Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Taste of Gaming

This weekend was A Taste Of Leverage at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC, and it was pretty awesome.

Labyrinth regularly runs “Taste of…” events where they dedicate an afternoon to running several tables of the game in question. They recently did Fiasco, for example, and in the near future will be doing the Founding Fathers boardgame (May first) and Savage Worlds (May 21st). For Leverage, there were four tables running, each with 4-5 players and a GM, running a game over the course of 3 or four hours. I was envious of the tables I wasn’t at, since each of them sounded great, including the Pigskin Job (where I’m pretty sure the team stole the Redskins-with-serial-numbers-filed-off), the Tween Dream Job (which is what it sounds like, except withthe extra villainy of dog fighting) and a job who’s name I never caught revolving around evil pharmaceuticals, a cruise ship and, by my understanding, no small amount of Halo.

As is my wont, I went in pretty much unprepared and we generated a scenario from scratch at the table. It ended up being a tricky one because the mark had a tricky strength – attractiveness. Wasn’t 100% sure how to use that, especially with a team that was basically Charlie’s Angels (Three Hot Chick badasses, a Grifter face man and an enigmatic Hacker who didn’t like to show his face in public), until we got a nice dovetail between the twist (it’s personal) and the background detail that one of the team members was a single mom. Turns out the mark had basically taken all the money from the day care that served as the after-school program for her kid, which lead to her needing to take him to the “office”. After two days of his enthusiastic interest, the team decided that this job should move to the top of the list, and thus, The Latchkey Kid Job wads born (though by the end, the alternate title was probably “The El Gigante Action Hour Job”).

The mark, a soap opera star, had used the money (plus a loan from the mob) to fund a new project which he would write, direct, executive produce and, of course, star in. The job ended up revolving around filming different scripts, convincing the mark that the show was going to be a loss and the real money was in his clothing line (which had some enthusiastic buyers, strange that) and getting him and the mob to sign off rights to the show while also stealing the Mark’s secret reserve of cash. There was also a mexican wrestler (Luchador d12!), a team member with a fake leg, an L.A. Douchebag disguise, a fight scene on a sound stage, scriptwriting collaboration between the hacker and the twelve year old and the quick application of an allergen to keep the mark from playing through the love scene with one of the team members that he’d hastily written into the script the night before.

It was insane, and I loved it. I think everyone had fun too.

I did up handouts and cheatsheets beforehand, but as I did them very hastily, they’re error-ridden, and I need to clean them up to re-post them. I also didn’t hand out as many plot points as I should have (I often forget to do so when players roll 1’s) so i did a cheat at the end that basically gave them the benefits of a coordinating flashback without needing to pay for it. It also reinforced my fondness for making Fixer created assets free for d6. And speaking of assets, it was wonderful when we reached the point where the table realized all the assets in play could potentially be leveraged. They totally took that ball and ran with it.

First experiment in emphasizing the mastermind’s out-of-crime specialty was a bit bumpy. “The Captain” was ex military, and while that was a great mastermind model, it was a little bit of a mismatch with t he job the dice created. The player did a great job with it, and I think the idea is still a solid one, just trickier in a one-shot with an improv’d scenario.

I am also started to get tempted to just give all Masterminds the Archangel talent for free. It let’s the team spend points on each others, which benefits everyone, without much special coolness for the Mastermind. Just a random thought.

Anyway, it was a fantastic time, and i want to give a special thank you to Labyrinth Games. For those unfamiliar with the DC area, it has a serious shortage of game stores. Since the Game Keeper chain shut down, there hasn’t been a game store in DC proper – everything is out in the suburbs – so when Labyrinth opened up in DC and just off the Metro, I was excited but wary. It’s not hard for a game store to be enthusiastic, well intentioned and totally suck. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear.

Labyrinth is a genuinely lovely store, clean and well lit with an array of lovely wooden puzzles and games up near the front, and a deep selection as you go towards the back. It is definitely more of a boardgame than RPG shop, but the RPG selection is diverse and thoughtfully selected, which counts for a lot. The boardgame selection is fantastic, and the staff is friendly, enthusiastic. It’s basically the antithesis of every bad stereotype of a game store. I ended up leaving with one game I knew about, one I’d never heard of, and a carved wooden puzzle box for my wife. I hadn’t _planned_ on picking anything up, I just couldn’t help myself.

