Thursday, July 11, 2019

Inelegant Design

A bit of a divergence from more recent topics, but...

My kids are always asking me to play with them. This is, of course, a great blessing...I'm sure there are many parents out there who'd give their eyeteeth for children who preferred their attention to that of their friends or (worse) screens/devices.

It is, also (again, of course), annoying at times: not only are there other things that I want (or need) to do, but it bugs me that they sometimes seem to lack the capacity for amusing themselves. Growing up, my brother and I invented many games and pastimes to amuse ourselves without the need for parental supervision or inspiration...even before we'd discovered role-playing games. Imaginative play came easy (naturally?), whereas my children want direction in how to play. Lacking direction (and/or parental participation) they most often default to wanting some sort of screen entertainment: a video game or television to simultaneously stimulate and soften their brains.

(*sigh*)

All of which is simply a precursor to this: my son is interested in my game design "work," and has asked me on multiple occasions to create a "superhero game." I haven't had the heart (or patience) to explain to him just how many supers games I already own and are available, all of which are lacking in some capacity. But I keep telling him I will (eventually) get around to it. One of these days.

So it is that I've been looking at Heroes Unlimited (again) for the last 30 hours or so. This would be the original, un-Revised version that I've blogged about previously. Again, I've been struck by the real design sensibilities on display here: there is reason behind all of Simebieda's madness that simply isn't explained in later editions. Again, I'm frustrated by the gross editing errors, typos, and information left out...not to mention the sheer clunkiness of a system evolved organically in play. And reading the Revised and 2nd Edition books this morning, I again am struck by how much the game has changed ("evolved" as Siembieda writes) through its various updates. And not for the good.

And yet, and yet: the sheer monstrosity of HU, of its inelegance...I finally start to see something of the appeal and of why the game has had such staying power over the decades. As I struggle to search the various entries for even basic information (like how much SDC a particular power type starts with, or exactly how many hand-to-hand attacks a character should receive), I am forced to parse out various systems and discrepancies and make decisions ("rulings") about various aspects of the game...I am, in struggling to understand and grasp the game's concepts, in the process of learning and developing a degree of expertise with the system.

RPGs are difficult beasts to grapple with anyway...at the table that is. Running an RPG, managing the players, the rules, the pacing and narration...it's a tough juggling act. And yet, streamlined "rules light" design (no doubt intended to excise complexity in aid of playability) ends up making games feel, well, less game-like and more like regulated story-telling...and the more simplified, the more this is the case.

Which, for me, isn't what I want out of a fantasy adventure game. It just isn't.

However, the other thing I do not want is a game where the system IS the game: where the real "play" is in crunching the numbers of the various in-game currencies in order to actually get to play itself. This includes any game that has point-buy/build systems (GURPS, Champions, MektonZ) or anything that has excessive character building through "option selection" (any D20 game or any version of D&D post-1988). I want to get to play without the extra prep of "building" and once play starts I want players to be "in the moment," un-worried about how their character might develop over ten plus levels.

So here's this monstrosity of a game called Heroes Unlimited, full of these clunky, unbalanced character classes, non-unified systems, often ugly aesthetics, and inelegant design. And yet I can randomly generate something like 50 different character types right out of the box, not counting differences in ability scores or power selection. Assuming I have some a decent grasp of the comic book genre (even with a limited, non-nuanced perspective), I can run a game right out of the box. And even without adjusting the rules I can tailor the game play to many sub-genres of supers play, incorporating nuance (the issues of vigilanteism or incorporating modern day politics, for example) as opposed to simple, four-colored action. Its asymmetry, unburdened by toolbox aspects of later games, makes it ripe with the potential of "Advanced" play.

In that way, it really does earn the moniker "Unlimited."

Jut something I'm musing on this morning: the features of inelegant design. Cheers.
: )

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Appropriation

Welp, I've been back from my short "vaca" for a day or so, and it's time to get back to "work" (such as my work is). Had a lot of thoughts come into the old "think box" during the course of the trip...thinks that might apply to my proposed "South American" campaign setting. However, as I've found that writing 20,000 word, meandering posts tend to be less-than-effective at communicating (or organizing) my ideas, I'm going to try to break these up into bite-sized chunks.

