Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Blog 2014 in Review

I look back on the past year – as so many people do at this time of New Year’s resolutions – and realize how much time I’ve poured into the Hobby Games Recce blog (as opposed to my many neglected game projects). In February I consolidated the LiveJournal Hobby Games Recce blog and Schweig’s Game Design Journal on Blogspot into one entity, the weekly adventure gaming hobby blog you’re reading now. Combining both blogs into one took a great deal of time and effort in the beginning of 2014 – so much that it impacted my overall game-related accomplishments throughout the year. There’s still a great deal of secondary housekeeping to do (mostly with internal, self-referential links in older posts), but most of the traffic has naturally focused on recent entries.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Curling Up with Solitaire Gamebooks

I recently ordered a copy of S John Ross’ Ring of Thieves solitaire gamebook adventure thanks to a 35%-off Lulu holiday sale (alas, ordered before they announced the 50%-off hardcovers sale...). When combined with memories of immersing myself in game books – solitaire or otherwise – over the holidays during my misspent youth, I can’t help having solo gamebooks on my mind.

Frequent readers know how much I love solitaire game adventures, especially those included in roleplaying game rulebooks to help teach both the system and setting. Solo gamebooks offer a complete, self-sufficient play experience without reliance on or eventual transition to a full set of game rules in a vast, tome-like rulebook. They can scratch some of the itch for traditional roleplaying activities – a lone hero trying to overcome numerous obstacles in an adventure – but might seem limited by their streamlined game mechanics and programmed format (though that still provides a good degree of replay value as players explore different choices and meet various ends...). I realize the programmed game experience isn’t as freeform or unexpected as some other solo roleplaying game options available today, particularly those pioneered by a small but dedicated core of solo gamers exploring new tools and techniques. Like roleplaying games, solo gamebooks balance rules and story, though they employ printed text to describe situations and streamlined game mechanics to resolve conflicts. I’m not saying one kind is bad and the other good – people (even designers) have their own tastes, projects have their own parameters – but the product and the experience it delivers (intentionally or otherwise) can vary between storytelling and game.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Thieves’ World Boxed Set

The Thieves’ World city supplement from Chaosium was perhaps the first boxed campaign setting I bought way back in my earliest days in the roleplaying game hobby. The city of Sanctuary provided a wonderful yet deadly sandbox environment characters could explore. I used it decades ago with friends huddled over the fantastic city map, pulled it out again a few years ago to run with a re-tooled D6 fantasy system, and even turn to its massive random encounter tables today for occasional medieval-urban solitaire gaming.

I came to hear about the Thieves’ World boxed set and the shared-world fiction on which it was based in one of my earliest Friendly Local Game Store experiences. I’d received the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (Moldvay edition) as an Easter present from my parents; during the course of that spring I absorbed the rules, taught some friends, and ran several dungeon crawls into the Caves of Chaos for friends (and a few into dungeons of my own design). After graduating from junior high – and dreading adjusting to high school in the fall – I determined to dive further into D&D that summer. To that end I gathered my allowance and headed down to the nearby Friendly Local Game Store not five minutes from my house, Branchville Hobby. There I found the D&D Expert boxed set for $12 among the small yet growing pile of roleplaying games in the varied store more notable then for its HO-scale model railroad supplies and layout (before sports equipment took over).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Editor as Everyone’s Advocate

The internet’s filled with people’s infinitely varying opinions on every subject imaginable (and a few beyond imagination, I’m sure). The definition of a good editor remains subject to those opinions; but I tend to agree with one claiming a good editor serves as an advocate for readers, and that’s a fair if broad summary. In my experience a good editor serves as an advocate on behalf of three masters: the reader, the publisher, and the author. This assumes one agrees editors still have a relevant place in today’s Internet Age where people far too often assume a spell- and grammar-check program is enough to ensure intelligible and clear communication in e-mails, blogs, and even published newspapers, magazines, and books. In a time of relatively easy self publishing enabled by computers and the internet, many talented individuals possess the sense of professionalism to produce solid work for free or for pay without the need for an entire editorial team and art department a publisher offers.

Editors primarily seek to finesse an author’s manuscript into a format easily appreciated and comprehended by the intended audience. This includes the obligatory adherence to consistent rules of spelling, grammar, and style, plus a good deal of moderating the language, varying word choice, and otherwise helping to shape a manuscript into an engaging piece of reading. But editors also represent a publisher in molding manuscripts to fit a professional objective encompassing subject matter, production schedule, and future projects. To this end editors also serve authors as guides in the writing process and in improving skills for future submissions. Publishers often need writers for upcoming projects; the more proven authors available, the better the choices in matching writers to assignments.

The letter below represents perhaps the best aspect of my work as editor of West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal in the mid-1990s. I keep it to remind myself that – despite a host of game supplements I loved writing and developing, all the interesting people I met, and all the fantastic gaming experiences I enjoyed during five years with West End – I’m most satisfied I made a small yet positive difference in the lives of many young people and aspiring writers who might otherwise not bothered exploring their potential:

Dear Mr. Schweighofer,

A few months ago I submitted a short story to you…. Upon rejecting my story, you wrote me a three and a half page letter explaining why it was not up to the standards of the Star Wars Adventure Journal. I thank you for that. You see, it would have been just as easy for you to have sent me a form letter, but instead you paid close attention to what needed improving in my story and in my writing in general.

When I first received your letter I must admit that I was crushed. Writing for Star Wars meant – and still means – a great deal to me. I put the letter away for a while without reading the whole thing, the weight of the rejection pressed on me so hard that reading criticism felt like it would have caused a collapse of my confidence in my writing ability. A few days later I mustered up the strength to read the letter through. I resisted some of the points, but others were too clear to be denied. As time passed my bias against the other points faded and they were like crystal as well. Soon after, I began to look at the letter as a tool, something to help me see my weaknesses as a writer clearer. At about the same time my quest to locate a copy of Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction bore fruit, and the art of writing became more transparent to me. I am still in the process of learning. I write every day, and upon reading that writing the next day I blush and write something better, which I blush at a day later. I thank you a thousand times for rejecting [my story]. I realize its weaknesses more and more each day and I wonder how I could have considered submitting it. However, I know at the time it was the best I could do and I respect that. It was an important step for me as a writer, made all the more important by a compassionate editor who paid attention to a 19 year old kid struggling to forge himself into a writer.

I write you this letter so that the next time you receive a rough story from someone struggling to become a writer you might share with them the insight you shared with me (and keep on recommending Mr. Knight’s book, it is excellent). Thank you for your time, and know that this isn’t the last piece of my writing you will lay your eyes upon. Good luck and continued success with the Adventure Journal (it is fabulous).

