Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Teach Your Kids to Game Week Is Dec. 3-10

The DriveThruRPG website is once again promoting “Teach Your Kids to Game Week” December 3-10. While the promotion unfortunately does not have a catchy acronym like NaGa DeMon (TYKTGW looks pretty awkward and remains nigh-impossible to pronounce), it’s still a very timely celebration* encouraging people to engage their children in games of all kinds, though with a particular bent toward those offered at DriveThruRPG. The website offers several pages of kid-appropriate product in easy-to-download PDF form, much of which is extremely affordable and some of which is free, including my own Creatures & Caverns, 2nd Edition.

TYKTGWI’m only slightly familiar with some of the products listed, but most seem well-suited for parents seeking to introduce and explore gaming with their kids. Several recently received extremely positive online buzz (some of which are still on my own DriveThruRPG wish list), including Argyle & Crew - Adventure in the Land of Skcos by the delightfully zany Ben Gerber; Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple by independent gaming rock-star Daniel Solis;  Justin Halliday’s Hero Kids and its plethora of scenarios (and free coloring book!); Kirin Robinson’s innovative Old School Hack; Kickstarter-funded Mermaid Adventures RPG; and rpgKids (apparently suitable for kids aged 4+). Many, like Cartoon Action Hour, Fuzzy Heroes, and the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game are time-tested classics that have been around for a bit.

Creating a game kids can comprehend and play completely on their own remains a “holy grail” of game design; but with the first generation of die-hard roleplaying gamers giving birth to what will hopefully become a second generation of gamers, children now have role-models in their own adventure gaming hobby parents.

I don’t have much experience teaching kids to game. My toddler isn’t quite ready to start gaming anything in which I’m interested (though he knows what dice are and has some inclination toward age-appropriate games). Frequent readers know I’m a huge advocate of teaching newcomers -- especially children -- new games across the spectrum of board, war, and roleplaying games; I’ve certainly run enough kid-friendly convention games, though that audience is often highly receptive to such activities considering they’re attending a gaming con.

So my tips remain limited to my narrow experience and skewed philosophies:

Key Off Kids’ Interests: Try games that work with themes kids already like -- such as dinosaurs, trains, giant monsters, space fantasy, heroic tales -- or incorporate these elements in roleplaying games. Run something based loosely on their favorite television shows and films, or use similar heroes, plots, villains, encounters, and themes. Look at what kinds of “let’s pretend” behavior kids enjoy and use it to interest them in a more structured game experience.

Use Toys: This isn’t a problem for board games and wargames, since these already use elements like boards and pieces that seem like toys. When trying roleplaying games, however, offer enough hand-outs, figures, and dungeon dioramas that seem like toys or further equate roleplaying games with the more familiar form of board games. If you’re a gamer who indulges in painted miniatures or even basic paper stand-ups, let kids play with them for an added lesson in respecting someone else’s toys.

Short Attention Span: Make plans with kids’ short attention spans in mind. Keep things short and sweet yet evocative of the play style for the particular game. Try a board game or simplified wargame with a quick set-up, easy rules, and short-turn gameplay that lasts no more than 45 minutes. Running a fantasy roleplaying game? Stick to one core combat encounter ending with some mysterious clues, then see if the kids want to continue and move forward from there.

Know When to Stop: Parents know their kids…watch for signs their attention’s waning and artfully wrap up games if they’re bored, disinterested, or just plain unwilling to go any further. Gaming should create a positive, enjoyable impression parental pressure might ruin. Remember, we’re trying to engage kids and offer them a fulfilling gaming experience, not satisfy our own complex gaming needs.

If kids are only slightly interested in games and more taken by traditional children’s activities, print out a copy of the free Hero Kids coloring book and get both marginally interested and too-young kids coloring some fantasy-themed goodness to post on the refrigerator.

In the past I’ve examined several issues relating to running roleplaying games for kids that might offer more insight and ideas for gamer parents: Roleplaying Games for Kids and Crafting A Roleplaying Experience for Kids.

