Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Roleplaying Games Are Cooperative Games and the GM is a Player

I'm still a Tumblr noob. I just can't wrap my head completely around how it works and what it's for. For the last few years, I've been using my Tumblr as a feed for this blog. The last few months, however, I've started to use it more and more.

Mostly for political stuff. Because that's the way the world is going these days.

I have figured out how to get notifications from it, so Steph shared this the other day, and tagged me, and it notified me. And I laughed, and I responded saying basically, "I wish I was as good as she thinks I am."

Because I still lack confidence in my ability as a gamemaster.

Most RPGs put a heavy load on their GMs. Every GM chapter somewhere includes the phrase, "As a GM, you are responsible for ... "

Ugh.  Responsibility.  I just want to play.

So here's the thing that all of those GM advice chapters forget:

Games are meant to be fun, and making fun is a group effort.  A cooperative group effort. And the GM is only one member of the group.

Players have every bit as much responsibility, here, as the GM. Dumping all of that responsibility on the GM is a recipe for pressure and stress, which leads to GM Burnout or other problems.

Yes, the GM creates the world and controls the NPCs and gives the PCs clues - but players need to engage. If your GM gives you clues about a dragon in the mountains and the party decides to investigate the city sewers, then one of two things is going on here:
  1. The GM is being too subtle with the clues.
  2. The players are jerks.
No. Really.

A good GM isn't going to just slaughter your characters, so if you're chasing a dragon into the mountains, then the GM believes that you can defeat the challenge. That is, by the way, not necessarily the same thing as killing the dragon.

GMs can be wrong about what their party can accomplish, by the way. The first time I ran a D&D 3E game, all of us were new to 3E. I slaughtered them with what I thought should have been an easy encounter. It was too many skeletons who had to move through a narrow hallway to get to the players. "Narrow" as in "one square wide."

"Well," said one player sardonically after the last PC dropped, "That was fun."

"Hang on," I said, "Can we try that again?"

So we rewound. I walked them through flanking and opportunity attacks (and how to avoid them). And we tried it again. I didn't reduce the number of skeletons, because they'd have seen how many there were. I did reduce the number of hit points that each skeleton had, though. And the party ended up narrowly beating the encounter.

The players made allowances for my error - and I helped them find a few mechanical tricks that they could use. Together, we had fun. We both gave a bit. And that first session laid the groundwork for a fun game to follow, because after that point they trusted me - and I learned more of what I was doing with every session that followed.

The point is: We worked together to find the fun in the game.

For the record: I actually played in a Rifts game that I sometimes miss, even to this day. It was a good game. A fun game. Because the GM had a good idea and he allowed the players to contribute to his idea.

A lot of story games talk about there being four good responses a GM can give a player:
  1. Yes, and ...
  2. Yes, but ...
  3. No, but ...
  4. No, and ...
That's not entirely inaccurate. Most everyone agrees that "No, and ..." is the weakest/worst response. And I agree completely (even though it does have its place - but that's another discussion for another time, I think).

But players have the same selection of responses - and need to learn to use them. 

I'm still learning this whole GM thing, even though I've been running games for more than 20 years, now. I ran a Cthulhutech game a few years ago that ... well, it was flat. And not good. I had Ideas, and I didn't communicate well to the players what I wanted to do with those ideas. Which means that the characters didn't support the play I was hoping for, and the players didn't do anything.

I'm currently running an L5R game. And I'm loving it. I hope I communicated well what my goals were to my players. I suspect I communicated enough, because they keep coming back.

Right now, I've railroaded them a little bit. I closed some doors behind them and won't let them backtrack like they want to. But I think they trust me by now.

I even managed to use the first few sessions as a system tutorial, gradually upping the difficulty.  It also gave me a good idea of how the players were going to react to various breadcrumbs. And together we're fumbling through the sandbox.

The important word in that sentence is "together."

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Being "That Guy" And Proud Of It

I think every circle of friends has "That Guy."  The one who knows everything about a given subject - or who can (at least) point you in the right direction to get started.

