Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Where's My Mech?

November’s been weird, huh?

So let me talk about a video game, Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Sherri and I bought a Wii U in mid-September. We picked it up primarily for two games: the aforementioned Xenoblade and Tokyo Mirage Sessions. That’s not something we do for a console. We usually wait for a critical mass of games we want to play. But the Wii U catalog isn’t getting any stronger. I can only think of 4-5 other games on the system I’d even want to pick up. As well Nintendo just announced the end of Wii U production and the development of the “Switch.”
But we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the Wii U.

As of today I’ve played 269 hours of Xenoblade. Sherri’s played 378.

It hits our sweet spot and I’m not entirely sure why. We like JRPGs, though we prefer turn based combat. Still we dug FF XII & XIII, Star Ocean, and Dragon Quest Heroes, all twitchy games. But many others we’ve hated (Resonance of Fate, Rogue Galaxy). Today I’m going to boil down ten things I like about Xenoblade Chronicles X.

But first some backstory.

The original Xenoblade Chronicles came out for the Wii late in its life cycle. A fan campaign barely managed to get a US release. Sherri and I played a ton of Xenoblade Chronicles (I’ll call it XB1 from this point on). It had a decent active-time combat engine and (for the most part) interesting characters. But XB1’s set up and presentation sold it. It had massive zones, giving a better sense of space and scale than any other rpg I’ve played. It has to because your characters lived on the surface of a colossal warrior statue- one of a pair. These titans had frozen, locked in battle. To cross from one to the other you journeyed across their clashing swords. XB1 remains a dynamite game and probably the second best rpg on the Wii (after Rune Factory Frontier). Later Nintendo would do a version for the “advanced” 3DS, but I haven’t tried that.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (yes, they could have made a better title split) doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the original. That’s as far as I can see many, many hours in. Instead we’re clearly in our universe. Warring alien races destroy the Earth at the start, though why remains uncertain. Several colony ships escape just before the end. Aliens attack our ship, The White Whale, another solar system, shattering the vessel. The pieces crash across a world called Mira. Gameplay begins with our rescue from a stasis pod. We’re brought back to the single human settlement, New LA, developed in the months we’ve been on ice. From there we explore the world, fight monsters, do missions, develop new equipment, and uncover the secrets of this world and the original conflict which destroyed Earth.
It plays a little like an MMO. There’s a continuous landscape of several enormous zones. Xenoblade Chronicles X only loads when you fast travel across the map. In combat you have a default auto-attack and cycle through various arts to activate special attacks. It’s fast and chaotic, but gets manageable quickly. The AI controls your team of three additional characters, but you can tune their loadout and special actions. There’s a ton to do, but the emphasis is on exploration.

The Bad and the Good
(I’m limiting myself to eleven each)
BAD This space colony project clearly had terrible vetting. Many of your fellow human survivors (a limited pool) turn out to be assholes. They’re venal, greedy, and xenophobic in the face of humanity’s extinction. And they’re really dumb at times. The game needs to have human adversaries, I get that. But the side missions fall back on this trope way too much.

GOOD I love exploring environments. That’s my favorite part of every MMO (Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, Secret World). In particular I loved just flying around City of Heroes to see what the designers had created. This is even better. Each of the major zones has a distinct feeling: different colors, textures, weather, monsters, verticality, pathing. And there’s always more to find. This morning, 269 hours in, I dropped down into a place I’d never seen before and nearly got my ass handed to me.

BAD You can dress your characters. But there are many super cheesecake-y female outfits/armor. They have male flesh-baring clothing, but they’re not nearly equivalent (especially in the pants department). It can get annoying. In a similar vein a couple of the alien races fall into lazy design tropes (bulky, brute, armored males vs. svelte sexy, scantily-clad females).

GOOD But you have a ton of armor and costume choices throughout the game. And I mean a ton. Some are color swaps, but even they have minor differences to distinguish them. More importantly you can set your “Fashion Gear,” meaning your pick of visible armor. That lets you play paperdoll to your heart’s content. I love switching around outfits for my team from time to time, especially after I uncover a new unique suit.

BAD There’s no sort function for any of the inventory lists (collected items, weapons, armor). In some cases you can filter. But that only helps a little. You’ll spend time finding things within sub-menus. This is probably a translation artifact. As with other JRPGs items appear on the list as they did in the original language.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X fixes several of the problems of the first Xenoblade. You have more control in combat. You can train in different weapons sets, switching them between fights if you want. The creation system makes sense here as opposed to earlier random alchemy. The environments feel more full and diverse. The annoying Nopon race from the first game reappears here, but they’re more interesting and palatable.

