Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Exposure Explosion: 30 Years Later

The world was quite different 30 years ago when I first explored the enthralling new hobby of roleplaying games. It was what some folks might call the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s), when a handful of publishers dominated the market, everyone had played some iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, and any “real” gamer got all his gaming news and inspiration from Dragon Magazine. In the intervening years, gamers and their hobby went from oddball to mainstream.

I don’t mean to delve into a comedy monologue of “When I was a kid, we had to hike 12 miles to school each way…uphill…in the snow,” but I hope I can illustrate some of the differences in how gamers discovered and learned about the hobby, how they acquired new materials, and how they interacted as a limited “community.” Looking back often gives us a sense of appreciation for where we stand and what we have today; perhaps it may challenge us, too, in looking toward the future in improving our hobby and community.

A Gathering of Geeks

Getting involved in the roleplaying game hobby back then required a predilection for geeky pursuits: fantasy and science fiction novels; video games in all their blocky, nascent glory; comic books; film and television, just beginning to delve into the realm of the fantastic and futuristic. These prerequisite interests sometimes brought one in contact with others who shared their geeky pursuits…and thus ideas were shared and communities -- however small -- flourished.

In those days people of a gaming disposition sometimes stumbled into the hobby through indirect paths. Some noticed full-page advertisements for the Dungeons & Dragons game (or TSR’s Dungeon board game) in the pages of magazines for young people. Occasionally such periodicals even profiled the game as a new form of teen entertainment. If one’s habits brought them to the local hobby store (in my case a place to find balsa gliders, interesting toys, and model railroad accessories), they might spot a small yet growing display dedicated to the books, boxes, and minis depicting fantastic worlds and tempting one to engage in fascinating adventures. Sometimes people encountered others already immersed in roleplaying games: neighborhood kids, classmates, or even those involved in a D&D club at their school (a rare and often controversial organization). One’s involvement in roleplaying games wasn’t a source of pride but was a mark of awkwardness, the sign of someone who didn’t fit in with the average school kid whose extra-curricular life centered on sports, school musicals, or other acceptable pursuits.

My Experience

I won’t say my own experience was typical, but it demonstrates some of the realities of becoming a gaming geek in those days. I was almost out of junior high school when, while hanging out with some neighborhood kids, I watched them play Basic Dungeons & Dragons with module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands; it inspired me to create my own game along a similar vein (what eventually became Creatures & Caverns) before immersing myself into the officially published roleplaying game hobby.

My parents noticed my interest in these gaming pursuits and purchased the Basic D&D boxed set for me as an Easter gift. I purchased the Expert D&D set with my allowance money and spent a wondrous “summer of D&D” before entering high school. The local hobby store -- Branchville Hobby, about which I’ve reminisced before -- had an adequate display of products for the growing roleplaying game hobby, and it was there I discovered other diversions in the adventure gaming vein: Avalon Hill wargames, metal miniatures and paint sets, gaming magazines, and a growing selection of products from TSR, GDW, Steve Jackson Games, and other game companies.

When I started high school I discovered several D&D players rode my bus. They were an odd, likeable bunch, the kind you find on a school bus, with lots of witty and not-so-witty repartee, put-downs, and an occasional D&D-themed discussion. I didn’t fit in much with them, but being the na├»ve freshman I was, I lingered on their every word about their involvement with D&D and other similar pursuits. I regret never having played a game with them, but, aside from our enjoyment of gaming and other geeky interests, we had little in common. I remember them fondly nonetheless because they affirmed that I wasn’t alone or abnormal in my strange devotion to roleplaying games.

Gaming in high school ebbed and flowed in balance with my academic priorities, which seemed overwhelming at times. After-school time brought neighborhood kids to the house where we rolled up characters, ran encounters, played board games (particularly those published in the pages of the late, lamented Dragon Magazine), and even began creating our own board, card, and roleplaying games. I used rare free time during the school day playing roleplaying and board games of my own design with like-minded classmates. Summers brought occasional game gatherings with friends in town. I attended my first gaming convention, PointCon VIII at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which I discovered listed in “Convention Calendar” listing of Dragon Magazine. Gamers met each other more by engaging each other’s geeky interests and channeling that toward games, though we certainly enjoyed shared tastes in movies, television shows, novels, and comics.

Acceptability & Interaction Today

Today society’s overall acceptance (and in some cases celebration) of all things geeky and the ease of interaction the internet provides make discovering roleplaying games far easier than 30 years ago.

