Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Promoting Adventure Gaming in November

For some reason November seems to have become the default gaming promotion month. With the return of National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) and the ALA-sponsored International Games Day @ Your Library, November retains two high-profile gaming events that each do a great job promoting the adventure gaming hobby; but it makes one wonder whether the hobby could use a few more “game event months” spread throughout the year to better highlight adventure gaming.

On one level -- that of enthusiastic individual with a large online following -- Nathan Russell is once again spearheading National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon), which encourages people to create, play, and talk about their game during the month of November. The website serves as a central gathering place for people accepting the challenge; NaGa DeMon also maintains a presence on social media sites like Facebook and Google to broaden its visibility and community function. Several blog posts not only provide tips for participating in the challenge and talking about it, but the “Roll Call” feature helps visitors see who’s taken up the challenge and find out where they’ll be discussing developments in their games. Short of hosting a centralized, interactive forum at the NaGa DeMon site itself, Russell has done a good job of promoting and expanding participation in the challenge through the ever-growing community of online adventure gamers.

International Games Day @ Your Library comes at the other end of the spectrum, sponsored by arguably the largest national organization to promote gaming, the American Library Association (ALA). The program encourages libraries to  host gaming events (analog, digital, and combinations of both) on Saturday, November 3, 2012. The promotion helps coordinate events, register and promote participating libraries, and offer resources for running game programs.

Alas, the website seems extremely limited in its inspiration and usefulness, particularly for libraries that don’t already have some established gaming program. Of the three noted sponsors, two have donated electronic copies of games libraries can download for the event; the only analog game sponsor, Ravensburger, has donated 1,000 copies of its popular Labyrinth game, ostensibly for the first libraries to register their Games Day @ Your Library events. Regrettably the buried link to the once-useful Library Gaming Toolkit now leads to a page for a 2009 webcast on literacy. On the whole the event’s web presence seems lackluster. While I understand many public libraries still fight to maintain their already limited funding and provide a multitude of programs to serve a vast cross-section of the population, one might expect a national library organization to put its weight behind promoting an often overlooked intellectual and social activity many consider acceptable to its hallowed halls.

Last year I blogged how November seemed like a “gaming overdrive month,” including both events mentioned above, a third sadly missed this year, and a host of other game-oriented contests and challenges occurring throughout the year. Regrettably most remain only a faint blip on the radars of the average American’s consciousness. Occasionally we read the odd feature about the resurgence of board gaming or the news story about the latest earth-shattering story in the gaming industry (D&D Next comes to mind…). Adventure gaming seems so peripheral a pursuit in America that promotion seems relegated to active individuals and organizations like the American Library Association (ALA), which includes it as a relevant but fringe activity fulfilling its overall mission. Sure, one has the adventure gaming industry’s iconic conventions, GenCon and Origins, over the summer months, but few, if any, efforts exist to actively promote gaming on a national scale the rest of the year beyond November.

When the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council declares July National Hot Dog Month, the promotion has the strength of the sponsoring trade organization behind it. Adventure gaming has a few dedicated champions willing to use the channels available to them in promoting some aspect of the gaming hobby; but overall hobby-wide promotions from official organizations have limited means, especially with a group covering as many different bases as the ALA. This is certainly not meant as a criticism of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) or other game industry trade organizations. They’ve got their hands full catering to the needs of their members in various ways, primarily as a web resource, online community, and convention promoter. They cannot approach the size and scope of a national organization like the ALA and thus do not have the promotional potential of such an exclusive, scholarly membership organization. Certainly I’d love to see more concerted efforts on GAMA’s part for “National [Insert Type of Game Here] Month,” but right now I fear it’s beyond even what many consider the industry trade organization’s abilities and means.

Gamers, publishers, developers, freelancers, trade group members and others with various roles in the adventure gaming hobby naturally seek to increase participation in our enjoyable pastime. We’re a naturally fractured group -- the positive qualities of intense dedication and creativity contribute to that -- and we’re sometimes reluctant to rally beneath someone else’s banner for the greater good. Publishers want to promote their own products. Gamers seek to advance their favorite game systems. Libraries have a host of services and clients to consider. Everyone has limited funding. No strong, centralized leader of a gaming advocacy movement has emerged; and one might argue such a champion cannot emerge.

For the time being we must seek to do our small, individual parts in promoting the adventure gaming hobby: fostering a sense of creative community in forums, blogging about our favorite pastime, supporting a Friendly Local Gaming Store (if available), supporting our favorite game companies, sharing our enjoyment of gaming with anyone who’ll listen, and participating in visible advocacy events like NaGa DeMon and International Games Day @ Your Library.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Menus Aid Character Creation

For me character creation is like ordering from a menu. People have some idea what they want to play or eat, and a menu helps them decide exactly what they order in the context of the game or restaurant. Character creation is an essential step in playing in a roleplaying game, just as ordering food is a required part of enjoying a meal at a restaurant. The process isn’t the main endeavor but a necessary prelude. The sooner one creates a character or orders food, the sooner one moves on to the primary and more fulfilling activity.

