Monday, 20 August 2012

Grognard Reactions

Proposed changes to 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules has upset a few people. Hardly surprising given the RPG Site members’ strong D&D interest and negative reaction to 4e.

Before I’d listened to the podcast I was in two minds about the changes. Does changing the system change the game? Some people definitely feel System Does Matter, and to those people making sweeping changes to an iconic RPG property they’ve loved for 30 years will feel like betrayal. Also there have been Cthulhu adaptations to other systems, so no real need for Chaosium to cater to an audience that wants to play Cthulhu differently.

On the other hand, no game survives in its original form. And although the new authors have dared to streamline some of the rules, the changes are no more significant than those found between Runequest and Stormbringer editions. Change in Cthulhu is long overdue, and the changes are backwards compatibile. Is it a big deal?

Some of this fear – and I do mean fear – comes from brand dilution. This is what has happened with the reboots of D&D, WFRP, and the World of Darkness. In all cases they drew (mostly unfavourable) comparison with the incumbent product from brand loyalists. And it’s the loyalists who care about the change. The brand agnostics won’t care because they own a ton of games already; the new rules might attract them, but since they know little about the game’s previous incarnations they’re unlikely to get excited about differences. They’ll buy on the strength of the game premise, which probably hasn’t changed much: and if it didn’t appeal to them twenty years ago, will a lick of paint and some new Hit Points rules change their mind?

Making a statement that your new version of a cherished title involves major changes does one thing: it forces your customer base to think about why they play your game. Some of those customers will conclude that they don’t want to buy the new version. That doesn’t make the changes not worthwhile, but it has to factor into Chaosium’s economic decision to make that change.

I hope the changes do happen. They’re benign; from what I heard in the podcast, they’ll do little to change the percentile-feel of CoC while adding a lot of value. Really they feel like a bunch of house rules, polished up to publishing standard. Not bad at all.

The Unspeakable Oath has a nice summary of the changes. One or two bits I don’t care for (expressing INT as a percentage… why not just have no stats and assume average performance where no skill applies, the way FATE does?) but overall some very playable changes. But for the record I did the negative HP thing, and the variable levels of success (half skill, one-fifth skill, etc) several years ago in Elric of Rlyeh.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Personal Spacetime

Something strange happened today. I went through a bunch of old notebooks and found all of the hardback notebooks I’d used for game plotting since university.

Back then I was too disorganised to keep a paper journal of my own life, but I had no problem in writing about other fictional people. The handwriting is surprisingly legible and the ideas – well, let’s just say they’re not all bad. Given the amount I wrote compared to the amount I ran I kind of overthought things just a bit.

I always intuitively knew that my games occupied the same universe, even centuries apart; but it’s weird having that feeling confirmed on paper. Glory and Department V and Invisibles and Time Central all seem to blend into one; some notes are ambiguous and could apply to any or all settings. Half of the books have been started but not finished, and very few are dated. No real names are given so I have to go on fictional ones. Half of them I remember.

These books represent nearly twenty years of my life. During that time I’ve gone through numerous personal changes, including job, marriage, health issues, becoming a martial arts student, cycling to work, learning to drive. The remarkable thing is how little the notes changed. The fictional worlds I create are one cyclic entity, gradually refined and expressed more clearly. In other words, even though my writing and organisation and expression of ideas has improved, I’m still expressing creative sentiments I had twenty years ago. Should I find that reassuring? I think so.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Order of the Carrot

My players have a habit of asking for experience points at the end of a session. What, my company isn’t enough?

Look Grateful

Jonathan Tweet never felt the need for experience points in Everway – although he retrospectively calls the lack of an experience mechanism a “problem”

Everway works on a system of boons in lieu of experience points to develop character traits directly. Boons represent gifts bestowed on the heroes for doing great deeds. Everway players seem to like them because they’re explicitly in-character rather than out-of-character. I guess I get that, but I’m a bit skeptical; players claw tooth and nail through hell to rescue the sun-child of the village of something-or-other, and get rewarded with yet another fetish that wards against were-goats. Then I have to look my players in the eye as they nod and smile and tell me that “it’s just what they’ve always wanted” before stuffing them into the bottom of their backpacks with the other junk. Much easier to give them a few XP in a gift card. “Didn’t know what you wanted, son. Thought you could go out and choose some stats to level yerself. Have a good time!”

The reason I don’t often give out experience points is because I forget. I’m not in the habit of doing so. Ever since my brush with Palladium (shudder) I tend to avoid games with XP rewards in greater than single figures.

