Monthly Archives: May 2008

La la la, Katamari!

I recently picked up Beautiful Katimari at Best Buy for $20.

Oh my goodness is this addictive.

Lots of fun, pretty silly. A good buy if you can find it.

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More Wicked Names

One thing I’ve noticed about our extended In A Wicked Age game- we’re starting to see recursion of names. So I took it upon myself to make a longer list. I mostly used the Story Games names project. Enjoy!

Descent: New Encounters

I wrote up 26 new encounters for use with Descent: Road to Legend.

You can see them at either rpg.net or on the Fantasy Flight Forums.

Let me know what you think!

Fluff, Crunch: A Case Study

So, I’ve been talking about the interactions of crunch and fluff in roleplaying games, and I wanted to do a look at the design influences of one of the most notable games on the market- that’s right, Dungeons and Dragons.

As we know, D&D evolved from Chainmail- a fantasy wargame, with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s houserules for character driven play. These early days of D&D were still very tied to wargaming- the game was essentially a wargame with evolving nascent roleplaying bits. So you’ve got a game that is crunch-based, and the fluff is evolving to fill a void.

I’m not going to linger here on 1st ed D&D, Advanced D&D, and various “X Color Box” editions, because frankly, I wasn’t born yet, so it was difficult for me to roleplay. But it’s my understanding that what started as a crunchy dungeon crawl wargame evolved with character bits, and an emergent property of wanting to play your character.

Second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was my first roleplaying game. Here, we see a lot of fluff driven play- there is a push for gaming to drive towards character interaction, and setting exploration- the success of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms are an outgrowth of this. We also see a lot of Fluff-driven Crunch: the strongest example of this I can think of is Kits. Kits were basically a subclass, so you’d have Jester or Acrobat as a Thief Kit, or Cavalier as a Paladin Kit, or Elven Blademage as a Elf Fighter/Mage Kit. These tended not to be designed for mechanical differentiation, but rather to reinforce the themes and roles of a kit, and tended to be highly unbalanced and wonky in crunch applications- but who cares, when the fluff comes first?

We can see pockets of Crunch-focused game design (The highly controversial Skills and Powers: Combat and Tactics, trying to make the game more of a tactical combat game, with nary a word about roleplaying) amid a greater sea of Fluff-focused play (most of my modules from this time are full of advice and applications that break the game rules for the sake of replicating a setting assumption.) If you go through these books, you’ll find rules that stick out like sore thumbs, and simply don’t interact very well. (I wonder how much of this stuff was playtested. One thing about fluff-based rules is that you can convince yourself you don’t have to playtest the crunch, because it’s only there to backup the fluff.)

With third edition, we saw a dedicated attempt to clean up this mess. The game was very much crunch-driven, with the focus on balanced play, and game mechanics that result of that. There was a dedicated, global playtesting drive, to get people other than just the in-house people playing games.

Of course, not all was well with 3rd edition. The first few supplement books were awful, with a number of prestige classes based on the idea first, then with the game mechanics wrapped around it. You frequently saw a vast difference in power level between classes here. Some were great, some were awful. I wonder how much playtesting had been done. Around the time of 3.5, WotC decided they needed Developers, not just writers and designers, to keep an eye on the state of the rules, and make sure that things didn’t get out of hand. (How well they succeeded is in the eye of the beholder.) This is a definite, concrete move towards strength of crunch-based design.

Looking towards 4th edition, I’m seeing some interesting trends. First, is that design is largely crunch based. We’re seeing a lot of setting conceits coming out of ways to make the dungeoneering more seamless. Lots of playtesting has been done, with the goal of making the gameplay easy, balanced, and fun. We’re seeing game balance as a design priority. These are all good things- and speak of a crunch-based design methodology.

