Friday, November 26, 2010

All Outta Bubblegum is Always Right

Yeah, I know, most who still don’t get it won’t, but this is silly fun, just like All Outta Bubblegum itself. The game manual is only 385 words long, so take a peek and then come back and we’ll get this ball rolling.

Pretty simple, huh? And clearly the sort of thing just kinda slapped together on a whim, a game that’s designed on a napkin around a few beers. And yet, the game’s got a certain surprising depth to it.

From Deepest Dungeon to Furthest Galaxy

Let’s start with what’s obvious. While the game clearly implies action-genre adventures, within that very broad milieu, you can go just about anywhere without adding a single rule. Classic dungeon-delving, noir gumshoe detective, space opera, swashbuckling pirate action, heck, some crazy mashup of Watership Down meets Neuromancer meets The Wizard of Oz, you can do it all with AOB.

And that’s if you don’t want to mess with the core mechanic. Once you start tinkering under the hood, all sorts of possibilities present themselves. Instead of “kickin’ ass” you can make the core activity anything you want, from “skiing” to “pitchin’ woo” to “classic thiefy activities like sneakin’ and stealin’.” But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just stick with core AOB, in the spirit of “…is always right.”


What this game is about is resource management. But that resource management is so simple and, dare I say, elegant (in a gum-smacking kinda way) that it’s not going to interfere much at all with what’s going on around the table. The resource management also implies and, I think, encourages, a certain arc to a session of the game. The players are going to want to be certain they’ve got everything lined up to resolve the crisis de jur with violence before they run out of bubblegum. This means expending their chewy resource at the beginning of the session in eliminating ass-kicking-resistant obstacles and making sure they know exactly what ass needs to be kicked. So the early part of the game is going to be spent investigating clues and preparing the battlefield for the righteous smack-down to come.

In short, this ridiculously simple mechanic encourages a game that plays a lot like an episode of “The A-Team,” “Dukes of Hazard,” or a Bond flick: a swift introduction of the primary conflict and villain, investigation of the villain and the elimination of certain key resources the villain might rely on for protection or, at least, to prevent ass from being kicked, and then wallowing in over-the-top action-hero violence.

But there’s another, cooler twist here as well. Since the players decide when and how to spend their bubblegum, pacing of the adventure is really in their hands. The GM can kinda-sorta encourage matters by the layout of the adventure, but the players can force the issue one way or another by how quickly they spend their bubblegum. With the right group of players and some GM flexibility, it’d be simplicity itself to hand pretty much the entire pacing issue to the players to manage.

Designated Drivers

The game’s also got a clever method for handling niche protection. “Niche protection?” you ask. “The game has no classes! How can it have niche protection?”

Ah, but it does have classes, two to be exact, implied by the rules: skill-users and ass-kickers.

It’s easy to be an ass-kicker: spend your gum frequently, whenever you absolutely need to succeed in a task. Soon, you’ll be all outta bubblegum and your PC will be a seething volcano of posterior-punting fury. These characters will spend their bubblegum frequently on the most important tasks.

The “designated drivers,” however, will hoard their gum, spending it carefully, and relying on dice-rolls to mitigate their expenditure of bubblegum. You’ll want folks with bubblegum still available near the end of the game, just in case there’s a wrinkle you didn’t see coming.

One of those wrinkles might be bad luck. Someone who wants to play a “designated driver” might be frustrated in their choice by a string of bad dice rolls, pushing them into “ass-kicker” mode. And that might force someone who was planning on playing an ass-kicker to switch over to skill-user mode, meaning a few, if not all, the players at the table may be pushed out of their comfort zones every so often.
(And this is why this sort of analysis can be useful. Playing outside your comfort zone is one of the benefits of old-school random character generation. But what if your players *hate* being pushed out of their comfort zones? Then AOB probably ain’t the game for them. Or, you can add mechanics that allow a bit of bubblegum-protection; perhaps the players can trade bubblegum with each other, or there are ways to refresh your supply of bubblegum in the middle of an adventure. As the recipes often say, “and season to taste.” Knowing what you’re working with makes that a lot easier.)


“But wait,” you might ask, “did the designers really intend for all of this to be in the game?” Probably not. I figure they were just tossing together some really quick, beer-and-pretzel-style gaming based on a silly catch-phrase, and intended nothing more.

Or maybe not. Still, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This is how the game actually plays when the rubber meets the road. Intentions are nice, and can give you some insight into why certain decisions were made, but if the game plays like an ‘80’s action tv show, all the fluff about existential despair and deep investigations of the human soul won’t change that.

