Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Point of Departure: Part Two

Part One of The Point of Departure, was about how memories of things that happen in games are real memories, and also, that these memories are the only real things about the games we play. Part two is about the titular “Point of Departure” and specifically what miniatures represent in that departure.

Before I start though, I loved Games Workshop’s Necromunda, and I’ve done some “real” war gaming too, which I really enjoyed. That’s not what I’m talking about here, although those experiences are part of why I feel like I do about what miniatures represent. I’m also not saying anything about relative goodness only that the use of miniatures, or not, marks a distinct division in the type of experience you get from a roleplaying game.

So, no burying the lead, the point of departure is the point of view of your character. To me games that explicitly encourage the use of miniatures and tiles to accurately represent action are fundamentally different to those that don’t. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you’ll have to read on.

At the most fundamental level, when you represent yourself with a miniature, your point of view (POV) changes from first person, to third person. The focus shifts to the miniatures which represent the players like a piece in a game on a squared board.

For example, a miniature is in an 80’ hallway either delineated with different coloured squares that the walls or perhaps with carefully crafted pieces of wall. They move their allotted number of squares per turn down the corridor until they come close enough for the GM to place the ogre figure into the round room at the end.

For comparison, try this, imagine you’re a fighter, you’re in a dark, damp corridor, the smell of rotting flesh being carried to you on a frigid breeze. Waving your guttering torch around you see the bodies of several humanoids pinned to the wall, their flesh rotting away from their bloated bodies. As you advance into the cavern you first hear, then see, and then smell the ogre. Covered in filthy rags, it’s oblivious to you as it gnaws on the rotten leg of one of their victims.
In the second instance I suspect that most people would have viewed that scene in the first person, as if they were there. In the absence of any information to the contrary, we generally put ourselves into a story as if everything was happening from our POV. Films put a camera in as close to a first person view as possible to draw the audience in and evoke the emotions or reactions of the protagonists.

In roleplaying games, using a first person POV definitely accentuates these aspects of gameplay while third person POV miniature using games emphasises the importance of location and spatial accuracy at a cost to those things. That’s not to say with miniatures you can’t adorn the scene with words but the focus is on maneuvering your piece through the map.

Secondly, using a miniature and carefully tracking their movement, to determine attacks of opportunity and things like that, turns a combat into a jigsaw puzzle. The emphasis is on fitting the abilities of the participants pieces together optimally and in making the “right” moves to overcome that obstacle or challenge. That’s not to say that players can’t do what they want but there are definitely more effective things they can do to increase the chances of overcoming the obstacle.

Third person POV has distinct advantages in this respect. Considering the example above, with a third person POV things are accurately represented, there can be no argument about when a bow may be deployed or about what exactly each player is doing and where they are when the ogre inevitably notices their presence. Any discussions about how close “close” is are unnecessary as everyone can see based on the squares where they are.

When combat is an obstacle though the combat is about overcoming that obstacle as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would argue that that is, fundamentally, different to a game where a combat is about the drama of what’s happening during the combat. The combat itself is a scene to be roleplayed rather than an obstacle.

In essence, games that emphasise miniatures and are a series of wargame battles on a singular scale are like the original Dungeons & Dragons was intended it to be. In fact, a quote by Gary Gygax himself gets to the nub of the difference I’m talking about,

“...Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type - be it sword swinging or spell casting ... Before this trend goes too far it is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about.

First it is important to remember that ‘role-playing’ is a modification of the word ‘game’. We are dealing with a game which is based on role-playing but it is first and foremost a game… To put undue stress on mere role-playing puts the cart before the horse.”

To use Gygax’s analogy, a game primarily focused on miniatures and movement and accuracy is doing it “right” by emphasising the game component. That’s not to say he was opposed to roleplaying or theatrical aspects of the hobby, as some people have suggested over the years, but he would, or at least the 1985 version of himself, would have seen narrative driven games as lacking the essential “game” element.

