Games Blog

Reviews, thoughts and options from the word of paper-and-pencil roleplaying games.

Braaaap!

No caps! No batteries! Does that mean it’s powered by Brussels sprouts?

When I were a lad, we didn’t have first person shooters. We played Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians in the garden! Or sometimes British & Germans, since World War Two was still fresh in the collective memory back then. “Hände Hoch, Schweinehund!”

How the world has changed.

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15 Years of FATE

A tweet from Rob Donoghue was a reminder that it’s been almost fifteen years since he and Fred Hicks published the first edition of FATE as a free download.

Around that time there was a lot of discussion in the Fudge community on how to take the system forward, as more people tried pushing the envelope and starting hitting the limitations of Steffan O’Sullvan’s original design. At one point there was an attempt to create a next-generation Fudge by committee on the official mailing list. But it very rapidly got bogged down in fruitless arguments about what the standard attributes should be, and went nowhere.

It became obvious that what was needed needed was for one or two people with a clear and coherent vision to make their version of Fudge without interference from anyone else’s competing hobby-horses and sacred cows. Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks went ahead and did this.

FATE addressed what for me had been one of Fudge’s biggest weaknesses, the ambiguous relationship between attributes and skills, something that was nevertheless a sacred cow for many in the community. But the very clever and elegant Aspects mechanic ended up more as a superior replacement for Fudge’s Gifts and Faults, and attributes were instead folded into skills. Skills became broad areas of competency, limited in number, thus avoiding the skills-bloat that bedevilled systems like GURPS. It really is a clean and elegant design, devoid of obvious cruft.

FATE has itself now gone through several iterations, but it has effectively become the next generation of Fudge we wanted fifteen years ago. It hasn’t entirely replaced Fudge, which is still out there and still has its adherents, but FATE, with its high profile licences has broken through to the gaming mainstream in a way Fudge never quite managed.

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Star Wars Monopoly: The Thing That Should Not Be

Star Wars Monopoly.There’s a Star Wars edition of Monopoly, and there is controversy of the absence of the new film’s female lead, Rey

It’s a legitimate complaint, of course. But there’s a another issue too. Star Wars is all about lightsabre duels and space dogfights. What does it have to do with a board game about property speculation? Especially such a dreadful one?

Monopoly is an awful stupid game that has almost certainly done more than any other game to put generations of people off boardgames for life. It needs to die. It persists because people who themselves do not themselves play boardgames keep buying it as Christmas or birthday presents for their grandchildren or great nieces and nephews out of misplaced nostalgia for their own childhoods.

With the notable exception of Scrabble, that’s probably true of a lot of older household-name family boardgames. Boardgames have evolved tremendously in recent year, and games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne are superior in just about every possible way. But out of all those supposedly ‘classic’ games, Monopoly is still by far the worst of the lot.

The world does not need a totally cynical Star Wars tie-in edition.

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Traditional RPGs vs. Story Games

I do not understand the holy war between “Traditional RPGs” and “Story Games”.

I’ve played many great immersive traditional games over the years, using systems from AD&D to RuneQuest to GURPS to Traveller to Call of Cthulhu. There was one game of In Nomine that was so intense it ended up filling my dreams that night.

I’ve also played some highly enjoyable Forge-school narrative-style games such as Primetime Adventures and InSpectres. Indeed, of my favourite new games of recent years has to be Umlaut: The Game of Metal, which screamed “Play Me!” the first time I read it, and every session has turned out to be huge fun. That’s a pure story game; there’s no GM, the mechanics are boardgame-like and revolve around narrative control. Every session have been memorable for all the right reasons.

But here’s the thing; they are really two different kinds of game. They both do what they do well. There is really no point in fighting a holy war over which one of the two is best.

It seems to me that this holy war is driven by personal feuds between rival cliques of game designers and their supporters. So we get that risible claim that the players of traditional RPGs were “brain damaged”, and the depiction of story game advocates as “swine”. All of which leaves the most actual players bemused and wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

It all reminds me of the messy Protofour vs. Scalefour battles in the world of model railways back in the late 1970s. And I still have absolutely no clue what that one was all about.

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Story Games vs. Traditional RPGs: An Analogy

I think this analogy makes sense, at least to people from Cricket playing countries.

Story games are the equivalent to limited overs one-day Cricket compared with traditional RPG’s long form of the game.

A game of Cricket in the long form takes place over the course of several days, five in the case of international games, three or four for domestic games. Connoisseurs of the game will always maintain it’s the higher form, where the story unfolds across multiple days. It’s true that some games do peter out into dull draws when neither side can press an advantage, but the best games ebb and flow with occasional dramatic reversals. Games like the 1981 Test Match at Headlingly where England came back from a seemingly hopeless position to beat Australia after heroic performances from Ian Botham and Bob Willis have passed into legend.