SO, as a bit of a "precursor" allow me to say that on our way back from Montana we stopped off in Leavenworth, Washington for a couple nights. This was my first trip to "the Ultimate Holiday Town USA" and it was pretty trippy.

See, Leavenworth was established in 1906 (as the souvenir t-shirts proudly recount), but the small logging town went into a long economic decline after Great Northern Railway relocated its headquarters to nearby Wenatchee in the '20s. Located on Highway 2 (the road that cuts through Stevens Pass in the Cascades) the town would probably have appeared to be a nice little vacation getaway for folks seeking outdoor recreation...say fishing the Skykomish or hiking. But the building of Stevens Pass Ski Resort in the 1930s, the presence of Lake Chelan for boating and water sports, and the sheer number of similar small towns in rural Washington probably contributed to Leavenworth being nothing more than a wide spot in the road for road-trippers heading out of the more populous King County. I'm guessing.

So it was that in the 1960s, a pair of "Seattle business men" who had bought a roadside cafe and was looking at a way to increase the tourist traffic to the area, hit on the idea of developing Leavenworth as a "theme town," a recreation of a Bavarian village with buildings featuring architecture out of 1800s Germany, shops selling lederhosen and Alpine hats, and menus filled with schnitzel, beer, and brats. The wikipedia entry says they were inspired by Solvang, California who sport a Danish-themed town, whose town has been a tourist draw since the late 1940s, pulling a million visitors per year. As Leavenworth draws twice that number annually, I think it's fair to say they've succeeded in becoming the tourist attraction they want to be.


For me, I have mixed feeling about it. Yes, it's cute (and I am, of course, a fan of beer and brats), but it feels excessive. Worse, much of it feels, not just artificial, but a touch insincere. My kids' first reaction was "it looks like Disneyland" (they've never yet been to Disneyland), and why not? Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle is the model for Disneyland's iconic palace, and it's located in the heart of the region (and time era) that Leavenworth seeks to model.

And that's the thing: I've been to Bavaria. I've been to Neuschwanstein and Munich and Rothenburg. And while, yes, there's a lot of beer and schnitzel and sausage to be had, there's much more than that. There are plenty of buildings that don't have the cutesy architecture and faux gothic signage going on.  I mean, even the local hospital looks like some sort of Alpine chateaux!

The thing about Solvang is that it was a Danish community that originally settled it. And it was Danish immigrants and their descendants that, after WWII, tried to recreate some of the architecture and sculpture they'd seen in the fatherland while fighting in Europe. When the Danish Prince Frederick visited Solvang as part of his US tour in 1939 it was to see the Danish people living there...the "theme town" hadn't yet become a "thing," though I'm sure there were Danish traditions being kept alive in Solvang just as the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle keeps alive parts of the community's Norwegian and Swedish heritage (you can buy lutefisk at the right time of year, they have a seafood festival to commemorate Norwegian Constitution Day, for example).

Leavenworth, on the other hand, has no particular German heritage, and certainly no connection to Bavaria. They could have chosen to style themselves after an English village or a province of China or some town in Mexico or whatever. It's cultural appropriation, I guess...though since the culture being appropriated doesn't belong to a minority or historically oppressed people, I suppose there's no real stink to be raised about it. Probably there's some enterprising business folks in Berlin considering how to transform some small community into a theme town based on the "American West" with cowboys and Indians and saloons and whatnot.

[oh, wait...there already is (thank you, internet): Pullman City Harz is an American "wild west" town in Northern Germany. Awesome...especially as it appears to be named after Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!). If I ever get back to Germany, maybe I'll give it a visit]

Anyway, despite my queasiness over the blatant commercialism...and a certain amount of bloatedness that comes from two days of sauerkraut and maibok....the place IS cute and a very nice place to visit. Yeah, it's goofy/weird but at least I can get a German-ish meal at a restaurant that will serve my kids, too (such is not the case with the best German-style pubs in Seattle), AND a big ol' stein of HBH. Most of the locals are engaged in the tourist industry, and most of the working folks I saw were younger than me, or not much older. I'd guess they've never known their town as anything other than what it is, and while they share a similar strained-weariness all tourist-industry folks have towards their clientele, they still approach their theme with a certain amount of gusto. When I spoke of "insincerity," I wasn't talking about the people, more the choices made in executing the "theme" (I can forgive a hotel called The Edelweiss but "Mozart's Steakhouse" is a bit tougher for my Austrian heritage to swallow).

