Category Archives: Rants

Horror is Other People

I just finished reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which may be one of the best books I have ever read. I had to stop reading it at work because it was affecting me emotionally, and I just finished up with a several-hour stretch of reading in one go. It’s a massive book, that you cannot put down.

I have a memory from middle school, where an English teacher told us that a good story invokes an emotional response- that if you are reviewing another person’s story, even if you don’t like the content, if the text incites emotion inside you, even if you don’t like that emotion, it is good writing. (Perhaps excluding such things as someone with an opinion you passionately disagreeing with provoking anger. But then, maybe they conveyed their hateful position really well.)

This is perhaps the most relevant thing to writing that public schools have ever taught me.

I am a relative newcomer to King’s work; I started a few years ago with the Dark Tower series, read 1408, then moved up to It, ‘Salem’s Lot, and recently Under the Dome, borrowed from Tim’s shelves or found on the bargain bin at Half Price Books.

Throughout those three novels, there is a supernatural element to be sure- It, the vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the Dome. And the supernatural element does some pretty horrifying things. But the scenes that left the biggest emotional impressions in all three books were deeds done by normal people to normal people.

The supernatural dulls the pain. We expect the vampire to drink from the damsel, the zombies to eat the brains, the werewolf to tear people to shreds, and whatever the hell It is to do whatever the hell it is that It does. We read the lurid descriptions of gore, but does it scare us? Does it touch us?

King has a knack for ensemble casts; so there’s always the chance to throw in a scene with a normal person doing unimaginable things to normal people. And when it’s a normal person doing the killing (or worse), we don’t necessarily need the gory description. The act itself is enough. It hits closer to home. We weren’t expecting it, we weren’t prepared for it, and the real horror is evident.

(This is particularly obvious in Under the Dome, where the Dome is essentially a Dues ex Machina to crank the isolation up to 11 and focus in on imperfect characters in a stressful situation.)

As a writer, I feel this is an important realization. Horror needs to have a human element. Otherwise it’s just a monster mash.

As a gamer, to an extent I feel I already knew this: play close to home. Horror’s pretty hard to come by in D&D, where you have wizards and knights and orcs; it’s easier in Vampire which is set in the modern day (but you still have vampires and werewolves and mages, oh my). Dogs in the Vineyard? There’s a supernatural element, but it’s subdued. Sorcerers are other people. Human, imperfect people, doing evil to other people. You’ll get a look of shock in Dogs. You’ll be the horror yourself. Jeepform games take this all the way to the edge; your character might be a cutout, and you have to mentally project yourself onto it, you deal with real world issues, and the emotions are your own.

But when you know this you can still have horror with the fantastic; you just have to keep it close to home. Escape from Tentacle City works because it starts largely as camp parody, but the characters evolve and become human as the game goes on- you find yourself killing off people you actually find you care about. Wicked Nights makes the conflicts largely about humans and human interests- vampires are largely antagonists. If you want horror in D&D (and it certainly can be done), you have to make the victims human (either not just cut outs if they’re PCs, and not just background cast if they’re NPCs). Disturb the player.

Because horror is not a vampire, or a dragon, or an indescribable monster. Horror is other people.

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Die Macher, Die Acher

Consider that title a badly mangled pun about auctions. And aches. It’s there if you stare at it enough.

Last night I got a chance to play Die Macher, which is widely considered one of those games everyone should play at least once. It is 26 on Board Game Geek’s top 100 games. (Then again Twilight Struggle is number 3, so what the hell do they know?)

The game takes four damn hours. There’s tons of fiddly bits. (But not as many if it were Fantasy Flight Presents Die Macher). There is some needless randomness. But at the heart of it, you have a very tight, vicious auction game.

Lots of games you might not expect to be auction games have auction elements- any sort of bid for first player can play a role. Battlestar Gallactica has auction elements. (This is most evident when you have a skill challenge that people vocally differ on, such as brigging someone or freeing them from the brig, or when known cylons play into challenges.) CCG booster drafts are an auction.

