Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is Interesting?

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque has tackled the question, “What makes a monster interesting?” The answer provided is the old standby of solutions to the been-there-done-that doldrums: reskinning.

With apologies to our good host at G&D, I've always been meh about reskinning. Call an ork a “bizak” and it's still an orc. Sure, describing goblins as "diminutive, wizened, man-like fey, each wearing a cloth cap that appears to be dipped in blood" is awesome the first time the PCs run into them. (And I love that description, by the way. Makes them sound like something from an Alan Lee illustration.) The second time, they'll just be “more of those wizened man-fey” and the third time they'll be “goblins” (or, possibly, “red-caps.”)

The problem with reskinning is that it's just kicking the can down the road. You've made a boring monster more interesting for a single encounter. What about the next time? And the time after that? You could just use different monsters every time, though if you're going to do that, why not just use different monsters before resorting to reskinning? There's almost certainly a goblin-analogue in Fiend Folio you haven't used yet, like xvarts or dark creepers.

What really makes a monster interesting is what the players can do with it. If your “wizened, man-like fey” are just another EXP-piƱata, well, ok, the PCs attack, dice are rolled, moving along. On the other hand, if the PCs can confound them by wearing their clothes inside out, that's a bit more interesting. Goblins you can trade with are more interesting yet, especially if they allow you to push deeper into the hex-crawl or are the only source for certain goods.

I want to return to that “inside-out” thing, though. Monsters that invoke fairy-tale logic are some of the best because they prod the players to interact with the world in non-standard ways. Vampires are awesome for this because they're nearly impossible to kill otherwise. But everyone knows how vulnerable they are if you expose them to sunlight or find their coffins. Now, suddenly, all sorts of things about the adventure are important: where is the nearest holy ground, what time of day is it, do the PCs encounter the vampire deep underground or in a tottering ruin or at a public event where exposure could thwart its plans? Players who couldn't care less about the campaign's calendar are suddenly very interested in the phases of the moon when they know they're up against lycanthropes.

Finally, monsters are interesting when they have a noticeable impact on the world. Goblins hiding up in their caves are not terribly interesting. Goblins who are raiding merchant caravans and driving up prices are a lot more interesting. Goblins who have infiltrated a walled city's sewers and are stealing babies for some nefarious purpose are more interesting yet. And they get even more interesting when they're feeding those babies to a black dragon who will rise from the sewers and wreak havoc should the flow of babies be interrupted by, say, a group of do-gooding adventurers. When slaying the monster doesn't mean just additional EXP, but also affects the world around them (lower prices at the blacksmith or the gratitude of a city no longer on the verge of riots), that makes the whole world more interesting. That's one of the cool things about dragons in the old stories. Slaying a dragon wasn't just an extra notch on the knight's sword hilt. It meant a new lease on life for the entire community the dragon was preying upon, it meant a happy reunion for the princess and her family, it unleashed a flood of lost wealth returned to the local economy. 5e kinda gets at that with their regional effects for “mythic” monsters, one of the things I very much appreciate about the new edition.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Blue Rose: the Kickstarting

Blue Rose is now a-Kickstarter-ing. As promised, they've dropped the (justly praised) True20 mechanics for their new AGE rule set. I can certainly understand how that makes sense from a business standpoint, and while AGE isn't the rules I'd go to for this project, I can also see how this will nicely expand what they've built for their Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG.

There's a bit of blah-blah about how brave and edgy the game was. Of course, I don't read Green Ronin's hate-mail, but I was pretty active on Big Purple in those days. Mostly what I remember were complaints about how the humans of Aldis were slaves to some bizarre magical deer who picked their rulers. Even worse, in the eyes of many, was the fact that this magical deer supposedly rooted out treachery and corruption. In the “perfect” kingdom of Aldis, what was there for heroes to do?

I was generally of the opinion that these complaints were a bit overblown, since the setting seemed a perfectly playable version of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar with the serial numbers filed off. Still, it looks like they've tackled that issue with their “framework” stretch goals. Even if they don't get published, they should give DMs ideas on what sorts of things you can do with the setting.