*ahem* The POINT being, that Leavenworth is a fun place, and one I wouldn't mind returning to...maybe not for Oktoberfest, but definitely for a long weekend in summer or around the winter holiday season. And while I doubt I'll ever pick up a pair of lederhosen, I'd probably buy a beer stein if I found one that suited my taste (or lack thereof)...and I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

All of which, I realize, appears to have ZERO to do with gaming. But as I consider using real-world geography, history, and peoples to build a campaign setting, these issue of cultural appropriation looms in my mind. I'm not so much worried that I'd be giving offense to someone, so much as I worry I'd be perpetrating bad, false, or tasteless stereotypes in the name of "fun." How much is "appropriate appropriation" and how much is excessive? What amount of authenticity is acceptable and what constitutes "too little?" What amount is respectful to the cultures in question? Maybe these are silly, academic considerations (especially considering I'm not even running a game at the moment), but they are things I think about.

More on this later, along with some ideas I've had on possible approaches to my "problematic" campaign setting.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Nothing Helps Clear The Head...


...like adding a different type of Big Ball O Stress to the plate.

Heading out to Montana today. In fact, I have umpteen number of things to do, that I absolutely need to do, that I should be doing instead of blogging. Been out that way several times with the kids, but always via plane. Haven't made the road trip since long before the kids were born.

But we're doing it today. Finally got my wife to agree to the idea. When I was a kid, we traveled by car to see the relatives twice a year, starting when I was an infant (and being held on my mom's lap in a 1973 Datsun pick-up with no shocks). I can't see how my kids are made of any less sterner stuff than my brother and I were. They can tough it out for a few hours...jeez, we're going to be spending the night in Spokane anyway.

Still. Lots to do to prepare. That's the stress. I'm looking forward to the driving bit.

ANYway...I'll be (mostly) out of contact for the next few days, depending on internet connections and whatnot. Doesn't mean I'm ignoring you folks or anything.
: )

I am taking my sketch book to work on illustrations. More on that later.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Oh My.


I suppose I should know better than to post rants penned in the wee hours of the morning following copious consumption of red wine, but sometimes the urge to hit that little orange "publish" button is so darn hard to ignore. Ah, well.

However, I do know better than to expect any sort of agreement from such a contradictory stance...I mean, it's pretty silly in the light of day to pretend that the game hasn't been doing its damnedest to define the six ability scores as something other than class-assigned mechanics ever since the first set of rule books was published. In fact, it's as ridiculous for me to state otherwise as is the publishers' various attempts to do so.

So why bother doing so? Why get mad about something that already has buy-in from so many D&D players of all stripes and generations? Just because I want to poke the bear? Generate a bunch of comments on my blog.

No, no. It was just the wine, really...loosening my already lax self-restraint. I've been having these particular thoughts lately, see? About the ascendance of importance of ability scores. And it's really started to bug me...like some hard-to-reach itch or a nagging irritation or kink in the neck that you just can't quite work out. Because it IS silly...the mechanical importance that has been attached, over time, to certain descriptive qualities that offered minor adjustments to specific individual game systems. What was once a bit of generosity has instead become all-encompassing definitions of one's fictional persona, leading to all sorts of unwelcome practices: perception rolls, social rolls, etc.

Once upon a time someone asked: "Why must my character be as stupid as me when HE has an intelligence of 18? Why must I, the shy and not-so-smooth gamer geek have to 'role-play' some interaction with an NPC, when my character has this humongous charisma stat? It's not like Bob doesn't get to "bend bars" with his 18/00 strength score...and Bob can't even do a chin-up in real life!"

