Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playing with Play-by-Post Mechanics

Oddysey and I were chatting last night about play-by-post gaming. Her recent adventures in learning to code has her intrigued by the idea of creating GM tools and that got me contemplating the potentials for PbP gaming.

The negatives of PbP gaming are fairly obvious, and largely revolve around time: it’s incredibly slow, and you often end up waiting on people to respond (sometimes people who won’t ever respond again, curse them). So, if you were crafting mechanics optimized for PbP, you’d want something that took this into account and minimized it as much as possible. This leads us to an intriguing conundrum.

To play a game is to make choices. And yet, it’s the points of decision, where you have to wait for someone’s response, that create all the delays and unpleasantness. Obviously you don’t want to remove all choice; do that and you don’t have a game anymore. And even removing some choice can be considered a bad thing.

After talking all around Robin Hood’s barn last night, Oddysey summed things up very succinctly: not all choice is created equal. What we really want is meaningful choice.

Lots of choices in gaming are less than meaningful, or are so basic that they’re not really any choice at all. So, obviously, any time we need to stop to ask what the players want to do, we want to make sure they’re making a meaningful choice.

 Oddysey then suggested that a stakes mechanic (something akin, I assume she was thinking, to Dogs in the Vineyard) might be a good way to achieve that. I’m thinking a handful of parallel stakes mechanics. Think M:tG, where you have a handful of resource pools (maybe blue mana and black mana) and then you have to decide which you want to deplete based on a whole range of potential outcomes. And give each pool a few different ways it can be used.

The thing I like about this most is that it can be used to optimize one of PbP’s strong points: complicated mechanics. Since you literally have hours (if not days) between moves, there’s no need to keep the mechanics simple and quick. Want a combat system that modifies damage based on the attacker’s weapon and stance, and the defender’s armour, astrological sign, and what they had for breakfast? PbP can do it!

Granted, you need to keep it at least somewhat reasonable, to the point where the players can make logical and reasonably accurate guesstimates about success when they’re setting their stakes. But the possibilities are still quite broad there.

 I’m curious if anyone’s seen any good PbP theory posts or commentary out there. Please point the way!

Art by Hippolyte Bellange.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: Tales of the Emerald Serpent

Scott Taylor openly acknowledges that, yes, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is a collection of short stories absolutely inspired by Robert Asprin’s Thieves World project. Like Asprin’s collections, the stories are sword-and-sorcery centered around a town of cut-throats, tricksters, callous oligarchs and the poor innocents trapped into living next door to them. Unlike the earlier Thieves World collections, this one is a lot tighter, with the stories referencing each other and, in some cases, woven together. Much of it feels like a fantasy version of 24, only with each story being that day from a different character’s perspective.

Also, unlike Thieves World’s Sanctuary, Tales of the Emerald Serpent’s city of Taux is much more of a character in and of itself. The ancient city, clearly inspired by Aztec and Mayan culture, is populated by ghosts, nearly every brick and stone inhabited by the specters of its previous citizens who were suddenly slain in a mysterious magical disaster. Many of the stories center around these ghosts or are influenced by the ever-present threat that the citizens of Taux are both blase about and constantly aware of.

The book includes nine stories, many by well-known authors. They range from the straight-up caper-style story (reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) Three Souls for Sale by Mike Tousignant to the family drama of Lynn Flewelling’s Namesake. Harry Connolly’s dark The One Thing You Can Never Trust is probably the most disturbing and Twilight Zone-ish of the stories. The artist Todd Lockwood gives us a rollicking and fun tale about a Corsair who meets an old flame and gets drawn into his schemes. Juliet E. McKenna’s Venture is a surprisingly sweet story threaded around the warp of racial tensions in a fantasy world.

Martha Wells’ Revnants feels exactly like the sort of story you’d expect from the author of City of Bones, mingling heroic fantasy with cultural archeology. It’s a good story, but the ending feels a touch abrupt, as does Rob Mancebo’s Footsteps of Blood, both leaving the door wide open for sequels or longer treatments.

And then there’s Scott Taylor’s Charlatan, which does a masterful job of weaving nearly all the stories together. Almost every other tale gets a passing nod in his story of a devious trickster challenged to a duel he cannot possibly win. It’s great fun, even if it’s a bit abrupt in the climax (though understandably so).

There’s not a bad story in the bunch and my favorite is Julie Czerneda’s Water Remembers, which gives us a glimpse at those who dwell among the wizards of the Star Tower as well as the ways in which the haunting of an entire city can lead to surprising transformations among what would otherwise be rather mundane trades crafts.

If you’re looking for some new good old sword-and-sorcery derring-do and skullduggery, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is absolutely worth your time and treasure. The characters are intriguing and unique, their adventures feel both fresh and familiar, and there’s a fun mix of danger, greed, heart, and humor. Here’s hoping we get additional glimpses into the days and nights of Taux soon.