BAD Though it didn’t bother me, some critics didn’t like how long it takes to get a battle-mech of your own (called Skells here). You’ll be well past the halfway mark before you do. Even then you have to wait another chapter or two before they develop flight technology.

GOOD When you finally get your Skell, it’s awesome. It controls very differently and takes some getting used to. By that time you’ve gotten down all the base character systems. Piloting a Skell introduces a host of new mechanics: new weapons, add-ons, fighting combos, tactics. It feels awesome when you can go out in your mech and beat up the monsters that crushed you in the past. There’s a parallel feeling of hubris when you discover Skells can’t solve every problem. More than anything since you’ve explored on foot for so long, being able to jump higher and eventually fly recharges the landscape. You get to explore again and uncover new secrets.

BAD Boy this game is white. You can change your own character’s skin tone and set up whatever ethnic identity you like. But most of your seventeen possible party members are white. Two are definitely Asian, one might be, and only one has darker skin. The same holds true in the human population within the New LA Colony: you see few definite persons of color.

GOOD I love the monster designs in this game. Of course you get the palette swaps with some species but more often than not, you’ll spot new details across beasts in different regions. I love watching Sherri play because I can actually see these foes. Yesterday I noticed that one species of Lictor, a big insect creature, had unique armor plating. I could see rune-like engravings on its plates. This game has many moments like that. I haven’t even touched on how well animated the monsters are. All have striking, animal-like movements.

BAD There’s a limited ‘palett’e to the characters you can add to your party. Let me rephrase that. Of the seventeen characters you can add, six feel interchangeable (either milquetoast or slightly douche-y males). The female characters fare better. Despite that you still have many great characters with interesting stories to choose from. But it’s disappointing that they don’t feel unique or possesses more than a basic characterization (know-it-all, drinker, airhead).

GOOD That being said I dig some of the richer characters and their stories. I want to know more about Alexa, Murderess, Elma, Nagi, and L when I play them. Murderess, in particular, is a terrible human being who stands in stark contrast to the others. It’s great to hear her interact with the more ethical party members.

BAD There’s little in the way of DLC. I would drop money for new things: armor, areas, missions, characters, monsters.

GOOD You have seventeen recruitable characters. They have different conversations among themselves depending on your team composition. We’ve seen that in other games, but I don’t recall there being this many. Some of the interactions are awesome and revealing.

BAD If you’re a playing a woman, some weird after-combat dialogue that pops up from time to time. In particular talking about problems with your hair. Some the female characters talk about shopping. If you’re doing a lot of battle grinding, you’ll notice it. It’s so weird and discordant with other stuff that I wonder if it’s an artifact of the original or something that popped up with the localization.

GOOD I love the way Xenoblade Chronicles X handles online stuff. And I hate console online gaming. You can go light with it, just getting some new tasks and bonuses or heavy and actually go on missions with other players. I haven’t done the latter, but it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on something vital.

BAD “Here’s your weapons. There you go.” This game throws you in. There’s no real tutorial. Systems aren’t explained, you just have to figure them out. When they do finally mention something (“Hey, there’s a Collectopedia!”) that’s 20+ hours after you’ve discovered it for yourself. Arts & Skills, key combat elements, Overdrive, that there’s no falling damage, etc. aren’t explained. You have to dig down to figure out that out. Potential’s a listed stat…what does that mean?

GOOD At the same time I kind of love that. I dig figuring out things here- and that’s not normally my bag. I love having to go to the manual. I even love hunting around on forums to get insight. There’s a real pleasure when you get something to work. Like that moment when you spot signs about of a monster’s susceptibility to a particular damage type-- important because the game has six of them (Physical, Thermal, Ether, Gravity, Electric, Beam…with no explanation). The system’s opaque, but that doesn’t hurt it.

BAD Xenoblade Chronicles X has hundreds of side missions: from basic gathering, to bounty hunts, to city-changing assignments. You meet many, many quest givers. But one is presented as stereotypically gay: mincing, making suggestive comments, wearing make-up. It’s clearly presented to make the NPC seem odd and weird. That’s an off note and something we don’t see anywhere else in the game.

