Saturday, August 31, 2013

No Buttons

I just finished playing Save the Date [], a small freeware video game that ponders the meaning of choice in video games. The central dilemma of the game is trying to find the “good ending,” and at one point it’s brought up that the problem is that there’s no button for it. The fact that your choices are limited by what the programmer put in got me thinking about magic of tabletop role-playing and how you can do anything you want. Then immediately, I thought about the fact that of course that's not true. At the tabletop, you have far more choices than in a videogame—there are no buttons, there are no limits to the maps you can access, or hard-coded NPC behaviors you can’t change. However, there are implicit limits written into the game. Want to do something that your character isn’t good at, or that’s beyond their abilities? The dice will probably tell you “no, you can’t do that.” Beyond that, there are choices you can take that the rules don’t even cover (and thus quietly discourage you from taking). Want to take over a kingdom and tax the populace in D&D 4e? Sure, you can theoretically do that, but there aren’t any rules that govern it, so you and the GM will have to create rules in order to tell that story. Taking a step further, your D&D party can’t venture into space, or travel to the future, or implant cybernetics, or at least not without bringing in rules from another game. And what if you want to tell a story like Save the Date, metafictively pondering the nature of fiction and your character’s role in it... you could use D&D to tell that story, but the rules would be of no use to you. Nor would they be in virtually any game out there (I’m sure there’s some freeform narrativist indie game floating around the net somewhere that allows you to do this, but I don’t know it)—and if you could find a game whose rules support metafictive storytelling, I doubt you could use that same ruleset to run a tactical wargame as well.

Even if you’re playing a game with no rules, a narrativist diceless system like our theoretical metafictive game, there are still fundamental assumptions put in place by the game master—or if you’re playing one of the few games with no GM at all, then the assumptions shared by the table. Want to leave the dungeon and venture into space? Want to run a restaurant? Want to ponder the existential ramifications of being a character in a game? Then your fellow players had better be on board. There are strictures—structures—in place. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Without structure, there’s no story. Pure randomness ends up going somewhere, somewhen, or else it’s nothing more than gobbletygook. And then there’s the question of an ending. Save the Date reflects on the nature of an ending, that its story only really ends when you stop playing, and the ending you choose is the one you, as a player, write for yourself. Nowhere in gaming is this more true than on the tabletop. If you’re not playing a pre-written adventure, it can end wherever and however you like. Even if you are, the campaign as a whole can go into new and strange directions, and end with the PCs as rulers of the world, or slaves, or dead, or whatever. But how often does that happen? How many times is the ending of a campaign simply a non-ending, when real life intervenes and the story is abandoned, never to be brought to a conclusion? Is that an ending? Does it “count”?

Should the rules cover every situation? Should they cover none? If they cover every possible situation, you’re going to get a pretty thick tome—and, of course, there will end up being some situation, somehow, that they can’t cover. And if the rules are pretty much nonexistent, like the six-page system Risus, then what exactly is the advantage of using a ruleset over just sitting with your friends and spitballing a tale. “It helps us tell the story we want to tell” I hear your imaginary voice say—ah ha! So you choose those rules based on the story you’re planning on telling, on the experience you want to have. And if you decide to change your experience, you’re going to need a new set of rules. A new set of assumptions. A genre switch. Some buttons to press.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Finding the Next Dragon

Have you ever noticed how we spend all our time looking for new challenges while simultaneously trying to find the cheat codes for life? I heard a new song by Marian Call tonight, about the dragons we face and how every time we defeat a dragon, we are compelled to find another. And I find that, for the most part, that’s true. It’s as if all of life is a series of leveling up: there's always one more platform to reach, one more challenge to accept. Work, romance, children. The next big thing, the next big step, the next dragon to face. And yet, at the same time, we try to find a way through without actually meeting those challenges. We ask “how can I get that job without actually having the training for it, there has to be someone I can blow.” “I can get that girl to sleep with me if I say just the right thing without actually getting to know her.” In our personal lives we seek out new and exciting challenges. We call them games. What is a game but a series of challenges standing between you and the end? And it's those challenges we relish, much more than reaching the end (see The World is Saved by Danny Wiessner).