In my circle of friends, for example, my good friend Aaron is That Guy with guns. He can ID guns used in films very easily. He knows the caliber and ammunition capacity for more guns than I knew existed.

Is he a certified expert who has taken classes on this? No. He's a hobbyist. But that doesn't mean his information is bad or inaccurate.

He's forgotten more about guns than I will probably ever learn. But he won't claim to be an expert.

A few years ago, I worked in the car audio industry. Most of the people I worked with were both old-school and very passionate about their work. And I caught some of that. I learned a ton about the industry and where some of these companies had come from and where it was going. Enough that I was fluent in the lingo. Some of my friends still treat me like I'm some kind of expert. Which is weird.

A few days ago, we had some friends over for the Super Bowl. We do this every year. It's a bunch of friends on the couch watching the game (and commercials) and having a good time. And - because these are my friends - gaming came up.  "There was this one game," someone said, "It was modern, and I think fantasy and the cover had kind of a geeky guy, and I think tentacles ... "

I'd missed this part of the conversation, as I was making chili dip or scarfing chips or something. But the description was quickly relayed to me. And, after a couple of quick questions (and one wrong guess), I soon ascertained that it was The Laundry (which is one of those games I want to play and I don't think I could GM well).

Several people acted as though this was shocking. The fact that I could name (and produce a copy of) a game with so little information being provided!

But it's who I am. Games are my drive. Games are my passion.

I don't own every game ever published. I don't even have a sizable fraction of them.

But I keep track of the industry. I watch what's being published and Kickstarted. I know what pre-orders are live and who owns whom in the game publishing market. I watch distributors and employees.

Being able to name three Christophe Boelinger games isn't much different from being able to tell you that Warren Moon was sacked 458 times in his career. Or that a dual-four-ohm voice coil sub can be wired to a either a two ohm impedance or an eight ohm impedance (and that if you're putting it in a car, eight ohms just isn't going to work for a single sub). Or being able to point out that the cowboy on screen just fired two shots from a single-shot Derringer.

Everyone has something they're passionate about.  Everyone. Even if they're things you don't understand their being passionate about. My aunt has a doctorate in textiles. I can't tell twill from gingham from muslin, but my aunt absolutely can. And I'll wager she can point out incorrect movie costuming, too. Especially when it comes to Westerns (which is her area of focus).

The point is this: When you need to know a thing, find someone who is passionate. Sure, you can use Google for a lot of information. I expect you'll find it more rewarding to talk to someone who is excited about a thing.

I used to be quieter about the game thing. I'd hedge my guesses with, "It could be," or "It sounds kinda like," and the like. Because I was ashamed of the fact that games were what I was excited about. But not anymore. I've made too many friends around a table. I've had too much fun to dismiss it so casually.

I'm that guy. And so are you.

Be that guy.

Share your passion. You never know who you're going to catch.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

My 2016 Gaming In Review

I know. We're already into February, so why am I dragging 2016 back into this?

Because I played a ton of really good games in 2016, and there are a ton of games that only got a few plays that honestly need more plays.

This weekend, we were talking about a game (I don't remember which one, unfortunately), and I remember saying, "I love that game! I hardly ever get to play it, though."

I was then asked why not, and the answer was, "Because there are so many other good games that need playing."

Most peoples' Year In Review posts talk about the games that they played a lot. I'm going to talk about how well I hit (and missed) my goals for the year.

In 2016, my goal was "play more games, instead of the same few games over and over and over."

I think I hit that goal. I had very few "Nickels and Dimes" last year.

I only had six games that I played more than four times - and they're all good games. Four of them are fast-playing, which is probably how they got so many plays.

Those six games were The Grizzled, Mafia de Cuba, Deus, Room 25, and Win, Lose, or Banana.

There were six games that I played four times. Age of War, Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game, No Thanks!, Scythe, and Witness.  Again: Shorter faster games dominate that list.

And I can explain why every game is on that list, too.

The Grizzled is a fast-playing easy-to-learn cooperative game for experienced gamers.  You can play it with rookies and beginners, but it's going to be more difficult for all involved.

