Friday, March 30, 2007

21 To Rule Them All

It was a cool and crisp late afternoon, the kind that spring provides with a promise of still warmer days to come. For the poets, it could be described as an April day come early: The sun was warm but the wind was chill, in the words of Robert Frost. Or perhaps Emily Dickinson was more applicable to our particular enterprise: A little Madness in the Spring/Is wholesome even for the King.

For truly it could only be madness to assemble three of basketball's most towering figures of talent and athletic prowess on one small, lumpy court in Wilmington, Delaware. Although the sun was out and there were only a few clouds in the sky, for a basketball fan it was the perfect storm.

This would decide, once and for all, who was the greatest of all time.

Note: If you haven't read the previous post, what follows will make even less sense.

Guns and I showed up first, already feeling the energies that Bird and Jordan were channeling through us. I almost challenged him to a game of "HORSE" just to help get into character.

Of course, this was impossible because we didn't actually have a basketball. We were waiting on C-Mart for that. Just like Kobe to arrive late. These young athletes have no respect.

When Kobe did arrive, we spent some time warming up, and it quickly became apparent to me that dribbling a basketball is not exactly like riding a bike. Or perhaps it is for me, since I can't actually remember how to ride a bike either.

When we finally did get started though, I felt positively vigorous. Harnessing Jordan's chi, I jumped out to an early lead. I was sinking shots and playing ferocious defense.

Action shot of me guarding Guns

At the "free throw" line (which we actually moved back to about the 3 point line), however, it was a different story. Somehow I started channeling Shaq by mistake whenever I was taking my one point shots. I didn't manage to hit any of them. What could have been a sound lead that would have allowed me to coast to victory was squandered.

Unfortunately, I also realized too late I should have paced myself. After what must have been at least 4-5 minutes of top form, my legs began to shake with the strain of going into my 2 inch vertical leap for my jump shot. Everything started coming up short. My chest and lungs caught fire, and I think for a second I even felt tingling in my left arm.

Kobe and Bird seized the advantage, cruelly ignoring my possible medical emergency. They nailed shot after shot, and Kobe began pulling a spinning jumper on the right side that proved to be nigh unstoppable.

C-Mart Takes Control

Eventually I was reduced to mere spectator as they started to pull away. I did my best to hang in there, but eventually Kobe got to 20 and had only to make a single one point free shot to win the game.

But then Kobe missed. Twenty-one is a fickle mistress, and that knocked his score back to 17.

Bird, who will always be more clutch than Kobe, took advantage.

I think I felt a breeze stir as perhaps some basketball deity came down and put a graceful touch into Guns' final shot...

... and it was over.

In typical fashion, Kobe immediately began to explain that despite the loss, he was the most skilled player on the court because he had made the most shots.

Bird just shook his head. Being from the old school, he understood that thing that seems to be lost on all but the greatest of athletes: it isn't how many shots you make, it's when you make them.


We actually went on to play two more games before I collapsed and begged for mercy. I knew that Julie, being a Bulls fan, would be less than pleased with my performance and my soiling of Jordan's legacy, but at that point all I could focus on were the simple actions of breathing in and out. I knew I shouldn't have eaten that piece of pie at lunch, I thought ruefully.

But alas, too late. And to think, that Jordan has done so much to maintain the greatness of his legacy after his time with Bulls, and I had to go and ruin it all.

Except for the comeback on the Wizards.
And his tenure as President of the Wizards.
And the gambling problem.
And the messy divorce proceedings.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Relative Greatness

A few weeks ago, a couple of buddies and I were at a sports bar talking about today's athletes versus the athletes of the last generation.

Specifically, we were talking about basketball. One of the arguments being made by my buddy who we will call "C-Mart" for the purposes of this discussion made the claim that even a second rate NBA player could absolutely dominate in the time of Bird, Jordan, etc.

C-Mart is slightly younger than myself and the third gent in this discussion (who we will call "Guns"). Both of us strongly disagreed with this notion, claiming that Jordan and Bird would still dominate in today's NBA, particularly with the way the game is played now.

It was as if ESPN was eavesdropping on our conversation that night, because just a few days ago Jemele Hill wrote an article making C-Mart's exact claim. Bill Simmons, also writing for ESPN, responded with the exact argument Guns and I were making (you have to scroll down a bit to see it: point #5 in his links).

