Tuesday, June 30, 2015

You Are What You Read: Gaming Inspiration

Where do we find our inspiration in creating new game material?

I’m asking myself this question as I start a few new projects. I’m looking to revise and reinvigorate my repertoire of roleplaying game adventures for conventions, so I’m seeking new sources of inspiration. I’ve also suddenly and seemingly inexplicably found myself inspired to draft a set of simple yet easily modified skirmish wargaming rules, a result of my recent reading and dabbling in similar games (and my publication of Valley of the Ape to entice kids into wargaming). I’m examining both where I find inspiration and how to harness sudden enthusiasms that emerge from those same sources.

A collective wisdom exists among humanity that nothing is original, that our creations come out of our lifelong experiences, including the media we consume. “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation,” Voltaire said. “The most original writers borrowed one from another.” Perhaps novelist and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk put it best: “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” In this spirit – and as an effective means of looking for inspiration – I find research one of the best ways for me to fire up my imagination. I look in several places for new ideas or approaches: exploring related subjects on Wikipedia, paging through old game books, browsing my small yet satisfying personal library of non-fiction materials, and occasionally sitting down to watch a genre-related video. Everyone has their favorite novels, films, comics, television shows, and games. Most folks cultivate interests related to and apart from their media consumption that can also inform and influence their game writing. Ultimately our creations incorporate bits and pieces of ourselves – books we’ve read, films we’ve seen, comics we’ve followed, games we’ve played, and an entire lifetime of original experience – all interpreted, re-assembled, and transformed into a new form, our “original” work. The more we read/watch/play/experience, the more material we have for inspiration, the more elements we have to recombine into new forms that please ourselves and others.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Schweig’s Gaming Roadshow

Once upon a time I had seemingly unlimited time, funds, and energy to dash off to regional conventions with my car packed to the gills with gaming toys to share with fans. My situation has changed over the years. As a father and husband I don’t have as much time or energy in my middle-age years. Conventions aren’t as generous toward “guests” (and gaming “guests” in particular), putting more of the financial burden on them to pay their way (especially hotel costs, arguably the biggest expense attending a regional con). I don’t have as much spare cash for gaming pursuits, let alone road trips to conventions with significant financial expenses incurred by a hotel stay, meals, and gas for the car. But I still have the urge – and often fight it – to commit myself to conventions, bring all my gaming toys, and run entire weekends of fun games for appreciative fans.

Valley of the Ape "set pieces."
It doesn’t help when I head into the basement and gaze longingly at the neglected tables for wargaming, painting, and crafting terrain. A lifetime of toys from various adventure gaming hobby pursuits are stashed in, around, and under those surfaces, all yearning for some play time. Some I’ve brought out to play with younger folks; my nephew helped playtest the still-in-development Panzer Kids rules on the desert terrain with World War II tanks. The Little Guy helped me create the kid-friendly Valley of the Ape wargame with the custom jungle terrain we bought and assembled. But these remain isolated if highly enjoyable incidents. I have an urge to share my toys with more people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Uncertainty in X-wing

Now and then I dabble in some “academic” reading about game issues, an exercise that inevitably starts me thinking and writing about the convergence of gaming as an activity and more analytical analysis of game elements. Having enjoyed his brief monograph I Have No Words & I Must Design (a wonderfully accessible and thought-provoking read), I picked up Greg Kostikyan’s Uncertainty in Games to further broaden my horizons and re-focus my way of looking at games. It immediately helped me define both my interest in and frustration with Fantasy Flight Games’ X-wing Miniatures Game.

Costikyan might be best-known for his involvement in such innovative roleplaying titles as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and Paranoia from West End Games and Toon from Steve Jackson Games. He’s had a long history and career in gaming, from the days of SPI to time working in the video game industry. His rather prolific output includes four novels, several short stories, gaming zines, numerous games (both analog and digital), and two books and numerous articles about games and the gaming industry.

