Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gaming Gratitude at Thanksgiving

As we approach the American holiday of Thanksgiving people often pause to reflect on the many things in their lives for which they remain grateful; a practice one might consider as a brief, daily exercise to help put a more positive spin on our everyday lives.

Of course I’m thankful for the many blessings I often take for granted in my life: a supportive wife and energetic preschooler; our collective decent health; a nice house with room for my office, numerous bookshelves, crafting areas for my wife, and my basement miniatures painting area and wargaming table; my wife’s good job in her chosen career field (despite shut-downs, furloughs, and the vilification of Federal workers); fully operational transportation; and a small group of real-life friends, some of whom share my interests in gaming.

Many things for which I’m thankful relate to gaming since it has been and continues to be a major portion of my life and career (such as it is). In sharing some of the many mostly game-related aspects of my life for which I’m thankful I hope kind readers might similarly reflect on the gifts that grace their own lives.

I’m extremely thankful for:

Involvement in the Hobby: Some days I have trouble contemplating how relevant I seemed to the adventure gaming hobby when I worked for West End Games, when I had a regular, paying outlet for my work, and when I had the means to offer others the opportunity, guidance, and inspiration to become successfully involved themselves. These days I’m just grateful I have the time and means to stay active in game publishing through several venues. My often demanding schedule as a full-time father provides me with snippets of time to pursue writing and game design, even if much of that never quite makes it to publication. E-storefronts like OneBookShelf’s DriveThruRPG and RPGNow enable me to publish PDF game content for a meager profit. Hobby Game Recce provides a platform to share my insights on and experiences with the adventure gaming hobby. Occasionally I find an opportunity for actual paying work for the hobby, particularly with the fine folks at Wicked North Games. These all keep me involved as a designer, editor, and publisher in the adventure gaming hobby, providing positive feedback and some degree of accomplishment for which I’m extremely thankful.

Online Engagement: The internet has provided many opportunities for gathering and sharing information while engaging with gamers in far-flung places. Various venues online enable me to research games before making an educated purchase, to find new games in PDF and print, and to just look up interesting information and free game aids to enhance and expand my play experience. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a very positive and encouraging community through the Google+ social network. I’ve learned about new games, Kickstarter projects, conventions, play techniques, and other adventure gaming goodness I’d wouldn’t otherwise discover on my own in my insulated little existence. In some cases I’ve heard of gamers in need whom I’ve helped out with meager donations to their crowd-funding campaigns. I’ve found a forum where I can buy, sell, and trade games among fellow enthusiasts. I steer comments and discussion of my Hobby Games Recce posts to Google+ for more civilized, respectful interactions. I’ve even managed to do some Google+ Hangout gaming now and then, an opportunity to game with people near and far and try out a new gaming experience.

Gaming Family: The past year or so we’ve tried to maintain a family game night at our house. Every Thursday after dinner we pull out a kid-friendly game to play together...King of Tokyo, Otters, the X-wing miniatures game, Dino Hunt Dice, Castle Panic, Robot Turtles. Occasionally we indulge in gaming on the weekend or in some other free time, and even invite other game enthusiasts into our home to play...and test their patience with a talkative four year-old. I’m looking forward as the Little Guy grows to introducing him to new games, experiences, even conventions.

In past years I’ve revised a Thanksgiving piece I wrote years ago for another job and posted it here. Those sentiments still stand...that we should remember to always remain grateful for our blessings and continually seek to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I’ll close with one of two quotes I usually use at this time of year, from a fellow who stood up to political tyranny and inhumanity to save others at the cost of his own life.

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Notable Features in Barbarians of Lemuria

I recently acquired a print copy of Simon Washbourne’s Barbarians of Lemuria (Legendary Edition) and was pleasantly satisfied by many elements within that appealed to my particular roleplaying game tastes...and might interest readers of Hobby Games Recce with similar inclinations. The game mechanics and presentation offer an original swords and sorcery setting with a basic task resolution system and plenty of room for rich character development.