Something I think is cool though, we’re seeing some fluff-based crunch microcosms, interacting seamlessly with a larger crunch-based directive. What I mean by this is mechanics (saving throw or action point bonuses for humans) based on a fluff directive (“humans should be like action heroes”) yet having a keen eye kept on them for game balance. You can have fluff guide design and the rules and the mechanics, but someone is making sure it doesn’t get out of hand. I think this is great.

So, what’s the point of this?

It’s not that fluff-driven games are bad- but if your game is fluff-driven, you should be very aware of that, and make sure your players are too. Don’t cling to ‘realism’ or ‘setting emulation’ as exuses if your game is getting overwieldy, and GM fiat is the rule rather than the exception.

Big companies with lots of writers and designers are going to have a much harder time achieving clarity of focus. I think it can be done, but you have to be conscious about trying to achieve it.

And the real point behind me writing these essays? I want to run D&D 4th Edition, I’m excited about running it, and I want people to be excited about playing it- but I’d like that to be true for any kind of Crunch-based gaming. This is me advocating crunch-based play, and for people to think twice before they snidely compare ‘roll-play’ and ‘role-play’- both crunch and fluff have something to offer.

Fluff, Crunch: Why Gamism?

Recently, I talked about the interaction between Fluff and Crunch in roleplaying, and I framed the question: “Why have Fluff in Gamist play?”

Savvy readers may have recognized the true question behind the question- “Why Gamist play at all?” After all, if you take the Fluff away (or most of it away), you don’t have a roleplaying game anymore; you have a boardgame or a card game, or some sort of game that may more strongly focus on the tactical elements of play, and arguably, may provide a more satisfying play experience.

So, how does the presence of the Fluff add to the Gamist play experience?

In my opinion, it all comes down to the stakes of the challenge. Because the challenge is what it’s all about.

In a game like Magic, or Shadowfist, or Descent, or Battlelore, what’s at stake is just who wins. (Unless you’re in tournament play, in which case the stakes may be much much higher.) All you get is the bragging rights for a game well played, a battle well fought, and a certain superiority of skill. This is all fun.

However, in a tabletop roleplaying game, the Fluff adds story, background, and consequences, especially in recurring play. In Battlelore, the fate of the kingdom isn’t really at stake (even if you’re playing a scenario with that as ‘background’.) In Dungeons and Dragons, it might be. This adds extra risk and reward- your character can develop connections or fail their relationships, you might achieve a stunning victory over a hated foe, or an agonizing failure. These victories and failures are magnified by Fluff considerations. It’s one thing to save the token representing the Princess in Descent. It’s another to save the princess in D&D, especially if you’ve had previous interactions with her and she’s established as a character, and your victory will color future interacitons with her (or your failure will color interactions with other characters.) Now, more is at stake than just social considerations of victory or loss- something more envisionable is being wagered at the gaming table.

The biggest thing one can wager, of course, is the play of one’s character. A good gamist system won’t simply risk one’s character for no reason. (In 3rd edition, mid-high level D&D made death a temporary setback, though there is the possibility for some permanent character loss.) When character death is on the table, the risks are higher (and the rewards should be higher to compensate). This is a signal to everyone that it is on. Loss here involves an investment of time, mental consideration, and established connections and story-hooks, which are much harder to replace than magic items, gold, or kidnapped princesses.

Fluff, Crunch, Gamism, and Simulationism

Ain’t that a mouthful. Let’s get to some provisional definitions. These should be pretty much all you need to understand this post:

When I’m talking about Crunch here, I’m talking about pretty much everything mechanical, rules-oriented, and systematic in a game.

When I’m talking about Fluff here, I’m talking about setting, story, background text, character motivations, and pretty much everything non-mechanical in a game.

When I’m talking about Gamist play, I’m talking about play that focuses on tactical and strategic play, on the thrill of the challenge.

When I’m talking about Simulationist play, I’m talking about play that focuses on Exploration- zooming in on parts of the story, whether that be the characters, the setting, or just what’s going on, and really focusing on ‘being there,’ ‘immersing,’ or doing your best to ‘roleplay’ your character. I’m going to abbreviate this as Sim play, because Simulationist is a mouthful.

