Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Adventure Rumors & J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box

Rumors sown during the opening stages of an adventure help nurture the players’ sense of mystery throughout the action.

In some recent feedback on the fantasy roleplaying game I have in development I asked playtesters to comment on the rumors table I included in the test scenario. “Rumors tables are always fun,” one playtester said, noting in fact that the players took several rumors seriously in the early stages of the adventure. I’d included the rumors table as a means to set the stage and add some mystery to a fairly basic dungeon crawl, but wasn’t sure such seemingly archaic embellishments still served a purpose in contemporary adventure design.

I’ll divert here to a related paradigm: J.J. Abrams’ “Mystery Box” TED talk, in which he traces his love of the unseen mystery and how it drives his storytelling style. In essence a compelling story -- or adventure -- moves from one mystery to the next, sometimes solving them along the way, other times adding more unsolved elements to perplex viewers (much like Abrams’ Lost television series). Heck, he even uses Star Wars: A New Hope as a reference in his talk about how viewers bound from one mystery to the next in the first half of the film (“Have you guys not seen that?”). Granted, the talk includes a seemingly rambling, manic style, but it’s well worth watching for some storytelling -- and adventure design -- inspiration.

Which leads me back to the inclusion of rumors in game adventures…essentially how they help enhance the initial mystery presented in the scenario set-up. Rumors help foster that sense of mystery and misdirection essential in magic. In playtesting I’ve found random rumor tables seed the character’s expectations and anxiety about an imminent adventure as a great way to encourage the “Mystery Box” mentality. Players get the idea into their heads that they’re going up against one challenge when in fact it’s something quite different, and they never know if the information is true or a red herring.

For instance, in the playtest adventure, the heroes set out to investigate a deep well along a woodland travel route that has begun emitting smoke. Here’s the initial premise:

“An old well half a day’s hike along the forest road south of the tavern has long served as a camping spot for the occasional traveler, providing cool, clean water and a safe clearing in which to spend the night. Several passing by recently reported smoke drifting up from the well and an oily smell emerging from the pit; many fear the well poisoned and thus the overnight spot and the surrounding portion of the road are no longer considered safe.”

Here are the rumors the might hear before they set out to investigate:
  1. An oafish tavern regular claims he saw a small dragon lurking near the well once (F).
  2. A woodsman says the small game has fled that area and wolves were heard in the forest to the east (T).
  3. The tavern keeper believes old legends tell of a lost burial barrow in the area (T).
  4. A fellow traveler claims anyone who drinks from the well receives protection against poison for a week (F).
  5. Two peasants claim the last time they visited the well they saw sinister, small footprints in the ground nearby (T).
  6. The tavern maid thinks this entire region was once part of a vast ancient empire that fell into ruin long ago (T).
These initial notions can fuel anxieties and expectations as the heroes investigate the well and delve into a nearby tomb complex.

I’ve not done a comprehensive survey of early rolelplaying game scenarios, but in my mind (at least) I feel like rumor tables seemed a fairly well-used element in early adventures. Certainly the venerable Dungeons & Dragons adventure module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands used a random rumor table. The classic module X1 The Isle of Dread developed rumors one iteration further in the ship’s log of Rory Barbarosa, which told of his discover of the mysterious island and provided a rough map of the coastline, enticing characters to seek out and explore it to gain fame and riches.

It’s not just a old-school-gaming phenomenon, either. Readers might feel more sophisticated developments made “random rumor tables” obsolete or dated, but in many ways the means of delivering rumors simply changed. Player handouts helped illustrate this transition, especially when one considered such sources as newspapers and eyewitnesses remain inaccurate or biased. Cyberpunk 2020’s adventure idea section quite elegantly presented scenario hooks as two-page pieces: the front page consist of a Night City Daily “screamsheet” (the equivalent of a newspaper summary) with the second page containing the actual adventure outline itself, usually tied into one or more stories or personalities mentioned on the first page.