GOOD Combat remains challenging for a long time. Eventually you’ll be over-leveled, but that’s a ways in. You might smash through some monsters if you’ve tuned your weapons and armor right. But then you hit another creature that doesn’t work with and have to start again. If you’re like me, eventually you’ll get complacent. You’ll see a group of bug and jump in, only to have them agro a horde of other insects. Then Phogg dies, then Hope dies, and suddenly you’re away running as fast as you can …

BAD The Earth has been destroyed and New LA is the last holdout of humanity. We have a population, I’m guessing, of a few thousand. They live in a hostile environment, beset by alien foes, with a pseudo-military leadership. Yet Capitalism remains the driving force. Humanity immediately builds a “commercial district” with shops, colonists worry about their finances, and you see class distinctions. As well, all the friendly alien races are capitalists. It’s odd and actually becomes laughable in a couple of spots. Again, a minor note but a strange backdrop.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open-world game. Within zones animals of vastly different levels wander next to one-another. There’s no “this is the newbie area.” You’re forced to plan and move carefully. If you’re smart you can get by truly dangerous creatures. That allows you to unlock riches or die quickly. This open-world approach means that the story’s loose. You have distinct chapter missions you pick to move the story forward. That’s complemented by several dozen normal and affinity missions deepening the world and adding new elements. But the through-line of the story can be hard to follow and you may find yourself just wandering. That’s the risk of a sprawling game like this. Despite that, Xenoblade Chronicles X has gotten me a couple of times. It’s had some twists I didn’t see coming and at least one revelation that completely changed earlier events for me. 

In short: a great game that makes the Wii U worth it. 
Other experiences with it? 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List

Last week I posted about things I liked/wanted in games. Though it’s late in the day, late in the Thanksgiving week, I wanted to offer a list of games I’m thankful for. I’ve hunted down games which do those things. They aren’t the only ones, but they’re good examples. I’m listing these in parallel order to the original list.

Giving a Clear Statement of Purpose
Paul Beakly has already pointed this out, but Coriolis has a strong, clear statement of what we’re doing: theme and kinds of play. It works. It does that in under a page and it's one of the first things we read. 

Setting Things Up
Cryptomancer does a great job of this. It sets things up on the first page: explaining that we’re going to be doing info-sec intrigue mixed with standard fantasy. It acknowledges the expected elements and points us to what we need to know.

Saying How You’re Different
A couple of superhero rpgs tell you right away how they stand out in this crowded genre. Less skillful rpgs only refer to a “new comic universe” or “my new approach to powers.” The best quickly make clear what we’re dealing with. Base Raiders and Rotted Capes show you their take on the genre straightaway. “Superpowered Dungeon Crawling” was enough to get me to check out the BR book. And RC gives you it in the title.

Writing Clear Blurbs
Pelgrane consistently delivers clear ad copy. For example, the Night’s Black Agents page on DriveThru has a grabbing narrative. It then breaks that up from the more mechanical description with an image. It's an awesome overall hook.

Non-Boobalicious Cover
Since I don’t want to be negative, let me point out a recent cover I dig: the new 7th Sea. It’s a fairly trad image in many ways with heroes battling against a massed foe. But in the center we have a female and male figure, relatively equally weighted. They’re both strong and command the scene. It doesn’t need any additional boob armor or bare midriff to sell itself.

What Dice Do We Roll?
I’d say more games do this than not, making it especially irritating when I do have to hunt down what dice we need. ICONS Assembled has a quick list of materials you need- making it clear that everyone will need a pair of dice, and that’s all you’ll need.

How You’re Adapting an Existing System:
The Sprawl builds on PbtA, but unlike some PBtA games. In the introduction, it points readers to key elements they may want to check out. It doesn’t go into detail about the changes, but instead points players to what they need to know. I like the tone here “when I’m checking out new PbtA games, here’s what I look for.”

Don’t Box in Text:
A few games use bounding lines in a way that works for me. Tianxia: Blood, Silk, and Jades one of the best. It uses a set of simple, geometric lines: similar to some Chinese architectural details. It reflects the setting and matches the colors. Those lines frame the chapter title at the top and the page number at the bottom. But they also stay out of the way. The page design feels open without seeming like there’s less text on the page. It illustrates Daniel Solis and Ruben Byrd’s chops.

Careful With Page Backgrounds
Several games offer both a printer friendly and a standard version. Moonicorn vs. SpaceWurm takes this approach, as does Godbound. That’s awesome. In Godbound’s case the page backgrounds in the full-color version don’t get in the way of reading. It looks decent on my tablet screen and it makes the printed version pop.

Break Up Text
World Wide Wrestling has a lot of information, but it doesn’t feel intimidating to me. It has good use of headers and callouts. The design’s consistent across both book.

