Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Windows 7

Up until a few months ago my computing at home was a sort of inhomogeneous affair. I had a windows XP Pro desktop (dual booting Crunchbang Linux), a G4 Powerbook running MacOS 10.4, and an old PII that originally ran Win98 and had been used for a variety of server duties, and even as a command-line only writing machine.

Then my mum said she wanted a laptop to replace her old, ugly, bulky and slow (800MHz, 384 Mb ram) PC. I said get a Macbook Pro, because learning OSX will be no more painful than learning Windows 7. She loves it.

I then realised the last new computer I had bought was in 2006, so I was probably due an upgrade. On impulse I got a Macbook Pro as well. Now it’s my main machine. The WinXP machine is used to play old games that I can’t let go, otherwise it would have been given away by now.

But I wonder what would have happened if I’d bought a PC laptop instead of the mac. And then by chance (well, luck over judgement) I’ve been selected to pilot the new work desktop, based on Win7. And today I got my new desktop.

Ho hum.

Shiny Shiny

It’s really shiny. In fact, it’s too shiny. Out of the box there are several “theme packs” that vary the desktop background and the window border/taskbar colours. I found that anything other than a variation of grey for the borders and taskbar just annoyed me. I was never a fan of the cartoonish default blue for the XP desktop (the Royale theme made it bearable, otherwise I just used classic).

Once the grey borders were turned on – and a fairly calm desktop background selected – the UI became a lot less distracting. I realised I’d chosen more or less the same colour scheme as I like on the Mac.

Busy Busy

The Mac UI tends to put toolbar icons, if there are any, against a grey background in the top of the window. Folder icons in the finder tend to be muted grey or blue.

Win7’s folder icons are pale yellow – not the best contrast with the white background in an explorer window. And then there’s some weird shading thing going on with the folder icons and others that make small icons difficult to identify if you like to use a detailed view of the explorer tree all the time.

OK, that sounds like a stupid complaint, but hear me out. There are a lot of places where spots of colour stand out and really draw attention – like the close button on window borders, or the back button on IE. It means than the window decorations have a higher visibility than the actual content you’re working on.

The worst offender is MS Office. Yeah, I know that the Office Ribbon (from 2007 onwards) was a big UI change that annoyed a lot of users, but I really wasn’t concerned when running it on Windows XP where it had a nice pale blue background that let all of the options stand out. But in 7 the Ribbon background is somehow paler, and this doesn’t change if you switch Aero off. If your contrast is too high the toolbar turns white, meaning it’s harder to see where the toolbar ends and the content begins. Couple this with a dazzling number of icons of different sizes, shapes and colours, and it’s just so much harder to see the option you want.

Snap To It

While I miss the virtual desktops of OS X and Linux, I really like the Aero features. Aero snap, aero peek and the other tricks do raise visibility, and alt-tab (or win-tab) works nicely. Overall the accelerated desktop is lovely, although jerkier than I remember it (probably because of crappy integrated graphics).

Libraries

Finally, this is where it’s either genius or stupidity.

A user’s documents are grouped together from different locations into “libraries”. The phrase Document Library is used, even though I don’t believe it’s the same as the Sharepoint definition (something else I’m also trialling at work).

I have never liked this trend of hiding the folder path from the user, but to combine more than one location into one symbolic link seems madness. OK, iTunes does that but then it’s a content delivery vehicle, not something you would upload to. It’s confusing and, I think, a bit unnecessary.

I used to think OS X hid absolute paths from the users, until I realised that if you want to know that information it’s easy to find out. Not so with the Windows 7 libraries. I have yet to “get” them, although I remain hopeful.

Conclusion

I have yet to encounter UAC but then it’s my first day with the new OS. But my initial impressions are they created a nice, hardware accelerated desktop and then made it so garish and busy that in many cases it’s not fixable. Compare to my OS X experience, then Win7 UI is inhomogeneous and confuses me. I have done productive work in the environment, but I can’t see a single thing that Win7 offers that WinXP didn’t aside from a longer future of security updates. Fair enough businesses need to migrate to Win7 for security updates past 2014, but aside from that I can’t see a single thing that Win7 brings other than some cute graphical effects. Maybe my opinion will change with time and experience. Or maybe I will just let the crushing inevitability of Windows 7 roll over me.

