Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Doctrine of Appropriate Food

My wife and I went out to dinner the other night at a place she had previously disliked but was willing to give it another shot. When I asked her why, she explained to me her relatively new Doctrine of Appropriate Food, and it makes a lot of sense.

In short, what you order at a restaurant - regardless of what is on the menu - should depend on what that restaurant is and where it is located. For example, you wouldn't want to order pasta at a Mexican restaurant; have a fajita or a burrito instead. Swordfish in Montana should raise eyebrows, but the steak and burgers are bound to be pretty good. And, even if they start making one, don't order the filet mignon at McDonald's.

So what does this have to do with gaming?

A lot, actually.

You see, I get occasional e-mails from people asking why I like Dungeons & Dragons, because they just don't understand what I see in the game. These are people who would walk into McDonald's and ask for the filet mignon.

The primary comments I get from these people are:
How can you like such a bad game?
Is it a bad game? Sorry, I was too busy killing things and taking all their stuff while laughing with friends to notice.

D&D is the big kid on the block, so it's cool to hate it and uncool to actually enjoy it. And sneering at the new edition? Definately cool, because "it was better in the old days." But, as a roleplayer, I have no problem being uncool.

And yet, 4E is more approachable than any earlier edition was. I occasionally miss THAC0, it's true, but the new system makes more sense.

Yes, they reduced classes to lists of powers - but (and let's be totally honest here): It was boring to play a fighter in 2E, especially compared to Wizards and Rogues who had actual choices to make every level.

This was one of the huge changes 3E made: Suddenly, fighters were more interesting to play because of the Feat selection and customization it provided.

And now, with 4E, every class is equally interesting. Only instead of a "Leaping Spin-Kick" Feat, you gain the ability to choose the "Leaping Spin-Kick" power.

Is there an optimal way to create characters for 4E? Probably, but you'll lose some of the fun if you just munckin.
But you can't roleplay in D&D! It's all Hack & Slash play! There are no rules to support actual roleplaying!
Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a paragraph that you may have missed. It says that you should award players XP for every fifteen minutes of RP as though they had overcome a challenge of the appropriate level. Meaning that the higher the level you are, the more XP you received for RP.

And 4E supports roleplaying better (to my mind) than 2E did. Seriously. Read through a few of the 2E books some time. They're filled with arcane formulas to figure out what you can hit and how hard.

Also: Take a look at some of the other games on the market. Look at how much time they devote to combat rules vs. roleplaying rules. You'll find that even some of your favorites are probably disproportionately in favor of combat, rules-wise..
My friends would never play D&D.
Even by e-mail I can hear the pretentious sneer in this one. My wife often accuses me of being a game snob, and she's right. I am a snob. But I have a section of my shelf set aside for SPOG.

SPOG meaning "Steaming Pile of Game." Most of the time, it's games that had potential to be great and then ... weren't. Or games that didn't even have a chance for greatness because the designer was completely insane. Some of them are games with great settings and bad systems. Some of them are bad settings married to ... less bad systems. And some of them are transparent ripoffs of other games.

D&D doesn't live on this shelf. World of Synnibarr lives on this shelf. Deadlands d20 lives on this shelf. The Everlasting lives on this shelf.
But D&D ignores the story-driven mechanisms developed by other games over the last 25 years!

Seriously. At this point, you're asking for a Filet McMignon. You need to understand that D&D is what it is. It doesn't pretend to be more than that or less than that. It's a game that is honest with itself - and I appreciate that.

Do I like story-driven games? Yes, absolutely. I very much like the trend towards including tools which give players more and more control over the story. At the same time, I don't tend to like the GM-less model of play. I should talk about both of these some time.

I also need to talk some time about Your Game vs. Literature, and RPG Books vs. Genre Lit. But that's a rant that'll take some time to spin out fully. For now, realize this: Your game? It's not literature. And the more you think it is, the more likely it is that you're wrong.

Maybe I should go work on that rant now ...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Weekend

I don't normally write much about my real life and how that goes here, because I have other places to write about that.

But I just had an awesome gaming-related weekend, and the vast majority of it was gaming-related.

