Saturday, December 31, 2011

Melee, Wizard, TFT and me

If you have followed or read my rambling missives before you know I think the Metagaming TFT system is pretty sweet...but a just miss.  

I know I am not the only fellow who feels that way, in fact way back in 1980 Howard Thompson himself commented on how disappointed he was with the project. To quote from a letter he wrote dated 3/31/1980:

TFT is too complicated as completed by Steve Jackson. He completed the project as he wished, not as I'd hoped or even laid down constraints....All the material in Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard didn't need to be added at all. More spells and weapons fine, more detail of combat, no.

My feeling is that in the extra two years of work TFT got longer instead of better.

I could not agree more with with HT on these points.  TFT overly complicated the game system rather than producing a streamlined game.  Some folks love it, and that's great, but it was a just miss for me. That feeling of what could have been stuck with me for 30 years now.  In fact as I mentioned before,  Metagaming's revision of the TFT system became Dragons of Underearth. It could have been the TFT basic set, but was incomplete and Metagming died shortly there after.

Next came Dark City Games and their revival of the system.  This was closer to what I hoped TFT would be, but it too did not work for different reasons.  The manual is a brief pocket mod friendly 7 pages but its only meant to usher you into playing their (very good) adventures, not actually running a game yourself from your imagination.

All of that to get to this, my own re-imagining of a basic RPG version using Melee/ Wizard/ and Dragons of Underearth as inspiration: Heroes & Other Worlds.

Weighing in at a svelte 24 pages, its the way I would have liked to see a basic TFT game offered.  Note, what is lacking from my book is any semblance of a referee's aide section or an adventure creator.  Maybe I will make one next, but for the time being, it is what it is.

If there is enough interest I'll convert some of my Pockets Full of Peril adventures for play.  In the meantime if you are interested in downloading and trying the game, charge on over to the Heroes site.  I have a download link  for the game manual up now.  .

Happiest of New Years to you and yours!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Heroes & Other Worlds

Hexploration and scale: 6 miles, 5 miles, or 1 mile?

I am not sure when nor who set the default mileage size for hexplore maps.  I always defaulted to the 5 mile size without thought...but I just read an interesting take on the subject from "steamtunnel" on his Hydra's Grotto blog. While his post is months old, it bears some more discussion I think. Below is his original post for your thought, and discussion.

So last weekend wandering around PAX the one thing I would get excited about if I had the time would probably have been Elder Scrolls V. In my opinion the Elder Scrolls Series is the heir to whatever crown Ultima wore. Technologically it picked up where Ultima Underworld, UWII and Ultima's V, VI, and VII left off - with Ultima V being the Empire Strikes Back or the series (more on this later).

But this is not a review per se of Skyrim. Rather in reading and hearing about it I was struck with an interesting piece of info: The region of Skyrim is roughly the same size as the region covered in
Oblivion, which is around 16 square miles in area. Really? 16 square miles is 4 miles on each side. My 6mi hexagon obsessed brain immediately replies: "You realise that's all on one hex." The game is supposed to be epic -and from what I can tell it is- but, the fact that the whole thing would fit in a single hex boggles my mind. So I went and got a map of Cyrodiil the land covered in Oblivion I saw once in my internet wanderings just to see how much adventure (by location) you could cram into less than 1 6mi hex. The map is below, and it is too small to see here, so I suggest looking at it here.

Places designated as cities on this map are actually more like citadels and walled towns- you can actually see their wall outline from the map. And a study of medieval settlement patterns indicates that the distances and frequencies of these in relation to each other is entirely believable. Counting each city area as a single location this map displays 89 caves, 50 forts, 15 Shrines, 16 Inns and Stables, 23 mines, 30 settlements, 31 camps, 12 cities/castles/walled towns, and 50 ruins for a total of 316 or more distinct locations. Granted many of these locations stack into way to lend verisimilitude to a quarter of a square mile. If you start walking and walk for 4 miles in the game it will take you about the same time as if you walked 4 miles in real life. Ad to it all that this is the area surrounding a major city. Also there is a representational telescopeing -a sort of illusion that tricks the video game player into feeling like there is a cast of thousands when there really is just several hundred- but my point is that when played the area seems realistic in the frequency of encounters and the amount of travel someone needs to do in an adventure.

My own stocking of a six mile hex pales in comparison. Granted I don't have buckets of money from a major video game studio and a team of people designing adventure locations- however the OPD contests and similar collaborative efforts in the OSR, not to mention the wealth of relocatable locations published in the tabletop gaming sphere (Dyson Logos alone give you a lot of maps) put similar levels of detail in the grasp of pretty much any DM.