Thank goodness Windows isn’t the only option these days.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

You give me road rage

The London Evening Standard appears to have been first with the report of a motorist assaulting a cyclist (who had just completed a 150 mile charity ride from Devon to London) and then disappearing, and the police completely failing to follow up. (One anecdote says the owner of the vehicle was at a funeral and had left the keys of his car in the ignition, it was taken and returned later that day).

As you’d expect there’s a predictable amount of commentary and speculation.

All I can say is I really, really hope the police have tried everything they can, and are not just sitting on their hands because they view crime on cyclists as a low priority. I’m sure that’s not the case.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Monday, 11 July 2011

One-off rules, part 2

I laid down a set of rules to abide by for future one-off game writing. A friend of mine read them and added some of her own:

  1. Strong, one-off suited concept.
  2. Pre-gen characters (or a very strong steer for players).
  3. Ensure that there’s a role for everyone and it couldn’t equally be done by some subset of the party.
  4. Check limitations – such as number of players – for the Con.

Good advice there. I think the first one cannot be overstated, but also I think it’s implicit – you wouldn’t be running a one-off game if you didn’t already have an idea. As for pre-generating characters, this can be skipped but the “very strong steer” is a must. I’ve played in very good games where the character generation was part of the game, and indeed was themed to fit into the game.

About having a role for every player – there are basically three ways you make a PC significant in a game:

  • give them a unique skill (or explicit party role)
  • give them unique knowledge
  • drop them in a situation.

I didn’t include social status because it’s usually fairly toothless (because the status that counts is party status, and players rarely bow to authority) unless it’s the kind where it opens certain doors – like in a live action Vampire game – in which case it’s a skill.

Esoteric skills can be subverted. It’s no fun realising that your special, unique skill is actually shared with another party member (unless it’s a plot point, of course). It’s even worse when there’s a power imbalance – both weaker and stronger. Obviously it’s a drag if the other PC is just plain better at the secret stuff than you are, but if they’re weaker then in a funny way your skill is devalued as well – because as far as the rest of the party goes, you’re both on an even footing and your PC is no longer the go-to gal.

Unique knowledge can also be unique goal or motivation, and if the player is the kind who likes to share, all well and good – they get their place in the spotlight and then go back to team playing. But some players will cling to their special knowledge tooth and nail, try to solve the mystery single-handed even when they’re desperately under-qualified, or pull some game-breaking stunt (like a total party kill) because they interpreted their background differently from you when you wrote it.

Dropping characters in situations is another good way of feeding them the limelight. There’s a problem, though. If for example you have an age or competence disparity (e.g. a kid is running from demons, the rest of the party are demon hunters and rescue him) then you risk the character being sidelined as soon as the danger is removed. The majority of the PCs need a reason to integrate the minority into the party so the minority sticks around (e.g. the kid needs protection, the kid is a psychic who can tell the rest of the party where the demons are, etc). Alternatively going the other way – getting the minority character to try to force themselves into the rest of the party, for example – will work but it does require a certain tenacity on the part of the player.

Which comes to the fourth rule – know your audience, and don’t count on having predictable players.


RPG Spotlight: ORE part one

A while ago I decided “I spend so much time thinking about the perfect RPG system and never designing it. I should just buy a modern RPG and try to run it straight”.

This worked for a friend who is running a Dark Heresy campaign. So with a bit of help from the Cubicle 7 winter sale I invested in copies of Wild Talents and Monsters and Other Childish Things, plus a couple of supplements. Both use the One Roll Engine (ORE).

It has not been a 100% success.

Cult of ORE

The Cult of ORE is like the Cult of Mac, you either dig the ORE way or you don’t. Or maybe that’s anchovies. Anyway, ORE is Greg Stolze‘s thing, he of Spherewalker.

Like Stolze’s writing, ORE doesn’t apologise or compromise. It is unashamedly different, which is something I applaud. Interestingly Stolze cites Over The Edge as the game that lured him back to playing. Over The Edge is also unashamedly different. And it’s also a Jonathan Tweet game.

One Roll To Rule Them All

The One Roll Engine’s schtick is… wait for it… a one-roll game mechanic. Woo, great, just like Fighting Fantasy. A description of the mechanics is here.

My initial reaction was “wow, this could be Storyteller done right.” Keep the fistfuls of dice and the stat+skill feel of Storyteller that players seem to like, but instead of hunting and pecking for successes, just look for matches. Height and Width both mean something, too. Everything boils down to one roll. Combats are really quick, you just roll and interpret everyone’s results, bang, you’re done.

