Sunday, December 16, 2018

5 Minute Game Design

My wife got back into town last night, and she was kind enough to let me sleep in this morning (she got up and took care of the beagles). Unfortunately, the early morning, pre-waking hours are usually my only time to write, so my continuation of my DragonLance posts will have to wait. Sorry.

SO, to make sure I still write something (I'm really trying, folks), here's a little game I designed with my 7 year old last night, while waiting for the pizza to arrive at our table. In truth, I did most of the design, but Diego provided me the materials I had to work with: a miniature spiral notebook (2"x4"), a couple pencils, a stick from Pick-Up-Sticks, a handful of (small) random plastic minis, and a bagful of assorted dice. Oh, yeah...and he wanted me to try to duplicate our "robot game" that we used to play down in Paraguay.

Here's what I came up with on the fly:

Each robot is represented by a single model, and three randomly-determined abilities: armor, firepower, and speed.  Abilities are determined as follows:

Armor: Roll D10+10
Firepower: Roll 2D6+6
Speed: Roll D4...add the result to the difference of 20-Armor (more armored mechs are slower)

Speed determines the number of actions your mech has:  1-4 one action, 5-8 two actions, 9+ three actions. An action may be a "move" or an "attack." One move is one-half the Pick-Up-Stick (there is no action spent to change facing).

An attack is made against any opponent within range, providing line-of-sight isn't blocked by items on the table (pints of beer, bottles of cheese or chili peppers, etc.). Range for all robots is one Pick-Up-Stick. To make an attack roll D20 under your 'bot's Firepower. Success inflicts D6 damage, subtracted directly from Armor (while it never came up in our battles, I would have awarded a "critical hit" on any roll of "1," inflicting double damage).

When a robot's Armor is reduced to zero, it is destroyed.

All 'bots must begin at a range greater than one Pick-Up-Stick. All players roll D6 ("initiative") to determine turn order. Turn order does not change during the battle. You are not required to utilize your full number of actions on your turn, but unused actions are lost.

[sorry...I don't have any photos to post]

Anyway, it was a fun little game to play while we were waiting for our pizza. Sofia (my four year old) won our first battle (I had the smallest, fastest 'bot; Diego had the heaviest, slowest) through a combo of luck and courage (okay, mostly luck). Feel free to use it as a jumping off point for your own Pizza Night games. Diego and I are already thinking of ways to expand the rules.
; )



Saturday, December 15, 2018

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing...

From DL1 (Dragons of Despair):
Clerical spells have not existed for nearly 300 years. Some people still call themselves clerics, still belong to worshipful orders; however, all of these have turned their backs on the true gods in search of other, less demanding gods (which do not exist). These pseudo-clerics use the same combat table as true clerics but have no spell abilities. 
There are a LOT of gods in the DragonLance setting: twenty-one, in fact, divided evenly between good, evil, and neutrality. Eighteen of these (including the Big Guys, Paladine and Takhisis) are represented by constellations in the night sky, while the last three are named for the planet's moons, each one of which represents a different alignment of magic.

The basic gist of the setting's premise is that the Cataclysm occurred 300 years ago due in part to A) the pride of the world's best cleric (the King-Priest of Istar) and B) to help prepare the people for "the tests that were to come" (the return of the dragons and the Fourth Dragon War). After the Cataclysm (a giant meteor strike from the gods that re-made the geography of the planet while causing massive destruction), people "turned away" from their gods, believing that their gods had forsaken them. Because of this, they've lost the ability to even become clerics (of the spell-casting variety)...so much so that three centuries later, folks consider the idea of spell-casting clerics to be a myth (at best) or blasphemy and "witchcraft" at worse. Magic-users are few and far between in Krynn (despite the prevalence of enchanted weapons in the adventure modules *ahem*) and in some of the more...er, "devout" towns and villages, folks are not above burning them at the stake out of fear and revulsion for their powers.

Okay. Now...

Now (in the time of the War of the Lance) Takhisis has entered the world (at least partially). Actually, she entered the world partially around the same time as the Cataclysm (that part's a little sketchy). Somehow, she got some folks to start worshipping her (in secret, natch) and managed to get them (or her evil dragons) to steal the good dragon eggs (thus blackmailing them to stay out of the War), and thus built up an army (complete with dragon-riding officers) to conquer the world...

In the first adventure module, the players manage to find "proof" of the gods (well, the good ones anyway...) and clerics who convert to the True Faith suddenly gain access to spell magic as a cleric of the same level they already were (so a 5th level cleric of a false god would become a 5th level cleric of Paladine with all the resulting power and ability, for example). The only gods really available for worship within the capsule time period of the War are Takhisis, Paladine, and Mishakal (the good goddess of healing). Presumably the other gods would come into play in any on-going, post-War campaign set in Krynn.

[as a side-note, I actually find the few "false gods" that are detailed in the module to be quite interesting]

Okay.

Okay. *sigh* This isn't terrible. There are just some holes in it that raise questions I don't like (at least, I don't like the answers). Here's the main crux of the matter:

1) In times of disaster (like, say, after a terrible Cataclysm), more than a few folks tend to turn to faith (i.e. become more devoted to their deities). Certainly, some people will shake their fist at Heaven and curse the gods, but not EVERYone. And in the pseudo-medieval world, it would take a LONG TIME for folks to even get an inkling that the Cataclysm was caused by "the gods' anger." Word of the doings in Istar (on the eastern edge of the continent) wouldn't travel very fast, given the that most of Istar (and its surroundings) are underwater, and that the roads between the regions would have become incredibly hazardous (due to the epic magnitude of the disaster), and that folks would be too worried about salvaging their lives in a post-apocalyptic world to bother with sending messengers. Remember that magic-users were in short supply, having become personas non grata and being kicked out of all cities shortly before the time of the Cataclysm. Why would they bother to enlighten anyone? More likely they'd have a BETTER idea of what actually happened, given their ability to contact other planes.

