26 October 2013

"The Golden Age is over ..."

One frequent riff you see on RPG forums is that the "Golden Age" of roleplaying games is over.  The writers' favorite local gaming store has closed, there doesn't seem to be as many gaming groups as they remember, their favorite publisher has folded, the faces around the table are middle-aged now, there hasn't been any new releases for their favorite game in a couple months, and Those Damn Kids are playing weird card games or focused on World of Warcraft.

Much wailing and chestbeating ensues, along with helpful suggestions as to how to turn it all around.  If only everyone spent a certain amount of money a month at the local gaming store!  If only our favorite games became much simpler!  If only we found a media license to rally behind!  If only, if only, if only ...

"The Golden Age is over" is a riff pushed in every hobby, by every culture, every fashion, every sport, probably since Ug the Caveman was grousing to his mate Ugina about how the damn cavelets had no respect for tradition.

What it means to each one of us is that for a year or two when we first started a new hobby, everything was fun, snazzy and wonderful, we were full of zest and vigor ... and then things changed, and we got to be jaded oldbies.  Beyond that, the alleged "Golden Age of Gaming" people think existed never really did.  It wasn't that America played RPGs.  It's that, for a few years in the 1980s, a honking lot of people played AD&D.  It was never a "golden age."  It was a fad, ephemeral as fads always are.  Seriously, does anyone you know still plant Chia Pets or collect Beanie Babies?  How many young folks in your neighborhood are kung fu fighting or wearing Hogwarts robes for Halloween?  Do businessmen uniformly wear pearl grey jackets with either yellow or pink black-polka dotted ties?  How are things hopping at the local jazz nightclub ... wait, discotheque ... wait ... ?

But the RPG era being "over?"  Hah.  Hardly.  We have more choice than ever before:

* Adjusted for inflation and the size of the product, gaming books are hugely cheaper -- and the production values light-years better -- than they were a generation ago.

* There are far more alternate systems and alternative ways of doing things now, and with the leavening of LARPs, online freeform and MMORPGs to crack us out of the immobility of Doing Things The Way They've Always Been Done.

* There are dozens of systems on the market.

* While small-press publishing has (contrary to the recentist tunnel vision of many) always been a part of this hobby, the Internet and online retailing has made it far more possible for its products to be widely known and succeed.  The indie game of a generation ago -- crude mimeos at the local Copy Cop, illustrated by the writer's SO -- would be counted lucky if it merely gained traction among FOAFs and the apazine cognoscenti.  Now they're available for purchase worldwide and sell in the thousands.  Production values are the best ever, and even small-press publishers enjoy slick print runs, quality art and full color interiors.  Advances in computing turned the scrawled crude maps and laboriously typewritten rules of the 70s into DIY works just as good as professional publishers churn out.

* Online retailing has eliminated the necessity for nearby FLGSs -- and put gaming into the hands of people in areas that scarcely saw it -- as well as greatly reduced the price of product, as well as providing a selection no FLGS ever could match.  As to that, RPGs can be found in the big box retailers.

* The Internet: forums with instant dialog, company websites with instant rules clarification and errata, game finder sites that stretch beyond tattered sheets of notebook paper tacked to dusty FLGS corkboards, thousands of fan sites with variant material there for the download, research resources at a fingers' touch.  Videoconferencing and software support even free us from the need of having fellow players on the same continent, let alone in the same building. 

* PDFs: dozens of gaming books fitting into a space measuring 15" x 12" x 1.5", as well as bringing long out-of-print golden oldies back to life.

There are more ideas, more styles, more milieus, more choice than ever before. 

Now yes, gamers, your groups have aged ... because so have you.  Honestly, did you expect that your players would perpetually be 20 years old?  Or, perhaps, are the 20 year olds hanging around their peers instead of the geezers (just like you did back in the day, come to that)?

Now yes, gamers: your local gaming store may have folded.  Mine hasn't. (In point of fact, the three gaming stores I patronized in the Boston area in 1978 are still in business.)  There's another one twenty minutes south of me, run by a friend of mine.  But in any event, these never formed more than a small minority of the gaming spaces available to hobbyists, and many gamers never relied on them for more than product.  No local store?  You can get your goods over the Net at a large discount, and in mere days.

Now, yes, gamers: we're a niche hobby.  We're going to stay that way.  Which is alright.  People have been playing chess for centuries.  Model train clubs have existed for generations.  Classic car clubs have existed for generations.  Folks still gather around for board games, to listen to 50s folk music, to hike the Appalachian Trail, to do a lot things that are niche hobbies.  Honestly, my fun isn't validated by gamers in Wichita and Wiesbaden and Warsaw and West Cupcake, Saskatchewan.  I'm good as long as I can find players right here in my hometown.

Swear to God, if all this had been available to me thirty years ago ...