However… then we played it.

Monsters and Other Childish Things

My only campaign right now, if you can call two sessions near three months apart a campaign, is Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor. This is a campaign setting for MaoCT, and has been almost universally applauded (and it deserves it). Some say that Candlewick completes MaoCT, and without it the core book is a little difficult to grasp – how do you structure a game around a party of kids with giant monster companions? But other than say both products are pretty damn awesome I’m not going to talk about the books, but focus on the system.

One of the ORE things is that each RPG is slightly different in implementation. ORE is designed to be hacked, house ruled and made your own, and the system is so strange that it never really feels generic to me. And in MaoCT I think they got it right. I believe a system should have flavour and complement gameplay, and this one does very nicely. The stats, for example, are no longer generic Body, Mind, Coordination etc, but body parts – Face, Brains, Hands, Guts, Feet. The stats double as a hit location table, and damage to a particular location makes it harder to use that location. Simples!

At its heart the game is a superhero game (in the regular game it’s monsters that have powers, although Candlewick characters have “creepy skills” all of their own). And I must admit I was really taken with the way powers were built – you have a fixed number of dice, and if you want more variety, special effects, or to be able to use your power both to fight and out of combat, you sacrificed dice to make it happen. This reminded me a lot of Everway in its balanced approach to power generation.

The game also uses a mechanic called Echoes in Candlewick and Relationships in the vanilla game. Both of these are ways to blag extra dice when you’re rolling in certain situations, through emotional connections to the people around you driving you to action. I felt this was a particularly fine game element of Wraith and it’s nice to see it used here (although the instances of using Echoes in the game have so far been slightly forced).

Now, combat.

The most complicated part of any RPG is nearly always combat. ORE has well defined and detailed combat rules, masquerading under the apparent simplicity of the One Roll. Here’s how combat works:

  • All the characters declare their actions in order of intelligence or awareness – lowest first, so those who are more observant get to hear everyone else’s actions, then decide what they want to do.
  • Next, everyone rolls their dice – PCs, villains, the lot.
  • Finally, the GM checks results and decides what happened

Seems innocuous. After all, just about every set of combat rules in any modern RPG follows this three step approach. However because there’s only one roll involved, this procedure is rigidly enforced. The players must declare what they want to do all at once, then roll the dice, then just wait until the GM finishes the narration.

Now almost all combats I play out involve a dialogue between GM and player. GM introduces threat (a sword swing to the head) and the player is told whether it’s successful or not and is then given a chance to react (parry and riposte). But not so with ORE – you choose to get into the fight and if your opponent hits you before you hit them, tough luck. If they cause any damage it knocks the width (initiative) of your attack down by one, meaning your counter may be delayed or stopped entirely. The only way to stop this is to wear armour that stops the successful hit doing damage.

All of this colours combat in a way I hadn’t expected. You commit to diving into the affray and roll the dice blindly, then hope you did better than the other guy. It’s a little like a cartoon with a big cloud of dust with fists and feet flying and no clear victor until the dust settles. I actually feel it suits the feel of the game quite well (although we’ve only played out one combat so far).

So, overall I really like both MaoCT and Candlewick. The structuring of characters, the use of Echoes and the use of stats as “hit points” are all inspired and make good intuitive sense. But this is just an interpretation of ORE, and I feel it works in spite of ORE, not because of it. Dice rolling isn’t bogged down because the dice pool is limited and there are no special dice to worry about, but I feel my players are still trying to get to grips with how to call the dice and what the height x width actually means in different situations, meaning I have to interpret dice rolls a little more that I’d like.

Next, I’ll talk about MaoCT’s big brother, Wild Talents.


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A good soul these days is hard to find

I remember a game session when I was an undergraduate where the party was guided around a distinctly Dantean hell by John Lennon.  We encountered Sisyphus, Tantalus and… Feargal Sharkey.  He was doomed to an eternity of singing before an enthusiastic audience who would cast their coats onto the stage at the end of each song, smothering Feargal to death.
Lennon was pretty unsympathetic, saying “that’s too good for him… he broke up one of the greatest bands in the world!
The GM doesn’t remember this session at all.  Which doesn’t surprise me because I can hardly remember the games I run either.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

RPG Spotlight: Everway

Yet another blog post about Everway, the doomed fantasy RPG system that tried to ride the Magic: the Gathering gravy train and failed miserably.