What’s more, it’s also in one of the neat areas of DC, between the Eastern Market Metro and capitol hill. Lots of other neat shops and excellent food. As the weather gets nicer, if you find yourself considering a trip into town, it’s totally worth stopping by Labyrinth.

Action vs. Adventure

I realized yesterday that my genre expectations for 4e have been skewed. I think of it (and most RPGs) as being adventures, but I think it might be more accurate to describe 4e as part of the related-but-different action genre.

What’s the difference? Speaking in terms of films, think about adventure movies vs. action movies. In an adventure movie, the hero or heroes are taken out of their usual context, face an array of challenges. While many of the challenges may be dangerous, they are not necessarily fights. Eventually the hero finishes the job and returns home (or to his original context). Essential in this is the idea that the hero’s non-adventure existence is important to him. Indiana Jones teaches. Jack Burton drives a truck.

On the other hand, the action hero gets into a dangerous situation because that’s who they are – the guy who gets into danger. He might have the trappings of some other life, but usually that life is an avenue to action (soldier, cop, dangerous courier) or a forgettable façade (like whatever Schwarzenegger does for a living in his flicks). At best, it provides an excuse to put the character in the situation required by the story. The character will then overcome successive challenges with escalating violence. There will be elements external to the violence, but mostly they’re just there to move things on to the next fight.

Now, the lines here aren’t clean cut. Die Hard, for example, has elements of both, and most exciting moves pull a little bit from column A and a little bit from Column B. What’s more, the genre is not a measure of quality. Action may have interchangeable Van Damme flicks, but it also has Jackie Chan. Raiders might be an adventure film, but so are the vast array of direct-to-video Rutger Hauer masterpieces. They can be done badly or well, just as in the case of a game.

4e is designed for action. It’s characters are primarily defined by their relationship to action, and elements external to that are very thin at best. Their arc is one of progressive violence, and the mechanics of the game steer things that way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the primacy of fights and the shaky footing of skill challenges.

But so what?

It would be easy to stop here as some sort of sneering dismissal of 4e, but that would be a waste of effort. The important thing to me is that in understanding what 4e is skewed towards, it makes it easier to tweak it. It means that if I want to play is straight up, I might get a more satisfying experience if I am in the mental space where I recognize that these characters would be played by Jason Statham or Milla. That is to say, I would be well served proceeding under the assumption that they are not adventurers, but rather, awesome badasses.

On the flipside, if I feel that I want something other than the action movie formula, I can do it with an understanding of _why_ it is that anemic skill challenges and boring skills feel like they’re not working. Knowing why they don’t work (because they’re designed for action, not adventure) is incredibly useful if I want to change them since I can do so with better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish.

1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For?

There’s a big question, in games and fiction, of how to include fight scenes that matter. If you go to a movie which has lots of cool fight scenes but no real reason for them to be there, or no real stakes on the line, then it’s ultimately going to be a flat experience. It might make a great music video, but that’s something else entirely. Logic suggests that the same thing should be true of games, but experience suggests otherwise. We have LOTS of fights, often purely for their own sake.

There are a few practical reasons for this. Certainly, most games strive to make fights fun, so theirs some intrinsic reward, but classically, there’s another reason. See, in a movie, the stakes need to come from the story because we are bound by the strictures of storytelling. That is, if the hero is fighting a bad guy halfway through the movie, then the stakes need to be something other than “Will the hero survive?” because of course he will. He’s still got another hour of movie ahead of him.

A lot of the foundational games in the hobby didn’t _need_ to create stakes out of the narrative because death was an option. Lacking the movie star’s immunity to death, the consequences of defeat were enough to make every fight meaningful. In that context, the fact that the fights were arbitrary and gygaxian wasn’t really a bad thing. A coherent narrative _improved_ things, but it wasn’t necessary to create a sense of investment. That investment was already there.

The problem is, of course, that character death creates other problems beyond the immediate emotional impact. It often leaves a player at loose ends while his friends continue to play, especially if generating a new character is cumbersome or punitive (and, arguably, those out-of-character consequences and difficulties increased the emotional punch of death). To minimize this, a lot of games started moving death from its central position, sometimes removing it entirely.

