Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Little Holiday Geekery

We had a nice little holiday spent at home by ourselves, with the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ham, potatoes, kale, and pinkelwurst (with a newer tradition of Virginia spiced plum chutney as a condiment with the ham) and a Christmas morning filled with torn wrapping paper and delightful presents. Given the crazy schedule around the holidays for us, this Hobby Games Recce entry is regrettably short but timely.
Among the gifts I received were several that satisfied my inner geek, particularly in the gaming vein:
The Hobbit (Illustrated Edition):
My parents have always quietly indulged and encouraged my interests in gaming, fantasy, and science fiction, and returned to my roots (and my Amazon.com wishlist) for gift ideas this year. Numerous, full-page illustrations by Tolkien artist extraordinaire Alan Lee grace this edition, which I hope to someday read aloud to my son when he gets old enough to sit still for a bedtime story without copious illustrations on each rigid, cardboard page. My paperback edition of The Hobbit a great uncle bought me many, many years ago is well-read, but in no condition for regular handling anymore. I’ll admit I’m probably more a fan of The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings for a number of reasons, not simply its shorter length and easier style than the epic trilogy, but it’s classic hero’s quest theme and its much lighter shades of dark, moral severity.
Art of the Hobbit:
I’m a fan of Tolkien-inspired artwork (as evidenced by my delight in the give noted above), but to see even the most basic or stylized sketches by the author of my favorite of his tales remains an inspiring treat. Recently released in a slipcase edition, this book contains all of Tolkien’s Hobbit sketches, inks, and other artwork keyed to different chapters or iconic scenes, including material for the two famous maps featured in The Hobbit. Needless to say this and the previously mentioned book above have rekindled my inspiration for running some kind of Middle-earth roleplaying game campaign, probably around the time of the Quest of Erebor.*
Lego Ramses Pyramid:
Despite many reviews frustrated with the rules presentation and gameplay (possibly the reason it was only $9.99, one-third the original price, at the local Target toy department), this game remained on my list for a number of reasons: I love most things with an Egyptian theme; I love Legos; and German game designer superstar Reiner Knizia co-designed it. It was a gift from my son, with help from Mom. I still haven’t had a chance to build or play the game, but I’m looking forward to giving it a try. It’ll make a nice set with my copy of the Lego Minotaurus Game.
Overall it was a modest holiday gift haul. I also received many other way more practical gifts, but given the far smaller portion of my life geeky pursuits now inhabit, it only seems appropriate.
* Campaign Idea: Pipe-Weed to Erebor

This one’s from my old Griffon’s Aerie website, from a “Dispatch” about various roleplaying game campaigns I’d like to run. Gathering at Bree, the heroes agree to guard a train of pack mules delivering pipe-weed to the Dwarves of the  recently liberated Lonely Mountain. They must overcome their differences (and seek their hidden agendas), protect their premium Shire pipe-weed, and make the treacherous passage across Eriador and Wilderland, encountering Orcs and wargs fleeing from a terrible battle at Erebor, and evading dark forces seeking to seize a secret one of the heroes carries.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Savvy Game Buyer

In today’s information-driven Internet Age gamers have few valid excuses for purchasing games without first doing their homework to ensure they’re the right diversion for their play styles and expectations.
Years ago, before nearly everyone who could afford games could afford decent internet access, one had to trust information from advertisements, back-cover copy, recommendations from friends, dubious advice from game store clerks, and a few reviews in print gaming magazines when making an “informed” game purchase. This was more problematic with boxed games sealed in shrink wrap, for at least one could peruse the pages of a roleplaying game book in the store (unless, of course, that was shrink-wrapped, too, a discouraging practice some stores use for roleplaying game books that, ultimately, leads to consumer frustration and disappointment).
I know my game shelves once contained a handful of games purchased in this era that I found disappointing and probably would not have purchased if I’d had additional information (particularly a look at the rules). I’m not naming names, but most found their way to flea market sales, donation bins, or other giveaway venues.
Today, however, the internet offers a wealth of resources; its community-wide information base works well when coupled with more enlightened, professional gaming stores with friendly demo policies and more knowledgeable staff (even if it comes at the price of fewer game stores). Here are some resources when looking for new games and evaluating whether they might make a good purchase; these apply not simply to games we buy, but those we put on wish lists or request as holiday or birthday gifts…:
Publisher Websites: Most publishers include at the very least promotional information about their games on their websites, including a basic description of theme and gameplay, illustrations and lists of components, and price (or a link to purchase). Many allow visitors to download PDF files of game rules to give prospective buyers a full look at the game components, mechanics, and complexity (and allow current players to have a spare or replacement reference copy). Even companies publishing roleplaying games -- rulebooks unto themselves, so it doesn’t make sense to offer them as free downloads on the internet -- still provide ample opportunity to evaluate games by posting previews, samples, short, free scenarios, and even quick-start or basic rules. Some even offer the core game for free and sell supplements and adventures.
BoardGameGeek.com: This online encyclopedic community for hobby games remains a valuable resource for finding useful information, including playing times, suggested ages (both from manufacturers and actual players), basic play mechanics, descriptions, and component lists. It relies on fellow game enthusiast members to submit reviews, rank game popularity, post photos of game components, discuss games on forums, and provide links to other resources, videos, and rules (and alternate rules/scenarios). Though overwhelming at first to new visitors, Boardgamegeek.com offers a wealth of resources for those playing tabletop games. (Hobby Games Recce has featured BoardGameGeek.com before.)
Online Reviews: Other online venues besides BoardGameGeek.com offer game reviews of varying quality, each providing some insight into whether a game might be right for a particular consumer. Any gamer with familiar internet haunts finds just the right review and news websites to suit their particular gaming type and style. My favorites include the venerable RPG.net offering reviews of roleplaying games, novels, and board games most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Play Board Games, a blog posting reviews several times a week; DriveThruRPG.com and its related sites (as well as other sales sites like Amazon.com) often list customer reviews available for specific products; I’ve also found that GeekDad offers an intermittent stream of board game previews to explore as new releases hit store shelves.
Game Stores: Your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) remains a great, local, in-person resource for learning about new games. Good game stores (especially those who have a game demo/check-out policy…see below) often have extremely knowledgeable staff and clientele who offer reliable recommendations and often connections to others playing a particular game. Many stores -- including my own FLGS, Game Vault of Fredericksburg -- offer demo games to unbox, examine, and play in the store’s gaming area or even borrow (for a small deposit) to take home and try. Game Vault’s policy allows patrons to “check out” and bring home a game to try with a $5 deposit, redeemable toward the price of the game should they eventually purchase it. Alas, we can only hope local libraries -- if they survive constant budget attacks and a need to “re-imagine” their role in our communities given advancing technology -- someday offer even reference copies of games to check out and try within their hallowed halls.
With these resources for information on games, gaming aficionados have no excuse for not knowing exactly what they’re getting in a game.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Defense of Pre-Gen Characters