Uncertainty in Games looks at one element that makes games so enjoyable...and at times frustrating. It’s by no means a hard-core academic work, but one which looks at games from a different perspective, seeking the sources and application of “uncertainty” in games, all with Costikyan’s entertaining language, clear logic, and acerbic wit. Two chapters in particular offer readers valuable information about discerning uncertainty in games. In “Chapter 4: Analyzing Games” he takes a look at numerous games – both analog and digital – and examines them for source of uncertainty. Monopoly, rock/paper/scissors, Diplomacy, chess, Memoir ’44, poker, and Magic: The Gathering are just some of the analog games Costikyan outlines, noting how rules and components add layers of uncertainty to thwart players and enhance the game experience. In “Chapter 5: Sources of Uncertainty” Costikyan categorizes several kinds of uncertainty in game mechanics, from wholly expected ones like “player unpredictability,” “hidden information,” and “randomness” to less apparent ones like “solver’s uncertainty,” “analytic complexity,” and “narrative anticipation.” He includes examples from across the field of analog and digital games to further illustrate how various uncertain elements enhance (or detract from) the challenging tension driving a game. Overall Uncertainty in Games offered a light reading style packed with plenty of revelations and a new way of perceiving games. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of successful, satisfying games – and certainly in designing them – should read the book, along with Costikyan’s other writings on the subjects of games.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Halthrag Keep Hits the Solo OSR Spot

Frequent readers know I enjoy solitaire adventures and solo gamebooks; I’m also indulging in a recent enthusiasm for Old School Renaissance (OSR) materials. So Noah Stevens’ PDF of The Hounds of Halthrag Keep naturally tempted me. I downloaded it and started feeding odd characters through its meat-grinder programmed entries; I liked it so much I went ahead and ordered a a print-on-demand copy to add to my growing OSR shelf and solo gamebook collection.

Before I started reading and playing Halthrag Keep I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Sure, I’m always game for a solitaire adventure; that seemed about the only interesting quality about it for me. It was billed as a “funnel” adventure typical of the game whose system it uses, Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC), in which zero-level characters bumble through hideously lethal dungeons (in comparison to their low-level and inadequately equipped selves), with only a few surviving to become somewhat worthier first-level characters. I prefer games where players can craft meaningful characters who, by their very heroic nature, somehow survive adversity. So I’m not usually a fan of “funnels” or generally killing off scores of low level characters. I’d also developed an impression that Halthrag Keep and the Dungeon Crawl Classics game in general blended “gonzo” fantasy with over-the-top sci-fi elements, something I tend to avoid in my fantasy game adventuring.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Halthrag Keep so much that before I’d completed it with my third character I ordered the print-on-demand version.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gaming “Intangibles”

What are fleeting experiences like roleplaying game sessions or miniature wargame scenarios worth? Are they “performance art” or marketable products, however fleeting? PBS Newshour recently aired a quirky piece about a Minneapolis art museum selling “intangibles,” ephemeral, art-oriented experiences, such as meeting a dancer waltzing through a public park terrain, arranged to offer a one-on-one experience with an artist. It postulated taking the art museum experience – a temporary occurrence for the visitor – outside the confines of the structure to engage artists with those seeking something new. These interactions (some in person, others with electronic components) seek to create a hybrid of “art” and marketable “product” through an interactive experience.

What value would you put
on this "intangible" experience?
Although games consist of such tangible objects as rulebooks, miniatures, terrain, dice, and character sheets, the actual playing of the game becomes an intangible experience, something folks cannot take along with them afterward (though one might argue recordings of game sessions enable this, though I myself find little entertainment listening or watching such fare). Any game experience merges the personalities and strategies of various players around the mechanics and components of a game. Board games, card games, and traditional chit-and-board wargames don’t usually require a third-party referee and thus follow predictable forms within the rules, with variances for strategy and player interaction within the game’s structure. But running a more free-form roleplaying game is a sort of performance at some level, primarily for the gamemaster but also for the players. Even setting up and refereeing a miniature wargame – with customized terrain, finely painted soldiers, and a well-balanced scenario – involves aspects of personal performance and artistic presentation. It started me thinking about games as “intangibles,” ephemeral experiences focused on a gamemaster or referee, a handful of players, and a particular structure (setting, mechanics, components) of a game. An appreciation for “intangibles” remains key for the adventure gaming hobby on some level (usually subconscious), since the act of playing games remains intangibly experiential. I don’t mean to open up the debate whether games are “art,” though some folks hold quite firm opinions on the subject. Nor do I wish to debate what qualifications make gamemasters worthy of charging for their performance. I’m just struck by the connection a portion of the artistic world makes with intangible interactive experiences as a marketable product and the fact that gamers engage in this all the time, often without any remuneration among participants.