Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In-Game Player Roles: Caller, Mapper…Chronicler?

Early incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons suggested some players in the group assume additional duties beyond running their characters, roles designated the “caller” and “mapper.” While these responsibilities seem appropriate in a more rules-centric game given their administrative, in-game nature, a third role, that of the adventure “chronicler,” might serve to record in one style or another the group’s encounters and accomplishments for future reference and retelling.

Caller & Mapper

The Moldvay edition of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules states:
“One player should be chosen to tell the DM about the plans and actions of the party. This player is the caller. The players may tell the DM what their characters are doing, but the game runs more smoothly when the caller relays the information.”
“One player should draw a map of the dungeon as it is explored. this player is called the mapper…. Maps are drawn to help players visualize the area their characters are exploring and provide a record of sections of a dungeon they have already explored.”

These player roles serve administrative purposes during the game, notably to act as a liaison between the group of players and the gamemaster and to record in map form where the characters explore and what they encounter there, primarily for in-game reference. I vaguely recall using these roles in my earliest D&D experiences; we didn’t always use them, and, beyond dungeon delving-style gameplay, these jobs don’t always have relevance. I have foggy impressions that, when we did use them in those early days exploring D&D, the caller was the role every player wanted, since it seemed like the boss-leader position in the party, and the mapper was the less desirable, bookkeeping job. I certainly didn’t use them in other roleplaying games, and not in later D&D games after my exposure to games less concerned with in-game administration than with running exciting adventures with varying rule sets in different settings.

Both duties embody concepts quite opposite to the styles of gaming I favor today. The caller seems obsolete for a gamemaster who prefers each player to describe his character’s actions (even after conferring with the group) and invites everyone at the table to contribute to rendering maps when the situation calls for them. Perhaps their primary goal was to provide structure to those unfamiliar with roleplaying games whose first experiences came from dungeon-delving adventures with large parties of characters.


My past gaming escapades have frequently spawned another unofficial player role more relevant to the overall roleplaying game experience, that of a “chronicler” of sorts. This player steps forward and records the adventure’s events in some form or another.

In its most basic role, a chronicler keeps a few basic notes on what occurs during a scenario: the set-up premise or introduction, key events and the characters’ role in them, the climactic resolution of the adventure, and any follow-up materials. Sometimes these take the form of simple notes, other times the chronicler artfully crafts it into an in-universe account to reflect the nature of the campaign. These more elaborate retellings sometimes evolve into a character journal, a natural development for those who enjoy crafting elaborate background stories for the characters.

I freely admit that, counter to my lifelong love of reading, writing, and game designing, and my other aspirations as a writer, I’ve never really possessed the urge to chronicle my infrequent experiences as a player, either for a group’s adventures or my own character’s exploits. Perhaps this stems from my more frequent role as gamemaster, responsible for creating and an adventure and, true to my nature as a game designer and writer, often transcribing my scenario materials into a form suitable for eventual publication.

In several campaigns -- most notably long-running Star Wars D6, Cyberpunk 2020, and Space 1889 games over the years -- one player usually kept a record of interesting quotations from characters, mostly humorous ones or those from key moments in the game. Few make any sense to those outside the game group; few have much relevance to me so many years later, even when I search my memory to put everything in context. But at the time, and for a while afterward, they were pleasant and humorous reminders of what the characters encountered and how they reacted throughout long campaigns.

One player was quite a gifted artist and created renderings of characters, villains, locations, and in-game scenes when she found the inspiration, time, and energy. I still have some copies of these sketches, and they remain a more vivid memento of our adventures than any list of humorous quotations or even a written account of our escapades. She illustrated a few climactic scenes from several adventures in montages, and gave visual life to the players’ heroes and non-player characters encountered. (I later hired her as a freelance artist when I edited The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal for West End Games and gave her motivation and a venue for her artistic talents.)

These various chronicler efforts serve not only to keep track, in an administrative way, of what the characters do and where they go, but act as mementos of the adventure for the players, reminding them how they spent their four hours gaming and serving as a springboard for the inevitable future retelling of what their characters accomplished.

Future Inspirations

My inspiration for a “chronicler” player role comes not only from my past gaming experiences but from my development of several future gaming projects.