The letter arrived in my West End Games’ office in December 1995, about halfway through my all-too-brief career with the company; I cannot recall if we actually published any of the writer’s later work, and I don’t know if the author continued his writing aspirations afterward. I’m grateful I found the time and motivation to write short critiques even of the material I rejected; in many cases it later bore fruit in the form of far more polished submissions that found their way to publication. Those short stories, source material articles, and game adventures that ultimately appeared in the Star Wars Adventure Journal endured far more scrutiny and much longer critique letters. All these efforts supported my editorial role in advocating for the interests of readers, the publisher, and authors in the name of engaging writing.

That same work ethic – spending time working with authors not simply to improve the project at hand but their overall abilities for future assignments – gave other writers guidance for improving their work later reflected in other mainstream West End projects. I recall spending an hour or so with an author at GenCon discussing a hard critique of a rough manuscript for a sector setting sourcebook; he was a fan, not a writer (though a talented professional in another field) who many years later went on to contribute to both Wizards of the Coast’s and Fantasy Flight Games’ subsequent iterations of a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Few professional editors have this kind of time, especially when faced with massive slush piles of submissions or a huge backlog of manuscripts awaiting their editorial attention in the often rushed process to bring material to publication. I’m grateful I had both the time and the position to evaluate writers’ work and offer some small guidance in improving their craft; I hope many have continued exploring their potential as writers, especially given the far more numerous outlets for their work in an Internet Age enabling many to disseminate their writing to a broad audience. Thanks to social media I occasionally encounter someone who says something like, “My proudest moment trying to break into the industry was my rejection letter from the SWAJ,” or “Do you remember that submission I made to the Adventure Journal years ago?” I’m humbled that I have in some small way contributed to their further work as fans or professionals in the adventure gaming hobby, from fanzines to freelancing and beyond.

I suppose at heart I have a large teaching streak in me; I’ve often considered, and quickly set aside, the prospect of becoming a professional teacher. At various points in my past I’ve tried encouraging people to pursue their interest in writing through editorial critique letters, workshops for young people, and other publication-related activities. I don’t believe everyone’s a New York Times-bestselling author, but I think anyone with an interest in writing deserves a chance – and a little encouragement – to explore the craft and engage their creativity.

Lately, thanks to contacts in social networking, I’ve considered contacting people with promising game ideas and offering to develop, edit, and produce their work. I’ve not followed through much; I suppose I’m wary of working to publish other people’s gaming projects when many of my own sit on the back burner thanks to my lack of time, focus, and energy given my full-time parental duties. I’ve done a little editorial consulting, an endeavor I might pursue more in the future; the entire editorial critique process seems much easier in a world with e-mail and online face-to-face conferencing instead of printing out letters to send off in the post. I realize I miss working with authors to further develop and refine their ideas and presentation with an eye to bringing a project to publication and (hopefully) appreciation by a growing fan readership. It’s easier with the backing of a brick-and-mortar professional publishing house (and a world-famous intellectual property license); but for now I’m content that my past editorial work and the few people it inspired remains a small candle to sustain me.

Want to add your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Holiday Game Gifts for Non-Gamer Kids

As the holidays approach everyone seems to offer their particular picks for ideal game gifts. Rather than bore kind readers with my particular recommendations based on my own tastes for adventure gaming fare, I thought I’d narrow the field a bit with a few qualifiers. Frequent readers know I’m an advocate of drawing new players into the hobby, with particular attention toward the younger set. As a father of a soon-to-be five year-old I’m also constantly looking for new, affordable games to garner his interest.

I chose games using a basic rationale focused incorporating several factors. The complete game had to come with a price tag of $25 or less. It must be currently available in analog format (sorry, no PDF, app or video game products). It had to have a family friendly theme since the list is intended for children ages 5-11 seeking something beyond mundane board game fare (though it also works for adults with a predilection for more involved games). The game uses mechanics and presents rules in a format kids could easily understand either on their own or with some guidance from an adult. The game also has merit – in my opinion – as a good game...not necessarily an outstanding, award-winning game, but a solid game with entertaining gameplay, decent replay value, and quality components.

Since these represent my personal recommendations, one should certainly not consider this a comprehensive list, but a catalog of suggestions limited by my own experience and impressions (and even then it’s not as complete as I’d like). While these might seem easier to acquire through online retailers, I urge readers to support their Friendly Local Game Store when possible; many can special-order titles they don’t normally keep in stock:

Dino Hunt Dice, $9.99: This press-your-luck game places players in the roles of time-traveling dinosaur hunters seeking to bag the most dinos without getting stomped. Each die has a few faces of dinos, leaves (for hiding dinos), and footprints (for stomps). A player rolls three dice, keeping dinos and setting aside stomps; three stomps and they’re done, losing any dinos they’ve captured. Players must decide when to finish their turn and keep dinos they’ve captured withouth losing everything to three stomps. There isn’t too much strategy, but kids might enjoyg it for the die rolling and dinosaur theme. (It’s cousin, Zombie Dice, uses a similar mechanic with a more grisly, less kid-appropriate theme.)

Rory’s Story Cubes, $7.99: These nine dice contain faces with pictograms to inspire storytelling. The game comes with several ideas for using them to help children create their own stories; experienced gamers and writers sometimes use them for inspiration or even solitaire adventure gaming. Two additional nine-dice sets offer icons based on Voyages and Actions, and three smaller Mix Collection packs (three dice each) have Clues, Enchanted, and Prehistoria themes. The Max version of the original story cubes, featuring larger dice, costs $19.99, well worth it for play with younger kids or for those who enjoy collecting oversized dice.

Set, $12.99: This abstract game challenges players to find sets of similar and dissimilar symbols on 12 cards arranged on the table. Each card has one, two, or three symbols of the same type and one of three different shapes (ovals, diamonds, and squiggles), colors (red, purple, and green) and shading (outline, shaded, or solid). Players watch for and collect sets of three cards each that are either all alike or all different in each attribute. Players remove the three cards in sets they successfully identify, replacing them with new ones drawn from the 81-card deck. Set’s numerous accolades include the prestigious Mensa Select Award.

D&D Starter Set, $19.99: At this price getting into Dungeons & Dragons seems affordable and easy. While I’ve not yet examined this iteration of D&D starter boxes (a subject I’m fond of exploring), reports indicate it contains everything new players need to learn about fantasy roleplaying and dive into the game, all compatible with the latest, fifth edition of the iconic adventure gaming brand.

