Friday, June 30, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: The Palladium Fantasy RPG

Palladium Books is one of the old-timers in the tabletop RPG world. I've made several posts touching upon this mad old-timer and his games before, and I've had a love-hate relationship with the company for decades now. The games are fun, but organized as if by meth heads needing a fix, and often need spot-rulings to clarify what should've been crystal clear from the get-go. However, the man behind the company has issues sufficient to open a comic shop; I don't like buying new if I can help it, save for X-Mas Grab Bags.

Everyone likes to talk about RIFTS, but if you really want to get at the heart of Palladium's aesthetic you need to look at the older stuff. For science fiction, it's the Mechanoid Trilogy and its totally-not-the-Daleks. For fantasy, it's Palladium's eponymous RPG that you ought to take the time to look at. The blend of those two games, flavored with elements from their other RPGs such as Heroes Unlimited, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness (now After The Bomb), Robotech, and Beyond the Supernatural are what makes RIFTS what it is.

You can't see it as well in the current (second) edition of the fantasy game, but you can see how this game emerged from a series of tinkerings and other house rulings made to Dungeons & Dragons. But you don't enjoy a Palladium game for its rules or its mechanics. You enjoy it for the sincerity and earnest qualities of its setting and supporting supplements, because man does this ling has some gems in it that make the more mediocre parts seem greater than they are. The Wolfen Empire being Rome-as-Wolves is brilliant, especially if you actually know Roman mythology and have some familiarity with its history.

You'll find little things like that all over the game. The "Warlock" class is actually elemental-themed theurgy, almost shamanistic. (Whereas the actual Shaman is lame.) The Druid class feels more like a Celt druid. Longbowmen are a separate class, and only Rangers otherwise can even use longbows proficiently. Magic use is split by discipline into separate classes. Little things like that, which are just enough to snare and hold your attention if you're willing to tinker a bit to bring out the full potential.

In short, Palladium's games work because (as much by design as by accident) the games sit so that it makes great (if not excellent) use of liminal space to allow the players to make the game work to fullest effect. You need the brainmeats of the players (including the Game Master) to fill the void that today's Mech Pilots demand be filled with mechanics lubricated by Pink Slime genre elements. I keep up a collection of Palladium games for that reason. Enjoy a Palladium game if you can.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Catch Me on "Geek Gab: Game Night" Tonight!

It's been a long time since I was on Geek Gab. I'll be on the gaming show, Game Night, tonight. Hit the button on the embed below to get to the show directly. We're talking about a lot of tabletop gaming stuff, and you won't want to miss it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Award-Winning Author John C. Wright on "Geek Gab: On The Books" Tonight!

Tonight's episode of "On The Books" with host Brian Niemeier should be very good. He's having John C. Wright on, and that means two award-winning authors talking shop about their profession and passion of writing science fiction. The only way this could be better is if Razorfist was also on the show, but that much awesome is hard to contain, so you'll just have to make do with only one of the most requested and enjoyed guests on Geek Gab instead of both.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bad Gamer Habits: Focus on the Task at Hand

This is very much a multi-player thing, but man does this also screw with you in a single-player game. You just don't notice it until you decide to let others watch you and they call you on it. The problem? A lack of focus on the task at hand. Getting distracted is no good, no matter the situation. It's even worse if you also don't read the manual, so you don't know what you're doing.

You've all met this guy. You're playing a game, and he's not paying attention. His turn comes around, and now he's asking what's going on before making a decision. That may not sound like a problem, but that time wasted adds up fast. In the workplace, this is what turns a short briefing into a three hour meeting. At the game table, it's what consumes the evening you have to play a tabletop RPG or a complex boardgame so that little or nothing gets done. Online, it's the guy who doesn't read the strats and doesn't pay attention to the leader calling the shots, making what should've been easily done into a time-wasting trainwreck.

I'm over 40 now. I don't have time for this shit anymore. I routinely kick these boat anchors out now, and I don't give two shits about people whining at me being a hardass over it. I value my time greater than all the gold in the world. The surest way to piss me off is to disrespect my time like this, and putting boot to ass reliably solves my problem with such chodes.

I've often made the explicit comparison between tabletop RPGs and holding a job. (I also do this between being a top-end raider in a MMORPG and holding a job.) Sometimes this is not a good thing, but in this respect it most certain is a good one: you had better respect the time that others pay to play the game.

Showing up on time, prepared, and ready to go is the goddamn norm and it should have been drilled into you as a child. Giving your full, undivided attention to the task at hand is the goddamn norm and it should have been drilled into you as a child. The fun is in getting shit done, and focusing your attention is focusing your energy; the more the group maintains that focus, the faster shit gets done and therefore the more shit gets done within a given interval of time. The same "focus fire" principle that applies to martial arts and warfare is universally applicable, and you should know that by now as an adult.

And yet, one need only watch some livestreaming gamers on Twitch (et. al.) to see that plenty of adults never got the memo. *sigh*

I'm not your father or your doctor. I don't care why you can't meet basic adult performance expectations. All I care about is that you meet them, and if I find that you're unable to do so then you're gone. I will boot your ass, and whining or backbiting after the fact will make that booting into a permanent, lifetime ban. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Monday, June 26, 2017

There Ain't No Cure For The Summer Sale Blues

The Metro City Boys had a hell of a show last night talking about the disappointment that is this year's Steam Summer Sale. This is not just a grumbling session, though there's plenty of it, as this episode does touch upon the factors going into why this year's sale sucks compared to previous years and how to deal with it. Put your evening shows on the DVR, gang, because this is worth your prime time. Since embedding is disabled for the podcasts, you'll have to go to their channel which is here.

And yes, folks, there is a suck problem going on here. The discounts aren't as good as they used to be. The structure doesn't compel your attention on a daily basis as it used to be. Even from last year, some games aren't discounted as much or even at all. (Dark Souls, the original, isn't on sale at all; last year it was 75% off.) While we on the outside can only make educated guesses as to what's causing the suck, it ain't good in the long term for either Value or PC gamers; while still the dominant PC outlet, Steam has to raise their game if they don't want competitors to eat their lunch. (With Twitch being the latest to join the party; you can buy via their storefront now, and Twitch Prime users getting free games- some of which aren't utter shit, like the Banner Saga games.)

Fix your shit Gaben.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bad Gamer Habits: Not Reading The Manual

This one's more for the videogame set, but you tabletop people--boardgame, cardgame, etc.--all know someone like this. Feel free to bitchslap them until they stop; it's the only way some of them will ever learn to not be this stupid.

I'm watching this streamer on Twitch. She's playing a new character in a MMO. She's not someone who's done this game so long that she's properly mastered it. So, what does she do? Skips every last cutscene and dialog box that explains to her what she's doing, how to do it, and why she does it that way. Then she wastes the time of other players asking questions that--if she didn't skip the cutscenes--would already be answered.

This is NOT a girl thing. This is an arrogance thing. "I don't need to be told how this game works. They're all the same!"

It's always the same thing. Dumbass thinks they're too good for the manual, so they skip it and then flail about because they don't know what to do or how the controls work or anything else that they would have known had they READ THE FUCKING MANUAL! What's worse is that they end up wasting the time of others trying to get back on track, which makes streamers into boredom factories and online players into boat anchors that no one with the common sense God gave a retarded rhesus monkey strung out on smack would ever take seriously. (Yes, dammit, you look and act like a goddamn moron for wasting others' time asking stupid questions about things you ought to already know.)

It's not cool. It's not smart. It's lame and stupid, a total turnoff, and a good reason for people who value their time to shun and exclude you. Don't be that gormless chode. READ! THE FUCKING! MANUAL!

Or I'll send Bright Noa over there to "correct" you. He fixed two whiny bitches into top-notched Gundam pilots. He's fix you too.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: TRPGs Aren't For Drama Addicts

There is an accordance between what makes for good Pulp storytelling and what makes for good tabletop RPG design. The big one, the point of connection, is the focus on external conflict: the action. Tabletop RPGs that fail, both specific products and entire genres, are those that try to make internal character processes into gameable mechanics. It's like Shadowrun's problem with Deckers; you're taking something that happens entirely in one character's head, often not operating on the same time frame as the others, and spending precious limited playtime at the table dealing with one character's thing while everyone else twiddles their thumbs being bored. This does not work.

