy of the books. Or at least an ipad to read the PDF.

1 – With the one caveat that the “our world” has a ton of sample monster powers, so you’d miss out on those.

Swimming with Sharks

The internet is a pretty crappy place.

It’s not really any kind of surprise that the internet is drenched in negativity, bile and hatred, but sometimes you get fresh reminders of it. This has been one of those weeks, and I blame the ipad. Something like that just naturally generates a storm of nerdfury, and once that storm starts, it drags down the level of discourse pretty much everywhere. Thinking about it like it’s weather is comforting, but it ends up creating a comfortable illusion that these individual acts of jackassery aren’t actually personal, and the problem is that they are.

The Dresden Files RPG has show up on the pirate sites. In and of itself this is no shock – Fred will send of takedown requests as is appropriate and responsible, but it’s fighting the tide. This doesn’t upset me much – it’s a simple reality of the modern age – but what does get me is this: at this point we’ve only gotten a few hundred DFRPG pre-orders. That’s not a lot, in the grand scheme of things. It means we’re still at a point where everyone who has bought the DFRPG has a name and a face. I like this stage, because it feels like we’re really making a connection to people, and that’s why it’s genuinely painful to think that one of these people, these names and faces who I would like nothing more to meet and talk about this game with, is the person who decided to do this to us.

It’s a kick in the face.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg, though. There have been some ugly threads on Story Games and that I’ve no desire to draw attention to directly, and while that’s par for the course, the volume is a bit higher than usual. Take it all together, and it’s the sort of week that can make you wan tto give up on the internet entirely.

Yet despite all this, I am filled with genuine good cheer. It is possible that I have finally absorbed so much negativity from the internet that I’ve pulled a Mithradites, and am no longer vulnerable to its poisons, but I doubt I’m quite that lucky. Rather, I think I’ve trained myself to follow a few rules when dealing with crapstorms that the Internet provides us.

Find the Good (AKA Filter favorably) – In even the crappiest of situations, there is usually some useful insight to be gleaned, even if it is only to help clarify what upsets assholes enough to get them to rant. One of the recent threads had the truly poisonous topic of why people aren’t interested in the DFRPG[1] but for all that there was a lot of good to be gotten out of it. So long as you are confident about your product (especially if you can back up that confidence with sales) It’s awesome to have people so upset about your product that they want to talk about it. It’s like manure for flowers – it might stink, but it helps with growth. But even beyond that, any and all feedback is useful, especially if you can separate the axe grinding from the real concerns[2]. It’s discussion like this that can reveal where misperceptions spring up, and allow you to address them. Once you start looking for the positive, you start realizing that there are good things out there, even in the crappiest of internet-storms.

If it Hurts, Don’t do it (AKA Just close the window) – This one shouldn’t be hard, but it is. If a forum makes you consistently unhappy, don’t go there. If a blogger raises your blood pressure, don’t read him. I understand the completest urge to stay on top of everything, but you need to realize that not only is it impossible, you’re prioritizing things that harm you over other things in your life. Make the decision. Cut the cord. In large part, that’s what drove me to blogging – as much as I like what is good in RPG forums, the bad is just too unpleasant for me. I get angry and frustrated, and I needed to step away from that onto another platform that let me talk about games without starting to hate them.

This especially goes for twitter. Seriously. One of it’s benefits is that you can skip reading it any time you like.

Be Accountable (AKA Anonymity is Poisonous) – I dig handles, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t have one, but it shouldn’t be a mask. Having a discussion with an anonymous person is like talking with someone who is waving around a loaded gun – maybe they’ll never pull the trigger, but who knows. If your words are so important that you have to share them with the entire internet (especially in a venue that is theoretically dedicated to discussion) then think hard about why you’re uncomfortable standing behind them. [3]

If you have genuine privacy concerns, then at least try to be consistent in presenting your online identity. It’s not a perfect fix. You’re still going to come across badly. Anonymity on the web has become too much of a weapon, and the fact that that paints those who have no ill intent with the same brush is terribly unfair, but is simply true. Sorry.

EDIT: So, some discussion in comments has led to me refining my position somewhat, so here’s the new and improved version:

“Anonymity has a price as well as benefits. Acknowledge that, and don’t use anonymity as a tool to be a dick. Consider the reasons you stay anonymous thoughtfully, and try to separate genuine need from reflexive introversion. There are real benefits (and prices) to transparency as well.”

Listen, Think then Speak (AKA You don’t need to be right) – Again, this should be simple, but it’s not. We have keyboards and by god we’re going to use them because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. It’s kind of you to step up as the avenging angel for grammar or whatnot, but take a moment before you hit send to think about why you’re doing this. First, what are you responding to? I mean, what are you REALLY responding to, not just what do you think you’re responding to. Did that guy really just insult your mother, or is it possible you misunderstood? Is the discussion about eggs but you REALLY want to talk about bacon? Make sure you’re having the conversation you think you’re having. If you’re not, but you want to, why not start that conversation somewhere else?