Dungeon! $19.99: For kids who might not be ready for full-on D&D roleplaying, Dungeon! offers a board-game version of dungeon-delving, monster-killing, and treasure-looting without too many complex rules. I’ve found it a bit random and arbitrary, even with the board segmented into increasingly more difficult levels; but newcomers to fantasy themed gaming might find this an easier transition from traditional board games to roleplaying games. The content – traps, monsters, and treasures – all derive from D&D equivalents, so they provide a good thematic introduction to setting elements.

Stratego Battle Cards Game, $9.95: Fans of the Stratego board game might enjoy this card-game versions, which takes less time to set up and incorporates a different kind of strategy, all while employing the same “fog of war” element that make the original game challenging. Players deploy unit to the battlefield based on a random draw from their deck, forcing them to use forces on hand and seeking to plug gaps in their lines on subsequent turns. While the rules are based on the same unit-value hierarchy and function as the board game, it offers a few twists to give players more options.

Robot Turtles, $25ThinkFun’s edition of one of the most successful Kickstarter games of all time comes in at jus the right price point. The game gives kids control of a robot turtle wandering around a board’s obstacles to reach the prized gem; but players select command cards to enable the “Turtle Controller” (the designated adult) to move the turtle for them, giving them some fun, practical experience in skills useful in computer programming. Besides, the turtles have lasers.

Forbidden Island, $17.99: This one might require some adult guidance, but it’s perhaps one of the best examples of a “cooperative” game (without the more intense, real-world theme of such classics as Pandemic). Players try to retrieve four treasures from an island sinking in to the sea, simulated by location tiles that randomly flood and then disappear entirely. Each has a different role with special advantages, but they all must work together to move around the board, collect resources, shore up flooding tiles, reach the treasures, and escape before the island submerges completely. Forbidden Island’s numerous accolades include the prestigious Mensa Select Award.

Beyond $25

I’d recommend almost any board game beyond the mundane fare one can find at Target or Barnes & Noble. Both chains have become more open-minded about stocking games that cater to the growing sophisticated board game culture characterized by such popular titles as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Small World, and Carcassonne. Your Friendly Local Game Store is also a good place to browse possible board game gift ideas, ask the staff and regulars, and special order anything that isn’t in stock.

Why $25?

A few months ago I polled some folks on Google+ to help guide me in where to set the bar on this article. I asked:

What’s the maximum dollar amount you would spend on a non-electronic, game-related holiday gift for a young person between the ages of 5 and 11?

Assume the person is someone to whom you’d usually give a gift at the holiday and that the gift would be in some way related to the adventure gaming hobby, meaning it would expose them to or inspire them to explore roleplaying, card, board, and wargames (of both the board-and-chit and miniature variety). I’m not considering electronic games. Many thanks for sharing your opinions.

The $25 mark easily scored around two-thirds of the responses, with other amounts garnering a few votes here and there...and nobody going for the $100. At least one voter commented on the high cost to buy into games these days, whether a high-end board game, roleplaying game, or certainly a miniatures game. Although $50 or even $100 might buy an experienced gamer an appropriately pleasing gift, to tempt non-gamers or children into the adventure gaming hobby with an expensive gift that may or may not engage their enthusiasm remains a risky proposition.

Whatever your budget, keep games in mind as gifts this holiday season. Support your Friendly Local Game Store and encourage and cultivate a positive community of gamers in your area.

Want to share your suggestions for $25 game gift ideas for the non-gamer set? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gaming Gratitude at Thanksgiving

As we approach the American holiday of Thanksgiving people often pause to reflect on the many things in their lives for which they remain grateful; a practice one might consider as a brief, daily exercise to help put a more positive spin on our everyday lives.

Of course I’m thankful for the many blessings I often take for granted in my life: a supportive wife and energetic preschooler; our collective decent health; a nice house with room for my office, numerous bookshelves, crafting areas for my wife, and my basement miniatures painting area and wargaming table; my wife’s good job in her chosen career field (despite shut-downs, furloughs, and the vilification of Federal workers); fully operational transportation; and a small group of real-life friends, some of whom share my interests in gaming.

Many things for which I’m thankful relate to gaming since it has been and continues to be a major portion of my life and career (such as it is). In sharing some of the many mostly game-related aspects of my life for which I’m thankful I hope kind readers might similarly reflect on the gifts that grace their own lives.

I’m extremely thankful for:

Involvement in the Hobby: Some days I have trouble contemplating how relevant I seemed to the adventure gaming hobby when I worked for West End Games, when I had a regular, paying outlet for my work, and when I had the means to offer others the opportunity, guidance, and inspiration to become successfully involved themselves. These days I’m just grateful I have the time and means to stay active in game publishing through several venues. My often demanding schedule as a full-time father provides me with snippets of time to pursue writing and game design, even if much of that never quite makes it to publication. E-storefronts like OneBookShelf’s DriveThruRPG and RPGNow enable me to publish PDF game content for a meager profit. Hobby Game Recce provides a platform to share my insights on and experiences with the adventure gaming hobby. Occasionally I find an opportunity for actual paying work for the hobby, particularly with the fine folks at Wicked North Games. These all keep me involved as a designer, editor, and publisher in the adventure gaming hobby, providing positive feedback and some degree of accomplishment for which I’m extremely thankful.

Online Engagement: The internet has provided many opportunities for gathering and sharing information while engaging with gamers in far-flung places. Various venues online enable me to research games before making an educated purchase, to find new games in PDF and print, and to just look up interesting information and free game aids to enhance and expand my play experience. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a very positive and encouraging community through the Google+ social network. I’ve learned about new games, Kickstarter projects, conventions, play techniques, and other adventure gaming goodness I’d wouldn’t otherwise discover on my own in my insulated little existence. In some cases I’ve heard of gamers in need whom I’ve helped out with meager donations to their crowd-funding campaigns. I’ve found a forum where I can buy, sell, and trade games among fellow enthusiasts. I steer comments and discussion of my Hobby Games Recce posts to Google+ for more civilized, respectful interactions. I’ve even managed to do some Google+ Hangout gaming now and then, an opportunity to game with people near and far and try out a new gaming experience.

Gaming Family: The past year or so we’ve tried to maintain a family game night at our house. Every Thursday after dinner we pull out a kid-friendly game to play together...King of Tokyo, Otters, the X-wing miniatures game, Dino Hunt Dice, Castle Panic, Robot Turtles. Occasionally we indulge in gaming on the weekend or in some other free time, and even invite other game enthusiasts into our home to play...and test their patience with a talkative four year-old. I’m looking forward as the Little Guy grows to introducing him to new games, experiences, even conventions.

