World Building: Inclusivity

Kotaku recently published an article on queerness in the D&D game. To be more specific, this article is about the inclusion of queer people and, more specifically, a glimpse into their lives as normal, accepted citizens of imaginary worlds. The fifth edition Player’s Handbook, for the first time in D&D history, makes a bold statement about sexuality and gender. It encourages you to imagine different. Several official D&D adventures depict queer couples or families. Many other games have similar modes of presentation, nodding toward normalcy. All these steps are positive. However, a few failures of imagination exist with regard to depicting this sort of equality in games and other media. (1)

PHInclusive
So you don’t need to break out your PH.

Full transparency, I’m not queer. I am, however, strongly pro civil rights and inclusivity. But, when we were working on the fifth edition of the D&D game, I made a mistake regarding this issue. James Wyatt drafted that statement about sex and gender for the Player’s Handbook. I read it. I said to myself, maybe a little nervously, and giving in to internalized cultural pressure, “This goes without saying. D&D has always been about freedom to be who you want to be in the game.” I fired off an email to Jeremy Crawford, the D&D Managing Editor and Sage, to that effect. That email is proof that I had failed to imagine what the book’s clear statement would mean, and does mean, to queer folks marginalized in our society, even at our gaming tables.Read More »

Surviving

Let's go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.
Let’s go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.

I’ve been playing Fallout 4′s beta Survival difficulty mode. It’s good. The mode certainly meshes with my normal play style, but Survival also improves the feel of the game. How a game feels is paramount. Mechanics have to speak to the genre and the narrative. Survival pumps Fallout 4′s feel up to the right notch, adding a little something I missed without quite knowing it.

See, when I’m not experimenting with a ridiculous, chemmed-up melee fighter or a run-and-gun soldier, I default to careful play style. I use stealth and sniping to avoid “fair” confrontations. (You know, like you would.) When I set up for sniping, I lay mines on predictable approaches to my position. I avoid companions, sometimes even the lovable and helpful Dogmeat, because companions draw enemy attention, attack without tactical cooperation, and sometimes plain get in the way. (The Lone Wanderer perk is all me.) I explore nooks and crannies, and acquire the perks needed to unlock and hack everything. I’m cautious, methodical, and curious.

Survival asks you to be all three of those things. If it asked more of some and less of others, it’d go from being good to being great.Read More »

Shotgunning

This entry is a little scattershot. I have a few things to let you know before I delve back into meaty essays on specific topics.

Speaking of topics, I have plenty. However, in my first post, I asked what folks might like me to write about. A commenter pointed out, wisely, that I should tell you what I’m interested in. Maybe that list will help you pick something you want to know. Maybe I’ll even be able to give a decent answer.

It’s not exhaustive, but here’s that list:Read More »

The Geek Way

In most dictionaries, the definition of “geek” is way behind the times. It’s still classified a pejorative term that implies negative qualities or insular, intellectual behavior. Synonyms include dork, freak, nerd, and weirdo—basically a social misfit.

The reason I say this sort of definition, and the people who still use it, are behind the times is because geek has been moving toward chic since Revenge of the Nerds (1984) was in theaters. As the dorks of the 80s grew up and became business leaders, computer specialists, game designers, scientists, writers, and other sorts of accomplished professionals, “geek” has become synonymous with success and disposable income.

The word is also used in common parlance to denote someone who is passionately enthusiastic, in a positive way, about a subject, job, or hobby. You can be a kayaking geek, a computer geek, a yoga geek, confectioner geek, and so on. In fact, most mature geeks I know fit into a range of geek types rather than single-minded enthusiasts. Plenty of “cool people” self identify as some sort of geek.

I’m a gaming geek. Chances are, since you’re reading this, so are you.

Other than being passionate about games, gaming geeks are often considered to be extremely cerebral and introverted. We can be pedantic, judgmental, and cliquish. All these traits can lend to the social-misfit stereotype, especially in a culture where “intellectual” is sometimes touted as an unfavorable trait. The basement-dwelling troglodyte cliché persists despite the fact that geekdom has crossed innumerable boundaries.

The worst boundaries I see in my gaming life, however, are those limits we gaming geeks impose on ourselves. Again, we can be pedantic, judgmental, and cliquish, as well as hyperintellectual and plain snobby. Rather than retain a sense of wonder and experiment, we can adhere to onerightwayisms and badwrongfunisms. We define ourselves as simulationists or gamists, roleplayer or tactical, video gamer or tabletop gamer, as if those terms have any extant value beyond the realm of personal preference. Forgetting that our games and their settings are imaginary, we look for truths in them and about them. Such “truths” are no more existent than the made-up milieus to which we apply them. (Stephen Radney-MacFarland of NeoGrognard is a great one to discuss this subject with.)

