Wednesday, May 29, 2013

D&D Next First Product

Last Friday, a friend of mine shared a link he'd found, and expressed a few concerns about it.

See, Wizards of the Coast has announced their first D&D Next product.  It'll be a GenCon Exclusive book that is still (effectively) a beta book (Similar to Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars: Edge of the Empire book from last year).

Here's why it's a problem:

  1. Wizards of the Coast won't have a sales booth at GenCon this year. Instead, product can be picked up at Gale Force Nine's booth (#423).
  2. You can pre-order it online, but it must be picked up at GenCon.  Presumably, unsold copies are being pulped or something. (Who am I kidding? There will be no unsold copies!)
  3. Wizards of the Coast has been working very hard to involve the community in Next.  VERY hard. And, by making the first product with the name Next attached to it an exclusive, they're effectively spitting in the face of everyone who has been playtesting and providing free marketing via word of mouth.

Can you guess which one is the biggest problem for me (and for nearly everyone I've dealt with)?

"But wait,"  you may say, "Isn't GenCon the biggest gaming convention on the planet?  Surely a sizeable percentage of gamers who want the book will be there!"

GenCon is the largest analog game-oriented convention in North America. But PAX is bigger - and has more open gaming than GenCon. That's right: PAX's secondary focus on tabletop gaming is still better-handled and organized that GenCon's primary focus.  But that's a discussion for another time. That's also before we look at some of the big European conventions like (for example) Essen.

So GenCon isn't the big kid on the block.

Yes, GenCon is big.  Yes, GenCon pulls folks from all over the world - but 90% of their attendees are still from North America.  As an exhibitor, I talk to customers all day. Rarely do I talk to someone whose accent isn't local to North America.  And yes, I'm including Canada in that list.

So even if a significant percentage of North American gamers go to GenCon (and they don't), you're still excluding the rest of the world from this product.

Now, I don't have an issue with convention exclusive promos.  Because normally, they are found at multiple conventions scattered across the globe.  And many publishers will do a non-promotional version for later release (or will release their con promos elsewhere later).

Most convention promos also aren't the very first product for the newest version of the best-known RPG on the market.

Wizards of the Coast has worked very hard to get the crowd involved with the project.  No earlier version of D&D has had any playtesting that was as public as this version's.  The community is interested in this new version.  VERY interested.  And Wizards has been very VERY open about it, with a long stream of blog posts about this design decision or that design decision.  There are people who haven't spent money on D&D product since second edition who are considering picking up Next - because WotC is trying to make it appeal to us.

So why would they then take this huge crowd they've created and only make the book available to a very small handful of them? Good job alienating your core audience, there, WotC.  I don't think it'll make any sort of long-term major difference for your sales, but right now I know you're struggling to justify continued publication of D&D to your corporate masters (Hasbro), and every sale counts.  Especially the ones you lost with this maneuver.

Within hours of the product being announced, I'd already received half a dozen requests from friends, "Can you pick this up for me at GenCon?"  And, rather than pick-and-choose or anger five of my friends, I'll not be picking it up at all.

That's right, WotC: You lost your sale to me, too. And I am your target audience.

Great job.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

That Game

I think we all have a game that is, for us, That Game.

It's the game we keep coming back to.

For me, That Game is Legend of the Five Rings.  I started buying this game when the 1e core book was released, and I have 100% of the first edition.  I've been running the game off-and-on for more than a decade.

When we first started playing, I'd dabbled in the card game - I was never going to be good at it, but I liked the "feel" it brought to the table.  And the RPG, for me, turned that up to eleven.

So how much do I love this game? And why?

This is the first game for which I ran a successful long-term campaign with a smallish group of players.  I'd run other failed campaigns before.  I'd also ran one weirdly-successful World of Darkness game with ... um ... too many players (somewhere around 35, but no more than 15 or so at a time).  But that game succeeded not because of me, but because of the players.  But L5R was the first game where I experienced that balance between player enthusiasm and staying on target.

This is the first game where I totally grokked the system.  Even twenty years later, I'm still not 100% clear on several aspects of AD&D. But I understand L5R.  Something about the system just clicked when I read it.  This means that my house rules (also a first - successful house rules!) were functional, as well.

And did I mention the group?  With a few exceptions, they weren't the brightest group I'd gamed with. But they more than made up for it with their enthusiasm.  As a group, we grabbed a couple of CDs of traditional Japanese music (including a few of Kodo's albums), and we went out for teriyaki before game started.  The first few weeks, we also watched the Lone Wolf & Cub movies (one per session).  We drank tea, and worked hard at setting the atmosphere and settling our minds into character. Sometimes, I'd read from the Tao Te Ching or The Art of War. I had a bunch of Tsai  Chih Chung's books, too.

Two of the players were 100% raw gamers who had never played anything before. They had no preconceived notions of being invincible warriors mowing down waves of foes like so much wheat.  They approached combat with their eyes open and their blades in hand.

Honor was impugned, blood spilled, and empires toppled in their neverending battles against taint.

