Archive for the ‘RPGs’ Category


Gamer Weirdness: Example #91

August 30, 2007

When you’re able to back up and see gaming discussions from afar, you have a chance to appreciate their magnificent weirdness. Here is a statement from RPGnet’s forums that would probably be alarming in your regular life:

“I will always downplay cannibalism…”

This reminds me: When our good friend Oscar came to work for the company, he sat down to play in a long-running D&D campaign with some of our coworkers. He didn’t know much about the game. During the first session, one of the players, in a panicked moment when the threat against their characters became clear, said this:

“Oh no! That means we’re probably being watched by beholder-kin on the near-ethereal plane!”

Yeah, what the fuck does that mean, right? This kind of immersion in the utterly crazy is part of what’s great about RPGs, isn’t it? At the moment that statement was made, all but one person at the table were intellectually involved in the fictional story and fantasy world that they were able to take in that idea with a sense of actual menace and excitement. “If we are being watched by beholder-kin in the near-ethereal plane, we’d better come up with a plan before they blast us with their magic eye-rays!”

But for Oscar, this was alien speech coming out of the ordinary mouths of his co-workers, not their characters. Take one step back, and it all gets weird.

To me, those people who can’t take steps forward and back — who can’t appreciate the oddity of the game as ludicrous, or who fancy themselves too cool to enjoy their own imaginations — are the ones missing out.


Do I Quit WoW?

July 16, 2007

So. Should I quit World of Warcraft? I haven’t played in a couple of months now, and when I log on to kill an hour with my weird alien shaman, Airiksandir, I just look at my quest list and think to myself, “I really don’t want to do all these damned Strangethorn quests again.” It’s the same stuff again. But I’ve got 25 gold to spend, and I still haven’t seen most of the Outlands (is that what it’s called?).

The lvl 60+ zones don’t seem real well built to me. Shattrath City is an ugly bore, and the wilderness is overcrowded with monsters that really punish exploration, it feels like. But the Draenei starting area was magnificently well put together. The first 20 levels with my new character were great fun, all over again. But do I want to pay $15 a month to drag that dude to a higher level for no reason? Shouldn’t I be playing with my 360, instead? I’ve hardly touched that thing.

(And of course, right after I log in with my riffing-on-Russian-named character, I see a Draenei named Vassili Zaytsev and slap myself in the forehead. Why didn’t I think of that?)

Music: Nine Black Alps, “Cosmopolitan”


Star Wars Saga, Prelude to a Review

July 4, 2007

So far, so good. I’ve run it twice now, and except for the mockery around the office (from people who play D&D, no less), I’m just about ready to declare The Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Saga Edition the best edition of any Star Wars RPG. Ever.

I’m running six short adventures, each about one session long, to try out the game before moving on to something else. We’re doing three adventures in the “Rebellion Era,” of the original three movies, and three adventures set around the Clone Wars, in the time of the newest three movies. We’ve played one session in each era, so far, setting up an interlocking story, and except that we keep running out of time, and that table talk becomes wacky with Ewok and Robot Chicken jokes pretty quickly, it’s been a good time.

I have a real soft spot for West End Games’ old D6-driven edition (the first, especially), but this thing has a pretty cunning mix of rapid and adventurous combat, cinematic sensibilities (which is to say, it’s quick and dramatically fungible), and fiddly bits for players to earn and design characters with. If it had a few (or, even better, lots) more character options, the game would be a true delight. As it is, this is the first mass-market RPG since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that I’ve been eager to see, and buy, supplements for.

If this is what some future incarnation of the d20 System is going to look like, then hallelujah. Why is that? I’ll let you know once I’ve put another session or two under my belt, but it mostly has to do with keeping it simple.


Post #50

February 4, 2007

Throughout the week, without enough time to properly compose new entries, I’ve been pasting links and notes into the machine to create this mosaic. Because I wrote it, it’s materialistic and fawning. Enjoy.