And I suspect at least a few of the stretch-goals will be hit, considering they're more than halfway to their original goal now, on the first day of the Kickstarter. Here's hoping we get a fun game that takes a slightly different perspective on the whole High Fantasy genre. I'm not sure I want them to bother selling it to the uninitiated or not, but I certainly don't want them to sell out the genre they're aiming to emulate. There's a lot more to “Romantic Fantasy” than just talking animals and gay characters.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retro-stupid Refuel - Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in spite of all the hoopla to the contrary, exactly what it says it is on the tin, and lots of it. Intense car chases, brutal action, and over-the-top spectacle are all over the place in this one, all laced together with a barely-there revenge plot thinly layered over a pastiche of the entire plot to Road Warrior melded with the kids’ plotline from Thunderdome. Everything that’s original here is in the visuals.

And what epic visuals they are. Everything here is bigger and nastier and more chromed-up and over-the-top than ever before. The dune-buggies of yesteryear are gone, replaced with monster-trucks, tank-treaded muscle cars, and sedans bristling with insanely huge rusty spikes. Forget all that nonsense about gas being rare after the apocalypse; in Fury Road, every vehicle is covered in so much armor plate, spikey-bits, and iconography that none of them can be doing better than five miles to the gallon.

I do love the way the cultures of post-apocalyptic Australia have evolved in this franchise. In Mad Max, they were barely different from present-day suburbia, struggling to maintain a pocket of normality. In the Road Warrior, that normality was gone, but most of the people were still everyday Joes and Janes, struggling to find safety in a world gone mad. The inhabitants of Barter Town had made peace with their post-apocalyptic existence, trading the last bits and bobs of their lives from before in exchange for water, food, and barbaric spectacle.

The people of Fury Road, however, come off like the descendants of the airplane kids. They inhabit bizarre cultures built around survival and apocalypse-shaped religion. Life is cheap, except when it’s pure, untouched by the ravages of the apocalypse, at which point it becomes more precious than gold and gasoline and bullets. The pre-apocalypse world isn’t a memory but a myth, and its death is a point of theological contention.

This only adds to the impossibility of placing this movie in chronological order with the others. The opening implies it belongs between Mad Max and Road Warrior. Things happen to Max that make it impossible for this movie to have happened before Thunderdome. More than that, however, this Max is clearly the post-Thunderdome Max. Where the Road Warrior didn’t give much of a crap about the settlers until (maybe) the very end (and I’m not sure he really cared more about them than he did about his vengeance), but then goes out of his way to save the kids at the end of Thunderdome, Fury Road’s Max signs on pretty quickly to doing what he can for the helpless innocents of this film.

And yes, in spite of all the politically-fueled nonsense you’ve probably seen surrounding this film, there are helpless innocents in need of being saved by Max here. Frankly, it’s hard for me to see how this film is all that much more feminist than the very-similar Road Warrior. Yes, there's no rape scene like in the beginning of The Road Warrior. Instead, we get a scene of women with the bodies of fertility goddesses being milked like cows. It's not quite as kinky-erotic as a similar scene in Pink's “Raise Your Glass” video only because the women are bovine-docile instead of writhing about in restraints. These gals and their milk kinda-sorta pay off at the end of the movie metaphorically, but it's so heavy-handed it feels gratuitous.

Charlize Theron is great in this movie, and her Furiosa character does have a more interesting arc than Max does, but that's not saying much. To praise anyone for their acting in this flick seems a bit much. It's all perfect for what it is, but make no mistake: this is a car-chase movie punctuated by bits of dialogue. It's an awesome car-chase movie, but it's no Casablanca, or Princess Bride, or hell, Star Wars.

So Theron's acting primarily involves closeups of her face with one of two emotions on it: either some-asshole's-gonna-pay or oh-shit-the-only-choice-we-have-is-to-crash-straight-through-this. Grim, vengeance-fueled determination or edge-of-your-seat, hope-we-make-it-through-this-too-late-to-swerve-aside-now. Both are picture-perfect and entirely in service to the film's actions beats, giving them the drama-nitro they need to rev up beyond the potential of mere cars crashing about in the desert.