There have been open world video games with no battles, no puzzles, nothing to do but explore—and no one plays them. There are tabletop RPGs just about telling a story about ordinary people—and no one plays them. I mean, some people play with the cheat codes on. I must admit that some of the most fun I've ever had was rampaging around Liberty City as Nico Bellic with an invulnerability cheat on: mayhem and chaos and a complete lack of consequences. It gets tiring, doesn’t it? You get done with it. You’ve got to turn the difficulty back up.

One of the most common complaints I hear as a GM is “you’ve made this too easy for us.” Too easy? Wouldn't you like to be guaranteed a win, in a way you can't be in real life? Nope. In fact, the Fate Core community is currently abuzz about the coolness of conceding conflicts, that there's a neat game incentive to lose, and people are eating it up to make an eventual win that much sweeter. Gamers want to pay for victory. This is a concept that just recently came to my attention, that has apparently been a cornerstone of my beloved Fate system for years. Victory in Fate is not a question of the whims of the dice, it's about how much you are willing to give up in order to achieve victory: from fate point to stress to consequences to narrative complications from concessions and such. How much are you willing to pay to win? And the answer is always "something," nobody wants to walk through the game without anything standing in their way. So apparently, we relish challenges and difficulty. But you might never see that in real life. You'd think if we really wanted those challenges that we would want them everywhere, wouldn't you?

Perhaps it’s the fact that we can set the difficulty level of our games—if not by changing a setting in a menu, then by talking to the GM or simply playing a different game. In life, we don’t always have that choice. Sometimes that dragon is bigger and meaner and harder than you expected, you are thrust back down to where you were before: you’ve got to do a little more grinding before you can move forward. And sometimes we can’t find the right dragon to slay. We can't always find the next great challenge. Sometimes we're treading water—grinding—working far below our abilities and desires. That’s when boredom sets in, ennui. Gaming-wise, this is farming low-level mobs in WoW, it's running a dungeon filled with goblins for the fiftieth weekend in a row, it’s spending hours getting that one Mortal Kombat combo just right. In real life, it’s the days flipping burgers, the hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the nights spent with that lover that you just don't care that much about. Sometimes it’s because the next challenge hasn’t been made available to you, you haven't been able to find it. But more often, as I'm sure all of you know, because you haven't really looked for it.

When you finally find that dragon, you will very often find it’s smaller than you thought, weaker, not nearly as scary when looked at from the other side. I just spent the last 10 months writing a brand-new role-playing supplement (and by by supplement I mean it's actually larger than the game that it’s built for). This was something I had been trying to do for years, been wanting to do for a long time, but I always shrank back, I never pushed too hard. I never found the right venue, the right circumstances, and the right people to get involved with. Getting those extra people on your team can really help, but the fact is, Jennifer and Quinn aside, I personally have done way more writing and design this year than I've ever done before. I picked a project and I set out to slay that dragon. Now the first of this flight of dragons is defeated (flight, it’s the collective noun. Look it up. Or don’t, because I just decided that just now). The first draft is done. Soon it will become a new dragon, one I haven't tried to fight before. This is the one that scares the shit out of me, but I really am looking forward to the battle: the playtest, the Kickstarter, the publication. Getting it out there. Becoming published for the first time. A step I should have, could have, but didn't, take years ago. I spent too long grinding, not looking for dragons. Now, my viewpoint is different. Strange Voyages may be my current dragon, but it's not my last. I have three pitches prepared for the next game project on the pipeline, the next dragon to fight.

