Monday, July 13, 2015

Preferences

Originally, I considered calling this post "Bloat."

I'm feeling charitable at the moment.

Actually, it's more than that. In honesty my normal state of mind should rest somewhere between "extremely grumpy" and "dead tired" (I slept around three hours the last few nights)...but after outdoor Mass with His Holiness, being less than charitable today seems like an affront. Not sure "to what," but an affront to something.

And...well, I'm kind of tired of being mean. I feel like, lately, I've been turning into the Paraguayan version of RPGPundit. The old version of 'Pundit, anyway...not the guy who seems so reactionary and defensive and personally affronted all the time (I guess internet politics will do that to a guy), but the guy who would gush about some game or supplement that appealed to his taste while ripping apart a game or supplement that wasn't. I don't want to be like that. I want to encourage game designers to design...regardless of whether or not I think they're any good at it.

You folks grok me? Sometimes I spend so much time contemplating things in my head that when I finally bother writing 'em down in a blog post I forget to include crucial parts of my thought process that makes the thing make sense. Let me be perfectly clear:

In this industry...the game industry, but especially the tabletop RPG part of it...where so much of it is driven by hobbyists, and fun, and love of play...in this industry, I want to encourage people to get out there and make games. I don't want to tell anyone:

You suck. Please stop "creating" your heaping, steaming piles of crap.

Is the internet a crowded place? Sure. Is there a lot of "dross" out there? Probably. Does all that noise make it harder for people to locate the true "gems" that exist. Maybe.

But dross and gems are subjective terms. One person's trash is another's treasure, yadda yadda.

Take game bloat for a moment. I've probably related the following story in an earlier blog post, but here it is again: I was hanging out at a game shop perusing the shelf and talking with folks (in part) about the presentation of game books, specifically being interested in what attracts the potential customer. And one of the guys I was talking to was dismissive of anything that was of a small size, soft cover, or low page count. Anything that looks "indie" or "old school." Not that there aren't good games or supplements that come in such packages (he admitted), but unless it comes in a large hard cover with glossy art and high production values, he makes an assumption that it's not worth his money (until someone else introduces him to the game). In other words, he buys the bigger, shinier package because he figures that anyone unable to put out a similarly professional looking product can't possibly put out something that's of equivalent professional quality or value. His preference is for a bloated coffee table book, regardless of what is contained inside.

[this guy BTW is now the co-owner of a local game shop...though he handles more of the beer sale/distribution side of the place while his partner deals with the games]

This type of thinking, of literally "judging a book by its cover," is fallacious, but understandable. I've purchased and read plenty of lovely hardcovers over the years that were poor in terms of writing, editing, or game-worthy content. Some of these were put out by large companies, but others were from small indie outfits...you don't need to be a big company with a magnificent "design team" to put out a coffee table ready product. You just need money to spend...and rinky-dink outfits have been doing it since before Kickstarter crowdfunding was available. But still, it's understandable: don't you hire the guy who shows up to the job interview with fresh, pressed suit before you hire the scrub in ripped jeans and a t-shirt? Sure you do...in part because presentation shows that you care.

However, small books can still be tastefully, even beautifully, done. A choice to make a small and/or soft-cover book...because of pricing (for the consumer), because of a stylistic choice, because of the book's practical use at the table...can all be plusses, especially when the book itself carries a quality game within its pages. But that's my opinion and, yes, my "preference."

[there are also small, tastefully made indie-game books that are as terrible in editing, writing, and content as a terrible hardcover glossies. However, they do tend to cost less]

And MY preference may not be the majority opinion...at least not the perceived majority opinion. Which is one reason that new editions of games and revised editions have a tendency to be bigger and  more bloated than their predecessors...even at the expense of a game's overall quality or playability.

Ah, yes...now we get to the crux of the post. I spent a good chunk of time "scrutinizing" the differences between Supers! and Supers! Revised and it raised some gripes (for me) about bloat. Not a terrible amount compared to some games, not a huge amount of "bloat for bloat's sake," but enough to irritate me. The book is only 50 pages longer than the original (or 80 if you consider that the original game devotes 30 pages to sample NPCs which the Revised edition doesn't), but it feels cramped and crowded in comparison, partly because excess white space has been filled with full color borders, charts, and illustrations, and partly because the abstract game has been filled with extra blocks of rules and minutia.