AND WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN SAID (by the DM) IS:

"The characters are our avatars in the imaginary world. Ability scores provide numbers that describe certain measurable aspects that of the character that directly impact specific systems. Strength measures ability in melee combat and certain physical feats. Intelligence measures mental capacity for working magic and learning languages. Charisma measures the character's ability to make a first impression and engender loyalty in followers. Wisdom measures insight into the "clerical mysteries" and innate resistance to magical attacks. But that's ALL the numbers represent...they are a measure of certain measurable aspects. But just because you have the intelligence to master magic doesn't make you 'smart;' it means you've got a good handle on a particular career path when choosing your character's class."

That's what could have been said. It wasn't. Instead attempts have been made to fit agility, speed, reflexes, hand-eye coordination, depth perception, balance, etc. all under the single heading of "dexterity." Instead pages and pages of internet ink and silly arguments have been made trying to clearly delineate the distinctions between "intelligence" and "wisdom."

And designers from various (MOST) editions of D&D have attempted to use the ability scores as the basis for some type of skill system. And I hate skill systems...especially ones that try to use a universal mechanic to model all skills when clearly nothing could be LESS universal than "skills."

Is carpentry a skill? Is medicine a skill? I have little training in either of these, but I can learn to make a passable birdhouse or picnic table far easier than I could perform surgery. And not because it's easier to saw wood than cut flesh with a knife! But I made a working catapult when I was an eight-year old Cub Scout; I made a (poorly) working crossbow when I was but a year or two older...not that I could, for the life of me, remember now HOW exactly I did these things.

Once upon a time I was a single guy who would get dates with girls. Was this a skill? Maybe...it was a matter of learning particular social cues and finding the courage to talk to women (and the brains to listen to their own subjects of interest and not bore them overly with my own). I'd say it took me a long time to "learn" it...it wasn't until I was 19 or 20 that I really got the knack for it after perhaps a decade of trying. And even afterward it was always a difficult task...always hard to control yourself when you're with a person who's making your emotional self fire off in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

Skill systems also fail to take into account atrophy. I was once a pretty good (stage) actor...though I always had difficulty with the memorization of lines. But it's been a quarter century since the last time I was on stage; I sincerely doubt I could turn in the same kind of performance I could at my "peak," when I was reeling off reams of blank verse and captivating audiences. And it's not because my body has degenerated (the way my knees have...I definitely couldn't fence the way I did when I was in my twenties!)...I just haven't practiced my craft in decades and I've allowed my skills to lapse. This happens...I got pretty expert at laying paving stones a couple summers back when I spent eight weeks doing nothing but landscaping my back yard. Today, I can barely remember the first thing about it.

Still, I'm digressing. Here's the deal: I don't disagree that a strong character shouldn't get some (slight) bonus to a task of physical labor for which she is untrained...nor that a weak character should suffer some penalty to the same. But for the game I play (and, sure, I understand not everyone plays as I do), I feel that a character's class IS the bulk of the character's training...that's where the emphasis should be and ability scores a minor consideration as far as representing a character's "skill."

Apologies for the inflammatory scribbles.

For the Love of God...

...please, PLEASE stop using "ability checks."

Ability checks are nothing but sheer f'ing laziness, whether we're talking "roll under" or "roll versus target with ability bonuses." Just stop it. StoooooOOOOP IT, please!

Stop mistaking characters for something other than the player who's playing the character. Just stop. Stop now. If I am playing a character with a high Intelligence score that doesn't make him a frigging genius...and if he has a low Intelligence score it doesn't make him an imbecile. Nor does a specific Charisma or Wisdom score represent aspects of my personality (i.e. the player's personality) that I am obligated to play. It doesn't! It is unfortunate that the name carries connotations that expand the mechanic beyond the scope of what it's intended for but...well let's just talk sense for a moment.

Let's start with "Intelligence." Forget the name for the moment. Just forget it. Call it something else...anything! Call it "Wizard's Prime Requisite" (which it is...originally anyway). Call it "ability X" for all I care. Just divorce the mechanic from the connotation that comes with naming it "intelligence." Let's just call it "X" for now...or, better yet, call it "INT."

