Monthly Archives: August 2013

My Favorite Board Games #10-#6

I actually play about as many board games as I do RPGs.  After my GenCon experience, I wanted to sit back and think about how I’d rank my top 10 games:

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GenCon Recap pt.1

It took me awhile to do a full write-up of my GenCon experience.  I’m sure I’m missing several games & events, but this should be most everything I played or participated in while I was there.

The city of Indianapolis was very welcoming, with the local bars and restaurants putting up GenCon artwork and handing out special GenCon menus.  The food and drink was great, although the lines for the food trucks outside the convention hall could get pretty atrocious.  The hotels were walking distance and the convention center itself was very convenient, with tons of space for gamers to participate in scheduled events, or find rooms/tables to play the games they bought in the vendor hall.  Like many, I wish the vendor hall was open for more hours, as we’re trying to cram as many events into the day as possible, but I can understand why that wouldn’t be popular with the vendors.

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Campaigns

I’ve decided that I want to play more variety in RPGs.  This, combined with the fact that I have less time than ever to play them means I want a tightly written novella or short story for a campaign, not an epic 7 novel series.

So, I want a campaign to complete in 6-12 months.  I want to play 2x per month, for 5 hours or so.  This gives me 60-120 hours to complete an entire campaign, which really isn’t all that much time.  With this perspective, how many levels should the game have, and how many hours should it take to level up?

Let’s say we go with 100 hour campaigns, which is being a bit generous.  We could do 20 levels for 1 level every 5 hours of play.  We could also do 10 levels, with a  level for every 10 hours of play.  I’d also say that the game system should probably be able to handle a longer campaign, and that maybe there is a more epic tier that exists, but there would need to be some practical reason that most NPCs aren’t “epic” or there aren’t really epic-tier heroes controlling the world and pulling the strings.

I don’t want to go too far down that way though, because that way lies super-hero style RPG play, and I really don’t care about that right now for Lost Worlds.  So, I think I want to delay some of the gratification of leveling, so I think every-other session is probably appropriate.  Every session might be hard to keep up with for players as they have changing stats and powers every time they sit down after a 2-week break.

All of that being said, I think I want my design space then to be about 10 levels worth of stuff, with level 1-3 being an above average combatant, level 4-7 being a hero, and level 8-10 being a leader.  There is going to be a fine line between having fewer steps and making the levels granular enough that a level 2 doesn’t auto-win against a level 1, and a level 3 doesn’t auto-win against a level 2, etc., since I want a little more granularity in the range.

I’m not completely sold that every-other-session should be a level though.  What would you prefer?

Hiding the Scaffolding of Combat

One of the things I think that didn’t work very well with 4e skill challenges was how they were presented to be run.  The advice in the DMG suggested that you make sure to explain to players what skills they could use, which would be difficult and which would be easy, etc.

What happened is that the whole Skill Challenge encounter broke immersion in the game (in a way that “roll for initiative!” never seems to), and turned that portion of the roleplaying into a little mini-game that, in and of itself, wasn’t very fun.  The way anyone ever really made skill challenges work, I think, was to put some of the wonky math of them aside, and just play out a scenario as naturally as possible.  Allow players still to make skill checks, but let the situation truly evolve as part of that check.  Also, the number of successes before number of failures model failed a little bit when players didn’t, or perceived that they didn’t have skills that would help win the challenge – which meant that their participation would only end up hurting the challenge.  Contrast this with combat, where even if for a particular combat one of the players isn’t very effective, they aren’t actively moving the party towards a loss condition by taking actions (as they would in a skill challenge).

So, if a good skill challenge through out some of the bad math, allowed some of the players to fail or marginally succeed without moving the party towards a loss condition, and didn’t break the immersion of the game into a relatively boring mini-game – then what about combat itself?

Lot’s of players really enjoy combat.  I think the main reason is that it is often one of the few game states where the players are really risking something (their character’s life).  Also, the mini-game of combat is significantly more advanced and interesting than the mini-game of skill challenges, and the math is generally more tightly balanced.  As characters are often generated with an eye towards how they’re going to fare in combat, it’s rare that a player has no way of contributing.

Still, it makes me wonder what the game would be like of all the scaffolding of combat was hidden as well.  Hit points replaced by something akin to “# of success milestones.”  Skill challenges were simplified into using failures for their successes, but they could operate similar to combat where they simple have their own skill rolls against the players DC, and try to reach # of successes before the players can (essentially, hit points represent successes in a skill challenge).  Each player can have their contribution type.  A cleric, for example, removes opponent successes by healing the party.  If you hide all of that scaffolding, and turn combat into a narration similar to well-run skill challenges, I wonder what that would feel like as a game.