Looking at things like google or bing mapping programs really shows how you could have several adventure locations in just one 5 or 6 mile hex and it be completely believable. This stats me wondering about the implications of a sandbox- perhaps the 1 mile hex might be more conductive. Additionally if a DM wanted to link several worlds in a setting that crosses time and space perhaps all they need do is detail the 6 mile hex around the entry point to that world. The complication arrives when the entry and exit are not in the same place. Certainly information like this makes me rethink the range that adventure needs to be epic and yet still a sandbox.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dark Souls

Although Roguelikes, FIFA, and MLB the Show, fill the bulk of my scant video gaming time there is one console RPG I had on my list this holiday season.  Nope not Skyrim (the wife is playing that), my pick was broodingly entitled Dark Souls.

This is supposedly the ultimate "gamer cred" game as it unflinchingly hands you your ass for simply  rushing around and not thinking through things.  Wide open sandbox format, no spoon fed niceties, just a man and his will to survive.

In concept it reminds me of my experiences in RPG's and why I still play and design them.  The wide open, go exploring, try anything and cross your fingers it works out nature of RPG's is something that no other game format can equal.  In a console game, there are always going to be limits, in an RPG-it really should be wide open.  While many modern (non-OSR) games seek to codify and limit the experience (becoming more like Video games in that aspect) the OSR trend seeks to pare back the restrictions and its why I still play them.

Think back to when you first started playing RPG's, my first character was a dwarf.  I walked down some stairs, tripped a trap fell onto spikes 20 feet down and died--the end.  I was shocked, surprised, upset, and ready to play again.  I learned to look for traps after that death lesson!  From what I read, Dark Souls is much like that experience with the same philosophy of learning through trial and deadly error.  That's a staple in earning your RPG gamer stripes, and its amazing that this is somehow an earth shattering experience in video games.

If you are interested, the manual that comes with the game is spartan-in the extreme (worthless).  Fortunately the beautiful Dark Souls guide (hardcover, 380pg full color, $25 MSRP) was an additional on holiday gift and will certainly see use.

Below are snippets of an interview with the designer and review of the game that both sparked my interest. Maybe they will interest you too.

Interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki
Dark Souls' genius – the hook at the heart of its gameplay philosophy – is the concept of death as education rather than punishment. Death can teach you something in other games too, but here it's an intentional learning device. It's a wonderfully elegant piece of game design, and one that I hadn't seen anywhere before Demon's Souls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miyazaki can't cite any other game as an inspiration. "Strictly, there are no other specific games that inspired this unique design," he says.

 "But the main concept behind the death system is trial and error. The difficulty is high, but always achievable. Everyone can achieve without all that much technique – all you need to do is learn, from your deaths, how to overcome the difficulties. Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling, and that's what I wanted to prioritise in Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. And because of the online, you can even learn something from somebody else's death. I'd say that was the main concept behind the online, too."

Death, as a concept, is the constant that runs through every element of Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls before it) – not just the gameplay, not just the level and enemy design, but its artwork and internal mythology as well. These games' worlds are places of suspended animation: places where everything has died, save a few lost and wandering souls. They have a strange, unsettling sense of the eternal about them. Wandering the Boletarian Palace or the Undead Burg, you feel like the grime-blackened medieval structures around you might have been there for ever – once full of the living and breathing, perhaps, but long, long since given over to death and decay.

"We spent a long time discussing the base concept of the art design," explains Miyazaki, asked how the team of artists and designers that he manages constructed Dark Souls' visual design. "The game focuses a lot on death, but what is death? What does it look like? What does death mean in this world? What does it mean to live and to die? That is something we discussed very closely. The story is about a fire in the world, a symbol of both living and death. The fire is what brought death to Dark Souls' world, but also the only hope for life. Demons, chaos, dragons, all of them are different incarnations and representations of our idea of death in Dark Souls.

"Dragons, for instance, emerged as a concept somewhere between a living and a dead thing – neither one nor the other. At the same time, though, I wanted to create something beautiful, with this idea of death at heart. But again, people have a lot of different definitions of what beautiful means. We had deep discussion about what beautiful should mean for Dark Souls."

Descending a granite staircase early in Dark Souls, you find a Black Knight obstructing the corridor below. He stands with his back turned, oblivious to your approach. A white loot orb glows cheekily at the far end of the passage. Lesser games might telegraph this enemy’s difficulty by showing it rear its head back and screech, flecking the camera lens with spittle. Such condescension would be superfluous in From Software’s action-RPG template. The mere outline of the knight’s horned helmet – instantly recognisable from the game’s box art – sets your pulse galloping.

