Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Blog 2014 in Review

I look back on the past year – as so many people do at this time of New Year’s resolutions – and realize how much time I’ve poured into the Hobby Games Recce blog (as opposed to my many neglected game projects). In February I consolidated the LiveJournal Hobby Games Recce blog and Schweig’s Game Design Journal on Blogspot into one entity, the weekly adventure gaming hobby blog you’re reading now. Combining both blogs into one took a great deal of time and effort in the beginning of 2014 – so much that it impacted my overall game-related accomplishments throughout the year. There’s still a great deal of secondary housekeeping to do (mostly with internal, self-referential links in older posts), but most of the traffic has naturally focused on recent entries.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Curling Up with Solitaire Gamebooks

I recently ordered a copy of S John Ross’ Ring of Thieves solitaire gamebook adventure thanks to a 35%-off Lulu holiday sale (alas, ordered before they announced the 50%-off hardcovers sale...). When combined with memories of immersing myself in game books – solitaire or otherwise – over the holidays during my misspent youth, I can’t help having solo gamebooks on my mind.

Frequent readers know how much I love solitaire game adventures, especially those included in roleplaying game rulebooks to help teach both the system and setting. Solo gamebooks offer a complete, self-sufficient play experience without reliance on or eventual transition to a full set of game rules in a vast, tome-like rulebook. They can scratch some of the itch for traditional roleplaying activities – a lone hero trying to overcome numerous obstacles in an adventure – but might seem limited by their streamlined game mechanics and programmed format (though that still provides a good degree of replay value as players explore different choices and meet various ends...). I realize the programmed game experience isn’t as freeform or unexpected as some other solo roleplaying game options available today, particularly those pioneered by a small but dedicated core of solo gamers exploring new tools and techniques. Like roleplaying games, solo gamebooks balance rules and story, though they employ printed text to describe situations and streamlined game mechanics to resolve conflicts. I’m not saying one kind is bad and the other good – people (even designers) have their own tastes, projects have their own parameters – but the product and the experience it delivers (intentionally or otherwise) can vary between storytelling and game.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Thieves’ World Boxed Set

The Thieves’ World city supplement from Chaosium was perhaps the first boxed campaign setting I bought way back in my earliest days in the roleplaying game hobby. The city of Sanctuary provided a wonderful yet deadly sandbox environment characters could explore. I used it decades ago with friends huddled over the fantastic city map, pulled it out again a few years ago to run with a re-tooled D6 fantasy system, and even turn to its massive random encounter tables today for occasional medieval-urban solitaire gaming.

I came to hear about the Thieves’ World boxed set and the shared-world fiction on which it was based in one of my earliest Friendly Local Game Store experiences. I’d received the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (Moldvay edition) as an Easter present from my parents; during the course of that spring I absorbed the rules, taught some friends, and ran several dungeon crawls into the Caves of Chaos for friends (and a few into dungeons of my own design). After graduating from junior high – and dreading adjusting to high school in the fall – I determined to dive further into D&D that summer. To that end I gathered my allowance and headed down to the nearby Friendly Local Game Store not five minutes from my house, Branchville Hobby. There I found the D&D Expert boxed set for $12 among the small yet growing pile of roleplaying games in the varied store more notable then for its HO-scale model railroad supplies and layout (before sports equipment took over).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Editor as Everyone’s Advocate

The internet’s filled with people’s infinitely varying opinions on every subject imaginable (and a few beyond imagination, I’m sure). The definition of a good editor remains subject to those opinions; but I tend to agree with one claiming a good editor serves as an advocate for readers, and that’s a fair if broad summary. In my experience a good editor serves as an advocate on behalf of three masters: the reader, the publisher, and the author. This assumes one agrees editors still have a relevant place in today’s Internet Age where people far too often assume a spell- and grammar-check program is enough to ensure intelligible and clear communication in e-mails, blogs, and even published newspapers, magazines, and books. In a time of relatively easy self publishing enabled by computers and the internet, many talented individuals possess the sense of professionalism to produce solid work for free or for pay without the need for an entire editorial team and art department a publisher offers.