What’s an auction? You have some resources that you turn, usually into another type of resources, which turn into points. One or more of those rates of exchange is variable, set by interplayer relationships.
(I suppose you can have a game where you bid directly for points- but that seems rather simplistic and unengaging. Take Six is the closest I can come up with, but that involves forming sets, which might be construed as another resource.)
For Sale is probably the simplest example of this: in the first round, you bid money for houses. The bids keep going up, and when you drop out, you take the worst available house. Bid the most, pay the most, take the best prize. Bid the least, pay the least (nothing in this case), take the worst prize. That goes on until all the houses are gone. Then we bid on checks- everyone secretly selects a house, and we see the checks that are in play. Bid the most, get the best prize. Bid the least, get the worst prize. Checks are worth victory points. (So is money, so you have an incentive both to save your money, and make sure your houses gain more income for you than they costed.)

Most auction games fit this feedback cycle. You have a primary resource that you use for bidding, which you turn into other resources, which you use to actually do stuff. Stuff gets you points. Because there’s a layer of mechanics between the first type of currency and the points, you can’t be certain what the second type of currency is actually worth. The fun of an auction game comes from making that estimation- both of the ‘actual’ value of the resource, the opportunity cost (what else could you do given the same resources?) and how much you’re willing to pay to make sure someone else doesn’t get it.

Take another example, you have Beowulf, which has as it’s primary resources cards with various symbols. Through various challenges, you can turn these into points, or into other things- treasures, more cards, really special cards, or avoiding bad things. How many points is a card worth? How many points is one of the tier 2 currencies, like a treasure, treaty, or special card worth? Those are the judgment calls one has to make. Often the prize itself is a currency in another auction- feedback.

In a Magic booster draft, the auction cycle involves the primary resource of picks, a secondary resource of cards, a tertiary resource of your actual deck you build, and a victory condition of games won. Everyone gets the same number of picks, from a reasonably balanced starting platform. You turn a pick, the right to take a card, into a card. You turn lots of cards into a (hopefully) competitive deck. You win games with your deck to do well in the tournament. (Which is also an auction, because that gives you prizes, which make your collection position better for trading and constructed events…) Consider how the dynamic of the auction changes if feedback elements are introduced- if after winning a game, you get to take a card from the loser’s deck (gaining more cards), or games where you get to keep all the cards you draft (those cards go directly into your metaresources), versus those where the rares go to the winners. Or if you drafted decks from two packs, played a game, drafted cards from another pack, played another game, drafted cards from a fourth pack, and played a final game.

So what’s this got to do with Die Macher? Essentially, too much feedback, and resources which are too random. The resources you have are money, dudes, media, special cards, opinions (sorta), and polls. Money buys dudes and media at a fairly fixed rate, and opinions change slowly that your primary resource is certainly money (it’s also the only thing not worth points of any kind.) The only two things with an actual bid on them are turn order and opinion polls. Right of turn order should have obvious benefits to any seasoned game player. The opinion polls are basically a random boost or penalty to a certain player in an area. They are very potent, but unreliable- and they are one of the biggest interfaces with the other players. I liked the feedback cycle created by many of the game components (which are really too complex to explain here), but the fact that the primary thing you bid on sometimes doesn’t even help you when you get it- that seems a bit odd for such an otherwise precise game.

Advancement is Fun

I haven’t posted a gameplay rant in a long time. Let’s change that.

Character advancement is fun. Games, especially long form games, with little or no advancement are less fun.

I want my character to get better every single session of play.

Consider the Xbox. You might think it’s unfair to compare rpgs to video games, but the fact is I do it all the time- if your game sucks, I’m going to have to go home and play Xbox. The game I am playing, at the table, at any given time, needs to be more fun than Xbox.

If I play a typical console rpg, I can count on gaining a level roughly ever hour of play or so. The extent to which this buffs my character varies- with some rpgs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it can be a fairly significant increase, giving me options of how to increase my stats and abilities, with some rpgs, like Final Fantasy 7, it’s effectively an increase to just my stats- a little less involved, however the level cap in Final Fantasy 7 is 99- I’m going to be leveling much more often, and there’s the whole Materia subsystem too.

SO, I can churn out levels all day at home. (I’ll use ‘churn’ instead of ‘grind’ here, since I’m assuming the rest of the process is fun. I typically don’t ‘grind,’ because I could be playing other and better games.) Is it so much to ask for leveling opportunities every session?

Apparently so. The convention rpg wisdom seems to be that character advancement should be slow and arduous, so it is cherished when it happens. Bullshit. I want to cherish that level up every single week.