I have, right in front of me, one of the surviving copies of my 1970s homebrew.  It runs 91 pages, laboriously typed up over some months on the cheap Smith-Corona manual I'd picked up for college.  The magic list isn't included; that's a handwritten manuscript half again the size that I quailed at typing up.  Some of the ideas that went into it evolved over three years of back and forth in A&E, and it's a messy hodgepodge with much less by way of cohesive vision than "Ooo, that rule looks neat!" Revising anything meant retyping an entire page, if not an entire section.

It wouldn't take me months to type that now.  It'd take me about three days.  It wouldn't take half a year to vette ideas off of my transcontinental buddies; now I'd just put them up online and have people tear them apart in hours.  It isn't that I'd have to spend much of what little disposable income I had on other systems just to see how they did things; now people online can tell me.  It isn't that I'd have to wait for the latest issue of Different Worlds, Alarums & Excursions or The Space Gamer for interesting new variants and ideas; I can Google to get in touch with more websites than I can count, and I've bookmarked dozens of them.  It isn't that I'd have to spend days in a library to fact-check my basic assumptions; Wikipedia's right there.

What there is is less media buzz about tabletop gaming, but I'm down with that - a lot more of that was negative and disparaging than otherwise. What there are are fewer dilettantes, the boys who drift into a group in school and drift right out the moment they come to think the activity isn't cool and won't help them get them laid, and I won't lose much sleep over that either. Tabletop isn't the happenin' new fad any more, but no hobby gets to be, perpetually.

I've been around for almost the entire length of the RPG hobby, and honestly, I think the Golden Age of RPGs is right now.

19 October 2013

Top 12 GMing rules

1)  The LARP I was in for many years had a ritualistic Reading Of The Rules at the start of every event.  The very first of these rules was a wise one: we should all be in this to have fun.

If people aren’t, something’s wrong.  Change it.  If I’m not having fun, something’s wrong; change that. If I need to take a break, then I should; it beats burnout. 

2) Be true to (and aware of) yourself. 

I run the game that I run, not the game someone else wants me to run.  I’m ten times better off seeking players who enjoy my style than to compromise my style to please specific players.  Beyond that, I should know what I can handle: how many players I can comfortably run, how frequently I have time to play, how long sessions should go, how much digression and socializing I want.  Not knowing your own limitations ends in trouble.  By the way?  Articulate this to your players.  I've been hugely wrongfooted twice; once, when I brought a serious, gritty assassin into a Top Secret game that turned out to be patterned after Get Smart!, and a Howard character into a game billed as based on Heinlein's Future History that turned out to be Monty Python meets Number of the Beast.  In both cases I scarcely lasted out the first session.  Like most players, there are styles I do and those I don't do, and you're a lot better off alerting me in advance.

3) Be prepared. 

I not only run a sandbox, the PCs can choose to travel to any other city in the kingdom and there’s a book detailing the top ten people in local politics, how many temporal wizards there are, a paragraph or three of a hundred or more shops, what the major temples are, what the minor temples are ... It’s an appalling amount of work, but I can save my brain power to invent details my volumes of notes don’t cover, as well as not get caught short in contradictions ... hey, wasn’t the elderly priestess at St. Viria’s named Fidessa when we came through Seasteadholm in the spring?  I thought you said the Sufontis Market was in the Zhantil District?  And so on.  However ...

4) ... don't overprepare.

The detail I want, as a player, is the detail I'm not only likely to encounter on my own, but detail which I reasonably think might pertain to the job at hand.  I don't need to have an hour of session taken up by the GM droning on, a paragraph apiece, about every crew member on the merchant ship, from the head cleaners on up.  How about spending that time working out the possible responses to what we do in reaction to your plot?  I assure you I'd rather you had a handle on that than the hometowns, marital statuses and off-duty fashion details of all three bosun's mates.

5) Don’t ever, ever railroad.

It is not my job to tell the players what they’re doing.  It’s their job to tell me what they’re doing.  If they’re not interested in my plot, they’re not.  If they make all the right guesses, then they have a walkover and I need to give them something else to do.  Hey, how about a shopping expedition and a night on the town while I resign myself to more prep work for next time?  In the meantime, what is my job is to have as many of the bases covered as is feasible.  A clever party should be able to come up with a dozen ways to get past any problem.  A clever GM should be able to foresee that they will and have a notion as to how to handle each choice.

6) Know your party. 

I've heard from too many GMs who had the rug ripped out from under them by players reminding them that they had certain abilities the GM forgot to take into consideration.  A prepared GM doesn’t forget these things.  I keep copies of all character sheets, and I have a cheat sheet on a clipboard detailing Advantages, Disadvantages, stats, weapons of choice, defense rolls, reaction mods, Perception and Will checks and the like, for each character.

7) Don’t get bogged down. 