[perhaps wizards were responsible for spreading the false rumors of the gods' "abandonment" of Krynn? That would make some sense, especially given a motivation of NOT wanting to see the re-ascendance of clerical power...after all, it was the King-Priest's edicts that removed magic-users from their towers, even if he wasn't ALSO responsible for a fiery mountain smashing the planet]

Anyway, folks in Palanthas or Abasynia would be more likely to turn to their gods in the months following the disaster...and wouldn't their faith be rewarded? At least by the gods of good? Wouldn't evil followers of the dark gods be turning to worship out of fear and servility (and wouldn't Takhisis be O So Glad to welcome them into her fold, hoping to establish a foothold all the sooner?)? Certainly many individuals continued to believe in the gods (the dwarves never stopped believing in Reorx, for example)...you'd think that in 300 years some individuals would have established small congregations of followers of the True Faith? So why no granted spell powers from the true gods of Krynn?

2) Here's a possible explanation: more than pure faith/devotion is necessary. This is the (D&D) idea that clerical miracles are still spells, not prayers. And spells require a deeper understanding of cosmic forces (or, at least, knowledge of the proper magic words) to function. And since all "true clerics" magically disappeared a couple days before the Cataclysm (I didn't mention that earlier...it raises it's own philosophical questions regarding "what the hell are the gods doing?"), I can see how that specialized knowledge would have been lost, sunk to the bottom of the (new) Blood Sea of Istar. In this case, no matter how devoted a worshipper, there would be no spells "granted" by the gods, the deeper mysteries having been lost from the gods' worshippers.

So, this makes quite a bit of sense...it's one of the reasons I like the B/X system of not awarding spells to clerics until 2nd level. HOWEVER, if that's the case clerics should NOT suddenly be awarded high level magic just by acquiring a magic amulet and professing devotion to an old deity. That's just...no. Nope. Too easy. And too dumb.

And this "crux" is just the main issue...I've see a lot of plot-holes surrounding the concept in an AD&D-based setting (where clerics of non-human races exist). In a B/X- or OD&D-based setting I can make a little more sense of things (the latter because it turns Takhisis-worshipping clerics into "evil high priests"), but those don't matter much if you can't solve the problem of Elistan suddenly gaining the ability to raise dead after decades spent following false gods.

Oh, and the setting doesn't say anything about a cleric's ability to turn undead. Is this ability possessed by false clerics? Or is it only granted by picking up a magic medallion of "True Faith." The rules don't address the issue (and there are plenty of undead in the adventures).

All right, that's enough for now.


Friday, December 14, 2018

Why Gold is Golden

Ever wonder why currency was (in the old days) linked to gold and silver? Here's a good article on the subject. To sum up the reasons:

  • as a substance, it is stable (it doesn't react or oxidize like other metals)
  • it is non-toxic (uranium would make a poor choice for a currency)
  • it was (in ancient times) easy to extract and work with compared to other metals
  • both gold and silver are scarce, but not impossibly rare

Of the two substances (gold and silver), silver tarnishes, reacting with minute amounts of sulfur in the air. Gold doesn't react at all, looking just as shiny as ever, even after centuries. That makes it prettier...and thus a bit more valuable than silver.

Iron, on the other hand, will rust and disintegrate, unless kept completely dry. Though even without that little reality (an entropic currency), there's just too much of it lying around to be truly valuable, in the same way as gold and silver. As the article points out, you'd need some pretty large iron coins (or a lot of them). Gold and silver, because of their scarcity, becomes much more portable...and thus more practical to use as money.

The setting of DragonLance (the world of Krynn), doesn't state that it is particularly "iron scarce" (as is the case in Athas, for example: the world of the Dark Sun campaign setting). Here is the justification given for a steel currency in the post-apocalyptic world of Krynn:

"Before the Cataclysm, the days were calm and ordered; nothing was unexpected. Now the world is changed: its change has taught two great lessons.

"First, no beauty...is safe. All the riches of the past could not protect the ancient peoples. Gold has no value in the world now: it is too soft for swords or armor. Steel is the most valued metal of all, though each small kingdom has its own currency and exchange..."

Okay, I can understand steel being more valuable in this "new Iron Age" (ha, just realized the whole devaluation of gold thing might be a metaphor for the end of Krynn's "Golden Age")...but there's a difference between something being valuable because of its intrinsic worth (people don't care about decoration and jewelry in a world where you live and die by the sword), and something being valued as a unit of exchange. People didn't give sell chickens for gold coins because they preferred to eat gold...it's because the gold could be easily exchanged with someone else for some other valued commodity. It's easier (and more sanitary) to carry a purse of coins than a bag full of chickens.

[yes, I realize that medieval folks, especially in rural areas, were mostly on the "barter system" and that chickens have never been valued in gold]

So given that we're still talking about using coin currency as a medium of exchange in a world that's got 14th-15th century technology, I think it's ridiculous that "bricks of gold may prop open doors and hold down papers."

Likewise, given that gold appears to have been the standard unit of currency pre-Cataclysm, and several towns and large cities (like Palanthas) managed to escape the destruction, why would they change how they do business? And why would a dragon hoard in an ancient, pre-Cataclysm city would  consist of "steel pieces." Isn't gold a softer bed to sleep on?

And in a world where dragons exist, proliferate, and (presumably) value gold, shouldn't other intelligent species feel the same? If only to bribe said dragons and keep them from from raining destruction on their communities?

