Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Resources for Gaming Ambassadors

As a follow-up to the earlier “Gaming Ambassadors” post I thought I’d explore resources for those seeking to get involved public gaming programs, as organizers and instigators or just as volunteers. Many of these websites offer advice specifically for library gaming programs, but have relevant strategies and inspiration for anyone looking to introduce gaming into an academic or public setting, including schools or public clubs.

Gaming in Libraries Course: Professor Scott Nicholson has helped mainstream the games in libraries movement, and the Gaming in Libraries course he developed and released online in 2008 remains the cornerstone reference on the topic (as well as the book that evolved from the course, Everyone Plays at the Library). The course remains available online for free, though it takes a while to view all 22 episodes plus the bonus material. Professor Nicholson includes digital games (primarily console games) as well as analog games in his strategies, and some classes exclusively cover electronic gaming. His insights on gaming in the library’s social setting, player interactions, and general organizational and promotional strategies serve as useful tools and inspiration.

Board Games with Scott: Professor Nicholson’s board games site, Board Games with Scott, provides video reviews of single or groups of similar games, a good way to research different games that might be better suited to a particular public venue. Video reviews are also great ways to examine game components without having to purchase the game itself.

Games for Educators: This online newsletter for teachers, librarians, and parents, presents the more academic side of gaming, primarily as a teaching tool. The site runs links to interesting stories about games and education, offers a monthly newsletter, and maintains a comprehensive archive of past submissions categorized by audience (teachers, librarians, home-schoolers and parents) plus reviews and free game resources. Given its academic origins, the site offers a different perspective on bringing games into an educational venue.

Junior General: This website promotes wargaming as an educational tool with simple rules for historical battles, complete with paper soldiers to print, cut, and deploy on the battlefield. Simulations and cardboard figures range from ancients like the Battle of Kadesh all the way through the major wars of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including the American War of Independence, the American Civil War, and World War II. Although most of the simulations were originally designed for grades 6-8, they could easily be adaptable for higher grade levels or even introductory wargames for adults.

ALA Resources: The American Library Association offers two websites with strategies and resources for introducing gaming in library settings, The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming and an ALA wiki page on gaming. The former offers for general tips and best practices, though it doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while. The ALA wiki site offers more updated resources from the ALA and other relevant online and print sources. Given a library’s more public role in the community, the ALA perspective focuses on presentation, administration, and fundraising as well as the practicalities of offering gaming as a library activity, from making games available for the public to explore to drawing teens and other groups into gaming events.

Stuart Brown’s Play: Psychologist Stuart Brown gave a talk at the 2008 Art Center Design Conference on the importance of play at all ages (recorded and available through the Ted website, which makes available for free some amazing presentations by contemporary thinkers and artists). Brown’s ideas also appear in his book, Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. He argues that humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun; that plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults -- and keeping it up can make people smarter at any age. Some might think these resources a bit too highbrow for the average gamer; but we should aspire to better ourselves, not so we can be better than others, but to become better individuals to effect a more positive difference in our lives and the lives of those around us. One might not necessary agree with every point Brown makes, but he offers a different perspective on why we game.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Become A Gaming Ambassador

Every time we gather to play games we’re ambassadors for the hobby. We hope our enthusiasm for the game and our contribution to an engaging game experience keeps everyone coming back for more, whether it’s multiple sessions of a favorite game or trying out a new game for the first time. Naturally gaming fans want to share their hobby with others, primarily to gain new players, but also to expand the hobby and draw more people into an entertaining pastime. Aside from benefitting the industry by drawing more customers into the hobby, it helps create a local gaming community with more players and thus more varied play experiences.

Stepping out into the public, even on such a limited basis, isn’t always easy or successful for members of a sub-culture who are commonly stereotyped as awkward in social situations. As a gamer for almost 30 years and one who’s appeared as a public advocate of games in a variety of venues, I’ve seen gamers of many different personalities try sharing their hobby with fellow gamers and the uninitiated with varying degrees of success; the former are often forgiving, tolerant, or even unaware of social foibles, while the latter rarely put up with them for long.

There’s a huge difference between running games in your living room or kitchen for a few friends and presenting games for public events with a variety of participants, many of whom are strangers to both you and the gaming hobby. You’re transitioning from the role of a casual gamer excited about the hobby to a public advocate of games, the face of gaming to those who’ve never dabbled in the hobby (or even heard about it).

Some gamers have the touch of a marketing and sales professional, deftly shifting the focus from themselves and their favored game to the players and their interests. Many, however, can’t seem to move past gamer mode to the role of gaming advocate, instead floundering around talking about themselves and their past games instead of creating an exceptional game experience in the present.