Maybe you don't understand what I'm saying. Maybe you are someone who always wants cheat codes on, never ever searches for that next dragon, has no interest in new challenges. But I'd like to think that the hypothetical you does want something more—people who genuinely want no challenges in life are mainly the ones who already have so many they can't handle what they’ve already got. So let's assume that everyone reading this does like a good challenge, wants those dragons to find, in whatever way, in whatever form, at whatever level of difficulty they may exist in your life. So you've got to take a look, reach out beyond your comfort zone, because that comfort zone is dealing with the same problems every day, using the same solutions over and over. You know how that goes, you know what that answer is. It's boring. It’s a grind.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Parallel Paths

I saw an old friend today. My oldest friend. An old girlfriend, if you can call the little bits of fumbling romance we eked out of high school to count. You always have to wonder, when you haven’t seen someone in a long time, what will they be like now? I’m reminded of a section on campaign advancement in Fate Core, that says sometimes the bad guys will advance along with your characters, becoming just as powerful and just as tuned in to the PCs’ circumstances as they were the first time they interacted, while others will stay static and be quickly and easily outpaced by your protagonists. The same can apply to your friends: you never know if they have stayed the same or grown with you—or will they have leveled up, but in a new and unpleasant direction? I’m not the same person I was in high school, I don’t have the same tastes, the same day-to-day activities, the same physique. But when I met my friend, I found that somehow we had traveled along parallel paths in life. We’d both read the same authors and watched the same television shows, and started playing geeky board games.

All of these things had their seeds back then: the Lord of the Rings cooperative board game, watching The Princess Bride over and over and trading old copies of The Hobbit back and forth, but I had never heard of Joss Whedon when I was sixteen, I had just barely discovered Neil Gaiman, and I don’t believe China Mieville had even started writing yet. And somehow, this old friend and I, who I came together with when I had a different set of interests and a different way of looking at the world, has fallen in love with the same authors and activities that I have. Not quite the same, of course: she says she seldom actually likes Neil Gaiman’s books, and Whedon’s tendency to kill off beloved characters throws her for a loop. Nonetheless, when we sat down to play a cooperative card game that neither of us would have played in high school, she just adored it when the game kept kicking our asses. We watched Doctor Who, which I didn’t discover until 2005 (at which point it proceeded to control my life for the following eight years), and we talked about how Torchwood was a good idea but just wasn’t quite the same. We were in just the same place together as we had been, even though we’d both changed along the way. I wonder how many people can say that about their own friends, how many of my old friends I could say that about. I don’t know. I have new friends, as well as those who I’ve kept in touch with along the way, but there is a certain magic in finding that synchronicity that two people traveled down parallel paths.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Welcome to the new Realmcrafting

Welcome to the new Realmcrafting. This blog is undergoing a bit of a rebranding. No longer devoted specifically to the creation of the City of Lives RPG, you will now find a variety of essays and updates related to my escapades in game design.

Let's set the stage: since I ceased updating, I've changed focuses. The City of Lives is still on the docket for a future project, but the game formerly known as Terra Incognita (see my series of posts starting here) has been my life since December 2012. The game, now known as Strange Voyages, will be published by Occult Moon in early 2013, with a Kickstarter coming next month to fund cover art and a few other things.

For now, Realmcrafting will update sporadically, with a few essays related to gaming and (gasp!) how it relates to real life, and then probably the site will focus on keeping folks up to date on the progress of Strange Voyages as it moves through editing, playtesting, layout, etc.

Welcome! I hope you stick around.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Middleman FAE

The Middleman
High Concept: “I’m Just the Middleman”
Trouble: Ride Lonesome
-“Our mandate is protect people from threats, infra, extra and juxtaterrestrial.”
-These Rules Exist For a Reason
-It’s Just You And Me Against All the Bad Things Out There

Good (+3): Clever
Fair (+2): Forceful, Careful
Average (+1): Flashy, Sneaky
Mediocre (+0): Quick

-Because I am Sensei Ping’s favorite apprentice, I gain +2 to Forcefully attack when outnumbered.
-Because I’ve seen it all, I gain +2 to Cleverly create advantages on creatures the Middle-organization has faced before.
-Because I have a great sidekick, I gain +2 to Forcefully create advantages whenever working as a team with Wendy Watson.