It's bad enough when this involves something that others players actually care about (hacking into a system to find specific information or suborn specific systems). Put it into something others don't care about at all? Grumbling, and eventually revolt; that player is wasting everyone else's time on shit that does not matter. Why? You're boring them to death.

This is why tabletop RPGs that deal with "acting" and "frustrated novelist" stuff fail- you are BORING THE FUCK OUT OF THEM! Gamers are not there to get all weepy over shit they can't control. They are not the Lifetime Victim of the Week Movie Audience. They are not the chick-lit, rom-com, soap opera audience. They want to get shit done, and that means telling the feels crowd to go fuck themselves and get out of the way.

This has consequences. Tabletop RPGs that attempt to adapt properties or genres where those feels-based drama llamas are the point tend to do poorly, very poorly, because there's no "there" there to build a proper game around. So the intended audience drops it like it's got AIDS and ebola and goes back to writing their terrible fanfics to get their 'shipping itches scratched. (Visual Novel takes tend to do better.)

And where those feels-factories are present, but not dominant, you get stuff like Palladium's Robotech adaptations. Lots of tech porn, and gameplay talks more about the doings of soldiers and partisans than mapping out relationships and paying your feels tax to keep the girlfriend happy. You see this also in actual play of R. Talsorian's Mekton Zeta, and countless Star Wars stories. Gamers ain't there for the feels train.

What's the consistent theme running through all of this? They're contending for the prize. That's competition, folks. Be it the fat sack of cash in Fast Eddie's vault, the pile of platinum pieces at the bottom of the dungeon where the dragon's lair, the data core containing the designs for the new superweapon, or even something so humble as getting your best girl back from the cartel scum what snatched her, it's about direct competition for an objective without which the greater goal is lost.

Motherfucker, that's a wargame. Stop trying to make TRPGs what they are not. Go write your fanfic and leave gamers, and gaming, alone- or we'll break your jaw and remove your hands.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Making a Campaign Setting: Doing It Old School

In creating my campaign setting, I went well beyond looking at my copies of the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio. I hauled my ass to YouTube and started looking for all the videos on the Nephilim and the Watchers that I could find. I turned on my scholar brain and began listening (and reading) for core concepts, something that Crazytown is lousy at (because the free stuff is glorified sizzle reel for their books and DVDs), and finally got enough to get working.

  • "The gods" are the children of the Watchers, the Nephilim, sometimes with assistance from their divine parents. They are giants, of various sizes, and of varying supernatural power.
  • As the Nephilim were never intended to exist, when slain their spirits remain in the world; these are the demons, and they long for physical existence more than anything else (hence all the possession) and hate Mankind more than anything else (hence all the targeting of men for oppression and possession).
  • The exact relationship between the Watchers and the Adversary is left for me to decide, as none of the videos spell it out, but I can intuit the likely relationship.
  • There is definite "purity/corruption" dynamic going on, as the Watchers are the source for all sorts of "corruption of the flesh" (i.e. creation of hybrids and other banned blendings of distinct beings). Unnatural blending of kinds, therefore, results in spiritual corruption (i.e. Face-Heel Turns) and always creates Always Evil monsters as a direct and immediate consequence.

This, right here, changes all of the assumptions about the supernatural flora and fauna of the setting. It makes reading the Monster Manual utterly useless, and it also makes cosmological assumptions just as useless because that won't be the same either. I can see the Mech Pilots getting nervous from here, as their encyclopedic lore knowledge no longer applies- and neither does the rules mechanics often tied to that lore.


This is how Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and M.A.R. Barker had to do it back in the day. They weren't reading generations of D&D books, each of which increasingly referred only to other D&D books, but instead taking all of their outside sources and finding ways to make fun gameplay out of it.

It also means that players can rely more on real-world weirdness that spending hours pouring over D&D manuals, which also means that players can stop relying so much on mastery of the rules to make their own fun and find satisfaction in gameplay. They can talk more in real world natural language, and less in game-specific mechanical jargon, and that makes the game (and the campaign) far easier to get into due to removing an unnecessary barrier to entry.

The game works best when players can come at it cold (no preparation) and stupid (no prior knowledge), and removing dependence upon any such things to become effective at the table is a good step for the Game Master to take. Creating your own setting, and setting up the campaign such that players automatically default to their men being as unknowing as they are, is the best way to go about making that work.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Game Master is Crom: The GM Isn't Out to Get You

As Conan tells us, Crom doesn't care and therefore doesn't play favorites. Neither does he seek to malign either. He puts the world into motion, and then lets things run their course, taking note of the struggle of mortal men to survive and thrive and finding that alone pleasing.

Robert E. Howard, entirely by accident, described the ideal Game Master for tabletop RPGs. Just as players are alone responsible for their fun, so are GMs to remain detached and aloof such that they never bother being out to get anyone. Neither the players, nor anyone else (looking at you, publishers and designers) should put that on the GM; running the world, and all within it, is a big enough task as it is without the perversion of the medium that going after a player's man entails.

Players don't need active malice by the GM. They're more than capable of screwing themselves over through some combination of ill fortune and incompetence. Just hand them the rope. They'll hang themselves. Just play the world, and let them play at it in turn. That's all that's required, and what emerges from the consequences of the players' pursuing their objectives will give them all of the grieve that they deserve (and plenty more that they don't) without the GM intervening in any way.


Imperfect information is why. Players work with information when deciding what to do and how to do it. This information is, at the least, incomplete. Often it is wrong, sometimes deliberately planted by hostile parties and sometimes simply by being out of date, and when the players' plans go wrong it can reliably be traced to acting on wrong information.

In contrast is proper asymmetric information, where one side has perfect information and the other does not. This is what people who complain about the GM being out to get them mean, and they are right that it is not fair when this does occur. Properly run games don't do this. NPCs act on incomplete information also, and good GMs let the NPCs get rooked good and hard when that incomplete information leads them to act in ways that set them up for failure.

There's a lot of stupid memes in tabletop RPGs, and this is one of them. Like all lasting lies, it has a kernel of truth that the edifice of error builds upon. It's long past time to realize that adults aren't this stupid, as a rule, and stomp out this bullshit for good.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Game Master is Crom: Your Fun is Your Problem, Not the GM's

A few years ago I sat on a panel about running tabletop RPGs. I got asked what I do I do to ensure that players at my table are entertained. I said "I am Crom. I don't care." This got everyone's attention. "I don't care because that's not my problem. Players are solely responsible for their entertainment. All I do is run the game."

This is wholly antithetical to the Fake Gamers pushing Storygames, who have that Participation Trophy mindset where Big Daddy has to make sure that everyone gets their thing and no one is allowed to feel bad about it. No, motherfuckers, the Game Master is not at all responsible for entertaining anyone. Players are responsible for themselves, wholly and utterly.

The counter-argument, especially in tabletop circles, for years has been one of local availability. "But this is the only game in town." is sometimes literally floated. Too fucking bad. Then, and now, you're still solely responsible for your entertainment, and it does not matter how many of your friends (or "friends") are there. Dealing with dissatisfaction and boredom is your problem, not the Game Master and not the game itself (or, by extension, the publisher or the designer). If you're not entertained, walk away. NO gaming is better than bad gaming.

If you're unwilling to do that, then don't be surprised when others reflect your lack of self-respect by wiping their feet on you like the doormat you are.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Life in Gaming: Where's All The VR Pilot Sims?

Why in the hell have none of the owners of properties that feature dogfighting, mech combat, etc. not thrown in with Virtual Reality? Putting up a cockpit, mapping key controls to the glorified joysticks or a standard console controller- being a pilot! Come on, videogame industry! Stop talking to the blue-haired freaks whining about Muh Appropriation or whatever SJW bullshit it is today, and take the fucking money.

I see all of these games for VR, be it for consoles or on PC, and so few of them are the things for which technology at this time is ideally suited for. That's being a pilot in a warmachine, where motion sickness is not a thing for your brainmeats, and simming all the things that your would do in that machine.

