Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Road from Dullsville to Thrilltown

At Kobold Quarterly today: Spicing up journeys.

Journeys are part of the myths we try to capture in RPGs. From the Odyssey and Anabasis of the Greeks, to Huck and Jim’s trip down the Mississippi, to films such as The Hidden Fortress and Saving Private Ryan, journeys serve as both vehicles for adventure and as metaphors for the heroes’ movement toward self-discovery.

RPGs don’t focus much on internal journeys to self-improvement, but the journey is still a fine tool for adventure. The best approach is to deal with the literal journey from point A to point B and let players apply their own symbolic meaning to the trip, if they choose.

Even a straightforward journey isn’t about interminable walking or riding; there’s no excitement in that. It’s about what characters meet along the way. (more ...)

Friday, March 23, 2012

John Carter

John Carter is shaping up to be the mega-flop movie of the year, if not of the decade. That's a huge shame, because while I think the movie is well short of perfect, it's still very, very good.

I'm a huge fan of planetary/lost world romances in general and of the Barsoom stories in particular, so I walked into the theater with a positive bias. I had high hopes but low expectations. That wasn't because I disliked the trailers but because I have so much scar tissue from earlier incidents of Hollywood digging its cheese-stained fingernails into cherished novels.

As expected, the film diverged from the original. That used to anger me, but it doesn't anymore. Films and books need to tell stories differently. I'm now willing to give filmmakers a lot of leeway, as long as they preserve the heart and feel of the characters and their story. In that, I think John Carter succeeds admirably--with one glaring, gut-wrenching, near fatal exception.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kobold Quarterly--Respect the Lowly Dungeon

Geomorph by Glenn Judd
In today's Howling Tower installment at Kobold Quarterly: deep, dark dungeons have their hooks in me, and they won't let go.

It's taken as gospel by many fantasy roleplayers that in the bad old days, all campaigns were about dungeons. Characters left the dungeon and returned to town only for healing and to replenish supplies. They might have a few random encounters between the town and the dungeon, but those were nothing more than distractions from the main event, which took place entirely underground. This is a nice myth, but it's a complete distortion of the truth.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Effects vs. Meanings

Here you are, with your core rulebooks, your expansion books, and a sheaf of online articles with options for your character. What do you do with them?

If you’re like me, you spend at least some time thinking about the differences between effects and meanings.

On Wednesday, Brendan pointed me to this entry of the Hack & Slash blog, “On the Failure of Tactical Combat.” Don’t let the title fool you; it’s really about associative vs. dissociative game effects. I’ve always examined those concepts under different labels that come from wargaming: design for cause (associative) and design for effect (dissociative). 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Complexity and Option Fatigue

Part of this week's discussion about D&D revisions, "Complexity and Option Fatigue," is over at Kobold Quarterly.

For the first half of D&D's life (back in the AD&D days), the game's complexity arose mainly from its open-endedness and its presentation. Players and DMs had to be skillful at navigating the game's labyrinth of rulebooks, which were laced with exclusive and often contradictory rules. 

That shifted with the release of 3rd Edition. For the last fifteen years or so, most of D&D's complexity has come from what system analysts call option fatigue but is more commonly known as information overload.

(more ...)

Dysfunctional and Co-Dependent

A sad element of the RPG industry is the codependent, self-destructive relationship between D&D players and the game's publisher, whether that's TSR or Wizards of the Coast.

This unhappy bond doesn't afflict smaller publishers. It's a waste product of turning D&D into big business.

It stems in part from the dirty little secret of D&D: once you've bought the basic rules and a book of monsters, you don't need anything else. You can play D&D for the rest of your life without ever spending another shekel.

Small publishers don't stumble over this. The writer/designer with a day job who devoted countless evenings and weekends to pushing out an RPG that enjoys slow but steady rulebook sales doesn't depend on sales volume to pay the bills. The garage operation with one or two full-timers and a handful of freelancers can survive on just two or three high-quality releases a year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Revise?

The question that every D&D blogger has looked at since January is, "what do I hope for in D&D Next?"

Everyone has had a few months now to calm down after the announcement of D&D Next. A few groups have gotten to sample the first public iteration of the rules at conventions or playtest them at home. No one's allowed to openly discuss the nitty-gritty yet, but those NDA restrictions will be relaxed before long, I expect.

I'm going to devote this week to looking at what a new edition of D&D means: the history of new editions, why revision is necessary, the relationship between players and publishers, and the effect of a new edition on players, campaigns, and the gaming community.

Every new edition seeks to fix problems in the previous edition. Whatever those problems are, they need to be big. Fans don't like switching from edition X to edition X+1. A transition can be exciting and it can energize a flagging campaign, but it's also laborious, expensive, and divisive. If the revision doesn't tackle big issues, then it's not worth the players' time, expense, and effort.

The key here—and I'm going to return to this notion more than once—is that those problems tend to bother game designers more than they bother players. Players get accustomed to the game's idiosyncrasies, rough spots, and breakdowns. Some players even come to like them. R&D's tolerance for component failure is lower than the playing public's, for a host of reasons. (Of course, sales play a role, too. I'll delve into that a bit more on Wednesday.)

Let's take a short stroll through past editions and consider each version's problems that the next iteration tried to fix.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Space Family Robinson

Ran across this while prowling the web today -- the lifepod. Now I want one. This one. Never mind that there's no apparent way in or out. As my nuclear engineering prof used to say, "that's a technical problem, and eventually it will have a technical solution." Regardless of whether you fear a zombie apocalypse, mutated slugs the size of Gabriel Iglesias (I'm assuming they can't climb cables), or just damp rot creeping up from the forest litter, this could be your sanctuary. Or maybe you'd just really like to have a beautiful view of the rainforest while surfing the web and streaming Netflix via satellite. Maybe I'll get three and string zip lines between them for transit.

* At grist.org, "a beacon in the smog." It's well worth the visit. I'd never heard of it until today, which says more about my preoccupations than about it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

War Gods of the Deep

Last night I indulged one of my favorite pastimes by watching a film that many would consider "trashy sci-fi" but that I find gloriously entertaining -- War Gods of the Deep, starring Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, and Susan Hart (American International Pictures, 1965).

Low-budget SF movies from the 50s and 60s have a charm that you just can't find anywhere else. It's not  innocence -- I don't think the world was ever particularly innocent, especially not in Hollywod. Maybe it's more a matter of  earnestness. Throw in some H. G. Wells/Edgar Poe flavor and it just gets better.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Racial Discrimination

Over at Kobold Quarterly: Racial Discrimination.

No, not that type of discrimination.

Fantasy roleplayers love their nonhuman races. What started in AD&D with elves, dwarves, halflings, half-elves, and half-orcs has mushroomed into dozens of player-character races in RPGs. Players seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for more races to dabble with. The choices have expanded from humans through the so-called demihumans and well into subhuman, suprahuman, inhuman, and not-the-least-bit human.
Yet, in too many cases, they’re all still basically human. (read more ...)