Despite the perspectives some might maintain in the pre-generated versus original character debate, pre-gen characters have their time and place in the overall gaming experience.
I recall a holiday visit to cousins shortly after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, and, in an attempt to run a game, spent all our time walking everyone through the minutiae of character creation instead of running the scenario, A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity (which, incidentally, came with pre-generated tournament characters). On another occasion a friend wanted to run a mech-oriented roleplaying game and spent six hours shepherding all eight players through character creation…and never got to play the game. More than once I tried introducing a new game in which, during character creation, players gave blatantly silly names to their characters, a clear sign (I learned too late) they really didn’t care about playing the game.
I’m sure there were other times in my youthful gaming days when we spent more time laboriously creating characters than actually playing the game. And while character creation certainly remains a core concept in many roleplaying games and a key activity outside of actual gameplay, it’s not quite ideal when introducing newcomers to roleplaying games or even bringing experienced gamers to new systems and settings.
Pre-generated characters have their time and place, particularly when the character creation process is secondary to enjoying a game session:
Published Examples: Sample characters often appear in published games both as illustrations of the character creation process and pre-generated characters enabling players to jump right in and start gaming. Often the rules focus on a single named character (sometimes with an associated player) in examples demonstrating the character creation rules. This shows exactly how players reading the rules might apply different options or strategies to forge an in-game persona best suited to their play style, the overall party of characters, and the expected adventures in the game’s setting. A full set of pre-generated characters (often one for each class or profession) helps illustrate the full spectrum of options and gives players ready-made characters to use right away; if they choose to keep using them in future scenarios, players can further customize them to their liking using character advancement rules.
Introductions: Having pre-generated characters ready for players helps expedite the process of explaining the game to both newcomers to roleplaying games and established players to a new system or setting. Similar to having published examples in a game book, pre-gens show what kinds of characters players can run without immersing them in the details of actually creating them from scratch (which is why many “introductory” games often provide pre-generated characters to play, in some cases without even including rules to create your own characters). For one-shot scenarios gamemasters can poll players in general terms about what kinds of characters they wish to run and prep pre-made characters incorporating many of their expectations embellished with nuances from the gamemaster’s familiarity with the rules.
Convention Games: Running roleplaying games at conventions often serves as a form of one-shot scenario showcasing a particular game to people who might have some fluency in gaming but aren’t familiar with a particular rules system or setting. Pre-generated characters allow con-goers to sample the kinds of heroes adventuring in the setting and dive right into gameplay without investing time and effort in character creation. This allows players to try new games for a change of pace or to test drive them as potential campaign games when they get home.
Be mindful when to use pre-generated characters and when to immerse players in the character creation process. Pre-gens work best when providing a one-shot introduction to a game, especially with players and a gamemaster who are not terribly familiar with one another. For groups with a greater degree of camaraderie, gamemasters should gauge the players’ interest in and familiarity with the game; at the least a gamemaster should take into account players’ past preferences and possibly ask them for any present expectations…and consider resorting to full creation if the players seem keen on crafting customized characters for the game.
Spending a game session creating characters -- with allowance for a short adventure encounter at the end -- can bring everyone up to speed, forge a cohesive adventuring party, and provide a good introduction to the rules and setting with greater emphasis on character creation.
My Convention Pre-Gens
I typically use pre-generated characters exclusively in convention games. I maintain a set of characters for each of the different settings I run: usually a set of adventurer/archaeologists for Pulp Egypt, the South Pacific cast from Heroes of Rura-Tonga, and a larger pool of Star Wars D6 roleplaying game characters depending on the era and scenario (some require a larger percentage of Rebel than Fringe characters, and a few focus entirely on Rebel special operations forces). The characters rarely change from one convention to the next, and some I’ve been using for many years (going way back to my time running convention games and demos for West End Games). This cuts down on my own preparation time and effort, enabling me to focus on other aspects of con prep, from self-promotion to new scenario design.
This core of pre-generated characters not only enables newcomers to quickly dive into my convention games, but allows returning players to play the same character in a new scenario or try their hand at another character with which they’re somewhat familiar. I often give returning players preference in choosing characters, especially if they played them before with particular panache.
Three pre-generated characters (one each from the games mentioned above) stand out not necessarily as typical characters but as ones which add different dimensions to the games and their players:
Rogov: The ham-fisted Klatooinan mercenary in my Star Wars D6 games isn’t terribly smart (he’s a bit of a lunk-head), but he remains focused on two core elements…blasting things and telling awful jokes. Nothing tells more about how well a player runs this character than how he reacts to Rogov’s character sheet quote: “Rogov tell joke: there were these three Jawas walking down the street...and they all died! Har, har, har, har…!” The character’s always good in a fight and offers players a ripe opportunity for low-browed, humorous banter.
Ibrahim: The elderly fellahin foreman in charge of the characters’ excavations in Pulp Egypt scenarios has a number of hooks players can run with to embellish his actions. As the lone native Egyptian character he serves as a liaison between the foreign characters and numerous Egyptians. He’s caught between Western prejudices and Egyptian interests. Ibrahim wavers between the scientific method of his employers (however sloppy) and his natural tendencies toward superstition. But he maintains influence in many sectors otherwise resistant or outright hostile toward the other characters, notably the common Egyptian. A good player latches on to several of these issues and plays them to the hilt.
Jasper: At first the dog in Heroes of Rura-Tonga seems like an odd character -- especially since he can’t use many normal skills on which people rely, and his communications are limited as per the Wookiee rule (the player can only speak when Jasper’s companion character is around…when apart, the player must communicate in dog) -- but as soon as the players hear they can play a dog, someone grabs him. This often results in a wonderfully animated player performance off which everyone else plays, though it’s hard not to just let the dog steal the show to everyone’s amusement.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Introduce Kids to Gaming with Gamewright

Looking to introduce younger children to the entertaining pastime of board and card games? Check out the offerings at Gamewright, a company that specializes in creating engaging games for kids and adults.
During the holidays game aficionados like myself often face the challenge of finding games to entice younger generations into the hobby. While my own son is a bit too young for even the most basic games right now (Kids of Catan is a bit too pricey for his first try at gaming), my nephews are in the prime of the “Age 8+” game category; finding anything for an even younger audience often becomes an endless and fruitless quest beyond memory games, Candy Land, and other kiddie fare at the local toy department. A good game for young kids should not only catch their interest and have enjoyable gameplay but also come at an affordable price tag so nobody feels bad if they toss the game aside, often a challenge for those of us immersed in the world of high-quality board games in the $25+ range.
Enter Gamewright, a Massachusetts company that’s been producing quality games for all ages for since 1994. Their game categories begin at age 3+ and move up from there, with substantial game selection at each age level and price points below $20.
Many of the lower age games focus on basic skills -- counting, spatial relations, cooperation, fine motor skills, color, shape, and set identification, matching, math -- all with interesting themes to engage younger players. Some themes even help confront typical childhood challenges, like fear of monsters in Go Away Monster! These games aren’t heavy strategic fare but they’re ideal platforms for parents to interact with children in a game-oriented play setting; they help foster an enjoyment of games clever parents can parlay into a future game-related hobby.
The offerings for older kids (10 and up) and adults range from light-hearted party-style games to serious, cutting edge board games.
Here are four Gamewright titles I’ve either played or heard about that seem perfect in both gameplay and price range for kids’ holiday gifts (or even gifts for creative adults):
Who Would Win? ($9.99, age 10+): Two players draw a card with the name of a real or fictitious “celebrity,” then convince a third player judge why their notable person would win a randomly drawn contest: for instance, who would win a figure skating contest, Darth Vader or William Shakespeare? An ideal party game for those who enjoy debating who was the better captain, Kirk or Picard, but with a wonderfully silly edge.
Rory’s Story Cubes ($7.99, age 8+): Part game part creative exercise, Rory’s Story Cubes consists of nine oversized (20mm) dice with a different line-art picture on each face. Roll them and use the simple icons in numerous ways to weave a short tale using any of several suggestions for solo or group play. The pictures include mundane items like a fish, house, question mark, and flower as well as more esoteric ones like a pyramid, alien face, and kid with monster shadow. Creative roleplaying gamemasters might even find ways to use them in devising off-the-cuff scenarios, encounters, and characters.
Knock Your Blocks Off ($15.99, age 8+): Each round players build castle-themed “structures” by matching the sides of six cubes they roll along set pattern rules. Then they have the chance to topple each others’ buildings using a special demolition die that determines how players attack. They gain victory points by completing structures first, spotting flaws in other players’ structure patterns, and successfully attacking and defending other structures. This seemingly simple game combines pattern recognition and manual dexterity.
Forbidden Island ($17.99, age 10+): A fantastic game for both kids and adults, this cooperative game comes from designer Matt Leacock, who also created the similarly cooperative yet far darker-themed Pandemic. The game sends the players as a team to a rapidly sinking island to retrieve four fabled treasures; each turn they must choose among several actions, including moving, “shoring up” flooded tiles about to sink, trading resource cards, and grabbing the treasure. The high-quality components include a plastic figurine for each of the four treasures, island location tiles with full-color original illustrations, location cards, treasure cards, pawns, and a flood meter. I’ve played Forbidden Island several times at the local library’s teen gaming event and, though it seems complex at first, quickly spirals into a suspenseful experience in cooperative gaming.
Alas, some of my favorite Gamewright games remain out of print, including Egyptian-oriented Mummy Rummy, the classic Honor of the Samurai, and the King Arthur-themed Quests of the Round Table.
Most Gamewright titles have garnered a host of official accolades, including Dr. Toy’s Top 100 Children’s Products and Games, Parent’s Choice awards, and Mensa Select honors. Online support remains limited to offering PDF downloads of most game rules (with no discussion forums or other resources beyond game marketing pages), but this enables parents or other potential players to get a feel for a game’s rules and components before buying the product.
Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers know my love for Gamewright and its Gamewright GameNight program that combines promoting family games with raising money for local school organizations. The company is not simply family oriented but community minded.
Friendly Local Gaming Store Deals
This holiday season don’t forget to check out your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) and the deals it offers this holiday season -- special discounts some stores frequently give throughout the year. Your FLGS is the best place to browse, try, and talk about games. It’s a good resource for game bargains, ideas for new games to play with younger children, recommendations for other age-appropriate games, and making special orders (thus avoiding the shipping charge with many online sales). Store discounts vary; some offer good sales during the holiday season to lure customers, but many offer discounts year-round through frequent sales, customer loyalty programs, or special orders. (Your mileage may vary; check with your local store for specifics on customer reward programs, discounts, and special orders.) For instance, my FLGS -- Game Vault in Fredericksburg, VA -- is running an after-Thanksgiving sale of 20% off most merchandise (through December 10), and has had all board games at 20% off since this past summer. Special orders usually arrive in-store in about a week or so, and, if the merchandise isn’t already eligible for an existing discount, it automatically gets a 10% “we don’t have to put it on the shelf” discount! Having extremely friendly, knowledgeable staff helps, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“Never Give Up…Never Surrender!”