What does hiding the scaffolding in combat look like?  I think that it looks like a narrated version of combat without a battle grid.  It also removes some of the very specific combat mini-game actions, and replaces them with general skills/attributes that can be rolled against using either a fiction-first OR a fiction-follows method.  So, for example, the fighter could roll their fight skill, and based on margin of success, the GM (or the player) could narrate the action and result.  The DCs are kept under wraps, with the players having to trust in the math of the system to provide fair results, and with the monsters using the same system, fairness wouldn’t be too difficult to balance.  Hit points would largely disappear, replaced by sort-of cut-scene descriptions as the enemies have successes accumulated against them.

Such a system would take the game a step out of the tactical war-game genre and a step towards a cinematic story-telling game genre.  That’s almost assuredly not the right step for everyone and for every game, but for a skirmish miniatures game like D&D 4e that already incorporates cinematic skill challenges (albeit, poorly in their execution I think), it might be an interesting way to play it.

Elric of Melnibone

I just finished the Elric compilation I purchased (and started reading way back… I really do need to put some more time aside to read).  Some of the early stories were hard for me to get into.  Still, once Moorcock got into his four-part novel, the character, the cosmology, and the story were worth the wait.

I also enjoyed the context from the letters published at the end of the book.  Moorcock is forthcoming about his inspirations, how his novels and characters reflected his life, and how he weaved his own philosophical and religious beliefs into the cosmology of the world.  You get a brief glimpse into the differences in his work between writing commercially and writing for himself, and what happened at the intersection of those usually competing goals with the Elric stories.

I like to hear an author admit to which stories and scenes he or she thinks are good, and which are rubbish.  Moorcock also talks about some of the literary techniques he uses, and how he intentionaly used symbols throughout his works. Back in college, when reading literary criticism of various works, I hated how easily someone slapped the word symbol onto pieces of literature, when it seemed more like they were bending the fiction to the critic’s perception of reality.  When the author talks about it though, and having just read all of the stories, it really adds some depth that lets me revisit what I just read.  His letters make me want to start reading some of the other works that Moorock references as inspirations.  I may pick up Leiber’s Grey Mouser next.

Of course, I have a hard time reading this stuff without thinking about how to steal from it for my game, or eventually for my own writing.  I was a creative writing minor in college, and I always had this little bug in my brain that kept me thinking I was going to one day start practicing more heavily with fiction and start writing again – or even better, find out I was one of those people who seemed to be able to just pick it up and make it work.  There’s a lot to steal from the Elric stories, and I can’t help but notice how much classic fantasy games HAVE stolen from them.  You have a magic sword that gives Excalibur a run for its money.  There’s a whole cosmology of Chaos vs. Law (Now that I’ve read the Elric stories, I realize that Warhammer doesn’t even try to hide pulling straight from Moorcock).  There is, as is frequent with these fantasy tales, a little hint to the fantasy world being a precursor of our modern world.  You have a great anti-hero, who like Wolverine or Han Solo, always seems more fun than your typical prince Valiant types; although Elric gets a little too moody and whiny for me sometimes.  Moorcock manages to make his stories of Elric epic though, from beginning to end, but for the most part he manages to allow this epic story to unfold naturally out of the characters and the world he’s built, so that it doesn’t (usually) feel gratuitous.

I need to put some more time in reading I think.  It’s just with so many competing pulls on my time, I’ve had a hard time making a habit of it.

GenCon

I’m flying to Indianapolis for GenCon.  I’ve attended once before and I feel like I wasted some opportunities on that trip.  The last time I attended I was writing (very little) on another blog, and playing 4e almost exclusively.  I attended with some GenCon veterans that signed our group up for all of our events throughout the weekend.  I ended up playing in about 14 different D&D 4e games, and didn’t manage to do much else.

Needless to say, I burned out a bit on 4e and started branching out my interests in RPGs.  Our playing group switched to Paizo’s Pathfinder, which we are currently playing.  I told myself that if I ever go back to GenCon again, I’d make it a point to use it for the opportunity it really is – a chance to experiment and see the wide variety of games the industry has to offer.

So, I have tickets for only a few events.  I’ll buy some generics and see what all there is to see.  I may be going a bit too unstructured this year, but I’m looking forward to the freedom of bouncing from event to event without having my calendar for the whole weekend dictated for me, rushing from one thing to another.

I also hope I get some more inspiration for Lost Worlds, and maybe pick up a few games to mix things up once the convention is over.