INT is a random attribute that determines how skilled a magic-user character is at learning his or her craft. That was the thing's original definition. Later, this wasn't simply designated mechanically with the acquisition of experience points (bonuses and penalties to XP) , but also included how well the magic-user learned spells (chances to learn, minimum/maximum numbers per level). Parenthetically it also provided a number of extra languages the character might know, presumably because it represented some sort of scholarly pursuits, even if the character was not trained specifically in the skills of a magic-user.

That's it. It doesn't mean a character is more perceptive: lots of well-read or knowledgable individuals are hopelessly obtuse about all sorts of things. A high intelligence doesn't equate with the ability to solve riddles or craft wooden furniture. Having an INT of 18 doesn't make someone "MacGuyver." It doesn't even mean the character is a particularly good student...except insofar as we're talking about being a student of magic. But you can be a stupid, stupid person and still great at your job. Happens all the time. D&D is not about "renaissance men (and women)" skilled in a variety of tasks and careers.

Wisdom isn't a stat that measures how "wise" or "intuitive" or "insightful" is your character. It's a measure of your character's ability to advance as a cleric. Again, forget the the word "wisdom;" it's a short-hand term, and a confusing one. Just call it WIS. Later editions provided that it made clerics even better (by giving them additional spells). For the non-clerics it acted as an adjustment to saving throws versus magic (though why exactly was never really made clear...certainly this was a late development in a game that mechanically went nearly unchanged between the mid-70's and 1999). You can be an extremely devoted zealot, well-versed in the tenets of your religion...or a doubter and closet agnostic who nevertheless has a firm grip on the ways of "universal (divine) law." Despite the name given to the ability, an 18 WIS doesn't make you wise; there's nothing "wise" about being an adventurer. There's nothing "wise" about joining a band of cutthroats and delving into ancient mines and tombs full of horrible ways to die. It is a MECHANIC with an unfortunate name, nothing more.

Charisma? It's not a measure of your personality. It's a measure of your abstract "it" factor, how much people naturally trust you and your immediate likability. It gives a bonus or penalty to reaction, something only checked in an initial encounter...your ability to make a first impression, probably based as much on your carriage, manner of speech, and straightness of teeth as much as anything else. Why do some people attract sycophants and fantastical followers while others have a tougher time making friends? Why do some people get elected president despite being eminently unqualified for the position? Why are some people blessed with popularity even when their words and actions are sheer nonsense? Eventually, all but the unfortunate few will see through the facade to a person's true worth based on his or her actual actions...and the length of time that takes to become disillusioned can be slowed or speeded depending on the depth to which that initial first impression got made. But it happens eventually...and probably sooner if the person shows herself to be a monster right from the get-go.

The same holds true of all the ability scores. Strength is a measure of fighting ability, not athletic ability. Originally, dexterity measure only marksmanship; later it was used to measure thieving ability (both as a thief's prime requisite and in bonuses/penalties to thief skills). Constitution adjusts a character's ability to withstand damage, not her ability to resist disease or hold her breath or sustain a sprint over distance.

I'm sorry, but I'm irritated. Hell, I'm angry. I'm mad at 5th edition and 4th edition and 3rd edition and 2nd edition (with its non-weapon proficiencies) and BECMI's "General Skills" (from the Gazetteers and, later, the Rules Cyclopedia). Hell, I'm mad at Tom Moldvay's admonition on page B60 of the B/X (Basic) Rules that:

"The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores...to perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20."

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!

Characters are trained in the skills of their class. They're not "renaissance men (and women)." They are not taking night courses at community college. They're not hitting the gym or practicing aerial aerobics. They're not shelling out money at the hot yoga studio to increase their flexibility and focus. They're not researching the internet for the best diets to and exercises to maintain health and fitness, nor to see how to build a rowboat from scratch or live off the land or fletch their own arrows. WE can do that...even in the days before the internet we had libraries and city colleges and trade schools and a military industrial complex capable of churning out trained soldiers from hopelessly soft civilians in a matter of months based on carefully crafted science of physical and mental conditioning. But that's us...21st century people.