Reframing the point of departure in this context means to recognize that for some games roleplaying is the “horse” and for others the game is the “horse”.  There is plenty of scope to fall somewhere along that line but this is a fundamental difference, a difference symbolized by the use of miniatures.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Point of Departure: Part One

On Monday night I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu, specifically The Haunting, formerly, The Haunted House. It’s a well known scenario found in every edition of Call of Cthulhu as well as in all the free “Quick Start Rules” .pdfs. It’s really a good introduction to the mythos and I recommend it. As much as I Iike the scenario though, that’s not what I wanted to write about. The game was set up along from a group playing D&D. I'm not sure what edition it was but it involved miniatures and a lot of combat. The juxtaposition of our two games got me thinking about how different roleplaying experiences can be, and also, about what makes them more or less real? Now, I’ve said it before, but in my opinion, roleplaying is best when it is about the journey not the destination. There’s nothing wrong with a goal driving the action but for me defeating a boss, getting a large sum of gold, and leveling u,p holds little or no enduring appeal. They're all intangible abstractions. So why then do I play? The gold pieces are, obviously, not real, but the emotions you experience and the memories you create along the way are. The fear, joy, sadness, and sense of triumph or loss may have been experienced through a character, but they are the only real things that happen in the games. Don’t believe me? Try this, think about a pleasant memory you have of something that happened some time ago in the real world. What is that memory composed of? If you lack the capacity for perfect autobiographical recall then that memory is probably a series of imprecise visual impressions accompanied by a much more powerful distillation of how you felt at that moment. Now try the same thing with something powerful that happened in character, in a roleplaying game. For myself, I can certainly recall some of the scenery that was playing out in my head at the time, but my recollection of how I was feeling through my character is still quite palpable. You may be thinking “yeah, but that memory wasn’t as strong or detailed”, which is maybe true, but my point is, I bet, if you’re honest, that once you’d tracked that roleplaying memory down, and zoomed in on your character’s point of view, the only way you knew that it wasn’t a true memory, of something that happened to the real you, is because of the context you had to drill down through. As far as your memory is concerned those things really happened. People unwittingly create false memories all the time, memories that they’re convinced are real, and it explains why we’re often disappointed by the video of an event we have very fond memories of. In the case of roleplaying, we’re actually willingly suspending our disbelief and encouraging the formation of an experience that feels real to us. And our memory, for its part, doesn’t care where those images and feelings come from; it just makes the memory for us to enjoy later. So how real are our roleplaying experiences? In a literal sense, they aren't at all, but in another, more important, sense they are as real as anything else that happens in our lives. And that is the reason I play. In the next post I'm going to write about the difference between engagement and immersion, and how using figurines affects my experience in the game.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Bust Some Ghosts!

If you're at a loose end this coming weekend, and you've never read Ghostbusters International the RPG, there's a site currently hosting the .pdfs of the game.

It's a quick read and a fun game. With the new film coming out in just a month it's likely a bit of nostalgia will make you want to dust it off.

I'm not entirely sure of the legal situation regarding these .pdfs but what I can say is that the game is no longer for sale and hasn't been for quite some time.

If you're feeling a bit unsure about how to proceed because of this, the writers are Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis, with Gregg Stafford. You can hunt them out and support other things they (or their estates) currently have for sale.

Sandy Petersen has stayed with development on Call of Cthulhu 7ed. Although Greg Stafford is currently a shaman he still has games about like HeroQuest and Pendragon. Lynn Willis passed away in 2013.

The second edition, (my boxed set is shown in the following photographs) has design credits for Aaron Allston, (now also deceased) and Douglas Kaufman whom I'd love to offer more details about.
This is what's inside if you're lucky! Note the "Ghost Die".

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Perfect Metaphor

People begin their design of a roleplaying game in all sorts of different places in the design, and for all sorts of different reasons. It might be a cool dice mechanic you thought up, the desire to create a certain type of character, or a reaction to something somewhere you wanted to redesign and it just kind of got away from you.
No matter what brings you to designing your own game, at some point you’re going to want to decide what your game is all about, and I don’t mean putting it in a tidy little box like sword and sorcery, space opera, or contemporary supernatural. What I mean is, focusing on the bit after the “but” in the statement “It’s like Dungeons and Dragons but…”.
This “but” is like a flashing sign showing you where to look for what your game is all about. This “but” is the reason you got started writing something in the first place. It could be something really simple or something really complex but it’s the thing you want to check in on as you continue with your design. That’s not to say it can’t change but it’s ultimately how you can gauge the success of your design.