With November over the National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) challenge is finished. Put down your pencils, stop designing your games, and get back to what you were doing, abandoning your work until next November, when Nathan Russell’s informal challenge once again gives you permission to create games….

Or so it might seem to some folks, notably prolific game aficionado bloggers like Michael Wolf, a.k.a. Stargazer, who, in a recent post at Stargazer’s World, declared “NaGa DeMon: I Surrender!”    

Yes, deadlines are great motivators to get us to undertake and complete tasks by a certain date; and publicly dedicating particular months to promote an activity or cause helps raise awareness and motivate people who might not otherwise engage in these activities. But the NaGa DeMon challenge represents a first step on a longer journey to complete and refine a game.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post about both the Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) that creativity isn’t easily forced; sometimes it results in an incomplete or unsatisfying product that didn’t quite reach its full potential. I fully understand how other duties -- blogging, career, family -- can consume one’s time and limit one’s ability not only to play games but to create and share them. Nobody’s expected to soldier on without giving any ground until they ultimately realize their goal. Producing any gaming product whether free or commercial takes considerable effort, especially if one isn’t simply slapping material together but taking the time, effort, and creativity to publish material that truly deserves admiration and play.     

Thankfully Stargazer shared some basic framework for his game, notably the task resolution system, an interesting blend of “skill” and “complication” dice pools (similar to something I’m working on for a game design project, though instead of using separate dice pools I designate success and failure numbers on the dice for a single die pool…but I digress). I would have preferred to see more how he intended to put his subject matter, astronauts, into a playable setting. Creating and sharing game ideas remains the core of the NaGa DeMon challenge, an objective we can pursue throughout the year.

I’m disappointed to hear Stargazer felt he must “surrender” or otherwise publicly admit defeat. That’s not the point of the challenge. Whenever I hear of someone “surrendering,” especially at geeky endeavors that are supposed to result in some degree of fun and enjoyment, I find myself recalling two relevant quotations. One, the title for this piece, comes from Commander Peter Quincy Taggart in the delightfully geeky Galaxy Quest film; it reminds us of the power of enthusiastic, sometimes silly determination, and that for many of us surrendering means giving up a part of our core selves. The other quotation does not come from a geeky source but from one of the great storytellers of Western literature, Rudyard Kipling. It’s a bit lengthy as memorable quotes go, but quite relevant when we start examining what we do, why we do it, and what happens when we start evaluating ourselves according to others’ standards:  

Never look over your shoulder at the other man. Paddle your own canoe and don’t worry about anyone passing you. Keep going in your own time. If you’re going to do anything you’ll do it; if not, watching others succeed only embitters failure. And failure in writing shouldn’t be bitter.

I don’t openly participate in activities like National Game Design Month and Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month for a few reasons: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and what little I get often comes at unpredictable moments; I don’t need more disappointment set up by unreasonable expectations; and at any given time I’m working on many other game-related projects, only a few of which ever reach fruition and publication of some sort. The challenges issued, however, inspired me to explore game design in new directions. During the month of November I did dabble as best as my schedule would allow in the two activities encouraged for the month. I challenged myself to work on a solitaire tabletop game and a roleplaying game system, not with the goal of completing them by month’s end but with the aim of finishing significant portions of them and gaining a clearer understanding of where the projects are heading.    

To me appreciating solitaire tabletop games and designing and playing your own games are activities that should be part of life the entire year, not just during one month. We’re not simply thankful only at Thanksgiving, we’re grateful for our blessings all year round. Understandably few people put a particular game-oriented emphasis on their lives, but, like other holidays, November reminds us that we should take time to enjoy and design games throughout the year.

So keep your chin up, Stargazer, and return to your NaGa DeMon project some other time during the year when inspiration and enthusiasm really hits you.        

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Season for Fantasy

Around this time of year I’m reminded how the holiday season always seems to herald a time ripe for fantasy across the full spectrum of books, games, films, and television shows. For gamers, who feast on many of these similar mediums, the holidays remain one of the prime periods of the year for indulging in their  hobby.
The general spirit of the December holidays (which really begin around Thanksgiving) contributes to the illusion that anything is possible despite the darkness of the days and the times. Let’s face it: the notion of a jolly obese fellow flying around on a reindeer-driven sleigh delivering gifts to everyone around the entire world in one night is sheer fantasy unto itself (and I’m not even touching the nativity story with a 10-foot pole, though obviously un-American and heretical skeptics might classify elements of that tale as hopeful fantasy, too).
Everyone’s tempted toward fantastic expectations for expected and presented gifts, holiday displays and decorations, plans for parties and feasts, and the overall joyousness of the season. Our unrealistic gift expectations are inspired by an increased flood of commercials, catalogs, and sales for toys (both grown-up and child-level) and manifest in requests (sent by mail or in person at the mall) to the aforementioned jolly obese fellow for unrealistically fantastic gifts. Fantasy of all types abounds.
Enough pontificating; suffice it to say that the holiday season already predisposes everyone toward fantasy, and gamers in particular indulge in this excess.
The holidays bring a host of fantasy related media into our homes. Every year visions of our favorite holiday-themed tales waltz out of the television, from the stop-motion delights of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town to mere animated fare like Frosty the Snowman and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. New holiday-themed movies premiere in theatres at Thanksgiving and play relentlessly until Christmas (and often beyond); former holiday film releases, like Will Ferrell’s delightful Elf, run constantly on television.
But holiday-themed fantasy offerings often pave the way for more traditional fantasy material at this time of the year. While the summer, and particularly Memorial Day, has been the territory of action and science fiction film releases, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has recently brought a horde of fantasy movie premieres. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films were released in theatres the weekend before Christmas in 2001, 2002, and 2003; both parts of his film version of The Hobbit (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again) are planned for similar December releases in 2012 and 2013. Although only four of the eight Harry Potter films were released in November (the others hit theatres during the summer movie season), several usually appear around the holidays on a major television network (not to mention cable).
Rankin/Bass’ animated version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first broadcast on Sunday, Nov. 27, 1977, on NBC, at the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend that year. Such science fantasy fare as Star Wars was not immune. Though the films all released on prime summer movie weekends, the three made-for-TV specials all first aired around Thanksgiving: CBS first broadcast the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on Nov. 17, 1978; ABC aired Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure on Nov. 25, 1984; and that same network broadcast Ewoks: The Battle for Endor on Nov. 24, 1985.
The holiday season also brings a break for kids -- both high school and college -- when they spend time at home with family and friends they can subject to such frivolous and fantasy-themed time-wasters as roleplaying and board games. Unlike the summer, that other “season of gaming” when kids have loads of time and friends around (yet often balanced by family vacations or summer jobs), the holidays offer time off without many expectations for productive use of free time, especially when playing outside remains limited by one’s ability to withstand intense cold.
I fondly recall my first Christmas after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, for I received such appropriately themed gifts as module A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, Grenadier Miniatures’ Wizard’s Room miniatures box, and the soundtrack to ET the Extra-Terrestrial, which I found as inspiring as almost any other John Williams score at the time.
As a young gamer I reveled in the two “seasons of gaming” throughout the year: the holiday fantasy season and the summer vacation (it also helped that the bounty of gaming-related Christmas presents was balanced by a host of gaming-related birthday presents for a boy born in July). Christmas always seemed a bit more festive for me as a gamer; call it a combination of the magic of the season, the infusion of game-related gifts, and the immediacy of a shorter break that didn’t linger as tediously as the hot summer days yet required.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Magic of Discovering D&D