Doing so created a problem. Without the implicit stakes of death, there needed to be other stakes to keep players invested in outcomes. Some games never addressed this, and as a result produced fairly limp experiences. Other games started taking their examples from fiction. The logic was that if characters in a game have some of the same protections as those in a story, then investment in play can be created the same way it is in stories – compelling narrative, explicit stakes, exciting color and so on. Done right, that’s pretty cool.

But it’s not necessarily the only solution. The new Gamma World is chock full of death, but at the same time, death has very little friction because creating and introducing a new character is both fast and fun. There are probably other solutions too, but my point is that these are all different points on the same twisty path – they’re not exclusive. If I were to go back to running Rolemaster tomorrow (because, man, it’s deathy death death), I would not need to discard the lessons from less lethal games.

Ideally, I’d be able to combine them. I could have fights that are viscerally compelling because death is on the line, but which are dramatically compelling because the stakes are high. Obviously, that has always been the goal, but so many games have created so many tools for doing one or the other, what happens when we start doing both?

I’m afraid to find out. But also profoundly curious.

Getting Villainy Done

So, I’m a (slightly lax) practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, which is a fancy way to say that I use a certain set of tricks for keeping useful to do lists. GTD has been incredibly useful for me in a number of ways. I’ve mentioned before how well it applies to player actions, and recently I’ve been thinking about how one lesson in particular translates very well into adventure design.

See, the trick I learned from GTD, and which is good all around advice, is that when you put an item on your todo list, it should be a physical action, not just an idea. Too often, people write down something general like “Set up New Desk” and it sits idle because they haven’t thought about the actual actions they need to take, which might be “Clear off the current desk, haul away current desk, bring new desk to office, bring tools to office, assemble new desk”. Each of those actions is something that can be envisioned, accomplished and checked off, and if you have a concrete list like that, you’re much more likely to actually do something rather than put it off.

As useful as this idea is for getting chores done, it’s even more useful for villainy. Just as physical actions can bridge the gap between needing to do something and actually doing it, they can bridge the gap between a villains abstract goals and motives and actual play. Which is to say, take a few minutes to look at your villain’s (or other prominent NPC’s) to do list. After all, every good NPC has some sort of goal they need to accomplish, and that should always demand some sort of action.

For example, let’s say we have a small crime boss in the city of our game. We’ll call him Mart, and he’s looking to expand his holdings. That’s a great one sentence blurb, comparable to what you’d see in a published product, and it makes a good seed. To create some play from it, let’s drill down a little bit. He can’t get up in the morning and just expand his holdings – he needs to do things to do so – so what can he do? Well, he’ll need more men, more territory, or more business. So let’s make that his todo list:

  • Get more men
  • Get more territory
  • Get more business

So, we’ve gone from a goal to a broad list (in GTD terms, these would be projects) , but now we need to break it down into actions, and in doing so, we’ll see these are more complicated than it seems. Again, let’s pick one: Getting more men.

Getting more men is not just a function of putting up flyers for thugs. Men need to come from somewhere, and they need a reason to work for him. He needs to find a source of men and get the resources to bring them on board. Now, if this were a real-life project, we’d have steps for gathering information and analyzing options, but in fiction, we can skip that (I say this casually, but it’s a very powerful and creative capability). Let’s say, for example, Mart sees three opportunities. First, recent bad weather has left a lot of out-of-work sailors. Second, it’s always good to recruit early from neighborhood kids. Last, there are always mercenaries available in a pinch. Mercenaries are easy, and kids are complicated, so let’s use the sailors to illustrate further.

The sailors are a good starting point, but he can’t just walk into a bar and ask the room “Any out of work sailors want to do some crime?” I mean, he could, but it’s not a good strategy. He could put up a posting, which might get some (if they can read) but it might get too many, too few, or unpredictable quality. Plus, it is fairly public, which may be problematic. A better plan might be to make contact with a reliable agent and use them as a go between to bring on the sailors to…what?