Next, consider why you’re writing. Are you trying to prove yourself right to the internet? Are you trying to score points? Are you emotionally worked up and lashing out?

Stop and answer that, as honestly as you can. If you’re writing for a reason you can be proud of[4] then carry on. Otherwise, maybe you should take 5 first.

Be Useful (AKA No, really, be useful) – You can be useful to yourself or useful to others, but whatever you’re doing, try to make the internet a better place for the footprint you leave. This may mean being more careful about where you leave what kind of footprint, but it’s just not that hard.

The internet is a pretty crappy place, but we can make it better.

1 – I don’t use poisonous lightly. I don’t mind an outright hatred thread (which, luckily, it became) but a thread promoting indifference is toxic to anything. This all comes back to the difference between great and mediocre things. If something is great, people are passionate about it, and that means that hatred is as important to your success as love. If nobody cares, that’s a much worse sign for your product.
EDIT TO CLARIFY: The thread itself was actually fine – it’s the IDEA of it that bothers me. Discussing why you dislike something is understandable to me, but discussing why you’re disinterested in something is…self-contradictory? Genuine disinterest would seem to make it unlikely to bother with a thread, so the presence of such a thread suggests a different motive.

2 – This is surprisingly easy; if the tone of the argument is about how THEY would do it, they’re probably axe grinding.

3- Do you know how these networks of gamers and game designers end up forming and excluding you? They do it by identifying themselves so they can actually talk to one another. Sounds crazy, I know, but you’d be amazed how effective it is.

4 – No, just being right is a reason to *embarrassed* about.

I don’t have an Ipad, yet

I got my wife an ipad for her birthday. It is a rare thing in our household that she gets gadgets before I do, so it seemed like a good idea, and I figured that at the very least I could see her use it and decide if I wanted one of my own or if I would, instead, use the money to replace my old netbook. It took about a day to convince me that I wanted one for myself, and a few days more before I decided I *needed* one for myself.

I have only gotten to use the ipad a little. The temptation to rush in and install everything under the auspices of “helping” my wife is strong, but doing so would sort of ruin the whole point of the gift, so I have been restrained (as much as it pains me). That restraint has allowed me to watch my wife use hers, which has given me some interesting insights on it.

My wife is a very technically savvy woman, but her expertise is outside of the field of gadgets. If she must have a widget, she errs on the side of the very utilitarian. She has her phone (which is as simple as it can be and still do what she needs) and her work laptop and with that, she’s done. Or at least that had been the case. A while back she ran out of books and I, in a gesture of goodwill, downloaded a stack to the Kindle for her. The only reason I got my kindle back is because she discovered that my ipod could also display my ebooks. The gift of the ipad was, at least in part, an attempt for me to get those devices back.

So, if I had an ipad, it would live in my bag (as gadget do) and never be far from my hand. In contrast, my wife has a far less addictive pattern of use – it’s found a permanent home on the bedside table, and in the evening she uses it to play mahjong, read books and watch Netflix, as the whim strikes her. It is not a lifestyle item for her (in fact, she has yet to take it into work to show off despite interest from co-workers) but rather a simple appliance.

Or perhaps not entirely simple. She is, at her own pace, dipping her toe in the app store form time to time to see what looks interesting to her. She’s got an SSH client and a few games, and she’s willing to try out new things when they’re not a hassle, but she’s not in any rush to do so.

I contrast this with another friend who has an ipad who, I think, would not object to being described as a power nerd. He had all his apps pre-bought before the ipad arrived, and he’s shelled out for commercial apps from Apple and Omni and others, and has specifics plans for using the ipad at home and at work (at least when he can steal it back from his wife, who insists she doesn’t need one, but is hooked on big screen popcap games). I played a little with his too, and it’s got EVERYTHING.

Comparing those two usage profiles (along with my imagined self-profile) was really interesting to me. It’s cool that someone’s mom could use this, but I think that’s ultimately unimportant compared to how many different ways people can use the ipad to suit their personal needs. When we talk about it “just working” (because it does), it’s easy to assume that ease of use is directed at the absolute novice, but that misses the picture. The novice isn’t even aware that Netflix streaming exists or of what twitter is. The ipad might be a gateway for someone like that, but the reality is that it’s for the nerds, albeit for more of the nerds than most any computer to date.

And by nerds I don’t just mean computer nerds. Another friend of mine broke down and got one when it became clear that the pdf organization and reading capability was good enough to handle all his scientific papers. Other folks have talked about how fantastic it is for reading scripts. The possibilities for boardgames and RPGs are obvious and huge.

