Sunday, October 26, 2008

Game Masters

2008 Halloween Game
Originally uploaded by GameThyme
After reading through myGenCon haul, I'm beginning to suspect that the Game Master (GM) is an endangered species. Most of the Indie RPG's I purchased either share the GM duties or else do away with the GM entirely. It's very interesting to read.

And a startling realization. Every role-playing game I've purchased and played for twenty years has had a stark division between GM and Player. It was a line that was not crossed. Our GM's didn't tend to apprentice non-GM's, s it was a matter of Learn By Doing, which led to some (admittedly) bad games. I'd have killed for something along the lines of Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering back then. (FYI: Robin's Laws seems to have gone out of print, but is still available as a .pdf). In fact, I have half a dozen books designed to help GM's step up their game.

In the old days, we'd sometimes find someone with The Knack. The best GM I've ever had chose to run Rifts games.

Yes, that Rifts. You need to be almost perfect to be able to run Rifts, due to the sheer number of munchkins it attracts. But I'll talk about Rifts another time.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Rifts is Piledrivers and Powerbombs, which suggests rotating the GM duties among all players. Somewhere else on that spectrum is Polaris, where each player takes a specific portion of the GM duties based on seating position. So the player to your left has one responsibility, the player to your right has another, and the player across from you has another set of responsibilities.

Even Dungeons and Dragons (in 4th Edition) has a section in the Dungeon Master's Guide on playing without a GM. Whether that's due to the game looking towards a GM-less future or because it's now more board game than role-playing game is a debate or another time.

I don't think the office of DM is going away - but I do think we're due for a shakeup. Play Unsafe looks ready to help players step up their game.

I'll let you know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Learning New Games

Learning new games is not always the easiest thing to do. As my group's primary Explainer, however, it's important for me to be able to learn them quickly - and well.

Here's how I've learned to learn games:

Step 1: Read The Rules
I know. It seems too basic. But there have been times when I learned a game from a friend and found out years later that I'd been playing it wrong. A good example of this is Monopoly. When's the last time you read the rules?
BUYING PROPERTY… Whenever you land on an unowned property you may buy that property from the Bank at its printed price. You receive the Title Deed card showing ownership; place it face up in front of you.

If you do not wish to buy the property, the Banker sells it at auction to the highest bidder. The buyer pays the Bank the amount of the bid in cash and receives the Title Deed card for that property. Any player, including the one who declined the option to buy it at the printed price, may bid. Bidding may start at any price.
Anyone remember that rule? It dramatically changes play, and makes the game interesting. Certainly more than just another roll-and-move.

When reading the rules, make sure you have the components out and in front of you so you can reference them - usually the rulebook will have one or two images of some of the components, but they may not be the best possible representatives.

Step 2: Play Some Practice Turns
Since you have the components out already, play a few turns with yourself. This will help you figure out how a round feels. It won't help you figure out the rhythm of the game, as that requires actual opponents - but you'll be able to get an idea. It'll also highlight areas where members of your group are likely to have questions.

Step 3: Find A Guinea Pig
If you're going to be playing the game, you'll eventually need to teach others. Start small, with someone you know.

When I'm learning a new game, I'll often ask my wife if she wants to give it a shot. If she's not available, there are several others I'll talk to. Sometimes, I'll bring a new game to Game Night and look for a straggler. "I notice you're not in a game. Want to help me figure this one out?"

Step 3a: Screw At Least One Rule Up
It's not a deliberate thing, but, when teaching a new game, I always overlook one critical rule. The first three times we played Power Grid, we limited people to buying into only one city per turn. It made for an exceptionally boring game. I almost didn't give it another shot.

When you do find a missed rule, by the way, you have a few options:
1: Start Over
If it's a rule that would significantly alter the game and completely change the strategy, this is sometimes a good idea. Most of the time, however, I tend to suggest the other two options.

2: Correct The Rule At The End Of The Round
This is risky - If a player's strategy is built on the rules working a certain (wrong) way, correcting at end of round can screw over a small number of players while giving others a significant advantage. In games where each round involves a board reset, however, this is a viable option. Poker, for example - each hand has almost no connection to the preceding hand.

3: Finish the Current Game With The Wrong Rule
This is what I prefer for fairly short games. Fess up - "Oops! Looks like I was wrong. You only need ONE Flood, no matter how many Nile Tiles you have. Shall we finish like this and fix it next time?"
Step 4: Play Again
The more you play a game, the better the grasp you'll have on the rules. I try to play two full games in an evening (time permitting) when learning a new game. Two games in an evening is enough to cement the rules faily well in my mind.

By following these four steps, I've managed to learn a number of games well enough to be able to teach them without referencing a rulebook. Knowing a lot of games can also help teach people other games - you can reference one game when teaching another. "Remember how, in Ticket To Ride, you can't use other people's trains? Transamerica is the opposite of that." A broad knowledge base is helpful when you're part of a demo team for this exact reason.

Finally: A boardgaming post! :)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Originally uploaded by GameThyme
I said it a few years ago, and I'll say it again: Role-Players can learn a lot from professional wrestling.

I've been quiet here the last week or two - I haven't forgotten about this blog, nor have I been ignoring it. I've been doing some revision work, playing some 4E, and reading my GenCon purchases.

Last night, my wife and I took a break to go watch WWE Raw live at Key Arena here in Seattle.

I'm working on posts about 4E, Indie RPG's, and (of course) Asmodee Goodness (I just got all three Hero: Immortal King boxes, and I'm looking forward to writing about them).