You know he’ll be an ornery bastard, relentless and overpowering. He will carve you into slices finer than a deli ham. But the option here of whether or not to engage is a calculated farce. You know that, after wiping your palms off on your trouser legs and taking a deep breath, you’ll provoke the Black Knight. Because glowing loot is to the RPG enthusiast as fire is to the moth. Put simply, ‘compulsion’ is too weak a word.
In order to keep a reassuring distance, you hurl a throwing knife before switching hastily back to your primary weapon. The Black Knight hardly flinches as he pivots around to face you, still terrifyingly mute. Then he charges. Just like the moth, your flailing, flapping demise is both grim and comically Chaplin-esque.
You died, says the game, just in case you’d mistaken your hero’s slumping to the ground for a sudden fit of narcolepsy. You died. This curt declaration appears on your screen with such dispiriting frequency over the course of your time with Dark Souls, the words practically burn into your TV screen. You died.
Just like its 2009 predecessor Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls mirrors the Black Knight’s posture. The game stands with its back to gamers who feel entitled to the coddling of selectable difficulty tiers, enemies with neon-signposted weakspots, and checkpoints as tightly spaced as a trail of Pac-Man dots. Anyone who expects to button-mash their way to victory should avoid playing Dark Souls entirely and simply watch walkthrough videos with a bucket of popcorn in their lap.

Dark Souls has all the trappings of a rote fantasy RPG. You’ll select from the usual bundle of character classes – warrior, hunter, pyromancer, cleric, et al. You’ll chop down undead and skeletons and plague-infested sewer rats – and if you persevere long enough, proud dragons. But don’t be fooled. Embracing a slew of the RPG genre’s hallmarks enables the game’s designers to subvert player expectations with sadistic glee.

For a genre so handicapped by its thrall to almighty Lore – an endless reshuffling of fridge-magnet poetry using words plucked from Tolkien’s Silmarillion – Dark Souls’ most revolutionary design choice involves giving the world just enough history to feel concrete and then dive-rolling out of the player’s way.
Dark Souls’ most seismic achievement – the thing that parlays the grandeur of Demon’s Souls into something improbably greater – is its persistent open world. If you could feasibly conquer Dark Souls without dying, you’d stumble across the occasional momentary framerate freefall, but not a single loading screen. The Nexus hub world and level-based structure of Demon’s Souls tacitly marked your progress through its adventure, but Dark Souls splinters that measuring stick over its knee and dares you to approximate the dimensions of its universe.

As you butt up against what you naively assume to be the outer rim of its world, a defeated boss drops a key that opens a door leading into subterranean sewers. Beat another boss at the bottom of the sewers and the world peels back further, sending you down into a massive cylindrical hole leading to a foetid shantytown. You delve farther down, expecting to hit bedrock. There can’t be another layer. Can there? You shrug off your claustrophobia and spelunk deeper still. Yet another sprawling domain opens up. You get dizzy with the scale, unsettled and insecure about the progress you’ve made, like the explorers in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves descending the book’s infernal, ever-expanding spiral staircase. After all, this is just one of many paths you can explore in the world of Dark Souls. You could’ve explored the Catacombs instead. Or the Darkroot Basin lake, shimmering in moonlight, with its projectile-spewing Hydra. Welcome to the most memorable game world since… wait a second, did we just consider deleting the word ‘since’?

Most contemporary games are unctuous, clingy suitors, welcoming players with fawning deference and open arms. Conversely, Dark Souls beckons the masochistic with its chilly indifference. If you steel your nerves and persevere, the loot you'll uncover is an adventure so exquisitely morose and far-ranging that it will tug at your mind insistently during the hours you spend apart. After more than 60 hours into our journey, an NPC clucks: "How do these martyrs keep chugging along? I'd peter out in an instant." We do so, quite simply, because other games feel comparatively bland, facile and unsatisfying. Few will complete Dark Souls, but that fact won't nullify the adventures they've had straining toward its elusive summit

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

Far Trek adventure seed

Lots going on and not much time to post recently, sorry! 

I posted an adventure outline I ran for my Far Trek game RPG game.

It's kind of a Star Trek version of zombies entitled No Mercy...and it was a hit!

You can download Far Trek for free and give the adventure a go yourself, let me know how it works out for you.