Editors primarily seek to finesse an author’s manuscript into a format easily appreciated and comprehended by the intended audience. This includes the obligatory adherence to consistent rules of spelling, grammar, and style, plus a good deal of moderating the language, varying word choice, and otherwise helping to shape a manuscript into an engaging piece of reading. But editors also represent a publisher in molding manuscripts to fit a professional objective encompassing subject matter, production schedule, and future projects. To this end editors also serve authors as guides in the writing process and in improving skills for future submissions. Publishers often need writers for upcoming projects; the more proven authors available, the better the choices in matching writers to assignments.

The letter below represents perhaps the best aspect of my work as editor of West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal in the mid-1990s. I keep it to remind myself that – despite a host of game supplements I loved writing and developing, all the interesting people I met, and all the fantastic gaming experiences I enjoyed during five years with West End – I’m most satisfied I made a small yet positive difference in the lives of many young people and aspiring writers who might otherwise not bothered exploring their potential:

Dear Mr. Schweighofer,

A few months ago I submitted a short story to you…. Upon rejecting my story, you wrote me a three and a half page letter explaining why it was not up to the standards of the Star Wars Adventure Journal. I thank you for that. You see, it would have been just as easy for you to have sent me a form letter, but instead you paid close attention to what needed improving in my story and in my writing in general.

When I first received your letter I must admit that I was crushed. Writing for Star Wars meant – and still means – a great deal to me. I put the letter away for a while without reading the whole thing, the weight of the rejection pressed on me so hard that reading criticism felt like it would have caused a collapse of my confidence in my writing ability. A few days later I mustered up the strength to read the letter through. I resisted some of the points, but others were too clear to be denied. As time passed my bias against the other points faded and they were like crystal as well. Soon after, I began to look at the letter as a tool, something to help me see my weaknesses as a writer clearer. At about the same time my quest to locate a copy of Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction bore fruit, and the art of writing became more transparent to me. I am still in the process of learning. I write every day, and upon reading that writing the next day I blush and write something better, which I blush at a day later. I thank you a thousand times for rejecting [my story]. I realize its weaknesses more and more each day and I wonder how I could have considered submitting it. However, I know at the time it was the best I could do and I respect that. It was an important step for me as a writer, made all the more important by a compassionate editor who paid attention to a 19 year old kid struggling to forge himself into a writer.

I write you this letter so that the next time you receive a rough story from someone struggling to become a writer you might share with them the insight you shared with me (and keep on recommending Mr. Knight’s book, it is excellent). Thank you for your time, and know that this isn’t the last piece of my writing you will lay your eyes upon. Good luck and continued success with the Adventure Journal (it is fabulous).

The letter arrived in my West End Games’ office in December 1995, about halfway through my all-too-brief career with the company; I cannot recall if we actually published any of the writer’s later work, and I don’t know if the author continued his writing aspirations afterward. I’m grateful I found the time and motivation to write short critiques even of the material I rejected; in many cases it later bore fruit in the form of far more polished submissions that found their way to publication. Those short stories, source material articles, and game adventures that ultimately appeared in the Star Wars Adventure Journal endured far more scrutiny and much longer critique letters. All these efforts supported my editorial role in advocating for the interests of readers, the publisher, and authors in the name of engaging writing.

That same work ethic – spending time working with authors not simply to improve the project at hand but their overall abilities for future assignments – gave other writers guidance for improving their work later reflected in other mainstream West End projects. I recall spending an hour or so with an author at GenCon discussing a hard critique of a rough manuscript for a sector setting sourcebook; he was a fan, not a writer (though a talented professional in another field) who many years later went on to contribute to both Wizards of the Coast’s and Fantasy Flight Games’ subsequent iterations of a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Few professional editors have this kind of time, especially when faced with massive slush piles of submissions or a huge backlog of manuscripts awaiting their editorial attention in the often rushed process to bring material to publication. I’m grateful I had both the time and the position to evaluate writers’ work and offer some small guidance in improving their craft; I hope many have continued exploring their potential as writers, especially given the far more numerous outlets for their work in an Internet Age enabling many to disseminate their writing to a broad audience. Thanks to social media I occasionally encounter someone who says something like, “My proudest moment trying to break into the industry was my rejection letter from the SWAJ,” or “Do you remember that submission I made to the Adventure Journal years ago?” I’m humbled that I have in some small way contributed to their further work as fans or professionals in the adventure gaming hobby, from fanzines to freelancing and beyond.

