Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Most Important Things

    I found this post a long time ago, but recently it has been on my mind.  It comes from the Quickly, Quietly, Carefully blog, and I'm going to reprint it here:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The two most important concepts in the D&D game

Jeff Rients posted this quotation on G+:

Q: What are the two most important concepts in the D&D game?
A: The most important concept in the game is player choice.  In order to give players the most fun in the game, they must be able to make choices that will make a definite difference in the fates of their characters.
     The second most important concept is that actions have consequences.  Player decisions will lead to further campaign developments.

--Jon Pickens et al., "Dispel Confusion" column, Polyhedron #13

     I've been thinking a lot about a game's purpose.  When we started our latest 13th Age campaign we added a few new people.  There are 3 friends of mine whom I have gamed with before, so I pretty much know what they are like at the table.  But we also added 3 new people, two of which have a little gaming experience and one is totally new to RPGs (well, table-top ones at least).
    The thing is, the new players have thrown off the usual dynamic.  Before, with the experienced players, we had a rotating-GM Pathfinder campaign.  Each of us added some weird new twist to the shared game world, and a few times we tested out some house rules.  But we had a sort of rhythm that we settled into.  Our new players don't have that same groove, and one of them is very much a story person - she likes to write shared stories on Tumblr and is the only person really focused on narrative at the table.  The rest of us are okay with the typical combat grind with some story sprinkles.  So I started thinking about my GMing style, and the style of stories I usually ran, and weather or not that might be a good fit for the new players - or good gaming habits to teach them.

    Let's start with that last campaign real quick.  We didn't really mean to start a new campaign.  Three of my friends were going to run an adventure, and the GM said the other two needed to make characters who could fight without weapons, since there was going to be a town where no weapons were allowed.  I didn't plan on joining the adventure myself, but somehow I ended up in it too.  It was not one of our better adventures.  It was very disjointed, and took so long to get to the city we had been warned about that we didn't even play out that part of the story.  Nobody was really thrilled about how it went (I made my first Ninja from Ultimate Combat for that adventure, and was not thrilled with the class either - or the fact that Pathfinder sucked at the sort of character I wanted to make, but that's another rant).
    Well, typically after a bad adventure like that we'd just shelve the characters and move on, but somehow we didn't.  Instead one of the players decided to GM his own adventure, using our same characters, and he destroyed the town - giant worms ate it.
    Now we had the beginnings of a campaign, quite by accident, and another friend joined the party.  I ended up GMing the next adventure, and since we seemed to have a world going I started making up some loose history and modified an existing map to give our world some sketchy setting.  Over about a year we ended up getting from 1st to 12th level, and the party grew to each of us having 3 to 4 characters that we rotated on top of the rotating GM.
    That was the most gaming I had done since High School, many years earlier.  I developed a quick framework for when I had to throw together an adventure on the spot - I would put together 5 groups of monsters that seemed interesting and then invent some story for why the PCs would face all of them.  It was not high art, and not very deep, but it did work.
    With the new 13th Age group I wanted something different.  I wanted to have a better mix of non-combat stuff and some real story and detail to the setting.  Our first adventure was a published one, the Shadows of Eldolan.  It was a great adventure (and well written in my opinion).  I added the Expertise and Approaches and Aspects from Fate to make the skill system a bit more robust (which is on the blog in previous posts).  And from all the characters' One Unique Things I came up with an over-arching plot.  The second adventure was a mostly combat wilderness run, just to get out of the city and start introducing some of the plot elements I wanted to set up.  The third, and most recent, adventure was the interesting one though.

    One thing I did not want to do was railroad the players, or just make up plot twists at random like we had done before.  So I came up with 4 branches of the Big Bad Guy's plot, then I got the party together in one town and had 6 Very Important People come and visit.  I dropped some visions that these people were important, and I gave one clue to the Big Bad Guy's Plot to four of them (each being a different one) and made the last two look like they could be bad guys, but really they were potential allies.  I took the advise from Justin Alexander's blog about Don't Prep Plots and I just made an outline of each one and the secret they had, and let my players figure out how to investigate them.  My players did good (and kind of surprised me actually) and they found three of the plots and both allies, only missing one clue.
    Now, I have three possible adventures, each a different style from lots of talking, mystery or combat.  Each arm could be a few adventures, if the players like that style, or we could bounce between them.  But the great thing is that I'll be able to lay out each branch, what kind of an adventure it will be, and let my players choose what they want to pursue.  Or, if they hate all of them I can improvise something else.  The downside is that now I have to prep three different adventures since I don't know which one they'll want to play.  But giving them more choice in what kind of game they want to play is worth the extra work on my shoulders.
    So far this has been pretty basic GMing - the railroad vs sandbox style conflict is an old one.  What made this stick out in my mind is something a little different.  See, when we complain about player choice we are almost always talking about in the story.  In a sandbox the players are free to go wherever they want, in the railroad the GM decides where the players go.  But that's not the only place where player choice exists, and some things I have seen and read lately got me thinking about that blog post I started with - and which I haven't forgotten.
    See, it seems to me that quote hit it on the nose, the biggest thing that makes a table-top RPG different from every other game and medium is the impact of player choice.  In fiction you passively observe the story, you have no choices whatsoever.  In most computer games, or even board games, you can make some choices - but you're limited to choosing from the options that the game gives you.  Only in a table-top RPG, where your choices are weighed and the game world adjusted by a fellow human being, that your choices can really be unlimited (well, effectively) and have deep consequences.  If all you want to do is fight monsters you can get that from any MMO or computer game.  Heck, even if you want story and characterization you can find that in a "visual novel" styled game like Persona (which a friend was playing, so it popped into my mind, I think it was 4).  So while there are lots of things you can get in a table-top RPG many of those elements exist elsewhere (and, frankly, might be easier to find elsewhere).  "Meaningful choice" is hard to find.