And that’s really what this sort of exercise is about: getting past the intentions, the fluff, and the assumptions we might be bringing to the rules and getting right in up to our elbows with what they actually do, how they actually perform at the table.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Truly, the End Times are Upon Us...

For the D&D Virtual Tabletop is going into beta test!

Yeah, I know, the world just flipped upside down for me, too. ;)

SquareMans has some intriguing notions about where WotC could take this new functionality, but I think a shift of that magnitude is too great to pull off without an edition change. But then, I'm already in shock that the VT might actually see the light of day.

And this isn't entirely useless to us old-schoolers, since the interface appears to be rules-agnostic, from what I can tell. Be interesting to keep an eye on this one, and see where they take it.

UPDATE: Oddysey, whose young eyes are keener than mine, is doubtful of the VT being rules-agnostic:

...we don't know that it doesn't, for instance, keep track of where you can move based on your combat speed. It's clearly calculating turn orders and tracking your defensive stats, and this is just the DM view.

The player view might have, say, a list of the powers that you've got, and track whether you've used them and roll for you.

There must be some kind of support for the system built in. Not sure how much, but there has to be something that would give people a reason for using this rather than, say, Fantasy Grounds.

So maybe it's just easier to use, but I can't see WotC competing on interface. ;p
The initiative tracking is going to be an issue in itself, for old school applications.

Since so many of us use alternative initiative systems.

So yeah, don't be buying any DDi subscriptions just yet. ;)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Investigating Resource Management

Robert Fisher isn't quite certain about the Gumshoe game. I have to admit, I'm largely in agreement with him, but I haven’t played the game either, so what follows should not be seen as a criticism of Gumshoe. And there certainly is a place and a time for such mechanics. It really all depends on what your game is about.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: when you're rolling dice you're not playing the game. Managing resources is a little better (it actually involves decision-making, which is the very heart and soul of gaming), but managing resources should never be mistaken for anything other than what it is. When I say old-school D&D is a game about exploration, I recognize that resource management is a part of that. But resource management is merely a limit on the amount of exploration the PCs can do. The primary activity is still trekking into places that are unknown. The important choices are exploration choices; left or right, stay at this level or descend to a deeper level, visit the Caves of Chaos or the Ruined Moathouse. The resources which must be managed, things like provisions, equipment, memorized spells, and hit points, are in truth obstacles to be overcome in order to do more exploring. More than experience points, getting to see one more room is the real reward for good play.

As a bit of an aside, much of what we saw in third and fourth edition D&D are attempts to transform a game about exploration into a game about tactical combat. Fourth edition has largely completed the transformation. The game focuses primarily on positioning, powers, and cooperative, synergistic effects. This is why linear adventures are not anathema in the fourth edition game. The multiple paths of branching options is vital to old-school D&D because it allows players to decide how far they want to push their supplies, how they will explore the unknown, and gives the players the opportunity to pick and choose which fights they want to risk. Avoiding fights in fourth edition D&D would be like avoiding the ball in baseball; it would pretty much mean fleeing the heart of the game altogether.

A game about investigation should have the players searching for clues, questioning witnesses, and puzzling over what they learn. This can be problematic, however, because the models for such games don't give us good examples. The point of the detective novel or TV show is to showcase the brilliant analytical mind of the detective. These detectives, whether they are Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, tend to be quirky individuals who do not think like normal folks. They always (or, at least, eventually) see the clues in exactly the right light to understand their proper meaning. Players almost never do this. As faustusnotes points out in the comments, you really need lots of clues pointing in the right direction so that the players don't end up creating their own red herrings.

Actually, discussing this with Odyssey, she pointed out that the best way to handle this sort of thing is to come up with the bare bones of the situation and improvise the clues the players find based on their assumptions and what they're talking about. This way, you can better tailor the clues to show them what they will understand as pointers to the truth, and they'll be a little less likely to run off odd directions.

Again, this isn't to say that dice rolling and resource management have no place in RPGs. It is to say, however, that the current trend of making resource management and dice rolling dominate the core activities of the theme of the RPG is bass ackwards. What your game is really and truly about is what the players are doing at the table. Dice, resources, and the rules should support that activity, but they should not supersede it. Success should come from player action and not for mere rolls of the dice.

On a very related note, I am somewhat intrigued by this capers game. The dice rolls appear to be less about success or failure, and more about interesting complications. That seems to me to be a more interesting way to go, especially if your assumption is that the PCs are hyper-talented and extremely competent individuals who nearly always succeed. The notion that the PCs should always be skirting the ragged edge of disaster in every exercise of their skills is another of those ideas that I think has become a bit too pernicious in game design these days.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Bahareth

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What the...