Now, depending on your design space, this can be problematic. Consider D&D 4th edition- if you level after every session, you won’t have much time to really get a feel for the level and the new tactical loadout. After over a year of playing this, I can say as both a player that you want a few sessions for each level, because each one plays a bit differently than the next- but I’m always eagerly waiting the next level up, no matter what side of the screen I’m on. But is it so hard to imagine a level-based game with a level cap of 100, where you gained a level (and a tangible buff of some sort) every session? Take Savage Worlds- the rules as written recommend handing out 2-3 xp per session- it takes 5 to level up your character and gain a new ability. I hand out 5 per session when I run Savage Worlds. I don’t even keep track of them- just the advancement gained.

Magic items are another reward in D&D. Unfortunately, there’s a design quota here too- I can’t realistically expect to get a magic item every session, or even one every other session. What can the game reward me with those sessions I’m not leveling up or getting magic items? Other forms of loot is a good stop gap measure- there should always be some sort of reward every session. Period. I’ve been guilty of being stingy with loot and then handing out massive bundles later to make up for it, but sitting in the player’s chair has made me take notice that I want stuff, and I want it now.

So, if you’re designing or running a level-based game, and you aren’t leveling up the characters every session, ask yourself how you can reward them every session.

Point systems, like White Wolf, Deadlands, HERO, etc are a different animal. You gain a certain number of points every level, typically very small, and spend them on different things- something little is pretty cheap, whereas something big is more expensive.

If you’re running one of these games, you should always give enough so someone could make a small incremental change to their character, or make larger changes in a reasonable amount of time. The player decides how they spend their points, but it should always feel like they have a choice to get an advance if they want it- enough to raise one of their lower skills by a point perhaps, or save up for a few sessions to raise a higher one. A technique I quite like is to give constant small awards, coupled with rarer large awards- players can get a small upgrade every session, and then purchase a more expensive upgrade at the end of an adventure- there is both constant increase, and occasional large increase.

Anyone who’s dabbled in psychology or economics can tell you that incentives are the key to behavior. Character advancement is the incentive driving games. To make your games as fun as possible, make advancement as fun as possible- give options, make there be different kinds of advancement, and make it as frequent as the game will handle it.

That’s Not What Awesome Adventures Is

Just found this post about the Indie RPG Awards. Wish I had stumbled onto it earlier so I could participate in a more timely fashion.

And you know what, I pretty much agree: Awesome Adventures is not Award quality material. I didn’t nominate it for the award, and I don’t know who did. I wrote it for two reasons 1) I wasn’t 100% satisfied with SotC as written, and 2) I wanted to get experience as a game writer and designer.

And it’s also true that large sections of the text are taken wholesale from the SotC SRD, or simply restated in my own words, which is a decision, a year and a half later, I regret- well, regret is a strong way of saying it, but if I wrote it today, I present it quite a bit differently.

But it’s not fair to say Awesome Adventures has 85% of the test of SotC. It’s not even 85% of the size of SotC, which I think is a feature, not a bug. Awesome Adventures is a mean, lean, tight book, with the best parts of the FATE system, and everything else stripped out. And yes, it’s completely derivative.
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All Games Must Be Played

I ran a game of All Flesh Must Be Eaten tonight.  It was fun, but it really highlighted for me why I don’t like a lot of traditional games.

You know what I mean by “traditional.”  Hardcover book.  Supplements.  Rules are essentially in-game physics.  GM interpretation is pretty much all.  I brought this on myself; Brendan’s wife Angela was roleplaying for if not the first one of the first times, and it was research for a story, so I wanted something that was indicative of “standard” roleplaying, not something more fringe and indie like Zombie Cinema or Escape from Tentacle City.

For one, it’s tiring.

I had pretty much 24 hours notice that I was running again.  (I volunteered.  I’m a sucker for punishment.)  I had to refamiliarize myself with a game I had never played (I’d played other Unisystem games), make six characters, make some zombies, and think about the situation, setting, and things that might happen.  After all, I’m the GM, everything pretty much comes from me.  This took a lot of time an energy.  Compare to ZC or EfTC, either of which are no prep (and no-GM for that matter).  I like making characters, and that’s usually done by the players, but it wasn’t particularly interesting.  I feel that a ‘campaign’ for this game would be annoying to prep.

Because really, it’s all about the GM.