Yeah, something something Elite Dangerous and that piss-weak VR addon for EA's Star Wars Battlefront. Come on! Where's the VR remake and update of X-Wing Alliance or TIE Fighter (etc.)? Where's my MechWarrior VR, especially since I can go to a working BattleTech pod-based sim center. Where's the Macross and Gundam VR sims? Hell, why can't I buy a Super Robot sim game, where I can be Koji Kabuto and pilot Mazinger Z?

How about tank sims? I can't believe we have a sim game for being the bridge crew of a starship in Star Trek before we got a VR version of Battlezone. You can even do the multiplayer thing if you like; one drives, one shoots. Same goes for the attack chopper sims; pilot and gunner. Hell, even Lucasfilm can get in on that act with enabling the Clone Wars era Y-Wing that had the original gunner position and the ARC-170 with tailgunner and a navigator/gunner in addition to the pilot. Want more World War 2? Bomber sims, where you and your buddies are the crew of a B-17 or some other bomber aircraft.

The lack of the most obvious killer application for Virtual Reality astounds me as an utter lack of vision, especially out of the big franchises where this sort of thing should already be available for purchase. I can only imagine that corporate leadership is too scared to be the first out of the gate, and thus afraid of the risk, despite being in the best position to make exactly that move. They want some indie to do the risky stuff first, which isn't going to happen because they can't afford to fail. Until someone does the obvious and gets all the money, this will continue. Morons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Revealed Preferences in Gaming: Simplicity

I play World of Warcraft, so I read threads at r/wow over at Reddit a lot. Today's thread is a complaint thread regarding the Mythic Plus system of "affixes", and why some of them aren't (allegedly) working as intended.

(Spoiler: It is working as intended.)

Now, a bit of context: The Mythic Plus system is an adaptation of Diablo 3's Nephilim Rift system. Your character gets a keystone, which enables the dungeon instance server to adjust the difficulty of a given dungeon instance to a specific value. Above a given rating (which modifies the HP and damage of all monsters therein), one or more qualities are added; these are the "affixes", and they impose additional mechanical constraints that (ideally) compel the players to adjust their play to mitigate the additional risk.

What actually happens most of the time is that the majority of the group doesn't adjust at all, so all of the consequences get foisted on the healer (and sometimes also the tank) because most of the consequences come in the form of additional damage- and that makes it the healer's problem to deal with. Healers are not happy. Quite frankly, this entire community response to additional difficulty and personal responsibility was entirely foreseeable and thus preventable.

I've long maintained that the developers of this game do not play the same way as either the elite players or the common masses, and therefore has no appreciation for how their game actually works in actual play. I wish this was not confined to World of Warcraft, but it's not. Time and again, in all gaming media, I see this emergent behavior reveal itself. No, it's not new either. Back in the 80s, there was a cartoon in Dragon Magazine of an adventurer crashing through the walls of a labyrinth instead of navigating them as intended.

Gamers Always Take the Simplest Approach Possible

Count on it. It's a foreseeable fact borne of gaming's origins in training for war. Whenever possible, use the simplest approach you can employ. For many games, in many genres and media, that means deliberately avoiding mechanics in favor of tunnel-vision levels of focus on taking out the opposition. (Which is what "tunneling" means in such context.)

The DPS group members take avoidable damage in favor of focusing upon the bosses standing between them and completion, which is why many Mythic Plus affixes that the developers intended for DPS to handle instead become healer problems. The same often occurs to affixes intended for tanks to deal with. Why? For the reason mentioned in the link thread: it slows the group's progression through a timed event down. As it's only damage output that kills bosses, they get away with it more often than not, especially with pick-up groups (PUGs). And no, tolerance of healers who can't hack it is not present.

In any game with a metagame to speak of, count on this trend dominating over time. Count on players finding ways to break complexity in favor of simplicity. Count on designers, developers, and publishers trying in vain to counter this trend, tilting at windmills time and again only to fail and fall before the inevitable.

The same trend also goes towards interpretations of abstractions. One of the contribution factors to tabletop RPGs becoming as they are now is due to players being bloody-mindedly literal in their take on gameplay abstractions (not helped by poor technical writing on the part of designers, developers, and publishers)- something still an issue in other media and game genres often spun off from tabletop wargames and RPGs. The rise of Mech Piloting comes in part from this long-running issue.

Look at the walkthroughs, guides, etc. for various games. Look at how much they simplify the game down to a level where players do not have to think about what to do or how to do it. Look at how those guides aim at maximum efficiency, putting forth least effort for most effect to accomplish tasks as fast as possible for maximum reward. With the Internet, only an otherwise-insignificant number of players need actually do that work for the benefit of a massive audience of fellow players looking to simplify their play.

You better believe that "weaponized autism" is a thing. That's the extreme form of gamers seeking simplicity in their gaming. If you want an image to summarize it, image that gamer demolishing those labyrinth walls to brute-force a straight line through to the goal of the dungeon. That's what gamers want, as revealed by over a generation of behavior, to do: radically simplify their way to the solution. Damned by the consequences.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Making a Campaign For Gamers: The Setting

It is clear now that what a fictional setting requires to make it suitable for storytelling is not what makes it suitable for gaming. Often those requirements are in conflict, as we see when a fictional setting created for one purpose (e.g. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance) are used for the other. I'll tackle setting-for-story at the Study; here I'll tackle setting-for-gaming. Specifically, I'm talking about setting-for-tabletop RPGs.

The distinction begins with the approach. Ignore the commercial settings; they're done that way for reasons that have far more to do with commercial necessity than practical use at your table. Application for gaming purposes requires that you start small and build out only as play requires. Ray Winniger nailed these as "The Seven Rules of Dungeoncraft" during the waning years of Dragon Magazine's run as a proper print magazine.

  1. Never force yourself to create more than you must.
  2. Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.
  3. Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a particular situation, consider it 50%.
  4. Always challenge both the players and their characters.
  5. What's done is done.
  6. Simple, easily identifiable characteristics are the best tools for portraying NPCs.
  7. Running a good campaign is about building a world, not building a story.

What I posted yesterday conforms to these seven rules. Having a monster palette in place acts as a creative component to inform my creative decisions down the road, when your campaign play requires that you create new content for the players to engage. That's how you make a setting work in gaming. You do it as required, taking the current state of what's been done and iterating out a plausible expansion given both the present state and its current momentum.

Yes, this applies to your Star Wars game. You don't make shit up until you need to, using what's there and what's gone before to inform that creation. This applies to your Traveller game; don't touch those tables until you must. This applies to your Robotech, MechWarrior, Call of Cthulhu, RIFTS, TORG (yes, even that game) and so on- all proper tabletop RPG campaigns work best when done this way.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Making a D&D Campaign For Gamers: New Model Colony

I'm writing down my notes for the AD&D campaign. Here's what I'm doing so far:

  • Character Generation
    • Attributes: Roll 3d6 in order.
    • Races: Men only.
    • Classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief.
    • Alignment: No Evil characters.
    • Starting Spells (MU): Read Magic, then roll until you get three more 1st level spells.
    • Non-Standard Gear: Blackpowder firearms (flintlock smoothbore muskets and handguns), explosives, and Greek Fire are available for individuals.
  • Character Advancement
    • XP: Xp-for-Treasure counts only the value of treasure that's returned to town. Training rules and costs apply.
    • Spells (MU) & Items: Must be found, traded for, or research/crafted.
    • Alignment: This will be tracked, and if necessary adjusted.
  • Setting Notes
    • Colonial religion is Christian. All priests are male. All Clerics are priests (but not all priests are Clerics, or even spellcasters), because all Clerics are brothers of the Knights Templar.
    • The setting is virgin territory. No one knows anything about what's beyond a day's march by foot of the outer walls, or much of the waters beyond the immediate vicinity.
    • The colonial leaders are a quintet of Name Level NPCs; the colony is their Stronghold. PCs seeking training will, inevitably, need to approach them to attain it prior to reaching Name Level themselves.
    • The reason for the anachronistic firearms and ordinance is due to The Artificer, the leader of the ruling quintet, who is also the reason for why the colony exists at all. The personal weapons of The Artificer are known to be superior in all ways to what players' characters or their subordinates may acquire, due to witnesses testifying at seeing them used.
  • Campaign Notes
    • Exploration and expansion of the frontier is the core of the campaign. There are NO town adventures; "town" is a safe zone, which is why it is found only in Strongholds established by Name Level characters. Expansion of the frontier requires the exploration, pacification, and settlement by colonial leaders (i.e. Name Level characters). Only PCs may expand the frontier.
    • Expansion of playable character options requires that players--through play--fulfill certain requirements to unlock them for the campaign, and to disallow campaign events that would shut off access to those options. What is required to unlock an option can only be found during play, starting with if that option even exists.
    • Players may acquire ordinance (in the form of cannon) as their finances and relations with colonial authorities allow.
    • Players who lose a character to death either take over the slain man's highest-level henchman as his new man, or he re-rolls and starts over as a 1st level character should no henchman be available.
    • All setting mysteries can only be found, inquired, and ultimately solved in play during adventures.