  • Warren Ellis says this song is “Upon Encountering the Crippled Elephant,” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but on the album I just bought off iTunes (Some Loud Thunder it is “Five Easy Pieces,” and remains terrific. I don’t know if that dude’s saying anything (and thus, if I agree with him) but it’s a great song.
  • Just so we’re clear, you and I agree that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a lousy title, don’t we?
  • My copy of Guy Davis’s newest sketchbook, Sketch Macabre 2, has arrived with a very nice note from Guy himself. As you can assume from the words Guy, Davis, and book, it’s magnificent. If you like Guy Davis’s work (and you do), pick up both the sketchbooks from Guy’s site, if you haven’t already.
  • In related news, the BPRD: The Universal Machine trade paperback is also terrific, but since you bought every issue of that story at your local comic shop, you knew that already. More Guy Davis designs in the back of that book, too, you know.
  • Not by design, I also picked up The Amazing Screw-On Head on DVD, because a store in my area accidentally broke the street date (I guess). You saw this on already, so you know this is great, but besides a smattering of special features, the disc also features a little booklet with original concept sketches by Davis and Mike Mignola, so you know I wanted it. (If you didn’t watch the pilot on, by the way, it’s your fault that this show never went to series, and for that you’ll have to get a little punishment.)
  • The newest issue of JPG Magazine tells us it’s okay to take blurry pictures. To which I say, “No shit.” Blur can be honest. Blurs are genuine. Meaningfully blurry pictures feel alive. But we know that already. This is a terrific issue, though, as you could tell from the red “JPG” box on the cover. Great example of a great magazine. The tourist and souvenir photo arrays are a great match for each other.
  • Here. Watch Andrew Bird performing “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” live (er, on YouTube) and you’ll see why he’s fucking astounding. Live, there on stage, he’s layering all these violin elements, he’s switching back and forth between fiddle and guitar without a slip, and that whistle is coming right out of his fucking mouth, people. It’s fabulous. Get thee to a venue and see him live, for Andrew Bird is the bomb, ye verily.
  • Speaking of things to watch on the internet, Poker After Dark is a great poker program, with every episode available (for a little while, at least) on after it’s aired. Throughout the week, you get shown almost every hand at a $120,000 tournament table with great players. Then on Saturday you get the so-called Director’s Cut, which condenses the whole one-table tournament into one hour, with talking head interviews and all that. If nothing else, it’s great to watch all these poker greats engage in exactly the same desperate pleading, lame banter, luck talk and “wouldn’t it be great if?” musings as every plebeian mook I’ve ever played with (including myself). This is a great week for you to start with, too. Go and watch Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari in Friday’s segment, then convince NBC to make a show about these two guys. (Use the phrase “pair of jokers,” though, and you’re done here.) Their final hand, for all its inevitability, is just good television.
  • This week, I finally got to lay my hands on the new MIT Press book, Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (at Amazon, via Booksense), from the inestimable Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. An essay of mine (with a lousy title) is in there, but so are lots of good ones from Jordan Mechner, George R.R. Martin, Kevin Wilson, Ken Hite, Greg Costikyan, James Wallis, Rebecca Borgstrom and other game-thinking luminaries. Plus, it reprints Wallis’ Baron Munchausen RPG in its entirety, along with two other games, so it’s a steal at $40. Just a couple of weeks ago I sent off my manuscript for this book’s sequel, Third Person. (I’ll write a post dedicated to Second Person, I’ll bet, once I’ve had time to read more of it.)

  • Squirrel Nut Zippers are playing in Atlanta this Friday. I’ve never seen them live. You better believe I will this time.

Music: Amon Tobin & Michael Shrieve, “Oracle”


The Esoterrorists

January 6, 2007

I got The Esoterrorists on Christmas Eve and read the whole thing that night. (Love that cover, by the way.)

Very first impression: Wow, that is a short book. At 80 pages of generously spaced text, The Esoterrorists is barely there. It’s a testament to the voice and expertise of Robin Laws, though, that the book is so informative. Yet, still — what a short book.

The Esoterrorists is a police-like procedural game focusing on occult investigators by default. The core mechanics, despite what you may have heard, is not its gameplay spin of removing chance from the players’ search for clues. Rather, the core mechanic is a stripped-down, bare-bones difficulty-based system using six-siders.