Don’t feel persecuted if you believe you’re in such a category. I’ve been there, too. But I’ve been blessed with diversity of exposure and experience that has made me see the error of my ways. In the domain of personal fantasy and fun, the only right way is the one on which the participants agree. “Official” stances, canon, metaplots, and rules be damned.

All games I’ve played had their value and an influence on my beliefs and design methods. In Wizards R&D, I’ve gotten strange looks because I said I like GURPS. Sure, GURPS isn’t any form of D&D, but it has its virtues and flaws, just like D&D does. Playing GURPS, even as dungeon-crawling fantasy, is less abstract than playing D&D in a similar mode. But GURPS, and its first cousin Savage Worlds, suffers from static disadvantages that characters can have, the roleplaying of which is governed only by the vigilance of the GM and player.

FATE (Dresden Files RPG) and Cortex+ (Leverage RPG and Smallville RPG) handle the flawed character better through use of dynamic currencies that encourage implementation of the flaws in the game. Each of these games has something D&D could learn from, and has or will in my home games. (These games can also learn from other games, as I hear Margaret Weis Productions might soon show us.) Similarly, if I were ever to run a Pathfinder or 3e D&D campaign, I would derive some of that campaign’s GMing tools, such as monster and NPC design, from 4e D&D.

The point is: As my repertoire of played games expands, including videogames, so does my viewpoint on how games might be designed and played. I’ve learned you have to play a game to have the most qualified opinion on it. Reading it or looking on from the outside is not enough. Claiming to like or dislike a game, implying your opinion is somehow educated, without experiencing that game is disingenuous. (I did this in a review of Mutants & Masterminds, the flaws of which show up pretty quickly in play—for example how Toughness works.) Saying your way of playing is somehow the one true way is snobbery.

When it comes to D&D, or any RPG really, I have yet to see a wrong way to play.

My friends and I, as kids, flipped through the 1e D&D monster books, which for us included Deities & Demigods, with our 10th-level characters to find a creature we couldn’t beat. Of course, we had unbalanced characters. I’d like to have met a 10-year-old D&D player in the 80s who didn’t. We added all sorts of stuff to our game from everything we read, saw, and listened to. Yes, some of our characters had lightsabers, and others had boots like Gene Simmons of (makeup-wearing) KISS. To more than a few of us, that stuff is still cool.

As countless other grognards and game designers have admitted and opined on, we ignored parts of older D&D that were too arcane for us. Weaned on basic D&D, and without the cash flow to assemble armies of lead figurines, we took to Advanced D&D with that simpler sensibility. We rarely used the battle grid, although the game and its statistics called for it even then. Therefore, we ignored weapon and spell ranges, and we fudged whether monsters ended up in blast radiuses. Now that I think about it, even with our lightsaber-wielding uber-characters, we emphasized what was fun for us.

That’s the key, I guess. And lots of styles can be fun.

My teenage simulationist streak is what got me into games such as Rolemaster and GURPS. Back then, I might not have tried James Wyatt’s Random Dungeon(TM), which has about as much story as Hack or Rogue. (Both of which are fun, as is JW’s Random Dungeon.) I would have appreciated Mike Mearls’s love of dungeon crawling a lot less and been unwilling to participate in a 3e reboot game he ran. In fact, I might have disdained the typical limitations of convention play. It would have been snobbery and my loss in every case.

Play style is just that. If you aren’t participating in a given game, it’s not within your purview to judge that game negatively unless you intend to be unkind. (You can judge, in a general sense, any game you’ve played, especially with reference to your preferences.) In my mind, this point of view applies to published products that don’t seem to be your style.

Fourthcore, for example, is hardcore, meat-grinder dungeon crawling in the vein of Tomb of Horrors. To some, it’s an experiment with the boundaries of 4e D&D. For a few, it goes too far afield. To me, 4e always contained the possibility of Fourthcore or something like it. My current DMing style is more along the lines of an action/adventure novel or TV series, but I appreciate the fact that D&D, among countless other RPGS, is pliable enough to accommodate so many ways of having fun. Furthermore, I can participate in alternative styles as the opportunity arises.

Just like any of us can be more than one type of geek, and most forms of geekery have positive traits, every game has a range of possibilities. What you prefer might be different, but we geeks can learn from one another, and we gamers and game designers can learn from all sorts of games. Experimentation and exploration expand horizons. Nothing is sacred; everything is permitted. Of course, none of us has the time to try everything, but all of us can avoid negative prejudgment, whether of other people or games. Instead, we can emphasize the positive aspects of our differences, gaining some wisdom in the process.

I want to thank those among you who have taught me new possibilities. I also want to thank those of you who have graced my game table or network connection with your presence. I’ve stolen good ideas from all of you, or recalibrated my thinking to accommodate a new idea of yours, just so you know. So, I owe you one.

This is my Speak Out with Your Geek Out participation. Why don’t you speak out, too?

