Monday 26 September 2011

Rogue Trader Timeslides

For the sake of the universe I couldn’t allow these books to touch. Never cross the streams.

I recently won an Amazon voucher and decided to pick up Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer 40K RPG, Rogue Trader. At a quick read through it looks pretty good. Percentile characteristic tests the standard resolution mechanic, this should be a game that is pretty easy to pick up and play. And to, hopefully, GM without reference to the rulebook more than a few times a session. Or, hoping against the odds, to persuade someone else to GM.

As well as a nifty way of abstractly dealing with the resources that a Rogue Trader can draw on – do keeping track of the exchange rate between Galactic Groats and Plutonian Pesos – FFG’s Rogue Trader also contains a set of simple rules for ship-level space combat. Now, while I am wary of using miniatures too heavily in RPGs – I sympathise with the argument that they break the suspension of disbelief and pull players from their much more vivid imaginations – I also do love miniatures. If we do play Rogue Trader the RPG I have an excuse to buy and paint up some cool sci-fi miniatures, both characters and spaceships.

Just an aside, doing a bit of wishlist browsing I found these guys at Alternative Armies – were these the centrepiece of a regular advert in late 1980s/early 1990s Dragon Magazine or White Dwarf? Or has my memory been operating in non-linear time again.

But what will certainly get some sci-fi miniatures onto the painting table is to schedule a game of Rogue Trader (1987). I’ve always been enamoured with the very book – the one in the photo is an eBay purchase, only Tzeentch knows where my original copy now resides. Before the Warhammer 40K universe became so organised and catalogued it seemed to be a crazy, gonzo but still, grimdark (right from the start the ‘heroes’ are space Nazis who worship a corpse-king sustained by mass human sacrifice) game infused with a 2000AD aesthetic.

Over at Tales From the Maelstrom there is an interview with Rick Priestley, which is well worth a read. Together with Andy’s take on what the Old School Revival in miniature gaming should mean, we have a set of ideas that I would like to put into action, even if, in weakness, I might fall back on ‘1500 points, by the book’ – not for a desire for competitive, tournament-style play, but simply in order to get a game up and running with little fuss. However, if you need an account of this philosophy in action, check out one of their well illustrated battle reports, and envy.

Friday 23 September 2011

…and every time we thought we’d be rich, it all went wrong

Just when Alfred Molina thought he was rich...

I arrange sessions of our ‘The Enemy Within’ campaign by Facebook. After a long gap between sessions, due to holidays and illness, I asked my players to remind themselves what had gone before. S, playing Stanley, the Elven Seer (and now Agitator for Elven-Human understanding), summed up the group’s previous adventures so; “There was some weird shit going down underground...and every time we thought we'd be rich, it all went wrong...”. Which suggests that we are playing WFRP the right way.

...he realised he wouldn't be in the sequels, and would end up in a downbeat 'dramady' with Dawn French

We ended the last session with the party being escorted from the office of Johannes Teugen, after some frankly incoherent ranting about demons, murder and the Ordo Septinarius from Olaf, the Herdsman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead-by-the-roadside-target-of-an-assassin Kastor Lieberung. Quite frankly, I can’t tell whether Olaf’s oddness is the result of good roleplaying by C, or if C is just odd. Whatever, it is certainly entertaining, as is Olaf’s role as a sidekick to Stanley, throwing pamphlets on Elven-Human understanding – which the illiterate Olaf can’t read – in the faces of people who treat the Elf with the culturally appropriate level of suspicion and hostility.

And we’ve also had some PvP violence, at least within the confines of the wrestling ring. After Axel, a Protagonist, fighting under the name ‘Madhead’, defeated Schaffenfest carnival wrestler ‘Crusher’ Braugen two nights running, Olaf volunteered to step into the ring. Adopting the fighting name ‘Meatloaf’ (who am I to veto such silliness – this is a world in which a background NPC is called Von Saponathiem!), and with an unexpectedly good series of rolls, Olaf knocked Axel out, nearly ruining the promoter, who had offered long odds on the farmboy. Unfortunately for them, they’re now relatively famous faces in Bogenhafen (and beyond), which has got them out of a scrape or two, but might well prove a handicap if they need to pass unnoticed anytime soon, anywhere nearby.

A note of playing a game with session-based experience systems: I am a little worried that the characters are gaining experience at too fast a rate. As adults, we don’t play for hours upon end – a typical session being a 3 hour game from 8pm (after baby R is definitely in bed) while 11pm (so we can all shuffle off to bed at a sensible hour) so the per-session suggested EP rewards are probably accumulating at a quicker pace in terms of game time than the designers expected. A long time ago in a far away place (no, really, the 1980s and the Dominican Republic) we would play D&D for twice that length of time (easily) – there was only homework and Nintendo to get in the way. To compound that, as adults, we seem to get through less ‘action’ or ‘plot’ than we did as gung-ho kids – far more time is devoted to fleshing out the little encounters, the incidences of adventuring, than I remember ever doing as a teen (for example, when I ran my mother and A through the Oldenhaller Contract last year they spent a fair portion of the time working as labourers and exploring the city than biting on any adventure leads I presented to them. And they enjoyed doing that). I think that it might be sensible to go for EP rewards at the low end of the recommended scale for future sessions. Gotta keep that grim vibe going.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Sails billow on the horizon

Via Quirkworthy, I see that Games Workshop have an example of a Dreadfleet game turn. It looks pretty fun to me. I'm hoping that it'll be something that I can [paint up to an acceptable standard and] introduce to friends without them realising they are playing a miniature-based wargame.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Ah Ha, Me Hearties!