I’m a casual fan of the Conan material from Robert. E. Howard, having enjoyed the original literature, the comic book series (during a brief foray into that medium in my misspent youth), and the 1982 John Milius Conan the Barbarian film interpretation (and other similar sword and sorcery movie fare). I prefer my fantasy roleplaying with minimal magic, such as simple cantrips for characters and more powerful, sinister magic beyond their capability as part of the arch-enemy’s arsenal. The Barbarians of Lemuria setting incorporates many of these elements in a well-presented setting without binding them within the vast Conan continuity (and hence opening itself up to copyright infringement issues).

Barbarians of Lemuria contains a host of elements that appeal to me:

Page Count: The game packs everything needed to play into 104 pages, packed with plenty of illustrations evocative of the setting, game mechanics, examples, original monsters, inspirational character creation material, a gazetteer of the world, and a few short adventures. It’s not as comprehensive as some gamers might like, but it’s filled with enough functional mechanics and setting information to stimulate one’s imagination in creating and running exciting swords and sorcery adventures.

Accessible Setting: The epic background for Barbarians of Lemuria fits on two pages and outlines an epic struggle against the corrupt Sorceror-Kings and their magical technology. A series of disasters and returns imbue the land with plenty of ruins, magical mutations, and the promise of fantastic treasures, all while the Sorceror-Kings sulk on their island fortress planning their revenge. This epic provides some solid setting elements for Lemuria: a lost golden age of technology leaving behind ancient relics and ruins the heroes might explore (a theme within one of fantasy roleplaying gaming’s first settings, Empire of the Petal Throne), and distant yet powerful shadow adversaries to lurk in the background or scheme behind the scenes. Elements of character creation also tie heroes to locations in the setting or typical professions in the genre.

Innovative Character Creation: Building a character focuses on three sets of “stats” (though one isn’t really a stat at all). In each category players distribute four points among four different categories, with a value of zero representing average ability. First players distribute four points among their attributes: strength, agility, mind, and appeal (fairly standard characterization concepts). Then they distribute four points among four combat abilities: brawl, melee, ranged, and defense. Finally players choose four “heroic careers” from among 20 genre-inspired professions to define their characters’ pasts and round out their generalized skill sets.

Genre Careers: Career choices reflect the sword and sorcery genre. Each of the 20 careers includes a parenthetical alternative, an optional profession label to cover a similar spin on a career; for instance, it offers “Barbarian (or Savage),” “Serving Wench (or Courtesan),” and “Thief (or Rogue).” Brief descriptions offer ideas on relevant skills and important attributes.

Core Resolution System: Resolving actions boils down to a player rolling 2D6 to get 9 or higher for success. Depending on the situation they may add to their roll the value of relevant attributes, combat abilities, or careers; factors such as a task difficulty, range, or target’s defense value may subtract from their die roll. These aren’t huge bonuses, but can increase through experience. Boons and flaws (see below) enable players to roll an additional 1D6 in certain circumstances, adding the two highest results for boons and the two lowest results for flaws.

Boons & Flaws: Sure, lots of roleplaying games include some kind of advantage/disadvantage system in their character creation rules, but Barbarians of Lemuria presents sets of each for every location that can serve as a hero’s birthplace, giving them not only some game-specific bonus or penalty but some material on which to draw in further defining their character within the setting. Characters get one free boon and can gain additional boons by taking a flaw or permanently reducing their Hero Point total.

Hero Points: Here’s another element used in many other roleplaying games, points characters can spend during the game to alter situations in their favor. In this game characters begin with five Hero Points they can use in a variety of ways within the framework of the core resolution system: to reroll for a particular task; to alter a basic success into a more powerful “Mighty Success” or transform that into the ultimate “Legendary Success”; to shake off wounds or stabilize a dying character; or to define situational elements in one’s favor (such as finding a loose stone in a prison cell wall, discovering some useful equipment nearby, or using a coincidence to their advantage). Characters begin the game with five Hero Points and gain back those they spent at the end of an adventure.

Barbarians of Lemuria also provides the basic framework of many other roleplaying games; Lifeblood points for tracking health, weapons and armor, a freeform spell system that reflects the rare nature of magic in the genre, non-traditional monsters tied to setting locations, and one-sentence descriptions of various gods of Lemuria. It’s a complete game, but relies on experienced gamemasters and players to work together to use the rules to create a play environment that works for them.