SO...no, not a fan of DragonLance's "steel piece" currency. That's the first thing I'd need to rewrite prior to conversion (though I like the idea of different currencies and exchange rates between different territories...I might keep that, just for fun).

More later.

This is not currency except (perhaps) in Gamma World.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Like a Dog with a Bone

...I just can't help/stop thinking about this thing.

I should probably have noted that I'm not all that familiar with the vast array of DragonLance novels that have been cranked out over the years. I've read the first two trilogies (more than once even) and the first short story compilation that followed those (The Magic of Krynn). For the most part, my interest in DL literature died circa 1987, very close to the time when I quit playing AD&D.

[that hiatus has lasted pretty much till this day, though I've returned to fantasy adventure gaming, i general]

So, I'm not really "caught up" on the latest stories to come out of the Krynn-network. I left off when everyone was pretty much dead or retired from adventuring. You know...like the end of any old school style campaign.

[I write "old school" here to distinguish from what the current gamer generation refers to as "campaign play," i.e. just the completion of a multi-session/adventure story arc]

And so I've spent a little time (very little) reading through a bit of the stuff that's been created for DL since 1988: a couple decades worth of material. And most of it just bores the crap out of me. At least, the summaries and premises I'm reading...who knows, maybe if I actually picked up one of these novels, I'd find it a thrilling read. But most of it just looks like recycled fantasy. It's like the "expanded universe" of Star Wars (which I find fairly irritating)...just name-dropping the same surnames, repeating the same tropes, scraping the same plots for some last bit of hidden flavor. Oh, no! The Queen of Darkness is at it again!

*sigh* That's me: Mr. Jaded. Though, as I said, perhaps if I read one of these new series I'd find myself excited and enthralled. But I just can't muster much enthusiasm for a story about the kids of the protagonists in the stories that once enthralled me...and even less enthusiasm for stories about the kids of the antagonists!

But having said that, I still find myself drawn to the original setting, the original premise, and the original conflicts of the creators. Hell, I even spent the last couple days skim-reading both War of the Twins and Test of the Twins, mainly to try to get a handle on the timeline of Krynn from Cataclysm to the "War of the Lance" (that's The Fourth Dragon War for all you DL scholars/nerds out there). I was thinking of writing-up a B/X conversion of one or three of the old TSR adventure modules, but just looking through the encounter charts of DL1 is just...ugh. It's such a crap-sandwich, it needs a huge overhaul just to scale it appropriately for B/X play.

[please, please, please....someone explain to me the rhyme or reason for the numbering scheme in Xak-Tsaroth? Please? Why do we have 46a through 46g followed by 47a through 47j followed by 48, 49, 50, then 51a through 51e, then 52, then 53a and 53b, then 54a and 54b, then 56, 57a and 57b,, 58a through 58c, 59a and b, etc. etc.? Did the authors figure they were going to run out of 2-digit numbers for encounters or something? So start the dungeon at 1 instead of 44! It doesn't bear any resemblance to the wilderness encounters...unless you simply want to designate it the next stop on the DL railroad. Just re-numbering the bloody maps would be a serious chore]

I do agree with GusL's assessment that a lot of the encounters are pretty weak-sauce for a party of 4th to 6th level characters, even (or especially) given these particular pre-gens. But actually, some of the wandering monster encounters are pretty beefy. 2-8 trolls? 2-12 wraiths? Sure, these guys have magical weapons, but an encounter with 12 wraiths is probably going to leave the party shy a few levels. Remember, this is AD&D (no saves for energy drain)...and also a setting where high level clerics (and restoration spells) don't exist!

I have to admit, the sadism makes me a grin a bit.

The black dragon is about the only thing right, though it may be statted a little too strong for straight B/X play. Heck, it's a little strong for these AD&D characters, except that the blue crystal staff is usable by any Lawful Good character (there are four in the party). Still, if the thing is low on charges (maybe because it's been restoring level drained characters) and Khisanth shows up before they get back to the staff's charging station (the black dragon has a 3% chance of appearing per day spent in hills/mountains or a 7% chance per day spent wandering the marsh), I can see this train jumping the track.

That tiny jet of acid does 64 damage.
Which is...well, that's not ideal, right? It's nice to know the railroad can be derailed as designed, but not cool that it's just a matter of random chance (and DM intervention) whether or not that happens. A little more player agency (and the consequences thereof) would be nice. Duh.

HOWEVER, doing the conversion (or, rather, the overhaul) is really step two. First step is converting the setting of Krynn to B/X in a way that doesn't leave me despising it. I am just so busy right now with the holidays that I don't know if I'm going to get around to posting anything. Probably I shouldn't even BE working on this...but right now I'm like a dog with a bone. Just worrying at it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Me and the DL (DragonLance)

I have to admit: I kind of love DragonLance.

There, I said it. Reading through Ye Old Blog, I can see I've got more than few posts carrying the label "DL" where Weiss and Hickman's work/world gets mentioned, and you can kind of (maybe) read between the lines to read my thoughts as complimentary. But I don't think I've ever just come out and declared my feelings on DragonLance which are, admittedly, far more positive than negative.