Live long and prosper fellow gamers!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Treasure Island

Growing up, Treasure Island for me was my best loved tale.  My edition was illustrated by NC Wyeth, and I destroyed 2 copies with constant reading. I've never tired of it, and the movies never captured the magic of the tale for me...until 1990.

Home from college, my brothers and I saw what I consider to be the best version ever.  It blew me away how great the adaptation was and how much of the story they stayed true to.  Better yet? CHARLTON HESTON is in it as Long John Silver...along with Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Pete Posthelwaite, and Christian "Batman" Bale as Young Jim Hawkins.  Add in musical score by The Chieftains and you have one of the best pirate movies ever.

I had the VCR tape, and wore it out with viewings...and finally the day I never thought would arrive is here...21 years later, the DVD just released.  I've yammered endlessly to my wife about the film for ages and tonight it arrived, and we are settling in to watch it.

If you are a fan of pirate movies, Hornblower, Patrick O'Brien, or Treasure Island... do yourself a favor and get it while you can. I bought two as I have learned my lesson, and won't repeat the mistake of not having it.

FYI-Fraser Heston (son of Charlton) directed and wrote this version, because his dad read it to him as a boy, the illustrated N.C. Wyeth edition. Those Wyeth illustrations formed the look, feel , and overall cinematography of the film.  A commentary by Fraser is an option on the disk...and it reinforces why this filmed version rings so true to me and why I still love this story.

Don't make the mistake of missing it.

Friday, December 9, 2011 you have never seen it before

Can a brother get a Greyhawk version?  Hey WotC--why not unleash the kraken on THAT idea.

Also I have a hankering to make a Game of Thrones Risk game now.  I experimented with one for  Wizard Kings block game a few years back...but I think a Risk version would be easy to sell, easy to play, and like the LOTR, Star Wars, HALO, and Metal Gear Solid versions-could be unique and flavorful.  Heck, there's another multi-million dollar idea I gave away...damn.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What if: Dungeons & Dragons for sale

It's clear D&D 4th did not turn into the lucrative cash cow that Hasbro wanted (needed?) it to be. For modern fans of the game (3.0+) 4th edition did not deliver, and for many classic gamers, it was a bit of an abomination.  Note this is not meant as edition wars stuff, its just the lay of the land.

How can I tell it failed?  4 things: Look at the rise of OSR during the 4th edition era.  I see that as a sign of Old Schoolers who may have rediscovered the game in the 3.+ era, but then went further back when 4th went forward.

Second the rise to dominance of Paizo during 4th edition era as gamers who liked the 3.5 rules, were happy to keep playing them.

3rd, the demise of 4th edition products: nothing says failure like people not buying your game, right Radakai?

Last: Distributors, they confirm Pathfinder out sells D&D in their channels.

Net result: people still wanted to play D&D, just not the official game as currently presented by Hasbro.

So let's put you in the shoes of Joe Hasbro (my these are expensive shoes): You have an RPG property that:

1. Is known world wide
2. Has a mixed public perception
3. Has high costs to support: art, publishing, warehousing, staff, support teams
4. Does not have a solid repeat purchase model
5. Has lost market share
6. Is in a declining/decaying market category
7. limited mass market placement (book stores)...which is on very shaky footing.

So if I am Joe Hasbro, why would I want to make 5.0?  Why wouldn't I license a company to produce the RPG for me....or maybe I just sell the RPG portion of the property outright.

 The boardgames do well enough for me, and I could make those in my sleep. For me they are cheap to produce, and I can charge a premium for them.  I have tons of miniature molds so I could dump out minis like there is no tomorrow into my games as modules.  A couple maps, some cards, a few scenarios and I'll make that random monster in red, blue and green for different power levels or what ever the kids call them.  I have enough clout to get these games into Target, Wal-Mart, and TRU. That's where the sales are!  So I'll make the board games I am good at and get them placed where I know they will sell.  We did D&D clue, so why not Greyhawk Risk...and Forgotten Realms Risk.  LotR Risk worked quite well... Why not a D&D version of Trouble? or Dungeonland instead of Candy Land?  Chutes and Ladders-how about Traps and Tunnels? What if Sorry was re-themed with magic spell cards?  Can I keep giving away million dollar ideas for free? Anyway, as Joe Hasrbo, I'll let some other schmo can relieve his dreams of the 80's (checkered bandana not included.)

GW did it with Warhammer RPG, so let's assume it happens, and Hasbro licenses, or maybe sells, the RPG business to someone: Who would it go to, and would (could?) they cancel the OGL as part of the agreement to take it?