    But does the idea of "meaningful choice" only exist in the story?
    This has been bugging me as I've been modifying 13th Age.  I hate a lot of the design decisions because I don't think they promote player choice.  In 13th Age the Fighter class has a "flexible attack" mechanic.  A flexible attack is an ability that triggers on a certain attack roll.  For example, "Brace For It" turns the first melee critical hit into a normal attack, but it only triggers on a miss.  "Second Shot" allows you to make a second ranged attack that turn, but only if the d20 roll to attack was a 16 - 20.  Other attacks might trigger on an 'even hit' or an 'odd miss' or some-such.
    I hate this.  I hate it because it puts the cool thing the character does, literally a class-defining ability, in the hands of the dice instead of the player.  The player chooses to play that class, and chooses which abilities he knows, but when those abilities are actually used the player has no control over.
    Another thing I hate is the timing system the game inherited from D&D 4th edition.  Each ability has one of several usage options:
  • At-Will: can be used once per turn
  • Breath Weapon: can be used once, then roll each turn to use again that turn
  • Recharge: can be used once in a battle, and then roll to see if can be used again that day
  • 1/Battle: can be used once every battle
  • 1/Day: can only be used once that day
    What I hate about this is: how to you know when to use your ability?  At-Will is easy, always use it.  But the Breath Weapon type, use it once and if the dice gods like you, then you can use it again, but maybe not.  Recharge and 1/Battle share the same problem - when in the battle do you use them?  At the beginning, the end, when all seems lost?  It's not always easy to gauge how long or hard a battle is going to be, and that's not even talking about crazy flat-curved d20s that can make all sorts of unexpected stuff happen (come on, everybody has that story of the lucky, or un-lucky, roll that turned the tide of the battle).  1/Day is the worst, in which battle and on which turn in that battle?  Easier to choose if your GM was like me and always had 5 encounters, but even I would move the hardest one from last, to second to last, to second to keep some variety.
    Without understanding there is no meaningful choice.  Perception precedes power.  You have no real power over something you can't see or don't understand.  And while my fixed 5 encounter scheme worked, it was not good gaming at all.

    Player choice, and all that comes with it, exists in both the rules and the mechanics.  Some games have more choices than others, but I don't think any game - at least that I know of - does a really good job building meaningful player choices in the mechanics.  Which actually bothers me.  Before I didn't give it a second thought, but now I really want to find a game with some good mechanical rules to encourage player choice.  Because honestly that's the only time the players are actually playing the game.  Rolling a die is not a choice, everything is in the hands of fate (or physics, pick your deity).  Watching the GM move the monsters is not playing the game.  Only when the player has to decide on what to do, and when those decisions matter, is the game really being played.  After all, it's a role-playing game - and what's a role?  A series of choices and consequences.  Choosing the Fighter and the consequences having those abilities.  Choosing to be a dark and broody personality, or a bright and cheerful one, and how that interacts with the other players and NPCs.  Choice is the game.  From "those mountains look quest-worthy" to "I cast magic missile at the darkness."  So not just for our campaigns, but what kinds of choices do our games themselves have?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Understanding Jurassic World

    I don't really like dinosaurs.  My only fond memory of Jurassic Park was that I saw it with a girl I really liked, in our first sort-of-date together.  I saw the second and third Jurassic movies, and rooted for the dinosaurs to eat and kill every human on screen.  I also hated them (the movies that is).
    So, I was in no hurry to see Jurassic World (as evidenced by my talking about it two months after it came out), however my friend Sara did drag me off to see it a few days ago.
    The first thing that struck me was the stupidity of it.  People make so many terrible, bone-headed, don't-have-two-neurons-to-rub-together choices.  The bad science I can take, I use my suspension of disbelief to get over the idea that you can just mix and match different animal DNA to produce whatever type of creature and abilities you desire.  But only having one trained helicopter pilot, or even only one helicopter gunship, on an island full of potentially dangerous large animals that have previously killed people - that's beyond stupid.  They should have their own small army, not the 6 guys we see and Chris Pratt.
    But something hit me, the characters in the movie are supposed to be stupid.  You see, the stupid people are the ones who get eaten.  Oh sure, some random people also get eaten, but you can say that they are stupid for not getting indoors and going to see the dinosaurs in the first place.  It's actually something of a morality play, the bad people (or well-intentioned but stupid) get eaten and the good survive.  Once I saw that I could relax and enjoy the movie a lot more.
    Overall I liked it well enough, I'd give it a "catch the cheap seats" if I was actually bothering to review this properly.  I was amazed that the two kids actually had their own story arc and were okay to watch - usually I hate kids or teens in movies.  If you thought about seeing it but it didn't sound that appealing, maybe my revelation might help you enjoy it.  Or not, it's all good.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Really Tired Review: The Fantastic Four