I’ve learned much from many years running roleplaying games at conventions, from small local gatherings to GenCon, from all-gaming cons to media conventions featuring a broad sampling of fandom. Whether presenting a quick game demo or running a full-length scenario, it’s important to prepare, tailor your presentation to the specific audience, and present a welcoming, encouraging, and positive demeanor.

Here are a few suggestions for any event focused on sharing games in a public setting -- classroom demonstrations, library game events, gaming store demos or game days, and convention games -- anywhere potential players might wander about, casually checking out game offerings and possibly sitting down to play. Use them for inspiration on how to better serve as a gaming ambassador; please take the time to evaluate them within the intended context to make sure they’d work with your particular event:

Promotion: Good public relations not only promotes the event to potential players but raises awareness of the hobby within the community and brings some note to the organizers’ volunteer efforts. Use social media by posting event details on personal websites and blogs, forums on relevant sites (such as the local gaming store’s website), and possibly even contacting local media outlets with press releases and event listings. Get approval to promote the event through posters to display at area businesses catering to potential gamers. It’s a good idea to share your ideas for promotions with event organizers so you don’t duplicate efforts or inadvertently violate the venue’s policies.

Visual Presentation: At the event make sure your game has maximum visual appeal with elements that draw people to your table and get them excited about the game you’re offering. Set up the game, making sure those interested can check out all the pieces and skim the rules. If you have multiple copies, set up one for attendees to look over while the other functions as the playable demo. Make a sign to prop up on the table so people know what you’re running; include a clear image of the game, it’s name in large type, and the game’s manufacturer so those who really enjoy it can buy a copy themselves. Of course, making a good presentation also means maintaining a good personal appearance and wearing clothes appropriate to the venue.

Handouts: Offer people something they can take away as part of the game to remind them of their experience and inspire them to keep playing…a flyer to help learn the rules, play the game, and get in the mood. The most typical of these consist of one-page rules summaries players can reference during the game, but you might use other ideas depending on the kind of game. For roleplaying games create a handout to introduce players to the game’s genre; when running a pulp game I mock up a period newspaper front page that includes stories about locations, events, or people the heroes might encounter. Both wargames and board games might use tent cards to both identify players’ real names and any factions/units they’re playing on one side, and a brief turn or rules summary on the other. Historical wargames might use short situational summaries, maps, or mock orders to put the game in context.

Welcoming Host: Strive to always be a positive, knowledgeable, and friendly host for the game. Introduce yourself and encourage participants to do the same, possibly asking them to list their favorite movie, book, or game to help break the ice. Do your homework; know the game you’re running inside and out so you’re comfortable talking about it without burying your head in the rules. Speak clearly, and encourage others to do so, to make sure everyone can be heard and understood above any noise from other games. Be a positive role model for good sportsmanship; the main objective is to share an enjoyable gaming experience.

Gaming Ambassador: In public we’re gaming ambassadors…everything about us, our appearance, speech, attitude, and conduct during the game, reflects on ourselves, fellow gamers, and the hobby. Present a positive and encouraging face to help ensure everyone has fun and returns for more.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MiniatureWargaming.com Features Free Resources

MiniatureWargaming.com highlights numerous free resources for the miniature wargaming hobby -- from rules and scenarios to cardstock soldiers, terrain instructions, and painting tips -- as well as free roleplaying games and print-and-play board games.

I enjoy exploring local history where I happen to live, so I’ve recently become interested in creating some kind of miniature wargaming scenario based on a skirmish in that occurred in town. I searched the internet for a set of free basic rules for the American Civil War and stumbled upon MiniatureWargaming.com as a fantastic resource.

Daily posts offer links to free materials; check it every day to stay in touch with the hobby or use its tags or search engine to look for something in particular. My quest for Civil War rules led me to click on the appropriate listing under the “Free Wargames Rules By Category” sidebar at the top of the homepage; I browsed the 43 entries and clicked through the links to those that seemed to satisfy my requirements.

Seeking something new? Browse more than 350 pages of archived posts (at 10 posts per page means more than 3,500 items) that ensure plenty of resources and fresh ideas. Granted, over time some links have vaporized into the ether, but most remain active as free resources.

The site also sports a “minipedia” wiki, galleries, forums, and the other usual trappings of an online community, as well as a dedicated miniature wargaming search engine that focuses on the contents of more than 3,000 tabletop gaming related sites. While these help round out MiniatureWargaming.com’s overall function, it’s primary value comes from the daily posts of free materials and the subsequent archive of past posts one can browse or search.