So I'm checking out my stats for this blog and I see I got an insane number of hits last Wednesday, exactly a week ago today.  It's more than three times my usual hit count on a day I don't post anything.  Unfortunately, I can't pull up details from that long ago.  Anyone have any idea what happened?  Did I miss someone linking to me?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Hows and Whys of City States

At his blog, In Deep Places, Evan has been wondering about the demographics of city states. My reply is bit too long for a comment, so I'm resorting to another blog post.

I'm going to be pretty flexible in my definition of city states here. Traditionally, the city state is a city that is also an entire nation. Today, both Singapore and Vatican City are considered modern versions of the city state. However, many of what we call city states from the past violated that definition little bit. Classical Athens, for instance, made itself the capital of an expanding empire, the acquisition of which led to the Peloponnesian Wars. In this case, I'm going to call a city state any nation dominated by a central city whose borders extend only to the extent of a few days march.

Heck, even that is problematic, because what exactly is a city? These days, any respectable city probably has a handful hundred thousand citizens. The walled city of Jericho at around 8000 BC probably boasted a population as large as 2000. Here's another fact about Jericho to twist your noodle: cities started forming before agriculture. It appears that the walls of Jericho may have been built to protect rich hunting and gathering territories. Settled living probably later led to the development of agriculture, rather than the other way around as we were taught when I was in elementary school.

So exactly what we're talking about when you say city states entirely depends on what you want in your game. I'm assuming that Evan’s thinkgin along the lines of the classical city state like we see in ancient Mesopotamia or Greece. Where you find city states like these is pretty simple; human communities form near water. It's vital for drinking, it's vital for agriculture, it's vital for sanitation, and helpful for both defense and trade. So, if you have a map of your world, your rivers are going to run from the mountains to the sea, and population centers are going to be placed along those rivers. You can also put small cities in desolate places where there are oases, and, if you don't mind being completely fantastical, you can have magically supplied cities.

The why of city states might not be nearly as important, especially if you don't really want to get into the mechanics of demographics. Many city states seem to be primarily about defense, like ancient Jericho. People gather together, build walls and other defenses, and protect their rich territory from those who would invade. Others are more about geography. Rough terrain, like you find in Scandinavian countries and in Greece, tend to support the creation of small, isolated communities. The terrain was fertile enough to support the creation of city states in Greece. In Scandinavia, communities tended to be much smaller and there seem to have been a much stronger emphasis on going elsewhere (going “a-viking”) whenever possible.

So, the question of supporting themselves is fairly simple. For the most part, these city states are going to be self-supporting. Local agriculture will be producing enough food to support both the farmers and non-farming citizens of the community. Keep in mind, most everyone was a farmer in ancient Greece. They may have had their home within the walls of the city, but they usually had a plot of land outside as well. The Spartans got away with not having everyone be a farmer by invading and enslaving the local population, the Helots. The indigenous slaves did all the farming, freeing up the Spartan men to concentrate almost exclusively on warfare.

With agricultural surpluses, the city state doesn't necessarily need to trade with anybody. Trade frequently happens where communities intersect, but it's not a given. In fact, the closer communities are to each other, more likely there is to be acrimony, especially if their territories are close enough they could possibly overlap on each other. In this case, it's not unusual at all for one city state to utterly dominate its neighbors, and now we’re back to empire building.

So for Evan’s underworld campaign, I’d suggest city states be placed fairly far from one another, with at least 50 miles between each. The intervening land might be peppered with small freehold farms and farming communities which help support the city state. I'd clustered these in river valleys, arable plains, or at oases. Local culture and character can be heavily influenced by local resources. A city state on the edge of the jungle, for instance. is going to sport a lot of wooden structures, while one in the hills or at the foot of a mountain chain may use more stone. You can break this pattern to create mystery, a sense of unease, or say something about the local cultures. Maybe the city state at the edge of the jungle uses stone because the forests of the jungle are too dangerous to harvest. Local customs, holidays, clothing, and diet will be heavily influenced by what is available in the area. Salted fish, fried locusts, and beer were favorite foods in ancient Ur, while in Athens you're more likely to find wine, bread and olive oil as the staples of the diet.

So yeah, I'd create a scattering of city states with maybe 75,000 total souls in each larger metropolitan area, in states of either uneasy truce or frequent war with one another, and each largely self-supporting. That should create all sorts of fun political tensions, reinforce local character, and provide frequent opportunities for adventure.

Monday, November 08, 2010

PvP Plays D&D Without BAB

Can I buy a vowel, please?

Seriously, D&D without combat?!? And it was even 4e, I think. And they had fun! Poor Scott has taken his first steps down to the Dark Side. ;)