(Those with any experience with the Big Model, or desire to learn more about it, should be aware that I’m over-simplifying Simulationism here, for a very specific subset of Sim-oriented play, I’m also talking about system-heavy Gamism- there’s a sort of object-model problem-solving sort of Gamism that I’m not really personally interested in. And that there’s that third type of play (or Creative Agenda) called Narrativism, but that’s really not relevant to this essay.)

First, I posit that for you to have a roleplaying game, you need both Fluff and Crunch. The real question then is how do those two things interact? If one is writing a new game, or gamemastering a game and setting up a session, or being a player and making a character, how does one go about selecting Crunch and Fluff?

In Sim play, the Fluff comes first. The Fluff is what the game is about- playing the characters, immersing in the setting, really being there. (Whether ‘there’ is Glorantha or Greyhawk or Faerun or Long Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away.) The Crunch is secondary to the Fluff, and should back it up- for example, if you’re playing D&D 3rd Edition, and in the setting, knights in shining armor with magic swords are supposed to be the best, but spiked-chain fighters keep kicking the knight’s butts, you’ve got a problem. According to the Fluff, the knights with swords should win. When the Crunch contradicts the Fluff, suspension of disbelief goes away, and the story goes wrong. When the Crunch backs up the Fluff, and the Sword-Knights of Baltazar have special ass-kicking feats and prestige classes that let them do whatever it is they’re supposed to do, all is right in the world.

For Sim play, ‘balanced’ Crunch accurately reflects and simulates the nature of the genre/setting. ‘Realistic’ systems should behave in a generally believeable fashion; ‘cinematic’ systems should allow for more epic events and play, and if the source material says the Sword-Knights are the baddest dudes around, they need to actually be the baddest dudes around.

(One may ask, “why have Crunch at all in Simulationist play?” This is a good question, worthy of pondering, and one I’m not qualified to answer, but the existence of the question clearly is a driving force between GM-fiat and ‘just make it up’ mechanics. See World of Darkness games for a strong example.)

Now let’s look at Gamism, which is what I’m really interested in here.

Gamism is all about that challenge. In Gamism the Crunch comes first, system is how the challenge is addressed and faced. Play is about kicking ass and taking names. (Perhaps directly, in games where the subject matter deals with physical conflict, or metaphorical kicking ass, in games with a different subject matter.) The Fluff largely provides a backdrop for the conflict.

In contrast with Sim play, in Gamist, ‘balanced’ Crunch is that which provides a wide open tactical arena, with few strictly superior choices. If a certain character build option or play strategy is always superior, then the system isn’t balanced. The Gamist player doesn’t care how sweet the Sword-Knights are supposed to be; they have to play by the same rules as everyone else, and if they aren’t prepared to face the spiked-chain fighter, boo-fricking-hoo. (Next time, buy a seconary ranged weapon.)

The Fluff here, exists in service to the Crunch, backing it up. The question then, is “Why have Fluff at all?” In some cases, the answer is to abandon the Fluff (or mostly abandon it), and then go play a boardgame instead. (Descent, for example, has many of the same trappings as D&D, but it is certainly not a roleplaying game.) But in other situations, the Fluff makes the play stronger.

To be continued…

Girls With Unusual Names

At the local WalMart, here’s some names you might find up at the cash registers:

Athena, Candy, Cheyenne, Nhia, Sadie, and of course, Willow.

Awesome Adventures: Lulu Site Back Up

My problems over on Lulu have been fixed. However, if you do have problems ordering Awesome Adventures, send me an email, and we’ll work something out.

Awesome Adventures: Lulu Site Down

I’m having some technical problems over on Lulu. If you’re looking to get a hold of a copy of Awesome Adventures, print or PDF, send me an email. I have a limited stockpile of books, so I can still sell them to interested parties.