After further debate via email, the three of us have decided to settle this nonsense once and for all.

Tonight we will be playing a game of 21 (basketball, not blackjack) at a local park. I am hereby dubbing the event:

Twenty One to Rule Them All


Guns as Larry Bird!

C-Mart as Kobe Bryant!

And me, Yeager, as Michael Jordan!

It will surely be a fabulous display of athletic prowess.

Don't worry Jordan, your legacy is in good hands. I'll even make sure to bet at least $50,000 on the game to get into character.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Look at Burning Empires

In my last full length post regarding game innovation, I hinted a little bit at the idea of tabletop RPG rules really only existing to mediate combat.

That was only the tip of a very large and formidable iceberg of RPG design theory.

D&D - The Standard

I would venture to guess that when the overwhelming majority of people think of tabletop RPGs, they think of Dungeons and Dragons. This is for good reason, since it is clearly the most widely played based on sales and licensing.

The D&D rulebooks (currently in "version 3.5") encompass a wide variety of rules related to character creation, combat, rewards for combat ("experience points" or "XP"), and character advancement (using that XP).

Now under the covers of those four things, there is a LOT going on, but if you understand it in those terms you'll have a pretty good idea what the aim of the rules in D&D are meant to mediate.

Given the basic rules of D&D, you can engage in entertaining combat using a very well thought out and detailed system that covers everything from swinging a sword, to hurling a fireball, to turning into a dragon if your character is powerful enough. It's why it is so easy and natural to make computer games based on D&D type mechanics: it provides a nice combat engine around which you can wrap a story.

Now, Dungeons and Dragons is historically built on the precepts of a Tolkien type universe. This is a world of elves, dwarves, orcs, and other fantastic creatures. As such the character you play is typically going to be from a fantasy type setting. Many players enjoy "acting out" these roles to add an extra element to the game, and this is where the real fun of playing these types of games comes for me. This type of "in character" speaking/acting lends itself to interesting storytelling and makes the stakes of combat and other mechanics seem that much more important, as we become emotionally attached to the characters.

This is a matter of setting, however, not system. The elves and dwarves and whatnot can easily be replaced with Vulcan and Borg. The important thing is the idea that players can become attached to their characters through storytelling. Which brings me to my next point.

There is nothing inherent in D&D (and most other systems of this type) that actually lends itself to storytelling.

Think about that for a second. One of the major reasons many people play D&D and tabletop RPGs is to involve themselves in a story, and yet most of these games have no rules or mechanics that encourage/mediate this sort of play.

Now, it's obvious rules to do that are not necessary. The folks I've played these types of games with over many years have all been excellent storytellers, and I like to think we've spun some good yarns. But it does give one pause: did we do all that in spite of the rules, just throwing out/trimming down complexities that got in the way of our storytelling?

The Forge - System Does Matter

I have heard a certain notion about role-playing games repeated for almost 20 years. Here it is: "It doesn't really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players." My point? I flatly, entirely disagree.

- Ron Edwards, System Does Matter

On the Adept Press forum known as "The Forge", Ron Edwards posted this shot across the bow of traditional thinking about RPG systems.

In that same article (and later ones), Edwards expanded upon ideas put forth in the Threefold Model of RPGs, which divides players (and therefore games) into 3 broad buckets:

1) Gamist - Players who like having a chance to win. They need mechanics interested in resolving contests. Things like D&D and Shadowrun are good for these types of players.

2) Narrativist - Players who like participating in a good story. They need mechanics that will help drive a story forward. Sorceror and Dogs in the Vineyard are good examples of this.

3) Simulationist - Players who want a system as realistic as possible. Edwards suggests that GURPS and Pendragon fall under this category.

Most of you are probably looking at that breakdown and thinking one of two things:
1) No category can define me, man!
2) Yeager, you are a huge nerd.

I agree with you on both points. Obviously these categories aren't going to define any one style of player precisely. I myself prefer a game focused on story, but sometimes you just want to lead an army onto the battlefield and split the skulls of a battalion of imaginary orcs in twain.

BUT, based on these categories and what I just said I like in my games, it should be apparent that I'm not playing the right type of game to really nourish the preferred style of play. Keep in mind here that I'm not criticizing D&D or Shadowrun or any of those games with this statement: I've been playing them for years. Clearly I really enjoy them. But it still makes one curious about the possibilities of a system that makes efforts to get mechanics that go beyond simply: "Roll to see if you hit it with your sword."