Almost Overlooked

I must admit I passed over this game in its earlier incarnations despite the author’s excellent reputation for interesting games. Washbourne’s produced a host of small, independent, and often innovative roleplaying games. His 1940 – England Invaded! caught my eye when it first emerged as part of the 24-Hour RPG challenge and when he released a free PDF version with more substance; it satisfies my interest in WWII themes, in this case with a fantastic alternate-history twist.

I downloaded one of the earlier, free versions of Barbarians of Lemuria in PDF format when it first appeared, hoping for something a bit more satisfying than the d20 officially licensed Conan material available at the time. My ambivalence toward earlier editions probably stemmed from an uninspiring layout and mediocre artwork, though the author deserves credit for creating his own illustrations in those versions. These factors – PDF and uninspired artwork – led me to overlook it after an initial perusal; hence it languished unread in some archived folder on my laptop, as do many worthy and unworthy gaming PDFs, since I prefer to read the old-fashioned way from printed books than transient words on a screen.

In fairness the Legendary Edition of the rules has overcome these two drawbacks. The new illustrations, while remaining relatively basic line art, evokes characters and scenes characteristic of the sword and sorcery genre. Having the option of obtaining a print version means I can sit down and read it without the often mind-numbing hypnosis of passive words on my computer screen, easily flipping back and forth around pages to cross-reference game and setting concepts. I noticed a few refinements in the game mechanics and organization from previous editions; while the current edition is far from perfect in terms of organization and layout, it’s clear years of active play and development have made their positive impression.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hedging Bets against the Fog of War

The Fog of War – the random elements in games, whether simulating the variable performance of troops in wargaming battles, pieces on the board, or adversaries in roleplaying games – can foil the best strategies, constructed decks, assembled forces, or crafted character. The degree to which such uncertainties reign over the gaming table can seriously affect one’s play experience. It’s one thing to lose to a formidable opponent, but another to lose to the capricious nature of the dice.

Brave British troops doomed in the face
of hordes of Zulus and poor die rolls.
If kind readers would pardon some (hopefully) neutral political analogy, regrettably on my mind thanks to the recent mid-term elections... Take political candidates; they hedge their bets against the uncertainties of the minority of the electorate that actually gets out to vote. Some run in the right gerrymandered district (or carpet-bag their way there) and garner enough shadow-corporate sponsorship to flood the airwaves and ether with ads claiming their opponents are inspired by the devil and eat babies for breakfast (not really quite that bad, but they might as well say that to play on voters’ fears and emotions). Unlike gamers, politicians can draw upon the unlimited resources of contributions from near-anonymous special-interest donors instead of a limited pool of game elements intentionally balanced for some semblance of fair gameplay. (And no, I’m not suggesting politics should be reformed on a gameplay model.)

Even seemingly well-balanced games can subject players to the random whims of chance, no matter how much players try hedging their bets against failure. I’ve tried crafting various squadrons for the X-wing Miniatures Game, assembling combinations of elements like pilot abilities, starship stats, and different upgrades to fit within the 100-point tournament guideline in what I think might prove a winning combination. On paper they might prove quite powerful; but when I’m rolling poorly and the opponent consistently rolls well, I have little chance of success. Last year in a The Sword and the Flame convention game I lost most of four companies of British soldiers against one “horn” of a Zulu force because I kept rolling poorly: I scored minimal ranged hits, got massacred in close combat, and failed several key morale checks (nothing encourages dice to roll poorly than having the referee say, “Roll anything but a six!” Guess what that six sider is rolling...). No wonder there’s been a movement of “dice shaming” in gaming culture to highlight dice that consistently roll poorly or fail at crucial moments (all feeding the adventure gaming hobby’s dice fetishism). Even games with carefully crafted forces like Magic: The Gathering – with no random dice elements – subject players to the uncertainty of when they draw certain cards or combinations to deploy against opponents. Players understandably become frustrated when their best preparations fall victim to the capricious nature of the dice or the luck of the draw.