I suppose at heart I have a large teaching streak in me; I’ve often considered, and quickly set aside, the prospect of becoming a professional teacher. At various points in my past I’ve tried encouraging people to pursue their interest in writing through editorial critique letters, workshops for young people, and other publication-related activities. I don’t believe everyone’s a New York Times-bestselling author, but I think anyone with an interest in writing deserves a chance – and a little encouragement – to explore the craft and engage their creativity.

Lately, thanks to contacts in social networking, I’ve considered contacting people with promising game ideas and offering to develop, edit, and produce their work. I’ve not followed through much; I suppose I’m wary of working to publish other people’s gaming projects when many of my own sit on the back burner thanks to my lack of time, focus, and energy given my full-time parental duties. I’ve done a little editorial consulting, an endeavor I might pursue more in the future; the entire editorial critique process seems much easier in a world with e-mail and online face-to-face conferencing instead of printing out letters to send off in the post. I realize I miss working with authors to further develop and refine their ideas and presentation with an eye to bringing a project to publication and (hopefully) appreciation by a growing fan readership. It’s easier with the backing of a brick-and-mortar professional publishing house (and a world-famous intellectual property license); but for now I’m content that my past editorial work and the few people it inspired remains a small candle to sustain me.

Want to add your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Holiday Game Gifts for Non-Gamer Kids

As the holidays approach everyone seems to offer their particular picks for ideal game gifts. Rather than bore kind readers with my particular recommendations based on my own tastes for adventure gaming fare, I thought I’d narrow the field a bit with a few qualifiers. Frequent readers know I’m an advocate of drawing new players into the hobby, with particular attention toward the younger set. As a father of a soon-to-be five year-old I’m also constantly looking for new, affordable games to garner his interest.

I chose games using a basic rationale focused incorporating several factors. The complete game had to come with a price tag of $25 or less. It must be currently available in analog format (sorry, no PDF, app or video game products). It had to have a family friendly theme since the list is intended for children ages 5-11 seeking something beyond mundane board game fare (though it also works for adults with a predilection for more involved games). The game uses mechanics and presents rules in a format kids could easily understand either on their own or with some guidance from an adult. The game also has merit – in my opinion – as a good game...not necessarily an outstanding, award-winning game, but a solid game with entertaining gameplay, decent replay value, and quality components.

Since these represent my personal recommendations, one should certainly not consider this a comprehensive list, but a catalog of suggestions limited by my own experience and impressions (and even then it’s not as complete as I’d like). While these might seem easier to acquire through online retailers, I urge readers to support their Friendly Local Game Store when possible; many can special-order titles they don’t normally keep in stock:

Dino Hunt Dice, $9.99: This press-your-luck game places players in the roles of time-traveling dinosaur hunters seeking to bag the most dinos without getting stomped. Each die has a few faces of dinos, leaves (for hiding dinos), and footprints (for stomps). A player rolls three dice, keeping dinos and setting aside stomps; three stomps and they’re done, losing any dinos they’ve captured. Players must decide when to finish their turn and keep dinos they’ve captured withouth losing everything to three stomps. There isn’t too much strategy, but kids might enjoyg it for the die rolling and dinosaur theme. (It’s cousin, Zombie Dice, uses a similar mechanic with a more grisly, less kid-appropriate theme.)

Rory’s Story Cubes, $7.99: These nine dice contain faces with pictograms to inspire storytelling. The game comes with several ideas for using them to help children create their own stories; experienced gamers and writers sometimes use them for inspiration or even solitaire adventure gaming. Two additional nine-dice sets offer icons based on Voyages and Actions, and three smaller Mix Collection packs (three dice each) have Clues, Enchanted, and Prehistoria themes. The Max version of the original story cubes, featuring larger dice, costs $19.99, well worth it for play with younger kids or for those who enjoy collecting oversized dice.