Here’s what happened: in the mid-90s, Wizards of the Coast had made a lot of cash on MtG and decided to make a roleplaying game.  The roleplaying game would come in a nice big box (in an era when RPGs were moving to softback large format books) and contain pretty art cards that were a visual part of the game experience; but more importantly they were a gateway drug to usher roleplayers into the CCG market.

This was the problem.  They sold a basic set with 90 “vision cards” as well as a “fortune deck” (like an expanded and tweaked Major Arcana for Dummies).  More Vision Cards could be purchased and collected.  But the extra cards didn’t come in nice 90 card sets – they came in random 8-card booster packs a la MtG.

Now, MtG players are abundant, and each one will buy loads of cards for themselves and end up with surplus to trade, so randomised boosters are no problem.  But for a RPG, the first person to buy the set and the cards will be the GM, and the chances of their players all buying sets themselves are slim.  The chances their players would buy vision cards for themselves are slimmer.  The chances that enough Everway GMs would get together in one place to trade their surplus cards must be miniscule.

Since I looked into Everway I’ve also looked at the general fantasy art card market.  FPG produced sets of fantasy art in the mid 90s by the likes of Jeffrey Jones, Christos Archellios and Ian Miller in booster packs just like MtG cards.  But the market for art card collectors must be slightly different from the market for GMs who are using them as RPG props, and that market is different again for MtG players.  The market is not the same – only a handful of Everway GMs would have the completist mentality to get all of those cards – the rest would probably spend their cash on White Wolf games (hey, it was the 90’s).

I understand that distributors were forced to take Everway if they wanted to sell MtG.  That alone indicates that Everway wasn’t considered a strong enough product to stand on its own merits, so in WotC’s eyes its card was marked.

That’s why today you can get complete boxes on eBay for less than a single modern RPG book would cost.  Even if you pay 25 quid (the high end of the price range) it’s a bargain.

The box contained three little books (not too fat and a nice size to read), one for players, one for GMs and a special book about the fortune deck.  It also contained 90 Vision Cards, a Fortune Deck, and a few other cards.  And it had a whole load of full colour, double sided pre-generated characters.

You can read the summary of the system on the Wikipedia page.  But basically this is the system summary: characters are defined by their scores in four elements, which are then used to compare their ability with the task at hand in one of three ways – karma, drama or llama fortune.  The first just uses the ability score and asks “is the character up to it?”; the second provides a result based on the outcome that fits the dramatic situation; and the third is randomised.  That’s nothing earth-shattering but it’s nice to see it expressed so succinctly.

I believe that four is the sweet spot for simple (and indeed complex) RPG systems.  Now, Everway isn’t the first system to use a four attribute model, but it manages to be one of the more intuitive approaches.  And really all a player needs is to know whether their character is equal to the task at hand or not.  Yes, Everway paints characters with a broad brush (four attributes, four speciality skills, maybe a power or two) but that’s enough; it’s good to have implied power, because it enables player creativity and it allows for them to add extra dimensions to their character that haven’t been considered at generation.  And character stats can be written on an index card.

Spherewalker

Greg Stolze writes a bit about Everway here, mostly about his contribution Spherewalker, which is itself a fantastic piece of work and completely systemless.  He says he wishes the public had loved that work as much as he did, and I agree.

He’s also interviewed here, using that “Everway is right-brained” phrase he’s so fond of.  Which will irritate certain friends of mine with psychology degrees, which is a bonus.

Art

Finally, in the spirit of Everway I give you the Black Rose by Jeff Jones:

This to me is what Everway is all about – images and art, not dice.  As far as I know this picture doesn’t appear in the Everway card sets, so I’m going to look for some Jeff Jones FPG sets.  Can’t imagine why we don’t use art cards more – we bought enough MtG boosters.

Single Serving Jack

Our extended social group is in the habit of running week-long holidays of roleplaying where everyone pitches in and runs a game – the ubiquitous “one-off”.

Running a one-off game is like a short story – you need to get stay focussed on the plot, get to the point, and wrap it up with a (satisfactory) conclusion.  All in 4-6 hours.