Right off the bat, you can see that I'm not doing your bog-standard Pink Slime. Just the presence of firearms alone is sufficient to freak out many such people, and so is the imposition of a monotheistic religion and sex-specific requirements for a class. This is deliberate; I wanted something other than off-band Tolkien run through a blender (e.g. a typical Realms game). When I first did this using Mentzer Basic, I found that SJWs balked. Now that I know good and well as to why, I'm leaving it like this to filter them out and away from my table.

It was always something. "No elves? Fuck that." "Guns? What's wrong with you?" "I can't play a female Cleric of (insert crazy moon cult here)?" "Why aren't you using (current edition)?" Whatever the trigger was, it reliably revealed someone who was pozzed if not fully converged between their ears. (They also rarely read anything in SF/F before 1980. Sound familiar?) That's turned out to be a blessing. Now I can filter out people who can't be bothered to Git Gud and embrace the core of D&D: Adventure!

Note the lack of a Big Bad here. Or a plot. Or even a backstory. (It's this simple: You're the losers of the last big war, and you fled to this new world to start over. There's no going back; you make it here or you die.) That's me taking Ray Winnegar's advice, and never crafting more than I need right at the start to get going. As this is meant to be a hexcrawl, I find out what's there not long before players do; it's more fun for me that way. The "no town adventures" thing is me using the West Marches model. The final part, which will matter when I start looking for players, is the "Open Table" element; play sessions are more-or-less self-contained, as they comprise of whomever shows up, and characters can be locked out due to downtime requirements or being tied up with other PC groups (hence the need for time records).

I do know what is NOT out there: Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, Gnomes, and other Tolkien-derived Pink Slime favorites. (That means no Drow either.) I also have enough familiarity with my mythological sources to figure out how the monster palette works, and man that's going to be fun. (Hint: the Mech Pilots throwing Monster Manual entries at me are going to short-circuit.)

All I'm going to do after this is the immediate vicinity, close enough for starting characters to reach out to and delve but not so close that it's truly a day trip with no risk. It'll be enough to get the ball rolling, but that's all. Why? Because that is enough. Gamers gotta have a game to play, and in Dungeons & Dragons, that game is exploration and discovery.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Narrative Warfare: Storygames - Fake Games for Fake Gamers

I wondered for years why (a) tabletop RPGs, contrary to what we've been told, are actual games with win and loss conditions and (b) why so many people who ought to know better keep pushing this "RPGs are for storytelling!" lie. Then I read Anonymous Conservative's blog, focused on r/K evolutionary biology and its applications to all areas of human behavior. Well, gaming is such an area, and the part on Individual Competitiveness is most applicable here:

When Competitive males meet, to compete with each other, the r-type male changes their skin coloration to the pastel colors of a female. They draw in their long, flowing male tentacles, making them short and stubby like a female’s. Dressed like a pastel colored female, these r-type males glide in past the brightly colored K-type males, and mate quickly with the waiting female, before slipping away unnoticed.

Here, the r-type psychology’s aversion to competition with peers adapts into an actual strategy designed to not just avoid competitions, but to actively seek advantage when confronted with the K-type Competitor’s competitive scheme. Those r-type individuals which simply sought to avoid the K-type Competitor’s competitions, failed to acquire mates, and died. Eventually however, a few adapted to exploit the Competitive male’s adherence to rules, and these rule breakers persisted, and became the defacto form of the r-type organism.

Because this diverges from the simple passive aversion to competition of the r-type psychology, we consider this an evolutionary advancement of the r-selected psychology, and we call it Anticompetitiveness.

Pay attention to these key points: the aversion to competition (and conflict), the exploitation of rules to substitute for winning competition (cunning), and the perversion of standards to gaslight enemies into defeating themselves through exploiting the rules as a deliberate strategy.

Guess what "Storygames" are? The attempt by people who can't hack it with proper tabletop RPGs to exploit the competitive nature of gamers by gaslighting them into accepting the fakes' redefinition of the medium as valid. Fake Games for Fake Gamers indeed.

The Big Lie is also the Big Tell that this is rooted in rabbit psychology: "We're just here to tell stories." Bullshit. If you want to tell stories, go open a Kindle account and get your ass to work writing, publishing, and hawking your stories already. But no, that's competitive. That's taking a risk at running a business, and these folks--being SJW death cultists, by and large--are not the sort to do that. They'll do the usual route of entryism and convergenece of something someone else already built up, struggled for, and fought to make into a success.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

One of My Twitch Streamers is Missing from E3

The Dork Queen Lauralania, one of my streamer pals at Twitch, is missing.

She went to a mixer last night and never returned to her hotel. She wasn't missed until today, and now that E3 is winding down it's vital to get the word out. Folks are getting worried now, and I'm asking anyone with information to pass it along through channels to get this resolved in a timely manner and see her returned safe and sound.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

E3 2017: Conferences Are Cancer Because The State is Stale

This is the TL/DR summary for E3 this year. Razorfist nails it in this rant.

But the real star of the show was Devolver Digital's piss-take on these conferences. It's just about 20 minutes of absurdist comedy, but once you've seen actual E3 conferences this goes from chuckle-worthy to hilarious.

And now, back to talking about other stuff.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nintendo's E3 Presentation: Finally, Someone Remembered the Fun

Nintendo opens E3 with a video presentation. It's not a conference, as it wasn't live, and it went about a half-hour or so. No fuss, no muss, and no bullshit.

  • Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Dub is meh. Game looks fun. (Note that; it's why Nintendo's winning this year.)
  • A new Kirby game, with up to four-player multiplayer. Coming next year.
  • A new Pokemon fighting game due soon and a new RPG is in the works for next year. Good.
  • Metroid Prime 4! Pack it up. E3 is done. Nintendo just won this year.
  • A new Yoshi game for next year. The ability to flip perspective is interesting.
  • Fire Emblem Warrios, coming this fall. If the SJWs in localization didn't butcher it, should be fine.
  • DLC for Breath of the Wild. One pack is challenges and new gear for Link. One expands on the Champions and by then Amibo will be avaiable (and usable in-game).
  • Super Mario Odyssey due in October, just before Halloween.
  • Rocket League and Mario+Rabbids mentioned again.

In addition, Nintendo's having several exhibition tournaments for Arms, Splatoon and Pokken Tournament at the show. What I'm seeing is that Nintendo HQ wisely saw what the gaming world's putting up with, and--and get this--sided with gamers over SJWs--because their entire campaign is built around games being fun, fun coming from challenge plus a journey, and the journey being the opportunity for gamers to come together as gamers worldwide.

Brilliant. At least one of the titans of the industry got the memo, and while they're still a corporation out to do business, the current leadership shows that they can't do that unless they demonstrate by word AND deed that they've got our backs. Loyalty is a two-way street, and Nintendo HQ gets that you can't get loyalty--especially as the superior party in the relationship--without giving it in return.

(Which reminds me: Nintendo, clean out Treehouse. They're the problem with your Western outreach. Get rid of the SJWs. Then stop giving "games press" the time of day, for the same reason. They don't do loyalty to anything but the Narrative. Your livestreams are better sources of information.)