Visions Verbalized

Awhile back, talking about the littlest con, I said that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. I said that’s your elevator pitch. If you can’t produce an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. This is true in relative ways for expressions in other media—novels, movies, comic books, and so on—but we’re talking games here.

All games rely on this initial expression to become all they can be. A lack of focus at such an early stage leads, at least, to wasted work as designers realize a game’s scope needs narrowing. At worst, uncertain direction at the outset is a path of failure. Kitchen-sink design’s best results are like World of Synnibarr—wonderfully schizophrenic but ultimately playable only as a novelty experience.

Putting the point succinctly, goal-oriented production can’t occur smoothly without clear vision of the end. This little axiom is true no matter how small the design goal is.

Writing for D&D Insider requires that sort of directed attention. First contact for work on Dragon or Dungeon is, literally, the pitch. You have to sum up your idea neatly, showing you know your objective. Realizing that you’re pitching to one very busy man (Steve Winter) puts more pressure on you to home in on your design goals. Fortunately for you, you aren’t starting with a blank slate. Dungeons & Dragons, as a high-fantasy roleplaying game with a ton of history, provides a lot of context for the pitch. The problem in that framework is tightening your vision.

I actually learned the concept of the pitch long ago from the writer’s guidelines for GURPS. Back then, the proposal process required you to write the sell text you thought should appear on the back cover of the book you were proposing. The assumption was, rightly, that the ability to summarize a potential product’s contents clearly and succinctly shows you have needed focus. Doing it with attention-grabbing style shows you have skill.

Challenging your chops even further, try summing up your idea in one sentence. I call this the nanopitch. Back before Keith Baker’s Eberron existed, the Dungeons & Dragons setting contest, which Keith won, required this. Every entry had to have such a summary statement. Wizards of the Coast called this synopsis “core ethos” in fine Gygaxian style. The whole initial proposal had to fill one page or less.

For those of you who are interested, here is a paraphrasing of what I understand was Keith’s core ethos for Eberron.

Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Lord of the Rings meets film noir.

This statement takes understood media icons and genres, and then it turns them into a succinct, clear, and apt description of Eberron. I’m hooked. Tell me more, Mister Baker.

For contrast, here are my core ethos statements from my three proposal submissions, with world names added to differentiate them.

Ancentynsis: A millennium ago, the Tempest of Fallen Stars cast its Curse across the land, but civilization has risen again in a savage time of new legends.

Shining Lands: The Nine Furies covet the world and the Radiant Host has decreed that mortals must overcome this evil alone.

Durbith: Infernal powers secretly rule a dying world, and heroes must struggle against this mysterious doom and the sinister truth behind it.

Parts of these summaries sound like aspects of the 4e cosmology or other settings. That’s because these statements are too general, or because I worked and had influence on 4e. Through my current sensibilities, I see lots of other flaws in my proposals, but the weakest link is a core ethos that lacks the precision of Eberron’s.

Looking at my setting proposals, my core ethos statements are weaker than Keith’s is, for sure. All the core ethos statements I’ve seen, admitting I haven’t seen that many, are. Although the whole initial proposal for a setting in the contest could have been be one full page, and I wasn’t at Wizards at the time, I’m willing to bet that thousands of the over ten thousand proposals were eliminated right after the judge read the core ethos. I’d say that was especially true if your core ethos contained a semicolon or an em-dash, or any umlauts. But I digress.

If you’re designing a whole game, rather than a supplement for an existing game, writing a nanopitch, elevator pitch, and sell text works as a good trial. But these tests only do their job if readers besides you really understand your idea from what you’ve written. Submitting to this honest evaluation can tell you if you’ve centered your attention enough.

Games such as Fiasco don’t just appear out of someone’s fevered imagination. (Okay, they might, but let’s pretend they don’t.) Although I don’t know, I’m willing to say that Fiasco is likely an outgrowth of its designers knowing its genre and intended play style, at least in theory, from the start. Otherwise, it’s impossible to believe the game could represent its apparent intent so well. A finished game of Fiasco really feels like you just watched or help create a Coen Brothers movie. The game I played felt a lot like Burn After Reading, complete with a slough of corpses created in third-act carnage.

The best games, regardless of intent or media, live up to the elevator pitch ideal. Mage the Ascension, as an off-the-cuff example, isn’t merely a game about wizards and magic. It’s a game about a war for reality wherein consciousness is reality. Mages manipulate the world within the confines of consciousness, personal (enlightened or not) and collective. Left 4 Dead, for another instance, is furious survival horror that needs little other narrative detail. It’s intentionally visceral, allowing you to know the story and characters in the narrow context of desperate battle against long undead odds. Knowing details of the zombie infection doesn’t deepen the experience. It’s not the same as a zombie film or television show (or graphic novel), such as The Walking Dead, in which knowing and caring about the characters is required for a similar effect.

