Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Revising the Any-System Key for OSR

Years ago I designed a simple, system-neutral framework enabling me to describe game stats for characters and creatures – as well as difficulty levels for various tasks – without committing myself to a single game engine. I called it the Any-System Key. It fit it on two pages, one for the basic concepts and the other a kind of worksheet for listing relevant skills and translating difficulty numbers (a third page added later offered some sample stats across genres). The system focused on using basic skill descriptions and three levels of adversaries (henchmen, boss, and mastermind) to give gamemasters some guidance adapting these notes to their preferred game system. The Any-System Key worked fine for the game material I was writing at the time, primarily pulp content like Heroes of Rura-Tonga and Pulp Egypt, using game engines like the D6 System that relied heavily on skills and difficulty levels to define play parameters.

But now I’m considering designing some supplements in the medieval fantasy genre, something more compatible with the class/level system of Dungeons & Dragons and the numerous retro-clones made popular over the last few years by the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR).

Like the Any-System Key, the OSR version seeks to describe characters, creatures, and other difficulties (such as those corresponding to saving throws, thief skills, and turning undead for clerics) in broad terms, providing enough material so gamemasters could port such setting concepts into their preferred OSR-style game engine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Permission to Play: DeKoven’s Relevance to Adventure Gaming

Now and then I divert to the more academic realms of gaming to gain a different perspective on the adventure gaming hobby. In the past I’ve enjoyed such scholarly work as Professor Scott Nicholson’s excellent Everyone Plays at the Library, Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, and Greg Costikyan’s accessible and thought-provoking I Have No Words & I Must Design (among his many other insightful writings). This time I’ve ventured beyond the fringe of relevance and explored more about the subject of pure play with the wonderfully enthusiastic Bernie DeKoven.

This self-proclaimed “game guru and fun theorist” has written several books, including the most recent (and free) A Playful Path; frequently blogs about his play activities, ideas, and realizations at his Deep Fun and A Playful Path blogs; and recently presented a TEDx talk on “The Politics of Public Playfulness” which touches on a frequent theme, gaining “permission” to play. He draws on a lifetime of experience and thoughtful reflection on human play activity. DeKoven challenges people to consider how play affects their lives, particularly adults who quite often view “play” as a child’s activity and have little time for it as a relevant pursuit in life despite being naturally playful creatures.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Young Gamer’s Growth

As my wife and I start preparing ourselves and our now five year-old son for public school kindergarten – including the nonsensical administrative rules and illogical bureaucracy we’re already encountering – I’m questioning whether I’ve adequately prepared the Little Guy for the rigors of the education system. Sure, he can’t read yet or do math, but he knows his letters and numbers, has fairly good manners with others, and possesses an inquisitive mind. Much of this comes from two geeky, college-educated parents and two years at part-time preschool run by students as at a local high school early childhood education curriculum. We’ve already challenged him in our own way, helping him to spell words and add small sums, often done in the course of playing games. Given that we live on the medieval frontier of northern Virginia (the medieval side) I fully expect to take an active role augmenting the education he gets in public school.

The Little Guy, wearing his Han Solo
vest, contemplates his next maneuver.
Parents often look back on their children’s milestones: their first steps, words, friendships, library story time, trips to local museums, visit to a zoo, and other achievements of early growth we as parents have long forgotten ourselves but gladly relive through our children. As a geeky family we also have our own milestones: first comic book convention, Godzilla movie, games played, seeing a film in a real theater, first time attending Historicon. As a gamer parent having interests across the adventure gaming hobby – boardgames, wargames, roleplaying games, and even miniature wargames – I like to reflect on the progression of games we’ve played together, how he’s evolved from those experiences, and what lessons we’ve learned to apply to the future. (Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers know I discuss my game experiences with the Little Guy often, so I beg their forgiveness for troubling them with any retreads of past missives.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Playing Yourself in Games

Gaming is an escapist hobby. We play games for recreation, as a break from the many real-world challenges we face every day. Sure, sometimes we play games to educate, to pursue an interest in history or some other academic field. But for the most part, for many players, and certainly in our society, games fall under the non-essential recreational category. The fantastic worlds within roleplaying games offer a chance not simply to explore a new and exotic setting but to examine our selves through aspects of characters with amazing abilities far beyond our mundane, everyday selves. Occasionally a roleplaying game offers the chance for players not to run a fantastic persona but a character based on their actual self. While this seems like an interesting exercise – even a possible campaign premise – it’s not one for someone like me who doesn’t like mixing my fantasy with reality, even in a recreational pursuit like roleplaying games.

A recent review of the first entry in Fantasy Flight Games’ End of the World roleplaying game line inspired me to think about playing myself in a real-world scenario, even one as fantastic as a Zombie Apocalypse. In examining the issue, I realize two things about myself: I don’t like much dose of real-world in my roleplaying games and I prefer games where the characters have heroic roles to play. The marketing promoting the game line – including future end-of-the-world releases like Wrath of the Gods, Alien Invasion, and Revolt of the Machines – highlights the novelty that players can game as themselves, and, according to the solid review of the first game, offers a group system for determining one’s game stats. (Of course the rules – and the online-only preview features – state you don’t have to create a character based on yourself, but then why promote that as a major selling-point of the game?) I’m going to resist the urge to discuss the apparent excess of offering four, $40 games relying on the survivalist theme, the novelty of playing yourself as a character, and, presumably, including the full, similar game rules in each setting volume. Whatever your flavor of contemporary apocalyptic scenario, playing ones self in gritty real-world settings cuts too close to reality for me, eliminates the heroic nature I enjoy in games, and mixes my fantasy with reality, my free time with real-world anxieties, in a combination that really doesn’t satisfy me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Valley of the Ape “After Action” Report

Several weeks have passed since I ran Valley of the Ape at Williamsburg Muster, a small, regional miniature wargaming convention with a good selection of board games on the side. For miniature wargamers the “after action report” serves to document their experience and share with others the scenario components and outcomes. I offer my observations on my Valley of the Ape sessions more to illustrate the variety of strategies players brought to the table and what to me seems changing aspects of game conventions in general.

Positive experiences in actual play, especially at large public events like conventions, can not only validate a creator’s work but provide constructive criticism and encourage further work to bring the project to publication. I had a very positive experience running Valley of the Ape for its intended audience.

Scheduling convention games isn’t easy. One can’t usually coordinate with other events to ensure, for instance, your kid-friendly game isn’t running opposite another event specifically geared toward children. Instead I scheduled based on my own preferences, relying on my capacities as the referee and my perceptions of ideal times. I decided I’d run two, two-hour sessions. The short time span meant I’d only run one or two full games each session. With two sessions I could spread them across what I considered two times I felt would work for con attendees with kids, Friday night at 7 p.m. and Saturday morning at 10 a.m. The Saturday time seemed the riskiest for me, since game conventions sometimes get off to a slow start in the mornings. Both times filled up, though Saturday morning’s session started a bit late more from participants coming out of a kid-friendly Wooden Warriors game than anything else. I ran two full games Friday night and one long and late-starting game Saturday.