I prefer game rules that easily allow me to teach newcomers, both experienced gamers trying a new system and complete novices to roleplaying games as a whole. Although I usually rely on basic pre-generated characters when running games at conventions, when starting a new group (either as a gamemaster or player myself) I prefer a relatively easy character creation process. Like ordering food at a good restaurant, menus aid that process.

I like restaurants with simple menus. That doesn’t necessarily mean the food isn’t good or the meals simplistic; it means the restaurant focuses on a few really excellent dishes, enough that my choices fit on one or two pages. I can peruse a brief, well-organized menu and find something I like so I can get on with the enjoyment of the meal and those with whom I’m sharing it. Many family style franchise restaurants have menus with multiple, full-color pages splattered with loud typefaces and tempting photographs of various menu items. Nobody has time to comprehend all that information and make an informed choice based on their tastes and appetites, especially with some harried waiter pestering your table for its orders.

Menus help us connect what a restaurant offers with what we as diners desire based on our tastes and appetite. Too much information presented on too many pages with too many loud typefaces and photographs distracts us from making an informed decision and thus threatens the enjoyment of our overall dining experience.

Like a good restaurant menu, an effective character creation menu -- at least for my gaming tastes -- remains concise yet varied. I prefer character creation systems to have a few basic choices, well organized like a menu, that help me order up something I’ll enjoy playing in the game. Certainly some gamers prefer tomes of character creation rules and options, with massive lists of feats from which to customize their heroes. This approach characterizes a certain style of game that often proves daunting to newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby. Although I myself once dove head-first into vast tomes of game rules, as I get older and find myself with less time to both learn and play new games. I’m drifting toward easier game engines with shorter start-up times and lower learning curves; much of that boils down to a streamlined yet meaningful character creation system.

I love the D6 System, especially as presented in the classic Star Wars Roleplaying Gameby West End Games. It was among the first innovative, skill-based game engines to allow players to choose a general character template -- in this case based on a stereotype from the Star Warsfilms -- customize it by adding a few dice to boost some characteristic skills, and dive into playing. While this isn’t a menu per se, it helps illustrate my affinity for a quick and easy character creation systems with a basic yet expandable core game mechanic.

Two relatively recent games -- Old School Hack and Dungeon World -- exemplify for me the furthest refinement of putting everything one needs for character creation right on the character sheet…and they both manage part of it using menus. (I’m sure other roleplaying games out there embrace the simplicity and clarity of this menu technique, whether on the character sheet itself or in character creation rules and class descriptions, but I’m focusing on two I’ve recently enjoyed.)

Old School Hack -- a retro-clone, dungeon-delving style game -- describes each iconic fantasy class on single-page sheets, complete with a list of exceptional “talents” (special abilities) from which players can choose. Players essentially use a character sheet to record specifics of their character and reference the class sheet for class-specific game rules. Using Old School Hack’s  “awesome point” mechanic during gameplay, players can spend points to activate talents they haven’t yet gained, making easy reference to class talents important in showing that class’ potential. The game’s overall presentation works extremely well for referencing rules, with each page serving almost as a player or gamemaster handout presenting rather clearly all the rules on a given subject.

I recently had a chance to play an early version of Dungeon World -- a “hack” of the popular Apocalypse Worldthat uses a very similar approach -- which goes one step further and puts everything one needs on one, double-sided, class-based character sheet. Aside from the stats, this includes a multiple-choice menu of sorts from which players check off elements for their character. I went into the game session knowing I tend to play dwarven fighters in fantasy roleplaying games. I picked the fighter from the available classes; one of my first choices was “race,” so I checked off “dwarf” and noted any special rules or “moves” allowed by that choice. “Alignment” was also one of the first categories, with each choice including a short description of how that related to one’s class. My “starting moves” included several actions exclusive to fighters, but then a menu-driven “signature weapon” move that allowed me to customize my dwarf’s axe with a few special abilities. Determining one’s gear also used a menu checklist with certain limitations. The sheet even included appropriate lists from which to choose names and aspects of one’s appearance (which inevitably led to numerous jokes about the paladin’s stunning hair).

Both games remove the element of referencing character elements from the rulebook and put it right on the character sheet itself, streamlining things further by employing menus to some degree.

These games illustrate an extreme of sorts. Rather than sending players into vast tomes of character creation rules and options, they concisely list a representative menu of options players can choose on class-oriented character sheets. Like most of my choices in game design, my tendencies lean toward some middle ground closer to the more beginner-friendly technique rather than one extreme or the other. While putting every option in a menu on the character sheet is a bit more than I prefer in my own game design endeavors, it proves the effectiveness of clearly and concisely providing character creation rules and options in one place (even if still in a rulebook).