Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Exponential Game Growth (Part I)

The emergence of the “Internet Age” has brought about explosive growth in all fields of gaming, even those like roleplaying and board games that have traditionally been published as analog games with physical rulebooks and game components. Today the choices available to gamers seem infinite compared with those available way back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”).
I’m starting to read R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (1969) -- one of a few choice gaming-oriented birthday goodies I recently received -- and it helps illustrate the vast number of games that have existed across time and world cultures. Unlike today’s games, these primarily consist of non-proprietary diversions many people in a society would have played with some degree of familiarity in their rare moments of leisure time. While many were produced and sold or given as choice gifts, some simply required a board drawn on sand or some other surface, a handful of pieces, and some randomizing element (the latter two scrounged and crafted from readily available materials). Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did games become the purview of professional enterprises producing and selling them to a broader market (usually a growing middle class with more leisure time and some disposable income for entertainment). R.C. Bell’s comprehensive catalog of games and rules -- as well as other works, like Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca (1995) -- pales in comparison to the specialty games available today, particularly roleplaying games and high-end board games.
When I first started immersing myself in gaming back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” game-industry giant TSR produced a slick catalog that found its way into every boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons, a 16-page, full-color flyer entitled “Gateway to Adventure: 1981 TSR Hobbies, Inc.” The glossy pages provided images and descriptions of every available product at the time, everything from the “basic” D&D materials to the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and all the then-current modules, plus other roleplaying and board games (remember Dungeon!, Snit’s Revenge! and Divine Right?). I wish I could find my copy, though I fear it was thrown out long ago; it’s the kind of gaming ephemera that reminds us of the hobby’s roots (like early copies of Dragon Magazine and their period advertisements). I will confess there was a part of my na├»ve, youthful self that hoped to someday collect all the D&D materials in the catalog.
Even back then a vast horde of roleplaying games crowded the market: TSR had D&D and AD&D, plus Top Secret, Boot Hill, and Gamma World; Judges Guild produced a plethora of supplements and modules compatible with D&D; Traveller dominated the science fiction roleplaying game genre; Aftermath! and Bushido from Fantasy Games Unlimited covered more genre-specific game settings; Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip established the groundwork for GURPS; and I’m probably forgetting and inadvertently omitting several seminal works available at the time. The ranks of professionally published games would only grow exponentially.
In 1991 Lawrence Schick wrote Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, an ambitious book cataloging all the roleplaying games, supplements, and scenarios available at the time, along with detailed bibliographical information, general commentary on most game lines, and short essays from notable game designers offering background on their contributions to the field. Amazingly it’s still offered through Amazon.com (new) and other online venues (used). Even in the early 1990s the vast catalog of existing roleplaying games could somehow fit into a 448-page printed tome.
Many factors aided the roleplaying game market’s explosive growth: an overall acceptance of roleplaying games after the stigma of the early 1980s; popular media producing more television shows, movies, and novels in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror (vampire) genres; an increase in publishing companies; and successes in related gaming fields, most notably the card game Magic: The Gathering. Before long roleplaying games appeared not only in specialty hobby stores but large chain bookstores and even general retail outlets. By the early 21st century, some of those early “D&D geeks” had good jobs in the technology sector, empowering them with larger disposable incomes to spend on their gaming hobby. Driven by business concerns, game companies more aggressively designed and published games to satisfy the growing market; in the latter years of the 20th century this exponential growth occurred primarily in the roleplaying game field, while in the early years of the 21st century this escalation has also spread to high-end board games (a term I’ll use to cover any board game with high-quality components often retailing above the $20 mark, including Euro- or German-style games, “battle games” with nice boards, cards, and pieces, designer games, and family strategy games).
When I worked as an editor, game designer, and editorial director at West End Games in the mid-90s, the company maintained an aggressive publication schedule of two or three Star Wars roleplaying game books per month, impressive not simply for the volume of material produced but for having to navigate the Byzantine labyrinth of the approvals process from Star Wars licensor Lucasfilm. These products shared the schedule with other items supporting the company’s other game lines. It fed a growing demand for Star Wars material at a point between a time when the license was considered “dead” and the release of new films.
The emergence of the Internet Age fostered a generation of gamers capable of employing new technologies like desktop publishing, graphic design programs, PDF files, and even program coding to share their creativity in the gaming field without the requirement of a publishing house to produce their ideas. Professional game publishers still exist, but they’re working to adapt to new technology; sure, they still produce books and high-quality board games, but they also port these materials to electronic formats, from PDF e-books to smart phone applications and online gaming sites. The Internet Age also provides a place where gamers can mingle and interact more easily than before. Where early gamers used to meet at the local hobby store and regional or national convention, they now congregate constantly online.
I’ll explore more about how the internet has affected game growth in an upcoming post; particularly how technology has empowered gamers and broadened the interaction among the gaming community.

