Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Player Agency and GM Fiat

I read an interesting blog post last week about how "old-school" games are nearly always dependent on GM Fiat over Player Agency.

If I could find the post, I'd link back to it here. But the Goblins who deliver my internet have chosen to hide it from me.

It's an interesting topic, and one that crops up periodically.  And, obviously, one that has led to a great deal of debate on the internet, because we're gamers and we'll argue about nearly anything.

But it led me to look back at some of the games I've loved over the years. And some of the players I've gamed with. Because discussing any aspect of theory in gaming can be very interesting, when all parties involved can keep a cool head - which is all too uncommon on the internet.

So first, let me explain what the two things are. From my perspective, because there's been a lot of discussion just about that. And it's not exactly new discussion, either. See, for example, this thread from eight years ago.

A game which relies on GM Fiat is one in which the GM has to make more decisions. Sometimes, this takes the form of a rules-light system without any sort of story points for players. Sometimes, this takes the form of a crunchier system. Either way, in a GM Fiat game, players control only what their characters do in the game. They have no direct control over the story or the greater world in which it is set outside of what their characters do to bring that change.

A game which relies more on Player Agency gives players more control over the broader narrative. In FATE, for example, players can spend Fate Points to take a small amount of control over the situation by triggering other peoples' Aspects (including those which are connected to a location or to an NPC).  OctaNe allows players who make successful rolls to take complete (or near-complete) control of the narrative. Note that players with very strong player agency allow players to control even things their characters can't even influence.  In FATE, I'd argue that the players are the ones with the Fate Points. Because a character can't realistically tag an opponent's Aspect. Or a place's aspect. It takes a player to spend that point to slow down an opponent who is trying to run away in the mud.

Realistically, most games have aspects of both GM Fiat and Player Agency. And there are good arguments to be made in favor of either playstyle.

Lately, I've been reading a ton of King Arthur Pendragon, Legend of the Five Rings, and 13th Age.  All of these are mostly games with a strong GM Fiat element to them. In fact, there are several points in King Arthur Pendragon where the rulebook says, essentially, "the GM should decide."  Determining player wealth during the Winter Phase, for example.

Neither aspect makes a game good or bad in and of itself. Many excellent games have allowed a great deal of player agency. And many excellent games have been almost purely ruled by GM Fiat.

13th Age is an excellent example.  It is being hailed by classic gamers and storygamers alike as an excellent game - and with good reason, because it is an excellent game. But the rules (quite deliberately) don't cover every situation. For example: falling damage. If you fall off of a tall thing, the damage you take is up to GM Fiat. There are some guidelines on page 185 and a chart on 186 - but it's considered "impromptu damage."

Storygamers love it because of the worldbuilding they can do at character generation. For example, when I created Hochnor Half-Hand, I knew some of what I wanted to build into the world.  By picking a Background of "Imperial Inquisitor," I decided for my GM that there was, in fact, an Imperial Inquisition.  But once play actually starts, it's nearly all GM Fiat aside from the Icon Relationship Rolls, which players can theoretically use to steer the story at pivotal moments.

In theory, I prefer games with a degree of Player Agency. Not necessarily as strongly player-driven as OctaNe, mind you, but something. But, looking at games I've loved, I find that even as a player, I lean towards games with a strong GM Fiat.

My top five favorites:
Over the Edge
Legend of the Five Rings
13th Age
Ars Magica

OTE is much like 13th Age - player agency mostly ends after character generation.
Legend of the Five Rings gives a small amount of player agency with its void points and the ability of players to Raise on their rolls.
Paranoia is almost 100% GM Fiat.
Ars Magica allows players to design new spells and do so on the fly, but other than that, it's mostly driven by GM Fiat.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

GenCon Draws Ever Nearer

Last year, as we were packing up the booth, Carol pulled me aside.  "What would you think," she asked me, "If I told you next year, we'd be bigger?"  I laughed, because I didn't think there was any way she was serious.

Last year's booth was big. Crazy-big. This year's map just became available, and this year's is ... bigger.

Map Here (PDF link).  We're in booths 1429, 1421, and 1521.

Last year, we had a small sales area and a large demo area.  I suspect that this year will be similar, so either 1421 or 1521 is likely to be sales and 1429 demo.  The remaining area will - I'm guessing - be a special events area. Tournament finals. Guest designers doing signings. That kind of thing.