When gamers of my generation first delved into Dungeons & Dragons back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”) we experienced a particular excitement and enchantment playing the game for the first time (and in many cases not quite knowing what we were doing or if we were doing it right). For me D&D captured the core elements of the fantasy genre and invited me to explore them. I’m dabbling with a roleplaying game project parents might use to introduce medieval fantasy roleplaying gaming to their kids, and I wanted to examine what excited me most about my early experiences with Dungeons & Dragons to see if and how I might incorporate those elements in my own project.
In the light of almost 30 years of gaming, and in the retrospective, nostalgic haze of memory, what were those iconic Dungeons & Dragons gaming elements that seemed to capture my imagination and inspire my further explorations of fantasy adventure gaming beyond the novelty of the game genre and form?
Rolling Dice: D&D gave dice a magical quality in form and function. The traditional d6 so many of us knew from traditional board games was relegated to one of several on a new pantheon of polyhedral dice. These dice maintained a magical power over characters -- whether they’d triumph or fail in combat, how many hit points they’d get leveling up, what kind of treasure they’d find -- and I and those in my neighborhood gaming group were slavishly bound to those die rolls like heroes bound by fate. Die-rolling in the game was law determining exactly what happened in combat, interaction with non-player characters, and looting. Any dispute was resolved by the roll of a die, and the result was sacrosanct. We wanted to roll dice for everything; and thus we wanted tables for everything, from encounters and treasure to terrain and weather.
Character Creation: From a player’s perspective the character creation procedure served as one of the main gaming activities between actual games. While I’d later compare complicated character creation instructions to doing my taxes longhand, at the time I immersed myself in the process, carefully and reverently rolling the dice to see how they’d shape my character’s ability scores, weighing options when resolving the disparity between the gold pieces at my disposal with the weapons and armor I desired for my character, and choosing that defining first spell for clerics, elves, and magic users. Given the high mortality rate our characters experienced, it soon turned into an exercise unto itself, cranking out hordes of characters to have on hand lest a favored hero meet an untimely yet fully expected end during an adventure. As a dungeon master I found this reserve horde a good library of non-player characters from which to draw during various impromptu moments during the game, usually in taverns (“Forget everyone else in the tavern, I walk up to the elf sitting in the corner. What’s his name? I want to try to kill him….”).
Maps: Visual representation of adventuring locales -- whether subterranean, open wilderness, or urban -- remained a core concept for my early D&D experience. Like the authoritative quality of the dice, maps contained the definitive depiction of our adventuring environment. In fact, my first experience watching someone play D&D consisted of two neighborhood kids looking at the B2 The Keep on the Borderlands map and figuring out where the lone adventurer wanted to explore next (“I look behind that secret door…”). After pouring over maps included in published adventure modules, I often drafted maps of my own for dungeons, villages, cities, and entire regions; though writing the keys often took a bit more time and was not as glamorous a task as the actual map-making. (I’ve previously discussed the allure of maps in gaming in another Hobby Games Recce post.)
Artwork: The artwork in the original Basic/Expert D&D materials captivated my imagination and inspired me to pursue further gaming activities. I modeled characters from those I saw in rulebook illustrations I thought were cool (“I want my fighter to look like that guy with the axe….”) and designed encounters around scenes I liked, such as the iconic rulebook/box cover illustration by Erol Otus depicting a fighter and magic user confronting a green dragon rising from the waters in a treasure-filled cave. While the game has produced some amazing full-color artwork, I found some of the line art in products like the Basic and Expert D&D rulebooks and earliest modules (particularly B2 The Keep on the Borderlands) possessed all the richness of grayscale illustrations thanks to careful use of cross-hatching patterns, varied line weight, and engaging subject matter. New sourcebooks, modules, and Dragon Magazine issues fed me a constant stream of new and inspiring artwork from names like Roger Raupp, Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, Dave Trampier, and the aforementioned Erol Otus.
Periodical Inspiration: New and established players, myself included, fed on a constant stream of new material thanks to TSR’s solid release schedule for new modules and supplements. Dragon Magazine, whether purchased in the local hobby shop or received in the post by subscription, provided a monthly treasure trove of new material to inspire gamers. I’m referring particularly to the earlier issues of Dragon before issue #100; aside from roaming across the full range of D&D-oriented topics, these earlier issues also covered other roleplaying games and included a well-balanced dose of short fiction, adventures, and comic strips (particularly Dave Trampier’s excellent Wormy) in every issue. The periodical illustrates D&D’s development in its earliest years, as many articles or letters debated issues relevant to the game (should clerics be able to use edged weapons?), presented new rules, spells, and classes, offered advice for dungeon masters, and clarified rules and answered questions. Dragon offered guidance on further explorations in fantasy, science fiction, and gaming through game and novel reviews and plentiful ads for new games, miniatures, and other accessories. Module-writing contests provided the magazine and its readers with a steady stream of new adventures for the coming year, conveniently laid out in the center of the saddle-stitched periodical for easy removal and use at the gaming table. I started getting Dragon Magazine right after diving into the D&D Basic set (with issue #66), and consistently enjoyed them for a few years; after issue #100, however, they became only a passing interest. (I explore my nostalgia for Dragon and other classic gaming magazines at an old Hobby Games Recce post.)
So what do I learn when reflecting on the magic of first exploring Dungeons & Dragons as a kid? The elements above -- in some form -- remain core to the gaming experience. Certainly other factors contribute to the fun and success of a fantasy roleplaying game (setting, presentation, emphasized themes), but those above should remain key to gameplay and continued support. Incorporating interesting die-rolling mechanics, character creation processes, maps, and artwork still fit within the standard roleplaying game publishing paradigm; but support through a print periodical has certainly changed in our nascent, evolving Internet Age. Such support in the future remains the territory of blogs, website updates, and links through social networking venues, still fully unexplored fields with greater potential for reaching a wider audience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Early Fantasy Gaming Inspirations