If I can’t calculate the modifiers in the haggling session between Lady Sula and the goldsmith (the smith doesn’t give a damn for the aristocracy, Sula’s a babe, they’re finding each other’s accents a bit tough to follow) in an instant, then I should fudge it without hesitation, and if I can’t do that, I’m in the wrong business; there’s nothing more boring than watching the GM flipping through a stack of rulebooks ten times an hour.  That aside, scenes should only take so long.  NPC soliloquies should only take so long. Players should only get so long to meander or do their solo stuff.  Adventurers and plot arcs should only take so long.  Even an epic tale has its sell-by date.  Brevity is the soul of wit.  Keep the pace moving at all costs. (In combat, too. Combat rounds in the game I play are three seconds long. If the player -- who’s been cooling his heels for a couple of minutes anyway -- can’t decide what to do within ten seconds after I call on him, I skip him.  You should too.)

8) Be a good actor and storyteller. 

You play everyone else in the world.  You set all the scenes.  You handle much of the dialogue.  If you can’t act and refuse to learn, you should be refereeing miniatures wargaming instead.  Practice this.  Use body language, posture, different voices and accents.  If you don’t know how, learn.

9) This is a cooperative exercise. 

Something you need to hammer into the players, if need be; however illogical, this is a consensus-driven game which needs to be handled consensually.  A player who designs a character wildly at odds with the others, a player who wants to freelance all the time, a player who doesn’t want to get on board with the milieu or the setting, these are people who need to be told No.  There are RPGs out there for rugged individualists who don’t want to act in lockstep with others; they call them MMORPGs and LARPs.  There's also a role for GMs who can't bring themselves to say "No:" it's called "player."

10) Use no complexity in the game system you can’t readily handle, and avoid anything you don’t really need.

There are few things, short of drunk and disorderly players vomiting on the battlemat, more disruptive to the flow of a game than a lengthy rules debate.  A lot of RPGs out there have “light” versions or a spate of optional rules that honest to God are “optional.”  Don’t let this happy truth slip past you.

11) Know Your Stuff, or Don't Run Campaigns That Require You Do.

I'm an elitist ... more detail on this in another post.  I think it's incumbent on GMs to learn as much as they can about their milieus, and play them as accurately and realistically as practical.  I really don't want to see howling anachronisms, except in genres where it doesn't matter (30s pulp, for instance), or where the GM has an explanation in hand.  (Yes, I recognize you might not give a damn about verisimilitude, but I warned you in the very first post about my philosophy.)

12) Believe in the Rule of Cool. 

If a player does something outrageously cool in combat, let her pull it off. If a player comes up with a really cool idea, reward him. This will almost never go wrong.

12 October 2013

Quickie adventures: Stuff You Can Use



There's an elegant method for putting together a quick adventure precis, invented by a clever chap named Steve Darlington.  It was intended for episodic format campaigns (and was designed for Buffy games, come to that), and to a degree, it helps if you look at this like you were scripting an ep of a TV sitcom.  So, okay.  Use the following format:

Song:  Think of a favorite, evocative song.  Put it right here.  Now think about the song, its lyrics, its mood, and see if based on that inspiration you can fill in the rest ...

Hook:  What would the trailer for the episode portray as a teaser?  This can usually be described in a sentence or two.

Problem:  This is a paragraph which describes, in more detail, the situation the PCs are expected to solve ...

Complications:  ... and the barriers which are in the PCs' path.  This not only includes the Big Bad of the episode adventure, but various other difficulties and any side plots.  Even so, don't spent more than a paragraph.

Resolutions:  How do the PCs solve the problem?

Fun Stuff:  Many adventures work best with a little comedy (or at least lightheartedness); this is where you put it in.  Bumbling NPCs are classic, of course.

Themes:  Pure high-concept; what would your advertising tagline be?

So let me run through an example for you.  I originally did a bunch of eps for my limited-run Firefly campaign based on Moody Blues songs, and here's one ported over to fantasy:

Song: Legend of a Mind (Timothy Leary’s Dead)

Hook:  The village Sensimil in Altania's got the best, I mean the best dreamdrowse anywhere, and a lot of folks like them a good bowl of it to see the vast universes Beyond.  So there your band of smugglers is trading, but the village has a bandit problem ...

Problem: The village elders pitch this not so much the party eradicating the bandits as training the villagers up to do it themselves, and if you help them out there’s an extra couple sacks in it for you.  Now as it happens the village is quite well-off through the trade, and they’ve got a startling amount of military gear: the best of weapons and armor, crossbows, heaps of bolts, and even some war chariots and ballistae.

Complications: Think 1960s commune; the villagers just can’t wrap their heads around violence.  They’re none of them good shots, they think military discipline’s a bit silly, and they’ve all got stab fright.  Intellectually they know what needs doing, but in their guts they shrink from it, and it’ll become pretty apparent pretty quickly that the party’s going to have to hunt down the bandits themselves.  That being said, most of that fancy gear is still in the packing bundles, new and glistening with oil -- and how did they get what’s plainly Fifth Legion arms? -- and needs going over and straightening out.