Some games fail in some way to live up to what seems to be their own core ethos, although this might not affect whether the game is fun. A schism might occur between expectations and options. Fallout: New Vegas is an illustration of the point. Fallout is about post-apocalyptic survival and science-fantasy action, but it has always had a measure of silliness with its 1950s World of the Future taken to the breaking point. To me, that made Fallout 3 more than acceptable in its idiosyncrasies. The hardcore mode on New Vegas is fun for various reasons, but it fails to fit in well with the expectations Fallout’s ethos sets forth. Put another way, in hardcore New Vegas I need to drink water or suffer penalties, and ammo has weight, but a human being I shoot in the face with a shotgun lives on to shoot back. It’s weird.

This break between ethos and expression can also occur when a game breaks from its normal modes into unexpected, sometimes jarring, territory. Matt Sernett described his experience with the Afro Samurai videogame in such terms, saying the boss fights frequently required play styles the game had yet to require. That makes those fights frustrating, because despite the fact that you’re supposed to be at least the second-best warrior in the Afro Samurai world, you have to learn new skills on the fly against the strongest opponent you’ve faced.

Fable 3’s designers made a similar mistake when they changed the emote system. Fable 2’s system wasn’t the best, but at least it didn’t try to force me to dance with shopkeepers to make friends or to burp when I wanted to make a rude gesture. (Fable 3 did better than earlier Fables, however, in how your actions influence those observing you.)

None of this is intended to suggest that a game shouldn’t break from its normal modes on occasion. Experimentation with the expectations your game has created or integrated just needs to be done carefully. For instance, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction contains a flashback that takes you out of hit-and-run stealth tactics and into a warzone. That said, the skills you learned earlier in the game still serve you well in this high-action scene.

Like Splinter Cell Conviction, countless games originate in existing intellectual property (IP), rather than creating a new one. More care has to be taken with existing IP. People coming to the game have expectations that the game designers can’t influence, much less control. Case in point, it was unexpected that the Dresden Files RPG allowed me to be anything other than a mage or human, like Harry. My reaction has little to do with the quality of the game, which is good, and everything to do with my own previous interaction with the Dresden Files IP.

This point brings me back to Matt Weise’s IP Verbs exercise, which my friend Wil Upchurch (formerly of Fantasy Flight Games) asked me to elaborate on. Matt Weise is a member of the of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, and this is his idea, not mine. His IP verb exercise is mostly about living up to an audience’s expectations of an IP, since the IP itself already defines numerous aspects of the game. Matt described the premise fittingly when he brought up how many James Bond games are about shooting rather than the subtler aspects of the Bond IP.

With the exercise, you still need to answer the who and why questions of the elevator pitch to round out your game. An IP might define these or allow for some surprising twists, but the meat of the task is coming up with what the player does in the game.

Compelling in an exercise I’ve seen is a mock design teams use of The Wizard of Oz. That story is about Dorothy, the heroine, traveling the Yellow Brick Road, befriending creatures along the way to gain help and ultimately escape the Wicked Witch of the West and return home to Kansas. She does so without much intentional violence. Considering all this, the team came up with verbs such as befriend, cooperate, escape, explore, fly, help, oppose, seek, talk, travel, trick, and so on.  They also paired the verbs with nouns form the IP, and they came up with and game about action subtler than typical video game fighting.

The team, led by Jeff McGann (Irrational Games) and Steve Graham (DSU game design faculty), decided that the player plays the flying monkeys, lackeys of the Wicked Witch of the West. You see, the monkeys are tired of serving the cruel sorceress, so they’re engaging in a secret revolt. Their aim is to help Dorothy make it to Oz, foiling their mistress and ultimately leading to her demise. The hitch: They have to do all their helping without anyone growing wise to their trickery, especially the witch. Mollifying the witch, if she grows suspicious, and faking out Dorothy and her friends are part of the plan. Success means, ding-dong, the witch is dead and, whaddya know, the monkeys are free. That’s what the team called The Monkey Business of Oz.

I’d play that game. The concept also lends itself to more than one media expression.

And that’s the point of sharpening your design skills by honing you ability to crystallize your concepts. Ideas come in droves. The skill and willingness to extract the gold from the raw ore is the real magic. Then comes the ability to communicate your intent with those who can help you produce your idea. If you can make them see the gold by incisively directing their attention with a good pitch, you’re well on your way.

Do the Evolution

I realize I could be a little dated. I mean I’m 38 going on 39 the day before Samhain starts. My supposed heyday was about the same time as that of Grunge. (Hence the title of this piece.) Back then, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (boxed set!) was also the new hotness for the D&D game, and the SSI video games based on it were bleeding edge. (Man, I wish a new Dark Sun video game was coming out for PC or consoles.)

My age, and the fact that I feel life gets better and better, got me thinking about the ways things change. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way games change.

I started my history with gaming, I realize now, with the D&D Basic Set in 1981. I got the red box, and my twin, Neil, got the blue box—the Cook Expert Set. At the time, neither of us realized that the AD&D game was out there in all its hardbound glory.