This is, ultimately, why I think the ipad is going to be a winner. It’s not for everyone, but for people who have particular passions, the ipad is going to provide unprecedented tools to help with that passion. It’s not a universal tool, nor is it going to offer something for every passion, but when it lines up it’s going to be fantastic. What’s more, I think it may also be useful for discovery – your ipad may help you with your passions, but it may also lets you find other things to be passionate about.

A bit hype-y? Maybe. I acknowledge some genuine excitement as well as lingering pissiness at the crowds looking for cred in bashing the ipad because it’s not how they would do it. I’m willing to be wrong.

But I’m damn sure going to have a good time until the jury comes back.

Done is the Enemy of Suck

So, it’s been a pretty awesome weekend for new things. The iPad was released[1], The new Doctor Who was one[2] and the weather was pretty nice as well. It’s auspicious for one more piece of awesome.

The Dresden Files RPG pre-order has begun.

It’s 2 books, ($50 and $40 respectively – not cheap, I know, but the level of production going into these things is crazy) but more importantly, the preorder price is for a print+pdf bundle. Folks who order it now can start reading it right away.[3] So far, impressions seem to be pretty good, as I would imagine they would be. Even setting aside my obvious bias, I’m quite sure this is a pretty badass game. If nothing else, I am absolutley chomping atthe bit to get my hands on a physical copy.

Lest I be entirely self serving, let me mention another pair of good an worthwhile pre-orders. Daniel Solis’s Happy Birthday Robot and David Hill’s Maschine Zeit are both using Kickstarter to get their initial funding through a preorder process. Both games (deservedly) hit their marks within 24 hours of going up, but offer further incentives for continued interest. Daniel is sending extra copies of the game to Kids Need To Game based on how far over he goes, and David’s offered to profoundly embarrass himself if he should manage to double his goal.

It’s a lot of good stuff, I know, all without mentioning White Wolf’s hilarious April Fools Day product, Dudes of Legend[4]. Sometimes the internet is a bit of a cesspool, but this week, she is sharing her bounty, and it is lovely.

1 – I got my wife one for her birthday, so I’ve only been able to play with it a little, but so far it really seems fun and useful.

2 – So, I was never much of a Who fan until the recent revival, which makes me worry every time people who apparently hated the new stuff like this new Doctor. But then I remember that people just like to hate things, it doesn’t actually mean anything useful.

3 – And reports indicate that the goodreads PDF reader, which plays nicely with dropbox, makes for some good reading on the iPad. Just saying.

4 – The link is adult content because the book is more than a little bit saucy. The ever-magnificent Chuck Wendig was basically given free rein to write the most over-the-top, stereotype-driven Word of Darkness Supplement imaginable. It has sex, drugs, katanas and desert eagles, and that’s the nice stuff. If you ever saw their previous satire product, Exxxalted, you may have a hunch regarding what to expect.

The Failure of Secrets

So, information management is usually a pretty business-wonky idea, but it’s one that has a role in RPGs that can be very useful to keep in mind. Specifically, the role of information management is one of the easiest ways to distinguish between adventure, intrigue and caper/crime.

Information management, which is to say the review of what informationis distributed, how it’s distributed, and what’s done with it, has a very small role in the traditional adventure (which is why we tend to not prioritize it). Specifically, the traditional adventure manages information by being very, very tight-fisted with it. Some bits of data might be necessary to proceed (like a password or location of a secret door) but most information is purely color. It simply may not make much difference if the bad guys you’re fighting are a thousand year old cult of the Old Ones or a new age cult of destruction.

But what’s important in an adventure is that this lack does not matter. Player action is not dependent on information – what they need to do is usually very clear. Most typically, there is a dungeon, and once you’ve got a dungeon, you pretty much know what to do with it. In fact, too much information can make for problems, because players might decide to go off in unexpected directions as their options open up.

Because of this combination of clear motivation and sparse information, gaming has developed a culture of secrets. Giving players more information is treated as a bad thing[1] so secrets are kept out of habit rather than because it’s necessary for the game.

But this is not the only model.

For games centered more around intrigue (such as espionage) then, paradoxically, there should be MORE information available. Characters know a lot about a lot, so much so that the thing they don’t know is usually the important point on which the story or game resolves. if, in contrast, EVERYTHING is a secret, then no particular secret is going to be very compelling.[2]

On another vector, a caper game should assume nearly total information. Capers revolve around plans made from comprehensive data – it may take some work to get that data, but that’s only a fraction of the game – and that data needs to be reliable. That does not means there’s no rom for surprises and the unexpected – they’re a part of the genre – but like with intrigue, they stand out as exceptions.