There are just a dozen bandits, but they’re bushwhackers and are not just going to sit fat and happy for the party to ambush.  They’ve no qualms about retreating to prepared strong points.  Play them exactly as cannily as if they were the party and the villagers were the bad guys ... for instance, all that nifty gear’s in a single storehouse with nothing more than a padlock to keep the kids away.  Moreover, two of their number are ex-locals with a bit more sand than the villagers, and the village headwoman’s grandson is their inside mole (he thinks the bandit leader is dashing and cute).  The bandits’ goal is to cow the village into submission so they can take over.

Resolutions: Whack out the bandits; it’d be more impressive if the villagers do so.  Pray the local government doesn’t find out the weapons and armor, which were hijacked from the Fifth's legionary encampment five years ago and unmistakeably bear its scorpion-and-spear sigil!

Fun Stuff: It is the villagers’ inalienable custom to be stoned at any time of the night or day, and some of them don’t just stop at the raw dreamdrowse, there's a plant wizard in the village who magically refines the damn stuff.   Leave them to their own devices for long enough and they won’t be able to fire an arrow because the colors of the fletchings clash with their hallucinations.  Sitting around in a circle, clasping hands, and chanting mantras while their platoon leader turns a prayer wheel five minutes before a battle is by no means out of character.

Themes: He’ll take you up, he’ll bring you down, he’ll plant your feet back firmly on the ground.

And there you have it.  I ran the villagers as Rastafarians (a subculture unfamiliar to my players), lingo and practices tossed in, and they were damn near ready to burn the place to the ground out of vexation by the end of the adventure.  I loved it.

05 October 2013

GGF #5: “X” Is The Opposite Of Fun


A closely related tenet to #4 is this one.  It’s come out in many variations, but the gist of things is what you see in many Internet debates: arguments which boil down to “Realism isn’t fun,” “artistic expression isn’t fun,” “immersion isn’t fun,” “narrativism isn’t fun,” “ backgrounds aren’t fun,” “originality isn't fun,” and so on and so forth.

Now while I take the whining with a great deal of salt -- you will never, ever convince me, for instance, that someone who’s mastered the character creation and combat rules of a multi-hundred page corebook is grotesquely inconvenienced to the point of insult by the GM asking him to read five pages of background material -- that much isn’t a fallacy, per se.  What is fun for you is what is fun for you, and that’s a true thing no one ought to gainsay.

What is the fallacy is the premise that Only The Type Of Gaming I Do Is Fun, which leads inexorably to “... and every other kind is Not Fun,” which leads inexorably to “... and no one with a lick of sense could possibly like them.”  It’s also married to a curious anti-intellectualism.  Curious, even though anti-intellectualism is a profound element of American culture, because one would think that the average gamer, who fancies himself smarter than the mundanes -- and indeed openly prides himself on being smarter than the mundanes -- wouldn’t himself disparage scholarship, excellence, artistry or taking pains.

Yet he does so.  Often.  (That is, when he’s not riding absurd, tunnel vision hobby horses, such as that of a certain celebrated game designer who wrote his system to include about a half dozen types of sword, and a dozen types of polearm.  Many of you know whereof I speak.)

Seriously, how often do you see people pull this sort of garbage outside of gaming?  "Football isn't fun" just because you prefer hockey or NASCAR?  "Rock isn't fun" only because you prefer jazz or folk?   How would you react if you heard someone assert that people who liked Italian food were dopes, because he liked Greek food?  You'd think he was a moron, wouldn't you, and not because of any deficiency of Greek cuisine?

C'mon, folks, is it that hard to wrap your heads around the concept that certain people want to play certain styles?  That a whole lot of people have found the games they want to play, they neither feel a need to, or have any desire to, experiment with others, and they resent the hell out of the implication that there's something wrong with them for it?  Heck, there's even some other basic issues: for example, my wife -- having been exposed to too many loudmouthed ubergeeks in her formative years -- has a violent dislike of Doctor Who.  Period, end of statement.  (I watch downloads to my computer while she's off watching her own shows.)  Would some of you catcall her nonetheless for refusing to buy into a Doctor Who game?

(My wife's comment to a forum thread about the theme: "Everyone has a couple I-like-what-I-likes. I'm sure some of those posters have the one brand of breakfast cereal they always eat or the one brand of jeans they always wear, and they'd be mad if they were told something was wrong with them because of that.  So let me get this straight. Some people are mad at their friends for not wanting to try new things. Really? Or is it that they're mad because their friends don't want to play what they want to play? Why are their friends in the wrong for not wanting to conform when they don't want to conform themselves?")

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And there you have them; the Gaming Geek Fallacies.