You're Having Fun, So What's Really the Problem?

When you are playing a "Gamist" style game, but what you're interested in playing is the "Narrativist" style, you run into some pitfalls.

Any "Gamist" style game is capable of supporting RP. If the players are into their characters and the setting (again, not to be confused with system), good RP is going to result.

However, it can be difficult to make sure that everyone gets time in the spotlight. There are no mechanics in place to stop that guy who wants all the attention to be on him. If he has a forceful personality, outside of telling him "Shut up", nothing in the rules can really stop you.

If you have a twink player who loves to exploit the rules for every possible edge, his character is going to become unbalanced with the rest of the party. The problem here is as a GM you try to create challenges and situations that involve everybody, but again nothing can stop that guy from owning every dragon you throw at him while everyone else stands around and watches.

In other words, a disproportionate amount of the onus falls on the GM to drive story forward. Not only is the GM responsible for putting together the scenarios, if you want a good story with everyone involved and invested you really need to go out of your way to make sure that happens. You need to intuit what it is the players want from you based on how they react to certain things and try to give it to them.

This goes back to Edward's hypothetical "Herbie the GM". If Herbie is a good GM, he'll make it all work regardless. But it sure would be nice if the system helped make it work.

Um... You Were Going to Talk About Burning Empires, Right?

First, let's talk about something in Burning Empires that is sure to get every player emotionally invested in the game right from day one.

World Burning.

Before you get too excited, I probably should have mentioned that "burning" is interchangeable with "creation" in the lexicon of this game. So when you see things like "world burning", "technology burning", "character burning", etc., you are not actually lighting things on fire. I understand your disappointment, but trust me, it's still cool.

The first session of your game will consist of World Burning and Character Burning, in that order. World Burning is a collaborative effort in which you choose the type of planet your game will take place on in terms of climate, available technology levels, quarantine rules, and a host of other things. This isn't just an exercise in creativity: the choices made will determine starting disposition pools for the good guys (the humans) and the bad guys (Vaylen, parasitic worms that take over your brain and steal your body). Disposition is part of the macro story economic of the game: by using maneuvers (segments of play time), you are trying to reduce your opposition's disposition to zero. We'll touch more on maneuvers in a bit, but for now it is enough to know that the choices you make about your world have a tangible effect on your game through mechanics right away.

Next you make characters. Burning Empires uses a "lifepath" system which is very different from anything I've seen before. The more starting "lifepaths" a character has, the more powerful she is. Each lifepath that you take opens up traits that you can take to enhance your character, in addition to opening up more lifepaths with more traits. It's like a spiderweb, but the genius of the process is the lifepaths will give you a really great character history right away as part of the mechanics of character creation. You'll have to fill in the blanks of how she went from one lifepath to the next, but it still provides a pretty detailed baseline.

Also as part of character creation is the crux upon which this game appears to revolve: character beliefs. You must come up with 3 beliefs that define your character, and I'm not just talking about "I hate the worms." A good belief explains what you're going to do about your hatred of the worms: "I hate the worms, and I will persuade my brother to fight by my side against them." Now we're talking.

These beliefs are important because they drive the artha system, which is like the "experience" system in Burning Empires. Every time you perform in a session in a way that jives with your beliefs, you earn artha. What this means is that players have a mechanical reason to develop their beliefs and perform actions towards fulfilling them.

Scene Economy

There's lots to talk about in this game (without even getting into the conflict systems), but I want to touch on the concept of scene economy as a final example of how this game is different from traditional RPGs I'm used to playing.

As I stated before, one of the problems in story driven RPGs that are using gamist systems is the issue of "spotlight". It can be difficult to make sure everybody is getting a chance to shine when playing Shadowrun or D&D, and players with strong personalities are more likely to steal spotlight time for their characters from folks who may not be as assertive. As a GM I've always considered it part of my responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen, but with Burning Empires there are actual mechanics to help prevent it.