Now and then I manage to make a poor choice either with setting, or plot, or something that makes the game longer than it should be or harder to run or just not turning out the way I thought it would.  I’m writing this post so that when I come to write another game maybe I’ll avoid making the same mistake again…

Dead ends (misdirected players)
Since a RPG is driven by player action, the plot has to be signposted clearly – otherwise the players could be milling around for ages.
Learning: signpost the plot clearly, and don’t let players explore dead ends for too long – have a back up plan to steer the PCs back.

System over plot (temptation to model everything with dice)
If the players need to learn the system, that could be an hour out of your time slot right there.  Unless there’s a nifty tutorial section to help the players learn the system, it should be kept very light.
There’s even an argument that you should cut down on dice rolling.  One-off games will have a few plot points where the players have to overcome adversity – if this hangs on the outcome of a dice roll, you risk stalling the whole game.
Following this advice is a big problem for me since I like trying out new systems – but  the evidence is that every time I’ve tried a complex system that’s new to my audience, the game has been harder to run and enjoy, and definitely taken longer.
Learning: For system, summarise the character abilities with four or five bullet points.  Even better, write it on an 3×5 index card.  Anything more than that, the player may well forget that they have half the abilities on their character sheet.

Combat over plot (fights take longer than you think)
Combat will definitely dominate the plot if it’s system heavy (see above).  But it will also dominate even in simple systems.  I have planned combat heavy games and ended up running only 1 combat, narrating subsequent combats because otherwise we’d run out of time.
Learning: combat is like any other plot point – the reasons for fighting need to be signposted to the PCs.  Have just enough system to make the combat interesting.  No more than 2 (preferably just 1) scenes should be dominated by combat.

Too much information
I have swamped my players with handouts in the past (due to temptation for too much world, below).  They rarely remember all the information and sometimes won’t bother to pre-read, so you have to tell them the information in-game.  All of this takes time, upsets the flow, and god help you if you buried a crucial plot point in a player brief.
Learning from this:  Following the “sparse character” rule, character + backgrounds should be 1 sheet of A4, no more – otherwise the player will forget.  An exception to this rule will be in-game aids like maps, found notes etc.  Handouts can be pretty but must be brief.
Addendum: I tried making little 8-page A5 booklets for some games – I was terribly proud of myself but I suspect they made the information harder, not easier to read.  In future I’ll stick to A4.

Too many events
Each plot point will always take longer than you thought.  Any more than 1/2 dozen scenes risks over-running by a big margin.  Some GMs can probably plot a dozen scenes and keep to schedule, but I have trouble.
Learning: allow 1 hour per scene, roughly, making maximum of 6 scenes in the session.

Splitting the party
After combat, splitting the party has the biggest potential to suck time away.  If the party starts up split up and must find each other, then find a motivation to work together, that’s an hour or more right there.  If the party fractures during the session – usually because there’s no motivation for everyone to stick together – that’s another time-sink.
Learning: give the PCs a reason to stick together and work together.

World Too Big
Too many locations dilute the area where you want the PCs to focus, and may obscure plot signposts.  And I am a big fan of big, well developed worlds with history – which falls into the Too Much Information trap.
Learning: Make it clear which is the play area and which is outside the sandbox.  Outside should be one location to minimise information (even if it is technically more than one location – like two nations at war), and there should be no more locations than scenes.  Don’t name every city or village, you have better things to do.

Time perception
I’ve sometimes plotted a single session to represent several days.  This rarely if ever works.  Why?  Because it’s very, very hard to get a group of PCs to agree to skip time together.  There is always more plotting and more investigating to be done (either by all the party or just one person), and even when you convince the party that they’re really, really tired and the caravan isn’t going to turn up to the ambush point until tomorrow there’s always the need to roleplay setting up watches and tripwires around the camp.  It’s just not credible that the players should stop what they’re doing and go to bed right now, so don’t force it.
Learning: Let the players decide when they need to rest (and whether they can risk resting while the bad guy is getting away).  Otherwise, keep it moving.

Summary
Maybe not a definitive list of rules, and probably open to some challenge.  But I’ll keep these rules in mind for the next time I run a one-off (probably next year).
1. Signpost the plot clearly
2. Character attributes should fit on an index card
3. Budget for a maximum of 2 fights, preferably 1.
4. Individual character information should fit on a sheet of A4.
5. Stick to 1 scene per hour (on average).
6. Give the PCs a reason to work together.
7. World – keep 1 location per scene maximum, plus one location outside the sandbox.
8. Assume your PCs will never sleep until the game is finished.