[by the way...some folks might be wondering if this has something to do with this series of posts I started back in July that I never finished. The short answer: NO. While I discussed The Forest Oracle and how, as a product, it was conducive/indicative to a particular style of play, the other two products were NOT DragonLance-related. For the curious they are the 1981 Chaosium source box Thieves World and the (2018?) book Operation Unfathomable by Jason Sholtis. I still plan on discussing these at some later date, as I still have a lot to say...both about the products and the style of play they promote]

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's first DL novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight was published (late) in 1984...which means it would have come out midway through my 6th grade year of elementary school. This was a seminal year for me in gaming. I'd finally managed to get a copy of the AD&D Players Handbook (with the 1983 Easley cover), allowing us to take our game "fully advanced" (previously, we'd been playing B/X with only the DMG and MM). The Marvel Superheroes RPG came out (my younger brother got a copy for Christmas), and several of us were playing that. We'd acquired and experimented a bit with the James Bond 007 role-playing game (none of us had Top Secret). One of my longtime friends (and earliest gamer buddies) was drifting away, especially as his family got deeply into their (new) Born Again Christian faith (which also ended up introducing me to Dragon Raid, another game I have to blog about some time). It was also this year that I would start feeling a bit of ennui regarding Dungeons & Dragons and would turn over the DMing reins to Jocelyn, my best friend outside of school (back in those days).

Man, I love the cover art, too.
Jocelyn was actually the person who introduced me to DL...she was the one who picked up the novels (and loaned them to me to devour). They were the first outright gaming stories (i.e. published novels based on RPGs) we'd ever read, and they greatly informed our gaming of the time, showing us the potential of Dungeons & Dragons...in terms of world building, character development, and melodrama. Sure, we had (what would become) Mystara (from our Expert books), but it was just geography back in those days...a wilderness to explore in search of dungeons. We had no sense of history or politics back then (insert snarky comments about elementary school curriculums); statements like "their culture is similar to medieval Iceland" or "the Central Asian city-states of Palmyra, Damascus, or Samarkand" meant nothing to us, and went straight in one ear and out the other.

[to be fair, these were pre-internet days. If kids today picked up a copy of X1 and read that the Republic of Darokin's culture "resembles that of Venice or Genoa in medieval Italy," it would be a piece of easy to open up wikipedia and read all about that period and place of world history. Back in those days, if you weren't already knowledgable (perhaps because of your undergrad major?), you'd be needing to trek to the local library and HOPE you could find a reference text or two that could give you a good overview. Good luck with that! We're talking about 10 and 12 year olds...we just wanted to get to that dragon's hoard!]

Reading a book that provided a D&D setting...a world with its own geography, history, politics, and conflicts...wrapped around an exciting adventure story, was a great way to open our eyes to the possibility of the Dungeons & Dragons game. None of those beloved adventure modules we were playing back then (Tomb of Horrors, Keep on the Borderlands, etc.) were doing that. Weis/Hickman's Dragons of an Autumn Twilight and its sequels were the perfect gateway fiction to a wider role-playing perspective. Gygax's first Greyhawk book (Saga of Old City publishing in 1985), helped cement the concept.

So I give DL credit for that. I realize there are some folks out there who probably read and used Tolkien's LotR and Silmarillion to achieve the same end, but we (my friends and I) never got to those books till high school. We liked the animated Hobbit features, of course (and were inspired by them), but it's hard to get a real sense of Middle Earth's millenniums-old conflict just from watching the Rankin-Bass Return of the King.

Now, the actual adventure modules/gaming product TSR published for DragonLance back in those days was a bit of a crap sandwich; we owned a couple-three of the modules, but we never ran any of them, nor did we use the DL setting for any of our games. We used the map of the High Clerist's Tower as a design for one of our high level character's strongholds, and the kender race became the more-or-less default model for the halfling race in our games (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins) as far as temperament. That's about it. Most of the best stuff from DL (from our point of view) was already in AD&D...dragons and death knights and whatnot. Even as pre-teens, none of us were interested in playing or running railroad-y adventures; certainly none of us wanted to "play the novels" with Tanis and Caramon and all those dudes. We'd already read the books...we wanted to play our own characters and create our own melodrama!

I loves me some acid-wash.
Even so, as said, there's a lot I kind of love about DragonLance: I see a lot of potential in the DL-setting, both pre- and post-War. I really like the idea of false clerics (characters that advance and adventure as clerics but who have no spell-casting ability). I dig on the whole Tower of High Sorcery and color-coded sorcery-thing. Ruined, post-Cataclysm cities make great excuses for dungeons. Dragon High Lords are great (anyone who scoffs at a dragon-mounted, dragon-scale clad bad guy has no soul for fantasy)...heck, having a justification for higher-than-usual dragon-density is pretty cool. And draconians are just about the only type of "dragon-born" creature I can stomach in a fantasy adventure game (as creatures to be expunged with extreme prejudice).

I do find the steel-piece currency kind of dumb...more of a "grim statement of a grim world" just for the sake of...um, grim-ness.  This kind of thing might work on a metal-poor world (like Darkover or Athas), but while I can see a post-apocalypse fantasy world turning from gold to a barter system, I'm not buying a wholesale currency conversion to a metal that's (presumably) available in every bandit-adventurer's scabbard.

Likewise, I'm also not a fan of kender as a system-supported concept. I could enumerate the problematic aspects of such a species, but just...no. I do like the idea of re-skinning traditional Tolkien-tropes to fit the setting, but I'm going to do halflings differently. I'd take 3rd edition's halfling over DL's kender.

[I have similar problems with gnomes...they're just a little too whimsical within the setting as written. "Gully dwarves" are okay, but as a pathetic race to be pitied rather than unrelenting comic relief]

Even the titular dragon lances are cool (folks probably noticed the knock-offs I included in my B/X Companion). Many of the magical items in DL are nice, as they've taken rather standard items and made them unique: there is only ONE staff of the magi, there is only ONE dragon slaying sword (Wyrmslayer), there is only ONE staff of healing (the Blue Crystal staff), etc. Yes, I know that in the adventure modules there are plenty of +1 and +2 blah-blah-blahs floating around...but there doesn't have to be. I really like the idea of a setting that's so magic poor (with regard to enchanted items) that Raistlin can bribe Astinus for the location of the Portal to the Abyss with a crystal ball (the "Globe of Present Time Passing"). That's pretty cool.