I employed this technique in free scenarios supporting my Pulp Egypt setting sourcebook; each one contains a player handout front page of The Egyptian Gazette containing stories that not only offered some contemporary stories to place them in the historical context but included notable people, places, and events that figured in the related adventure. For instance, in the adventure Enemies on the Horizon the player handout Egyptian Gazette includes stories on the characters’ archaeological expedition, a visiting German airship, and the safety of zeppelin travel. What are the chances the heroes run afoul of Nazis in an airship that proves unsafe?

While not an essential adventure design element appropriate for every scenario, rumors in one form or another can help provide a greater sense of mystery, uncertainty, and misdirection to further enhance the roleplaying game experience across the wide range of genres.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My Kickstarter Criteria

Kickstarter has revolutionized the way creators bring their projects to the market, combining online communities and interaction with marketing and fundraising. I signed up for Kickstarter almost a year ago when Wired’s GeekDad ran a feature about some games under development that caught my interest; during that time I’ve backed a handful of projects that both engaged my interest and remained within the limit of financial reason.

I’ve discussed “Kickstarter & Game Project Patronage” here at Hobby Games Recce before. It’s an innovative way creators can tap into their fan base, gauge interest in their projects, generate more excitement online, and raise money from generous “patrons” eager to see the project reach completion. Kickstarter projects have their complexities and pitfalls, as noted by several blogs, articles, and even statistical studies. As a “patron” I’ve had a fairly satisfying experience thus far, given my fairly laid back attitude toward project fulfillment. Aside from ultimately receiving fantastic, creator-driven projects, I’ve found Kickstarter taps into a sense of artistic philanthropy, of funding a project I find worthwhile with the distant future promise of receiving something in return.

I’m not into fancy graphs or statistics like other folks evaluating their Kickstarter backer experience; but if you’ll indulge me I’ll offer a few glimpses into the kinds of projects I’ve supported thus far:

* Total Projects Supported: 7.

* “Game” Projects: 6. “Publishing” Projects: 1

* Delivered Late: 1. Pending: 2. Late & Undelivered: 3. Still Funding: 1.

* Projects by People I Know: 3.

* Board/Card Games: 4. Roleplaying Games: 2. Book: 1.

To offer an insight into what engages my interest and hits the right pledge price point, here are the seven Kickstarter campaigns I supported: Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule! (card game), Minion Games’ Tahiti (pick-up and deliver tile board game), Catalyst Games’ The Duke (abstract strategy board game), Wicked North Games’ Westward (steampunk sci-fi roleplaying game), Monte Cook’s Numenera (far-future sci-fi roleplaying game), Stan!’s The Littlest Shoggoth (illustrated, Cthulhu-themed children’s book), and Tasty Minstrel Games’ Dungeon Roll (dungeon-delving-themed dice game).

Kickstarter projects must fulfill several requirements for me before I consider backing them:

Innovative, Engaging Idea: A project must tap into one of my many fields of interest across the spectrum of original board, card, and roleplaying games. The few I’ve backed involve themes of steampunk, far future, goblins, dungeon-delving, and strategy. And Cthulhu, we can’t forget Cthulhu. Some I’ve supported because they offer young player potential for that time when my now-toddler grows old enough to dive into the lighter aspects of games (or completely hate it); even then, they must exhibit innovative mechanics to engage older players or entertain people who are relatively new to gaming. The one “publishing” project I backed for numerous reasons, not the least of which was to have something fun and Cthulhu-themed to read to/corrupt my toddler.