Maybe I should pay attention to XP. They do some very positive things. First, players like to feel their advancing their character. And in most (traditional) games the players are reactive – they rarely get a chance to advance their agenda unless the GM throws them a bone. XP are a good way of granting some player autonomy.

Second – and maybe more significantly – experience is a way of correcting unintended bias or defects in character creation. Even if the character creation is as transparent as Everway, there’s a chance that the player will be dissatisfied with their chosen weaknesses they traded for strengths. Of course if you’re dealing with a chronic min-maxer they probably never expected to have to use their “weak” stats anyway. Well, that’s got more to do with who you game with than your system.

There are three types of experience. Leveling (and keeping track of thousands of xp) is the mainstay of D&D and clones, and I don’t care for it one bit. Then you have ticking off boxes to advance a skill that you’ve used – that would be Runequest and its ilk (and more recently, Burning Wheel). I don’t like that either because it negates the usefulness of the second option – to bring flagging skills up to a useful level in a reasonable time.

That leaves the third option – just dole out a couple of xp at the end of a session for good roleplaying, achievements, or writing your own name at the top of the character sheet. I find a lot of games skimp on this part when it’s arguably one of the most important parts of a system – since it involves motivating the players to come back next week. I’ve been a bit down on Burning Wheel in the past but to be fair their guidelines for voting on who gets the “Artha” at the end of each session are good – if your group is happy to play that way of course.

There is a fourth option – I call it the Travis Touchdown method. You scatter magic beans through the game world and watch the PCs try to get them. They might appear at the end of boss fights, or just floating in the air when a player turns a corner, or there to buy in Ye Potion Shoppe. Make them metaphysical objects that exist both in and out of character. It’s what the videogames do.

Afterword: I called this post “Order of the Carrot” because of the Order of the Stick and, y’know, you have the carrot and the stick to motivate players and… (ah, if you have to explain the joke, eventually it’ll be funny, right?)

Anyway, by coincidence there is an Order of the Carrot website which is probably something to do with Icelandic performance artist Hannes Larunnson. Unexpected.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

See Page XX

Not much updating going on here, due to other writing projects. But just to keep my hand in, I’d like to direct you (whoever you are) to the excellent See Page XX e-zine. Here are some of bits I’ve enjoyed:

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p>And much, much more (as they say). That should tide you over – meanwhile my updating will probably be erratic for a few weeks. Expect normal service to resume around October.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

SCENG Theory

When I saw The Nine Lives Of Thomas Katz a few years ago there was a Q&A session afterwards with director Ben Hopkins. Several questions came from a rather emotional young man who’d clearly thought a lot more about the film in 90 minutes than Hopkins had when he was filming it.

“But… but… you must be making a point” he complained.

“If all I wanted was to make a point, I could have written it down on a piece of paper and given it to you in the street” Hopkins replied.

He went on to say that he didn’t feel he was obliged to make any point: he just wanted to make a bit of nonsense.

Just recently I hooked up with friends to play a bunch of games. I ran King Morris’ Feast, this time using Unisystem, and it worked very well indeed. We boardgamed, we talked and we drank. During the talking bit Admiral Frax made an interesting proposal – she challenged Ron Edwards’ GNS theory saying there are two other types – Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

My instinct (and apparently I’m not alone) was to argue that these are sub-classifications of Narrativism; Frax rejects that argument. The main problem I had, and also the key to Frax’ argument, is that Emotionalism and Conversationalism aren’t compelling goals for me in themselves – they come about as part of the narrative. But for Frax they are compelling goals – therefore they are distinct from narrative construction.

It made me think about Thomas Katz. Here the director had no goal to make “a point”, but he clearly wanted to make a film. The director’s goals were arguably not narrative, but they were conversationalist – the film being the sum total of interactions and events within.

The confusion with discussing GNS – sorry, SCENG theory (thanks, Mo) is seperating goal from tools. Any game can have a goal of creating a narrative but may use gamist, simulationist, conversationalist or emotionalist tools to achieve it. A conversation can arise due to narrative, and even emotion can arise as result of game elements (if the player is emotionally invested in the outcome of the game).

And I also realised something about myself. Gamist goals really don’t suit me any more. I’ve almost completely lost my taste for level grinding either in tabletop or video games. Gaming as a tool to generate narrative and emotion, certainly – but killing the monster and taking its treasure has never appealed.

Being a scientist I like neat little models which explain the universe, which is why I’m drawn to GNS theory. But models need to be challenged and adapted when they are shown to be incomplete – and I feel Frax has done this. Welcome to SCENG.