We soon rectified that oversight. With our pocket money for doing chores, we bought AD&D books. Despite the fact that we had those hardcover tomes, the boxed sets really shaped the way we played. Sure, we used the advanced rules, but we routed around convoluted bits and anything that was more work than fun.

As the years rolled, and because we had overzealous Christian parents who did away with our D&D stuff, my brother and I expanded our gaming taste. We played the original Palladium Roleplaying Game, Car Wars, Gamma World (Second Edition among others), the first Star Frontiers (dralasites rule), Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP version), and more. I even fooled around with games such as Powers & Perils (now free online), although I couldn’t get others to play it. We later moved on to games such as Rolemaster, GURPS, and the original Shadowrun, as well as the first Vampire the Masquerade and its World of Darkness descendants. (Mage the Ascension, played with GURPS rules, is still among my favorites.) Other D&D grandchildren followed for me, such as Arcana Unearthed (new Evolved) and Mutants & Masterminds.

My time on this planet has allowed me to explore all sorts of games. I played computer games such as Adventure, Venture, Temple of Apshai, The Bard’s Tale, and so on, up to modern games such as Fallout 3 and Dragon Age. Working among a fine gaggle of geeks has allowed me to learn other games, such as Savage Worlds. I’ve also dabbled in indie roleplaying games such as 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and Fiasco.

What I never gave much thought to when I was younger but amazes me now is that all these games owe their existence to the D&D game. All of them, including those companies other than TSR produced, are evolutionary offshoots of the original D&D game. D&D itself is an evolution of even older forms of wargaming, such as Little Wars and Floor Games by none other than H.G. Wells.

RPGs as Organisms

What if we imagine the original D&D game as the evolutionary link between wargaming and modern roleplaying games of all sorts? I looked again at the basics of evolution before I wrote this, and it seems very relevant. Every derivative game has some part of the original, signs of its ancestry. Like with organisms, variations from the original are introduced in the process of creating a game. Further, more game “offspring” tend to be produced than the gaming environment can support. Traits that ensure survival in a given environment become more common in descendants.

The long and short of all this is that a game cannot remain the same over successive generations in a changing marketplace and hope to survive. It might be able to carry on in limited numbers in isolated ideal environments, the way OD&D still survives among groups who play and love it. If old-school D&D is enjoying a renaissance, that revival is because the game has adapted to the modern gaming environment in important ways. Swords & Wizardry, as just an example, is not the OD&D game—it’s a new animal derived from the old, built to be accessible and free for the new gaming jungle. Still, it lives and breathes only in a carefully cultivated milieu.

To thrive, a game system has to reach its prey, us gamers, and keep us interested. It has to be accessible for new players, yet keep a level of complexity for the seasoned user. It also has to innovate and entertain, this last point based on those among us who read but rarely, if ever, play. (I read tons of games I never played, such as Star Wars d6, TORG, RIFTS, and more.)

The D&D game and its offspring of the same name have always been in a state of evolution, trying to keep up with the changing environment. At times, it evolved too slowly, and although it remained the most widely known of roleplaying games, it almost went extinct.  AD&D Second Edition came about ten years after the original, and the D&D 3e came more than a decade after that. (4e came about 8 years later.) We were graced with the third edition only because some folks who loved the game helped carry on its legacy. D&D‘s diverse descendants almost had to go on without it, and they would have, like any organism does, and might have lived better without their ancestor. (That’s a big maybe that’s also another topic.)

Those descendants changed more rapidly. Shadowrun, for instance, has had five editions in twenty years if you count the most recent 20th anniversary edition. GURPS has had five editions in twenty-five years if you count Man to Man. (The Fantasy Trip might make six versions of GURPS in thirty years, if you’re willing to make allowances. It’s still available.) Vampire: The Masquerade had four revisions in thirteen years. Mutants & Masterminds has had a new version every few years—it was released in 2002 and the third edition is coming this fall (scroll to May 12th).

Game evolution, though, is actually much more rapid than versions of a core game might suggest. Every supplement changes the game. Each sourcebook attempts to adapt the game to its environment and keep the game fresh and young. When system overhauls occur, they’re often based on reasonable forces that call for an improvement. Not the least among these is audience use and feedback, which is easier to come by today than ever before.

Long Live Evolution

The D&D Essentials line might be taken to be a revision of the edition, but to me, it feels more like regular old evolution than any normal revision does. Essentials takes its legacy and tries to thrive in a fresh way. Characters in Essentials can use earlier materials, and non-Essentials characters can play right alongside their newer counterparts. That’s unlike many game system revisions, and nothing like the update from 3e to 3.5.

The Pathfinder game is a more significant system evolution from 3.5 than the Essentials line is to 4e. Preexisting classes receive a working over in Pathfinder in ways that can make past 3.5 materials incompatible or at least in need of serious scrutiny. Changes to these and other aspects of the game can be significant enough that you have to pay attention when using older D&D material.

