Tuesday, April 9, 2024

French & Indian War: Road Trip & Games

 My mission is in jeopardy as my Indian allies have murdered a captured French officer in my care, violating Articles of War. Plus, the French are quickly closing in on our position, so it is a ‘necessity’ that a fort is quickly constructed to shield us from attack....”

George Washington

View from Fort Ligonier with
fortifications and cannon.
Last week my son was off from school for spring break, so we planned a short overnight trip to some sights within driving distance that interested us: Fort Ligonier, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Fort Necessity...two of which catered to our interest in the French and Indian War. Last summer we visited Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York state; we’ve also seen skirmish reenactments at Fort Frederick. So we wanted to round out our exploration of the period with two more locations that broadened our understanding of the overall conflict. It reminded me of numerous wargames covering the Seven Years War in America, many of which serve as good introductions for kids and newcomers to the hobby.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Willing to Wait for sha-Arthan

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Those who’ve followed James Maliszewski’s for a while know he’s quite knowledgeable about M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel setting, having run a continuous campaign for nearly a decade and published a host of wonderful fanzines about the esoteric roleplaying game setting. But Barker’s creation — and its host of different game editions — carries the stain of his anti-Semitic novel Serpent’s Walk, published under a pseudonym in 1991 (as discovered through research by the Tékumel Foundation established to perpetuate his creative legacy). Fans have had to wrestle with this unearthed reality, some walking away from Tékumel, others continuing to embrace it, and many in between trying to find some acceptable balance between the creator and his creation. Maliszewski has discussed his betrayal at learning about Barker’s shocking past before, making many points no doubt shared with Tékumel fans grappling with this issue. Maliszewski has since channeled his creative energies into developing Secrets of sha-Arthan, a game evocative of Tékumel with his own interpretations and embellishments into a wholly original, more accessible setting. Who knows when it will be ready for release? All good things take time...and I am willing to keep my embers of enthusiasm burning as I wait however long to see it published.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rigid or Free?

 A key issue from the outset was whether it was better to codify the game system within comprehensive rules and charts or to base the modelling of movement and combat on the wisdom and experience of an umpire.”

Philip Sabin, Simulating War

Early wargame rules established two acceptable play formats: rigid and free. When military personnel started creating wargames in the early 19th century, an umpire or even a team of referees adjudicated wargame conflicts. Those in the “rigid” style adhered to carefully crafted rules governing many, if not all, possible actions and contests within a game scenario. The referee served as a knowledgeable intermediary, someone so immersed in the rules as to function as a reference when applying them consistently during play. This allowed players to focus on the action depicted on the wargaming table from the perspective of officers commanding troops in the field, much as they’d been trained. Those in the “free” style relied on their own military expertise and judgment to interpret the situations on the board, possibly also with some institutional doctrine and perhaps loose guidelines regarding conflicts on the battlefield. Free kriegspiel relied on an expert’s informed yet subjective opinion rather than established, comprehensive rules. As wargames evolved they branched in several directions, including professional and hobby as well as rigid and free. Free games continued to exist — especially in the military sphere or exercises like matrix games — but most games, especially in the growing hobby, skewed toward rigid. We can look at games in our own time through the lens of rigid and free play...but they primarily sustain the trend toward the rigid end of the spectrum.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“No Superlatives or Absolutes”

 The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

Joseph Conrad

I believe games have a great deal to teach us about ourselves and the world around us, beyond simply the escape and enjoyment they provide (though these in and of themselves make them worthy). In times like these, where the world and society seem bent on tearing themselves apart – apparently indifferent to the humanitarian cost – we seek solace, however momentary, in our favorite pastimes. As I try processing all of this, I remind myself of a game-related maxim I’ve tried to bear in mind in my later adult years. I once applied it, along with numerous other guidelines, as editor for West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal and other roleplaying game projects. It has, oddly enough, echoed beyond those years within the Star Wars film canon, though many ignored it as inconvenient. “No Superlatives or Absolutes.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Learning from A Classroom Game

 All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door”

Albert Camus

When I was in high school way back in the early-mid 1980s – and totally immersed in roleplaying games as well as a few wargames – I pursued an idea for a nuclear war themed card game. I’d never seen Flying Buffalo’s Nuclear War, though the advertisements for it in Dragon Magazine probably lurked in my subconscious. My junior-year English teacher encouraged me in my game-design endeavors, to the point where she asked me to prepare a master to photocopy and trim so everyone in the class could give it a try. Looking back on it all these years later, it reminds me of a few lessons about creativity, production, and a game’s intention; lessons I failed to realize at the time but issues with which I’ve contended throughout my involvement in the adventure game hobby.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Everybody Wins: Modern Board Game History

We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

As I get older and
our society stumbles through the Internet Age I’m acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of anything I find on the web. Online resources about the history of the adventure gaming hobby and the companies and people who produce our favorite game-related entertainment come and go. Bookmarked sites I used to rely on vanish without a trace. People move on from their website projects, which languish without updates or fade without support for a hosting service. While people can update and expand information on the internet, none of it matters if it eventually disappears. Print books, however outdated, still offer us a more permanent resources. Books about the adventure gaming hobby provide a snapshot of the state of affairs at the particular moment of publication. So I’m delighted when I see a volume like James Wallis’ Everybody Wins: Four Decades of the Greatest Board Games Ever Made documenting notable board games in the context of the prestigious German Spiel des Jahres award.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Say & Respect “It’s Just Not for Me”