When I look back on my formative years I can point to a few casual, childhood interests that predisposed me to focus on the roleplaying gaming hobby. I’m trying to recall what subjects captivated me and channeled my youthful excitement toward medieval fantasy and other fanciful genres. (This subject has occupied my mind lately as I’m developing a roleplaying game project parents might use to introduce medieval fantasy roleplaying gaming to their kids; though it’s also my intent to provide a basic rules set open for expansion for players seeking a more rules light approach.)
I’m grateful that my parents provided for me a safe and inspiring environment with plenty of toys powered not by batteries but by imagination. They exposed me to a great many interests, not a few of which fostered enthusiasms for subjects leading to a focus on roleplaying games. Here are a few activities that inspired my imagination in the direction of gaming:
Family Trips: My parents were always taking us on trips, both day-long excursions to fascinating sites or museums as well as longer summer vacations. We visited many national parks and a host of historical sites, some of which had adventurous themes: Fort Ticonderoga, the USS Constitution, Colonial Williamsburg, the battleship Massachusetts, and the Cadet Cathedral and military museum at the West Point Military Academy. Living close to New York City we usually took at least one day trip to Manhattan each year, most of which included time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art wandering the inspiring medieval hall of armor and weapons and the fantastic Egyptian galleries, complete with a mastaba tomb and the actual Temple of Dendur. Perhaps the most stimulating experience to my impressionable, young, pre-D&D mind was our trip to German, Austria, and Switzerland the summer before I immersed myself in roleplaying games; what could be more inspiring for medieval fantasy roleplaying than visiting authentic-period castles, medieval towns with walls, towers, and gates, museums stocked with armor and weapons, and magnificent palaces. Among the notable highlights were the iconic Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein, a Rhine river cruise to the ruins of Castle Rheinfels (largest along the river), Heidelberg with its medieval cityscape and baroque castle, and Hornberg Castle. A book of legends about the Rhine River helped further inspire me at home.
Music: I inherited a love for classical music from my father, particularly for the more romantic composers. Some of the early recordings that fired my spirit of imagination were Holst’s The Planets, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Wellington’s Victory, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and excerpts from Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; the liner notes outlining the characters and plots of those operas inspired me to further research the original mythology. (I’d already enjoyed several movie soundtracks, particularly for Star Wars, but hadn’t truly started exposing myself to genre films and their inspiring soundtracks.) I have a particularly fond memory of sitting at my desk listening to Holst’s The Planets on a cheap turntable we bought at a neighborhood tag sale while reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Savage Pellucidar (also acquired from said neighborhood tag sale).
Toys: Our parents provided us with a solid collection of toys that catered to our interests and fostered our imaginations; and though we often felt at the time other kids had more and better toys (who doesn’t, even as adults?), in retrospect they made sure we had a good pile of toys we truly enjoyed without overindulging us too much. Among the ones that possibly encouraged me along the path toward roleplaying games were the obligatory Star Wars action figures, a small host of plastic army men and vehicles which battled in dirt patches in the back yard, a small host of Britains Deetail Toy Soldiers medieval knight figures (admittedly belonging to my brother), and Lego building bricks we used for a variety of fantastic projects, from building ships and cars to military vehicles and castles.
Books: In retrospect my youthful self did not have an intense affinity for reading -- and certainly not the voracious appetite for it I now maintain -- beyond that required for my schoolwork. Non-fiction certainly bored me since I hadn’t found any particular interests on which to focus, and I wasn’t yet aware of a fiction genre that grabbed my attention. But I found a few captivating books on my parents’ shelves and was given several that engaged my imagination. The National Geographic books Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World and Everyday Life in Bible Times contained enough illustrations -- photographs, maps, and wonderful conceptual drawings -- to inspire a curiosity in ancient civilizations and mythologies. Men, Ships, and the Sea also helped give me a sense of history and exploration. A two-volume set of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend helped guide further explorations into mythology.
Movies & Television: Despite my reluctance to explore exciting genres through literature, I fully enjoyed TV shows and films with fantasy, adventure, and science fiction themes (perhaps a symptom of the television-oriented society in which we grew up that worried we watched more TV than read books -- mirrored by today’s fear our kids spend too much time plugged into the internet than interacting in person with actual humans). This interest was actively fostered by the New York City secondary network stations that frequently ran such fare as King Kong, Godzilla movie marathons, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sinbad films and other Ray Harryhausen fare,  The Lost World, Ivanhoe, and even Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. Of course my imagination was inspired by such science fiction film fare as Star Wars and The Black Hole. I can’t recall whether I read The Hobbit before or after seeing the Rankin/Bass cartoon version aired on television; the cartoon and novel fueled my first true interest in the fantasy literature genre, though my real love for fantasy and science fiction novels didn’t truly manifest itself until I’d done some gaming and decided to explore some of the genre source material first hand (with the help of a friendly local bookstore owner).
I don’t pretend to understand how all these factors specifically pointed me along the path toward roleplaying games. At best I realize they predisposed me to the two events that first exposed me to Dungeons & Dragons: seeing some neighborhood kids playing the game (and subsequently creating my own basic version) and receiving the Basic D&D boxed set as (ironically enough) an Easter present from my parents in 1982. They’ve provided a focus for my imagination and creativity ever since.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November Is Gaming Overdrive Month

November’s a busy time for gamer types. Two web-based movements -- Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) -- aim to boost awareness about their particular facets of gaming (another event -- National Gaming Day @ your Library on November 12 -- seeks to promote the growth of gaming programs in libraries). These fantastic endeavors not only inspire gamers of all levels to challenge themselves to complete new projects, in many cases they result in free gaming resources or at least some additional awareness and inspiration about other gaming forms. But events with such deep participatory commitment coming all in the same month can overtax enthusiastic gamers and diminish the effect of particular movements.
November Gaming Endeavors
Claiming a particular month to raise awareness about a certain issue is an effective strategy in our society. So it makes sense that two particular movements in gaming choose a month; and while November makes sense for NaGa Demon, since it mirrors the novel-based NaNoWriMo movement, also in November, I’m not quite sure why November also became the banner month for solitaire gaming. These efforts have two main results: they foster discussion about games and they create new gaming materials, in many cases offered for free on the internet.
The blog Solo Nexus has declared November Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month with the goal of offering resources, rules, and reports to encourage new players to try solo gaming while energizing experienced players to try newer and more comprehensive solo gaming endeavors. The blog challenged gamers to publicly commit to some kind of solitaire gaming experience:
Plan to use the whole month to finally paint those minis in the box on the shelf or try that rule set you bought last year or complete a fully-documented solo RPG adventure or design your own solo CCG with that software you’ve had your eye on or create the best after-action report of a solo battle ever or - well, you get the idea!
During November the site’s charting its author’s explorations of playing Marvel Heroclix with solitaire rules; he also provides links to other blogs with reports about solitaire gaming. Other predominantly solitaire gaming blogs have also mentioned this challenge; for those aficionados of solitaire gaming, they not only provide a focus on that subject in November but all year round.
November is also National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon), inspired by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Writer, podcaster, and game designer Nathan Russell challenges gamers “to create and play your own boardgame, RPG, flash computer game, choose-your-own-adventure book, wargame, cardgame or other distracting novelty.”
Both challenges and their associated websites lack a core element to help build a community and foster dialogue: they don’t provide an online forum to serve as a community space for folks to discuss their activities (other than the comments section of individual blog posts). Interested bystanders and fellow participants must track down efforts or follow occasional links from the original challenge websites. For instance, Stargazer, principle blogger over at Stargazer’s World, has taken up the NaGa DeMon challenge and committed to blogging about it at the site; but savvy gamers have to track down that and other efforts to chart others’ progress in the challenge.
On the Horizon
Several other challenges occur during the year; while I’m thankful they don’t occur in November, too, they serve as inspiring opportunities to dare ourselves as gamers to try something new and expand our creative boundaries.
Windhammer Prize: Sponsored by arborell.com since 2008, the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction encourages authors to write and submit their original solo gamebooks for the prize, awarded to the entry with the most reader votes. November marks the month when the site announces the winners; new guidelines are posted in March, while the submission period opens in August and closes in September, with reader votes accepted from mid-September to late October. The site provides extensive guidelines for entry formats as well as details on deadlines, prizes, and voting. While this contest provides a challenge to those seeking to design a solo gamebook, the Windhammer Prize also gives to fans of this genre a host of free gamebooks as many past and current award-winning or noteworthy entries remain available online for download.
One Page Dungeon Contest: This contest challenges participants to create an entire dungeon complete with map, descriptive key, and other notes all on one page. Participants submit their entries by the April 1 deadline, when a panel of judges reviews all dungeons and chooses the most notable entries in a variety of categories. Don’t let the contest page fool you…despite its minimalist look the One Page Dungeon Contest (1PDC) inspires a host of entries and publishes them in two PDF downloads, one featuring only the award-winning entries alone and another containing all the entries submitted. Some dungeons have truly amazing map artwork, while others incorporate innovative adventure designs. With dungeons eschewing game stats, gamers can incorporate them into nearly any game system. Hobby Games Recce has featured the One Page Dungeon Contest before as fostering a nostalgic love of maps and getting back to the roots of the old school roleplaying game movement.
BGG Solo Boardgame Contest: Over the summer the encyclopedic BoardGameGeek site hosted a Solitaire Print and Play Contest to encourage designers to create, discuss, and submit designs for solo board games. The contest page, being a forum post, offers a space where designers can discuss their works and the contest in general, but isn’t really a good home page for past or future contest information; to find entries available for download requires going to the game’s page at BoardGameGeek and scrolling down to the files section (though this assumes the game’s freely available and not adapted for sale elsewhere). The site doesn’t make it clear if this is the first year hosting the contest or if it will re-occur next year. Overall the challenge to design a solitaire print and play boardgame can inspire creativity and provide some free gaming material to fans of this genre; but BoardGameGeek could further encourage future efforts with a web page dedicated to the contest and more easily accessible from the BGG home page.
Scheduling Creativity
While these movements and contests can challenge and inspire game enthusiasts to pursue creative efforts, they can also prove discouraging to those who don’t normally work to a deadline or who wish to participate in more than one. Instead gamers should look at past contest deadlines and challenge themselves to creative endeavors on their own schedule, sticking to the other guidelines for the activity.
Creativity isn’t easily forced. Many times an idea germinates and percolates, but must wait for a combination of ample time to come out onto paper (so to speak) with a suitable spark of inspiration and enthusiasm. Sometimes these contests come at a point where a designer has a few ideas percolating that fit the parameters and can be further focused; other times these movements offer a different perspective to re-focus a designer’s course for a project concept.
For instance, I love the concept of a one-page dungeon, but the timing doesn’t fit with my hectic schedule and my limited free time for creative endeavors. So I incorporated the goal of creating a one-page scenario into my occasional task of designing new adventures to run at local conventions. I had three concepts for three different games I run; two produced one-page scenarios while the third (ironically enough the most dungeon-oriented of the three) ran to a page and a half. In my eyes I fulfilled the guidelines of the one-page dungeon challenge (though I doubt either of the two are award-winning) while also completing a task on my own gaming “To-Do” list.
Here’s another example. The challenge from Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and my general awareness of the BoardGameGeek Solitaire Print and Play Contest coincided with some inspiration from a World War II magazine article and my nostalgic feelings toward Avalon Hill’s classic solitaire wargame B-17: Queen of the Skies (about which I’ve opined before). I started developing a table-driven game along similar lines for a different theater of the war. It’s taking a little longer to develop to my satisfaction, especially since I’m considering offering it for sale online for a nominal price when it’s complete; but I’d never have really considered it without prodding from outside influences.
In both cases calendar-based events inspired me to further focus my game-design efforts along lines I wouldn’t normally consider.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wanted: Family Game Expo