The little (but brilliant) innovation here is the use trait “pools” for the characters. Instead of a dice pool, we get a pool of modifiers which we players can add to our rolls to influence the likelihood that we’ll beat the difficulty of our action. That dilemma here is that we add these modifiers before we roll, potentially wasting unnecessary points from our pool when we put them on the line. This is a great, streamlined mechanism for generating suspense and asking players one of the essential questions of the procedural genre: What is it going to cost you to succeed? The system is remarkably simple but attractive.

That clue-driven mechanic you may have heard about isn’t a mechanic at all. It’s a bit of gamemaster advice supported by a complete and well defined skill system. That advice is simple (I’ve been using it my investigative games, across many RPGs, for years): Clues that are essential to gameplay must be made available automatically.

You can’t have players rolling dice — and potentially failing — when they’re looking for the fiber of evidence that makes it possible for the action to continue. You can’t allow a night of play to fall apart because of random chance. We can gamble with a successful outcome for our protagonists, but we cannot gamble with the chance that players will get to play. The must get to play. That’s why we came.

Okay, so, that’s good advice. We can always count on Robin to make potentially complicated gameplay hurdles seem suddenly simple and clear. He is the doctor who says, “Don’t do that.” Thus, in a way, I have to praise The Esoterrorists for boiling it all down like it does.

My conundrum comes from contradiction. I love Burning Empires for something that disappoints me about The Esoterrorists: its focus. The Esoterrorists is carefully designed to tell one kind of story very well. It is thoughtfully measured to fit into the procedural genre above all else. That’s all good — but I don’t feel like there’s enough mileage in the gameplay there to really riff on that core story for very long. As advocated in the text, the game’s investigative style is so linear that I doubt I would enjoy playing it very much. (I imagine I’d enjoy running it, though.)

Maybe that’s not fair. The text, and its investigative method, seem like they’ll do a great job of making you feel like a capable, experience investigator, and I know I’d love the hell out of that. I like practically any game that let’s me talk shop with somebody else’s jargon. So I’d probably enjoy the scenes where the PCs are standing around, chewing a crime scene. But I don’t think I’d love the investigative process as outlined in the book. I don’t think I’d quite enjoy putting that kind of puzzle together, no matter how much I agree with the advice — and I emphatically agree with the advice — it gives about guaranteeing pieces of the picture.

Is it the 8×11 format that makes me feel like Esoterrorists is short? Would I like it better if it were digest-sized and indier? I might. I might see it more as a sketch or a meditation, then. I might regard it as a hot bit of new writing fired off with the enthusiasm of a breakthrough. That would probably solve my problems with The Esoterrorists both as a book and as a complete game. Is that nuts? Well, there it is, then.

Don’t get me wrong, The Esoterrorists got me jazzed to play, just not quite to play it. What’s in there is good stuff, if more Robin’s Laws than Feng Shui. Thus, I think it’s worth the money, if only as a buy-in vote to see what Robin and Pelgrane can continue to do with the Gumshoe system. But as a game, it feels incomplete.



January 6, 2007

Did you see Narc? Do so. As William Friedkin says in Narc‘s DVD extras, a lot of people claim this movie or that is the reincarnation of the spirit of The French Connection, but none of them are right about that. Except for Narc.

It’s gritty the way gravel in a wound is gritty. It’s cold the way Detroit and Toronto are cold. It’s visually sharp and emotionally honest in ways that too many cop shows aren’t — Ray Liotta and Jason Patric play characters who aren’t too tough to be real. This is good shit.

This is also a great World of Darkness movie. Watch it for details. Watch how it reflects characters through the environment. Watch how the characters gradually change not only their circumstances but the tone of the picture overall. Watch how the story balances nasty violence and moral complexity. This isn’t a class — movies and RPGs are wildly different media for storytelling — but Narc is a good lesson.

I finally bought the DVD and watched every damn thing on it in one day. I’m crazy excited for writer-director Joe Carnahan‘s crazy-looking Smokin’ Aces, opening this month.