Have an Index
13th Age has one of my favorite indexes. The index includes the glossary. Since I’m often searching for what a particular term means this helps immensely. And it doesn’t get in the way of the index itself. Several 13th Age products have multiple indexes (the treasure book, for example, has an index by item type and by associated Icon).

Game Summary for Players
Few games offer a player-facing quick-sheet you can distribute to give them the background. I like Glorantha’s “What My Father Told Me” for an quick & rich insight into a culture, but it still requires having a grip on the greater world. Legend of the Five Rings has solid archetype pages explaining particular clans, but not a summary sheet. I think perhaps the new playbook-centered approach comes closest to what I want. For example those from Urban Shadows give you a nice overview and a sense of the tone as a whole. You can give a quick spiel, read out a sentence or two for each playbook, and get building. Mutant Year Zero does this as well.

Pre-Gen Characters
I love that Feng Shui 2’s entirely built on pre-gens and tons of them. Each one seems more awesome than the last. It gives you all the info you need, some choices, some hooks, and boom you’re going.

Quickstart Adventure
Far and away, my favorite quick-start adventure is Auspicious Beginnings. That’s for Weapons of the Gods, a crazy wuxia rpg. I own it but can’t make heads or tails of it. WotG defies my understanding. It has some cool ideas, but overall I can tell I wouldn’t dig the crunchy play at the table. Despite that, I’ve run Auspicious Beginnings three times using different systems and reconfiguring the premise. It sets up a great situation, with several distinct choices for the players. These make a huge difference in what they actually see in play. They also slowly introduce mechanical concepts: basic resolution, complex tasks, combat. It’s amazing and I recommend checking it out. Everyone loves a contest-focused adventure.

Diverse Art
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins has some of the best and most varied art I’ve seen. It helps create a richer and more interesting world. When I look at the pictures I ask myself: what’s the story here? What’s going on? I love that. I don’t just gloss over the pictures with the usual ho-hum of macho action or tentacle whatever.

One-Page Character Sheets
Several people- smarter people than I- disagreed with this. I can see their point. They like two-page sheets. A second page allows you to record equipment, spells, and secrets. OK, I can see that and agree that has value. But please, no more than that. My favorite simple character sheet comes from Hollowpoint, the fan-created ones that look like toe-tags.

Avoid Repeating Starting Sounds
Even the classic D&D set has this problem (Con and Chr). It’s not a big thing, but can be important. I suspect Evil Hat pays attention to this. The approaches for Fate Accelerated each have a distinct initial sound. Fate Core has 18 default skills. That list keeps it to pairs of starting letters, no more than that. You can see that in other games they’ve published. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What I Like in Games: Saying Please

Several weeks ago Vincent Baker started a conversation on G+ about defining yourself as a game designer. He encouraged everyone to create and consider yourself a designer. In particular he pointed at people who say what you ought to be doing in games. “They're asking you for a favor and they aren't even gracious or self-aware enough to say please.” That phrase stuck with me. James Stuart followed that up by talking about the challenges of unpaid labor as it related to game creation (citing this article about github).

I want to say what I like in games and I want to say please. I smile when I see games hit my particular hang-ups. I also want to break those "likes" into two groups. In the first we have things which may be less labor, time, and effort intensive. They’re about style and information. The second group requires more time and effort. They’re things I dig, but I recognize not all games can do given commitments and energy.

If a game or supplement is of substantial size, I’m more likely to look at it through this lens. Smaller games, niche indie rpgs, truly revolutionary approaches have their own standards. Some of my desires apply to those, but more often not. I’m talking about books with dozens of pages, Kickstarter projects, and anything with a substantial price point (let’s say roughly $3+ maybe higher...I don't know).

Also designers can make deliberately, conscious aesthetic choices to do the opposite of what I say I like. I respect that. If you make an informed choice, having weighed the perils and pitfalls, then cool. Hopefully the reasons for your approach will be clear to your readers. None of this should be taken to say anything game should be condemned. Instead it’s about the guidelines I use to invest my money and time. The latter’s the more precious resource. We live in a golden age of gaming with almost too many excellent options.

Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List

Tell Me What We’re Doing
Offer a clear statement of what we’re doing when we play. I like to see that early. It’s one of the first things I look for. Some books just give me a genre statement ("a game of fantasy adventure") or simply describe the setting. But I’d like to know what the play aims towards or supports. If that’s "anything possible" fantasy, then make that claim. Think of it this way, when I go to pitch this to my players, what am I telling them?