Almost 40 years since its first publication Dungeons & Dragons -- and to a lesser extent the entire roleplaying game hobby -- has passed into the comfortable vernacular of American popular culture. Despite, or perhaps because of, years of scrutiny and persecution by fundamentalists and alarmists who typically target new trends and youthful diversions as the reason for society’s ills (video games, television, comic books), roleplaying games have evolved from embarrassingly dweeby butt of sitcom and comedy show jokes to the focus of mainstream media comprehended by most of today’s adult and youth audiences. The prevalence of fantasy and science fiction television shows and films has helped this, though the proliferation of computer-generated images for media aided that progression. Geeky pursuits in general have found general acceptance in today’s society thanks in great part to extended media exposure and internet communities. 

Certainly the internet has played an equally important part in helping roleplaying games -- and the broad spectrum of adventure games, from “Euro” board games to miniature wargames -- find a larger audience. The internet has enabled people across the vast spectrum of interests to more easily find like-minded individuals and interact with them on a regular basis, more so than face-to-face interaction would allow. Geek culture in particular has taken advantage of that since so many pursuing such interests have aptitude and affinity for computers and digital media.

The internet offers gamers numerous means to engage their roleplaying game interests with participants in a vast internet community. Gamers can share information, from opinions and news to supplements and adventures. They can discuss issues in gaming on numerous game-related forums. Gamers can even gather to play online via Google+ Hangouts and other applications. An internet search can summon information on local and regional conventions, game stores, and community gaming events. Professional publishers, online communities, and independent creators enabled through technology (word processing, layout, graphic design, internet) bring their own vision to publication and disseminate it among those interested in the hobby; where gamers used to wait for the latest release of their favorite game to show up in the local hobby or game store, now the market is flooded with product across a broad spectrum of adventure gaming interests one can order, usually at a discount, immediately upon release from manufacturers or online distributors.

Despite the prevalence of online interaction, or perhaps because of it, brick-and-mortar game stores have evolved into more than simple retail outlets, but community hubs for the hobbies they serve. Good “friendly local game stores” -- the ones that survive more than a few year and have a vibrant, involved customer base -- offer a physical space and supportive atmosphere where gamers can gather to play, hang out, and immerse themselves in their hobby. I’m proud that I can think of three in Virginia that offer well-organized retail space, a gathering space for in-store games, and busy schedules for gamers including club game meetings, tournament events, swap meets, and other regular gatherings. The digital, internet revolution has not only enabled online interaction but enhanced face-to-face gaming.

My Experience Today

Though my adult life contains many responsibilities limiting the time I devote to gaming, I still remain active thanks to the magic of the internet. I share my creative, game-related ideas weekly across two blogs. I can self-publish game material via PDFs available on DriveThruRPG.com and promote my gaming activities on the Griffon Publishing Studio website. Social media offers a means to promote my professional materials to a broad audience. I’ve engaged in numerous discussions in forums and on Google+ about gaming topics related to my interests, and even tried my hand at running a game in Hangouts. Company websites often provide PDF rules to games I’m considering purchasing. Internet searches and specialized communities like BoardGameGeek.com provide reviews and additional information about games I own or would like to buy. I can seek out new area conventions and game stores online, check out their web presence, and plan expeditions to experience their offerings firsthand.

Electronic interaction on the internet has also led to opportunities for face-to-face gaming. After reading about a local library teen gaming program online, I e-mailed the librarian running the events and volunteered at monthly events for a year. I’ve coordinated with area gamers online to organize one-shot gaming sessions in person. I discovered area conventions online, e-mailed organizers, and volunteered to run games. The internet has even made the casual gaming afternoon much easier to organize; rather than getting on the telephone and making numerous calls to friends inviting them over for gaming, I simply write one e-mail, insert all the relevant addresses, and hit “send.”

All these activities would have been far more cumbersome 30 years ago when we lacked the technology and the general digital access to the internet that enables such extensive interaction. The internet connection has supplanted the telephone, letter, and magazine in disseminating information and facilitating the birth and success of communities. Despite my old-fogey tendencies to stick with tried-and-true technology, I look forward to the advancements the internet age offers gamers in the coming years.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Adapting Two Game Elements

I’m working on the third iteration of a Battle of Britian-themed board game and examining two mechanics from other games I’m looking to use in modified form. I’ve toyed with the game for a few years now, tentatively titled Hell’s Corner for the region of southeastern England that bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe assaults in the summer of 1940, when the Germans sought to wear down the RAF in preparation for its cross-channel invasion, Operation Sealion.