    A friend of mine has been going through some really bad times, and I've been wiped out myself trying to help (in what little ways I can), so this is not going to be my usually polished (well, somewhat polished if I'm being honest) review.  Too little sleep for a few days and emotional stress are taking a toll right now.  Still, I did see the movie so I wanted to say something about it.
    What to say?

    Okay, there you go, thanks for visiting :)

    No, really, I did not like the movie, which was disappointing since I wanted to.  I was not a big fan of the last 2 Fantastic Four movies overall, but I did think that they had some moments of potential greatness.  I've never been a big fan of the FF, I have read only a few of their comics - but since the team has done cross-overs with just about everybody, I have been somewhat exposed to them.  So I can't comment a lot on how accurate the new movie was to the comics, only to my limited impression of the team.
    The first thing that struck me, and left a sour note when the movie finally got a trailer, was how damn young everybody is.  I really, really, really hate the "boy genius" trope.  I hate it a lot.  The times I've seen it used it has never really explored the cost of that genius.  Being smarter than everyone around you is hard, no one wants to be the only human in a cage full of poo-throwing primates.  But having that burden at a young age, when your own emotions and understanding of humanity is not solid or strong, that must be very difficult.  The only thing interesting to me about the trope is the struggle to bear that intellect.  Which the FF movie makes a nod to, but does not really explore.  So, anyways, when I saw the opening of the movie where a 9 year old Reed Richards creates an inter-dimensional teleportation device in his parent's garage with spare parts from the junkyard, I cringed.  When we fast-forward a whole seven years, 16 year old boy genius who meets someone else working on the exact same thing at a science fair (what a coincidence) did not make it any better.  Of all the characters in the Marvel universe, Reed Richards is one who can and should be older - for the majority of his comic book life it seems he's been drawn with graying temples.
    The biggest problem with the new Fantastic Four movie is that it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be.  It makes a nod to the stress of being brilliant since every character has family troubles or doesn't fit in - but one or two lines of dialogue is not enough to make a point or sub-plot or characterization.  It makes a nod to being terrified of one's powers and transformation and wanting a "normal life" but again in a flashback training montage, or a few lines, and does not devote enough time to really make or explore the point.  It sort of deals with the dangers of scientific discovery and how it can be misused, but again not in any real detail.  And the obligatory "save the world" moment feels tacked on, out of place, confusing, and really did not need to be there.  In all it's more like a collection of bullet points than a full fleshed-out plot or idea.  And after a whole movie of interesting concepts that never got explored I walked out feeling confused and let down.
    Also, it did not seem to hit any of the notes that made the FF interesting to me.  My first comic love has got to be the X-Men, a team of outcasts who fight amongst each other as much as against their villains.  But the Fantastic Four have always been portrayed as a family.  Sue and Johnny are brother and sister, Sue and Reed get married, and even Johnny and Ben argue like big and little brothers.  There is a really cool dynamic of a group of people who actually want to be together and work together.  But in this movie we have Sue talk privately to Johnny once, Ben and Reed are friends when they were kids, and the only teamwork moment comes out of the blue, all the characters seemed to hate each other and then they instantly shift gears and work together.  It was jarring, and disappointing.  Also, Ben's catchphrase, "It's Clobberin' Time" is abused and the fans are s#@t on when in this version that is the same line his older brother uses before beating him.  That shows a real lack of respect for the fans of the character to put such dark emotional baggage on what was used as a funny and encouraging catchphrase.  Overall, the movie does not feel like the writers or anybody involved really loved the original, rather like they wanted a cash-cow by making a reboot and turning everybody dark and broody (and god I wish Hollywood would get over the dark and broody superhero).

    Anyways, my brain is melting as I type, so let me summarize.  The movie has one or two decent moments or lines of dialogue, but does not hold together overall.  It makes some nods to the source comics, but does not seem to really value them.  It is not terrible, not Amazing Spider-Man 2 oh dear god please kill me in my seat the movie is half-way over and feels like 2,000 years have passed terrible.  But it is not good either.
    My recommendation: wait for it to come out on cable or Netflix or something, you don't really need to see it.