However, even as I was making my lists of differences between the two books' content (with the idea of doing a side-by-side comparison), I realized something I hadn't before...Supers! Revised was authored by different people, completely unrelated to the original author, Simon Washbourne. Washbourne (author of Barbarians of Lemuria and the Swords&Wizardry-Stormbringer mash-up heartbreaker called Crimson Blades) transferred the publishing rights for his game to Hazard Studio, a group of illustrators and gamers who are associated with Zenith Comics, an on-line (web) comic imprint.

The connecting factor between Hazard and Zenith is Walt Robillard, artist and (it appears) co-owner of both groups. Walt and Andrew Collas (editor-in-chief of Zenith) were working on a hack of "an old school supers game" when Collas was hipped to the opportunity to acquire Supers!. However, neither Robillard nor Collas were involved in the writing/design of Supers! Revised (both were involved with the artwork). Instead, the writing is credited to Aldo Regalado and Rus Boyd. Regalado considers himself a writer, not a designer, though he credits Champions, Simon Washbourne, and Chris Rutkowsky (author of BASH) for his design sensibilities; his other credits on DriveThruRPG include a couple setting supplements published for both Supers! and BASH.  Russell Boyd appears to a first-time writer, though he has several art credits (mostly for supers-type RPG supplements) on DriveThru; he also cites Rutkowsky as his main influence.

In addition, although uncredited, Dave Bezio (of X-Plororers) provides a five page appendix converting the Supers! abstract system to tactical/miniatures gameplay in the 5' per square range, and Reid San Fellipo (Crawling Under a Broken Moon for DCC) provides a seven page appendix for doing random chargen inspired (at least in part) by the original MSH.

These individuals are the responsible parties for Supers! Revised, not Simon Washbourne who (interestingly enough) has gone on to publish what appears to be his own revised version of Supers! called TRIUMPHANT! The Super Heroic Role Playing Game. I have not purchased Triumphant! (as of this post) but I have read a couple reviews that lead me to believe it's fairly similar to Washbourne's original game, just with an updated dice mechanic that uses polyhedral dice besides the D6, plus a couple "quirks" (like "Triumph dice").

[*pause*]

[*considers what he wants to say*]

The point is this: the design choices of Hazard Studio may not be to my taste, they may fall into their own preferences based on their own gaming sensibilities, as opposed to my own or even as opposed to the original designer (Washbourne). And that's fine...different strokes for different folks and all that. BUT...damn, I bought this game based on its great reviews, the only complaint coming from someone who wanted print-on-demand (and now it has that), and...well, if I'd read an appraisal of the game in comparison to its original version, I probably wouldn't have shelled out the money for it. That's money (and time) that could have been spent in support of someone else's game.

And THIS is why, I suppose, I write a bunch of negative shit about other peoples' games and designs. Not because I'm an asshole (though, I've certainly labeled myself as one over the years), but because I get tired of seeing reviews that are mainly A) puff pieces, B) solely concerned with art/lay-out/production values, or C) both. Especially with regard to games that are 2nd editions or 3rd editions or revised editions or whatever. Just because a new edition is BIGGER does not make it BETTER. Just because an edition is NEWER does not mean it is MORE INNOVATIVE.

I'm not trying to be mean. I'm trying to give my honest opinion. And that might be helpful to some people...even those people who consider my preferences the opposite of their own (and thus buy what I dislike and vice versa). It's not that I just get off on being a dissenting opinion, and I do enjoy writing about things that I find cool/neat, too. But my opinions are just that: mine. My preferences. And that doesn't mean someone's book or game or product or supplement is so terrible they should quit designing or quit publishing or even that they should quit trying to make a buck on their work.  I applaud and encourage creativity and artistic endeavor.

On the other hand, if I see something that's fucking terrible, I'm going to suggest that people don't buy it or watch it or read it. In those instances, I'm not telling the particular designer (or filmmaker or artist or whatever) to quit what they're doing...I'm hoping they'll do better in the future. That this particular offering is not up-to-snuff (for whatever reason) or is harmful to its audience or that...well, whatever the reason that doesn't mean I'm telling the creator of said project to hang it all up. Just want to be clear on that.