I know that GusL isn't blogging these days, but his posts on the DragonLance modules (found here and here) are still two of the best, inspirations for how one might make good use of the DL setting and its (otherwise worthless) adventure modules. I find myself tempted to do some B/X conversions for DL, more for the fun of it then out of hope of someday running a Krynn-based campaign. However, it would probably be easier to simply poach ideas from DL than to re-do the entire world. I don't know.

That's just one of the (many) things I'm thinking about this morning.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Kids on Bikes

So I was down at Cafe Mox yesterday, AKA Card Kingdom, AKA what passes for the WotC retail store in Seattle these days. After my last post, I thought I'd just take a quick look at what RPGs were out on display, and it wasn't a terrible selection (though not all of the books were recent releases) spanning a variety of genres, game companies, and layout style. A couple even caught my eye enough to make a purchase (a semi-regular occurrence, given my penchant for a) collecting RPGs, and b) supporting independent and small-press game publishers), and while I came close to picking Tiny Frontiers: Revised, it ultimately remained on table. After all, I've got my own micro-space opera game, right?

[maybe I should polish that up one of these days]

Instead I picked up Kids on Bikes.

[as I started digging into the background of this game, I found a lot to pique my interest...enough that I'm considering a sequel, biz-related post. No promises]


I picked up Kids on Bikes for a number of reasons. It is a beautiful book, first and foremost. Small, 80 pages, soft cover, and beautifully illustrated by Heather Vaughan (really...fabulous stuff). Just about the perfect shape and size for a game of this type with the scope of what I expected/hoped from it.

Which is why I am so frustrated by the actual game itself.

Yeah, it appears I'm going to be that guy this week: Mister Cranky. Ah, well...no such thing as bad publicity, right? Besides, it's not like they didn't get my money.

The game is weak. I guess that's my final, pithy analysis of it. It's a lot weaker than it could have been. And I'm not talking about the system (which is of the "rules-light" variety)...character and setting creation is actually fairly robust for a story-telling game of this type. And the resolution system, while simple, uses failure and adversity in a nice way that I don't remember seeing before (though there are certainly shades of it in games like Capes and With Great Power...). No, it's the execution of the concept that comes up short for me.

Mm. Let me just go through the thing and give a capsule review.

Here's the description from the back cover (repeated on the first page):
In Kids on Bikes, you'll take on the roles of everyday people grappling with strange, terrifying, and very, very powerful forces that they cannot defeat, control, or even fully understand. The only way to face them is to work together, use your strengths, and know when you just have to run as fast as you can.
In their kickstarter video, the creators explain the game is their "homage to all the really great stories about young kids going on big adventures...things like Goonies, or Stranger Things, or E.T., or Paper Girls." From the kickstarter, it appears the game may have originally carried the subtitle Strange Adventure in the '80s, but that has been dropped and the game's scope widened to pretty much "any point in history before everyone had a video camera in their pockets." Indeed, nothing stops you from setting the game in an urban environment (as opposed to rural small town) or in our cell phone-equipped present day...the game simply suggests that might not yield the type of game you want.

Okay...so, great. It's a role-playing game that's trying to capture all the magic of the Stranger Things series from Netflix. Totally understandable...after all, Stranger Things achieved a huge degree of success, not only for its rich story-telling, wonderful ensemble cast, and trope subversion, but also for the nostalgia being mined from its setting, style, and subject matter. Tales from the Loop has attempted to capitalize on Stranger Things as well (I've had multiple people pitch me TftL as a "Stranger Things RPG"), even though it was developed separately, and from the paintings of a concept artist, and that it's premise bears more resemblance to the old SciFy show Eureka than anything Stranger Things draws from.

[heck, Tales from the Loop might make a good inspiration for a Kids on Bikes game...if you didn't dig the TftL system, I mean]

But broadening the scope of Kids on Bikes beyond Stranger Things gets you plenty of grist for the mill, especially just diving into the genre stories that inspired Stranger Things. Personally, I think the heart of these stories...and what makes them so powerful and entertaining...is that we're talking about kids. Being a kid can be awful, even for the most fortunate of us.

My childhood was pretty damn idyllic. My family was stable and "nuclear" up until age 17. My father was always employed; my mother stayed at home till I and my brother were older, then went back to work. There were no instances of death or tragedy in our family or immediate social circle; there was no substance abuse, or domestic abuse, or sexual abuse, bouts of homelessness, or mental health issues, or even bad blood with the relatives or neighbors. We went to good schools, where we did pretty good; we had active social lives and friends and a non-crazy church and team sports and Boy Scouts and family vacations and bikes and books and TV and movies and (of course) role-playing games like D&D. And, of course, I grew up white and straight and Christian and male in the United States...doesn't get much more privileged than that.

And yet even with all those blessings, there were dark times for me in adolescence...times I considered the idea of killing myself. Just sadness...or depression. Or being overwhelmed by shit. Or...I don't know, probably hormonal imbalances (I never exhibited behavior that would cause me to get taken to a shrink so I was never diagnosed or analyzed, so who knows). I can remember thinking of ways to commit suicide that would be quick and easy and...well, whatever. I never actually got around to doing it, and I eventually grew up and became a bit better adjusted to handling life: both its rigors and its sadness. I think most folks do.