In these games, the whole story framework rests on the GM.  The players have quite a bit of creative input, but the GM is the one who sets the scenes, closes the scenes, decides what happens, when, where, and how it happens.  This is also exhausting during play.  I felt this during Steal Away Jordan, and I felt it during All Flesh Must Be Eaten- it’s really tiring coming up with every scene, scene after scene.  (And combine this with the above, plotting opposition, floor plans, NPC behaviors… I don’t know how we did it!)  I find myself prefering games where either the players get a say in scene dealies (the strong player authorship focus of FATE, for example), or ones where the game itself has built in pacing mechanisms (many games with a scene economy do something like this, such as Polaris or Burning Empires.)  Even Agon puts the players largely in control of the type of scenes they have, and a budget for the GM is an incredibly useful tool.  In fact, I’ve found the 3 encounters per adventure basic rule of thumb and the xp budgets for encounters in D&D 4th edition wonderfully useful for plotting encounters.

I don’t like Rules as Game Physics

What I mean by this is the idea that game rules are sort of a system for what happens within the fictional world.  I prefer rules being a system for determining what happens next within the story.  If this doesn’t make any sense to you, consider that the first prioritizes things like “realism,” and the latter tends to prioritize things like “drama.”

It’s also a heavy burden on the GM to be the sole arbiter and interpreter of every roll.  Games with things like stakes or empasis on opposed rolls or player narration divide up those duties, dislocating some decisions from one person, either making them irrelevant and built into the game, or the conflict really being about who gets to say.  (Or even more interesting and complex things.)

Roll to Hit Round After Round is Boring

<an, after playing D&D 4th, I don’t know how I can go back to this.  I mean in the current version of D&D, you’ve got so many different choices each turn.  Even if all your big powers are gone, you’ve still got two different spiffy cool at-will attacks you can do, so the wizard always can choose between (say) Magic Missile and Scorching Burst, and the fighter can either Cleave or Reaping Strike.  There’s always a meaningful choice each round.

In the old days, you could “do whatever you wanted,” which usually was to attack.  I hit, I miss, I hit, chip away at hit points ad nauseum.  The conventional wisdom was that you livened this up with interesting discriptions for your actions.  But the actual activity going on is the same damn thing round after round, session after session.  This is exactly how combat is in lots of games, not just older versions of D&D or Unisystem, but most roleplaying games out there.  You’ve maybe got some powers, maybe some maneuvers, maybe some resources to fiddle with, but for the most part you have a cool move that you do turn after turn after turn.

The gameplay solution is clear: make every turn matter, and every turn interesting.  D&D 4 does this.  Agon does this.  Burning Wheel does this.

The opposite direction is to make fights a single die roll, or series of short die rolls- at least, the same system you’d use for any other opposed roll.  I think this is the right move for most non-combaty games.

I’d really be happy seeing more of either- exciting nuanced systems with lots of crannies and options that change from round to round, or streamlined systems that let you resolve the damn fight and move on to what really matters- the characters.

Bordering on Madness

Finished up the page borders for Escape from Tentacle City.  This was made difficult by the fact that Ubuntu doesn’t have a good Paint type program.  Sure, it’s got Gimp, but that has way too many bells and whistles and distractions. I downloaded about five or six programs, and they all sucked.  Either no mouse over text, or no ability to resize the page, or no undo function.  I programmed a paint application when I was in high school.  How hard can it be for the Ubuntu community to make a paint program that doesn’t suck?

Anyway, Tim brought up one of his Windows computers from the basement to calibrate his iPhone.  So I booted it up, used the paint program, and tinkered around with the border images.  They’re pretty sweet, Jason Morningstar designed them, but they’re 6×9, and I really need something that’s 12×9 to wrap around the whole page spread.  So I spent some time tinkering with them to make them suitable for what I’m going for.

This Vaguely Bothers Me

In Left 4 Dead, each campaign is five levels: Level 5 is the Finale, level 1 is the easy/start level, and levels 2-4 all have Creshendo Events.

Except there’s no Creshendo Event in Blood Harvest 4!

I was thinking about this last night, and I had to play through the level to confirm this.  Nothing.  It’s just strangely lacking.

Whiff Factor in Burning Wheel

It’s been a long time since I’ve complained about something for no reason.  Time for a rant.

The Whiff Factor is too high in Burning Wheel.