We ignored the metaplot. Partly because I didn't know it that well and partly because we just didn't care.

I made some mistakes, too - I had a GMPC with the party, for example - but it was fun.  Some of the most fun I have ever had from behind the screen.

When the Second Edition dropped we were ... less-than-impressed.  At about this time, I moved and the game wound down.  I bought the 2E core books, and a few others.  For 3e, I bought the core book and the Burning Sands book.

A few weeks ago, my wife purchased for me a copy of the Fourth Edition core book.  And it's really really good.  Even if the metaplot is advanced enough that much of the setting is completely incomprehensible. I don't recognize this Rokugan.

But some day, I'll set another team of Imperial Magistrates loose there.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Is It Fun?

My good friend Wade Rockett visited over the weekend and, as we tend to do, we spent some time talking about games.  At one point, he asked me if a game was any good - and I answered (as I often do) with, "It's fun."

He pressed me, then. "Have you played, it?"

All too often, I haven't played a game with other folks.  But that doesn't mean I don't know it's going to be fun.

In my 20+ years of gaming, I've played Gumshoe and Fate and Fudge and Cortex. I've played AD&D and d20 and 4e and GURPS and L5R and 7th Sea.  I've played ORE and XPG and 1PG.  I've played BRP and Savage Worlds and 13th Age and Gamma World and Alternity.  I've played Rifts and TMNT and FASERIP and Ars Magica.  And Paranoia and Storyteller and Burning Wheel and d6 and Omega.  I've played Shadowrun and FASA's Star Trek and Last Unicorn's Star Trek and Decipher's Star Trek. I've played Cthulhutech and Prime Directive and Rolemaster. I've played Chill and Underground and Unknown Armies and Tri-Stat.  And more - these are just what I can remember off the top of my head.

I've read more than that.  A lot more.  My shelves are filled with game books.

And here's the biggest secret of all games:

You will rarely find the fun in the rulebook. The fun comes from interacting with your friends.

Don't get me wrong: You will often find fun in the rulebooks, but it's not the same fun you'll get from playing the game.  And the fun of playing the game has nothing to do with the rulebook.  This seems to go double for games which are part of the "Old School Renaissance," in large part because the old school rulebooks are written much like the wargames from which they evolved.

One of the single most fun games I have ever had the opportunity to play was a Rifts game.  Yes, that Rifts. The Palladium Books/Kevin Sembieda one.  Because the group was that good.

I know my groups, too.  I know that, for example, Apocalypse World will be awkward with one group because of the sex moves - even if they're never used, their very existence will make the game uncomfortable for the players.  I know that Microscope will go over very well with one group and will fall flat with another.

You'll note that I said above that I haven't played a game "with other folks."  I will often, while reading, try to figure out what sort of adventures I can run in that game. Or what characters I would play, were I a player.  I'll also dummy up some characters and run some sample combats and test-drive the system in other ways, as well.  It tells me how mathy the game is, which can be an important factor in the fun calculations for some players.  For example, I don't think my wife would like Rolemaster.  Or GURPS.  Not at first - maybe after a while, she would grow to enjoy them, but Stephanie doesn't enjoy math.  And that is not due to inability, either.  It also tells me if there are things I'm going to want to house rule right off the bat because they seem terribly broken (or, for that matter, completely useless).

Either way, a good read-through can tell me if a game is going to be fun for me.  Generating a few characters and running a few encounters for those characters tell me which of my group members will appreciate the game and which will not.  And which might enjoy it after some time.

Next week, I'm going to talk about my That Game.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

What Is It About?

When I was younger, I never bought adventures for role-playing games I owned.  "I can come up with this stuff on my own," I would tell people.  "Not only that, but my players never follow the expected plan, and I wind up with PCs who are off on their own somewhere."

Over the years, however, I've softened.  A lot.  In fact, if a particular game's designer writes an adventure, I'll seek it out more often than not, because more than anyone else, a designer will know what the game is about.

"Old School" games tend to be more straightforward - kick in a few doors, kill some monsters, liberate some treasure, and get back alive.  But, even then, there were often nuances that players and GMs would miss. Newer games have grown more and more esoteric - in some ways, it's a good thing, but in other ways, it's a terrible thing.

I was reading a game the other day, and when I finished the rulebook, I set it aside and said to myself, "Yes, but what is the game about?" Because the rulebook really didn't help much, and they hadn't included a sample adventure of any sort.

There are games which are designed to be spun up on the fly - World of Dungeons, for example, is the single most straightforward game I have ever seen. No guidance is necessary.

That's not to say that only bad games give you no guidance about where to go, either - some of my favorites guilty of that - Blue Planet, for example, gives you one fully-developed world complete with ecosystem and cultures to play with. But it's not clear if they want you to play native insurgents fighting against the wave of prospectors and other immigrants coming to Poseidon or if they want you to play a Shadowrun-style game of hacking and looting the big corporations. Or if they want you to be police officers or fighter pilots or space-jockeys.  Or Frontiersmen or settlers.  There are too many options, and the GM has to communicate clearly with players before character generation.