Price Point: After a project catches my eye it must pass perhaps the ultimate test for me…how much must I pledge to receive a physical copy of the material? The price must remain reasonable. “Reasonable” remains a subjective term for many, and even within my own realm of experience. For me this generally hovers around $25, though I’ve invested more in projects I’ve deemed particularly groundbreaking for various personal reasons. I’m even more excited when the price point seems reasonable in exchange for high production values or additional stretch goals that heap more material into the hands of supporters at the basic, print-product backer level I usually pledge. Trust me, I’d love to back Ares GamesSails of Glory Kickstarter -- I love the company’s Wings of Glory games (previously named Wings of War), want to support the company in its endeavors, and like dabbling in the historical period -- but $80 is far too much for me to spend on the basic starter set necessary to play the game. Many interesting projects offer to deliver finished materials in PDF form (either for a roleplaying game book or a print-and-play tabletop game), but I like professionally produced physical copies; the jump between the PDF backer rewards and the print ones often seem too great for my budget.

High Production Value: The finished product must exhibit quality worthy of the basic pledge price to obtain a physical copy (see above). This isn’t always easy to judge on Kickstarter. One must base this evaluation primarily on the graphic design quality of material previewed on Kickstarter, including the promotional video, illustrations of work in progress or final artwork, and even PDF materials such as rules and print-and-play components. The best projects offer frequent updates showcasing graphic elements as they’re finished; some even have separate websites offering constant development updates and additional artwork. Though I’ve only received one out of seven backed projects so far, I don’t feel I’ve supported anything with substandard production values.

I Know These People: I’m more apt to back a project by someone I know and admire than a complete stranger with even a stellar Kickstarter pitch. I know personally or by reputation the principles on three projects I’ve backed. The people behind two projects are folks with whom I’ve worked with before in the gaming industry…and they’re fantastic people to know personally. The other personality behind the third “people-based” project I backed is such a game industry rock star who proposed such a groundbreaking product that I couldn’t resist. On one of these I actually paid more to back the project (beyond the level of getting the basic print product) both to get some fun extras and to show my support for a friend.

I don’t worry about delivery times as long as I get a product someday. I’ve not yet backed anyone who’s disappeared from all existence along with their project, but I’ve backed several who’ve taken longer than anticipated to fulfill their Kickstarter promises. I don’t mind; I presume delays come from the creators trying to ensure quality in the finished products. I view my pledge as an investment in a game that, when it finally arrives -- sometimes long after I’ve forgotten about it -- is a pleasant and engaging surprise.

I do not actively wander around the Kickstarter site itself looking for projects worth my investment. Finding them through other venues requires them to have merit enough that folks I respect (having read their comments, blogs, or web features) recommend them. My two primary sources for news of interesting Kickstarter projects remain Wired’s GeekDad and Google+ scuttlebutt. GeekDad regularly offers features on Kickstarters interesting and worthwhile enough to garner its editors’ attention; such honest, third-party evaluations help me decide if the concept, content, and price are worth a closer look. Folks within my Google+ Circles often bring to my attention engaging Kickstarter projects; they’re in my Circles to begin with, so I know and trust them, or they share similar interests I can appreciate. Google+ also has several Communities discussing worthwhile Kickstarter projects, and one can always search Google+ for “Kickstarter” to survey what’s new and shiny.

While my Kickstarter backer experience has proved satisfying at both the philanthropic and gaming levels, I’m still on the fence whether Kickstarter would prove right for funding my own game projects. The process, requirements, and uncertain enthusiasm from backers all seem daunting to neophytes like me despite the promise of well-funded projects, exciting stretch goals, and eager backers.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

D6 System Core Rulebook

Creating a core rulebook for an easy-to-learn, popular roleplaying game engine like the D6 System remains a challenge, especially when it’s reverse-engineered from the system’s popular, setting-specific version. A recent dialogue on Google+ with Wicked North Games’ venerable Brett Pisinski briefly dared me to consider whether I’d release a game using the D6 System rules and lamented that no core game book really existed. In thinking back on it I took far more time than I should have to examine the issue and decide whether -- even in the distant future -- developing a core D6 System rulebook was something that interested me.