Let’s say you’re running a game, and there’s a fight.  You’ve got an extended conflict-resolution system (say, most combat systems) in place, and lots of people are taking lots of actions.  When it’s your turn, something should happen, right?

In a lot of systems, something doesn’t always happen.  That’s what leads to boring fights with “I hit… I miss… I hit… I miss.”  Those “I miss” turns are boring- nothing changes.  The game-state is the same as it was before.  The “I hit” turns are better- you’re wearing down the opponent, but an exercise in attrition is still pretty boring.

The best fights I’ve run or played were those were the game-state was constantly changing.  D&D 4th is actually often surprisingly good for this with the tactical map- even if you’ve got turns of hit/miss/hit/miss, there are lots of monster and character types that like to move around for tactical opportinities.  Those fights are pretty interesting- where can you position yourself for maximum benefit?  The answer changes from turn to turn.  I ran an Exalted game with abstract positioning that due to the stunting of the players, moved from place to place during the fight, and had a real great wuxia-feel.  An often in Awesome Adventures (or Spirit of the Century), you’ll see an expenditure of Fate chips (and therefore a display of awesome.)

And, sometimes Burning Wheel is like this.  The Fight! rules have a lot of tension to them, trying to figure out what the enemy is going to do.  But then you get turns like Block/Block where nothing happens.  You can get entire exchanges where nothing happens.  And that is all the more likely due to armor.

When I ran the demo scenario the Gift at Oshcon in 2007, I ran into this.  The scenario features a Dwarven prince with decent armor, and an Elven prince with very rare mithral armor.  The whole scenario is pretty much about the dwarves wanting the mithral.

Our game featured a duel between the princes.  Such an epic fight cried out to use the Fight! rules, so use them we did.  What a mistake.  The way armor works is you roll a number of dice (and in this case, we were talking like 4-5), and if any come up 4 or higher, you deflect the attack entirely!  (Some attacks might need more successes.)  But your armor might degrade- which I’ve found to be a mitigator in less high-level fights.  But these were high-quality armors, which made them highly unlikely to degrade.  We called the fight as soon as one of the combatants (the Dwarf) got a good hit in, but the fight could have been still far-from over.

So yeah, I think the whiff-factor is huge, especially when things like armor come into play.  Kind of annoying, and drags out Fights!  Other than that, the scenario was pretty awesome (especially with Sara joining mid-session as crazy Auntie Oxen.)

Twilight

I can only come to one possible conclusion about the popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.  It’s everywhere.  Everyone’s reading it.  Everyone’s talking about it.  But it’s utter crap.

Twilight, you see, is the lowest common denominator of vampire fiction.

A young girl meets an older vampire.  And then he tries to push her away, because he’s a vampire and she’s not.  And then she finds out.  But they’re in loooove.  (For some reason.)  And also there’s evil vampires, and a feud between vampires and werewolves (who are native americans.)  But love prevails.

I think I liked that story better when it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  (Well, without the clear foreshadowing to a conflict from Underworld/White Wolf/Dracula vs. the Wolfman, or wherever the whole “vampires hate werewolves” schlock-meme came from.)  Compared to the acting of Twilight’s male lead Robert Pattinson’s acting performance, David Boreanis looks like Jim Carrey and Anthony Hopkins rolled into one.

The characters lack any depth, complexity, or real motives for their actions.  The vampires seem to be broody for broodiness’s sake.  The lovers pursue their love because they love each other- and they love each other because she smells nice and he’s mysterious.  And the bad vampire is bad because he’s bad.

The lessons of this movie are damaging:  teen love at first sight is true and pure and noble, if someone is a complete asshole to you then you can someday have a healthy relationship with them, and it’s okay for teen-girl masturbation-fodder to somehow become a bestseller with movie rights.

There’s no horror in the vampiric condition in Twilight; you get your pick of powers from your favorite White Wolf splatbooks, you never have to sleep/rest/go into a coffin, you can go outside during the day if it’s even vaguely cloudy, and you get to be good looking, immortal, and mysterious.  Oh, but you have to be in high school forever.  (Oh noes, high school!  Perhaps an 22 year old actor wasn’t the best choice to play someone who’s supposed to be perpetually 17?)  Also, if you go out in sunlight, people might find out that you’re DAVID BOWIE.  Wait, what?

Pseudointellectualism

The use of that word is, in and of itself, an act of pseudointellectualism.