I’ve picked up a couple of complete rpgs on Drivethru lately which have super-detailed and rich settings. But I don’t know how we fit into it. I can't figure what kinds of stories we’ll be telling. Maybe they say that later on, but if I don't know in the first chapter or so, I’m less likely to press on or even remember the game later
Before You Get Going
Before you launch into a large chunk of game fiction, an overview of the setting’s history, or a complete gazetteer, do that telling I mentioned above. Even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs before we dive in. On the flip side, don’t jump to character creation on page one without giving me any idea of who these characters need to be. .

I love superhero games, I love spy games, I love samurai games—all genres I dig. When I see new games for these I’m going to check them out. But I’m always stumped when all the game tells me is “I’m a steampunk game.” OK, what kind? What’s the difference between you and the dozens of other cog & brass games?

If your game jumps into a crowded genre, maybe tell us what’s new about it. Or say what’s done differently and better. Or even just talk about why you made the game. Even if it’s to only to say that you created something that fit your GMing style, worked with your group, or added a few bits you preferred.I like it best when that discussion’s concrete and specific.

You don't have to know every game in the genre. I’m not saying you have to name and take on the biggest competitors. But you have some reasons you like this game, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have created and presumably played it. Tell us.

Check your blurbs. Like many people, I get my first impression from back covers or the electronic equivalent: Drivethrurpg product pages. That’s your pitch. That’s the thirty seconds you have to get someone’s attention. I’m less likely to check out games with ambiguous, vague, or generic language there. Maybe you want your game to be enigmatic, with the idea that the reader will be drawn in to figure out what’s going on. That works sometimes, but it has to be super well-written. Some of the best blurbs I’ve seen offer a little bit off mystery, but then have concrete info. They divide that with lines or font choices.

First Impressions
Related to that, really think about if you want boobalicious artwork on your cover. Maybe you’re doing that for a strong purpose; if so, that’s cool. But I’m less likely to buy or support a game that I’d be embarrassed to present to our mixed gender player group. A T&A cover says something to many female players.

What Am I Rolling?
Tell me early on what kind of dice I’ll need- or if I need none. I can’t say how many games I’ve gone through for my History lists that don’t do this. I need to get 100+ pages in to the resolution section to see what they mean by “roll X dice.”

If you’re building on an existing system (Savage Worlds, d20, PbtA, Fate), tell us what you’re changing or doing differently. Explain what you’re bringing to the table. If you’re just repurposing it without changes, tell us that too. If you’re changing up basic terms from the original system, please call that out. When I read the Fellowship rpg, it took me a long time to realize that when they were talking about “Overlord Cuts,” they meant “GM Moves.”

Don’t Box Me In
I like open pages. If you’re going to bound the text with lines or art, keep that simple and let the text breathe. It bugs me to read games with completely enclosed box frame pages. Or strong bounding lines on multiple sides of the page. I’m not sure what purpose that serves. Are they crowding the frame to make less text look like more? I recall student papers that did this to pad out page counts. I feel the same way about large, graphically intense, and obtrusive page edge borders.

What’s My Background?
Think about why you have repeating graphical element on your pages. If you want greyscale watermarks, background images, color pages, or some combination, have a reason why. What does it add to the text? Does it make it easier to read? Does it help the page hold together visually? Does it complement the overall aesthetic of your product? Then ask yourself, does it make this harder to read? Then ask a bunch of other people if they have a harder time reading. Remember it will appear darker on some readers’ displays or print outs. Does that balance out for you? It might- Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn’s a good example of a success with this.

BUT if you have any of that PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE learn how to use layers when you put your pdf together. Allow readers to turn off those backgrounds for viewing and printing. Some people have visual limitations, some are just old fucks like me. Alternately: offer a printer-friendly version. Seriously, this ought to be a common standard and you can find tutorials about it online.

Wall of Text
I appreciate it when designers break up text, carefully use headers, or offer vital synopses in callout boxes. I have a harder time getting through text which combines small fonts, single columns, and long paragraphs.

I can understand not having an index, but there are tools now to make one much more easily. It might not be a great, but it could help. It’s especially necessary if your game is fairly long. I’m more pleased when I see an index than disappointed when one’s missing. That being said, if you have more than a couple of sections give us a table of contents. And one with useful headings rather than fanciful ones. Please.