I’d debate whether a core rulebook already exists. West End Games, resurrected under the auspices of Purgatory Publishing in late 2003, produced the D6 Space, D6 Fantasy, and D6 Adventure rulebooks, along with a handful of setting supplements. AntiPaladin Games more recently released Mini Six, a concise summary of the core and optional rule concepts along with a handful of brief settings across the genre spectrum. The Purgatory Publishing and AntiPaladin Games offerings remain available for free in PDF form and have been released for broad use and modification under the terms of the Open Game License (OGL), a scheme under which Wizards of the Coast encouraged a flood of third-party publishing in secondary support of its third edition Dungeons & Dragons d20 game engine in 2000.

(Of course I’m not including in this discussion genre-specific games employing versions of the OGL D6 System, such as Wicked North GamesAzamar and Westward; these incorporate and modify the D6 System mechanics to particular settings and thus cannot function as core D6 System rulebooks…and I’m no longer aware whether the company’s Cinema6 framework remains freely available online.)

Caveat:I’m a longtime gamer, primarily of games using the D6 System. I’ve worked on official material for West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Men in Black Roleplaying Game, Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game, supplements for D6 Space, even Wicked North Games’ Westward. Many games I’ve run for friends or at conventions use some form of the D6 System, even if based on my original source material using the Any-System Key.

Past D6 System Books

The D6 System has a long and convoluted history (one I wrote about more comprehensively at the Griffon Publishing Studio website long ago). Originally designed by Chaosium for the licensed Ghostbusters roleplaying game published by West End Games in 1986, it found immense popularity in the second licensed setting to which it was attached -- West End’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game -- through essentially three editions (first, second, and Second Edition, Revised & Expanded, considered by many a third edition).
Despite its popularity when merged with other licenses (including games based on Men in Black and Hercules & Xena), it did not receive anything like a core D6 System rulebook treatment until 1996, when West End published The D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game. Under time and financial constraints, the company assembled the80-page hodgepodge of rules, advice, and options for customizing D6 to any game setting. The book served more as a D6 roleplaying game toolkit than a full-fledged game system. It suffered from cramming all the trappings of a complete roleplaying game -- chapters on character creation, combat, running adventures, and gamemastering -- while also incorporating new rules developments. As such it included no sample settings and little genre material. Established Star Wars players seeking guidance on translating their favorite game worlds to D6snatched up the short print run and advocates of West End hailed it as the beginning of a new campaign to promote D6 apart from Star Wars, but the product failed to soar on its own without an associated setting, an outstanding graphic presentation, and a steady stream of official support. At the time it served effectively as the D6 core rulebook in the absence of any other effort.

After West End’s bankruptcy collapse in 1998 the D6 System foundered for several years, used for licensed games in a few desperate releases. When Purgatory Publishing acquired the rights in late 2003 it embarked on an ambitious campaign to re-launch the game engine through the D6 Space, D6 Fantasy, and D6 Adventure rulebooks and a handful of supportive supplements. It licensed the system to other publishers, but the envisioned resurgence of D6 didn’t take off as planned, and the system languished until Purgatory Publishing put it in the realm of the Open Game License for others to use. With the internet enabling more people -- both fans and professionals -- to publish gaming material in PDF and print-on-demand format, several incarnations of D6 System rules appeared, the most notable being AntiPaladin Games’ generic Mini Six and Wicked North Games’ Cinema6 (along with its fantasy-genre Azamar). These recent efforts kept interest in the D6 Systemalive in the gaming public’s collective consciousness, though marginally important in a market where consumers’ attention often remains split between favorite “classic” games and the “new and shiny” groundbreaking game systems coming out with maddening frequency.

One might argue whether any of these attempts succeeded based on different criteria various gamers might impose. Genre-neutral core system rulebooks rarely do very well; the only one I know with any staying power over the years has been Steve Jackson Games’ esteemed GURPS, well-supported over the years by a horde of excellent setting sourcebooks. West End’s own MasterBook core rulebook -- released in the early 1990s when company management believed the generic rules derived from TORG and Shatterzone were the future course for new game releases -- sold poorly on its own, though it was packaged with numerous licensed and at least one original game setting.