A brief aside…
Once upon a not so very long time ago there was a website called The Forge ( which featured a lot of game design related talk.
It’s closed now but at the time it was pretty avant garde and as time went by became increasingly jargon heavy. That’s not to say it’s inaccessible but if you’re planning on looking at some of the articles be ready to search around for the meaning of some of the terms you’re going to find.
The reason I bring it up is because one of the progenitors of the, site, Ron Edwards, coined the phrase “Fantasy Heartbreaker” (you can read the article where it was first used here: It’s not intended to be mean-spirited but the article does ruthlessly deconstruct several games he has identified as “Fantasy Heartbreakers”.
In essence a “heartbreaker” is a game which is derivative or, specifically, tries to out D&D D&D or some other game. My understanding is that the heartbreak comes from the fact it is either unlikely to be popular or make any money and/or could have been so much more.
I never much cared for the way the term “heartbreaker” came to be used. Although it wasn’t Ron’s intention*, it became a reductive and dismissive term. It still haunts design conversations today and the thought that hearing it in reference to their game might put somebody off completing a design makes me sad.

Anyway, my personal feeling is just do what makes you happy. You don’t owe it to anyone to innovate or colour outside the lines. Just follow the “but” part of that original sentence and see what happens, or better yet, spend a little time fleshing out that description just to help with staying focused.
A great way to do this is to think of a metaphor, design brief, or pitch for your game. Perhaps by starting with an existing thing like a well-known game, book, film, or television programme and adding your “but” statement to the end.
If a better example exists than this one, which comes from the Call of Cthulhu 6e Quickstart Rules, I don’t know it.

The simplest metaphor for a game of Call of Cthulhu can be likened to the fairy tale of the Little Dutch Boy. 
The dam had a crack and the Little Dutch Boy had to stand there with his finger in the hole to keep the water from flooding out and destroying the nearby town. However, instead of how the original tale played out, imagine that on the other side of that dam is a bloodthirsty shark, which is gnawing away at the Dutch Boy. 
He loses one finger, so he must put another one in. Then he loses another finger, and another. The hole is getting bigger, and he must stick his entire arm in, and the shark keeps biting. But if he fails, if he leaves his post, the dam will collapse, and many lives will be lost. And so he stays, resolute in his convictions. He may die, but humanity will live because of him.
Those two paragraphs tell me everything I would want to know about what to expect when I play a game of Call of Cthulhu.
My design goal for Victoria was to create an experience like the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes Films. It had to have a very simple and short resolution mechanic where people could roll dice and describe what happened without mentioning a number or looking at a table.
Faith, which actually predates the writing of Victoria by fifteen years despite being released eighteen months after, is a bit tricky to remember. I’m struggling a bit to recall exactly what spurred me on at the time but I wanted to create an experience like a Tarantino film where the resolution system, such as it is, would never get in the way of the most interesting thing happening.
Was I successful?
If meeting the initial design goals of a game means that a game was successful, then it was.
If the game worked means that a game was successful, then it was.
If covering the production costs of a game means that it was successful, then it was.
If being able to give up your day job to write games full time means your game was successful then it wasn't.
Which brings me to my last point. Don't listen to people that say you can't make a living from writing games. If that's your dream: go for it, just don't define the success of your games by being able to write rpgs full time. The vast majority of what I would consider extremely successful designers work regular 9-5 jobs.