In past years I’ve revised a Thanksgiving piece I wrote years ago for another job and posted it here. Those sentiments still stand...that we should remember to always remain grateful for our blessings and continually seek to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I’ll close with one of two quotes I usually use at this time of year, from a fellow who stood up to political tyranny and inhumanity to save others at the cost of his own life.

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

Want to share your gratitude for gaming’s effect on your life? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Notable Features in Barbarians of Lemuria

I recently acquired a print copy of Simon Washbourne’s Barbarians of Lemuria (Legendary Edition) and was pleasantly satisfied by many elements within that appealed to my particular roleplaying game tastes...and might interest readers of Hobby Games Recce with similar inclinations. The game mechanics and presentation offer an original swords and sorcery setting with a basic task resolution system and plenty of room for rich character development.

I’m a casual fan of the Conan material from Robert. E. Howard, having enjoyed the original literature, the comic book series (during a brief foray into that medium in my misspent youth), and the 1982 John Milius Conan the Barbarian film interpretation (and other similar sword and sorcery movie fare). I prefer my fantasy roleplaying with minimal magic, such as simple cantrips for characters and more powerful, sinister magic beyond their capability as part of the arch-enemy’s arsenal. The Barbarians of Lemuria setting incorporates many of these elements in a well-presented setting without binding them within the vast Conan continuity (and hence opening itself up to copyright infringement issues).

Barbarians of Lemuria contains a host of elements that appeal to me:

Page Count: The game packs everything needed to play into 104 pages, packed with plenty of illustrations evocative of the setting, game mechanics, examples, original monsters, inspirational character creation material, a gazetteer of the world, and a few short adventures. It’s not as comprehensive as some gamers might like, but it’s filled with enough functional mechanics and setting information to stimulate one’s imagination in creating and running exciting swords and sorcery adventures.

Accessible Setting: The epic background for Barbarians of Lemuria fits on two pages and outlines an epic struggle against the corrupt Sorceror-Kings and their magical technology. A series of disasters and returns imbue the land with plenty of ruins, magical mutations, and the promise of fantastic treasures, all while the Sorceror-Kings sulk on their island fortress planning their revenge. This epic provides some solid setting elements for Lemuria: a lost golden age of technology leaving behind ancient relics and ruins the heroes might explore (a theme within one of fantasy roleplaying gaming’s first settings, Empire of the Petal Throne), and distant yet powerful shadow adversaries to lurk in the background or scheme behind the scenes. Elements of character creation also tie heroes to locations in the setting or typical professions in the genre.

Innovative Character Creation: Building a character focuses on three sets of “stats” (though one isn’t really a stat at all). In each category players distribute four points among four different categories, with a value of zero representing average ability. First players distribute four points among their attributes: strength, agility, mind, and appeal (fairly standard characterization concepts). Then they distribute four points among four combat abilities: brawl, melee, ranged, and defense. Finally players choose four “heroic careers” from among 20 genre-inspired professions to define their characters’ pasts and round out their generalized skill sets.

Genre Careers: Career choices reflect the sword and sorcery genre. Each of the 20 careers includes a parenthetical alternative, an optional profession label to cover a similar spin on a career; for instance, it offers “Barbarian (or Savage),” “Serving Wench (or Courtesan),” and “Thief (or Rogue).” Brief descriptions offer ideas on relevant skills and important attributes.

Core Resolution System: Resolving actions boils down to a player rolling 2D6 to get 9 or higher for success. Depending on the situation they may add to their roll the value of relevant attributes, combat abilities, or careers; factors such as a task difficulty, range, or target’s defense value may subtract from their die roll. These aren’t huge bonuses, but can increase through experience. Boons and flaws (see below) enable players to roll an additional 1D6 in certain circumstances, adding the two highest results for boons and the two lowest results for flaws.

Boons & Flaws: Sure, lots of roleplaying games include some kind of advantage/disadvantage system in their character creation rules, but Barbarians of Lemuria presents sets of each for every location that can serve as a hero’s birthplace, giving them not only some game-specific bonus or penalty but some material on which to draw in further defining their character within the setting. Characters get one free boon and can gain additional boons by taking a flaw or permanently reducing their Hero Point total.

Hero Points: Here’s another element used in many other roleplaying games, points characters can spend during the game to alter situations in their favor. In this game characters begin with five Hero Points they can use in a variety of ways within the framework of the core resolution system: to reroll for a particular task; to alter a basic success into a more powerful “Mighty Success” or transform that into the ultimate “Legendary Success”; to shake off wounds or stabilize a dying character; or to define situational elements in one’s favor (such as finding a loose stone in a prison cell wall, discovering some useful equipment nearby, or using a coincidence to their advantage). Characters begin the game with five Hero Points and gain back those they spent at the end of an adventure.

Barbarians of Lemuria also provides the basic framework of many other roleplaying games; Lifeblood points for tracking health, weapons and armor, a freeform spell system that reflects the rare nature of magic in the genre, non-traditional monsters tied to setting locations, and one-sentence descriptions of various gods of Lemuria. It’s a complete game, but relies on experienced gamemasters and players to work together to use the rules to create a play environment that works for them.

Almost Overlooked

I must admit I passed over this game in its earlier incarnations despite the author’s excellent reputation for interesting games. Washbourne’s produced a host of small, independent, and often innovative roleplaying games. His 1940 – England Invaded! caught my eye when it first emerged as part of the 24-Hour RPG challenge and when he released a free PDF version with more substance; it satisfies my interest in WWII themes, in this case with a fantastic alternate-history twist.

I downloaded one of the earlier, free versions of Barbarians of Lemuria in PDF format when it first appeared, hoping for something a bit more satisfying than the d20 officially licensed Conan material available at the time. My ambivalence toward earlier editions probably stemmed from an uninspiring layout and mediocre artwork, though the author deserves credit for creating his own illustrations in those versions. These factors – PDF and uninspired artwork – led me to overlook it after an initial perusal; hence it languished unread in some archived folder on my laptop, as do many worthy and unworthy gaming PDFs, since I prefer to read the old-fashioned way from printed books than transient words on a screen.

In fairness the Legendary Edition of the rules has overcome these two drawbacks. The new illustrations, while remaining relatively basic line art, evokes characters and scenes characteristic of the sword and sorcery genre. Having the option of obtaining a print version means I can sit down and read it without the often mind-numbing hypnosis of passive words on my computer screen, easily flipping back and forth around pages to cross-reference game and setting concepts. I noticed a few refinements in the game mechanics and organization from previous editions; while the current edition is far from perfect in terms of organization and layout, it’s clear years of active play and development have made their positive impression.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hedging Bets against the Fog of War

The Fog of War – the random elements in games, whether simulating the variable performance of troops in wargaming battles, pieces on the board, or adversaries in roleplaying games – can foil the best strategies, constructed decks, assembled forces, or crafted character. The degree to which such uncertainties reign over the gaming table can seriously affect one’s play experience. It’s one thing to lose to a formidable opponent, but another to lose to the capricious nature of the dice.

