Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Exploding Continuity

When does a vast expanse of continuity become too much? For some fans their favorite licensed property reaches an event horizon where the continuity involved in actively following that license becomes far too much to keep track of and engage their interest, especially when so many other geeky pursuits (including other licenses) vie for their attention; this remains a particularly acute challenge for roleplaying gamers whose characters inhabit and explore the most detailed aspects of such settings. At what point does a licensed property -- including a roleplaying game -- gather so much continuity that it becomes unwieldy and thus loses its appeal? StarWarsSB

There was a time when I firmly believed the only “canon” Star Wars roleplaying game material for me was what we saw in the original trilogy; this view carried over to my early experiences with West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, when I relied on the main rulebook and sourcebook for setting information and game stats, all primarily focused, like I was, on the core trilogy. When I began working for West End Games on the roleplaying game line this attitude obviously fell by the wayside and I had little choice but to became more open-minded to include what would become the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels, comics, game sourcebooks, and other material during the resurgence of that media property in the mid- to late-1990s.

Games depending on setting and character sourcebooks have long faced this dilemma, too. Many popular roleplaying games expand their universe with additional sourcebooks on new locations, character classes, equipment, rules expansions, or different factions in the setting. By their nature these resources expand and change the scope of continuity within a game. When I was actively playing an early edition of Legend of the Five Rings, I bought the clan books that interested me. The gamemaster trusted players to have familiarity with their characters’ clans and related rules. The vast scope of second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplements also presented this challenge. Both trusted the players to use expansions properly without saddling the gamemaster with having to own and be familiar with all new materials. 

The exploding continuity problem grows exponentially when one considers re-imagined and re-launched media properties. Some, like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, infuse the property with an entirely new atmosphere. Most re-boot the media to contemporary standards of plot, character, and special effects based on the writers’ and directors’ own styles. I recently experienced some of the confusion this causes during an awkward conversation driving home from watching Star Trek into Darkness in the theater. I enjoy J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek film franchise given today’s computer generated images as special effects (except all that lens flare), his penchant for non-stop roller-coaster action sequences, and his creative philosophy in always keeping viewers guessing (as featured in a TED talk I’ve mentioned at Schweig’s Game Design Journal before). But the vast scope of Trek continuity familiar to fans and the creative freedom to play in a re-booted universe can offer some confusion. One of the younger members of our theater-going group wondered about the significance of Khan and Carol Marcus, and whether other elements in the current film show up in the established continuity of several television series and numerous earlier films.

What serves as the baseline for these discussion among geeks? So many aspects of licensed continuity exist even within the parameters of a given sub-category franchise, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, even Superman and Spiderman, which have recently undergone several recent film re-boots. (I’m not even going to touch upon comic book franchise re-boots and the animosity and confusion those sometimes engender….) Even without a “re-imagining” of a license, new expansions of it can offer discrepancies in thematic perception if not in continuity. For instance, my young nephews love the Star Wars Clone Wars cartoon series and view Anakin Skywalker as a hero; I, on the other hand, am not familiar with that aspect of the media franchise and still view Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as a villain. Similarly, in the exponentially growing Star Wars continuity, characters, locations, and other continuity “facts” from early Expanded Universe products (such as West End’s classic roleplaying game). have been ignored or changed altogether to fit within the continuity of new material.

Even as a non-gaming fan I’ve found I have limited patience for continuity within series I’ve watched. I can’t recall how many times during the infrequent airing of Lost or the later seasons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica I debated whether I should hang on and follow episodes to the possibly disappointing end. Maybe I’m getting old, but I can descend into a catatonic trance if I try too hard to think through the continuity of either series.

The internet hosts numerous websites -- both from official media sources and fans -- to help people research continuity references and expand their knowledge of a popular franchise beyond their current experience of television programs, films, novels, games, and comics. While these resources might seem like definitive “sourcebooks” on continuity, they still require fans to invest time reading and sometimes interacting to gain a solid grounding in the minutiae of a particular fictitious universe.

Roleplaying gamers face an interesting continuity conundrum. Deep familiarity with a setting remains essential in a roleplaying game based on a media property; players and gamemaster must define what core source material is common knowledge and what secondary material exists from which everyone can draw ideas, equipment, and adventures. For instance, in my example above, I long maintained the Star Wars game universe in my home game consisted mostly of elements from the classic trilogy, supplemented by additional material from the game’s Star Wars Sourcebook. Some folks prefer to play in the era of the Clone Wars or the New Republic, focusing on some or all of the continuity resources available to those periods. In some cases expanding continuity becomes problematic when gamemaster knowledge of a licensed setting is not quite as voluminous as player knowledge. Does lack of such omnipotent setting familiarity in relation to what players know disqualify a gamemaster from running a particular game with any degree of authority? How does a group define a setting…by delineating which sourcebooks are “in play” or simply deferring to the gamemaster’s level of knowledge (and assuming everyone knows the difference between player and character knowledge in game)?