Americans have nothing like Germany’s Spiel Essen…and we should.
Internationale Spieltage SPIEL has been held in Essen, Germany, since 1983. With more than 150,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors from 30 countries, it is hands-down the largest gaming convention in the world (with GenCon Indianapolis a distant second). It occurs every October, giving German families the chance to try and buy board games for the coming holiday season.
I regret I’ve never attended -- and given that roleplaying games are a small subset of what Spiel Essen does, I’ve never had the opportunity -- but from everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like one huge game demo. Spiel Essen is a gaming expo geared more toward families playing games than gaming hobbyists, like many American conventions. Much of its vast space is devoted to board and card game manufacturers demonstrating their games, most newly released for the show, first-hand to consumers. Additional areas highlight comics, some computer games, and play areas for kids, rounding out an overall family friendly experience. According to the expo website, Spiel Essen centers on “the idea of inviting the consumer and gamer to play new games and toys and make up his own mind about the quality of the individual game.”
I’m not advocating some organization running an exact copy of Spiel Essen here in America, but I think some group should try, even at the regional level, operating some portion of even an existing convention as a family oriented games expo to encourage greater participation in the hobby.
Americans Versus Games
Americans don’t play games like the Germans; this remains a primary obstacle keeping analog games of all kinds from becoming too mainstream.
Despite occasional campaigns to promote some semblance of a “family game night,” Americans spend more time “with” each other on cell phones, by e-mail, texts, and video chats than we do in person. People who are constantly plugged in don’t have the necessary face-to-face interactions in their social dealings. For games this means learning to show good sportsmanship whether winning or losing, figuring out how to play a game using printed instructions and physical pieces, cards, and boards, interacting with each other spontaneously and not by how quickly we can type or transfer our words and images over the internet. Part of this emerges from our hectic society that emphasizes productivity and money making instead of actually living and enjoying life. (And in these troubling economic times, our society gives us little choice but to obsess on our simple financial survival.) With our encouragement our kids are obsessed with over-achievement and over-involvement in school and sports; as parents we’re often diverted and consumed by our own interests, which we pursue from time carved out of other necessary obligations.
What we don’t always realize is how much recreation -- of all sorts, not just analog gaming -- helps recharge and re-invigorate us, providing a break in the middle of our hectic lives (much like recess used to in elementary school) so we can get back to work with renewed energy and focus.
Family Gaming Options
Occasionally we’re reminded and encouraged, if only for a fleeting moment, of the importance of gathering for games.
Hasbro in particular has long advocated having a family game night, using everything from television commercials to website resources. It’s an uphill battle dependent on the American family, which has more than enough stressors working against it, as noted above. Too often family gaming is relegated to the likes of toy department standards like Monopoly, Sorry, Scrabble, and Risk (including the re-tooled, re-licensed, and re-imagined versions of those games capitalizing on established brand recognition). While I’m an advocate of German-style designer board games (or high-end board games) and other gaming diversions, if a family game night with what many gaming hobbyists would consider “mundane” games is all people get, I’ll accept it.
Gamewright still offers the Gamewright GameNight program for schools, as outlined in a past Hobby Games Recce feature. School groups schedule and promote a game night program, learn to demo age-appropriate games using copies provided by Gamewright, and then run them at the event, selling copies of those games and keeping 50% of the proceeds for their fundraising coffers. It’s a fantastic model for a small-scale family game expo, providing both demo and sale copies as well as financial incentive to the organization administering and promoting the event. Gamewright’s titles are particularly well-suited to families with young children (as opposed to most high-end board games, which often have a minimum recommended age of 8 or 10).
Many conventions -- whether strictly gaming cons or sci-fi/fantasy media cons with gaming elements -- cater more to the gaming hobby, not the family market, and thus their offerings remain more focused to the dedicated hobbyist and not the casual gamer. Some provide children’s program tracks with appropriate games and activities, but they’re not geared toward promoting family board and card games. The most conducive con environment for getting families involved in games comes at conventions hosting open gaming areas supported by a game library; families can check games out of the collection, sit down at an open table (usually in the general board gaming play area), learn the rules at their own pace, and play the game. Right now this remains the closest American conventions get to Spiel Essen’s family friendly game demo environment.
Granted, the cost in attending a convention can become prohibitive (even assuming the entire family is interested in the con’s programming offerings) for what isn’t really an exclusive family event. In our neck of the woods, February’s Prezcon, a huge board gaming tournament convention, offers an open play option; while the adult prices are in the $30-$65 range for one to two days, the convention does offer free “Junior” badges for kids playing in Junior events or the open gaming area (though we’re assuming this requires a paying adult).
Other local family gaming options might exist in your area from two usual sources, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and your local library. Some game shops host events for families and children, but these remain few and far between, with little interest from parents who might not normally visit such “fringe” venues as comic and game stores. They often require more promotion than store employees have time, especially when reaching out to a new market. Occasionally libraries host gaming events, though most remain focused on teens, the most likely sector of the population to play board and card games for recreation. This makes sense for libraries just beginning to explore the role of games and play in their hallowed halls in an attempt to evolve their space more into “community hubs” than hushed repositories for books. Branching out to offer game programs for younger kids, adults, and seniors -- and particularly events for the entire family -- pushes the bounds of the current comfortable (and fundable) paradigm.
Promoting the gaming hobby -- whether tabletop roleplaying, board, card, or war games -- to the general, non-gaming public remains a grassroots effort. So I’m issuing a few challenges focused on you, the local gamer, store owner, librarian, and convention organizer, to make a concerted effort to offer family friendly events to encourage gaming.
Aren’t there gaming-oriented trade organizations that exist to promote this kind of agenda? I’m not going to challenge the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) here, since it already has its hands full running two conventions, one a strictly industry trade show each spring in Las Vegas and the Origins game convention at the beginning of the summer in Columbus, OH (in addition to numerous other duties as a trade organization representing a disparate crowd of creative types). Granted, GAMA would be the logical choice to spearhead such a family gaming expo, but right now it’s too consumed trying to serve the vast American gaming “industry,” much of which is still focused on pen-and-paper roleplaying games (though board and card game publishers have been an ever-growing population of its constituency).
So my challenges go out to more grassroots sources. Not sure where you fit in? Check out my last challenge:
To Friendly Local Game Stores: Make an effort to host well-publicized family-friendly events to encourage families to game together using board and card games purchased from your own shelves. Spread the word in the schools if permitted, local newspapers who are always looking for interesting features, and online websites and social media. Find some incentive to get families into stores: provide free pizza or even raffle off a prize game with one ticket per attendee.
Offer flyers recommending games you frequently stock that are appropriate for families rated by age and time needed to play.
To Local Libraries: Use your existing teen gaming base as volunteers to learn and demo games at a weekend afternoon gaming event for families. Let them help choose games recommended for appropriate age groups, help them familiarize themselves with the games and with effective ways of presenting them, and tap their enthusiasm to promote games to families already using other library resources. Create a brochure available at the event and elsewhere recommending games (particularly ones in your collection) appropriate for families with kids of various ages.
To Game Conventions: Consider increasing your offerings for kids and families. You don’t  have to design an entire programming track along these lines, but find and promote some events ideal for young people. At the very least make sure you offer an open board gaming area with some family appropriate games to check out. Perhaps even recruit an area organization like a board game club to help promote this aspect of your convention.
To Gaming Enthusiasts: Get involved, volunteer for existing events, and advocate that local organizations (game stores, libraries, schools, conventions) host family gaming programs. Start with the venues you’re already using, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and local library. If you’re a parent of appropriately aged kids, establish a regular family gaming activity and find some special events to attend…even visiting a gaming store and trying out a demo game counts as a good family, game-related outings.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bettering Ourselves: Gaming Academics