(I regret this missive is little more than my own casual musings on the subject; it is in no way intended as a comprehensive or academic essay on the subject, though in time, I’m sure, we will see that in a retrospective analysis of our times.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Old School Hack Actual-Play Report

Among the roleplaying game sessions I ran at a recent convention was a scenario introducing my Infinite Cathedral medieval fantasy setting currently under development. While I like the D6 System as my default game engine, I wanted to try Kirin Robinson’s Old School Hack. It recently won an ENnie Award for best free product and caught my interest with its innovative game mechanics that, while drawing on nostalgia for old-school Dungeons & Dragons dungeon-crawling, employs several innovative mechanics. I’ve featured Old School Hack before at Hobby Games Recce, but this convention game provided my first chance to play it.

Five players joined me at the table and we walked through character creation using materials from the rulebook I’d printed. Everyone had a character and class sheet, plus a set of cards outlining combat actions and handy stand-up tent card with awesome point notes on the inside; in hindsight I should have printed up a few weapons and combat pages for player reference. After spending some time creating and introducing characters, we dove into the scenario, which I kept shorter than usual to allow for character creation with some meaningful game time. I won’t harp on the short adventure other than to say it included two combat scenes, one against a goblin bandit party and another against goblins with support from two hammer trolls, with some roleplaying scenes sandwiched between the skirmishes. During actual play several issues arose, most emerging from everyone’s general unfamiliarity with the rules:

Bonuses Everywhere: Old School Hack has a number of rules for advantages to keep track of, especially for players and a gamemaster trying to absorb a new rule set. They’re on the character sheet as talents, plus those offered in the inherent section of each class, then those from weapons used in favored arenas (and I might be forgetting others). At times we had trouble finding and remembering all the applicable bonuses to combat rolls, armor class, and damage. An issue like this resolves itself over time as everyone becomes more familiar with both the rules and their characters.

Combat Action Resolution: Players loved the card mechanic to show what everyone was doing in combat and in what order to resolve it (though as gamemaster I fumbled a bit adjudicating counter-attacking from defending heroes). Some players found inspiration in the cards and instead of simply attacking found interesting ways to use the “impede” and “push or throw” tactics.

Reward and Spend Awesome Points: The players took a while to remember to use the awesome point mechanics, both in awarding them and spending them (and remembering to mark off their expenditure as experience on their character sheets). Similarly, I as gamemaster didn’t put many points from my “Stack” into the player’s awesome point “Bowl” to boost their adversaries’ performance. Most bonuses from spending awesome points made sense, but paying three points to use another class talent raised some questions; we weren’t sure how this related to constant talents, and in the heat of the game I allowed using it to engage constant talents for the duration of the adventure, but probably should have only allowed its use for a specific task or a short scene.

Note that these issues aren’t flaws in the game as presented, but mostly the results of in-game unfamiliarity with the rules by both the players and gamemaster. Most questions that arose during actual play I looked up later and clarified for future reference. Running a campaign would certainly increase everyone’s fluency in the game’s nuances. Using the system for a convention one-shot might move along better with a gamemaster more experience with the rules and perhaps a different set of players.

The players displayed great enthusiasm for the game as they learned the practicalities of the rules and found how they encouraged heroic-style play; their enthusiasm was tempered only by a few slow portions when I had to look up and clarify how several mechanics worked. Both players and a few interested onlookers expressed amazement that these innovative, original rules were available free online.

Overall I liked Old School Hack for emulating classic D&D action. I’d use it again in a home or convention game now that I’m a bit more familiar with how particular rules work in play. We found the game fostered a fun sense of camaraderie, not simply from trying out the rules together, but primarily from the thoughtful tactics the combat actions encouraged and the rewarding awesome point mechanic.
Already someone has taken the Old School Hack approach to another genre, this one for a Fallout-inspired game called Retrocalypse (though it could work for any post-apocalyptic setting). Now if only someone would adapt Old School Hack to the pulp genre….

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Old School Hack Wins ENnie Award!

