Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Passive & Active Entertainment

Every so often I hear the argument on the internet justifying the high prices for games – usually roleplaying games, but also board and miniatures games – that they offer far more entertainment in dollars per hour of enjoyment than a few brief hours at the movies. Thus a $50 roleplaying game with all its creative potential for years of play is far more worthwhile than a similar dollar-value of movies, usually about one movie with a handful of attendees, the size of the average gaming group. I don’t follow these discussions much; from my point of view as a consumer I value my money on my own terms and I evaluate each potential game purchase on its own merits. But I find the comparison between the price of games and movies and the amount of enjoyment they provide one of those apples-and-oranges issues. Although it seems like a valid point for a discussion, we’re really talking about two very different kinds of entertainment: passive and active. In one participants remain relatively passive, sitting back and enjoying someone else’s vividly creative efforts. In the other the participants themselves – working within an already established framework, like a game – actively take part in creating their own entertainment.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WEG Memoirs/Gaming Artifacts: Star Wars Battle Book & Dueling Pack

Imagine a simpler time, before personal computers, smart cell phones, e-readers, tablets, electronic games with state-of-the-art graphics, and even the internet became ubiquitous elements of our society. It was during this time, the mid-1980s, that West End Games capitalized on the niche popularity of Alfred Leonardi’s innovative Lost Worlds and Ace of Aces “combat picture book games.” In 1988 West End released the Lightsaber Dueling Pack, enabling players to fight a battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (like the one at the climax of Return of the Jedi); in 1989 the company published the Starfighter Battle Book: X-wing vs. TIE Interceptor, putting players in the cockpits of those ships for a head-to-head dogfight. They represent innovative game formats of their time that have since passed from practicality and popularity.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Temptation of Random Tables

Random tables remain a staple of roleplaying games. They determine random encounters, character backgrounds, treasure and magic items, monster and retainer reactions, or even form the basis for an entirely random dungeon or hex crawl (among a great many other things). They’re a temptation for both gamemasters and game designers, offering quick means to generate encounters and add another layer to an adventure or setting. They serve as prompts, providing a host of ideas in a succinct format to roll or choose. Part of the responsibility for their successful use depends on how designers present table information and tie it to the existing setting or scenario. Part of the responsibility depends on how gamemasters implement a random table result into their game. Random tables run the risk of seeming lazy tools rather than inspiring enhancements.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Interesting Wargame Releases, Spring 2017

I don’t talk much about “news” or “new releases” here at Hobby Game Recce; it’s often fleeting and doesn’t seem to matter months or years down the road. But now and then a few gaming products release that catch my attention for one reason or another...and this just happens to be one of those times. Announcements by three different companies promise some notable wargaming products that cater to my own interests and hopefully engage the enthusiasm of other gamers: a Wings of Glory Battle of Britain starter set; a Commands & Colors game set during the American War of Independence; and some interesting terrain and tank kits from Battlefront Miniatures. One things certain with all these releases: I’d better start saving up my money if I want to buy any.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Customizing My B/X D&D Experience

My son and I have been gaming on and off recently, occasionally testing the waters of intro roleplaying games between Pokemon card game duels and an occasional board game. We’ve enjoyed Hero Kids, though each adventure requires a good deal of prep, whether I’m printing and adapting an existing scenario or devising my own (with the requisite maps). We’ve also tried the forgotten Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game – a wonderfully simple yet entertaining intro roleplaying game experience that capitalizes on the popular Japanese license – which I’m enjoying for its very basic, read-aloud scripted scenes and simple combat system printed on the various Pokemon cards. Both games still hold some potential for several more play sessions, especially if I can wean everyone off Hero Kids’ maps. At some point, though, I’d like to transition to something a bit more mainstream that also caters to my own gaming urges. So I’m re-evaluating my current views regarding Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, as many of you know, my preferred version of D&D and, despite my general explorations of the Old School Renaissance, my preferred OSR game. I’m looking to make it more comprehensible for a seven year-old and provide a more heroic (read” less-deadly”) experience for characters.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Beyond First Edition RPGs

The release of subsequent editions of roleplaying games carries different significance for publishers and gamers. Professional publishers often develop subsequent editions to further refine the game system or setting, but usually with the core motivation of launching a new product or product line to stimulate sales. As consumers, gamers have the prerogative to invest their money in what they like; some love new editions of their favorite titles, others try one edition and either stick with it or move on to something else (just as some gamers find everything they need from a game’s core rulebook while others need every published supplement). Do gamers really need subsequent editions, or would publishers’ efforts be better spent on developing and releasing innovative new rules and settings?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Portable Kriegspiel

Veteran gamer and designer Bob Cordery recently released The Portable Wargame, a small yet illuminating booklet that vastly refines the idea of the classic Kriegspiel for today’s gaming audience. It distills the wargaming experience to a gridded surface (squares or hexes) using modular terrain on a board far smaller than the sprawling landscapes usually enjoyed by miniature wargame enthusiasts. While gamers have been using gridded boards for a while – and some, like Richard Borg’s Commands and Colors series, continue making innovations in that field – The Portable Wargame provides a rules framework to run a streamlined yet satisfying game with fewer resources and less time than traditional board and miniature wargames.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

DIY Licensed Games

Last week I talked about professional publishers releasing licensed roleplaying games based on popular media properties, particularly in the context of West End Games’ often ambitious licensing designs in the mid-1990s. But in a hobby often infused with a do-it-yourself spirit nothing prevents individual gamers from running their own adventures in their favorite film, television, novel, and comic book settings. The roleplaying game hobby has always cultivated an informal tradition of gamers doing their own thing, taking established games or settings and developing them for their local player groups. Reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World one realizes how the entire adventure gaming hobby evolved from people taking someone else’s ideas and modifying them to varying degrees into something different. In the same vein fans sometimes unofficially channel their enthusiasm for a media property into their roleplaying games, often in a more timely manner than professionally published licensed games delayed by the production and approval process.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

