Sorry to post so late today, but I just realized it was Friday. The good news is that my father is back home, but he's still very weak from being in a hospital bed for 3 weeks, so he still needs a lot of help. Hopefully I'll have new content next week. In the meantime, the Round 2 winners of the Thought Eater Tournament at Playing D&D With Porn Stars have been announced, and it looks like I get to move on to Round 3. So this week I'm posting my round 2 essay.
Reading Tolkien Is Like Gaming With A Bad GM
My first attempt to read Tolkien was in middle school, when I read the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t want to finish it, but I’d picked it for a book report or something and by the time I realized I didn’t like it, it was too late to switch to something else. A few years later, I read The Hobbit and really enjoyed it. I decided maybe I was just too young the first time around, and started the trilogy again. This time I got about halfway through the second book before deciding The Hobbit was an anomaly and giving up on Middle Earth. Many years later, the movies were announced and I decided that if the guy who made Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles was willing to dedicate the better part of a decade to these books, I needed to give them another try. Once again, I made it about halfway through the second book before getting bored with it.
The Middle Earth books have good characters, a good story, and a richly-detailed setting, but I just can’t get through them. Part of the problem is Tolkien’s writing style. I tend to prefer writers who embrace Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” so Tolkien’s overwritten prose just isn’t my thing. To his credit, at least Tolkien uses one unit of well-written (if overwrought) prose to describe one thing or aspect of a thing rather than spewing a bunch of repetitive nonsense in the apparent belief that the more words you use, the smarter you are. I gave up on Game of Thrones when I hit a sentence that used three adjectives, a couple of adverbs, two similes, and a handful of metaphors so inapplicable even Dan Brown wouldn’t try to pass them off as legitimate that each informed me that blood was red. Tolkien’s writing style is kind of pretentious, but at least it’s not bad writing.
While Tolkien’s writing isn’t my bag, the reason reading his books is like gaming with a bad GM is that he had a tendency to tell rather than show. You don’t feel like you’re reading an adventure story, you feel like you’re reading a history textbook or a series of encyclopedia entries. There’s no momentum to the story. The same thing happens in a bad game, but in a different format. You burst through the door, sword in hand ready to bash some orc...and then you have to stop and wait for the GM to read a purple-prose-filled description from a grey box in the module (or worse, his own bad writing), often in a droning monotone. Or you spend an entire contrived scene dealing with a character, landmark, or other game world artifact that adds little or nothing to the story but is shoehorned into the session because the GM (or whoever wrote the supplement) created it and by God it’s going to show up in the story. Or the game grinds to a halt for 20 minutes while the GM looks through his notes for some detail nobody cares about. Or the GM (especially during character creation) tells you “you can’t do that” for some obscure game-world reason.
Basically, my problem with Tolkien is that Middle Earth is so over-designed that he spends more time telling the reader about the world than telling them the story. The Tolkien school of over-design, which has been embraced by most gamers, tells you that more detail means a better world, but in my experience it’s more likely to slow the adventure to a crawl, limit character options, and bore the players with minutia. It’s not the quantity of details that’s important, it’s the quality. A few telling details that help the players (or readers) visualize and understand the flavor of a place will make it seem more alive than a whole book full of detailed information about its system of government, imports and exports, demographics, and history and telling them who would play an NPC in the movie gives them a better sense of the character than giving them a Wikipedia-style entry. The players need a few details they can latch onto, not huge piles of data that make their eyes glaze over.
Another problem I’ve seen with overly designed worlds, especially in games, is that when someone puts that much time and effort into something, they don’t like other people breaking it. As a result, the players may feel railroaded because the GM resists any course of action that might cause a major upheaval that isn’t part of the storyline the GM planned for. If the players do manage to change the status quo, the GM immediately goes into damage control mode to contrive ways of returning everything back to the way it was (or as close to it as possible).
You can really see the Tolkien’s over-design when you compare him to someone like Robert E. Howard. When Tolkien mentions some far-away place, he usually gives you a lot of detail that’s mostly irrelevant to the current scene or story. By the time he gets back to the action, you’ve forgotten what was happening. When Howard mentions some faraway place, he may give you a short and evocative description, but then it’s right back to Conan and his mighty thews. The reader only learns more when and if Conan ends up there, or when more information is needed to move the plot along. This difference is in part due to economics: Tolkien was a well-off Oxford professor, so he had plenty of time to spend designing his world. Howard was grinding out stories to pay the rent, so he didn’t have the luxury of wasting on unnecessary world building. The unintentional result is that Tolkien’s world feels like a museum where you can look at exhibits and hear lectures, while Howard’s feels like a living world full of mystery and adventure.