That fact doesn’t bother me in the slightest, though. Pathfinder is a product of an honest process of evolution, too. It takes hereditary material, gives it a good shake to see what works for the modern environment, and then gives survival a sincere go. Nothing is wrong with that.

If we acknowledge game supplements and updates as part of the evolutionary process, a lot of our games—D&D, Pathfinder, Fiasco, Savage Worlds, and so on—are always evolving. The truth is, and if you’re honest I’ll bet you’ll admit it, we gamers like it that way. In all sorts of games, from the latest Shadowrun sourcebook to the newest Fable video-game release (this month!), we gamers want new stuff to think about, to talk about, and to play with.

My inner fanboy loves game evolution. I express my love by trying out some new games now and then, although admittedly, more and more are electronic games. (Something is to be said for ease and speed of access and play.) Further, I do so by buying a few and even playing a few on an irregular basis. In your way, I’m sure you like game evolution, too, and you put your money where your heart is. Can you fault another gamer for doing the same? It just seems silly to decry another’s evolutionary path when you have your own.

Thunderdome!

I’ve decided to put my money where my . . . keyboard is. I want to play more games with my fellow gamers. My aim is to expand my horizons and to witness more game evolution. I’ll admit I’m going to favor games I think I might like, but that’s natural. I’m also going to favor games I can play in real time and space rather than virtual, at least for the first part of my trial. My aim is to have fun with potential new friends.

Cameron McNary came up with the title, or I did after failing to completely understand a series of tweets from him. The point is: If you live in the Washington State area and might want to play a game with me sometime, send me an email at the address in my bio below. Include the Thunderdome in the subject, and tell me what you want to run or play.

I’m no Keith Baker with “Have Dice Will Travel.” What I am is willing to do a little roving with my dice, and I might end up in other areas from time to time, such as Virginia and the upcoming NanoCon. I’m also willing to help in a little reaving by running D&D 4e or the new Gamma World occasionally.

I’ll keep you posted on twitter and here. ‘Til next time, I’m out.

The PAX Report

I had a great time at PAX. Here are some high points of my trip to the show. (Click on the pics for bigger and better.)

Thadeous!

Thursday Night Fight

For pre-PAX fun, I gathered with some friends to play my Welcome to Dark Sun game. Players included such inimitable rowdies as Adam Wojtowecz, Brian James (The Grand History of the Realms, Demonomicon), Derek Guder, Erik Scott de Bie, Matt James, and Thadeous Cooper. Taking some tips from ChattyDM, I started at a different point than I began my Gen Con game. The players were sharp, and it was still a nail biter, but everyone survived to escape into the desert and head home to Tyr. They’ll never make it. I wouldn’t mind letting them try, though, since playing with these guys was fantastic.

Of Dice and Men

I received the same email that prompted Vanir to write his article on Cameron McNary’s play. Maybe I shouldn’t reveal this, but I read emails such as Cameron’s. I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I don’t. In the case of “Of Dice and Men” I was dead right.

Confidently, I arrived at the Unicorn Theatre at around 6:45 PM. The show was supposed to start at 7:30, so I figured I’d be able to get a seat even if I had to wait in line. Boy was I wrong. A queue had formed that already included more folks than the theater could hold. Cameron later told me, if I remember correctly, that they had to turn away around two hundred people. (My old nemesis Fire Code, we meet again.)

Cameron McNary & Me

Those who know me know I can be bold. Besides, I really wanted to see this play about the Dungeons & Dragons game. I asked the PAX Enforcers—bless ’em—at the door to see if Cameron might let me steal a seat. Someone—Cameron or his wife, Maureen, the managing director—decided to have pity on me. I got in.

The play was unbelievable. I mean that in the incredibly good sense.

Cameron is humble to call this a play about D&D. “Of Dice and Men” tells the story of John Francis (the DM, played by Cameron). A narrative about John Francis possibly giving up gaming frames his relationships with the D&D game and the people it brought into his life. The play hinges on the fact that John Francis is leaving the area for a new job. Before he can tell his gaming group, Jason, a longtime friend and player, reveals he has enlisted and will be leaving . . . during wartime.

The show is a wonderful mixture of fun anecdotes, which any longtime roleplaying gamer might recognize, and stirring interactions between the players. We, the viewers, have the privilege of enjoying the D&D characters’ introductions and exploits in the game, as well as the real-life interactions of the John Francis and his friends. When the funny and the gamey ends, the raw dealings among the characters begins. This is a story in which relationships outside the game are not only realistic, but are also affecting and easy to relate to.

I’ve had experiences like those the play depicts, down to having friends enlist and leave my life in a scary way for a while. Heck, I even met my wife through a gaming buddy. “Of Dice and Men” is my story. Countless personal accounts I’ve heard and read over the years tell me that the play is your story, too. It’s also a tale that people who don’t share our passion for gaming can appreciate. The play depicts normal, complicated people who care deeply for one another and share interests. That’s easy to understand. That’s all of us.