These examples only scratch the surface of ways to consider information management[3] but what they hopefully highlight is that a lot of assumptions about how things should be may just be habits. Next time you run a game where you’re trying to capture a specific genre, then take a little bit of time to think about what people know, how they find it out, and what they do with that information.[4] A small change could profoundly transform your game for the better.

1 – Some of this also comes from the much more reasonable “no one wants to drink from the fire hose” problem. If you’re too free with information, players will get overwhelmed and disinterested. This is also an information management issue, but a slightly different one than we’re looking at today.

2 – This is doubly true when the entire setting is designed to be “wheels within wheels” to a totally arbitrary degree. Once everything is suspect, everything is meaningless.

3 – I remember my first exposure to the idea of total information transparency, proposed by Robin Laws in Over the Edge. it was a little too weird for me at the time, and it still is a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a great example of how to rethink these assumptions.

4 – Shadowrun is my poster child for this. 99% of the time I see it run like an adventure, with the run standing in for the dungeon and with a more interesting wrapper around it than a trip to the tavern. That’s fun, but when I think about the Genre,I imagine something much closer to intrigue or caper style play. I don’t think I’m alone in this perception, but the trick is that despite that sense of genre, it’s not necessarily reflected in play.

Candyland Rocks

I’m not up for a full on joke post for April first, but it does seem a good day to have a serious post about a slightly silly topic: Candyland.

Candyland has been getting a bad rap lately. As more sophisticated games are entering the general awareness, we’re getting second stage snobs who are totally excited by ‘new’ games like Settlers of Cataan[1] and taking this opportunity to step up and inform us all of what a terrible game Candyland is. After all, there’s no play to it – you just draw cards and follow the colors and it’s all dumb luck! That’s a horrid game and should be destroyed!

This makes me crazy.

I like games. Not just RPGs, but games of every stripe. I have a one year old son who I am chomping at the bit to get the chance to play games with, and he’s going to grow up in a household where there will be an abundance of choices. With my luck, he’ll decide he hates games, but I’ll deal with that when I come to it. In any case, I’ve already bought a copy of Candyland, and I can’t wait for the day that I get to bust it out. And I’ve got three big reason’s why.

1. Education
See, what these excited game experts forget is that there are a lot of incidental skills to playing games that are not necessarily intuitive to kids. Taking your turn, moving your piece, drawing a card and acting – these are all things that need to be learned. Yes, you can absolutely try to teach those things while also trying to teach a game with strategy (even simple strategy) but that seems like unnecessarily muddying the water. Now, you can pretend that the educational advantage of these games is something else, like color matching (or numbers in the case of Snakes and Ladders or War) but I feel that’s a pretty thin argument. My kid can learn those things in lots of ways (including games) but that’s not why I’m playing these games. I’m playing them to teach games in a way that is fun and which I can participate in.

2. Realization
Kids are smart, and they will eventually figure out why Candyland sucks on their own. Usually pretty fast.[2] When they do, they want more, and conveniently there’s lots more available. Letting them figure this out for themselves will get way more investment than telling them ever will.

3. Hackability
My kid will learn from an early age to house rule. You want to make Candlyand more interesting? Try one of these:

  • Draw 2 cards and pick which one you go to
  • Keep a hand of 5 cards, and choose which one to play, then draw a new one
  • Allow the special square cards to be played on other people
  • If you draw the color of your playing piece, it always counts as a double.
  • Let candymen on the same square kung fu fight.

None of these make it a sophisticated game, but they all change the dynamic in ways a kid can appreciate. They can even introduce new mechanical ideas that will be useful for other games. Given time, I bet we could make it pretty darn crunchy if we really wanted, but that’s not the point. The point is that it shows the kid that there is more to be done with the game than maybe immediately apparent.[3]

So, in summary, Candyland teaches kids how to play, helps them realize what’s not fun, and provides a platform to show how they can own their games and make them more fun for themselves. What’s not to love?

1 – If you want a game that makes me crazy, it’s Settlers. I’ll still play it because people like it, but it’s always my last choice – in my book it is a worse game than Candyland because it violates a very simple rule of game design that I have come to consider very important. In settlers, it is entirely possible to have nothing to do on your turn (and, if that happens once, it will probably happen many times). If I’m going to be sitting on my hands, then I;m uncertian

2 – I don’t want it to be news to my kid that Candyland sucks when he’s old enough to have their own blog or bestselling book. It’s just embarrassing to watch.

3 – When I was maybe 5, I played checkers on a board that had variant rules on the back, and when I discovered this it absolutely blew my mind. The only variant I still remember was Fox and the Geese (because that one looked awesome) but the very idea that there were OTHER WAYS to play checkers was really compelling to me. Sadly, it was not compelling to many other people around me, so I never got to really try them, and instead I got to stare at the older people playing Risk, which looked awesome but incomprehensible at the time.