A few years ago, some friends and I were talking about the difference between Tolkien-style fantasy and American fantasy. During the conversation, I mentioned my theory that Tolkien’s meticulous world design actually detracted from his stories and that part of the appeal of the pulp stories is the sense that so much of the world is unknown and therefore full of potential. The conversation led to a pick-up sword & sorcery game that turned into an occasional ongoing campaign (we’re spread out over several states and have conflicting schedules that so far haven’t allowed us to play online). In part to test my theory and in part because it made taking turns as GM easier, we decided that all world design had to happen “on-screen.” You can brainstorm all you want, but nothing’s cannon until the characters encounter it themselves during a session. We’ve only played the game a handful of times, but since everyone’s still excited about the game despite the long (sometimes a year or more) hiatuses between sessions, it seems to be working. The things we know about the world wouldn’t come close to filling a typical D&D sourcebook, but the things we don’t know about the world are infinite, and those are the parts we can’t wait to discover.
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You probably (hopefully?) noticed that I didn't publish a new post here last week, and this week is just going to be a quick note to let people know what's up and why things may be sporadic here for a little while. My father was sick last week, and my brother finally convinced him to go to the hospital on Wednesday. It was a good thing, because he probably wouldn't have survived much longer without medical care. The doctor said he's never seen anyone with pneumonia so severe come into the hospital still conscious. They've worked out that he has Legionnaires disease, but are still trying to figure out how he could have gotten it; there's another case in the other hospital in town, and apparently it's rare enough that two cases is considered an outbreak. He's on a ventilator right now, but hopefully that will come out in the next few days. My brother and I have been taking shifts at the hospital, which is why there was no post last week. They have wifi here, but it's iffy and when it works I've been focusing on gig work since it pays off quickly and doesn't require too much mental effort. Once Dad starts getting better, I'll get back to regular blog posts and working on Cinemechanix.
Speaking of Cinemechanix, since I'm going on 3 weeks behind schedule on the latest update (I'm halfway through and have posted what I've got so far to the playtest group) and will probably have less time to work on it in the next few months, we're going to have to reschedule the original plan of an October release. I'm not sure when yet, but we'll discuss it at the next Hex Skype meeting and I'll post updates as soon as we have a definite plan. Given the bigger-than-expected changes in the latest draft, expanding the playtest period is probably a good idea anyway. Keep watching this space for more info.
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As I mentioned last week, we noticed a few problems with the damage system for Cinemechanix. Namely, that fights were lasting a really long time. At first I thought the main problem was that I had unintentionally doubled Hero Factor (which is sort of like level in D&D--basically the overall measure of a character's badassitude). In the original version of the rules, character's subtracted their Hero Factor from damage. So if a character with HF 6 takes 10 points of damage, he soaks 6 of it and only takes 4. Unfortunately, since players also add HF to every roll, Hero Factor is basically getting applied twice.
Here's an example: Say Angel has a HF 6 and Demon of the Week has a HF 3. If Angel rolls a 5, he adds his HF to the roll for a total of 11. In order to win the roll, DotW has to roll a 9, since he only adds 3 to his rolls. But if Angle also gets to soak 6 points of damage, the demon really needs to roll a 15 just to cause one measly point of damage. If the demon rolls 15, his total with HF is 18. When you subtract Angel's total of 11, you're left with 7 points of damage. Then Angel soaks 6, leaving 1 point. So yeah, that doesn't work.