The one-day game, in contrast, cuts to the chase. It’s all over in a single day, appealing to a wider audience who doesn’t have the attention span to follow a single match over multiple days. It trades drama for spectacle, and tends to produce more exciting close finishes. But it also tends to result in far more cookie-cutter games, especially the ones that don’t end in close run chases. There is no one-day equivalent of that 1981 Headingly Test.

Like all analogies, it’s not an exact one, but does illuminate some strengths and weaknesses of two different forms of a similar thing. There are, I think, some definite parallels.

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Inappropriate Content?

Yet another big controversy has erupted in the tabletop RPG world after One Book Shelf (which owns the downloads sites RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) pulled a provocatively-titled small-press game suppliment its virtual shelves following a Twitter campaign.

It’s opened a massive can of worms.

One Book Shelf have now announced a new policy for reporting offensive content. The precise details are vague at the moment, but there are suggestions that there’s going to be “report as offensive” button which will cause automatic suspension of the reported product pending review. Some game publishers, most notably James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and The RPG Pundit have raised very serious concerns over how this might work in practice, and have threatened to pull all their products from the site should a single one of their titles be suspended under this new system. They express a strong concern that their own products may well be targetted.

It’s near to impossible to tell whether their fears are justified or not.

I would certainly advocate no suspension of any product without human intervention under any circumstances, because such a process would be far too vulnerable to abuse. The ugly “PunditGate” saga remains a faultline in the community a year on, and the past behaviour of some of the personalities involved more or less guarantees bad things will happen unless active steps are taken to prevent it.

At least some of these people have an overtly authoritarian agenda combined with axes to grind against specific game designers and publishers, and can’t be trusted not to misuse any “report as offensive” button to pursue long-running personal feuds, or to report anything that fails absurdly strict purity tests. The “everything is problematic” crowd have very broad definitions of racism and sexism, and there is a very loud faction of them with the RPG community. Give them the power to disappear publications they don’t like, and it will have a chilling effect on the hobby as a whole.

In the world of self-publishing there are all sorts of issues of quality control and gatekeeping. If a line needs to be drawn somewhere over what content is beyond the pale, it matters who gets to draw than line. Twitter mobs with torches and pitchforks don’t always make the best judges. But are ill-conceived  technical solutions which could cause as many problems as they solve any better? It’s really a social problem.

I don’t want an RPG hobby that’s awash with overtly racist and misogynistic games. But I don’t want an RPG hobby where are small but vocal minority have the power to veto on what anyone else can publish.

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths

Mop (Wikimedia Commons)There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.

He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.

Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.

Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?

The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.

What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?

Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.

So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.

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RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

PolyhedralsSome recent attempts by one or two outspoken and polarising game designers to rewrite history has brought up an old post from 2009 chronicling the rise and fall of RPG Theory.

In short, RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

It started out with a handful of uncontroversial truths. It’s true that specific game mechanics encouraging certain styles of play. And having setting and rule elements that reinforce one another tends to result in a better game; we can all name plenty of games that failed due to a mismatch between the game mechanics and the setting. And baroque cruft-ridden complexity in either rules or setting is not a good thing.

But Ron Edwards and The Forge took it way beyond that, building a massive pseudo-intellectual house of cards out of incomprehensible jargon and undisguised contempt both for the vast majority of successful games and the people who actually enjoyed playing them. They styled themselves as the RPG equivalent of the punk movement in music, overthrowing what they considered as the pompous and overblown games of the generation before. But it was a punk movement without the equivalent of any three minute bursts of stripped-down primal rock’n'roll, which was ultimately the only good thing about Punk. Imagine no “Anarchy in the UK”, but keeping Sounds’ infamous one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the iconoclastic bloviating of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. That was The Forge.

Saying that, I own and have played a few of the small-press games that came out of The Forge, and there were some enjoyable one-shot games of Inspectres and Primetime Adventures at Stabcons. But when you look at what actually happened in the game sessions the play experience wasn’t radically different from many a more traditional game. But none of these games really gave the impression they had the depth needed to sustain a satisfying long-term campaign, and more importantly none of them ever seemed to be much more that fifteen-minute wonders. Are there still people playing “Dogs in the Vineyard” in 2015?

A decade on it’s an open question as to the lasting influence of The Forge. Did Ron Edwards’ notoriety obscure more subtle influences on following generations of games? Or was The Forge largely irrelevant to people who make and play games rather than just talk about them on the internet? Certainly many have suggested the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was down to their purging of Forgeist taint that had allegedly ruined the fourth edition. I’m not entirely convinced of that one myself. But do other successful games like FATE or Cortex Plus rely some of the “narrativist” ideas, or did they just develop independently?

And who was responsible for killing off GURPS?

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It seems as though “Gamers are over” is the new “Rock is dead”. We’ve been hearing that rock is dead from people that have never liked rock in the first place, but rock has always refused to go away.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off