In developing a solitaire wargame of sorts, I was faced with the solo gamer’s conundrum of investing an hour or two in solo gaming pursuits and have nothing really to show for it other than their own fleeting enjoyment and satisfaction. Solitaire gamers don’t even have a shared experience with others (though some quite nicely offer accounts of their solo exploits in online blogs). The nature of the game as a historical wargame presented me with a readymade solution in the form of a military patrol logbook, a chronicle of sorts of my activity throughout the game; each “day” in the game the player notes his activities as if recording it as part of his military duties, ending with an in-universe record of his exploits.

The roleplaying game project on my desk -- one of several, though my brain is inspired and thus motivated to develop this one -- hearkens back to a time when D&D was new in a somewhat old school renaissance way, yet one generally geared for a younger audience with a different game engine. Since it’s tapping into that Moldvay-edition D&D atmosphere, I thought I might offer some in-game incentive (such as bonus experience or some other character perk) for a player who, by their own actions or in the guise of their hero, takes on the role of the group’s chronicler, noting their accomplishments in whatever form seems viable. I’m still toying with this one, since it has implications within the game rules, but it’s something I’d like to explore.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Early D&D Layout “Graphically Desolate”

Nostalgia works in strange ways. I have fond memories of the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks (the Moldvay editions) that fueled my entry into the adventure gaming hobby back in 1982, but obviously back then I had no idea how graphically desolate they were apart from the iconic artwork they contained. Obviously I’m looking at the layout from current graphic standards in the gaming industry; but despite what we might consider today to be a very minimalist graphic design style, the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks still managed to impart by its content and artwork a sense of wonder in those who entered the hobby through those books.

I’m working on several projects incorporating elements of the old school renaissance, a hearkening back to the heyday of roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s). These projects aren’t specifically what many would consider strict “old school renaissance,” but I’m trying to integrate that feeling into some elements of the games themselves, and wanted to see if early D&D layout could add some atmosphere to the graphic presentation.

A graphic design mentor -- West End Games’ indomitable production manager Rich Hawran -- once taught me to look at other publications to see how they integrate various graphic elements to create a style, picking and choosing what worked for my project, enhancing my own concepts, and getting ideas to make things fresh on the page. Since I want one of my projects to have the visual look of early D&D, specifically the Moldvay edition that introduced me to the hobby, I thought I’d pull my old Basic and Expert D&D rulebooks off the shelf and page through them to see how the overall layout and elements like headers and footers looked in the seminal roleplaying game of my youth.

Goodness gracious me, I was disappointed.

I was looking for layout ideas that evoked the graphic feel of B/X D&D; what I found was a plain, cramped, two-column layout with minimal margins, uninspiring section titles, incidental headers, and little rhyme or reason whether they were omitted for section titles. I found no practical font usage, no text wrapped around illustrations jutting into columns, sparse sidebars, and tables set within the column text. I paged through the two modules that came with the Basic and Expert sets, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and X1 The Isle of Dread; the most innovative layout concepts consisted of occasionally indented dungeon entries or, in X1 The Isle of Dread, some boxed text for dungeon masters to read aloud.

Perhaps this underwhelming layout helped focus readers’ visual attention on the artwork, much of which remains iconic to those who entered the roleplaying game hobby through Basic/Expert D&D. Who could forget the remarkable Erol Otus illustrations within the Basic rulebook’s pages, or the other pieces that demonstrated unfamiliar fantasy roleplaying concepts like character classes and alignment?

Certainly the graphic design of the rulebook and module covers from this era remain iconic and well-done: both the Basic and Expert rules used what has become classic Erol Otus cover artwork, and the overall graphic design of the modules, with their corner banner reminding readers “For Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set” (or Expert set), large illustration, and descriptive text, define the look of both D&D and AD&D adventures of that time.

So what makes a layout distinctly old school gaming? Is it this minimal use of fonts and font sizes, minimal headers and footers, and occasional outstanding artwork? Is it some balance between what we loved as kids exploring roleplaying games and what’s available to us now as creators and publishers? These are issues I’ll examine going forward on my projects incorporating elements of the old school renaissance and my own nostalgia for the days when roleplaying games were novel, innovative, and inspiring.