The simple solution, of course, is to drop the HF soak, which is no problem. That helps when the fights are uneven, but when two opponents are roughly equal, the fight still takes a really long time due to another problem that Josh had noticed: when characters have higher Dice Pools, the difference between rolls tends to shrink. This hadn't occurred to me since I suck at math; I had a gut feeling that more dice would mean higher rolls, and some sample rolls and playtesting bore that out, but I didn't realize how much rolling more dice affected the results. I found a site that could do the math for me and saw exactly how much the range of likely results shrinks when you roll more dice. Because of the narrowing of this range, the difference between rolls for two characters rolling around the same number of dice--and therefore the damage--gets pretty small. If both combatants are getting a 12 or higher on most rolls an Hero Factor is the same, damage maxes out at 8 points. Since I'm used to the potential 19 point range of a single d20 and I was trying to make the system less deadly than QAGS, I gave characters way too much Stamina (hit points).
The 19 point range I was thinking in also caused me to overcompensate in another way: originally, a player added +1 to his roll for every die in his pool beyond the first. So if you had a 5 dice pool, you add 5 to your roll. The idea was to give characters who were really skilled less chance of losing to some yutz who got a lucky roll. What I didn't realize was that rolling extra dice and taking the highest did that well enough without any help. Since adding up the bonus for the leftover dice was kind of a pain anyway, I didn't mind cutting it one bit.
As I was working through the system changes, I ended up writing a combat simulator so I could test things out and make sure things were working the way I wanted to (take out the "2" at the end if you want to see the version with the +1/die bonus included). Now that I'm satisfied with the results, I'm back to the rules revision, and hope to get it finished up in the next week or so.
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We're about halfway through the playtest period for Cinemechanix (but still accepting playtesters, if you want to join us), so now that I've gotten some feedback I'm working on the 3rd revision of the rules. I'm doing more re-writing than I thought I would be at this point, but fortunately most of it's easy stuff: minor rules tweaks, reorganizing or clarifying, adding examples, that kind of thing. Based on the feedback, most things seem to work.
The one thing that's going to need major re-working is damage. That's in part my fault because I have a really bad habit of mostly ignoring damage when I run games. In most games I'm not going to let a character die because of a shitty dice roll even if the damage rules say it happens and most damage systems don't really add anything to the story, so I usually give the players some superficial damage here and there and let them do what they want with it. Part of the trouble with damage is that I've never found a damage system I've liked. Abstract hit point systems are basically meaningless until you run out of points (and sometimes not even then) and wound track systems require a bunch of fiddly tracking and keeping up with extra rules and penalties that range from almost meaninglessly negligible to so debilitating the character is useless. So of course I tried to combine the two so I could have the worst of both worlds.
We've been throwing ideas for how to fix the damage rules around on the playtest group for a couple of days now and while I think we're moving in the right direction, a good solution hasn't completely gelled yet. It has made me think about what I want the damage system to do. For me it's mostly about pacing and storytelling, and what it needs to do kind of depends on who the characters are fighting. PCs should be able to wade through mooks with barely a scratch and bounce back quickly from fights with low-level cannon fodder, but when they fight henchmen with names/level bosses or wade thorough armies of cannon fodder, they should get hurt, possibly badly enough that retreating and regrouping is a wise choice. When characters fight Big Bads, there should be a real possibility of death and at least a chance that characters will walk away from the fight with permanent, disfiguring reminders of the battle.
On a related note, I think I also need to add a GM section about ending fight scenes without massacres. In fiction, characters rarely just keep fighting until everyone on the other side is dead. Either the bad guys run away or the heroes have more important things to do and only fight for as long as the bad guys are in the way. Since bad guys running away is the most common fight-ender, a good section of GM guidelines about making sure that NPCs' self-preservation instincts kick in should go a long way, but there also need to be some ideas for giving the PCs reasons to keep moving instead of stopping to fight every enemy they see as well as tips on giving the PCs clear openings that allow them to leave the fight without killing everything in the room. I don't think there's any rules content here, except maybe giving players Acclaim for remembering that (usually) eradicating everyone working for the bad guy isn't the goal. I'm hoping that figuring out the damage system will help a little by causing the PCs to reach a point where continuing to fight minions when they don't have to puts them at a steeper disadvantage against the real bad guy. The trick is coming up with a way to do that without a bunch of complicated or hard-to-remember rules.
As I've mentioned a few times, the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums is a mechanic called Acclaim. The basic idea is the same: players get bennies for adding to the game and can use them to get bonuses to rolls or to subtly alter the story in their favor, but the details are a little different. In QAGS, the GM gives you candy when you do something worthwhile and you give it back to him when you want to spend it for a better die roll or to affect the scene. The nice advantage to that system is that Yum Yums rarely require breaking the storytelling for "game speak." Since there's a physical token being passed around, the GM doesn't have to tell you that you've earned Yum Yums and you usually don't need to break character to tell the GM you're spending them.