And sure Furiosa's an awesome kick-ass character, and the way she and Max come to understand one another very much echoes a similar relationship in the last Riddick movie. The atonement thing is cool, and it's a thread they share. But this movie also comes with a literal truckload of defenseless damsels in distress. The Vulvalini are bad-asses... so long as they avoid fist-fights. When it comes to mano-a-mano action, the guys with their massive chests and thick fists dominate the action with all the thuggish brutality of jungle beasts. The Vulvalini are outlaw banditas and ace shots with a gun, but they're also victims to be literally crushed under the wheels of a big-bad's monster truck. If there's a political message in this film, honestly, it's the same message you get from an NRA poster of a smiling 12-year-old girl holding a bright pink AR-15 and captioned "God Made All Men, But Smith & Wesson Made Us Equal."

So leave your pretentious at home, bring your 12-year-old self that thrills to car-crashes and revenge-fueled power fantasies, and come get your retro-stupid refuel. This insane film is chock-full of adventure seeds and crazy ideas to inspire the DM in you, from bullet farms to chrome-worshipping neo-viking suicide bombers, to stone-column citadels carved with crazy skull symbols and topped with garden paradises and pleasure domes.  The murder-hobos in your life will thank you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Feast of the Unicorn

So, Blue Rose is possibly returning. I suspect it will make its Kickstarter target. This isn't Green Ronin's first rodeo, after all.

Blue Rose is an RPG modeled on what the designers termed “romantic fantasy.” We're talking about authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Hambly, Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, and many more similar authors. I'd also include Wendy and Richard Pini and the Foglio's for “Girl Genius” among them.

I do still encounter, on occasion, comments that equate this sort of fiction with stuff like “My Little Pony.” Folks wonder why a mechanic (d20 in the original Blue Rose) built around combat would be used for a game about making friends over tea parties and resolving conflicts through mediation and...

And I have to wonder what books these people are reading.

Actually, no I don't. I know they haven't read any romantic fantasy. They look at the pastel covers with the prancing horses, manes blowing in the wind, and the heroine gazing mistily into the distance, and assume.

Well, neighbor, if that's your assumption, reality's ringing your doorbell and has a whole case of bitch-slap to deliver.

Let's start with a classic of the genre: the prologue to Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood.

Very, very NSFW. Also, if you require trigger warnings, romantic fantasy is not the genre for you.

Want more? Try the prologue to C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising.

Keep in mind, these are not the meat of the stories. These are the prologues. They're just the hooks (though, like good hooks, they're short, sharp, and dig into your flesh).

And this stuff isn't unusual. Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel trilogy starred a masochistic sacred prostitute. Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince pivots around the rape of a male character by a female villain. Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall (sporting one of the most pastel-and-merry-go-round-pony covers ever) includes fratricide, rape, torture, and attempted suicide. The conclusion includes a violent execution and a pitched battle between two armies.

Sure, there are talking animals, gorgeous clothes, weddings, friendly dragons, and the occasional unicorn or gryphon. Why not? The target audience has proven through their buying habits that they love that stuff.

And yes, there are openly gay characters and bouts of polyamory now and then. But the sex isn't always the happy-happy hippy-trippy lovefest some would lead you to expect. Because the minds of teenage girls are full of monsters, and, as Ursula Vernon says, sex is “the mommy monster at the bottom of the well, with fifty lazily blinking eyes and muck settling across its back” and they want to drag those monsters into the light, see them, be terrified by them, and then toss them back into the well.

The truth is, all good writing is vicious. An author lulls you into caring for a character or three and then spends the next handful-hundred pages abusing them terribly. If the misfortunes of the characters resonate with your own life, the book will be all the more powerful for it. Nobody enjoys pre-chewed pablum. Most will enjoy a vicarious and dangerous thrill that flirts with the monsters lurking inside their own skulls.

Now, having said all that, if you want to argue about how well the Blue Rose game communicates and invokes that sort of thing, then we'll have something to talk about. :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Thoughts After My First GAMA Trade Show

Nobody in this industry has any idea how to do this.