Perhaps the graphic “style” of these early, seminal rulebooks and modules is simple minimalism. Use the same font and distinguish section subheads with bold and all-caps. Avoid indentations starting each paragraph and include some extra leading between paragraphs. Indent entire paragraphs or other bits of relevant information. Keep tables in the text within the column. Keep sidebars to a minimum. Like the projects I have in mind -- which merge new game ideas with the flavor of old school renaissance -- I’ll consider which of these graphic elements work for my purpose and which don’t when designing layout styles.

Post Script: Having been involved in publishing professionally since 1990 (and in a student capacity before then) I realize graphic design practicalities were far different when D&D first appeared than they are now in this Electronic Age of desktop publishing. Still, other publications of its time show even a basic knowledge of fonts and layouts contributing to a clear organization and crisp graphic style.

Post Post Script: While poking through my rulebooks I was delighted to find a few relics from later in my roleplaying game days, when I’d returned to the B/X D&D rules in a proto-old school renaissance back-to-basics move. They included a few low-level magic items to give starting characters some inheritance to help them in their misadventures, a homemade “combat wheel” for calculating D&D thacos (based on one from Dragon Magazine for AD&D) and two hand-drawn maps of campaign locales that never really took off.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Table Top on Geek & Sundry

Wil Wheaton’s Table Top web television show on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel recently caught my eye as an innovative integration of reality show-style production with board game video feature.

As the father of a toddler I don’t have much time to watch television or movies (let alone have much time to myself, period); even viewing online videos cuts into time for other tasks. So I rarely take much interest in television/web TV media unless it really seems noteworthy; however, when adorable geek and prolific web-TV producer Felicia Day announced Geek & Sundry, I took note (I’d previously enjoyed her Dragon Age: Redemption web mini-series, though I don’t have the time or patience to catch up with previous seasons of The Guild…yet).

The Geek & Sundry YouTube channel offers a number of interesting new programs -- check out the preview video for an overview -- as well as a home for Day’s The Guild; but what particularly caught my eye was Wheaton’s Table Top, which tapped into my interest in contemporary board games. The previews touted Table Top as a reality style show similar to celebrity poker featuring notable geeks playing a particular game each episode.

I’ll admit I had some trepidation given my general dislike of reality style television; but I was pleasantly surprised by the first episode, which featured Wheaton and three fellow geek personalities playing Days of Wonder’s Small World. The video’s 30-minute format works well, with Wheaton offering a brief but informative overview of the game followed by key portions of the game play (such as opening moves and major strategic action), colored by the participants’ personalities. Video graphics showing close-ups of pieces, highlighted sections of the board, and other information help summarize game concepts and follow developments throughout the course of the game; the slick production values enhance viewers’ understanding of the rules. In-game commentary, both at the table and during individual interviews, further demonstrates not only individual strategies but good sportsmanship in the face of victory and defeat.

In the past I’ve enjoyed Professor Scott Nicholson’s Board Games with Scott videos, which offer specific features on individual games as well as broad overviews of several games within a genre. While Table Top isn’t quite the next iteration of such features (a category in which I’d also include “unboxing” videos and in-play reviews), it’s another entertaining perspective on the growing board game phenomenon. Rather than a basic overview or review, Table Top’s  combination of reality show and game feature provides an enhanced look into the actual experience a game offers; granted, this varies with the players, but Table Top’s participants help make this look appealing and provide an entertaining video, too.

I’ve had Small World on my Amazon.com wish list for a while, but haven’t yet had the courage to shell out $49.95 to buy it. Wheaton’s Table Top episode featuring the game pushed me closer to the brink. These days the internet offers plenty of opportunities for researching game purchases, from rules downloads at publisher websites to online reviews of all sorts. Still, nothing makes an impression quite like trying the game out for oneself, or at least watching an engaging play experience like that shown on Table Top. The show isn’t really a review, but provides a concise overview of the game, highlights key game elements, features engaging demonstrations of in-game play and strategy, and offers an entertaining look at one group’s play experience; viewers can judge for themselves if the game seems right for them.

Despite constraints on my time and my general impatience in watching online TV or movies on my laptop, I’ll admit a mild fascination with Felicia Day’s web video endeavors. Her involvement as a producer of Table Top as well as one of the driving forces behind Geek & Sundry draw me to explore more offerings on that YouTube channel. I’ve already enjoyed her videos for The Flog, and the Geek & Sundry video preview just might entice me to investigate other geeky programs when time allows. And sometime I might just have to find the time to dive into The Guild from the series’ beginning….