Stop using ability scores to define the character holistically. It's a terrible simplification. Gygax would have done well to have NEVER suggested the inclusion of "secondary skills" in AD&D, but even he provided a near-20% chance of a character having NO SKILL OF MEASURABLE WORTH. A fighter is trained to kill people, not forge and repair armor, not execute standing broad jumps or pole vault or climb like a spider. Thieves are trained to steal (in various ways); they are not tumblers and acrobats, no matter what their DEX score is. Acrobats are trained to do these kinds of things, and I encourage anyone to add such a class to their game if they find those skills desirable (I even wrote up an "acrobat" for The Complete B/X Adventurer). But don't look at a 16 dexterity as an 80% chance to perform such feats. Knowing one set of skills doesn't translate to another set (see professional soccer players versus professional baseball players versus professional ballet dancers).

Stop with the ability checks. Your wizard's 18 intelligence means she's an impressively knowledgable wizard for her level of experience. It doesn't make her an impressively intelligent person. It doesn't make her better at finding secret doors or sussing out ambush's or identifying things she's had no experience with. Your cleric's 18 wisdom makes her an impressively accomplished cleric for her level of experience...it doesn't mean she's wise. She's only as wise as YOU, the player, make her. If you decide to open the chest without searching for traps or decide it's a good idea to make a deal with a greater demon, there's ZERO RESPONSIBILITY on the DM to have you reconsider these un-wise actions. The stat is called "wisdom" but that's just a word; stop thinking of it as more than a term.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry to irritate people. I'm sorry to once again yell about things that are indelibly ingrained into some (most) D&D players' psyches, wasting everyone's blessed time, especially my own. But I was once again reading some blog on which someone was (once again) complaining about some aspect of 5E ability checks they didn't like...as if some checks were "good" and others were bad...and just, no. No. Stop the madness. There are no "good" ability checks. There are no good "skill systems" for D&D. Your character class tells you what you can do. Your ability scores might adjust some aspects of effectiveness. But YOU, player: YOU are the one responsible for working with what you've got. I don't care what your character's Intelligence or Charisma is. Your Strength and Dexterity scores mean jack-all to me outside the adjustments the game rules explicitly provide. If you can't figure stuff out, tough shit.

You need a boat? Buy one or pay someone to build it for you. You're not boatbuilder. This isn't MacGuyver; it's D&D. Boatbuilder isn't an available character class.

Stop with the ability checks already.
[vented at 2am]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Let the Madness Commence

While I have no doubt there are some who just love to hear all about my personal stresses, I will forbear regaling you with tales of woe, save that I have been up since 5am in order to babysit a friend of my child (who lacked daycare this morning) and have only just now got my children down to sleep (it's a bit after 11:30pm). True, I did get a 90 minute siesta in around 3pm, but I've otherwise been "on the clock" the entire day...a day that started with something slightly less than a tremendous hangover (trivia night with the family at the local pub last night and I had one-too-many IPAs).

Even so, I still managed to finish the entire text of the new book, including the table of contents. Yes, I still have the headers to do (always a pain in the ass for these game books), and it has no illustrations (save for a few placeholders), but it's complete and done and I dig it. It's a nice bit of campaign setting for B/X, the first I'll actually be publishing, though I've got work on maybe four or six in Ye Old Hard Drive. I'll write more about the thing in the (hopefully) near future, but as of this evening I'm filled with at least a small sense of satisfaction.

Also a slight sense of trepidation. I've more-or-less decided to take a stab at doing my own illustrating for this thing though, frankly, the idea is pretty batshit insane. Still, I'll try doing a couple sketches and see how they turn out (need to set up the scanner my wife brought back from Paraguay in December)...if it's too shitty I'll start soliciting from artists I've got on my contact list. I toyed with the idea of some kind of "black album," but illustrating is a nice challenge. Besides my children like to color too, and it is summer vacation...had them both painting Blood Bowl miniatures last week (yes, the five year old as well); maybe I'll put them to work.

Or maybe not. I do have some money left in the kitty after all...enough for a small art budget anyway. We'll see, we'll see...this type of thing requires a very specific type of artwork and (if it's coming from professionals), I'm going to want to be a little choosey.

But first things first: got to finish those damn headers. And I've got to get up early tomorrow to get the car to the shop by 9am (we've got a road trip to Montana next week). And I've got to get some type of sleep, even a few hours. Man, I am beat.

Till later.