The View from My Desk

I’ll go out on a limb here and -- by my own standards and expectations -- claim that AntiPaladin Games’ Mini Six remains the best distillation of the D6 Systemcurrently available and as close to a “core” D6 rulebook as we’ll get for a while. Purgatory Publishing’s trilogy of genre-specific D6rulebooks have beautiful covers and some wonderful interior artwork, but each repeats about 75 percent of the core information, with minor variations for genre-specific elements. Some might view the “optional” disadvantage, advantage, and special ability system as needlessly excessive for a core game, something Mini Six concisely distilled into brief “perks” affecting in-play game mechanics and “complications” that added background depth to characters with deeper roleplaying ramifications.

One starts pondering questions regarding design rationale behind any generic core rulebook. Should it stick to a concise summary of the rules and options, or should it become a comprehensive examination of what gamers can do with the system? Must a generic core rulebook tap into a massive fan base -- much like GURPS built over the years -- and have the support of numerous supplements for both broad genres and specific settings (original or licensed) for success? Can it function and encourage gamers to play it without some sample setting material, however brief?s

In my estimation, a “core” rulebook for a game engine -- particularly D6 -- requires three key elements:

* Core rules summary, including an overview of character creation and advancement rules (with possible attributes and skills briefly described), combat and task resolution, monster and vehicle creation, and exceptional applications for such rules (like magic, psionics, extraordinary vehicles).

* Setting customization guidelines, a “how-to” guide to adapting the generic rules to specific settings.

 * An authoritative publisher to release, promote, and support the rules as the “definitive” version of the game for customization by players and professionals.

By my estimation, AntiPaladin Games’ Mini Sixhits two of these three key goals, with the added benefit that it’s well-written and concise. I offered a more in-depth look at Mini Six over at Hobby Games Recce a few years ago; rereading that feature and thumbing through the book I realize with more certainty that it is still a worthy successor and “core” D6 System rulebook.

While my examination of what makes a good core rulebook inspired some interesting ideas on how I’d do it -- keep things basic and concise, include PDF forms for character sheets, vehicles, and adversaries, offer a few four-page settings, and distill rules into key elements -- after casual consideration I’ve decided it’s not worth my time pursuing on my own as a project of Griffon Publishing Studio. I’m not as familiar with the Open Game License as I’d like, (including its applications and limitations), and am not certain one could re-package D6 unattached to some original, proprietary game setting. And if the constraints of the license did allow me to present a version of the D6 System, I’m not sure folks would want to pay for something they could find online for free in several other formats and customize to their own purposes. Peter Schweighofer and his Griffon Publishing Studio are hardly an authoritative publisher (despite my past experience with D6); right now I certainly don’t have the time to adequately promote and support the release of a core D6 book and any “resurgence” of the game system on my own.

The debate whether I’d use the D6 System OGL for my own, original setting game projects remains open to discussion. The game engine remains my preferred system for personal play, as I’m most familiar with it having both played and written for it in various incarnations throughout my more than 20-year professional publishing career (and even longer time as a gamer). I even recall drafting a quick, three-page fantasy version of the mechanics (along with an informative character sheet) around 2000 to run a game based in the wonderful Thieves’ Worldsetting of Sanctuary, as published long ago by Chaosium. I came very close to “licensing” the system from Purgatory Publishing’s incarnation West End Games in the mid-2000s for my Pulp Egyptsetting sourcebook -- and in fact began writing that manuscript complete with D6 System stats and mechanics -- but this was before Purgatory Publishing put the system into the realm of the Open Game License, and I wasn’t interested in limiting myself to the company’s whims regarding licensing, however much I admired the company’s generosity at the time.

So for now I’ll put any inspirational vision I have for a D6 System core rulebook in the back filing cabinet of my mind; I would love to develop it someday if I had the authority and marketing momentum to promote it properly, but it would be a labor of love that, sadly, I’ll set aside for the moment.