So...childhood can suck. And many of these "adventure shows" feature the sucky-ness of childhood: the bullies, the broken homes, the unfortunate "adult issues" that end up spilling down to (and greatly impacting) the child protagonists. The "strange," "terrifying," and "powerful" forces that conflict child protagonists are an additional complication in their already complicated lives..something that causes them to (momentarily) transcend their mundane issues to confront a more pressing, menacing one.

And in a way this is wonderful: it helps us lose ourselves in the escapism, identifying with the young protagonist (for whom we have sympathy due to the character's brutalized innocence) who can momentarily forget dad's out of work or mom's drinking problem or the classroom bullies or the handsy uncle or whatever is the trauma they were dealing with in order to deal with a REALLY BAD PROBLEM and perhaps, maybe get a win for once. And if not...well, at least it was a diversion (hopefully the kid doesn't get eaten or maimed too badly).

So, I was expecting something of THIS kind of thing in Kids on Bikes...something of the darkness. Something to help tell cathartic stories, build a little inter-player empathy, pull out these nasty parts of childhood and explore them in the safe environment that is tabletop role-playing.

Nah. They don't do that.

The designers' choice was to deliberately shy away from anything sticky or messy or painful. The first page is devoted to "setting boundaries;" it is, in fact the first true part of play (immediately preceding the collaborative world building and character building), and while I'm a fan of Ron Edwards's "lines and veils" (and think the whole idea of an "x-card" is generally a good thing), for a game of this type I find it all...well, inappropriate. A game of this type should be pushing boundaries, not setting them. Carry a "trigger warning" label or something on the front cover ("this game carries the possibility of Very Bad Things happening to humans, especially children") rather than requiring the game be played  "in a way that will be comfortable for everyone." I want the game to make me uncomfortable...to me that's part of the genre.

[I understand about not throwing terrible stuff at children, by the way...this, to me, isn't really a kid's game. I have met very few kids (none, off the top of my head) that ever wanted to play children in RPGs, not even teens. Not even something bizarre like Teenagers from Outer Space ("Why would I want to play that I'm in high school? I AM in high school!"). I realize there are RPGs (like No Thank You Evil) designed for kids where the PCs are kids, but I've never played with children who this kind of role-playing appealed to]

The designers might say that I am welcome to play the game however I want, but that some people have limits they want to respect and honor. The text discusses setting the tone of the game from dark to "lighthearted." To which I say: okay. But if I wanted lighthearted, I'd probably be playing Bubblegumshoe; I thought I was getting an RPG designed to model Steven King's IT.

[you just can't do Steven King with Nicotine Girls]

It is fine...it's just a little weak (as said); I'd prefer stronger design choices. The "tropes" (character classes) of the game are fairly "eh." The Plastic Beauty. The Wannabe. The Bully. The Popular Kid. The Brilliant Mathlete. These don't do much for me. I would have liked to see you forced to play as outcasts types...where's The Gimp? The Fat Kid? The Delinquent? The Tramp? The Foster Kid? Etc.

The system already thrives on adversity (and, for my money, it looks like these characters are a little too competent, though it's hard to judge without playing) and I would have like to see a razor-focus on "building the failure" so that the players could have bigger (more dramatic) successes later on.

ANYway...the game is weak in other ways, too. Despite its collaborative world building, Kids on Bikes does have a game master who facilitates play and, presumably, sets the conflict and runs the antagonists. I say "presumably" because the game advises the GM to cede narrative control, at times, to the players. It doesn't give specifics as to when or why this done, just that it is "typical" of the way the game is played and that the GM should "whenever possible, try to encourage players to create the story with you, not just react to what's going on around them." Again, I find this to be weak design, not because of the shared narrative control, but because of the utter lack of guidelines and loosey-goosey-ness of it. The game points out that dice rolls DO take the narrative control out of the hands of all parties (players and GM)...but as dice results are negotiated (especially in combat/opposed rolls) and target numbers are set by the usual GM fiat, well...

Kind of weak.

Then there's the fact that the rules actually provides little in the way of ideas, and nothing at all for pre-generated antagonists (no examples of those "very, very powerful forces" from the introduction). Unlike a game like, say InSpectres, where only the players are rolling dice, the PCs here are making opposed rolls every time they are in a combat situation, rolling their stats against an opponent's opposing stats...but no such stats are provided, and no guidelines as to what would be appropriate for modeling a government spook versus a bumbling thief versus some Demogorgan-like creature. There are no sample adventures in the game (which makes sense due to the collaborative nature of the setting creation), and while there are many, many examples of how the few systems in the game are executed (I reckon about 25% of the rules text proper is taken up with example text), there are no examples of how to actually run a session, introduce conflict or twists, or bring a session to a close (other than "work together as a group to find a suitable coda")...just some faint advice about paying attention to what interests your players and riffing off it.

That's real weak.

There's also the bit about introducing and playing a "powered character" that just pops up in the middle of the book (page 41...right before the beginning of the GM section proper). The gist is such a character becomes a shared character with each player getting to control various aspects. There are pretty specific rules regarding control and use of the character's powers and aspects, but no information about how such a character is created, let alone why, how, or when to introduce such a character into one's game. Presumably these six pages of rules (and seven pages of appendices! Appendix B, C, and D all relate to powered characters) were added to account for characters like Eleven, E.T., and Sloth showing up in one's adventure.