 If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”

Benjamin Franklin

As members of the adventure gaming hobby and fans of many media properties related to it, we enthusiastically promote the things we love that provide us entertainment, respite, and joy. It’s a pretty human quality; we want to share our happiness with others to enrich someone else’s life and to make more like-minded friends so our community grows. We do this across the broad spectrum of our interpersonal interactions: at game stores, parties, conventions, family gatherings, in person and online, with anyone we suspect has similar tastes. Unfortunately the more specific we get – and even the more zealously enthusiastic we get – the more we risk turning someone off from the particular thing we like. We’re also susceptible to others vehemently recommending things we might or even should like if we consider ourselves part of a particular fan community. Sometimes something we love isn’t someone else’s “cup of tea.” And sometimes another person, even a close friend, recommends something that’s “Just not for me.” We should respect others’ decisions in what’s suitable for them and hope others afford us the same courtesy.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Complexity Fatigue

 Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

Alan Perlis

I first immersed myself in the roleplaying game hobby through Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced D&D, games whose multifaceted intricacies helped occupy my free time in my youth. But as I graduated from high school, immersed myself in collegiate studies, and later endured the real-world job market, I discovered I had little time and hence a waning appetite for games with such intricate complexities. I tried in those early college years to maintain my involvement in roleplaying games with friends back home. It took a streamlined, cinematic rules system with a media property I loved – Star Wars – to rekindle my interest in and love for roleplaying games. Since that transition I’ve leaned more toward “simpler” games for two reasons: my own play style preferences for “easier” rules and my urge to introduce games to newcomers who might immerse themselves int the adventure gaming hobby.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Happy Birthday TTRPGS!

 Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Marcus Aurelius

Many in the tabletop roleplaying game community have been writing and talking about the 50th anniversary of the release of the original, three-little-brown-books edition of Dungeons & Dragons in January 1974.* I do not own any of those primordial rulebooks, but I’ve seen bits of them and reimagined versions released under the Open Game License (OGL); my own preference remains the Basic/Expert D&D editions from the early 1980s, perhaps a more clear, organized expression of the core concepts expressed in those original little books (and even then I as a 12 year-old spent every moment of an entire weekend reading and trying to comprehend the Basic rulebook). While the rules for original D&D aren’t always clear or accessible (certainly by today’s standards), we cannot deny they represent the first published roleplaying game. We celebrate D&D’s release as an inceptive moment in the adventure gaming hobby; the event represents the birth of tabletop roleplaying games as a form of imaginative entertainment. So while we commemorate D&D’s birthday, we also say “Happy Birthday!” and, I would add, “Many happy returns!” to the tabletop roleplaying game hobby.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Lost Reference Library

 I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don't use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.”

Geoffrey Rush

Way back in second grade, after I had so much difficulty learning to read in first grade, I remember my teacher stressing to us the importance of using the classroom dictionary. The maxim seemed simple: if you saw a word you didn’t know, get up, go to the shelf, and consult the dictionary to learn its meaning. And we rarely bothered. Getting up, paging through the thickest book we’d ever seen, and rummaging around just for a word we didn’t know or to check spelling seemed like too much effort. These days, of course, we have online resources, spell- and grammar-check, and auto-correct. They’re great if we actively take advantage of them to improve our vocabulary and knowledge, but it’s far more tempting to simply rely on auto-correct to spell words properly (and reliance on that often leads to new problems).

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Jaquays’ Mos Eisley Map

 Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Carl Sagan

Jennell Jaquays passed away on January 10, 2024, after battling Guillain-Barré syndrome. I never met her, never corresponded with her. She left behind a rich, enduring legacy of work for the roleplaying game and computer gaming industries as well as advocacy work for LGBTQ rights. Although I have a few vintage copies of Judges Guild materials, they don’t include Jaquays’ Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia (something I should remedy for my collection of “old school” Dungeons & Dragons material). But one piece of her artwork served as a major inspiration for me: the amazing full-color, double-sided 17x22 map of downtown Mos Eisley starport and the infamous cantina included in the first Star Wars Roleplaying Game adventure Tatooine Manhunt.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Fighting A Plague of Droids

During the New Year’s holiday our family played Star Wars The Clone Wars Game – A Pandemic System Game. It combined our enjoyment of Star Wars and games – and my particular admiration of cooperative games – in an immersive experience ridding the galaxy of battle droids, planetary blockades, and iconic prequel-era villains. The rules and procedures took a little while to understand; various elements draw on the Clone Wars themes, sending players across the galaxy pursing different strategies as turn-by-turn the overall tension increases. Designer Alexander Ortloff adapted elements from Matt Leacock’s innovative Pandemic mechanics to produce a suspenseful and immersive game experience evocative of the Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon epics.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

New Year Blues

 Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”

Benjamin Franklin

I enjoy the December holidays with their festive meals, gifts, and occasions to gather with friends and family; but I don’t care much for the far more sobering New Year celebration. Aside from cutting short the yuletide celebrations (those “12 Days of Christmas” that supposedly last until Epiphany), it heaps upon us even more obligations – to reflect on our accomplishments and advancements of the past year, to set goals for ourselves in the new one, to prepare for the austerity, culling, and organizing of the severe winter months – all onerous propositions after such extravagant indulgences of the holidays.