This isn't the condemnation it might seem at first. Yes, there appears to be way too much “amateur hour” at nearly every level of the industry, but if you think that's unique to hobby games, then you didn't work in the internet during the '90s. (And I'd be shocked to learn it's much better than it was; today it appears more people have credentials to hide behind, but...)

Rather, I'm talking about how hard it is to even define what the professionals try to talk about. On the obvious end, questions bedevil attempts to quantify the industry. Is Cool Mini or Not's Zombicide a boardgame or a miniatures game? Should Monopoly be counted as a “hobby game?” What about Star Wars reskins of Monopoly?

And then there's the dance of trying to figure out just what's happening. Did D&D steal some wind from Pathfinder? Scuttlebutt in the halls was that Pathfinder's appeal appears to be weakening. However, the folks who make their money attempting to guesstimate actual market activity say that D&D's 5e mostly grew the market with Pathfinder staying fundamentally strong.

(And keep in mind, please, as I talk here, that the GAMA trade show is heavily tilted towards the interests and concerns of your FLGS. How many people play a particular game isn't nearly as important as what people actually buy. Unless they're lining up to buy A Red and Pleasant Land, people playing 1e D&D or the like are completely invisible to most of GAMA's members. And they're only a shadowy mass in the mists if they're buying online.)

What everyone agrees on is that things are good now. The best guesstimates I saw (again, by the pros who get paid to guesstimate, largely based on interviews since everyone plays their cards close to their vests), is 15% to 20% growth across the hobby games market in North America every year for the last four years. Things are good and 2015 looks to continue the trend.

China rules in manufacturing. If your game is all paper, there are North American sources that have become competitive, but if your game includes plastic or wooden pieces, nobody right now can compete with the Chinese. However, Chinese manufacturing, while cheap, may not be as big as you think. When WizKids needed a big order of dice for their Marvel's Dice Masters game, they pretty much took up all of China's dice-making capacity. There's also a six-month delay between placing an order in China and delivery to stores in the US. Delays, quality issues, and inventory headaches were all big topics. Those of you who are fans of Fantasy Flight's x-wing game probably know all about this.

Want to start an argument at GAMA? Ask people about Kickstarter. While the manufacturers and publishers are almost universally fans, retailers tend to blow hot or cold on it. Retailers can also be very thin-skinned when it comes to the topic of online shopping. Many feel like they're being taken advantage of by shoppers who will try a game out in a store and ask the store staff for advice, but then buy the game online.

Fate is a serious contender in RPGs, frequently showing up in the top 5 in terms of sales, but usually at number 5. That may not seem impressive, but keep in mind that it beats GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cubicle 7's Tolkien-based The One Ring, and Mutants & Masterminds. And sometimes Shadowrun. FF is also a serious contender, especially if you combine all their Warhammer 40k and Star Wars lines.

Collectable card games make up more than 60% of sales in terms of dollars spent by gamers. Blind packaging leads to more sales; make it collectable and you'll see an easily measurable jump in sales. Miniature games (mostly Games Workshop) make up roughly 20%. Board games, non-collectible dice and card games, and RPGs combined make up something just less than 20%. While everyone recognizes that RPGs gave birth to the modern hobby gamer market, it's now a sliver of a niche.

Again, do keep in mind that all of these are at best guesstimates, only apply to North America, and are measured in terms of sales in dollars; who's buying what rather than who's playing what. Raggi's almost completely invisible to this crowd and Mearls stated he thinks the numbers given for RPGs are too low.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Variations on a Theme by Mearls

Part of Mearls’ talk at GAMA was supposed to be about the future of RPGs. He ended up not having a lot of time to get into that (and I’d forgotten about it when I had an opportunity to speak with him, so I utterly failed to follow up on it). Still, he did touch briefly on where he saw the hobby going.

And that is toward simplicity in mechanics. He constantly mentioned Numenera and Fate. Numenera, I think, is the better example. It’s got a crazy, wahoo, Saturday-morning-cartoon meets ‘60s post-apocalyptic fiction meets Dying Earth meets Gamma World as illustrated by Deviant Art setting. It can get pretty dense in sections.