Take some time to explore MiniatureWargaming.com, expand your view of wargaming and history, and download some excellent gaming resources.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Price of RPGs

Gamers have a notorious, bi-polar reputation regarding money. On one hand, they can display an extreme thriftiness toward gaming purchases, yet on the other, they sometimes seem willing to shell out exorbitant sums for products other “mundanes” (and even other gamers) might consider frivolous. The vast range of prices for gaming products -- and the formats available, from electronic PDF files to full-color, hard-cover books or box sets packed with nifty components -- further muddles the perception of gamer spending as either cheap or extravagant. Rather than cramming them into one stereotype, people might view gamers as regular consumers, willing to spend their money on good-quality products or materials with great meaning for them while watching their wallets and taking advantage of good deals and free product when possible.

For those gamers who’ve been around a while, games today represent a significant investment. When I first experienced roleplaying games back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), the core “starter set” for Dungeons & Dragons cost $12; it included the basic rulebook, an adventure module (the iconic B2 Keep on the Borderlands), and six plastic, polyhedral dice…everything needed to play. The roleplaying game market was dominated by several companies that produced a modest handful of games and supplements, a steady stream of product, but not a flood. Back then most adventure modules cost around $6, hardcover rulebooks $12 or $15; quite affordable in those days.

Today the introductory D&D set still comes at a bargain price of $19.95, and, packed with loads of goodies (tokens, character sheets, power cards, dungeon map, and, of course, dice), is the perfect vehicle to entice new players into the hobby, albeit a slightly more expensive one than in the past. Beyond these kinds of loss-leader introductory games, however, most roleplaying game core books or boxed sets represent significant financial investments. Back in the early eighties, the Dungeon Master’s Guide cost $15, with the Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook at $12; today their equivalents retail for $34.95 each. Yes, all three fourth edition books come as full-color hardcovers, but the basic buy-in for the game (all three books) comes to $104.85.

The Dungeons & Dragons books represent the norm for today’s roleplaying games. Most games’ core rulebook costs upwards of $40…and while boxed rules sets are prohibitively expensive to produce despite the seductive goodies packed inside, $40 for a book seems a bit much. Factor in the cost of adventures and supplements, and getting into a roleplaying game today can seem a major financial investment.

The few games I’ve purchased in the past few years confirm a higher price point, with mostly high quality on the return: the Battlestar Galactica Roleplaying Game ($44.99, 224 full-color pages, hardcover); Tekumel ($39.95, 240 black-and-white pages, hardcover, with full-color map); Savage Worlds’ Pirates of the Spanish Main ($39.99, 256 full-color pages, hardcover); Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space ($59.95, 144 full-color pages in several booklets, dice, box, counters).

Certainly people in other gaming-related hobbies pay just as much if not more to satisfy their gaming habits. A nice board game easily costs $30-$40, while materials for miniatures wargaming can add up given the cost of minis and slick-looking, hard-cover rules and army lists.

Like other games across the hobby, roleplaying game price tags pay for high production values and the creativity and innovation behind a game experience with one of the highest replay values for any gaming-related activity. Once a good gamemaster gets a copy of the core rules, that’s usually all he needs to send the players’ characters off on endless campaigns. This requires some degree of preparation on the gamemaster’s part, whether he meticulously plots out each scenario or simply improvises encounters, adversaries, and plots along the way. Many games have free online support, either “official” material from the publisher or unofficial fan-created publications. Gaming forums, fan sites, and “wikis” with information, guidance, and resources for the game can also inspire gamemasters and provide material for campaigns.

I’m not advocating never paying for roleplaying game material -- though that’s quite possible in today’s world of free online resources and personal creativity empowered by desktop publishing -- but I’d argue that gamers do what they’ve done all along: pay for the professionally produced products that engage their interests while supplementing their habits with free materials online and their own creations.

Free Roleplaying Games

The advent of the internet and a truly global community accessible from one’s home computer, laptop, or mobile device means gamers don’t need to rely solely on their local gaming store for gaming news, free promotional materials, and new product. It also enables average gamers to post their creative efforts without the requirement of a game publishing company to disseminate material. This led to a torrent of amateur material feeding the existing flood of professionally published roleplaying game resources, all with varying quality; I’ve seen some “professional” material that proved sub-par and some “amateur” publications with professional quality that explored innovative concepts in gaming.