"Baby Ruth!"
[again, I say "presumably" because it's not really explained why this section suddenly appears, and there's certainly no examples provided (I just pulled those three from my knowledge of the films the creators cite as inspiration). The book could sure use a bit of a "suggested reading/watching" list...I think that in many sections the authors are simply making assumptions that the reader is going to grok what all this is about]

It's not a bad way to handle such a character, and it's a versatile enough that I can see it working to model everything from the aforementioned characters to, say, The Iron Giant, or that witch-lady in Troll. I'm making an assumption here that the "powered character" is always an ally/companion/friend of the player characters, though the text isn't explicit about this. All it says is:
Players cannot create a character with powers to play throughout the campaign. But, early in the first session, the GM will introduce a powered character that will then be co-controlled by all of the players.
Which aspect covers "floating?"
I don't imagine the authors intend the powered character to be a villain (like the monstrous Pennywise in IT) that is co-controlled by the players (rather than the GM)...though I find that thought somewhat amusing. There are no rules as to how to run a powered villain (no examples, remember?), certainly nothing like the Psychic Energy Token system found in this section. Nor are there any rules given for introducing an additional powered character (like Eleven's "sister," Kali) who might become another companion.

I'm also not sure I dig the choice to not allow players to run powered characters. While I don't think Kids on Bikes is the proper vehicle for a "young X-men" style campaign, something like the film Chronicle wouldn't be a terrible fit, and I can certainly see using it for something like the new Netflix series Sabrina, which has a mix of witches and muggles (er, "mortals").

SO...yeah, overall I'm pretty frustrated with this game. Mainly because it's so damn beautiful. I can think of a lot of ways that I would re-design it, but I can't see how my poor publishing ability could match the sheer quality of the book. And, yes, there are a couple-four nice system pieces here. But even if you dig its overall aesthetic and "safe" play, Kids on Bikes as presented doesn't have quite enough meat on the bones. I understand the publisher has an "adventure book" for sale that may provide a bit more guideline to actually running the game (in addition to "20 unique towns?" What about the whole collaborative-setting-building thing?). However, since it's advertised as "non-core" and I can't imagine my self playing this sucker anytime soon, I'll probably hold off on buying.

All right, that's enough.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Bubble

The other day I was re-reading this old (2009) blog post from James Mishler entitled The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling. It was a good post (and still is) about the general economics of publishing in the RPG industry (spoiler alert: don't expect to make much money), but the more interesting part, in my opinion, is the second half of the post and some of his predictions for the future of the industry (spoiler alert: not great). Here's what James was saying (in part) almost ten years ago:
Of course, there is another way to improve publisher and thus editor/author income… increase the number of gamers, and thus the gross number of sales; this lowers the per unit cost and increases the gross margin. But I do not mention this, because this is the Holy Grail of gaming. More companies have fallen tilting at this windmill than any other. The mythical “introductory boxed set” that will ignite consumer imagination and sales has broken more game companies than I can recall.  
The problem is, everyone (well, all the oldsters) remembers the great success of the Moldvay Basic Set for Dungeons & Dragons, and seek to recreate that feel and success; the latest in this long line is of course HackMaster Basic from Kenzer & Company, who have gone so far as to hire the original cover artist, Erol Otus, to create a cover in homage to that legendary king of starter sets. Some of this is out of a desire to evoke the feel of the original for the OSR crowd, but I’m sure there is an element of hope with HMB that it can somehow catch fire, just like its hoary predecessor. 
The problem is that when Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons released back in 1981, the market was very, very different. There was no Internet, and there were no computer games; heck, D&D is the granddaddy of World of Warcraft, after all. There was then in the United States a larger group of moderately well-educated semi-curious young men with more leisure time and more discretionary income and an interest in reading and in fantasy than at any other time in world history, who had nothing better to do than to sit around and play a table-top role-playing game with their friends. I would argue that the vast majority of today’s youth are not remotely as well read (hours spend on the Internet notwithstanding), utterly incurious, have less leisure time, less discretionary income, no interest in reading other than what’s up with Britney Spears and Megan Fox, no interest in fantasy save for watching LotR on DVD and checking out hot dark-elf-chick ass on WoW, and little or no interest with actually physically hanging out with friends (after all, that’s what Facebook is for, right?) And that’s not counting the amazing push D&D got with the whole “D&D is Evil” campaign, which proved the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The advertising and marketing required today to crack into this current market is simply cost prohibitive for the return gained, as Wizards of the Coast has discovered much to its chagrin.  
And I should note, a repeat of the Third Edition miracle is impossible. Third Edition did not succeed based on new acquisitions in the youth market; the bulk of their market was in gamers returning to the fold. Third Edition hit just as all those gamers who started playing back in the early ‘80s were once again looking around for something to do; they had started their families, were well into their careers, and wanted something to do with friends once a week that would not get them in trouble with their wives. Gaming was a perfect solution… and when they went around seeking new products for AD&D (some not having played since 1E or even OD&D), they discovered that there was a whole new edition! And so D&D struck gold a second time, as the same generation that had such extensive leisure time and discretionary income in their youth now had more of the same in their 30-something stage… and often vastly greater discretionary income than in their youth, even if they may have had slightly less leisure time. And so they fueled the Third Edition miracle and the d20 OGL boom and eventual bust. There is no “third time’s the charm” for D&D; it has run its course. Even with Wizards pulling out all the stops with transforming the D&D experience into a table-top replica of the World of Warcraft experience did not draw in remotely as many new consumers as had been hoped; and D&D is the primary mode of acquisition of new role-playing game consumers, likely by an order of magnitude over all other role-playing games combined.
Pretty sharp, as might be expected from a person with 15 or so years of perspective from inside the industry. Mishler doesn't mention the multiple game companies that ended up folding after hitching their wagons to the D20 boom (converting their systems and going "all in"), but I think he had a solid take on the industry's potential, or lack thereof. So how is it that the Dungeons & Dragons brand is now doing better than ever before? What did James miss in his 2009 analysis?