Congratulations to Kirin Robinson and his Old School Hack game for winning the 2011 Gold ENnie Award for Best Free Product.
The EN World RPG Awards (the “ENnies”) are an annual celebration of excellence in roleplaying gaming, with the final winners determined online by the voting gaming public in the style of a true peoples’ choice award. They’re a good indication of what’s particularly hot in the gaming community.
I’ve featured Old School Hack at Hobby Games Recce before and am still impressed with both its game innovations and intuitive layout. If you haven’t already at least read this inventive take on old-school Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying, download Old School Hack for free and check it out.
While it uses many familiar tropes from that classic era of gaming, it develops them for modern gamers seeking both the feeling of nostalgia and an original style of play. The game introduces some interesting interpretations of old-school hack-and-slash gaming elements: familiar classes with clearly defined talents yet a flexible skill system for non-combat tests; generic weapon and adversary descriptions to customize in descriptions without much game crunch; and an “awesome point” mechanic for experience and bonuses. Robinson achieves all this with a dynamic page layout featuring call-outs, sidebars, charts, and titles making reference intuitive.
Old School Hack also stands above the other nominees for this ENnie fan award category because it was the only standalone roleplaying game; other nominees were free quick-play, demo, or intro versions of more complete games available for sale.
I’m using Old School Hack this coming weekend at a gaming convention to run a scenario testing out my Infinite Cathedral medieval fantasy setting currently under development. It’s not exactly a dungeon crawl, but the character class mix, skill and combat resolution systems, and overall feel should work well.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

NG International Fate Uncertain, Fans Keep Playing

Only a month ago I wrote about the Italian company NG International (a.k.a. Nexus) that produces the Wings of War games and accessories of which I’m so fond. After severing a relationship with Fantasy Flight Games as American distributor for their games (ostensibly to directly serve the distributor tier themselves), NG International seems to have closed its doors, as a flurry of rumors recently reported. Much of this speculation emerged this past weekend on various forums, some with from posters claiming to be owners or staffers; the NG International website, which hasn’t been updated much since the announcement about the distribution shift, still remains online with no mention of new product developments or the current status of the company (not surprising, since nobody likes to announce they’re going out of business). Nobody’s sure if the company has closed completely or is undergoing a reorganization, or if any other entity is seeking to acquire rights to continue producing the Wings of War game.
Discussions of the situation on various message boards runs the range between cautious optimism and the understandable anger and feelings of betrayal that comes when, for whatever reasons, a company and beloved game disappear in a cloud of uncertainty. As of this writing, NG International hasn’t released any official press release or announcement about the status of the company or its games; not that companies in financial or other trouble go to great lengths to advertise their misfortunes. Until someone makes some kind of official announcement, internet speculation among fans and others continues to run rampant.
Despite all this uncertainty, I continue to maintain that no matter what happens to their favorite analog games, fans will find ways to continue playing and enjoying them (the fate of digital games, however, remains another matter entirely, as I recently reflected).
Many people -- both fans and gamers -- loved West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game using the D6 system. Frequent readers know that I personally worked on the game line for five years before West End hit financial troubles, lost the license, and effectively shut down production on further products (besides laying off the staff, etc.). Despite the game’s apparent “death,” many people still play it today, whether in nostalgic one-shot games or entire evolving campaigns. I still run Star Wars D6 scenarios at conventions and they usually fill up with enthusiastic players. The Internet Age has ensured renewed interest in and life for Star Wars D6 roleplaying, with online fan communities, web pages for personal campaigns, fan-produced sourcebooks, and even new iterations of the D6 System, like AntiPaladin Games’ excellent MiniSix variant ruleset (available as a free PDF download).
Wings of War has similar resilience thanks to online communities like the Wings of War Aerodrome, avid players, and fans capable of creating their own miniatures, scenarios, and new cards for aircraft, targets, and maneuvers (some of which they can share on the internet). Some toy companies and a few game manufacturers produce period aircraft miniatures near the 1:144-scale planes NG International released for Wings of War (though these are primarily World War II aircraft); I noticed several I should have picked up during a recent visit to a Hobby Lobby location; I also wonder how aircraft figures from the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game might work. Although the miniatures certainly add an appealing visual element to the game, one can still play using aircraft cards in lieu of minis.

Wings of War aficionados soldiered on in the face and last month’s distribution change; despite some mixed feelings and understandable disappointment with the most recent news, they continue to enjoy playing and creating new materials for their favorite game.

Update Aug. 2, 2011: Seems like the website ICv2 is reporting from a reliable Italian source that NG International is in fact liquidating, having fired or lost all its employees but its CEO overseeing the final arrangemetns; let's hope another company picks up the rights to develop, produce, and sell new material for Wings of War.