Games by their very nature represent a contest between players; so naturally one expects to encounter some feelings of frustration while trying to win against adversaries. When games offer players a means to hedge their bets against the whims of chance they offer a sometimes false sense of control over their gaming fate. A good game combines the uncertain elements of chance, a player’s ability to plan broad strategies, and the opportunity to react as tactical opportunities develop through gameplay. Certainly gamers like a bit of tension in their games – it’s no fun when you’re certain you’ll always win or when you know you’ve already lost but the game’s still not over – but there’s a fine line between tension and futile frustration. It proves a good test of players’ sportsmanship. I’ve played in games where, through poor luck of the dice, I knew I was beaten and was just playing out turns until the game ended. I’ve felt unworthy winning games by sheer luck of the dice, especially when my opponent fielded formidable forces or played exceptionally well (and was, himself, foiled by poor dice rolls).

I’ve been rebuked before for framing issues in terms of a “spectrum,” but this aspect of the Fog of War element actually falls along a spectrum. At one end stand games dominated by random elements such as War (if one could call that a “game,” a subject I’ve discussed before), Yatzee, Monopoly, even such Euro-game fare as Carcassonne; these often rely on providing a random situation or set of elements players must try to use to their advantage. At the other end stand games with no randomized elements like chess, Diplomacy, and Stratego where the Fog of War concept exists as uncertainty wholly generated by the players in terms of deployment and strategy, with clear-cut conflict resolution. (I’m sure such generalizations will spawn some contentious if civilized debate; I don’t pretend to approach issues presented in this blog in a comprehensively scholarly manner nor with particularly exacting attention to semantics in the diverse and often subjective English language.) Many games fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, offering the illusion that players can somehow exert control over their success by crafting a good deck, squadron, force, character, or strategy that’s still subject to random elements like dice or the luck of the draw.

Is on end of the spectrum better than the other? Of course not. Each extreme challenges players in different ways. At one end players receive randomized elements they must use to their best advantage in the situation. In the other they carefully arrange their resources and maneuver them knowing their strong points. Those in between can offer a false sense of control by juxtaposing random elements against prepared strategies. But good games maintain the tension until the very end, balancing uncertainty over success or failure.


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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gaming Spaces

I’ve spent more than 30 years “around the gaming table,” a place that has ranged from the dining room table at home and friends’ houses to game stores, public and school libraries, and vast convention halls. Sometimes “gaming tables” seemed cozy and focused, other times they got cramped, crowded, and loud. I’ve experienced more gaming locations than I can recall, yet both the good and the bad still stand out in my memory and serve as fodder for some disparate – and hopefully amusing – recollections.

A small, regional convention with
gaming tables surrounded by vendor booths.
I started gaming around our modest dining room table, a space normally reserved for holiday meals and guests which I slowly took over for hosting players of various kinds of games. As my circle of gaming friends grew we migrated from one player’s home to the next, usually around the kitchen table but occasionally gathered on den couches or around a coffee table. Weekend afternoons seemed best, but if we strayed into the after-dinner hours the host’s parents often made a cameo appearance at some point to ask us to “keep it down, we’re trying to sleep.” The most hospitable home – the place where everyone went to hang out, whether they were gaming, watching videos, or just spending time together – possessed a seemingly endless supply of chips and soda, had parents who didn’t intrude if we made some noise, and always had a cushy sofa on which we were welcome to crash after game sessions that ran into the wee hours of the morning. (This particular household hosted the memorable New Year’s Eve gaming event about which I’ve reminisced before.) On several occasions friends tried having extended gaming weekends, what some might consider mini-conventions, at their house (or at several homes over the weekend), and these varied based on the general hospitable nature of the family. Understanding parents, comfortable gaming spaces, and plenty of food seemed key factors in successful home gaming environments, at least in my younger days.