Of all the press events this year, Nintendo's is the only one to be wholly and complete focused on what we gamers want: to just play fucking games. No virtue-signaling. No politics. Nothing but games, love of games, love for gamers, and the focus on gaming as a way for people to come together to enjoy gaming. If Devolver's fantastic mockery of the usual conference nailed what conferences usually are, Nintendo shows the others what they should be doing (and that you can get it all done in 30 minutes or less- looking at you Sony).

And that is why Nintendo won E3 this year: they remember where their loyalties, and thus their business, lies.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ubisoft & Sony's E3 2017 Conferences: Bore Me Some More!

As with yesterday, I'm posting my takes on both conferences in a single post. Ubisoft is first, so I'll update after Sony's conference concludes. Yes, with a catchy subtitle too.


  • A Switch exclusive collaboration with Nintendo? Okay. A kid-friendly X-Com clone? Okay. "Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle". Okay. Bring out Miyamoto to shill for it? That works. Good luck.
  • Assassin's Creed: Origins. Still got that WE WUZ KANGZ! vibe, and there is no gameplay. (That over-the-shoulder cringe is ass.) Genna Bain's take as "Witcher Creed" is not wrong.
  • South Park. "Fractured But Whole" due on Oct. 17th. Phone game will be Pay To Win and aptly named "Phone Destroyer".
  • The Crew 2. Motorsports all the things! Be Fast & Furious! Social media all the things! Watch us crash and burn!
  • Elijah Woods does VR horror. Got Night Trap vibes. NOPE! Nope nope nope.
  • Skull & Bones. Let's turn Assassin's Creed 4's pirate play into a full game, off-brand, and full of PVP. Snore.
  • Just Dance 2018. Nope.
  • Starlink: Battle for Atlas. A Switch game that's Pay To Win due to needing plastic toy crap with dongle functionality that's totally not SF versus Warcraft's Burning Legion. No, really. Nope.
  • Steep: 2018 Olympics. Already a failure, as it's not going to attract the users. The first game is dead as it is.
  • Far Cry 5. "They cut off cel service, the roads, and Internet access." Yeah, that means no mail or fuel trade and therefore no tax revenue; the Feds would've gutted that cult within a week. NOPE!
  • Beyond Good & Evil 2. "This multi-cultural future" virtue-signaling, expected of Montreal shitlibs, made into a prequel of the original. NOPE!
  • Uplay is still a thing. DONE! Kill with fire.

Only the Nintendo collaboration is worthy of consideration. The actual South Park game has to deliver or it should be shit-canned. The AC game is a wait-for-deep-discount deal, assuming that gameplay isn't shit. The sports and music games are suck, ass and blow. Starlink is a sin against God and Man. The new Far Cry game has the most unbelievable premise for a Far Cry game, and that's noting the SF elements of the original. They politicized the Beyond prequel, and you can see the deleterious effects in the cutscene (no gameplay) shown. Aisha Tyler should be glad that she didn't host this conference; it gives EA's incompetence a run for its money.


  • Sony threw around the money in some big-dick swinging move. Not a good sign.
  • Uncharted 4's DLC appears again. Don't care.
  • Horizon Dawn DLC. Yawn.
  • Days Gone (to sleep, of boredom).
  • Finally! Something noteable! Monster Hunter World. 2018. Good thing this will be on PC.
  • A remake of Shadows of the Colossus? WHY?
  • Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite There's a story mode. Uh, okay.
  • The obligatory Call of Duty game. Back to World War 2. Back to Europe. Back to Just Being Americans. BORED. Play the original again.
  • VR Shilling: Skyrim, Starchild (a sidescroller?), The Impatient, FF15 fishing?, Bravo Team (meh), Moss (meh)
  • Dad of War! More story teasing. More spectacle fighting without a proper demo. Okay.
  • Detroit Become Human. The Choose Your Own Adventure book as a videogame that looks preachy as fuck. Pass.
  • Destiny 2. You know this already.
  • The Spider-Man tie-in game, which is a tweaked Arkham Asylum clone, but decently executed.

No Last of Us 2, no other Final Fantasy games (not 14, not 7, nothing at all), no other major Japanese franchises (and man but what's coming in the West is not looking that good from the AAA world; Japan, again, is eating your lunch). This was nothing more than a Trailer Park event, and a boring one at that. Monster Hunter was the only game I had any interest in; there's some curiosities, and the rest can go hang from a yardarm.

Oh, almost forgot!

The PC Gamer show was today. Let me summarize: Shilling! Shit You Don't Care About! Games You Already Decided To Buy (or not)! More Shilling! Repeat until asleep or it's over. Way to solve my sleep problems, Day9.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Microsoft and Bethseda E3 2017 Conferences: Better Than EA

Rather than post twice, I'm posting once today with two distinct parts. I'm writing the Microsoft part immediately that conference, and the Bethesda portion after their show late tonight. If you read this before I get to the Bethesada stuff, come back later.


  • Showed 42 games for the new Xbox One console ("X"), which is more than EA did.
  • New DBZ fighter has my fighting game fans hyped.
  • Only cared about four of them: the new Metro game, the Assassin's Creed game, the sequel to Shadows of Mordor, and the MMO-like Anthem. The Ori sequel is a maybe. The other games? Do not care, especially anything to do with zombies or any of their substitutes.
  • Why is there a Life is Strange visual novel sequel? The first one was shit and cringe and bad. Choose Your Own Adventure does this better, did it in print, and did it in the '80s.
  • Subtle SJW virtue-signaling is there, but better subtle over blatant; maybe we'll kill entirely in a few years.
  • Expanded backwards compatibility for 360 games, and adding Original Xbox games to that library: good move, actually desired.
  • Free upscaling and other quality-of-life improvements. Good business.
  • 4K ALL THE THINGS! Bitch I don't even have a TV or monitor that can do 4K, and I don't need one. Until my 1080p TV craps out, I'm good with this. Framerate trumps resolution! You need to chant "1080p at 60 FPS!" and wait for 4K TV penetration to reach global and local critical mass before pushing that out on consoles.
  • Mixer is Microsoft's direct threat to Twitch, down to integration, and they are making it piss-easy to stream to Mixer from Xbox and Win10 machines. Twitch is pissed; as soon as MS did their end-of-conference Mixer pitch, Twitch cut away.

Overall, tolerable. They still aren't using trained presenters, and it shows. They still are lying to us about gameplay footage, as it's clearly pre-recorded. (The dialog is totally fake; I write better dialog in my first drafts.) The games presented, by and large, either already exist on PC or will get PC releases outside of Microsoft's control (Steam, GOG, etc.), so there's still no reason to buy this console because the exclusives won't be so for long; what isn't released shortly after the console exclusive one will get broken and released as a pirate program. The prices are the deathnote: $500 for the new model, and none of the older ones go below $200 past this weekend. Fail. $150-$200 is where they have to go if they want to stop being also-rans to Sony and the PS4, let alone to PC. The Switch will take their place at this rate.


  • "Bethesdaland". Cute.
  • The card game is boring as fuck. Don't care.
  • Skyrim for Switch with Link stuff there. Okay, that's how you sell an old game to a new console base.
  • Morrowind for the MMO. Don't care.
  • VR. Don't care.
  • Evil Within 2. Don't care.
  • DLC for Dishonored 2? Okay. Curious.
  • Quake Champions. Bleh and Meh. Fuck this.
  • New Wolfenstein. NOW I'm interested.
  • Less than an hour long. Sponsored open bar for live guests. Now that's how you do it.
  • Creation Club. So, curated paid mods with official sanction and support. Good luck.

The only other good thing I saw was that everything featured was either already out or would release this year. That's nice to see after a lot of Microsoft and EA titles were 2018 or no firm date at all. Bethesda did the safe thing this year, kept it short so as to not let viewers dwell on the lack of word for new Fallout titles (or other major developments of similar nature) and dipped out as soon as it was over. Good job. Oh, and I hope Jesse Cox doesn't get plastered; he's going to be called upon when Co-Optional next convenes to talk about that conference, and "I don't remember because I got too drunk." will not be appreciated.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

EA's 2017 E3 Conference: The Cure for Insomnia

I expected EA to disappoint, and I am disappointed that EA somehow managed to disappoint my expectation of disappointment. That's a level of suck, blow, and fail that takes a committee to accomplish.