I’m a casual Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, so I’m aware of Jean Luc Picard’s frequent admonition that humans of his era strive to better themselves, which always strikes a chord in the idealistic recesses of my brain.

In the interest of improving myself, I’ve endeavored to acquaint myself with some of the academic-level scholarship about analog gaming. My interest emerges from two objectives I’ve informally pursued most of my professional life: designing roleplaying and board games, and introducing people to games as a popular, social form of entertainment (sometimes through educational and library venues).

I suppose this pursuit began back in 2008, when I first took note of Professor Scott Nicholson, associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and a very public advocate of games in libraries. Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers will recall him from several posts, including “Library Gaming Resources.” During the summer of 2008 Professor Nicholson offered a Gaming in Libraries course, 22 online video discussions plus several bonus videos from other librarians working with games. (The course videos remain available free online.) His insights on both analog and digital gaming in the library’s social setting, player interactions, and general organizational and promotional strategies inspired me to look at games more critically, beyond the sole perspectives of designer or player, and in the context of entertaining social interaction.
I’ve continued following Dr. Nicholson’s public work examining and promoting games, including his blog, Play Matters, about work and activities during a year-long sabbatical as a visiting faculty member at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.
Since then I’ve been collecting a number of resources on gaming scholarship and reading them as time permits; I’ve also obtained a few hard-copy books on the subject to add to a small library of volumes about gaming.
What can I learn from all this, and how can I apply it as a game designer and advocate? I believe that exposing oneself to a variety of ideas and experiences helps broaden our minds and thus our approaches to different challenges. Even if I’m not interested in a particular type of game or philosophy of looking at them, such diverse perspectives might enhance or inspire my own work. Perhaps I’ll find a solution to a design problem in a current project, or explore a new strategy in developing an upcoming game. Maybe this material offers new approaches to presenting games to a broader audience at conventions, libraries, schools, and other venues. It might challenge me to re-think my stance on core issues that remain integral to my game design and advocacy objectives.
We have a lot to learn from each other, especially since humans are still instinctively “tribal,” staying loyal to the various groups to which they belong, whether religious, ethnic, socio-economic, or professional. We’re ego-centric creatures, and the groups to which we belong tend to remain insular and defensive of both authority and mindset.
So when it comes to games -- whether designing them or introducing them into a particular non-gaming venue -- every professional sub-set seems to approach gaming from their particular insular perspective without necessarily looking to other disciplines for ideas or alternate approaches. Game designers, librarians, and educators all know the advantages and pitfalls of their individual professions, but don’t always appreciate what others have done and why, or whether a particular approach might work in their own field. By examining other perspectives and remaining open-minded to different approaches, we might gain new insight into the problems we face in our particular professions. Gaming enthusiasts can also gain insight from looking at games from academic perspectives…it’s not simply a professional pursuit, but an endeavor for anyone interested in gaming and expanding their appreciation for it.
Like learning through play, we should always learn through living; every day should bring a new lesson or some previously unnoticed (or suddenly rediscovered) bit of knowledge to improve our lives. In the hopes of inspiring others to broaden their gaming horizons, I’ve listed a few resources I’ve investigated during my pursuit of more a more academic perspective on gaming:
Scott Nicholson’s Work: As mentioned earlier Professor Scott Nicholson maintains an extremely visible presence on the internet and is generous in sharing his scholarly insights and projects, primarily about gaming in libraries but also including gaming and social engagement. He’s a wealth of knowledge about games, including how games, people, and spaces (like libraries) interact. He remains on the cutting edge of gaming scholarships with his year-long sabbatical at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, with his insights shared through his weekly blog posts about his activities, experiences, and newly developed materials. Don’t let his friendly façade fool you…he might focus on games and play, but he has some serious academic work going on. He and his work remain extremely approachable to non-academics and game enthusiasts. Professor Nicholson’s vast scope of online materials for self-edification include more than 70 videos about board games at Board Games With Scott; Play Matters, a weekly blog showcasing his scholarly work with games during his sabbatical at MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies; the Library Game Lab of Syracuse, Scott’s academic exploration of gaming and libraries, including his publications on the subject and several online talks; and his 22-video online course on Gaming in Libraries, with its related publication Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages. I heartily recommend his work for any librarians or gamers seeking to volunteer at a library gaming program; his material’s also a solid critical look at how we play games.
Bernie DeKoven & Deep Fun: One of Professor Nicholson’s inspirations is Bernie DeKoven, a game designer, author, lecturer, and “fun theorist,” whose book The Well-Played Game is going on my Amazon Wishlist. He has inspired other game design scholars (notably Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, authors of the game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals…see below) and consulted on the design of toys and games, including Lego’s recent entries into the board game field. DeepFun.com is a blog that takes a light-hearted yet thoughtful look at the importance of play and fun for everyone (not just kids or gamer layabouts like myself). Deep Fun offers a source of playful inspiration and stimulating resources, including current insights on play, excerpts from his lectures, books, and CD, quotations about fun and play, and Playing for Laughs, a page of group games particularly suited to library programs and workplace workshops. His joyous philosophy emerges in both his blog entries and his approach to the games listed at Deep Fun. DeKoven encourages people to think about games not in an academic frame of mind but from a playful perspective.
Books About Games: I have a small yet growing library of books about games, few of which would rate at the academic level, but all of which I find essential to a general knowledge of games, their evolution, and design. Among those I’ve found most useful are R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, and Dr. Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I’m currently reading Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals; it talks from an often abstract yet important perspective of what games should accomplish, elements to a successful game, and other aspects essential to game creation, all using examples from well-known analog and digital games. Thus far I’m finding it a kind of guide to life, if you will, outlining broad, core concepts and explaining how they work, and leaving it up to readers to apply them in their daily, practical lives. My Amazon.com wishlist has a few more titles I hope to acquire in the future (though one can’t really purchase additional time in which to read them…).
Library Journal: LibraryJournal.com provides a different perspective on games, examining issues like game programs at libraries, electronic access to resources, censorship, the changing role of libraries as a gathering place or “community hub” -- issues that also affect gamers in both their use of the library and the pursuit of their hobby. Aside from offering news from the world of libraries to further illustrate the challenges they face, LibraryJournal.com hosts several library-themed blogs: among the ones I find most engaging are Annoyed Librarian’s frank yet critical discussions of issues facing libraries and game industry veteran and librarian Liz Danforth’s Games, Gamers, & Gaming blog with gaming-specific insights. For those of us dealing with analog games (and in some aspects digital media as well), one theme in its article and blogs remains the role of a physical library (with space, books, staff, programs) in a swiftly evolving electronic age. It encourages us to look at the physical spaces and components for our own gaming lives (libraries, Friendly Local Gaming Stores, conventions, and other venues hosting our gaming activities) and how they might evolve given technological developments and changing political-economic conditions.
American Journal of Play: A quarterly, interdisciplinary journal examining the history, science, and culture of play, the American Journal of Play offers yet another perspective on issues related to gaming in articles from scholars across a wide range of specialties. The first three volumes (12 issues total) remain available free online; review the contents and abstracts online and download PDFs of individual articles that appeal to your particular interests. I have several from the most recent issue on my hard drive waiting for me to find time to read them: “Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Them Play: An Interview with Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy,” and “Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development.” These might seem a bit highbrow for some, but reading current scholarship on games and play might offer a different perspective on issues related to our own gaming and game design. The Journal is one branch of an educational institution called The Strong. According to its website, “The Strong is a highly interactive, collections-based educational institution devoted to the study and exploration of play.” It includes several “play partners” in Rochester, NY, that support this mission: National Museum of Play, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, and the American Journal of Play (all of which are worth exploring online).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Love for Thieves’ World