**Online Ron Edwards is a pretty polarizing figure and it’s unlikely you’ll agree with everything he says; I certainly don't.
The reason I doubt he meant for it to be used to club someone's dreams is because I saw Ron in action at Origins in 2010 (although he won’t remember me). He had a booth where he had his games and a sign offering advice to people who were trying to write their own RPGs. I stopped for a few moments and just before I spoke to him a 20-something bustled up to him looking for that promised advice about a game he was writing.
I don’t recall exactly what the premise of this fellow’s game was, but it involved racing robots or pokemons or something. Even though it was just a tiny germ of an idea Ron very earnestly listened to this fellow’s pitch and took the time to understand what was going on. At no point did he make any disparaging remarks or dismiss what the chap was trying to accomplish. In short, in my experience, he’s a nice guy who loves rpgs, designing rpgs, and talking about designing rpgs.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Is Organised Play Good For The Hobby?

I read an article about paying for games which basically, was saying that aside from Gary Gygax nobody really got rich from role-playing so buy stuff and support writers.

It also raised the point that like musicians, RPG writers have been disadvantaged by torrenting.

I wrote that, unlike musicians though, I can't go out and play a live show to make money from my games. I'm lucky, I have a regular job so writing is a choice but for some it isnt.

This got me to thinking, the closest I can come to "playing live" is running games at a con to maybe 30 people a weekend which, with travel, is not economical.

I also happen to run a (not for profit) con, which I love doing and which is not a vehicle for pushing my games. 

Recently though I have noticed a lot of people involved in Organised Play have expressed no interest in coming to the con. Their opinion is that their play is heavily subsidised or free and there is no reason they should have to pay to come to a con when they get their games for free.

I can't argue with that math.

Here's the problem. By keeping their customers close through OP large companies reduce the chances of people trying something new at cons and shops. 

That's good business.

Which, eventually brings me to the question, is Organised Play actually good for the hobby in general or does it funnel people into a few games and reduce their chances of playing new games?

Also, going back to the article, does this in turn reduce peoples willingness to pay for games themselves?

Why Call of Cthulhu is the Most Important RPG

Call of Cthulhu 7 is finding its way into letterboxes all over the world. Not mine yet, but that's what you get for failing to even be aware of one of the largest Kickstarters in RPGs ever.

Still, I've been inspired to sign up for the Chaosium organised play and see what happens. The more people playing Call of Cthulhu the better.

Why is that?

Well I'm pleased you asked! I hope you’re sitting comfortably.

In original RPGs your character was less of a character and more of "piece" you moved about the place. They represented your interests in the game but were not characters as we see them now. They weren't, in general, extensions of yourself that you could get emotionally attached to. You might feel sad at their loss but only in the same way that you might if your team lost game seven of the Stanley Cup.

For the better, games in the early nineties, like those from White Wolf began directing people's attention inwards to really focus on a character’s personal arc. This sort of investment in backstory brought a welcome facet to RPGs. However, dealing with one of these characters dying, even mechanically, could not be dealt with in the same way as just re-rolling the fighter that got killed by a giant rat in the first passageway.

A consequence of this was that GMs had to either change their style to accommodate interactions that were less lethal or tell stories that had limited deadly interactions. I mean, I guess they didn’t “have” to but consider this…

In these games a player spends a whole lot of time, hours rather than minutes, rolling up and then fleshing out a character. As a GM you’ve encouraged this, at the very least by offering to run a game which encourages it, but maybe even by entering into email/play by post back-story development and integration. Once this has all been done, it would then take a pretty special kind of player to be okay with a character they’d developed in this way getting killed by a metaphorical giant rat in the metaphorical first passageway.

This isn’t me railing against letting the dice play their part, I’m all for it, but I believe there’s a social contract that should be honoured.

This brings me to Call of Cthulhu.

Unlike other RPGs, except, perhaps Paranoia, everyone knows that once a Call of Cthulhu game begins, nobody is getting out “alive”. Just playing the game means you’ve accepted that your character is going to die, go mad, or both. That is tremendously liberating. Players willingly embrace the downward spiral in a way they rarely do with games like Vampire.

It’s the necessity of accepting your character’s mortality, and then looking for the most interesting, entertaining, and fulfilling choices, rather than the safest, that makes Call of Cthulhu the most important roleplaying game written.