Friday, I had a chance to meet with Derek Chinn, who designed Telepathy. I had a chance to play a couple of unpublished prototypes, as well. I hope to write more about this later (say, once one or more of the prototypes see print, or if I have news to spill - and I do hope to have news to spill). Mike - the district manager at Uncle's Games set it up for me.

After that, my wife and I went to a game night hosted by a friend of one of her co-workers. We had a chance to play Werewolves of Miller's Hollow a couple of times. It's always fascinating to me how many variants people use when playing this one.

Saturday, we went to play D&D at Phoenix Games to celebrate the release of Player's Handbook 3.

Following that, we headed to The Airlock for boot camp. You see, The Airlock has two pricing tiers. Members pay less than non-members, but to become a member, you need 50 missions and a Boot Camp. The Boot Camp was useful, as there were one or two system-related things I still had questions on.

I also learned a bit more about the Catalyst Game Labs situation. ICV2 had an article about it, and then Catalyst responded again on their official blog ... After reading everything I could track down anywhere, I suspect that Catalyst will eventually be okay. Some products may be delayed - but gamers are used to that by now, right?

Sunday, I received a message from CROC about a scenario I wrote for Claustrophobia. He'd found a rather glaring error in the copy I sent him that made the game unwinnable for the humans.

AND I finally ordered my subscription to Spielbox, because they are about to start publishing in English.

Spielbox, by the way, was the first home of a lot of small game expansions. In the past, I've ordered several back issues so I could get the Minotaur, the Guardhouse, and the Carriage.

Three of these four weekend events are things I hope to write more about later. I also need to write more about game stores, but that will wait at least until after I"ve visited Gamma Ray Games (another local game store).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Catalyst Game Labs

Short post today, because my birthday is this week and I was planning to take the week off from posting.

But I thought that this was worth breaking in for.

In short:

Catalyst Game Labs may or may not be in financial trouble. Or, more accurately, they are in trouble but they think they can work their way through it. At least, that's how I read their press release.

I could be wrong, though.

Even though they publish both Board and Role-Playing games, I'm more concerned about their role-playing lines than their boardgames.

It helps that they are the current publishers of four of my favorite games - two classic tabletop properties (Shadowrun and Battletech) and two newer properties (Cthulhutech and Eclipse Phase).

I keep saying this, but I really need to write about Eclipse Phase sometime.

Purple Pawn has an excellent overview here.

Interestingly, they just shipped the new edition of High School Drama.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Kindle: One Week On

I've had my Kindle DX for about a week, now. It's long enough to be learn a great deal - both good and bad.


As you know, I wanted the Kindle DX because of its larger screen, so I could read gaming .pdf files from a variety of sources. My wife has the smaller size, so I can easily do side-by-side comparisons. After a week, I'm sure I made the right decision. You see, the Kindle .pdf reader could still use some work.

I hadn't expected perfection, so I'm not hugely disappointed - in fact, the .pdf reader has worked well enough for most of the pdf's I tried to read on it.

Last week, I used Houses of the Blooded as an example of a .pdf I wanted to read on my Kindle. Houses of the Blooded is the only PDF which I have had zero luck on. It takes ten minutes to load, and then almost five minutes to change pages. It's frustrating and annoying. Yes, I can read it, but it's far too slow to be worth the effort. Why? HotB is big. 31 MB. I don't know how much RAM the Kindle has, but I've noticed most Kindle files are less than 5 MB. I've also noticed that pages with images are slower than pages without. HotB has images (even if it's just a background image) on nearly every page.

By contrast, The Kobold Guide to Game Design, Volume II opened perfectly. The cover page is a bit slow to load, but once I'm past the cover, it's pretty fast.

Other .pdf files have been mixed. For example, as a D&D Insider, I can download issues of Dragon Magazine. If you download the sample issue, you'll see that Dragon is published in landscape format. The Kindle .pdf reader auto-fits documents to the width of the screen. On my Kindle DX, it reminds me of watching letterbox films on a standard 4:3 TV - the image is shrunk down and there are gaps across the top and bottom of the page. If had my wife's Kindle, I wouldn't be able to read it due to its small size. When I rotate the Kindle, it does rotate the image - but it still auto fits to the width, so the bottom inch or so of text is cut off. I can jump to the next page to reach it, but it means jumping back and forth to read pages with multiple columns of text.