Celebrity.

It's not enough to just blame a proliferation of gaming on the popularity of fantasy fiction (like Game of Thrones or whatever the latest Tolkien-based blockbuster is). Interest in fantasy can be met in ways besides tabletop gaming (licensed video game tie-ins, novels, and comics, for example). The only thing that has changed in the last decade or so is the willingness of name brand celebrities to talk about their own play and enjoyment of the game. Folks like Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Sherman Alexie, and Jon Favreau have all lauded the game, and have credited the game with helping to build their imaginations (thus leading to their success in their current professions). Web shows that display celebrities playing and enjoying the game have encouraged curious-but-reluctant folks to give the game a try, even as fictional portrayals of the game (from Community to Stranger Things) may have piqued initial interest.

It doesn't hurt that Hasbro seems to have gone into "marketing overdrive" to get the word out about just how cool Dungeons & Dragons is, capitalizing on the moment's buzz to generate more buzz...as well they should (they are a business, right?). Still, I was surprised by just how much D&D was on display at the local Barnes & Noble when I stopped by last Saturday. No, it wasn't quite as prominent as the Harry Potter stuff, but it still featured on aisle caps, included children's books (and A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3's plus several new "Endless Quest" titles), rather than just being filed away with the (comic) graphic novels. Box sets, starter sets, giant coffee-table-art books, novels...hell, even an erotic short story collection "inspired by Dungeons & Dragons." Clearly, the Corporate Overlords are doing their best to strike while the iron's hot.

Something for the 4-year old's stocking.
This is in stark contrast to the way the game was displayed back in 2015. Remember this grumpy post? Same edition of D&D, same time of year, same store. Books weren't even displaying their front cover on the shelves.

Something's changed since then. Did Hasbro hire a new marketing department? Is it the advent of Critical Role (which first debuted on Geek & Sundry in 2015)?  I think that's more likely than the attempted proliferation of WotC's "Adventurer's League" (of the half dozen local shops, I contacted...several of which were listed in WotC's "game finder"...only ONE runs AL. And I live in Seattle!). But whatever it is that's growing the game to the point that "8.6 million Americans played" D&D in 2017, I'm inclined to worry it's less a stable, growing industry and more of a false front...a bubble, ready to pop.

But that's probably just more Negative Nelly-isms from JB, right? Just me pissing in everyone's cornflakes. Sure, fine...I can see how my years of disappointment in and (somewhat justified) skepticism of certain game companies may have colored my perception of their otherwise profoundly encouraging numbers. I mean, am I not the guy who has long complained that the industry leaders haven't been doing enough to grow the hobby? And here they are: growing it huger than ever before, yeah? That's awesome...if it's accurate.

Here's the worrying thought that keeps creeping into my head: back when the RPG hobby was in its first "boom days" (circa 1981) people talked a lot about "D&D," but any and all tabletop RPGs were labeled as "D&D" by folks. The boom was in role-playing in general, not Dungeons & Dragons specifically. Just checking Ye Old Wikipedia's list of RPGs by release date, I see there were 15 new RPGs published in 1980, 13 in 1981, 20 in 1982, and 21 in 1983. The list is somewhat incomplete as new editions aren't included...for instance, the Moldvay/Cook B/X (1981) is not listed, nor Frank Mentzer's BECMI (1983).

What about the "second boom" that coincided with 3rd edition D&D? Well, we have 17 in the year 2000 (3E's release), another 17 in 2001, and 32 (!!) in 2002...many of these games being OGL-approved D20 derivations (like Spycraft and Mutants & Masterminds).

[there were also quite a few indie RPGs published in that period, the heyday of The Forge]

Contrast these booms with the drop-off that occurred around the same time as TSR nose-dived (and before White Wolf struck gold with Vampire): 1988 saw only nine new RPGs. 1989 has eleven listed (one of them a German RPG I've never heard of). 1990 had 13, of which four are definitely non-American, and one was the Lorraine Williams "special order," Buck Rogers XXVC. These were dry years for RPG publishing, unless you're talking supplements for games established in the early/mid-80s that were still getting plenty of play.

[yes, I see that Cyberpunk 2013, Shadowrun, and Rifts...all games that became huge lines...came out during these years. They were exceptions with regard to both their success and popularity]

So what about now? Is the new "boom" in D&D sales (and millions of people playing) indicative of a growing RPG industry? Well...I see 2015 had ten new RPGs. 2016 had another ten. 2017 had eight including Zweihander (a retroclone of the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG). 2018 lists only four, though I'm sure that will be updated (didn't Mutant Crawl Classics come out this year? I know I picked up my copy just a couple months back...). It would appear that Hasbro's claim of heightened interest in D&D is simply that: an interest in Dungeons & Dragons alone. But then again, maybe I simply missed the glowing press releases from Paizo announcing their record sales of Pathfinder last year (I know there was a lot of excitement and anticipation for the new Starfinder RPG).

Anyway...I know a rising tide lifts all boats (or whatever that phrase is), and maybe that's what this is and that's what it will do. Maybe this isn't the boom of the early 1980s, but the blossoming of a new phenomenon (like the mid-70s) and the start of a true "second wave" of the role-playing hobby. Maybe this newfound interest (respectability?) in Dungeons & Dragons will usher in a new era of role-playing and an entirely new community of enthusiasts. Heck, you can find Ted Talks (now) on the virtues of tabletop gaming...maybe this IS the real deal, and not simply a lot of splash and noise being used to drum up sales for the Christmas season. I suppose I could choose to optimistic for a change.

Yeah, right.
; )