Brave British troops doomed in the face
of hordes of Zulus and poor die rolls.
If kind readers would pardon some (hopefully) neutral political analogy, regrettably on my mind thanks to the recent mid-term elections... Take political candidates; they hedge their bets against the uncertainties of the minority of the electorate that actually gets out to vote. Some run in the right gerrymandered district (or carpet-bag their way there) and garner enough shadow-corporate sponsorship to flood the airwaves and ether with ads claiming their opponents are inspired by the devil and eat babies for breakfast (not really quite that bad, but they might as well say that to play on voters’ fears and emotions). Unlike gamers, politicians can draw upon the unlimited resources of contributions from near-anonymous special-interest donors instead of a limited pool of game elements intentionally balanced for some semblance of fair gameplay. (And no, I’m not suggesting politics should be reformed on a gameplay model.)

Even seemingly well-balanced games can subject players to the random whims of chance, no matter how much players try hedging their bets against failure. I’ve tried crafting various squadrons for the X-wing Miniatures Game, assembling combinations of elements like pilot abilities, starship stats, and different upgrades to fit within the 100-point tournament guideline in what I think might prove a winning combination. On paper they might prove quite powerful; but when I’m rolling poorly and the opponent consistently rolls well, I have little chance of success. Last year in a The Sword and the Flame convention game I lost most of four companies of British soldiers against one “horn” of a Zulu force because I kept rolling poorly: I scored minimal ranged hits, got massacred in close combat, and failed several key morale checks (nothing encourages dice to roll poorly than having the referee say, “Roll anything but a six!” Guess what that six sider is rolling...). No wonder there’s been a movement of “dice shaming” in gaming culture to highlight dice that consistently roll poorly or fail at crucial moments (all feeding the adventure gaming hobby’s dice fetishism). Even games with carefully crafted forces like Magic: The Gathering – with no random dice elements – subject players to the uncertainty of when they draw certain cards or combinations to deploy against opponents. Players understandably become frustrated when their best preparations fall victim to the capricious nature of the dice or the luck of the draw.

Games by their very nature represent a contest between players; so naturally one expects to encounter some feelings of frustration while trying to win against adversaries. When games offer players a means to hedge their bets against the whims of chance they offer a sometimes false sense of control over their gaming fate. A good game combines the uncertain elements of chance, a player’s ability to plan broad strategies, and the opportunity to react as tactical opportunities develop through gameplay. Certainly gamers like a bit of tension in their games – it’s no fun when you’re certain you’ll always win or when you know you’ve already lost but the game’s still not over – but there’s a fine line between tension and futile frustration. It proves a good test of players’ sportsmanship. I’ve played in games where, through poor luck of the dice, I knew I was beaten and was just playing out turns until the game ended. I’ve felt unworthy winning games by sheer luck of the dice, especially when my opponent fielded formidable forces or played exceptionally well (and was, himself, foiled by poor dice rolls).

I’ve been rebuked before for framing issues in terms of a “spectrum,” but this aspect of the Fog of War element actually falls along a spectrum. At one end stand games dominated by random elements such as War (if one could call that a “game,” a subject I’ve discussed before), Yatzee, Monopoly, even such Euro-game fare as Carcassonne; these often rely on providing a random situation or set of elements players must try to use to their advantage. At the other end stand games with no randomized elements like chess, Diplomacy, and Stratego where the Fog of War concept exists as uncertainty wholly generated by the players in terms of deployment and strategy, with clear-cut conflict resolution. (I’m sure such generalizations will spawn some contentious if civilized debate; I don’t pretend to approach issues presented in this blog in a comprehensively scholarly manner nor with particularly exacting attention to semantics in the diverse and often subjective English language.) Many games fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, offering the illusion that players can somehow exert control over their success by crafting a good deck, squadron, force, character, or strategy that’s still subject to random elements like dice or the luck of the draw.

Is on end of the spectrum better than the other? Of course not. Each extreme challenges players in different ways. At one end players receive randomized elements they must use to their best advantage in the situation. In the other they carefully arrange their resources and maneuver them knowing their strong points. Those in between can offer a false sense of control by juxtaposing random elements against prepared strategies. But good games maintain the tension until the very end, balancing uncertainty over success or failure.


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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gaming Spaces

I’ve spent more than 30 years “around the gaming table,” a place that has ranged from the dining room table at home and friends’ houses to game stores, public and school libraries, and vast convention halls. Sometimes “gaming tables” seemed cozy and focused, other times they got cramped, crowded, and loud. I’ve experienced more gaming locations than I can recall, yet both the good and the bad still stand out in my memory and serve as fodder for some disparate – and hopefully amusing – recollections.

A small, regional convention with
gaming tables surrounded by vendor booths.
I started gaming around our modest dining room table, a space normally reserved for holiday meals and guests which I slowly took over for hosting players of various kinds of games. As my circle of gaming friends grew we migrated from one player’s home to the next, usually around the kitchen table but occasionally gathered on den couches or around a coffee table. Weekend afternoons seemed best, but if we strayed into the after-dinner hours the host’s parents often made a cameo appearance at some point to ask us to “keep it down, we’re trying to sleep.” The most hospitable home – the place where everyone went to hang out, whether they were gaming, watching videos, or just spending time together – possessed a seemingly endless supply of chips and soda, had parents who didn’t intrude if we made some noise, and always had a cushy sofa on which we were welcome to crash after game sessions that ran into the wee hours of the morning. (This particular household hosted the memorable New Year’s Eve gaming event about which I’ve reminisced before.) On several occasions friends tried having extended gaming weekends, what some might consider mini-conventions, at their house (or at several homes over the weekend), and these varied based on the general hospitable nature of the family. Understanding parents, comfortable gaming spaces, and plenty of food seemed key factors in successful home gaming environments, at least in my younger days.