* Last year I discussed why the holidays seem well-suited for fantasy and gaming.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Time for Giving Thanks

Years ago I worked for a local chamber of commerce and wrote a similarly themed piece as appears below -- with some topical revisions -- for the November newsletter one year. It’s still relevant today whether we’re part of a community of commerce struggling in a tough economy, a geographical community of neighbors and citizens, a nation with regions hit hard by natural disasters, or a community of gamers.
“We count our miseries carefully and accept our blessings without much thought.”
-- Chinese Proverb
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It’s easy in these difficult economic times to succumb to the worrisome hype and the fear of the unknown that might lead to hardship, sacrifice, and loss. We should resist the urge to complain and instead embrace the challenges before us by considering solutions to problems and strategies for success.

All too often we take for granted the many things we do have. Gamers enjoy an engaging, dedicated community of players, creators, professionals, and friends who realize their combined well-being -- and that of the adventure gaming hobby -- is just as important as their individual strengths. Whether we’re part of a small circle of gaming friends or a greater community through online interaction or conventions, each new contact is more than a chance to improve our own gaming life; it offers an opportunity to enrich someone else’s.

Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season help remind us to celebrate these many positive blessings that enhance our lives. We should take a moment to remember that this world will always have people who are worse off than we are—those experiencing more financial, emotional, or physical pain—and we can do our part to ease some of their hardship.

Many local and online institutions strive year-round to help the community; they rely on donations of time and money from volunteers to continue their mission to help those in need. Are you seeking opportunities to make a positive difference in our community this holiday season? Thanksgiving and the holidays come once a year; but we should remember to always remain grateful for our blessings and continually seek to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
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“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
--  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Basic & Advanced Rules

Some games offer basic rules or “quickstart” sample rules to provide a taste of the essential mechanics behind gameplay; in some cases these rules are simplified from the more advanced, “full” game, but in many they represent the essential core elements required to play a meaningful game. This approach remains a great way not only to sell games to new gamers but for those gamers to more easily introduce games to their friends through the basic rules.

My recent acquisition of yet another game including both basic and advanced rules prompted me to ponder the benefits of such presentation, particularly when introducing a game to a new audience and those not yet familiar with the adventure gaming hobby

As both a player and a game designer I’ve long admired this approach as an effective means of presenting a new game to established gamers and introducing newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby. The strategy helps newcomers overcome the often daunting feeling that they must master all the rules in a game before playing, instead offering a basic or quick-start version that overcomes that hurdle and gets them playing the game as soon as possible. It represents a thoughtful refinement of a game that its essentials can fit into a basic version and yet can provide even deeper gameplay and a more fulfilling play experience through the application of advanced rules once players have mastered the basics. The model also enables a preview marketing strategy; a publisher can offer the basic rules for free, as a teaser of the core mechanics to tempt players to purchase the more deeply developed advanced version. Even as an adult, especially one with limited time and focus, I really like having basic rules to give me a feel for the game and play it out fully; advanced rules give me tidbits to enhance the basic rules if I can easily understand them and feel they augment my gameplay.

In another online venue I mentioned several games using basic and advanced rules I liked, but I want to focus on a few I felt did that extremely well and consider why they appeal so much to me:

Wings of War: Dawn of World War II (since reincarnated as Wings of Glory WWII): I’ve talked about this game before and admire its simple mechanics of card play on the game surface to simulate World War II dogfights. The basic rules cover the bare minimum to enjoy a game: movement, shooting, and damage. Advanced rules add more technicalities, including altitude, special damage, and bombing runs. The intuitive card-based system for moving and the assumption that anything within range takes fire (though with variable damage results) makes for a fast and easy-to-learn game; the advanced rules add options any solid wargamer would expect but that aren’t integral to enjoying the basic game. The full-color rulebook also includes plenty of illustrative diagrams demonstrating the essential principles of play.

Sirocco& Red Storm Rising: A desert-warfare strategy battle game simulating the World War II conflict between Patton and Rommel in North Africa, Siroccoteaches the core concepts of movement and combat in the basic rulebook, while adding a host of optional rules for terrain, range, command, supply, and troop quality -- plus several scenarios -- in the “Masters” rulebook. Simulating a hypothetical Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany against defending NATO forces (as depicted in the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Red Storm Rising offers some very concise yet intuitive division-level wargame mechanics in the basic rulebook with many more complex yet realistic options to add in the advanced rules. Both games include separate booklets for the basic and expert rules and include nicely illustrated map-boards. Sirocco uses plastic pieces shaped like military units (perfect for wargaming newcomers), while Red Storm Rising uses cardboard chits in plastic stands (for the fog of war mechanic) with only one essential combat value on the piece to avoid intimidating new players. Both games come from the late 1980s when TSR released such fare in an attempt to broaden their audience with “easy to learn” wargames that could appeal to more seasoned gamers with advanced rules.