That is, by the way 100% guess, because I haven't talked to Carol or Choukri or Stephan or Christophe or Jules or Giancarlo or anyone else, yet.

But somehow the booth is bigger than last year's.  That's ... that's insane.

Of course, we have the best demo team at GenCon. We grow by a few folks every year, and they are inevitably smart, capable folks who love games and gaming and gamers.

At my first GenCon, we had a booth the size of 1619.  Over the years, it's gradually grown - I hadn't realized just how large the booth was until I spotted some of the nearby booths and realized how small the Asmodee booth had been.

Time to grab the highlighters and mark up the Econohazards for this year. I suspect there will be fewer of them - I'm making a more dedicated effort to Give Money To My FLGS than I have in previous years. But that doesn't mean I won't be bringing home some prizes ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Formula E

Last week, we received our Kickstarter copy of Formula E, a game we'd Kickstarted.

The game funded by the skin of its teeth, hitting goal in the last few hours before time was up. It amuses me that a racing game barely made it across the finish line.

We had a chance to play it on Wednesday, and I enjoyed it.

It's a racing game. An elephant racing game, actually.  Each turn, you play a card (some cards allow a second card to be played, but most of the time, you'll only be playing one card).

These cards allow you to move your elephant, or re-arrange some of the obstacles on the board. Certain spaces on the board have additional effects as well, but they are mostly bonus movement.

When moving, your elephant pushes other elephants. But you can't push the sacred cows that litter the board. And it's very possible to push an opponent across the finish line.

You also can't really control your elephant when it's moving - in fact, you tend to have more control over the board's obstacles than over your own elephant.  The critical key to the game, therefore, is arranging the cows to slow your opponents down and get them out of your way.

There are cards that let your elephant fly, there are cards that allow your elephant to push cattle, there are cards that allow you to steal cards from other players, fish cards out of the discard pile, or force other players to discard cards at the end of their turn.

The game is surprisingly well-balanced and supports a number of play styles. The first game we played, I was way at the back for most of the race, and barely managed to come back and win it.  The second game was much closer through the whole game, and we all clustered around the finish line with everyone spending turns trying to arrange it so that either we would be pushed across the line or we'd be able to bypass the crush.

I want to play it a few more times before I pass final judgement on it, but the game was fun.  So at this point, I consider it a successful project - but ask me again in six months or so.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Translating Wordplay and French-Language Comics

Remember how I'm trying to be better about naming names?

It's tricky, because I don't want to steal people's thunder and accidentally announce games before they've been announced.

But I've been busy the last few weeks.

Really busy.

And I've got more on my plate. Because wordplay, rhyming, and puns are hard to translate.

We've been down this road once before, too, with a game that never actually saw an English-language release. That was grueling.  There were four of us on a conference call batting ideas around for some of those cases. The project - by the way - was apparently cancelled because of the printing costs.  I'm not going to complain about the cancellation, either. Not because it wasn't a good game, but because I understand the hesitation surrounding the cost vs acceptable price point.

This current project is less grueling, but there are a few bits where I still feel like I'm beating my head into a brick wall. And it's only two pages at a time and a sentence here and a sentence there that need to be fixed/corrected/adjusted.

I've also been going back through some of the things I worked on in the past, with an eye on "What would I do differently if I had this to do again?" - It's interesting and a bit eye-opening.

Here's an interesting note which is completely unrelated:  Thanks to some of the work I've done, I've begun reading more and more French-language comics.  Not in the original French, mind you, but still.

I mean - I was peripherally aware of TinTin before this. And I was already a huge fan of Asterix the Gaul (if only there were a game that was available in English for this one ... ).  But now I've encountered Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese (which lent some understanding when working on the game), and Blake & Mortimer (which is a logical next step after TinTin, really), and Yoko Tsuno, and The Secret History, and Okko (where some of the flavor text for the game was altered after I read the books) and ...

I find myself looking for MORE.  I want MORE translated French comics.

You know what's missing from that list of comics, by the way?

Super Heroes.  I don't know if France has any unique super hero comics that have been translated into English.

I should find out.  Anyone have any suggestions?