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.
; )