Star Frontiers: The basic rulebook in the boxed set offers a stripped-down character creation process (eliminating skills and a host of other details) with the basics of task resolution, combat, vehicle chases, and equipment, all put to the test in a programmed-format solitaire tutorial adventure (a personal favorite of mine for introducing roleplaying game rules) and a more freeform group scenario using included location maps and character/creature counters. The expert booklet serves as the full rules set expanding on the introductory booklet’s rules and setting foundation. The game’s basic and expert rules booklets did a far better job of introducing roleplaying game concepts than the Basic and Expert D&D game rules, albeit the science fiction setting wasn’t as popular as dungeon delving.

[Basic & Expert Dungeons & Dragons: I’m hesitant to mention Basic/Expert D&D in this list (hence the bracketed text) because, though it employs the similar “basic” and “advanced” designation in its titles, the game remains far too complex and introduces to many concepts essential to roleplaying games to really fit my more concise ideal for a basic/advanced set-up. The advancement of the “expert” set simply reflects its expansion of the levels (and hence challenges and rewards) more experienced characters can attain; however, the games did introduce many newcomers to the fantasy roleplaying game hobby in the 1980s, arguably the “Golden Age of Roleplaying.” It offered an elegant explanation of roleplaying (which I discussed in a past Hobby Games Recce post) and thus in my view deserves some honorable mention.]

Practicalities in Projects

How does this admiration for basic and advanced rules affect my approaches to current projects? I’ve carefully balanced the urge to take this approach with the nature of each product I’m designing -- it’s not appropriate for every game -- and decided this approach might work best on two projects intended to introduce young and new gamers to aspects of the adventure gaming hobby: miniature wargames and traditional medieval fantasy roleplaying games.

The Miniatures Wargame: I’m dabbling with a simplified miniatures wargame for kids with a World War II tank warfare theme, with the intent of introducing kids to some wargaming basics without overwhelming them with the intense yet often enjoyable accuracy of other immensely popular systems like Flames of War. The essential game mechanics exist and have undergone some playtesting. I’m looking to develop a basic rulebook containing the bare-bones yet playable system followed by an advanced rules set with options kids can add to enhance their play experience to reflect more generally accepted elements of miniatures wargames, including close range bonuses, terrain and obstacles, anti-tank artillery, minefields, veteran crews, objectives, command distance. While I expect I’d present the advanced options in a standard rulebook format, I’d like to offer summaries of each option as a half- or quarter-page reference card players could put on the gaming table as a reminder of what additional rules are in play. This is clearly a case of the egotistical game designer thinking he can do better than the myriad offerings in the field ranging from homegrown rules to well-established hobby games. About the only one that adopts the basic/advanced rules presentation is the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game, which unfortunately relies on the collectable nature of the miniatures and has minimal support from manufacturer Wizards of the Coast.

The Fantasy Roleplaying Game Project: Offering a full roleplaying game in both basic and advanced rules presents some challenges on the basic end, considering all the myriad and sometimes complicated elements such a game requires. I intend to create a fantasy roleplaying game combining elements appealing to old-school-renaissance gamers as well as those seeking to introduce kids (10 and up or so) to such games (despite the recent prevalence of such products). As I began developing elements of the game to present to playtesters I found myself relying on my favorite “solitaire tutorial adventure” model: offering some flavor text to define the setting and situation followed by enough basic task/combat resolution rules to run encounters, then a “programmed” scenario demonstrating those rules. While such an adventure presentation could certainly serve as a promotional piece showcasing elements of the game, it’s far from even a “quick-start” version of the full rules. I envision most of the easy-to-play elements in the basic rules will evolve in the design, writing, and presentation of the rules themselves, keeping an eye on being clear and concise. I regret I’m falling back on the Basic/Expert D&D model where the “expert” version simply expands the character advancement opportunities (including additional powers, new monsters, and more magical items/treasure).

I’ll see how these approaches work out as both games receive more development as time allows. While the tank miniatures game percolates on the back burner of my mind (even as I write this I’m devising new ways to further streamline the mechanics), I’m actively developing and playtesting the fantasy roleplaying game. I’m hoping some early stage playtesting offers some guidance in the mechanics and presentation.