No definitive answer to these questions exists; they vary depending on game group dynamics and the licensed property itself. These game challenges reflect the fluid and sometimes tumultuous nature of fandoms infamous for their disagreements about various aspects of their favorite media franchises. Different elements appeal to different people…finding a practical consensus remains the true challenge.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Monster Descriptions of Yore

I’ve decided -- against my better judgment or business sense -- to move forward on developing the Basic Fantasy Heroesroleplaying game; it uses the original Oracle System for combat and task resolution to offer some retro-clone-style medieval fantasy action with a suitability for new players. Adequately developed drafts for character creation, combat, and some short adventures have already made the rounds with playtesters. The obligatory bestiary section remains among the few chapters yet unwritten, so I’m diving into it with a few monster descriptions and stats each day to maintain my enthusiasm for the project, explore possibilities within the game engine, and develop useful text for a final product.

Working on my own bestiary I’ve found myself referencing monsters in both the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook not so much to replicate material but to make sure I can put a more original spin on the classic monsters I’m developing and avoid using proprietary D&D creations (much as I have an inexplicable nostalgic fondness for the owlbear…). While I’m finding some inspiration and direction, I’m also realizing the text of both those tomes remains a product of their time. Both rules assume readers have a familiarity with mythological and literary fantasy monsters, leaving the more thorough descriptions to the sometimes-gonzo original D&D monsters like the mimic, lurker above, beholder, rust monster, stirge, and owlbear. (I’ll freely admit in this instance the Basic D&D bestiary has more description than its advanced cousin, but not much more).

Many monster entries, particularly those for humanoids, focus less on describing a creature’s physical qualities, behavior, and preferred habitat and concentrate instead on rules: explaining special combat abilities, noting aversions to light and ability to see in darkness, percentage chance to wield various weapons, and outlining the percentages of group and lair composition. Paragraphs like this one seemed ubiquitous in humanoid descriptions:

For every 40 kobolds encountered there will be a leader and two guards who are equal to goblins, each having 4 hit points, armor class 6, and doing 1-6 points of damage. If 200 or more kobolds are encountered in their lair there will be the following additional creatures there: 5-20 guards (as bodyguards above), females equal to 50% of the total number, young equal to 10% of the total number, and 30-300 eggs. There will always be a chief and his bodyguard in the kobold lair. It is also probable (65%) that there will be from 2-5 wild boars (70%) or 1-4 giant weasels (30%) in a kobold lair; the animals will serve as guards.

This level of statistical detail seems offered in the same spirit as the random dungeon instructions included in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendices, which enable gamemasters to generate random dungeon layouts and populate them with the proper level of monsters, traps, treasure. This more rules-oriented text leaves little room for descriptive “flavor” text to provide a context for adventuring. The actual “description” portion of monster entries delves into sometimes tedious extreme visual detail, such as the one the Monster Manual offered for goblins:

Description: Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in skin color. Their eyes are reddish to lemon yellow. They dress in dark leather gear, and their garments tend toward dull, soiled-looking colors (brown drab, dirty gray, stained maroon). Goblins reach the age of 50 years or so.

I realize AD&D emerged from a wargaming tradition and thus attribute the attention paid to color details to that heritage where painting miniatures the correct uniform color remained a point of pride to many.

I suppose the lack of colorful description at this time (the “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” or the early 1980s) seems normal, with brief descriptions focusing more on a creature’s role in terms of game rules than in what some might call “flavor text” or “lore.” The lack of non-game-mechanic detail enabled a host of magazine authors to expound on their own vision of particular creatures in the numerous, popular “Ecology of…” articles in Dragon Magazine.

I’m often amazed re-reading old game books and finding my expectations of contented nostalgia fall short in the face of what, by today’s game publication standards, is somewhat less-than-polished quality. Perhaps designers and gamers became wrapped up in the exciting novelty of the new hobby and paid less attention to sketchy rules, inconsistent grammar, passive voice, and a near-ubiquitous use of the future tense in rulebooks and adventure modules describing any potential situation (something that still creeps into today’s game writing by “professionals” and “amateurs” alike). Such elements help define games of that era and serve as a milestone by which we can compare the nuances and quality that characterize today’s roleplaying entertainments. What the first AD&D and D&D products create is nothing less than what publishers produce today, just something of a different flavor and play style.

Perhaps my observations about original D&D’s monster descriptions in a way reflect my own personal preference and strength for narrative and setting over rules. In my own brief monster descriptions I focus on physical description, environment, and motivations, all broad guidelines for use in the game, while the actual monster statistics serve to describe it in the context of the game rules. I’m seeking to provide the briefest of descriptions to put the creature in a familiar context within the game, then give the relatively simple stats and specialties so they work within the rules framework. I hope to give players the basic setting context and rules framework for monsters to let them use them as they see fit in their own games; in its own way original D&D does this by presenting monsters with a different set of tools.

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