The sports segment was, for the most part, the conference. Outside of the sports games, we got a new Need For Speed game that really wants to be a Fast & Furious movie, a mandatory co-op game that might as well be (and would be better as) a Telltale title, Battlefield 1 getting an expansion, and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 revealing to be the previous game's gameplay with more pointless options and eras.

The corporates were boring and lifeless on stage, and the professionals were just better enough to show the difference that training and practice makes in public speaking. Hell, they managed to make Star Wars boring. That's a massive fail.

Speaking of which, that multiplayer footage? It's fucking Walker Assault reskinned with the new class system. Nothing of any substance changed in terms of gameplay. Aircraft still suck balls on ground-focused maps, Heroes still make you want to die, and there is nothing to make teamwork mean shit. Nice job fucking it up, EA. You're swell.

And that "reveal" of BioWare's new IP and game? A fucking teaser. No actual trailer. No gameplay. Not even some backcovery copy. Just an implied Mech v. Kaiju game, some story mode most gamers will not give a fuck about, and that's it. Some other conference is supposed to deliver the goods, in which case you shouldn't have said shit at all today.

Instead, more time and substantive information on the new research wing. (Research. Hah.) "SEED" and their "we want to seek out the best play experiences imaginable" would be great if it wasn't EA, where I am certain that useless diversity hires (and other SJWs) will be diverted into sinecures instead of being summarily executed and tossed into rubbish bins like they ought to for Crimes Against Humanity.

Here's a hint, EA: you can find all of the practical ludology you could ever use online, for free, in gaming blogs. Stop bullshitting us; we know you fuckers in Corporate don't care, and your SJW deadweight wouldn't let you even if you did, so you're lying to us. Stop that. I don't need more disincentive to not buy your stuff.

Friday, June 9, 2017

All Aboard the E3 Hype Train!

We interrupt this series of posts about tabletop RPGs to remind you that the E3 hype train departs the station tomorrow around midday (late afternoon on the East Coast, well into the evening for Europe), and I will be watching the conferences with popcorn in hand to see how tryhard the big boys will be to sell the latest and lamest offerings for the year (and excuses for last year's failures).

So, hit up the E3 Conference Schedule and point yourself to Twitch or YouTube to catch the livestreams. Enjoy watching people who think they know what they're doing blunder their way thorough public speaking, try to convince you that they're actually playing a game live when they aren't, and put on displays that have you wonder if they made that decision while strung out on coke or drunk off their asses.

And then try not to get your hopes up. You all know that the hype is rarely realized. Oh, and ignore the Kotakus, IGNs, etc. for being shit-tastic incompetent fake news outlets; you all know by now who's got the straight dope, so bookmark them and junk those sad sacks crybullying their way into deluding themselves that Underwater Basketweaving was worth 100K in loans.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Practical Liminality Explored: The World of Greyhawk

It should be no surprise that, having played AD&D 1st Edition back int the day, the other kids and I also got into Greyhawk. So I got out my 1st edition booklets and maps again to look that over with mature eyes recently also.

This, folks, is a setting made to be liminal. You have plenty of summary information about climate, weather, nations and their cultures, countries and their politics, big organizations and their major concerns, and major figures (with class, level, and Alignment). You got some tables to spice up your campaigns therein, and some notes to guide your use of the setting, and that's it. You didn't get a plug-and-play product here; you got a parts kit and were expected to build it into a complete rifle on your own.

This is before any Greyhawk novels. This is before the post-Gray Box Forgotten Realms, before Dragonlance, before Eberron, and all of the other settings (and revisions thereof) that increasingly spelled out what was there, who was there, and otherwise increased the density of information such that a canon arose and with it all that a canon calls forth: orthodoxy, and the slavish devotion to it that I sometimes call "Fandumb".

That's fine for a writing bible, the sort used for franchise properties or television shows where having a single reference with authority given to it matters, but for a setting published for use with a tabletop RPG that means unforced errors of one sort or another.

Liminality, in practical terms, means that you provide just enough material for your users to get going at building out their own interpretations for use at their tables. (Yes, this directly undermines the proto-MMORPG that is Organized Play campaigns, and that's a good thing.) Writers can think of this in terms of a prompt. Gamers can think in terms of a scenario premise.

For a tabletop RPG setting, the boxed set for Greyhawk nailed it. So did the original boxed set for the Realms. After that, you ended up having to either learn how to avoid where it's too built up, or demolishing what's present to make room for what you want (and making more work for yourself). Liminality, therefore, is that frontier space where there's enough to go do your thing, but not so much that busybodies start nagging you about it; it's about implication, not canonization. Pulp, not Pink Slime.

Because of this fact, I don't see a future for commercial settings anymore. Wikis do the same thing cheaper and easier with far superior convenience. What I see instead is a future for tools and tutorials to guide users in taking that just enough material and making their own fun from that.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Practical Liminality Explored: AD&D 1st Edition

I've gotten out my rulebooks for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Edition recently, as I wanted to see just how much of the game I played 30+ years is actually what was in the rules. If I found omissions or discrepancies, then I wanted to see what the as-written rule actually did vs. what's been said.

First: no, what I played was (as was commonly done) some mashup of Basic and AD&D. We had fun, but we also contributed to the conditions that would result in D&D 3.X and its successors. We were punk kids with no wargaming background and no connection to the Twin Cities-Lake Geneva scene. We thought we were the shit, and when we weren't playing Car Wars we blundered our way through mega-dungeons that one of us designed on spare sheets of graph paper (where it was eight squares to the inch, not four) meant for use on a drafting table.

Second: While the Dungeon Master's Guide discouraged it formally, the rest of the game did not work properly if PCs were not rolled using strict 3d6 in order. Critical hits were not baseline, and THAC0 was a mistake; the matrices worked as intended when actually applied properly. Paladins, Druids, Monks, and especially Bards were meant to be rare (and Bards a reward for executing a well-planned long-term goal) and that didn't happen without said rolling method. Level limits actually have teeth when used, and the training rules by themselves reigned in bad behavior by players of many sorts.

Third: Gygax needed a better editor. I thought I had issues with phrasing for reader comprehension, and once I parsed what he wrote I got mad at how needlessly obtuse and complex his technical writing was. It's no surprise why many AD&D1e fans prefer to use OSRIC when running that edition of D&D. That said, when seeing how the machine operates his infamous rant about time-keeping makes perfect sense.

This is going somewhere.

While this D&D edition is the first to commit the sin of being books and not a boxed set, it is also the edition that many gamers would say is where the practical limit of ruleset complexity (and thus intellectual density) got discovered. Player-facing rules complexity is significant, but still not so heavy that it's a turnoff; the Game Master shoulders the bulk of the burden, one he can increase (and benefit players) simply by not using official character sheets. A pencil and a single-subject notebook is still more than enough.

In play, players can still operate on natural language and the fundamental feedback loop of "What Do You Do?", leaving the rules to the GM. This does mean that the GM has to spend time with the tomes, doing homework until he masters the rules. So long as the GM isn't the punk-assed power-tripper too many of us were when we were kids (i.e. be a normal adult), this is fine and a lot of the later editions' measures to limit GMs is not necessary at all. Mech Piloting is not a viable strategy by default; trying to do that doesn't give the full reward that later editions do.

While Greyhawk is mentioned, the rules don't specify a setting. They give you enough to imply one, but that is only implication. Instead, the Game Master gets told multiple times that setting decisions are his to make, and that he should bring those decisions forth to players when that information matters to their decision-making (and not just during play; if Dwarves are not in the campaign, players need to know at character generation. The tools to create verisimilitude are present, but it is on the GM to make it so.

If the Original and Basic D&D editions erred on too little substance to make use of liminality, AD&D's 1st edition erred on too much. (As we've seen, you can code AD&D into a videogame- as several examples show.) However, contrary to informed expectation, the rules of AD&D1e are not so inter-dependent that they cannot be changed at all without disastrous consequence.