Pitch Meeting
Think about how a GM’s actually going to translate and convey your game/setting to players. This is vital, but how you handle this varies. Yes, you can have a rich history but perhaps offer a 1-2 page summary. Yes you can have many clans/groups/factions, but perhaps present a quick ref for those somewhere. Figure out what players need to know to play. You’ve probably had to synopsize when you’ve presented the game to others. What did you say? What questions came up in play? Ideally have something a GM can hand out.

If appropriate to the game, I love it when I see pre-gen characters. Especially when they’re presented as standard character sheets. If you have printer-friendly versions included or available as downloads somewhere, that’s awesome.

Getting Rolling
If appropriate to the game I love it when I see quickstart or sample adventures. They’re hard, they’re work, but they’re useful to demoing the game to a new group. They don’t fit for every game. But even if you have an rpg with a more flexible approach, perhaps point the GM to some good starting places or fronts. My favorite quick-starts introduce concepts and rules in stages, like a good video game tutorial.

Diverse Art
Not all games have art. And sometimes you have to rely on creative commons or stock art. That’s cool. That being said, when a game has art and I see an effort has been made to have diverse characters presented, I appreciate that. Different ethnicities and cultures, various body types, women in positions of strength, etc. I’ve seen many games where all the women have to be sexy-times and the men get to look interesting and distinct. I like it when a game changes that up.

One-Page Character Sheet
Completely a personal preference. And a higher-level design issue. But I’m much more sympathetic to games where characters fit on one side of a single page, without being in microscopic font. YRMV.

Initial starting sounds
This is a stupid one. But it’s something that bothers me. If you have a small pool of key terms (attributes, skills) consider varying the initial sounds of them. I’m always weirdly disconcerted when I hit a list of six characteristics and three of them start with “S” (Strength, Stamina, Social). They don’t all have to begin with different letters, but think about breaking that up, if only to make abbreviations easier. 

Thoughts? Other Likes I Missed?
Games I'm Thankful For: A Companion List

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Deathfrolic '85: Things We Didn't Lose in the Fire

Since the fire I’ve replaced some of my rpgs pretty fully (Mutants & Masterminds, Fading Suns), others partially (Exalted 1e, Planescape), and some almost not at all (Cyberpunk 2020, MERP). Books can be re-purchased, even if the prices lie out of reach. But I also lost of ton of old gaming notes and papers. Much survived, though some have smoke and scorch damage. A chunk of that's tucked away in a plastic box. The smell of the fire hits me when I open it. I haven’t worked through or had the heart to throw them out. They’ll break down eventually- the acid from the smoke does that over time.

But I had a lucky find yesterday in another old box tucked away in the attic’s corner. I’d sorted these boxes after we got back in the house, but rushed through it madly. I keep coming across things I missed at the time.

Deathfrolic ‘85

Our area had many annual gaming conventions in the early days. In the late ‘70’s and early 80’s we had three different cons going, including "The Emperor’s Birthday" and "Griffcon." All had a strong mix of rpgs, miniatures, and board games. Eventually all the cons would get priced out of the downtown convention center and try other venues. In 1985 Griffcon tried out the Stepan Center on the Notre Dame campus. The horrible, single room under a dome had (to quote They Might Be Giants when they played there) “the worst acoustics of any place we’ve ever been.” Add to that no air conditioning in a hot Indiana Spring.

Despite being in high school, I helped out with some of the planning for the con. Historically the conventions had locally written D&D tournaments...just like the big cons. Many of the earliest D&D modules came out of these TSR’s own tourney productions. I volunteered to put together the module for Griffcon ’85. I don’t know why. I suppose it made me feel important. Eventually it became a group effort- nearly all of my local players pitched in, including Gene Ha. Art Lyon in particular came up with many of the key concepts. We wrote it up, took it to a copy shop, and barely got it to the GMs in time. Playtested? Nope. But it worked and no one complained loudly.

That’s what I found yesterday- my nearly complete copy of the Death Frolic Megakillathon AD&D Tournament module from 1985. It's credited to "Lowell Francis and the Kill Crew." There’s an illustrated cover page missing as well as the pre-gens, but otherwise it’s intact. And terrible. Seriously. A railroad from start to finish. High School AD&D let loose on the page. We apparently split the typing duties up, with some of it done on an Apple Mac and some typed up on thin paper. It’s a mess of typos, stains, and run on sentences.

But here it is. I’ve scanned the whole thing and posted it as a pdf on Dropbox. If you like old modules or gaming found objects, I think you’ll find this amusing. If anyone ever questions my trad bona fides, I’ll point them here.