Originally I though Acclaim would work exactly like Yum Yums, but since Cinemechanix focuses heavily players as co-authors, I kind of wanted to include an official way for players to be involved in the process of handing out Acclaim. It's common for QAGS players to let the GM know when they think another player deserves Yum Yums, so I wanted to include that kind of thing as an official rule this time around. In fact, I kind of liked the idea of making Yum Yum awards a group decision, rather than an arbitrary GM decision. The problem was that turning the power to award Yum Yums over to the group basically meant voting, which kills the transparency that makes Yum Yums work so well. You don't want to stop the story to hold a straw poll.
The solution came when I remembered something from one of the games I rated for last year's Game Chef. I don't remember the game off the top of my head, but players had a limited range of game actions and used different hand signals to let the other players know which one they'd chosen. The basic idea is the same as crossing your arms to let other players in a Vampire LARP know you're invisible, but I haven't played a Vampire LARP since the Clinton administration, so Game Chef was fresher in my mind. Since Cinemechanix is built around a "think of your RPG as a TV series or movie" conceit, Siskel and Ebert provided the perfect answer. When somebody does something cool, a player who thinks they deserve Acclaim for it gives the thumbs up sign. Other players who agree also hold their thumbs up. If there's a majority, the GM tosses the player an Acclaim token (you can still use candy if you want). If there's a tie, the player gets Acclaim if the GM gave him a thumbs up. It's a little more involved than tossing candy around, but it's still reasonably non-intrusive.
Since there's a Thumbs Up, there's also a Thumbs Down. I probably would have needed something along those lines even if symmetry didn't demand it because I set the game up so that player decisions are never decided by dice rolls unless there's some kind of mind control thing going on. No roll can force you to play your fatal flaw. If an NPC tries to fast-talk a character, the player gets to decide whether or not the character believes him, not the dice (though the player is free to roll if he's honestly not sure whether his character would see through the deception). The Thumbs Down provides a way for other players to call bullshit on players who act in bad faith.
When I showed the Acclaim rules to the Hex crew, they brought up two possible problems, one that I'd already considered and one that hadn't occurred to me. The first one is obvious: since Acclaim is in the hands of the players, the players could "farm" for Acclaim by constantly giving each other Thumbs Up for things that don't really deserve it. That one doesn't really worry me, since I don't think many players who would do that kind of thing are going to be playing Cinemechanix in the first place. Even if they do, I have no interest in writing a game that wastes ink trying to protect the Lowest Common Denominator from themselves. If you want to game the system and stockpile Acclaim so the PCs never face any meaningful challenges you obviously don't understand how stories work, so why the hell are you playing a storytelling game? Go play Rifts or something.
The other problem was something I didn't think of, but probably should have. Josh pointed out that some people wouldn't like the Thumbs Down rule because it could be construed as confrontational. I'd forgotten that a lot of gamers are incredibly fragile, so in their minds there's really no difference between constructive criticism and a death threat. As Josh predicted, a few playtesters have expressed concern about the Thumbs Down rule, but I'm keeping it just the same. Just like it's not my job to create a game that's Munchkin-proof, it's also not my job to write a game that reinforces geek social fallacies. Besides, if your group doesn't like the Thumbs Down rule, you can always just ignore it.
The other reason for leaving the Thumbs Down rule in is that some groups, especially those who work hard to avoid any hint of conflict, really need it. As I've mentioned here before, we do a lot of convention panels and the Q&A segment of them usually turns into to a sort of gaming group counseling session. The basic story is always the same: Somebody's doing something that the other players don't like, but the other players don't want to say anything because it might hurt someone's feelings. The solution, of course, is Rule #1: Talk To One Another Like Grown-Up Primates. If you keep walking on eggshells while one player screws up the game for everyone else, the resentment builds until it boils over and things end badly. It's much better to settle problems when they occur and move on. The Thumbs Down mechanic could help some conflict-averse because the criticism is framed as a game mechanic, which may make it seem less personal. It's like taking away a paladin's powers for changing alignment.
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