It is by no means a perfect example, but it is an example of practical liminality that isn't destroyed. Damaged? Maybe. Destroyed? No. That came later.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Liminality is the Tabletop RPG Killer App

The medium of tabletop RPGs is defined by its liminality. In practice, this means that players will freely move between what--to outsiders--looks like a series of connected minigames that share some common lobby. (Yes, that comparison to Mario Party is intentional.)

What they don't see is that participants, being in the moment, do not perceive this to be the case. Because tabletop RPG play is in that liminal space, play passes from (e.g.) exploring a dungeon to chasing a dragon to figuring out how to haul out its treasure to managing an expedition all without missing a beat. Alternatives to the medium succeed by carving out one part, focusing upon it, and mechanizing it to meet expected gameplay experience targets- things all done by the designer and publisher, not by users.

A proper tabletop RPG leaves those decisions to the users. What is the setting for your campaign? That's determined by the Game Master, not the publisher. What is the campaign going to focus its activity around? That's determined by the players, not by the designer or the publisher. As noted in the comments here and at Google Plus, the best thing that the designer and publisher can do is to give crystal clear guidance to the Game Master as to how to make his specific campaign the most entertaining game possible.

This means that the ideal proper tabletop RPG doesn't build up so much intellectual real estate that there's no room to maneuver without demolishing something. That's what happens with settings possessed of well-known and developed canons (including real history), and that's what happens with rulesets with too much mechanical complexity. In both cases, the liminality is destroyed.

The designer and the publisher must seek to stop at the point where that liminality is damaged, and it is better to prevent the issue altogether by making the use of game jargon something used minimally in favor of ordinary natural language. I've gone on about this at length previously, and you can review those posts here, so I won't belabor the point here.

You can learn to feel out where the weight of the rules constricts possibility of play instead of expands them. You can learn the same with setting weight. In both cases this is a learn-by-doing process, where you go over the rules or the setting and then see how they changed over time until they got too fat for their own good. Rulesets and settings, like the people who make them, have a healthy weight wherein they are at their best; too fat and they collapse under their own weight, and yet go too thin and you have no "there" there to justify it as a game.

That healthy weight is where the power of liminality is maximized. There's just enough substance to give context to emergent creativity, but not enough that it gets in its own way and thus constricts it. In setting discussion, this liminality is usually in the form of a sandbox; defined boundaries, and often a palette guiding flora and fauna (including monsters), but nothing else- especially no fixed continuity going forward or NPCs that do the real power-playing. In rules, we usually talk about ruling-friendly or GM-friendly rulesets where Mech Piloting is not a good idea (or even viable). Both are pracitcal expressions of liminality, and a commercial tabletop RPG maker has to embrace liminality to succeed in this small--but influential--gaming and entertainment niche.

That's why I call liminality the killer app; once you grok it, the knocks on the medium reveal themselves as strengths.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Tabletop RPG as a Medium: It's the Liminality, Stupid!

If most gamers want only a subset of what tabletop RPGs offer, then what do they offer to those truly interested in them- what does the audience actually want from the medium? To answer that, you have to know what the medium is and how it works.

The tabletop RPG medium takes the tabletop wargame medium of the mid-20th century, with its reliance on referees to issue rulings to cover emergent concerns at the table, to its maximum creativity. This is not entirely by design; originally, this was just a means to take the popular variant known as Braunstein into other applications, but once the early campaigns broke containment by the commercial release of Dungeons & Dragons, the expansion of the form into the hands of people not of that Upper Midwest wargame scene revealed that this new medium is defined by its liminality.

That's right, liminality. Because the medium sits at the point where it can easily slide to and from any specific activity that the characters could reasonably engage it, it sits beyond the scope of the focused games that do one specific gameplay form very well. This vital quality gets lost when mechanical complexity reaches critical mass.

The ideal tabletop RPG, as a commercial product, is as it was in the beginning: a slim booklet, packaged as part of a set and put in a box. Why? Because, for normies, "game" means "think in a box with all necessary parts within". Normies are part of your audience, so give them what they expect to find. (Remember that Clarity thing.)

The audience for tabletop RPGs want the liminality that defines the medium. That means that you can't focus too much on any one thing, aside from that which is so commonly done at the table that such specificity is required. Instead, you want your ruleset to give the Game Master enough information that he can just run his ass over to Infogalactic, TV Tropes, or whatever real-world info source he needs to consult (including sites like Wookiepedia) something and easily translate real-world language into something he can use to issue a ruling at the table. Embrace asymmetric rules knowledge; it adds to the quality of play experience. The GM needs to know; players don't.

This is why the enduring appeal of the older editions exists, and why trying to make tabletop RPGs something that they are not is a reliable way to sink the business. (Yes, the supplement treadmill is an example of Doing It WRONG!) As the design and publisher, your job is to make tools of creativity, put them in the hands of Game Masters, and let them make their own settings. You're the wholesaler, not the retailer; that's the GM's job.

Lose the desire to focus and embrace the glory of liminality. Or stop selling tabletop RPGs.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Putting the Preferences Together

If you are in business, you are there to make money. If you do not make money, you cannot stay in business. You would think that people that go into business would get this, but one need only look at the pile of failures caused by denying this fact to see that it is not so obvious to many.

If you are in some form of entertainment, then your business revolves around knowing what your audience is and satisfying their demands as best you can. If you do not do this, then you will not make money because a competitor will do that better than you and your audience will leave you for them. As with the above statement of fact, this too is not as obvious to many as it seems. Far too many people in some form of entertainment think otherwise, and end up on the corpse pile accordingly.

If you seek to create tabletop RPGs in a commercial capacity, then you are in the business of doing so, and you need to know what your audience wants if you want to make money from selling them tabletop RPGs. The tabletop RPG business community has not been so competent, institutionally, for most of its existence. Stop doing that; you are direct contributing to your decline.

So, that said, it's time to take the last week or so of posts and make something useful out of them. Here we go.

Who is the audience for tabletop RPGs? By process of elimination, it's the gamers who want the full potential of the tabletop RPG medium. (If you want a full enumeration of this, come back tomorrow.) Gamers who only want a portion of it have their alternatives now, so stop chasing lovers that spurned you.

You need to know what your game offers so that you can tell them, in plain and simple language, what they can expect from playing your game. You must tell them what they are doing, and how they do it, without ever having them crack open a rulebook. In short, you telling them this is your marketing campaign.

Your ruleset must be as simple as Original or Basic D&D. This means that you must tell your audience that your game relies on the Game Master to issue rulings because your ruleset's mechanics are cover basic principles first, then only those specific subsets that every group must deal with. Everything else is left for the Game Master to specify when and how he desires. This means that you don't need to sell a setting, or that you need to have a hefty tome of uncoded videogame mechanics. (Note: This also means that your upper limit on mechanic design is "If this can be turned into a videogame, you've gone too far.")

Your business, therefore, is not in selling the rules. That's your loss-leader. Your business is in attracting a like-minded customer audience and facilitating their desire to play your game by helping them meet other players and play your game; if you're thinking "eHarmony for Tabletop RPG blended with LinkedIn and Tabletop Simulator", you're walking fire towards the target. That's why I disdain the talk about selling your game, because the game isn't your product; the money in tabletop RPGs is in facilitating connections between users.

More on that over the week.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Revealed Preferences in Gaming: Clarity

The biggest mistake tabletop RPGs ever made was to switch from boxed sets to books. The second was to make those books fat fucking tomes of bullshit and blather. The third was to push that blather into the players' faces. Why? Because each one ended up contributing to a lack of clarity, and when an alternative came along that was crystal clear from the first glance as to what you did and how you did it, gamers bailed.

There are three parts to the clarity matter. The first is clarity of function, so that when you sit down to play you know what you're doing and how you do it. Ryan Dancey explained this as "core story", but it's better called "default play model". For D&D, the model is "You explore dungeons and fight monsters to get the treasure." All of the other enduring classics have something like that, which any Game Master can fall back on whenever things slow down. It's the "What the fuck do I do?" question. The push over time for clearly delineated mechanics, with equally clear delineation of interaction between them, stem from this.