Set, $12.99: This abstract game challenges players to find sets of similar and dissimilar symbols on 12 cards arranged on the table. Each card has one, two, or three symbols of the same type and one of three different shapes (ovals, diamonds, and squiggles), colors (red, purple, and green) and shading (outline, shaded, or solid). Players watch for and collect sets of three cards each that are either all alike or all different in each attribute. Players remove the three cards in sets they successfully identify, replacing them with new ones drawn from the 81-card deck. Set’s numerous accolades include the prestigious Mensa Select Award.

D&D Starter Set, $19.99: At this price getting into Dungeons & Dragons seems affordable and easy. While I’ve not yet examined this iteration of D&D starter boxes (a subject I’m fond of exploring), reports indicate it contains everything new players need to learn about fantasy roleplaying and dive into the game, all compatible with the latest, fifth edition of the iconic adventure gaming brand.

Dungeon! $19.99: For kids who might not be ready for full-on D&D roleplaying, Dungeon! offers a board-game version of dungeon-delving, monster-killing, and treasure-looting without too many complex rules. I’ve found it a bit random and arbitrary, even with the board segmented into increasingly more difficult levels; but newcomers to fantasy themed gaming might find this an easier transition from traditional board games to roleplaying games. The content – traps, monsters, and treasures – all derive from D&D equivalents, so they provide a good thematic introduction to setting elements.

Stratego Battle Cards Game, $9.95: Fans of the Stratego board game might enjoy this card-game versions, which takes less time to set up and incorporates a different kind of strategy, all while employing the same “fog of war” element that make the original game challenging. Players deploy unit to the battlefield based on a random draw from their deck, forcing them to use forces on hand and seeking to plug gaps in their lines on subsequent turns. While the rules are based on the same unit-value hierarchy and function as the board game, it offers a few twists to give players more options.

Robot Turtles, $25ThinkFun’s edition of one of the most successful Kickstarter games of all time comes in at jus the right price point. The game gives kids control of a robot turtle wandering around a board’s obstacles to reach the prized gem; but players select command cards to enable the “Turtle Controller” (the designated adult) to move the turtle for them, giving them some fun, practical experience in skills useful in computer programming. Besides, the turtles have lasers.

Forbidden Island, $17.99: This one might require some adult guidance, but it’s perhaps one of the best examples of a “cooperative” game (without the more intense, real-world theme of such classics as Pandemic). Players try to retrieve four treasures from an island sinking in to the sea, simulated by location tiles that randomly flood and then disappear entirely. Each has a different role with special advantages, but they all must work together to move around the board, collect resources, shore up flooding tiles, reach the treasures, and escape before the island submerges completely. Forbidden Island’s numerous accolades include the prestigious Mensa Select Award.

Beyond $25

I’d recommend almost any board game beyond the mundane fare one can find at Target or Barnes & Noble. Both chains have become more open-minded about stocking games that cater to the growing sophisticated board game culture characterized by such popular titles as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Small World, and Carcassonne. Your Friendly Local Game Store is also a good place to browse possible board game gift ideas, ask the staff and regulars, and special order anything that isn’t in stock.

Why $25?

A few months ago I polled some folks on Google+ to help guide me in where to set the bar on this article. I asked:

What’s the maximum dollar amount you would spend on a non-electronic, game-related holiday gift for a young person between the ages of 5 and 11?

Assume the person is someone to whom you’d usually give a gift at the holiday and that the gift would be in some way related to the adventure gaming hobby, meaning it would expose them to or inspire them to explore roleplaying, card, board, and wargames (of both the board-and-chit and miniature variety). I’m not considering electronic games. Many thanks for sharing your opinions.

The $25 mark easily scored around two-thirds of the responses, with other amounts garnering a few votes here and there...and nobody going for the $100. At least one voter commented on the high cost to buy into games these days, whether a high-end board game, roleplaying game, or certainly a miniatures game. Although $50 or even $100 might buy an experienced gamer an appropriately pleasing gift, to tempt non-gamers or children into the adventure gaming hobby with an expensive gift that may or may not engage their enthusiasm remains a risky proposition.

Whatever your budget, keep games in mind as gifts this holiday season. Support your Friendly Local Game Store and encourage and cultivate a positive community of gamers in your area.

Want to share your suggestions for $25 game gift ideas for the non-gamer set? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.