“Of Dice and Men” made PAX for me. For laughter and tears, nothing else compared. Cameron McNary, the actors, and the crew should be proud. They deserved the packed house and the standing ovation they got.

You must see and become involved with this play if you ever have a chance. Several ways exist to do so. First, Critical Threat Theatre needs donations to help the play see wider production. If you’re involved in a theater, you might email Critical Threat Theatre (info at criticalthreattheatre dot com) about producing the play locally in your region. Also, do yourself a favor and follow @cameronmcnary on Twitter.

The Dave Noonan

TERA

Let me preface this short review of my experience with an admission. I am not a fan of MMOs. I played World of Warcraft for a while, and I’ve played other fantasy MMOs. I consistently had more frustration and boredom than fun.

A while back, I figured out my problem. Although I’ve enjoyed games such as Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, when I play a video game, I prefer action and/or deep story. I want my movements with the controls to matter. If I’m not within the monster’s reach because I wisely moved away, I want it to miss me. The narrative should be interesting and my choices should matter. Few MMOs do these things effectively if at all.

Not so with TERA. To quote the promotional material, “TERA’s groundbreaking combat system . . . [offers] all of the depth of an MMO with the intensity . . . of an action game.”

Thanks to my smoking-hot media credentials (Critical-Hits FTW!), I got in on an inner-circle demo. In the demo, the developers taught us about the game. Then we went on a dungeon run against some evil cultists. The first highlight for me was being able to ditch the keyboard and mouse for an Xbox controller. (Others decided to stick with the traditional interface method. Luddites!)

Yeah, I know you can do that with other MMOs. I also know that it matters a lot less with them than it does with TERA.

Playing a lancer, a heavily armored shield-and-weapon guy, I was able to block and avoid blows. I could reposition easily and leap back to my feet after a knockdown. Watching my opponents for tells, I could avoid their attacks. Playing became intuitive quickly and felt a lot more like an action console game than some action console games do. The fact that some powers had cooldowns, which I have disliked in the past, never phased me. (Something has to keep you from using the good powers over and over again, and TERA does that in more than one way.) Running around and kicking ass was too much fun.

In short, I loved it. I plan to check out TERA when it finally releases. All my buddies who played it at PAX do too. We’ll see  if the developers were right about the game’s rich storyline.

As an added bonus, I got to schmooze with Dave Noonan, of D&D fame, in his role as Lead Writer for En Masse Entertainment. I also got to chat with an old friend and colleague Aaron LeMay, once of Bungie (Halo 3) and now Creative Director for En Masse. It’s good to see old friends working on something new and exciting.

I worry a little, however, because TERA is going the normal route of a subscription-model MMO. Might a free-play/ala-carte-pay/premium subscription be better for a new player with a new intellectual property? I guess we’ll watch and learn.

Chris Conan Youngs forces you to spell.

Magic Bus

Wizards of the Coast had a booth in the convention hall, along with plenty of tabletop action in the Hidden Level of the convention center, but much more interesting was the D&D Bus. Parked at 9th and Pike, the bus was host to demos, contests, and giveaways on the outside, along with the lovable beholder. On the inside it was an interview site and shelter for the D&D crew. They were watching Dragonslayer and the D&D Cartoon in there. Back to the 80s indeed.

Chris Youngs, my former supervisor at Wizards, wouldn’t let me play in any of the contests. He said something about me being a ringer, but I had stopped listening by then. No play for me, no listen for you. The contests were fun, though, including a D&D Spelling Bee and Name the Monster From Its Oldschool Picture. Yes, I can spell remorhaz and Mordenkainen, and I can identify the piercer and the lurker above. Heck, I can identify the original Fiend Folio’s svirfneblin and spell it, too. Does that make me a ringer? Okay, so no free loot for me, the ex-WotC guy. At least they excluded the James brothers, as well.

I also got to try out D&D Essentials characters in a custom adventure Mike Mearls ran for me and four other press folks. I was Ander the halfling thief (rogue), and my pal Robert played Korzon, human warpriest (cleric) of Thor (according to Mearls). We hammed it up, Ander searched for beer and sausages, he put the sausage back when he saw the monsters, and all had a good ol’ time killing Mearls’s Limb Thing. Ander (hail Loki!) got the killing blow (sneak attack!).

I have to say that I really like the simplicity and utility the Essentials characters have, acknowledging that some options are left off the character cards for the sake of brevity. At-will powers that modify basic attacks are good. Encounter powers that add to the effectiveness of an at-will power, especially after the at-will hits, are just awesome. This is what I wish 4e was like at the beginning, with more complexity added only later. Hindsight and all that.

Battle at Slaughterfast!