We did a sequel module the following year. I know I had a copy of that at one time, but I suspect that vanished in the fire. We’ll see; perhaps in the future I’ll turn that up. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Saviors: The PCs Take a Group Photo

Another day, another image from the archives. In the mid-1980’s I ran a Champions campaign called "Saviors." Originally my sister Cat Rambo GM’d it and then I shifted over to that seat. It was our Watchmen-homage campaign. The Dark Knight, Batman Year One, The Question, The New Statesmen, Miracleman, V for Vendetta, and a ton of other sources influenced us. In this world there’d been superbeings during WW2, but none since. The few supers who survived had died out or been killed. Many regarded them as myths. The actual campaign dealt with a new generation of contemporary non- powered vigilantes.  That would change as time went on...

The campaign stretched over several years real time, with a rotating cast of PCs and players. Art Lyon (colorist) drew this late in the arc. From left to right we have Guardian? (front), BUD (Big Ugly Dude), Bolo, Spinerette (NPC), Defender (NPC ambiguous patron), Public Defender (NPC), Fixer, Captain Danger, and Captain America. The pictures on the wall are all dead PCs. In the end Fixer and Guardian killed Defender & company, sold out the world to an evil corporation, and framed Bolo for it. Oh and prior to that Guardian broke BUD’s back.

It was a dark game, featuring the nuking of an American city. But the real world is often darker.

Eventually I came back to the setting, running a lengthy Cyberpunk-ish supers game set in the far-off future of  2017. That took place in the dystopian world the previous PCs had created. Much later I tried to run another version, but it didn’t work. The combination of Champions and the changing of the times made it not what we wanted to play. I’m not sure I could dystopian anymore; not sure I’d want to. 

(This is a color scan and print from the days when color laser printing wasn't awesome. Hence the loss of fidelity). 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Paper Towel Game Sketches: Stained Artifacts

In 1984 I worked at a shitty movie theater. It wasn’t part of a chain, instead family owned and run by a sketchy guy out of Chicago. We had three screens and an arcade you had to go outside and around to get to. We played a lot of Cannon Films (Runaway Train, Masters of the Universe, Invasion USA, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). This was before we had multiplexes in our town. When they finally opened a six (!) screen theater, my manager freaked out.

Anyway I had plenty of downtime when I worked. We could get clean up done quickly, check the stock, and wait for any stragglers who wanted more snacks without breaking a sweat. Of course since we were high schoolers we barely did that. We made student minimum wage ($2.85/hour) so there wasn’t a huge incentive to excel. Still I did my job, eventually becoming an assistant manager (and making an additional .25 cents per hour). But sometimes it was seriously boring.

At the time my local rpg group played a ton of Rolemaster. Paul D. handled GMing. I ran other games (supers, James Bond, GURPS). But I wanted to do something with fantasy; I wanted to run Rolemaster. And I also wanted to use elements Paul had brought to our table: The Lythic Pantheon. These deities came from the Harn published setting. They’d released an awesome systemless cultural sourcebook: Gods of Harn. I planned on adapting those gods to a new setting and context- ignoring all the rich work and world building in the supplement. Why? Because I was fifteen and knew better.

Anyway one night after wiping down the counters yet another time, I started writing down notes on a paper towel. Gallerain and Cainsar. Two neighboring kingdoms. This became the basis for a short RM campaign I ran soon after. It ended after a handful of session, but I still liked the world, so I worked on the larger continent. Then still later when I went to run Fantasy GURPS I created another continent on that same world. Eventually that grew into the fantasy world I’d run for another couple of decades over many campaigns. (For a rundown see here).

What’s the point of all that? This weekend in going through  old boxes I found that paper towel. It’s wrinkled, stained, and threadbare but still intact. So I’ve scanned that so I’ll always have this weird artifact. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

RPG Endings: Crossing the Finish Line

Endings. Not just campaign endings, but endings for scenes, for sessions, for arcs. When I see them coming and can steer into them- as a player or GM- a good ending crystallizes everything. But sometimes I over-correct and go off the road; sometimes I miss my turn and suddenly we're miles past my exit and the passengers have fallen asleep. 

This week Play on Target talks about RPG endings. Once more we're joined by Sherri Stewart in my not so subtle plan to get her on every episode. We talk about endings that have gone askew, techniques for making finishers satisfying, and advice for reading the road map of your campaign. As always, I have a few scattered thoughts I've added below. 