I’ve played games in library spaces, both public and academic. I was kicked out of my high school library for nothing more than playing a game I designed that involved dice; the British-born librarian felt that dice were inappropriate (a cultural view I learned about later, from R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein game no less) and hence banished us. I later ran sessions of my Creatures & Caverns game for friends in the cafeteria during free periods. I spent a summer running weekly Dungeons & Dragons games at my hometown public library, butting heads with the two hard-core gamemasters who organized the program because they didn’t feel I was playing the game the way they felt was right. I had a horde of 10 kids all around 10 years old in a meeting room alcove off the main children’s section, hardly ideal for getting very far in the adventures I designed for the program. More recently I spent about a year volunteering at the local public library’s monthly teen board gaming sessions in a large programming room separate from the rest of the library lest we disturb the sacred silence of those hallowed halls; I taught and hosted Pirateer and Forbidden Island. Keeping the potentially loud and boisterous gaming insulated from the rest of the quiet library enables participants to enjoy themselves without worrying that they’re distracting other patrons.

A good game store maintains some space, permanent or temporary, for in-store gaming. Throughout my gaming days I’ve seen a vast range of gaming spaces within stores, from dingy back-rooms near the bathroom and corners hidden behind retail shelves to large portions of the store devoted to tables for board, card, and wargames. I’m grateful both my current Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) have ample space for in-store gaming; the closest has eight long, folding tables in four rows occupying the middle of the retail space (with shelves of comics and games lining the walls), and the farther one has half the store space dedicated to game tables, including shelves for storing wargaming terrain and a back room for select games (and a table suitable for roleplaying games tucked away at the back of the retail space). I’ve participated in games at the former – a few X-wing Miniatures Game tournaments, the occasional Saturday night casual X-wing game, some board game demos at International Tabletop Day – and while things can get a little crowded and noisy, the environment remains welcoming to gamers thanks to friendly players and hospitable staff. Both stores have the adventure gaming business savvy to offer sodas and snack foods for sale to cater to gamer’s appetites and give them an opportunity to make at least a small purchase in gratitude for providing a good gaming location.

Gaming in hotel suites sometimes adds
an element of exclusivity...especially
with special guests.
Gaming conventions offer occasional opportunities for exposure to new games and players as well as reliable favorites with old friends. The convention size often dictates the nature of the gaming space. Major conventions like GenCon and Origins host games in a variety of spaces ranging from hotel meeting rooms to vast exhibition halls. Smaller regional conventions often rely on the event space – typically a hotel with conference facilities – scheduling gaming in everything from ballrooms and meeting rooms to hotel rooms with beds removed and banquet tables and chairs crammed into the space. I’ve run games at many conventions, including one in a cavernous and noisy hall at GenCon back in Milwaukee, many in medium-sized meeting rooms and ballrooms with 5-10 tables, and a few stuffed into the aforementioned hotel rooms crammed with one or two banquet tables. I don’t always like the latter; while they often afford privacy and quiet (as long as there isn’t a second table jammed into the room), they remain so well-removed from the main gaming halls the non-existent foot traffic discourages both casual spectators and last-minute participants. I appreciate the quiet, but it seems detached from the general community feeling of smaller conventions. They remain perhaps the best spaces – when not so crammed – for private games, such as any of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game sessions I’ve run where players bid in a charity auction for seats at the table with a famous author guest like Timothy Zahn. At cons I generally prefer gaming spaces closer to other programming activities, whether a large ballroom with many tables or smaller meeting rooms with a handful of tables. Perhaps the most unexpectedly pleasant convention game experience came from player generosity; the game was originally scheduled for a meeting room with several other active tables (with groups that promised to get loud and rowdy), but two of the participants had booked a hotel suite and – with the consent of the rest of the players and a note left at the table – we gladly adjourned to the suite’s dining room table for an intense game fueled by the hosts’ stash of snack foods and beverages.

Where do we play games? The answer often depends on one’s particular type of game, personal resources, and general opportunities. Most broad location categories themselves can range between ideal and intolerable, though lucky gamers find or create gaming situations that work best for them. What makes ideal location conditions for games? Do certain spaces lend themselves better to different games? What kinds of compromises in environment do we make to engage with others in gaming? Despite noise, crowds, and other distractions, gamers can make the best of their situations to focus on their hobby and ensure their own play experience remains positive. The times when I felt the game location seemed disruptive were the times when I allowed those issues to impact my own experience. A positive attitude combined with others helping to improve problematic gaming spaces goes a long way to providing everyone with a better play experience.


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