Tuesday, February 21, 2017

WEG Memoirs: Licensed Games

West End Games offices, 1993.
I’ve wanted to talk about games based on licensed media properties for a while, both from the angle of professional publishing companies and hobby enthusiasts. During its final few years (1993-1998) West End Games focused a great deal of its energy on acquiring licenses and publishing games based on them, to the point some considered it the leader in licensed games. My experience working for West End sheds some light on issues facing professional publishers in producing game product based on popular media franchises. Like many aspects of West End, this endeavor involved a lot of scrambling behind the scenes and a great deal of risk.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Gaming Artifacts: Homemade Fantasy World Maps

How I miss those lazy afternoons when I got home from school and had an hour or two before dinner to indulge my gaming hobby. Sometimes neighborhood kids would gather for a hapless D&D scenario or a board game of my own dubious design. Other times I’d relax with a good fantasy or science fiction novel. I’d draft maps for future dungeon delves or wilderness expeditions. I’d type out articles for my extremely amateur gaming fanzine. And then there were the wars waged by metal miniatures across map-kingdoms of my own creation.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Basic Hack Offers Intro OSR Experience

I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the Old School Renaissance (OSR). It’s nice to indulge my nostalgic tendencies and revel in some of the innovations people are sharing based on the old “core” fantasy roleplaying game rule sets: Erik “Tenkar” Stiene’s Swords & Wizardry Light, James Spahn’s The Hero’s Journey, Scott Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Land, among others in the back of my mind. Yet the OSR itself caters to gamers with at least some experience with any earlier flavor of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games, whether someone played once in high school or has been playing regularly for years. It’s not exactly a clear entry point for newcomers to the roleplaying game hobby. Since OSR titles are primarily available through online venues, they’re not visible in hobby, game, or book stores – unlike the current edition of D&D – and none of the OSR games have really, to my estimation, catered to complete beginners.... Until now. Nathan J. Hill’s The Basic Hack, an iteration of David Black’s The Black Hack, incorporates a few elements and a distillation of the OSR gaming experience I feel can offer an entry point for new gamers, either in the hands of an experienced gamemaster or even on their own.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evaluating Player Choice

Every game offers players different choices. Some, particularly kids games like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders, offer no choices amid their extremely structured play experiences (and one might argue whether they’re tecnically “games”). Others like roleplaying games revel in the concept that “anything can be attempted” by providing an environment with seemingly infinite choices. Analyzing the degree of player choice in individual games can help us evaluate their suitability for different audiences or even our own gaming interest.

While contemplating the issue of player choice I’m reminded of two graphics in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, my handy go-to reference when I need inspiration in that field. In the section on “Using Constraints” Knight provides two illustrations to demonstrate how restricting story elements can limit characters. One looks like a well in which the character crouches beneath a stone cave-in, the other look like the symbol of chaos with a character and question mark in the middle. This also represents the restraints of player choice in games. In the former the character/player has few or no choices, hence limiting the story/game experience; in the latter the character/player has infinite choices with little guidance where to proceed. In most instances games should avoid offering no or too few choices. In some cases, particularly roleplaying games, players enjoy having too many choices; they’re often narrowed by in-game situations or character race or class limitations. New players might prefer games with a handful of choices each turn. Experienced gamers might prefer having numerous options open. This may explain the renewed popularity of Euro-style board games and the esoteric reputation roleplaying games retain among the general, non-gaming public. The more choices available to players the more daunting games seem to newcomers; yet that wealth of choice also attracts game enthusiasts to more complex game experiences like wargames and roleplaying games.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Role Game Cons Play

I’m no pollster, nor am I a statistician; but I’d love to run a survey across the spectrum of the adventure gaming hobby to see how often gamers attend conventions of any size. What percentage never attend a convention each year? What percentage gets to a premiere event like GenCon? How important are conventions to the average gamer? My own involvement with gaming conventions (or media conventions with gaming tracks) has varied as I’ve grown and changed as a gamer. They offer opportunities to game with others, hang out with members of the gaming community, discover new games, and shop with vendors; but how important is the convention experience to the average gamer?

Running Valley of the Ape
at Barrage.
Many hobbies sponsor conventions to promote their pursuits, showcase vendors, and provide a forum for participants to share their enthusiasm. Given adventure gaming’s social nature it makes sense that conventions have played a key role in both promoting the hobby but helping it evolve. Reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World one sees how early conventions like the GenCon shows in Lake Geneva (established in 1968) and the Origins Game Fair (started in 1975) brought together enthusiast-designers such as Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz, and Jeff Perrin (to name a scant few) to share ideas and forge partnerships in developing new games...not to mention gamers eager for play experiences and new product. Reading the game magazines of the time (primarily Dragon Magazine) one sees a host of ads for game conventions and reports of activities there, giving average gamers the impression attending such cons was a much a part of the hobby as creating characters, devising scenarios, and running adventures. The magazine and other publications also ran listings for smaller, regional conventions that might prove more accessible to enthusiasts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Persistence & Professionalism

Several factors came together last week to remind me of two important elements from my own game-writing experience: persistence and professionalism. I’m puttering around tidying up parts of my office (along with other bits in the house long-neglected in my fight against the Lords of Chaos and their glaciers of clutter); I stumbled upon some letters and materials from my earliest game submissions in my high school days, embarrassing tidbits from a time when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. My brother-in-law’s family got me Stephen King’s On Writing for Christmas, in which I’m finding some inspiration and re-affirmation. It’s all reminding me how much persistence and professionalism have played a role in my growth as a writer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Very Geeky Holidays

I’m thankful that throughout my life the holidays have always been a time to indulge my inner geek and share it with others. It’s become a quiet tradition, not always something planned, but something that simply happens on its own. But before I wander into my rambling missive on the subject, I want to wish all Hobby Games Recce readers, everyone who supports my gaming efforts here, at Griffon Publishing Studio, and elsewhere, a joyous and geeky holiday season...or, if you prefer, Christma-yu-kwanza-kah-nalia (hopefully you can find your specific holiday somewhere in there).

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The holidays bring out some of the most sacred family traditions among western cultures (and I’m assuming among some non-western cultures, too). Growing up we had some pretty standardized practices adjusted over time for our ages, involvement in religious rituals, and other changing factors: the Christmas tree went up and was lit according to a particular schedule; trains often ran around it to enhance the holiday’s playful spirit; we shared a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ham, potatoes, pinkelwurst, and kale, with stollen and cookies for dessert, with a full turkey dinner on Christmas Day (I have no idea where my parents found the energy to do both); we opened presents, one at a time, taking turns in order from oldest to youngest (I assume as a lesson in patience for us younger folk); and, of course, we attended church at some point, first the early evening children’s pageant, later the spectacle of midnight mass with music, lights, and ceremony rivaling the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. Even though the years have passed and I’m married with a child of my own, our household’s new traditions have evolved, some carried over from our treasured past and others we establish together as a family. We still set up a tree and trains, but we also festoon the front of the house with modest holiday lights and, when I bother, decorate our eight foot-tall sasquatch stand-up, “Skookums,” in the front yard (left over from Halloween); I bake stollen to give as gifts to friends and family; we enjoy the traditional ham dinner, though we graze through leftovers on subsequent days; and we open presents Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve with a sense of well-ordered chaos.