WEG Memoirs: Licensed Games

West End Games offices, 1993.
I’ve wanted to talk about games based on licensed media properties for a while, both from the angle of professional publishing companies and hobby enthusiasts. During its final few years (1993-1998) West End Games focused a great deal of its energy on acquiring licenses and publishing games based on them, to the point some considered it the leader in licensed games. My experience working for West End sheds some light on issues facing professional publishers in producing game product based on popular media franchises. Like many aspects of West End, this endeavor involved a lot of scrambling behind the scenes and a great deal of risk.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Gaming Artifacts: Homemade Fantasy World Maps

How I miss those lazy afternoons when I got home from school and had an hour or two before dinner to indulge my gaming hobby. Sometimes neighborhood kids would gather for a hapless D&D scenario or a board game of my own dubious design. Other times I’d relax with a good fantasy or science fiction novel. I’d draft maps for future dungeon delves or wilderness expeditions. I’d type out articles for my extremely amateur gaming fanzine. And then there were the wars waged by metal miniatures across map-kingdoms of my own creation.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Basic Hack Offers Intro OSR Experience

I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the Old School Renaissance (OSR). It’s nice to indulge my nostalgic tendencies and revel in some of the innovations people are sharing based on the old “core” fantasy roleplaying game rule sets: Erik “Tenkar” Stiene’s Swords & Wizardry Light, James Spahn’s The Hero’s Journey, Scott Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Land, among others in the back of my mind. Yet the OSR itself caters to gamers with at least some experience with any earlier flavor of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games, whether someone played once in high school or has been playing regularly for years. It’s not exactly a clear entry point for newcomers to the roleplaying game hobby. Since OSR titles are primarily available through online venues, they’re not visible in hobby, game, or book stores – unlike the current edition of D&D – and none of the OSR games have really, to my estimation, catered to complete beginners.... Until now. Nathan J. Hill’s The Basic Hack, an iteration of David Black’s The Black Hack, incorporates a few elements and a distillation of the OSR gaming experience I feel can offer an entry point for new gamers, either in the hands of an experienced gamemaster or even on their own.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evaluating Player Choice

Every game offers players different choices. Some, particularly kids games like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders, offer no choices amid their extremely structured play experiences (and one might argue whether they’re tecnically “games”). Others like roleplaying games revel in the concept that “anything can be attempted” by providing an environment with seemingly infinite choices. Analyzing the degree of player choice in individual games can help us evaluate their suitability for different audiences or even our own gaming interest.

While contemplating the issue of player choice I’m reminded of two graphics in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, my handy go-to reference when I need inspiration in that field. In the section on “Using Constraints” Knight provides two illustrations to demonstrate how restricting story elements can limit characters. One looks like a well in which the character crouches beneath a stone cave-in, the other look like the symbol of chaos with a character and question mark in the middle. This also represents the restraints of player choice in games. In the former the character/player has few or no choices, hence limiting the story/game experience; in the latter the character/player has infinite choices with little guidance where to proceed. In most instances games should avoid offering no or too few choices. In some cases, particularly roleplaying games, players enjoy having too many choices; they’re often narrowed by in-game situations or character race or class limitations. New players might prefer games with a handful of choices each turn. Experienced gamers might prefer having numerous options open. This may explain the renewed popularity of Euro-style board games and the esoteric reputation roleplaying games retain among the general, non-gaming public. The more choices available to players the more daunting games seem to newcomers; yet that wealth of choice also attracts game enthusiasts to more complex game experiences like wargames and roleplaying games.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Role Game Cons Play

I’m no pollster, nor am I a statistician; but I’d love to run a survey across the spectrum of the adventure gaming hobby to see how often gamers attend conventions of any size. What percentage never attend a convention each year? What percentage gets to a premiere event like GenCon? How important are conventions to the average gamer? My own involvement with gaming conventions (or media conventions with gaming tracks) has varied as I’ve grown and changed as a gamer. They offer opportunities to game with others, hang out with members of the gaming community, discover new games, and shop with vendors; but how important is the convention experience to the average gamer?

Running Valley of the Ape
at Barrage.
Many hobbies sponsor conventions to promote their pursuits, showcase vendors, and provide a forum for participants to share their enthusiasm. Given adventure gaming’s social nature it makes sense that conventions have played a key role in both promoting the hobby but helping it evolve. Reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World one sees how early conventions like the GenCon shows in Lake Geneva (established in 1968) and the Origins Game Fair (started in 1975) brought together enthusiast-designers such as Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz, and Jeff Perrin (to name a scant few) to share ideas and forge partnerships in developing new games...not to mention gamers eager for play experiences and new product. Reading the game magazines of the time (primarily Dragon Magazine) one sees a host of ads for game conventions and reports of activities there, giving average gamers the impression attending such cons was a much a part of the hobby as creating characters, devising scenarios, and running adventures. The magazine and other publications also ran listings for smaller, regional conventions that might prove more accessible to enthusiasts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Persistence & Professionalism

Several factors came together last week to remind me of two important elements from my own game-writing experience: persistence and professionalism. I’m puttering around tidying up parts of my office (along with other bits in the house long-neglected in my fight against the Lords of Chaos and their glaciers of clutter); I stumbled upon some letters and materials from my earliest game submissions in my high school days, embarrassing tidbits from a time when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. My brother-in-law’s family got me Stephen King’s On Writing for Christmas, in which I’m finding some inspiration and re-affirmation. It’s all reminding me how much persistence and professionalism have played a role in my growth as a writer.