I’ve played games in library spaces, both public and academic. I was kicked out of my high school library for nothing more than playing a game I designed that involved dice; the British-born librarian felt that dice were inappropriate (a cultural view I learned about later, from R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein game no less) and hence banished us. I later ran sessions of my Creatures & Caverns game for friends in the cafeteria during free periods. I spent a summer running weekly Dungeons & Dragons games at my hometown public library, butting heads with the two hard-core gamemasters who organized the program because they didn’t feel I was playing the game the way they felt was right. I had a horde of 10 kids all around 10 years old in a meeting room alcove off the main children’s section, hardly ideal for getting very far in the adventures I designed for the program. More recently I spent about a year volunteering at the local public library’s monthly teen board gaming sessions in a large programming room separate from the rest of the library lest we disturb the sacred silence of those hallowed halls; I taught and hosted Pirateer and Forbidden Island. Keeping the potentially loud and boisterous gaming insulated from the rest of the quiet library enables participants to enjoy themselves without worrying that they’re distracting other patrons.

A good game store maintains some space, permanent or temporary, for in-store gaming. Throughout my gaming days I’ve seen a vast range of gaming spaces within stores, from dingy back-rooms near the bathroom and corners hidden behind retail shelves to large portions of the store devoted to tables for board, card, and wargames. I’m grateful both my current Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) have ample space for in-store gaming; the closest has eight long, folding tables in four rows occupying the middle of the retail space (with shelves of comics and games lining the walls), and the farther one has half the store space dedicated to game tables, including shelves for storing wargaming terrain and a back room for select games (and a table suitable for roleplaying games tucked away at the back of the retail space). I’ve participated in games at the former – a few X-wing Miniatures Game tournaments, the occasional Saturday night casual X-wing game, some board game demos at International Tabletop Day – and while things can get a little crowded and noisy, the environment remains welcoming to gamers thanks to friendly players and hospitable staff. Both stores have the adventure gaming business savvy to offer sodas and snack foods for sale to cater to gamer’s appetites and give them an opportunity to make at least a small purchase in gratitude for providing a good gaming location.

Gaming in hotel suites sometimes adds
an element of exclusivity...especially
with special guests.
Gaming conventions offer occasional opportunities for exposure to new games and players as well as reliable favorites with old friends. The convention size often dictates the nature of the gaming space. Major conventions like GenCon and Origins host games in a variety of spaces ranging from hotel meeting rooms to vast exhibition halls. Smaller regional conventions often rely on the event space – typically a hotel with conference facilities – scheduling gaming in everything from ballrooms and meeting rooms to hotel rooms with beds removed and banquet tables and chairs crammed into the space. I’ve run games at many conventions, including one in a cavernous and noisy hall at GenCon back in Milwaukee, many in medium-sized meeting rooms and ballrooms with 5-10 tables, and a few stuffed into the aforementioned hotel rooms crammed with one or two banquet tables. I don’t always like the latter; while they often afford privacy and quiet (as long as there isn’t a second table jammed into the room), they remain so well-removed from the main gaming halls the non-existent foot traffic discourages both casual spectators and last-minute participants. I appreciate the quiet, but it seems detached from the general community feeling of smaller conventions. They remain perhaps the best spaces – when not so crammed – for private games, such as any of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game sessions I’ve run where players bid in a charity auction for seats at the table with a famous author guest like Timothy Zahn. At cons I generally prefer gaming spaces closer to other programming activities, whether a large ballroom with many tables or smaller meeting rooms with a handful of tables. Perhaps the most unexpectedly pleasant convention game experience came from player generosity; the game was originally scheduled for a meeting room with several other active tables (with groups that promised to get loud and rowdy), but two of the participants had booked a hotel suite and – with the consent of the rest of the players and a note left at the table – we gladly adjourned to the suite’s dining room table for an intense game fueled by the hosts’ stash of snack foods and beverages.

Where do we play games? The answer often depends on one’s particular type of game, personal resources, and general opportunities. Most broad location categories themselves can range between ideal and intolerable, though lucky gamers find or create gaming situations that work best for them. What makes ideal location conditions for games? Do certain spaces lend themselves better to different games? What kinds of compromises in environment do we make to engage with others in gaming? Despite noise, crowds, and other distractions, gamers can make the best of their situations to focus on their hobby and ensure their own play experience remains positive. The times when I felt the game location seemed disruptive were the times when I allowed those issues to impact my own experience. A positive attitude combined with others helping to improve problematic gaming spaces goes a long way to providing everyone with a better play experience.


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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Assembling Terrain for Valley of the Ape

Development on my Valley of the Ape kids’ game proceeds at a slow but steady pace. I have a workable draft of the rules and a solid idea what additional bits I need to prepare (explorer cards with rules summaries and encounter tiles). But the rulebook and other materials form only half the project, although the part I can most easily share online once completed. Along with the game design work comes the hobby work assembling and crafting miniature wargaming-style terrain for the playable bits of the game.

A selection of aquarium plants
from PetSmart.
Some of this material I own already, stored in various boxes beneath or near the four-by-eight-foot wargaming table in the basement. These include a swath of dark green felt dappled with paint to vary the terrain surface, numerous 54mm plastic soldiers (Zulus, British, Dervishes) from Armies in Plastic to represent explorer parties, the giant ape from Safari Ltd. I bought at a craft store, and a resin-cast giant man-eating plant I picked up years ago from Armourcast (though it could use a better paint job).

"Betta" foliage cut for better coverage.
I have considerably more work to do with jungle foliage and terrain. I’ve already sculpted a few foam hills and prepped some palm trees out of wire, artificial plant leaves, and masking tape. But to fill out large portions of impassible jungle terrain I needed a lot of fake yet exotic-looking foliage. So I drove on down to the local big-box pet store, PetSmart, and spent some time browsing their aquarium section. I found a host of very affordable pieces from Top Fin, including some single plantsfor $0.99, a few “peacock feather” plants with a nice high profile ($2.99), and – perhaps the most versatile find – two varieties of what they call “betta” artificial aquarium plants, plastic grids with small plant bits mounted at each intersection (for $1.99). These last ones provided versatile jungle cover, particularly when split along the middle or diagonally to make two uneven halves that, when positioned unevenly, offer some natural-looking uneven terrain. For less than $20 one could buy enough jungle foliage to set up some challenging and good-looking terrain; augmented with some custom pieces it’ll make for an easy-to-set-up “board” for Valley of the Ape.

A scene hastily assembled from my terrain,
including the giant ape and some Armies
in Plastic Zulus.
I’m debating whether to craft my own temple ruins from bits prepped for old Egyptian temple projects or just pay for one of the fish tank temples available from PetSmart (some manufactured by Top Fin and others by National Geographic).

Once that’s decided and I finish up the palm-tree terrain pieces I’m ready to set everything up and start playtesting the rules.