Much of the “amateur” material remains free on the internet, including some very good (and in many cases concise) core rules for roleplaying games. I’ve listed a few that have impressed me below, in alphabetical order free from any personal biases I might harbor. They represent a smattering of styles and content, from basic rules sets to setting-specific storytelling-style games. This is by no means an ultimate or definitive “best of free RPGs” lineup, but a short list of those I’ve read, in some cases played, and all of which I’ve admired. Since I believe that even free core rules can and should lead to future purchases, I’ve included a “supplemental purchase” note at the end of each game description listing a suggested retail product to further enhance the free game -- support some professional game publishing houses and your local gaming store with your purchase:

Barbarians of Lemuria: This swords and sorcery game evokes the feeling of Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian (and the subsequent films…). The rules offer the standard roleplaying game workings with a Hyborian-flavored setting. Author Simon Washbourne also created the alternate history game 1940 - England Invaded; both games are available from 1KM1KT (1,000 Moneys, 1,000 Typewriters), a solid online resource for free indie games. Supplemental Purchase: Any of Mongoose Publishing’s licensed Conan roleplaying game supplements can serve as resources for Barbarians of Lemuria, particularly the setting gazetteer Road of Kings; sadly, at this time Mongoose no longer publishes Conan material, though one can find the books circulating in local gaming stores, or download materials from Mongoose’s PDF magazine Signs & Portents.

GURPS Lite: This streamlined, free version of Steve Jackson Games’ venerable Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) provides an introduction to the game’s basics in a concise, 32-page format. While not an introductory roleplaying game, those familiar with gaming concepts can find a solid base for a generic game system. You can download it from Steve Jackson Games’ online store, e23. Supplemental Purchase: With GURPS Lite gamers can use most supplements from GURPS’ exhaustive catalog across numerous genres…my favorites include Egypt and Imperial Rome, though they produce many historical, science fiction, and fantasy resources.

Lady Blackbird: This indie game helped pioneer an entire genre of games with an emphasis on storytelling with an elegant, bare-bones rules system. The website blurb covers it all: “Lady Blackbird is a steampunk adventure module for 2-6 people. It contains a starting situation, setting, pregen characters, and quick-play rules perfect for a no-prep game of 1-6 sessions or more.” Creator John Harper offers a very basic game framework with a clean graphic design, intuitive character sheets, and simple but elegant game mechanics. Admirer Timothy Adamson compiled information about and elaborated on both the system and setting in the Lady Blackbird Companion. Supplemental Purchase: The innovative game system could work with other steampunk games, their settings, scenarios, and sourcebooks, including various iterations of Space 1889 and Castle Falkenstein.

Mini Six: The descendent of West End Games’ cinematic D6 System remains a free PDF download with a concise summary of the rules (and various options) and several short settings covering various genres. Hobby Games Recce already offered a comprehensive look at Mini Six in a past feature; it provides all the rules to play a cinematic-style game with an easy-to-learn system. Supplemental Purchase: Mini Six works with any sourcebooks and adventures from past West End publications, including material for Star Wars and Indiana Jones; or one can customize it to work with any published setting.

Old School Hack: Another admirable project Hobby Games Recce recently featured, Old School Hack simulates the classic Dungeons & Dragons action with an elegant system based on early D&D but nuanced with more intuitive rules and an interesting group “awesomeness” mechanic. The clear, concise layout and numerous player handout pages help make it newcomer friendly under the guidance of an experience gamemaster. Supplemental Purchase: Pick up any Dungeons & Dragons-type scenario, especially those designed for beginning or low-level characters, and run it using Old School Hack.

Risus, The Anything RPG: A brilliantly short, funny system for a quick pick-up game, Risus distills abilities into clich├ęs instead of skills and other typical game stats, so it’s easy to whip up a few characters and pull together a last-minute improvised game in nearly any setting. An active fan community creates a wealth of Risus-related source material or setting conversions available free online. Supplemental Purchase: Since the Risus rules lend themselves to humorous mischief light-hearted games like Toon or Teenagers from Outer Space provide fun settings and supplemental game concepts. Given the genre source material from any other game, one could easily adapt it to humorous or serious Risus play.

Warrior, Rogue & Mage: Like Old School Hack, this game provides a rules platform for classic Dungeons & Dragons-type adventures, with more traditional mechanics, weapons list, spell descriptions, and bestiary. Some short fantasy world notes provide a campaign environment assuming players don’t port the system to their favorite established setting (or an original one). It’s major innovation, aside from its streamlining, comes from the attributes…rather than shoehorning characters into classes, their primary stats gauge how good they are at warrior, rogue, and mage skills. Supplemental Purchase: Any high fantasy scenario or setting can work with Warrior, Rogue & Mage, from classic Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings to campaign worlds like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Middle Earth, and RuneQuest.