Mafia de Cuba is a fast-playing easy-to-learn deduction game. It was new-to-me this year, which boosted its plays because I had to figure out the best way to teach it. And my group really enjoyed it.

Deus is a good entry-level tableau-builder. It's slower than the other two, however. And it's a good game to bring when you don't know the skill level of the other gamers, such as when you're joining a new group.

Room 25 is a favorite. Period. I did some work on the upcoming expansion, so I dug it out to re-familiarize myself with the base game. And then didn't put it back down.

Win, Lose, or Banana is a game you can play with eight-year-olds. It takes two seconds to teach and about 30 seconds to play. It fills time while you're waiting for another game to end.

Augustus is similar to Deus in that it's easy to teach, so makes a great introduction game with a new group. We tend to call this one "Strategy Bingo." It makes people laugh.

That's right: Every game I played five or more times is either easy to learn or easy to teach. As a rule of thumb, "easy to learn" games are always easy to teach.

That pattern continues for the next six games, too, with two notable exceptions:

Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game is not easy to teach (or learn).  There are odd little timing details and so on. It's on the list because it was new to me, and I needed to get my teaching patter down because it's a game I wanted to play. And before I can play a game, I need to teach a game.

Scythe is a scary-looking game with lots of bits. But it's surprisingly easy to learn and to teach. If you can get people past the "So many bits" issue.

In fact, the more I move down the list, the more I see that "complex" games are (mostly) on the list more than once because I wanted to get my teaching patter down. Again: Because I teach games I want to play, and it often takes multiple attempts to get my teaching patter together.

I ... I think I like teaching games as much as (if not more than) I like playing games. And that is something that I think I need to ponder.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Mechanisms I Like: Programmed Action

Some of you may have noticed a lack of post last week - that's on me. I've been fighting a (really bad) cold, and lost a cat. Both things together kept me away from my computer for just over a week, and now I'm behind at everything.

A few weeks ago, I was at Fantasium's Beer & Board Games, and one of the people there commented to me, "you really like your programmed action games, don't you?"

And I do. I really do.

Programmed Action Games are games where you plan your turn (or turns) in advance, and then resolve them in a pre-set order. Usually (but not always) every player is planning simultaneously.

BoardGameGeek lists (as of this writing) 113 games that are categorized as Programmed Action.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The first time I encountered this mechanism was with the original Robo Rally, back in 1994 or 1995. Each player had to program eight actions each turn by playing cards. There were upgrades that granted special powers, and ways to blast each other. It was wild and chaotic and fun - despite being very controlled due to constraints on what you could do.

There is a new edition out, by the way, that dramatically changes some elements of the game. It's (reportedly) faster-playing and easier without losing any of its chaotic fun.

I spent weeks playing Robo Rally. Its miniatures were among the first I painted reasonably well.

The next time I remember noticing the programmed action mechanism was when I picked up Wings of War. Each round, you program your airplane's next couple of moves. If an enemy plane is in one of your firing arcs, you get to shoot at them. I didn't play this one very much, because my group was lukewarm on it. And then it was re-themed, tweaked, and re-packaged as X-Wing. And I couldn't afford to keep up with the collectible nature of that one.

Room 25 has been a favorite of mine for a very long time. Each round, you program two actions. Move, shove, slide, peek, or (character-specific) special. You can play fully-cooperatively with everyone working together to escape, or you can play semi-cooperatively with one or two players working against the rest of the party. The new Ultimate edition (which is where the link above goes) is the base game and the expansion together in one box. The previous release was marred with issues - first they did a small box for the base game and a larger box for the expansion. Then they re-released both, flipping the box sizes. People didn't know if the two boxes were compatible (they were), and it just caused a ton of confusion. The Ultimate edition clears all the confusion up. And, as an added bonus, they tweaked a couple of rules about revealing identities in the semicooperative mode of play.

I only recently encountered Risk: Europe, but I hope it sees a lot more play.  Each player has eight cards, and you'll choose two per round. Those cards define what you can do that round. You can tax or spend, expand or maneuver. Players get their cards back only when they've used all eight. It's not a huge hit like Room 25 is for me, but it's definitely good and something I want to play again.