The second function is clarity of form. Gamers don't like wasting time not playing, and they consistent demonstrate by behavior this preference by (a) not reading rules unless they need to and (b) not bothering with lore unless it impacts them immediately during play. Related is the stubborn resistance to changing established setting facts, which matters for those playing in settings they don't own. This is the "I am not doing homework, so fuck you." matter. (For all you folks sick of Pink Slime fantasy, and authors who become glorified fan-fic writers, this is your biggest contributing factor.)

Together, I call this "Cold and Stupid". No preparation, and no prior knowledge. Just sit down, get playing, and learn as you go. In the early days, this was explicitly advertised as the way to break new people into the hobby; you can see why getting away from it was a bad idea now. Yes, this means that part of the solution to ending the tailspin of tabletop RPG commercial viability does mean reducing both your lore and your rules down to the minimum required to actually get on with playing. You should be selling a boxed set with booklets, if you sell that as physical product at all; these days, a wiki and a blog will be plenty sufficient.

(Yes, this means that your business model has to change. That's for another post.)

There is one other aspect to consider: clarity of experience. Gamers want to know what they're getting out of their playtime, and they've demonstrated their hatred of that uncertainty over time with their feet and their wallets. They prefer games that tell them exactly what they're going to get for their time and money, and the enduring classics (see the default model above) endure because the players do have that clear expectation.

Take a look at the alternatives. You don't need to know a goddamn thing to get into Skyrim or Dark Souls. You do know what you're going to get. The asymmetric horror games? Crystal clear as to what you're supposed to do, how you do it, and even what boundary conditions enhance or restrict your options. You know exactly what to expect when you play, and you don't get swerved. You don't need to know the rules to Descent to play; only the guy running the game does, and the rules themselves are in a slim booklet. Lore? You don't need to know a goddamn thing to enjoy any Final Fantasy title, and being so informed doesn't do much (if anything) to enhance the experience. See where I'm going here?

Meanwhile, tabletop RPGs are dumping more and more homework on users with no payoff of substance for doing so. The complexity, actual and perceived, keeps growing and it's not helping. The clarity is getting lost on multiple levels, such that competing media that focuses (see yesterday's post) on a clear subset will bleed off players and they likely won't come back.

So, you need to tell your audience what they can expect from playing your tabletop RPG. They need to be able to sit down and just play it without ever looking at the rules and not worry about fucking it up or getting screwed. (Yes, this means being anti-MechPilot by design.) Clear expression of experience, function, and form. Do that, and you're on the right road.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Revealed Preferences in Gaming: Focus

Tabletop RPGs possess the capacity to provide a wide array of gameplay experiences, exploiting the liminal nature of the medium to seamlessly go from exploring a specific defined space (a dungeon, a valley, etc.) to managing an enterprise (an expedition, a government, etc.) to developing new capabilities (new technologies, new resources, new organizations, etc.) all without doing more than uttering a few words.

It turns out that most gamers don't want that. They want a specific, narrow subset of that potential. They want to repeat the play of that subset. They want to discard everything other that thing they want, which is why they abandoned tabletop RPGs as soon as they found an alternative that delivered on the specific focus they wanted without the stuff that they did not.

The current example that nails this are the horror gamers who prefer to focus on playing "Can I survive this horror scenario?" games, cooperating with others against the monster (or monsters). There are clearly defined play-spaces, objectives, resources, and capabilities for both the monster(s) and the survivors. Play instances go for 20 minutes or less apiece. Play is drop-in/drop-out, and algorithim-based match-matching makes playing the game no longer require having people already at-hand to do so. (e.g. Dead By Daylight, Friday the 13th: The Game

Those gamers don't want or need all that a horror RPG provides, and find that all the other stuff just gets in the way of their fun. To make the RPG into what they want involves hacking up the game into something other than what it is, and as a result satisfaction is never going to surpass what the focused alternative provides.

Games like Diablo focus the greater fantasy adventure RPG down to one character, focused on seeking ever-greater treasure to defeat ever-stronger monsters, and they have to clear ever-harder dungeons to get that loot. They manage few, if any, allied NPCs and don't give two shits about strongholds, politics, or even the lore of the setting. (How many characters with names that, if they were real people, you would regard either them or their parents as insane and dangerous have you encountered?) The part of the game they want, as these videogames show, can be better done when coded into a program; it's no surprise that they quit the table as soon as these arrived.

The key here is focus. Most of the gamers who formerly played TRPGs only wanted a piece of the whole. They enjoyed that thing, and not the rest. Every videogame, boardgame, or cardgame that bled off TRPG players reveals a focus of interest that they wanted without the rest getting in the way of their fun. If you want to succeed in selling tabletop RPGs, then you need to know what those focuses are and why the focused alternative better satisfied that segment of the lost audience.

Yes, this includes things like Visual Novels. This includes games like Civilization and its competitors. Every one of these appealed to those who formerly used tabletop RPGs to satisfy their gaming desires, and until you identify the focused play experience provided and see why it does that focused thing better you're going to spin your wheels.

And no, the answer is NOT to become narrowly-focused in turn. That's one of the big reasons D&D 4th Edition was a pile of shit, and that bad influence lingers not only in D&D5, but also in Pathfinder. The answer is to take that understanding of why those gamers who want the focused alternative do so, and let them go; your audience wants the full potential of the medium, not to tolerate a pile of baggage until they get their itch scratched.

So, if focus is a thing, then what else is there to account for? Tomorrow, more of that.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Revealed Preferences in Gaming: Time

I'm on a roll here, so I'm going to keep going.

As I said yesterday, the audience that formerly adhered to tabletop RPGs bled away over the past 30 years when alternatives that did what this or that subset wanted better than TRPGs arose and became commercially viable. With each defection, a preference got revealed.

Those who saw the opportunity in producing a product that focused on that preference benefited from the gamble, which is how and why the gaming industry soon spread across multiple media and a plethora of genres. There is little, if any, recognition by the "professional" TRPG people that each segment bled off reveals a gamer preference that they fail to fully satisfy. For the group purporting to be in the business of selling TRPGs, they are utterly incurious as to why droves don't want their product.

The first big break came with those that recognized the dissatisfaction with the time commitment and the necessity for multiple players matching schedules as if this were a bowling league. This arose when the game, and the medium, escaped containment from the original Twin Cities-Lake Geneva wargaming axis and its norms.

There are two parts to this preference: convenience and dependence. Convenience is when you hear people complain about having to set aside time to play a tabletop RPG. Dependence is when you hear people complain about not being able to play because someone no-shows, or when they complain about not able to achieve their objectives or have fun due to others getting in the way somehow. The alternatives that bleed off the audience for tabletop RPGs, first and foremost, address one or both of these preferences.

The RPG form seen in videogames is typical of this. Single-player RPGs for PC, console, or handheld remove the need to rely on others to play and frees the gamer to engage as he desires. Outside of the raiding scene in MMOs, multi-player RPGs rarely have the same degree of "schedule your fun" that tabletop RPGs require to work at all.

The industry trend is towards player convenience, such that discrete play sessions get shorter over time as each competing game in a niche iterates upon predecessors. (e.g. DOTA2 games can go for an hour apiece, whereas Heroes of the Storm hits about 20 minutes.) Drop-in/drop-out is the goal, with match-making by algorithm removing the need for hand-selecting play groups.

You see this also in boardgames and card games. Rarely do you see popular games with discrete playtime sessions of an hour or more. Similarly, you rarely see popular games with much time spent setting up or breaking down; you also see asymmetric weight of rules knowledge, where only one user actually needs to know what's going on in multi-player games (if that) that are cooperative or asymmetric multi-player (e.g. Descent.

The idea is that shorter playtimes with no long-term commitment better fosters widespread play, and therefore is better for the scene and the business. Given the conditions of videogames, card games, and boardgames vs. TRPGs, they're right. Since the tabletop RPG makers aren't doing their jobs and properly addressing this preference, it's on the hobbyists to do it for them. Fortunately, we have a solution from the original days to draw from in solving this mess.

From the Ars Ludi blog we have the West Marches model. This model eliminates long-term commitments by going drop-in/drop-out explicitly, making each play session self-contained, and has players meet only when a sufficient number wish to do so. Combine this with an Open Table policy, and you minimize Convenience and Dependence issues.

Which means that you now have to deal with other preferences, which I will continue on tomorrow.