Here we hit the rub, and the benefit of the system. He’s not just hiring sailors to hire sailors. He’s hiring them for a purpose, to expand his holdings. He needs a plan of action for them. So, these are sailors, not necessarily reliable, but available. Maybe he gives them a little extra coin for drink to go to a bar outside his territory he want s to annex and be on hand when he sets up a dice game and basically lays claim. That’s a plan. So, his task list looks like:

  • Speak to bartender in the docks to identify a smart, hireable sailors.
  • Interview said sailor.
  • Offer him employment.
  • Get said sailor to spread around drinking money with strings attached.
  • After sailors gather, start dice game.
  • When confronted, escalate to violence.
  • In conflict, overwhelm opposition with superior reinforcements (sailors).

All very tidy, but the trick of it is that each of those steps is concrete enough that it can either be a hook or a problem. A specific action might impact players (forcing reaction) or it might go wrong (forcing the NPC to improvise and call in help, which is to say, the PCs) . Finding the hooks is a simple matter of running through the list and asking

  1. How might this impact PCs if this happens to them or someone they know?
  2. What happens if the PCs find out about it?
  3. How can this go wrong?

Looking over that list and Mart’s list, my two guy with swords might

  • Overhear the conversation, find out about the plan, and…
    …realize a fight would be a great time to rob the dice game.
    …realize they could make money selling out this plan to the competitor
    …beat up the trustworthy sailor and take the money
  • Get approached by Mart after the trustworthy sailor runs off with the money
  • Get brought in by the tavern owner, afraid someone’s going to muscle in on his territory
  • Get drawn into the fight as it breaks out around or near them

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Anyway, what’s important is that all of this built from a sentence: Mart is a criminal who wants to expand his holdings. Published material is full of similar information, but it often lacks guidelines for moving from those motives into things that generate play (unless the motives directly apply to the PCs to begin with). Going to specific actions is a great tool for bridging that gap, and it’s a fun one. Remember, there’s no need to do this with EVERY element in a game. Doing so would be way too much to keep track of. Instead, it’s just a tool to go from “huh, I’d like to use this NPC” to “I have a plot involving this NPC” in a very natural feeling way.

One other thing: I realize that for some people, thinking about NPCs in this fashion gives them too much agency. Some feel that NPCs should only have an existence in the context of the PCs, and that this sort of thinking is inappropriate. To that, I suggest that this idea is not contradictory to that, it is merely tangential to it. The ultimate purpose here is to inspire intersections with your players that feel dynamic and like they’re a natural extension of play. Whether or not this exercise produces any “offscreen” impact is totally a matter of GM taste.

The Challenge is Challenge

I used to run out of inventory space on my D&D character sheets. I was utterly fascinated with packing just the right tool for every sort of situation, and I spent an unreasonable amount of time figuring out the lightest, most useful kit I could pack. As a player, it’s a lot of fun to come into a situation and have just the right tool to short-circuit the challenge and move on (especially because the challenge is almost certainly unfair in a substantial and gygaxian way). There’s sort of a double satisfaction to this because, outside of fiction, it’s what good problem solving looks like: finding the easiest, most effective solution with the tools on hand.

Unfortunately, that can make for a very boring game (and a frustrated GM).

A lot of adventure design gets committed to keeping things from being simple. The logic behind this is reasonable enough: simple challenges are quickly resolved with little sense of risk or engagement, and that is a recipe for boring play. Unfortunately, the obvious solution (making things arbitrarily more challenging) is workable but ultimately counterproductive.

To illustrate this, consider a dungeon. There might be some reason to go into the dungeon (rescue the hostage, let’s say), but how many of the challenges you’re going to run into have any bearing on that? In some adventures, they might all be, but I think we all have experience with the adventure where there’s a mandatory quota of fight scenes with random-seeming monsters. Those encounters “flesh out” the adventure and keep it from being too simple.

But that’s sloppy design. It’s LAZY. Look at it this way: if I have a bunch of cultists take a prisoner, there are lots of ways I can make the adventure more challenging. I can include an important NPC among the cultists backers, meaning I may face legal barriers keeping me from pursuing the cultists. I may face hard choices in terms of the price of stopping them. Maybe the cultists are not so morally black as I think, calling into question the righteousness of violence as a solution. I can introduce a second challenge (Burn Notice Style) and make the real difficulty in juggling both concerns.