OKAY. Having gotten all that off my chest, I now want to write a little bit about the differences between Supers! and Supers! Revised...keeping in mind the reasons/goals of the design team that led to the revision. In their own words:

ALDO REGALADO, SUPERS! REVISED CO-AUTHOR: Simon Washbourne created a great game in SUPERS! First Edition. It was fast, fun, simple and robust, and the game’s action economy and narrative elements combined to enable superhero play like no other game I’d ever encountered to that point. The game, however, was also very vague in parts. Some Powers had die codes, but no explanation on how to use them. The game also lacked guidelines for breaking objects, handling vehicles (super or otherwise), grappling and a slew of other elements common to the superhero genre. A primary goal of the revision, therefore, was to provide answers to recurring questions, thus making the game more complete while remaining true to Simon’s original vision. Another reason for the revision was to bring new players into the fold by improving on production values. 

RUS BOYD, SUPERS! REVISED CO-AUTHOR: Another consideration going into the revision was the general presentation of the game. I think a lot of people were turned off by the general look and feel of the book and weren’t giving it a chance. While it wasn’t a major factor, giving the game a facelift was a component of the revision. Otherwise, as Aldo said, beefing up the options, making rules consistent and accessible, and fleshing out some of the missing elements was the #1 consideration.

But I'll get to that in a separate post.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting read JB. I agree with you about bloating games. The continued need to produce more or larger books gets exhausting to track as a gamer. I prefer the narrow tomes of gaming.

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    1. @ Tim:

      "Exhausting." That's a good word.

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  2. One thing I love about older games is that, while they're smaller, they feel like they contain more content. I adored the 1e DMG as a kid — and still do — in part because of how much Gygax managed to cram into those pages. The guy even had room to rant! I wondered why all that cool stuff wasn't in my 3e books, though some of it did show up in later supplements. I've always thought it'd be neat to combine those two sensibilities: larger books and denser pages (dense with useful material, I mean, not cruft). Can you imagine how much you could actually fit inside a book the size of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook?

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    1. @ ProfOats:

      No. In all honesty, I really can't.

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  3. I prefer the smaller books. Mostly because I'm more attracted to the games but also because I don't have the time or money for the big glossies.

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    1. @ Narmer:

      Even today, in my curmudgeonly old age, I will occasionally throw down the money for a big, bold hardcover. "New Fire" by Jason Caminsky was my most recent, I believe.

      Mostly, however, I'm in the "hard-pressed-for-time-and-money" camp.

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  4. You are right that I designed Triumphant! to be my own sort of Supers! revised (and in that respect I prefer both the original Supers! and Triumphant! to the revised version). I prefer fast, fun and simple and to create games where the rules, if used properly, tell you what to do in situations where there isn't a specific rule "written down", for things that crop up infrequently in the game. My game design is definitely in the camp of less-is-more. I wasn't originally intending to write another superheroic rpg but had a bit of spare time and suddenly felt the urge to try to improve on the original using ideas I had before selling off Supers! I personally think Triumphant is better than original Supers! but isn't bloated beyond sensibility. It has now been picked up by a Spanish publisher too (they ran a successful crowdfunding for it recently). Overall, I broadly agree with what you have said bigger and newer isn't necessarily better, but some gamers seem to demand being spoon-fed.

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    1. @ Simon:

      Thanks for stopping by! Supers! is quite a nice little gem of a game.

      I'm not sure I'd say "spoon-fed"...there are plenty of creative folks out there who like to have their rules set down and engraved by the game authors...if only so there's no disagreement at the table later on. But, yeah, there's a line to be drawn (or perhaps a "diminished rate of return" on excess rules).

      Congrats on your Spanish publisher, BTW. Wish there was more role-playing in my (South American) neck of the woods.

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  5. Paraguay - Uruguay....what's the difference!
    (just kidding of course)

    Honestly I don't mind some bloat. I have hacked and redone pretty much any system I have ever played save for 2 or 3.

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    1. @ Timothy:

      "Hacked" or just house ruled? Most games require a little adjustment "out-o-the-box" to ease playability at individual tables, but tweaks aren't necessarily hacks. At least in my book. I tend to think of "hacks" as something akin to "overhauls."

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