Armies in Plastic Addendum

Folks who read Hobby Games Recce know I love the 54mm (1:32 scale) unpainted plastic figures from Armies in Plastic, including the ones from my collection I’ve drawn upon to serve in my Valley of the Ape game (Victorian-era British soldiers, Zulu warriors, Dervishes). They’re big, historically themed, and great for small hands (or my clumsy fingers). The prices have crept up over the years as the figure count has recently diminished (20 infantry figures down to 18 or 16 in some cases). But I recently happened by the Armies in Plastic website to find an interesting sale: the company put their Battlefield Combo boxes on sale, an 18- or 20-figure mix from both sides of a conflict for $12 (the regular price for 18 or 20 figures in other sets is now $17...). Of particular note for my own gaming interests are 6 British Army in Shirtsleeves and 12 Zulus, as well as combos including Dervishes. Those interested in the burgeoning French and Indian war genre might like 8 Rangers and 12 Indians for skirmishes. Other periods include the American Revolutionary War, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, Napoleonic Wars, some Civil War, and modern conflicts. They’re a fun way to provide large, plastic soldiers to fight period skirmishes – or just to play with – at an affordable price.

Armies in Plastic Rangers fend off a
Woodland Indian Ambush.
I’ve recently been bitten by an inexplicable bug to dive into reading about and wargaming skirmishes from the French and Indian War...and my collection of Armies in Plastic miniatures lacks anything from the American Colonial period (having focused more on 19th century British colonial wars). Seeing the Ranger/Indian Battlefield Combo sets at the Armies in Plastic website – plus a “buy 3 get 1 free” promotion – I decided to order some sets directly from the company.

Normally I try to give my business to local stores (none of which stock Armies in Plastic sets, although I first discovered and bought my first Armies in Plastic sets from a now out-of-business hobby shop in Fredericksburg) and, barring that, wait patiently for one of the small, local wargaming conventions where vendors occasionally have a limited selection. But I was looking for something quite specific, and knowing how the prices have crept up recently, wanted to take advantage of a really good deal. So I ordered two sets of the Rangers/Indians, plus one with Loyalists and Militia (10 each, plus a cannon), and, for my “free” set, ordered British infantry (20 figures). Three days after placing my order the box arrived at my doorstep. Along with the French and Indian War skirmish rules set I bought earlier and with some old forest terrain I can now start exploring period battles with a minimum of work. Sure, the purists might scoff that I’m using unpainted figures, but I have two ready made forces in an appealing size. Thanks to Armies in Plastic for the good deals and excellent service.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Das Schwarze Auge

After having discovered roleplaying games – through Dungeons & Dragons – the summer before I started high school, I quickly began exploring other games in the adventure gaming hobby (including board-and-chit wargames). I bought and devoured nearly everything TSR released at the time, dabbled in Traveller, and started gathering whatever oddities I might run across. Then I discovered the German equivalent of a fantasy roleplaying game, Das Schwarze Auge.

In 1984 Schmidt Spiel – a German game publisher with roots going back to the early 20th century – published an original German-language roleplaying game entitled Das Schwarze Auge (translation: The Dark Eye). It was clearly inspired by D&D; the designer, the late Ulrich Kiesow, translated both D&D and Tunnels & Trolls for the German editions. It’s rise (and fall) broadly mirrored its American cousin, with a game system that seemed basic at first, with more supplements and editions adding layers of complexity to the rules and setting, and finally becoming a huge system and continuity creature that momentarily faded when the publisher ran into financial trouble and declared bankruptcy.

Back in 1984 my family was taking a week’s vacation in Germany after a two-week youth orchestra tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland; my parents drove the instrument van while my brother and I played violin in the orchestra. We’d visited Germany before in 1981, an opportunity to indulge my penchant for medieval history, castles, knights, legends, and other romantic Old World interests, but I’d not yet discovered roleplaying games. On one of our first days we wandered into a toy store in Munich – a wonderful shop (affiliated with the famous FAO Schwartz company) and I found two German-language roleplaying game boxed sets sitting side-by-side on a display: the German edition of Basic D&D (the Frank Mentzer red box version) and a taller, black box called Das Schwarze Auge. The game offered an opportunity to merge my interest in roleplaying games with my German language studies (a pillar of my junior high and high school years that fizzled out with the academic severity of college). So I bought it, brought it back to America, and, using my limited language abilities and a German-English dictionary, set about reading the game and rolling up a character.

Das Schwarze Auge basic boxed set came with one twenty-sided and a few six-sided dice, a main rulebook, and adventure book, an imposing gamemaster screen, and a host of sheets for mapping, character creation, and adventure tracking. The game had some similarities to D&D. Five stats defined characters, though one rolled only a single D6 and consulted a chart for the range of stat values one might get. It used a “class-as-race” system, so one could be a magician, fighter, elf, dwarf, or rogue-like vanilla “adventurer” (omitting such D&D tropes as clerics, thieves, and halflings). Magic-users had a reserve of astral energy expended to cast various low-level spells. A solitaire adventure took up most of the page count in the adventure book; it walked players through an initial encounter, then further exploration which led to the premise for the short if standard group exploration of a dungeon setting (the D&D basic set released around that time, the Frank Mentzer red box edition, was the first to include a solo tutorial adventure).

I didn’t get very far in the game beyond reading it with my very limited knowledge of German, rolling up a few characters, playing the solitaire adventure, and possibly running an adventure with my terribly patient brother (who also took some German). It helped fuel my enthusiasm for gaming and German language studies as I tried to learn how various bits of roleplaying game lingo translated into German. Several years later – when Das Schwarze Auge eclipsed sales of D&D in the German market – my Dad brought back some additional scenarios, including a solo adventure, from a business trip to Germany. At some point I also bought the “expert” version of the basic rules and a handful of adventures; possibly on that 1984 trip to Germany, I can’t recall, though I barely used the advanced materials.

Over the years I’ve acquired other German language game books from friends, industry trades, or chance opportunities, mostly as novelties: a Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands boxed set, a Stormbringer adventure collection, a nice hardbound GURPS basic set, a few Middle-earth Role Playing supplements, a handful of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game books, and a Paranoia boxed set with the oddly understandable label “Acthung! Satire!” prominently displayed on the box. I’ve not gone out of my way to seek out German-language versions of my favorite games; my fluency has long passed with my fleeting youth, though I do appreciate the language and still read and speak some of it when necessary...just rarely outside the context of the adventure gaming hobby.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Connecting with An RPG Setting

Roleplaying games present several challenges for newcomers, whether they’re new players at an experienced gamemaster’s table or enthusiasts seeking to run a particular game for others. Aside from the initial leap complete neophytes must make in understanding the roleplaying game experience, gamers must also learn a set of rules governing character abilities and actions in the game setting; though some might argue most people have at least some experience with both “roleplaying” and rules, gaining those from “let’s pretend” play activities from their childhood and game mechanic concepts drawn from more traditional family board games or sports. But not everyone has prior experiences from which to adapt to some roleplaying games’ more exotic settings.