Game sessions in Burning Empires can consist of one or two maneuvers. This is a unit of measurement for a chunk of playtime. In each maneuver, the player and GM choose a maneuver type they hope to accomplish from the list of options. (There is a very clever mechanic here as well, since some maneuver types provide bonuses/advantages against others, but it is a bit much to get into here). The players (and GM!) then have a certain number of "scenes" allotted to them to accomplish their maneuver purpose. The scenes are defined as follows:

- Conflict: This type of scene is anything that requires BE's combat rules, which include "Duel of Wits" for verbal arguments/debates (important ones with something at stake, like the Council of Elrond and what to do about the One Ring, for example, or persuading your brother that his wife has in fact been taken over by a Vaylen worm) and "Firefight!" for shooting guns (duh).

- Building: A scene where you do something specific towards your goal which requires a roll of some kind. This encompasses a huge variety of options: you could do research on that mysterious NPC, you could hack into the bad guy's computers, lay groundwork for a future conflict, etc.

- Color: A scene where you are fleshing out your character or the game world with details, usually through RP.

- Interstitial: A scene where you exclusively interact with another player or character.

At first I thought this was sort of arbitrary also, but the more I thought about how typical games run, this is how things happen anyway. By limiting how many of these the players and GM get, it provides some serious focus/pace to the gameplay, because you have a limited amount of time to do what you need to accomplish your maneuver.

Think about that for a second. This means that the splotlight hog really has to think about how important it is that he gets that twentieth tattoo or the eighth engraving on his sword or whatever. It doesn't limit the possibilities, it just forces priorities. Combine that with a belief system where players need to move towards their beliefs to earn artha, and you've got yourself a pretty tightly wound mechanic to drive play.

Enough Already!

Obviously there's more to this, but I've gone on long enough I think to highlight the things I found exceptionally cool about Burning Empires. I hope I also provided some context as to why this game is so interesting to me.

Now, on the downside: this game definitely would take some adjusting. I can imagine it might be tricky for the first couple of weeks for an entire group to wrap their heads around some of this stuff without resistance. It also doesn't look like it would be easy to do right away with large groups: I can't imagine trying to run this game with more than three players on a first campaign.

Most importantly, in the old style games I've described to you like D&D and Shadowrun, for the most part the players are reactive. They react to situations the GM presents to them. In a game like this, the players must be active. They must use their scenes to advance their beliefs and earn artha.

However, it does via mechanics address a number of the things that I take for granted as just "things you deal with" when running a game. And if nothing else, it's really made me think about the genre of the tabletop RPG and how it can distinguish itself in very real ways from MMOs, because games like this one really highlight things that would be exceptionally difficult to duplicate using a computer.

Friday, March 09, 2007

This May Require Burning Edge

I hate to link and run, but with the chatting I've been doing about Shadowrun lately, you might get a kick out of this story spotted on the Burning Empires forums.

Elf defence for 'lingerie thief'

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Innovation, or Change for the Sake of Change?

It's not much of a secret that I enjoy trying out new game concepts. In a lot of cases, the ideas surrounding a new game concept are a lot more interesting to me than the actual execution, which sometimes ends up leaving me disappointed.

A couple examples of this to illustrate.

I remember several years ago seeing the original Neverwinter Nights at GenCon. There was an hour long demonstration of the DM tools in action. During that hour the fellow put together a small dungeon, populated it with monsters, put together some scripts/dialog trees for a couple of them, and even populated the place with some traps and treasure. When the adventurers arrived, the demonstrator was even able to add things and tweak encounters on the fly.

I was completely blown away by this. At last, no longer would distance be a factor keeping the gaming group together. I would convert old campaigns to Neverwinter Nights games, and it would be awesome. We'd finally be able to see on a computer screen, with a modicum of effort, all those things we had envisioned over our years of weekly gaming.

Needless to say, this was sheer foolishness. The tools, while not too difficult, were certainly not as easy to use as they appeared in the perfectly rehearsed demo. The game at the time didn't run that well over a network. Trying to tweak stuff on the fly was extremely tough. Altogether the entire experience was disappointing. Even the single player game wasn't as good as the predecessor, Baldur's Gate 2.

Another example would be a tabletop RPG called Engel. I got this game while the d20 bubble was not quite ready to burst. (For you uninitiated, "d20" is an open rules system designed by Wizards of the Coast, the owners and creators of D&D in its current form.)

The idea is pretty cool. It's a post-apocalyptic world where angels do battle with demons in a sort of sci-fi setting. The problem is that the rules completely suck. Even though this thing is based on an already existing system, they still manage to feel incomplete. I remember reading the flavor stuff for Engel and being psyched to run a game, then realized I didn't know how I'd actually do it because things like character creation aren't even spelled out properly.