Amazon also makes a "conversion" option available. You can e-mail files to them, and they will convert that file to a native Kindle file format. I'd love to have a web interface for this - some files are just too big to e-mail. The PDF conversion is (of course) imperfect, however. I converted the Kobold Guide as a test, and it lost some formatting (including page breaks) but was perfectly legible.

After working with my office's IT guy for a while, I managed to get HotB e-mailed to the conversion address (not many ISP's will allow e-mail attachments that large). It came out almost completely unreadable. Images were compressed to a ridiculous degree, and the text was split randomly - I don't know if the columns or margin notes threw it or if it was something else. Either way, I wouldn't have been able to use it to run a game.

I tired a couple of other IPR books, including the now apparently out-of-print Thousand Suns. Once I got past the cover, it read just fine. It was a little slow to change pages, but nothing on par with HotB.

I know it sounds like I'm down on the Kindle, but I'm not - really. I think that all of the above issues can be fixed with a few software updates - and I know that Amazon is hard at work on the next generation of the software.

In the not-too-distant future, I very much hope that some publishers will publish specifically for the Kindle. It's dangerously convenient (by which I mean "my wallet is a bit unhappy with me").

Or maybe gaming publishers will release .pdf files which are better-optimized for the Kindle (and other e-book readers) - whether that means releasing two versions of their games on .pdf or not, I don't know. But I wouldn't mind buying an "image-light" version of a book.

I have found other gaming uses for the Kindle. For example, I created my D&D character using the Character Builder from D&D Insider. I then printed that character as a .pdf, and put him on the Kindle. Now I don't have to worry about losing the character sheet - all of his stats are right there. My scanner at home is capable of scanning to .pdf, as well, so I can put other characters on there if I want to.

I think that eBook readers such as the Kindle have a legitimate place in the future of roleplaying.

As an aside - does anyone know if the Dresden Files RPG will be available in .pdf? Because I'd like to take advantage of Evil Hat's Brick & Mortar PDF Guarantee. Since the FATE RPG file loaded just fine, I'm guessing Evil Hat's other games will load, also. Maybe this is the kick I needed to finally pick up Spirit of the Century ...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

E-Book Readers

As an early birthday gift, my wife purchased for me a Kindle DX.

See, I'd been keeping an eye on the various eBook readers for a while. And, after looking at the current options, I had decided on the Kindle DX.

The main thing I wanted was a long battery life, and native .pdf support.

See, I have a number of (completely legal) RPG eBooks. And I keep getting more. I have trouble reading - just sitting and reading - on a computer. My eyes get tired, and the rest of me follows. Or I get distracted. Either way, a dedicated eBook reader seemed the way to go.

The Kindle DX had the largest screen on the market - when the bulk of my reading is gaming books, the larger screen seemed wise. The extremely long battery life will only be aided by the fact that I am unlikely to leave the Wireless on.

Either way, this makes IPR the most dangerous site on the web for me. I once referred to it as "The Punk Movement for Roleplayers" - and I stand by that statement. Most of their products are thought-provoking and all of them are distinctive and unique.

Interestingly, it looks like they are moving more and more towards selling physical books (and book/PDF packages), and their PDF's are being carred on DriveThruRPG. Examples of this include Mouse Guard and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

DriveThruRPG is less dangerous, due to their DRM-protected files which many eBook readers cannot read. I do salute their recent change of most (if not all) of their files to watermarked .pdf files, however, as those can be read on eBook readers. And it's the best source to get legal PDF copies of out-of-print and more mainstream RPG books. Of course, you won't find D&D there.

But, oddly, I can download back issues of Dragon legally directly from Wizards themselves with no watermarking or DRM - and those will fit on my Kindle just fine. So will the character sheets I created on Character Builder and then converted to .pdf files.

The addition of a Kindle to my life means that I'll probably actually manage to get through Houses of the Blooded, so I can see what all of the stir was about.

I'll let you know in a few weeks how the Kindle is working out for me.