Aeofel in Hell

I all but completed my two days at PAX with tickets and near-front seats to “Acquisitions Incorporated: D&D Live.” Chris Perkins, DM to the Stars, ran Binwin Bronzebottom (Scott Kurtz of PvP), Jim Darkmagic (Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade), Omin Dran (Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade), and Mister Stinky the Zombie (Wil Wheaton) through a harrowing adventure to save Aeofel (Wil Wheaton) from a hellish fate at the hands of Binwin’s archenemies, the Ambershard dwarves.

The house was packed. Chris seemed a little nervous, and who wouldn’t be in front of such a crowd, but it never showed in play. The players, in costume, took their places and really roleplayed, so much entertainment and hilarity ensued. Spectator votes determined such elements as whom a catapult attacked and what monster created the final obstacle. In the end, Acquisitions Incorporated rescued Aeofel and gained three new members, including Mister Stinky, who managed to survive despite being a minion, Rad, a California-accented human raised by dwarves, and Hellie, the hell beast Jim Darkmagic tamed by way of a failed Nature check.

The important part of these escapades is that, after heartfelt apologies from Binwin, Aeofel forgave his teammates. More important, Wil forgave Scott. The group, players and DM, put on one hell of a show.

Despite audience help,  the company left scattered gems behind on the battlefield. Maybe Omin is becoming soft in his leadership position. Or has something more important than the fiscal success of Acquisitions Incorporated risen to the top of Omin’s list?

It's a Dragon Age for Mike Robles.
It's a Dragon Age for Michael Robles.

Play Time

In the two days I had at the show, had surprisingly few moments to actually play games in the exhibitors’ hall. That said, I did manage some quality time with Dragon Age II, Fable III, and Fallout: New Vegas. I’m a sucker for RPGs in case you didn’t know, although I somehow missed out on playing Brink. I also dabbled in some Xbox Live Arcade games.

I have mixed feelings about the original Dragon Age. The story was phenomenal. Interactions with and among the NPCs were great. Gameplay, when left to flow and focused on one character, was too much like a traditional MMO to elicit much enthusiasm from me. Further, the mute manikin that is one’s main character seemed so yesteryear.

Dragon Age II impressed me, however. I learned the new storyline spans a longer roll of years and jumps to exciting times in the hero’s life via a framed narrative. The game also has new art direction and style. That the main character actually speaks, much like the character of Mass Effect games, is great. What excited me the most, however, was the dynamism the rogue I played displayed in combat. Some of this energy is just animation related to power usage, but the game is a lot more exciting for it. I’m left to wonder if mage is still the best class, since it was in the first game. (I also got a shiny, new inflatable sword staff, which I was happy to share.)

The Fable series has been a favorite of mine since I played Fable on the Xbox. Fable III seems like all the goodness of Fable II—ease of play, fun story (mostly), and NPC interactions—with some improvements. Having played Fable II, I was able to fight skillfully right out of the load screen. The world was different, though. Set fifty years after Fable II and the death of your Fable II character, Fable III is a steamy world of industrial and military revolution. What’s more, my character actually spoke to his dog, which is something no Fable player character has ever done. Although those at the booth assured me that the interaction with items and the world is much more interactive and streamlined, relying less on menus and more on an intuitive interface, I didn’t get to see this feature. I’d know what I was getting for my birthday . . .

Don't you feel welcome?

. . . if Fallout: New Vegas didn’t release at nearly the same time as Fable III. The latest Fallout installment has the appeal of its latest predecessor. It has detailed interaction, cool world aesthetics, shooter fighting style, and the decidedly nontwitch, pause-and-aim targeting system. It’s also set in the same general region as Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout’s clear predecessor, the amazing Wasteland. I have to wonder how much homage New Vegas might pay to its ancestors. Further, in the brief time I played, I learned you can do something I often wondered about not being able to do while playing Fallout 3. You can disguise yourself as a member of a faction by stealing and wearing a faction member’s clothes. That’s great, and I wonder what other role factions might play in Fallout: New Vegas.

That’s enough about games that might take a hundred or more hours to complete. I also saw two lighter games that have me intrigued. Last year’s PAX introduced details of Ron Gilbert’s (of Monkey Island fame) Deathspank, a Diablo-like game with a much better sense of humor and better cartoon mayhem than Diablo. Despite the fact that the original Deathspank released in July, we can join the Defender of the Downtrodden in a new adventure across another cylindrical world in Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue. This time Deathspank has guns. Less action oriented but, perhaps, equally silly is Plants vs. Zombies. Although it has been out for a while, I just learned about it and its expanded Xbox Live version at the show. Plant a garden to fend off the warriors of the zombie apocalypse. This little game gives a new meaning to whirled peas.

The End

Like all good things, PAX ended. Due to required nuptial witnessing, it ended on Saturday for me. Oh, I’m not bitter. In fact, I feel privileged that PAX is local. With all this good stuff happening before, during, and after the show, it’s sure to become one of my yearly rituals.