One reason Dungeons & Dragons remains so popular – aside from being the first commercially successful roleplaying game – thanks in part to its generic fantasy setting, one that relies on familiar tropes from popular media such as the Lord of the Rings films based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle-earth epics; stories, comics, movies, and television shows based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan character; magical fare like the Harry Potter franchise; and many other sources such as those listed in D&D’s own infamous “Appendix N.” Warriors and wizards fighting goblins and orcs in subterranean caves and ancient ruins; these trappings hearken back even to the most basic Western cultural legends of King Arthur, Beowulf, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm. These media and cultural foundations help players easily grasp the setting concepts behind D&D than other more esoteric game worlds.

Some other games don’t suffer from player unfamiliarity with their setting. Nearly any game based on a licensed media property has a loyal fan following intimately familiar with the universe...some of those fans also share an enthusiasm for roleplaying games which they indulge in themselves and sometimes seek to share with other fans. Take your pick: Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly. In these cases gamer-fans have to overcome the challenges posed by roleplaying game rules alone instead of both mechanics and an unfamiliar setting. Not familiar with the setting? Just sit down for a few hours with a DVD set for one season and immerse yourself in the setting.

Game designers and gamemasters do their best to present roleplaying game settings in familiar terms. Sometimes they can use a “crutch” to help impart the gist of a setting by drawing comparisons to familiar films, television shows, comics, and novels. For instance, one might describe GDW’s Victorian space fantasy game Space 1889 as Zulu meets Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. One could compare Vampire: The Masquerade and other World of Darkness fare to roleplaying games based on Ann Rice’s vampire novels or the Underworld film franchise.

Sometimes game settings draw comparisons to other games or established genres. At the time of its release, Fantasy Flight Games’ Dragonstar was billed as “D&D in space” (though one might argue the Spelljammer setting holds that distinction). Wicked North Games’ Westward could easily be described as Wild West steampunk on another planet. R. Talsorian’s gorgeous Castle Falkenstein used comparisons to genre films and literature plus a healthy dose of fantastic artwork to bring its Victorian steampunk fantasy alternate earth to life for gamers. Aside from its groundbreaking game mechanics, Monte Cook’s visionary Numenera game also boils down to familiar if morphed fantasy tropes merged with lost science fiction bits amid the ruins of an extremely far future, all enhanced with inspiring illustrations.

Really esoteric and original roleplaying game settings can’t often draw on widely understood cultural elements. A few titles I’d consider “esoteric” come to mind include Skyrealms of Jorune – with which I regrettably have little exposure – and anything based on M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne setting, including the recently released Bethorm: Plane of Tekumel game from adventure gaming luminary illustrator Jeff Dee (a subject I’ve discussed before). Some newcomers to the roleplaying game hobby might find some of the more exotic settings mentioned in earlier paragraphs just as esoteric. (As an aside Wizards of the Coast’s Everway game from 1995 remains largely forgotten primarily because of the inaccessibility of its setting – despite some groundbreaking game mechanics elements – at a time when many fans really wanted a game set within the rich world of the company’s wildly popular Magic: The Gathering collectable card game.) Certainly most provide at least a setting framework – if not comprehensive material on locations, equipment and treasure, meta-plots, characters, and potential adventures – though this often requires considerable reading and comprehension from an often voluminous core rulebook.

Some of these game settings are so intricately and deeply designed that players really have to immerse themselves in the source material to understand how to game in that environment. Aside from reading the rulebook’s relevant setting materials (possibly including some rule sections, too), what methods do gamemasters use to acclimate players to new and obscure setting material?

Media: It’s not always possible to find a corollary between existing novels, comics, film, and telelvision shows, but this remains one of the best ways to orient newcomers to at least the spirit of an unfamiliar if not esoteric setting. Sometimes the roleplaying game itself offers supplemental material specifically tied to the esoteric game itself; for instance, The Man of Gold, M.A.R. Barker’s first novel set in the world of Tekumel. I’ve occasionally dabbled in this kind of setting orientation myself; long ago in the days when Star Wars was all but a forgotten media property (the early 1990s, before the Timothy Zahn novels appeared), before embarking on an epic Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game campaign with friends, we all spent a day watching the classic trilogy (particularly because one player had managed never to have seen the Star Wars films before...).

Internet Surfing: Wandering the seemingly infinite halls of the internet can provide newcomers to an esoteric setting with some exposure to informative elements, from professional and fan-produced artwork to sites with game- or setting-specific material, actual-play reports, and encyclopaedic wikis filled with cross-linked information. Run a Google search on “Tekumel” and one finds a host of blogs, illustrations, maps, and comprehensive websites offering lots of setting information to absorb.

Player Handouts: Gamemasters can use a variety of handouts to both inform players and put them in the mood for the game. I’ve created information handouts for a variety of games in the past, usually focusing on knowledge the average character would possess. In some cases these include outlines on how players accomplish basic tasks using the game mechanics, but often they incorporate useful setting material. I even recall compiling a list of slang terms used in early Star Wars novels for my player orientation sheet used in running Star Wars d6 adventures at conventions (apologies for referring yet again for my involvement with the Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game).

Solitaire Tutorial Adventures: Frequent readers might recall I particularly enjoy solo tutorial adventures and have frequently discussed the subject before. These brief scenarios using programmed entries (similar to pick-a-path-style books of yore) to enable readers to dive into both the game setting and mechanics right away. Granted, this often requires sharing the rulebook with players (sometimes a limited resource), but it’s a good starting point to steer newcomers for quick immersion in both the game system and setting. Even such an esoteric setting as Tekumel has used this technique; Theatre of the Mind’s edition of Adventures in Tekumel presented much of its player-oriented material and several scenario books in the form of playable solo adventures (and some with lengthy narrative portions imparting the intricacies of the setting). I’ve used them to orient myself to new settings that interested me as a gamemaster, particularly West End’s Paranoia second edition and the multi-genre TORG.

The issue really comes down to how much investment players are willing to make in learning the setting beyond the time and focus required to comprehend the essential game mechanics. Not everyone can sit down, read, and absorb a hefty rulebook, nor are they always willing to do so to fully understand every game in which they wish to dabble as players. Familiarity with the setting genre goes a long way in enticing them to play and rewarding them with an entertaining experience (instead of a game session filled with complete bafflement). Some settings seem interesting but remain so foreign – despite various strategies to inform potential players – as to remain essentially inaccessible...a regrettable condition given the number of high-quality, esoteric game settings available today.

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