The popular Thieves’ World fiction anthologies stand out as one of the major developments in fantasy fiction that coincided with the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”). Thieves’ World was one of the first “shared universe” settings for fantasy that invited authors to contribute right from the start (as opposed to numerous others derivative of established, licensed media properties).
Conceived by the late Robert Lynne Asprin and co-edited by him and Lynne Abbey, the series was first published in 1979 with subsequent anthologies released throughout the 1980s (and a continuation in the early 2000s). Each collection presented short stories from established and up-and-coming fantasy authors featuring the setting’s favorite characters. Working from a central continuity bible outlining the basics of the city of Sanctuary, its neighborhoods, and the factions and notable personalities living there, authors infused the setting with their own characters, short tales, and overarching meta-plots that, despite a core continuity bible, began ranging far and wide across both the cityscape and the themes of fantasy fiction.
The stories ran the gamut from court intrigues and rogues’ conspiracies to gods playing with mundane mortals and strange magic that seemed to allow everything from petty enchantments to near-cataclysmic spells. Memorable characters included the well-armed thief Shadowspawn; the naive yet diplomatic Prince Kadakithis; former gladiator turned crime lord Jubal; cursed shape-shifting mage Enas Yorl; the prince’s bodyguards, the Hell Hounds, and their leader, Zalbar; the near-immortal Hell Hound Tempus; One Thumb, owner of the debauched Vulgar Unicorn tavern in the midst of the dangerous Maze neighborhood; and the alluring yet mysterious Myrtis, proprietor of the Aphrodisia House brothel and unofficial ruler of the infamous Street of Red Lanterns.
As with any shared-universe anthology the quality of the stories varied and fans followed their favorite authors, characters, and storylines. As the authors and editors released new anthologies the “meta-plot” of the setting rapidly changed: factions and characters from earlier stories adapted to or disappeared in the face of evolving developments in the setting’s larger world, from political maneuvering in the imperial capital to invasion by foreign powers.
Sanctuary Game Setting
In 1981, after publication of the first two anthologies, roleplaying game company Chaosium released the Thieves’ World Complete Sanctuary Adventure Pack, an ambitious boxed set with three books (guides for players and gamemasters, plus a tome about the city’s personalities) and numerous maps, including a poster-sized map of the city.
The boxed set provided a continuity for the setting that the anthologies could not (and would not as the series progressed and meta-plots ran roughshod over beloved characters and storylines). This came from the marked difference between a roleplaying game “guide” and literary short stories; one provides a definitive setting in which players can game while the other offers a linear, reading experience where the background details emerge through events in the story.
The boxed set components distilled the setting into two distinct features, the geography of Sanctuary and its notable denizens, the detailed setting and “non-player characters” necessary for a rich gaming environment. For roleplaying gamers, the city of Sanctuary offered untold possibilities for urban adventures, something new roleplaying gamers like myself hoped to explore after the dungeon and wilderness adventure formats in Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. The gamemaster guide in particular provided two interesting systems of tables generating random results, one for different establishments in various neighborhoods within the city, and one for creating random encounter throughout the different locales, each one, incidentally, a potential adventure hook. Although it was working with previously established material, the boxed game setting went one step beyond its source material; where the anthologies invited different authors to contribute stories based on a core setting and characters, the game box invited designers to provide stats for the city’s denizens in numerous popular roleplaying game systems of the time, each one providing its game-stat interpretation of the literary characters (whose roles and personalities were also conveniently summarized in the players guide).
The boxed set also included several additional elements that further appealed to gamers. The poster-sized city map was great to spread out on the gaming table for everyone to examine during an adventure, while the smaller maps, including a two-page spread city map in the player’s guide, were perfect for gamemaster reference. The random business and encounter tables led to unexpected twists and turns as characters roamed the city streets. Victoria Poyser’s artwork brought to life the personalities of Sanctuary to a degree far beyond simple character portraits.
Personal Reminiscence
I suppose I discovered Thieves’ World backwards. After immersing myself in Dungeons & Dragons right before starting high school, I saw an ad for Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed setting in a magazine and bought it without hesitation the first time I saw it in the local hobby shop. The boxed set introduced me to the setting concept, locations, and characters, though I’d heard and read a little about the anthologies from fellow game geeks.
My friends and I explored Sanctuary on several roleplaying game forays. Their heroes slipped into the city seeking fame and fortune and bumbled from one random encounter to another, resolving storylines along the way and inevitably running afoul of the city watch and the Hell Hounds. Aside from trying to break into the governor’s place, the most frequent goal for the characters was to find some way into Enas Yorl’s subterranean residence beneath the Jewelers Quarter.
I came across the Thieves’ World anthologies the summer before my senior year in high school, when I frequented a local, independent bookstore in town, bought a science fiction or fantasy paperback each week, enthusiastically read it, and returned for more (the proprietor was perceptive and encouraging enough to make sure his offerings in these genres were ample, and, when I started a particular series, he stocked all the relevant books). Having explored Sanctuary of the first two anthologies through the roleplaying game boxed set, I found the stories added depth to the gaming environment, much  like fiction vignettes help illustrate settings in a roleplaying game book; I still enjoyed them as stories, but I appreciated them as supplemental to the roleplaying game setting, rather than most folks who read the anthologies first and, if they were so inclined, used the boxed set as a concise guide to gaming in a literary based setting.
Years later I revisited the boxed set and the Thieves’ World setting to run a prototype fantasy system based on what would eventually become the D6 System. It was a short but more focused campaign that relied on the denizens of Sanctuary (and their hidden agendas) rather than random encounters to inspire the action.
In retrospect the Thieves’ World anthologies taught me several important lessons. I learned shared universes can roam all over the place; aside from varying qualities of the literature itself, the subject matter and tone can offer a very bumpy reading experience. I later learned as a editor (mostly of games, but also of two short story anthologies) that individual authors plot their own courses that don’t always fit the continuity or even spirit of the shared universe in which they’re writing.
The anthologies also helped me realize I’m not a fan of meta-plots. After reading the first two Thieves’ World collections I missed a few anthologies and picked up a book right after the Beysib occupation of Sanctuary, a setting shift that severely changed the focus of stories and motivations of characters and political factions. I like a static environment to game in. If an overarching plot element changes things, I prefer it do so in subtle ways, or in a manner affecting small portions of the setting and characters. I do not like jarring meta-plot changes that alter the setting’s core paradigm and require me to constantly adapt my perception of the literature or game setting. (It’s one of the reasons the recently re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series started losing me when humanity’s survivors settled on New Caprica; to me the series was all about a grittier “ragtag fugitive fleet” and not plopping down on a planet for half a season.)
I admit I was sorely tempted to pick up the new Thieves’ World roleplaying materials produced by Green Ronin Publishing in 2005. Several things deterred me. The cost of roleplaying game books has risen significantly since the “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” when I purchased the original boxed set for $19.95; the Player’s Guide to Sanctuary from Green Ronin alone cost $34.95. Although I was interested in the d20 System for a while, primarily as a freelance game author, I didn’t care much for it as a player. But ultimately I really didn’t want to sift through all that information to extract what to me was most vibrant about Thieves’ World…the first two anthologies, when both the fictional world and my own roleplaying game experience was in its naïve, wide-eyed infancy that took enjoyment in an urban medieval fantasy setting unsullied by complex meta-plots and chaotic campaign evolution.