Contrast that with Dogs in the Vineyard, where you play a Dog - essentially, a cross between a Marshal and an Inquisitor, out to protect people from the results of their sins.  Set in the Western-feeling area known as Deseret.

Last night, we played Motobushido, where you play a motorcycle-riding samurai who was a member of the losing side in a recent war.  As part of character generation, you decide what the war was - how long ago it was, what it was about, and what the results were.  Our GM (or, sensei, as the game terms him) was none other than the designer himself.

Having read the playtest documents, I was pretty clear on what the game was about. In fact, it spells it out in the first few pages, "This is a game about death," it says.  It explicitly spells that out.  The paragraph continues, "The true motobushi lives his life and performs his tasks as if he is already dead, and thus has nothing to fear from the spilling of his own life’s blood. The mechanics of this game allow seven possible ways for your motobushi to die, all of which you can easily prevent, but none of which you should actively avoid."

I'd say that spells out pretty quickly what the game is about. But the fact that the GM was also the designer was an additional bonus.

A lot was chopped - in part because we were chatty and sociable and had a good time outside of the game - but we got a feel for the mood of the game (and with an RPG, sometimes the mood is the important thing).

... and the Red Right Hands will probably appear in some form in the next post-Apocalyptic game I run.  I think they could even fit nicely into Apocalypse World.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


My wife read this morning's post, and said, "I like the post, but I don't see what the treasure hunt metaphor has to do with Torchbearer."

My first introduction to Torchbearer was this article.

The key paragraphs for me read as follows:
Actually, Torchbearer is a pretty excellent description of what the new game is all about: resource management in the dark depths of “improbable ruins.”

Each torch you carry burns out in a set length of time. Each flask of lantern oil takes up precious space in your pack.

On the character sheet, both your hands are accounted for. What each hand is holding is marked down. Every tiny detail of your encumbrance, from the food in your pack to the shield on your arm, is an important factor in determining your character’s survival.
In other words, "How deep can you go before you can't come back?" Or "At what point does the possibility of treasure outweigh the difficulty of escape?"

Dangerous Places

I'm learning more and more just how dangerous used bookstores can be for me.

Near my office is a Half-Price Books.  It's a very very dangerous place - in no small part because I keep finding things which are on my list.

As I'm sure you know, I am a collector of game books.  Not just for use, but because I love reading them. And because, when I decide to create my own game, I think a breadth of knowledge is a good thing.  Even bad games usually contain at least one good idea.

The HPB near my office is quite different from most.  The first time I was there, I was wearing my "Body By Gygax" T-shirt.  "You know," the woman behind the counter told me, "His son is in every now and again." Now, I don't know if she was right or wrong - but it's a good feeling.  And it'd explain some of my finds there. Because someone who knows their gaming keeps dropping rare books off there.

Moreso than at the other HPB locations in the area, although I keep finding gems there, too.

In the last two months, I have found Chaosium's Ringworld RPG (including the Ringworld Companion) in absolutely beautiful condition.  Prior to reading the game, I'm re-reading the novel on which it is based.  Also on the shelf at the time was a copy of SPI's Universe, which I have been curious about for years - but I couldn't afford both. There were a few other rare box sets there, too.

Earlier today, I went back to get Universe and found the Dangerous Journeys RPG in a slipcover box labelled the "Mythus Presentation Set."  It has five books (some of which are rare on their own). and it's in - again - beautiful condition.  I don't know if the shrink wrap is original or not, but the books are in great shape.  Universe was gone, and so were the other rare boxes that had been there in an earlier visit.

Last weekend, I found a copy of Mechanoids at a different HPB.  I'm not fond of Palladium Books' system, but Kevin Siembieda often has some fascinating ideas for his settings. And I'm more than willing to buy them second-hand (because I don't wish to support the company - but that's another rant for another time). I also managed to track down a copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the Hogshead version), which replaces a copy I lost close to a decade ago.

A weekend or two from now, I'm going to Powell's in Portland OR.  Those of you who, like me, are People of the Book probably already know about Powell's, even if you haven't actually been there. I'm of the opinion that it should be visited by book people (much as gamers should visit GenCon).

I have a separate savings account just for things like this. But that doesn't make it any less dangerous to my wallet.  But the the danger of emptying my wallet is often worth it for me.

I wonder, then, if this bit of fishing out a single treasure from a dungeon full of dross is what drives adventurers forward in Old-School dungeon-crawling games.  It's entirely possible that the ancient ruin has already been picked over by other adventurers and graverobbers.  It's likely, even, given the age of the ruins. But sometimes - just once in a blue moon - you'll find that Ring of Regeneration in a pile of rags. Or you'll find a scroll for a spell you lack that is less-decayed than the rest of the library.

It's up to you to decide if it's worth the risk of gathering nothing.

And that, by the way, is one reason I'm looking forward to Luke Crane's Torchbearer project on Kickstarter (which is another modern-ish source of potential treasure fraught with disappointment), which should go live a few hours after this post does.