At first I envisioned a two-player card game where one side played the Royal Air Force and the other played the Luftwaffe forces; this version focused on deploying cards and rolling dice based on the strength of attackers and defenders. I quickly set the head-to-head play model aside in favor of a cooperative game in which one to four players each commanded an RAF sector, intercepting attacks from a Luftwaffe deck and protecting local targets, hoping to last long enough for the Germans to lose interest (i.e., run through the deck once or twice). While pursuing the cooperative game play I dropped the die-rolling in favor of a seemingly simpler system in which defending units cancelled attacks, with any Luftwaffe squadrons that weren’t intercepted (or stopped by anti-aircraft emplacements) dealing damage against targets. I encountered balance issues as well as a lack of tension, which was limited to the revelation of Luftwaffe squadrons randomly drawn from the deck (or the cancellation of attacks for a turn by a “Bad Weather” card, enabling the player a turn of reprieve to effect repairs and redeploy forces).

Now I’m re-examining the game with several changes in mind: implementing a new attack resolution system, converting the card format to tiles, including a player mat to organize locations and squadrons deployed and track incoming Luftwaffe squadrons to intercept. I’m still wedded to the number and composition of the pieces, as I originally based them on historical elements (numbers of squadrons, targets, radar installations, etc.), and hope to retain that feature; but overall I’m seeking to redefine how locations, targets, attackers, and defenders interact.

Graphic Damage Tally

The first element I’m adapting is more of a graphic design notation than an actual game mechanic. Since each tile in Hell’s Corner can withstand three hits before it’s destroyed -- radar installations, port and factory targets, RAF and Luftwaffe squadrons, airfields and anti-aircraft emplacements -- I wanted an intuitive and easy way to note how much damage each took. In earlier playtests I’d set cards on their sides and then upside down to show they’d taken one or two hits respectively. Aside from the oblong cards making this somewhat awkward, it lacked a certain graphic reminder on the piece itself.

Enter Columbia Games’ “wooden block” wargames. I’ve always known about them but didn’t quite understand the specifics until I watched the video for the Napoleon wargame Kickstarter campaign (a game that piqued my marginal interest in the period and board-wargaming format, but with too high a price tag for the basic purchase of the game). I’ve always liked the games’ “fog of war” concept of concealing troop composition and strength on upright block pieces, but never realized the pieces could rotate (and still stand upright) when damaged, displaying the current hits or damage-modified stats on the upright orientation. I’m looking to include a graphic element on Hell’s Corner pieces -- one and two damage “pips” along two edges -- to better track damage by turning the chit each time it sustains a hit. I’m not sure I’ll lower the attack strength of damaged units, but we’ll see how this implements in practical terms.

Dice Pool Results

I’m returning to a die-roll resolution for combat in Hell’s Corner, but don’t want to rehash the separate rolls for each side in confrontations. Instead I’m having players roll die pools representing the strength of Luftwaffe squadrons, yet reading results differently: 1-2 the squad takes a hit (from flak emplacements or anti-aircraft measures guarding the target); 3-4 the squad spends time evading British countermeasures with no effect (or possibly scores a hit on any intercepting RAF squadrons); and 5-6 scoring a hit on the target. Each die counts as one result, so a squad with a strength of 2 could easily roll two hits, sustain two points of damage, or have any combination of the three results. Intercepting squadrons and flak emplacements automatically inflict one hit, though I’ve not yet decided if the hit simply damages the Luftwaffe squadron or converts one of its dice to a hit, therefore eliminating the possibility of rolling a successful attack.

This development emerged from dabbling with Steve Jackson Games’ “press-your-luck” games Zombie Dice and Dino Hunt Dice, where results indicate a success (eating brains or capturing dinos), a neutral (victims running, dinos hiding in the jungle), or harmful failure (shotgun blast, dino stomp). The concept takes a twist on interpreting dice results not as numerical values totaled, but as symbolic successes and failures; and not summed as an aggregate of positive, negative, and neutral, either, like Fudgeor FATE dice, but as individual results, such as one positive, neutral, or negative per die, each of which having an effect on game play (well, not the neutral, of course).

Other Revisions

The latest iteration of Hell’s Corner requires some extra revision and reformatting. Cards require conversion to a smaller tile format, including implementation of the “hit pips” as mentioned above and a re-design of the placeholder graphics (much as I’d love to have the resources and contacts to use actual Royal Air Force archival photos…). I’m developing a one-sheet player mat with spaces for locations and RAF squadron tiles in play, an area to organize and intercept incoming Luftwaffe units, and arrows to show which targets bomber squadrons attack. The game seems ideal for cooperative or solitaire play, though I’m fiddling with mechanics determining how long the game lasts (measured in how many times the German tiles are recycled after attacks) and when the infamous mass assault of “Eagle Day” (“Adlertag”) occurs. We’ll see how this falls together and then send it off for playtesters to put it through its paces.