Or I can just add a few more monsters/fight scenes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love good fight scenes. If I want to add more of them, there are plenty of ways to do it that make more sense then “And behind this door lives a shambling mound!” Similarly, I’m sympathetic that for any published adventure, the lack of hooks into the specifics of the campaign being played limits options, but I must add that it doesn’t remove them entirely. There are too many examples of good adventures to pretend it can’t be done.

The specific solutions for this are going to depend a lot on your game, but the question it raises is always going to be the same. When looking at a challenge you’re going to throw at your players, ask yourself how it’s going to make the game better as well as harder. There are lots of good answers, including “It will be an awesomely fun fight”, “I need to give this player some spotlight time” or even “Holy god, I need to fill an hour – Fight time!”. Just make sure you have an answer.

Comics and Me

Comics are making me crazy. I’ve been trying to use the ipad to read them because, from a purely technical perspective it’s a fantastic tool for it. The screen is big and readable, and the form factor makes it easy to flip through.

Unfortunately, the actual experience is lagging behind the technology something fierce. In an ideal world, I figure i could hear about something cool in comics (like a recent Walking Eye podcast made me curious about the current run of Detective Comics) and I could, y’know, go _buy_ it. But apparently, that’s crazy talk. If I buy the right app (of the half dozen or so out there) then I can buy some old issues of DC, without any reference information regarding things like when they came out or where they stand in the grand scheme of things (since God Knows you can’t have a big DC or Marvel title without it being tied into fourteen crossovers a year).

Crazier still, some titles stay at least semi current, others just have random gaps, and there’s absolutely no logic to it. I’ve had better luck with smaller companies. If nothing else, the ipad has been great for getting my Ed Brubaker fix on, since it allowed me to get Criminal, both runs of Sleeper and the First Incognito run in big chunks. Similarly, despite the fact that I’ve grown a little middling on the BOOM! titles I follow (Irredeemable & Incorruptible), I remain hooked because they at least show up for purchase at regular intervals.

This should be a fantastic chance for the smaller publishers. The utterly ham fisted way that the bigger companies are handling the ipad market seems to scream opportunity, and I had an opportunity to look into it when a comic I had been waiting for came out, Old Soldiers, from Big House comics. (This is the one with the ARG I talked about a while back).

As it’s published by a small label, I ended up having to hunt down yet another piece of comic viewing software, Cloud 9 Comics. In some ways, it’s even worse than Comixology’s Comics, but that’s really a turtle’s footrace of a comparison. Short form: despite the software, I got my hands on the comic.

Was worth it, though. Old Soldiers #1 is one of those multi-threaded stories where you open up getting a view into several different windows at once with only some of the information necessary to thread it together. It’s a tricky schtick to pull off, but Stone (the creator) does an admirable job of keeping things grounded. There are hints at the edges of some weirdness afoot, but the only weirdness we actually see (one character having a dream) is well within the pale of the explicable. Doing so eludes the trap of leaning on Lost-style crutches out the gate.

It’s not flawless. There’s a lettering trick used to close/transition some conversations at the bottom of the page that’s easy to miss, and there are small concerns, like some of the names being a little on the nose, but the biggest problem is essential to the form. You’re getting a lot of characters and a lot of situation all at once, so there’s a necessary amount of setup. The thing is, the moments that the comic is strongest really feel like the ones where that setup is done and the author has a bit more freedom to do stuff (said he scientifically). Those relaxed moments are a big part of why I’m really enthusiastic to see #2 when it comes out and there’s a lot more freedom to take the ideas hinted at so far and roll them forward.

And when it comes, I’ll almost certainly buy it digitally. For all that it’s kind of a pain, it’s still easiest for me.

Oh, Crud, It’s April Fools

I had a real post drafted and everything, but then I remembered that today is “don’t follow links on the Internet day”, so my thoughts on digital comics are going to wait until next week. Like most folks, I have mixed feelings about April Fools day, primarily because so many people are so bad at it, but the folks who do it well tend to make it worthwhile. A few that I like to check every year.

For a good general roundup, Lifehacker has a bunch of today’s April Fools Pages but I ask the world – any really good ones out there I haven’t seen yet?