Pretty lame.

In both of these cases though, I went out and spent the money because the idea just seemed so cool. I own a Nintendo DS because the games are completely unique. I have a Wii on order (arriving in another couple weeks) because I'm interested in the possibilities of a system based on such a unique control scheme. I have a Windows XP partition on the Mac for the sole purpose right now of playing Dwarf Fortress simply because the gameplay is so strange and wonderful. Even at my job, I sometimes have to take a step back and ask myself if I'm designing something using a certain paradigm or technology just because I think it's cool and want to try it.

Did curiosity get the better of me last week when I reinstalled Warcraft? Did the hype of change and "new stuff" bring me back? Or was it just booze, stupidity, and a weak will?

Probably the latter. It took under an hour of playing Burning Crusade, the shiny new Warcraft expansion, to remember why I quit that damn game. In a social game like that one, if you can't keep up with the people you want to play with, you're going to be very, very lonely. Logging into WoW and making a new character, I entered a ghost town... in my (albeit very short) time playing the day after the reinstall incident, I encountered one other person. I assume everyone has made the rush to Outland, but it does rather defeat the purpose of an MMO if there is nobody else to play with, doesn't it? Given the mechanics of WoW's solo gameplay, I might as well be looking at this:

On the tabletop front, my Shadowrun game continues to be a lot of fun. There is no substitute for sitting down with friends and slinging dice face to face. But even though the rules for Shadowrun are different than the D&D d20 system, they still foster the same type of gameplay, and that gameplay is based on combat.

The overwhelming majority of the rules in these games are built to support combat resolution. RP and storytelling are things that happen if you have the type of group that is interested in them, but the rules certainly do not encourage this sort of play.

Enter something like Burning Empires, and other games of its philosophy. The rules are built around character development. The rules are built around resolving storytelling conflicts. Naturally I've been devouring this rulebook (which is a hardcover beast of a book that could dent a person's skull if hurled at them from under 30 yards).

It's a completely different idea that requires a completely different type of play, however, and that's why I wonder if I'll ever actually play it. Some of the concepts are extremely difficult to wrap your head around when you've been playing the "I rolled a 17 to hit the orc" style for over a decade.

In the next post I'll get a little more into how Burning Empires works as opposed to the traditional tabletop RPG, so if you're not into that sort of thing I won't be offended if you skip over it.

NOTE: Quick shout out to defective yeti who has a terrific post about replacing old cliches with new ones via reader submissions. If you follow the link, look for "get on the nut foot", which is my small contribution.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dangers of Alcohol

I debated yesterday whether to post this or not.

I told myself what had happened was just too sad, too embarrassing to even contemplate.

Of course, I realized today that makes it perfect blog material.

On Tuesday night this week, my fiance and I went out to dinner for Mexican food. This particular place makes a tasty margarita, and I proceeded to help myself to a sizeable quantity.

When she dropped me off at my place, already well on my way to being sloshed, I poured myself a nice glass of bourbon.

Now, I'm not the type of person that likes to be drunk by myself. I'm a social drinker. So since it was 8 PM on a Tuesday night, I decided to fire up iChat and see if any of my coworkers were available for a little Quake 4 action. Unfortunately no one was on line.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning. I woke up, feeling pretty good, and grabbed a shower. Eventually I noticed the pulsing white heartbeat of my Mac in sleep mode. That's odd, I thought. Usually I shut it down at night.

Bringing the computer out of sleep mode revealed a window that said (and I'm paraphrasing):

World of Warcraft Patching Complete

It all came flooding back immediately. In my desperation for social interaction the previous night, I had pulled out the dusty WoW discs and reinstalled the game. I had even gone online, opened a new account (the old one no longer... *ahem*... belongs to me), and paid for a digital download of the Burning Crusade expansion pack!!!

The only thing that had stopped me from actually playing was the patch and expansion download times. Eventually I tired of waiting for the downloads and went off to do something else, leaving the download in progress. When I went to bed I obviously left the downloading in progress.

Today I went on to the WoW account management and canceled the account again, but now I am left with a month of time already paid for. I've also just dropped a total of $55 as a result of this tomfoolery.

So a warning, friends: excessive drinking may lead you to play MMOs. You won't find that disclaimer on the bottle.

Let the mockery commence.