The mechanics, however, are bog-simple. Want to spend points from three stat-pools to boost your roll? Decide, roll, rinse, repeat.
There’s little in the way of tactical minutia to occupy the GM’s frontal lobes. Heck, if you’re playing the game RAW, the GM doesn’t touch the dice during combat. The GM’s principle job is to watch for good points for intrusions, giving the fight context, and creating fun at the table, not adjudicating bonuses, facing, or distance.

Now, this is old hat to the OSR crowd. We’ve been crowing about this for over seven years now. Grognardia launched on March 30, 2008. That’s the same year the Old School Primer was published. And, as some demonstrated to my previous post about what Mearls had to say, a common response ‘round these parts can be largely summed up thusly: “Duh!”

But it’s interesting how slowly but strongly this idea is percolating through the collective consciousness of RPGing. I’m not sure most folks even recognize it yet in D&D. They’re still expecting to find rules for every situation. If it’s not out yet, it’ll be released in a supplement, right?

Only Mearls has said, there won’t be that many supplements. So maybe a free-to-the-web pdf or something?

Or maybe not at all.

Mearls pointed out that, for many designers, D&D sets the tempo. It’s assumed that players have played D&D, so D&D is your baseline for expectations, especially in terms of complexity. People see the rule-for-everything of 3.x or the giant-wall-o’-combat-options from 4e and assume that people coming to their game bring expectations shaped by that sort of thing. And thus you get monstrosities like Shadowrun 5e.

This stuff we’ve been raving about for seven years now is starting to seep out, but kinda below the surface. Have people noticed what’s happened to D&D in 5e? Will it still be seen as a success next year when there aren’t three brand-new core books everyone wants? If it is, will they recognize the value of simplicity? Or are the punch-clock designers too set in their ways, and too deep in their bubble, to notice?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RPGs ripe for a new edition. When we start seeing new editions of games, it’ll be interesting to note if this move toward simplicity is found in them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mearls at GAMA

Mike Mearls gave a talk on RPG design at the GAMA trade show on Tuesday afternoon. Much of it was based on the playtest for 5e, so keep that in mind as I delve into the meat of his discussion.

He started by discussing the perception that RPGs are in decline. This was something of a shock to me and with the retailers I mentioned this to. While RPGs are not the tent pole products FF miniatures games or M:tG are, they don’t seem to be in decline to us. Nor to Mearls.

Granted, the man certainly doesn’t want to come to a show like GAMA and say something like his industry is fading fast. And he wasn’t willing to risk his job by releasing WotC sales numbers.

That said, he reported that internal numbers show peaks and valleys, but overall slow but steady growth. Organized play has grown with each edition of D&D since 3rd. He also said that the numbers they had showed a skew towards younger gamers. The assumption that the kids are playing MMOGs and old farts are playing pen-and-paper games is the opposite of reality. The average age of D&D players appears to be around 30 years of age; the average age of MMOGers is 35.

After that, he got into some details from the 5e play test. One thing he thinks the industry as a whole has gotten wrong is the desire for complexity. When 3e was released, lots of people just assumed their audience had played it and that was the benchmark for complexity. The result has been much denser games with rules for everything.

But players don’t appear to want that. He described watching people play 4e from behind a one-way mirror and just grinding his teeth at how everyone got the rules wrong. Yet, while the designers were squirming in frustration at everything going awry, the people playing were almost always having a great time. In short, the rules mattered much less than the group.

Even more, as they play-tested 5e, while the designers squirmed at the lack of rules to cover edge-cases, the players seemed thrilled with a simpler game. They found that players actively disliked complexity during combat. (Mearls assumes this is due in some part to the bad side of spotlight time; if everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to take your turn, you really, really don’t want to screw up. The pressure to “get it right” makes more options less fun. Not entirely sure that’s what’s going on there, but I can see where Mearls is coming from.)

While complexity outside of combat is appreciated, Mearls firmly believes that adding to that complexity is a Red Queen’s race the publisher can only lose. Keeping something new constantly on store shelves may be great in the short run, but it leads to quicker burn-out. A smaller core-rules footprint, in short, is better for the longevity of the game.