Wendy Watson
High Concept: Middleman-in-Training
Trouble: Personal Stuff Gets in the Way
-Rash and Impetuous
-Pop Culture Genius
-My Father Disappeared Under Mysterious and As-Yet-Unexplained Circumstances

Good (+3): Forceful
Fair (+2): Flashy, Sneaky
Average (+1): Quick, Clever
Mediocre (+0): Careful

-Because I am an abstract impressionist, once per session I can create an advantage for free based on a detail I noticed in a previous scene.
-Because the Middleman is the closest thing I’ve had to a father, I gain +2 to Forcefully create advantages when working as a team with the Middleman.
-Because I have great friends, once per session I can get just what I need from Lacey or Noser.

Lacey Thornfield
High Concept: Confrontational Spoken-Word Performance Artist
Trouble: In Love With Sexy Bossman
-I Love My Dub-Dub
-Reap the Whirlwind (That Means We’re Going to Do Bad Things To Him)
-Dr. Barbara Thornfield, MD, PhD

Good (+3): Flashy
Fair (+2): Quick, Sneaky
Average (+1): Clever, Forceful
Mediocre (+0): Careful


High Concept: Alien Android
Trouble: Domineering Schoolmarm version 2.0
-“She’s a hophead!”
-“That's what you get for being made of meat.”
-I Don’t Care

Good (+3): Clever
Fair (+2): Careful, Forceful
Average (+1): Quick, Flashy
Mediocre (+0): Sneaky

-Because I can be hooked up to the HEYDAR, I gain +2 to Cleverly overcome obstacles when searching for information.
-Because I am an alien android, if I am taken out and destroyed, I can be replaced by O2STK at the end of the scenario.
-Because the Middleman and I have history, I gain +2 to Sneakily create advantages when trying to notify the Middleman of danger.

Tyler Ford
High Concept: I’m a Musician
Trouble: Tyler the Not-a-Rock-Star
-I’m a Man of Many Shades and Dimensions
-“You do what you have to do and when you get back, I'll still be around.”
-“Tyler Ford Will Smite You!”

Good (+3): Careful
Fair (+2): Flashy, Quick
Average (+1): Clever, Sneaky
Mediocre (+0): Forceful

High Concept: Master of the Unseen Arts
Trouble: Everyone Remembers Young Noser
-“Yo, Wendy Watson.”
-“I never thought I could play stump the band without hearing a single song.”
-A One-Man Oasis of Zen in a Desert of Insanity.

Good (+3): Careful
Fair (+2): Quick, Sneaky
Average (+1): Forceful, Clever
Mediocre (+0): Flashy


High Concept: Malignant Nematode
Good At: Plagiarizing, manipulating his tenants
Bad At: Creating art, making people not hate him

Game Aspects
-Fighting Evil So You Don’t Have To
-My Plan is Sheer Elegance So You Don’t Have To
-A Big Silver Ball That Gives Us Answers To Things

-The Illegal Sublet Wendy Shares With Another Young, Photogenic Artist
-Booty Chest: The Pirate-Themed Sports Bar With Scantily-Clad Waitresses

-Drown in the Icy Waters of the North Atlantic
-There Can Only Be One Middleman

Unused Aspects (appropriate for switching out at minor milestones)
-I Do Have One Weakness--Magic
-Oh, Phooey
- “I can badge my way into Fort Knox, I can talk my way into Lincoln’s bedroom.”
-Moscow Rules
-I Like To Keep the Old Heroes Alive
-Old Fashioned Manners and Language
-The Middleman Only Uses Violence When the Fate of the World is at Stake
-Sensei Ping’s Favorite Apprentice
-There are some things a man just can’t ride around
-I Will Always Have Your Back. Always.
-Been watching out for you all along
-It’s Waterproof, Shock-Proof, and Grafted To My Skin
-I know you're upset about Art Crawl, but sometimes that's the job.

-And I want you to know that since my dad disappeared, you're the closest thing I've had to a father.
-Queen of Snark
-No one dies on my watch
-You are such a rockstar. - on Tyler

-I’ve Taken a Few Eggs out of My Wendy Basket
-I Have to Take a Stand
-WWWWD? (What Would Wendy Watson Do?)

-Devoid of Human Emotion

Tyler Ford
-A _nado
-Incredibly Observant
-I'm a musician
-Because You’re Made of Awesome -Tyler, on Wendy

-Tyler Ford Isn’t Most People