1. FILE AWAY ANOTHER CS: Barry ran many games for our group. Many, many games. But I don’t remember him ever actually finishing one. We played several Cyberpunk 2020 campaigns, a Night’s Edge CP game, a Mars-based CP game, Cybergeneration, Fading Suns, Champions in space, street-level Champions, Kult, a gnostic supers game, and probably more I've forgotten. We all knew it would happen, that the campaign would most likely die. But we’d press on to see just how far we could get. You could spot the death spiral: cancellations, absolute lack of prep, shutting down plots, talking about other games. Barry closed down based on player reactions. It all came from his own fragmented focus and artistic dissatisfaction. Still I love and miss him. I'd play in another incomplete campaign of his again any day. 

2. HYPOCRISY: I point fingers, I did the same thing for a long, long time; especially in high school/college/early twenties, I left many campaigns unfinished. But in my mid to late twenties I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I can't point to a catalyst. I made it a goal: finish each campaign. Bring some kind of resolution to the story. But even after deciding that I had plenty die on the vine. More often that came from player changes rather than my own dissatisfaction, but that’s no real comfort.

3. SALVAGE RITES: What can we do with that material? If you’re running online and changing groups, it can still be useful. Steal and reuse those concepts. If you have a steady f2f group (as I have) it’s harder. Mostly likely you’ll have someone who played in the original game. However there’s another factor. I’ve never really reused old, dead campaign material for two reasons. Campaigns come from players and often what I've done in one game won’t work with another. The tone, backdrop, goals, or a hundred other details interferes. More importantly once I’ve had a campaign die, I tend not to revisit. It hurts to see that material and the “might have been.” Instead I move on.

4. UNFAIR: Endings make or break a game. No pressure. I hate to say that. But this realization comes from the player side of things. I’ve had mediocre games become last-minute-awesome through a solid ending: spectacle, choice, a chance to wrap our characters. That stays with me and I mostly forget the other part. But I’ve also had games futz out. The last session just…ends. Or the GM undercuts my character at the last minute. Goodwill vanishes. Ironically games which die early don’t usually have this problem. I look back at those untold stories through rose-colored glasses. (There are exceptions, games where it’s a relief to have it finally die off.)

5. REPORTING LINE: Check in with your players. Take their temperature. Give them a sense of your expectations for length (set number of sessions, rw time frame, open-ended). I’ve been in games that dragged on past their expiration date. And it’s hard to ask the GM “when’s this going to end?” That sounds like a judgement rather than a query. You have to be politic about that. But this burden of information should rest on the GM’s side. You’re the project manager for the table. Keep your eyes and ears open.

6. LIKE TEARS IN THE SHOWER: Let’s put aside the question of RPGs as art. I believe they are a media. They’re an entertainment form like a symphony, TV show, video game, etc. They’re an experience. But because of their interactivity and play they’re incredibly ephemeral. That final session will never be  replicated. It has to live on in your players’ minds. It’s like an improv show, not to be repeated.

7. EXCEPTION: MODULES: Modules offer a script. You could compare those the performance of an opera or a theatrical production. Each night’s performance will have its own quality and difference. But even with modules the interpretations can be so wild and different. Your Death on the Reik may end with a pulp action showdown in the castle while others might make a slow slog through horror corruption. "That's what happened? Then you weren't really playing Masks of Nyarlathotep..."

8. MOTIVES: Why did I avoid player “epilogues” for so long? Many reasons, all of them BS. A sense that ending episodes capped things completely and perfectly. Not wanting the players to notice and point out unresolved threads. Keeping players from imposing on the future of setting and cutting off my options if I decided to run there again. The idea that players might use it as a wedge to keep playing things out. Fear that we’d have to resolve conflicts between different players’ visions of the future. Bottom line: mostly really about control and authorship for me. Dumb.

9. FAT LADDIE SINGS: In the episode we ask, how do you know when to end a game? We talk about some signs and tools, but sometimes you flail about. You try to find a good hook. I have a concrete example. I ran a series of three M&M 2e campaigns for my Wednesday online group. Each came in at about 15-16 sessions, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I’m running M&M 3e for the same group- a sequel campaign with new characters. We just did session eleven this week. And I’m not sure where we are in the campaign: still early days? somewhere in the middle? cresting toward the end? In this case I can point to at least one specific issue: the PCs. We have a weird mix of levels and emphasis: cosmic, global, mystical, supernatural street level, and just street level. I want to give each of them something to fit their interests and somehow manage to tie that together. Who knows how long that will take. 

What's your campaign ending story? What's worked for you? Have you tried something that really wrapped up the game with a bow?

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