Knowing me, knowing you, we all have a love-hate (or hate-love) relationship with the evil empire of gaming. We might love what it was, but hate what it is. We might love its settings, even its current games (I enjoy WFB8e myself, even if you do need several hundred miniatures to play it properly), but hate its business model. Or its arrogance. Or its rabid lawyers. Or its attempt to strip its settings of any adult sensibilities, making them child-friendly, but with skullz. And just this weekend, I said that I was thinking of consciously abstaining from Games Workshop and supporting other British games companies that I feel have captured some of the feel of early / earlier Games Workshop. Such as Mantic.

But then, on Monday, on Talk Like Pirate Day, with another mid-thirties birthday looming, I went into my local Games Workshop and pre-ordered (or ordered, as we used to say) their new pirate memory game.

Believe me, this is a lot better than the Games Workshop produced video… look for that on YouTube.

Dreadfleet has managed to summon up a lot of negative reaction. I find some of these reactions baffling.

First, price. Sure, £70 is a lot of money. But, having been into one of my two non-GW FLGS recently – Rules of Play, the other being Firestorm – I know that there are big box boardgames that come in just as expensive. And, as others have pointed out, Games Workshop is in competition with other, non-tabletop gaming forms of entertainment these days. Now, imagine the afternoons’ entertainment you get from taking your kids to a football or rugby game… and the price.

And the components do look good too, with 10 ship models (that are pretty big) and a bunch of scenery, and a good sized playmat. Sure, the sculpts are in the overblown Games Workshop-style – which some have criticised are being ‘cartoony’ – but that is as much the end-point of having John Blanche as your chief visionary for thirty years as it is the kiddification of the gaming worlds. His paintings that were used to illustrate Games Workshop stuff in the 1980s were pretty out there… [on which note, check out gothic punk and fuckyeahbritisholdschoolgaming to get your nostalgia kick in the eyes]

But there are two related negative reactions that are even more baffling. Some are complaining that, as Dreadfleet is a one off, they will not be able to spend hundreds of pounds expanding the game. ‘The game won’t be supported’, they moan. So… we won’t see a never ending stream of new models and rulebooks, that carry with them the implication that if we don’t buy and use these, we’re not playing it right. Well, good! [And I play a whole bunch of games that are not supported anymore, such as WFRP1e, and games that don’t need any support, such as, well, any boardgame in existence.]

Another related set of negative reactions can summarised as, ‘who the hell is this game aimed at? Not me, I’m waiting for the new Blood Angels Codex / Vampire Counts Army Book. Maybe,’ they say, ‘I’d be interested if I could use my existing miniatures in the game, or bring the Dreadfleet miniatures over to my WFB games…’

But that is the very attraction of Dreadfleet. It is a boxed game, complete in itself. Not a crippled version of a tabletop wargame, the way that starter sets for WFB – such as Battle for Skull Pass – have been. A game that involves no commitment to ‘the Hobby’ in order to play in the way that the designers intended. A game that you can play it with anyone who pops over, not only those with whom you share a crippling addiction to plastic crack.

So its not a revamp of Warhammer Quest. Sure, that’s a shame. So its not a new version of Blood Bowl – well, you can still get that for £50 from Games Workshop, so I don’t understand why anyone would want to risk ruining the game with a 're-implementation'. But it is a new game from Games Workshop that does not require the hundreds of pounds and hundreds of hours commitment that assembling and painting two armies (yes, two because that is what you need to play a game) and enough scenery to play a proper game of 40K or WFB.

It is strange to read people criticism Games Workshop because they are NOT maximising the amount of money they can squeeze from gamers. I not sure that it’s a bad business decision, as some seem to think – see Jake Thornton’s blog for an industry insider’s argument on the business case for Dreadfleet. Well, they certainly got £70 out of me. But let us imagine that it is a mistake, that those critics ‘worried’ about Games Workshop’s business plan are right. What conclusion should we come to? That the game designers at Games Workshop have created a cool game (or, at least, a game that they think is cool) and have managed to bring it to market against corporate demands to maximise their hold on the disposable income of British geek-dom. And that, surely, is a good thing.

Caveats – 1) the models could be riddled with miscasts. 2) The ruleset could be terrible. We’ll see in October.

[For an interesting discussion about visiting Games Workshop as an adult with a taste in the kind of games that GW have long abandoned, see Fighting Fantasist.]

Thursday 15 September 2011

We, who are about to grind, salute you!

I have been ill. Unable to sleep, I found myself that the best way of filling the time once the rest of the family was in bed was to play on the Xbox. I downloaded trials of Dragon Age II, Dungeon Siege III, and Castle Crashers. All of these are described as RPGs. Even Castle Crashers, which makes Gauntlet look sophisticated.

I have been travelling. With my netbook, I have been able to play some ‘old-school’ games. Baldur’s Gate, Darklands, and Pools of Radiance. All of these are described as RPGs. Two are AD&D games, the other one could very easily make the claim of being more ‘Warhammer’ than Warhammer.

We, who are about to grind, salute you.

But there is no such thing as a computer role-playing game.

Oh, there are CRPGs, in the same way that there is a genre of music that is called RnB. But just as RnB is not ‘rhythm and blues’, CRPGs are not ‘role playing games’. They might share some mechanics, they might share setting, and atmosphere, with role playing games. But they lack what makes tabletop role playing games such a distinctive experience.

There is no inter-player interaction that makes a role playing game so much fun. The very best party-based CRPGs, in which different party members are more than simple collections of statistics, but have different motivations and personalities, paradoxically reveal the very emptiness of the role-playing aspect. Even in the great CRPGs, from Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age, the interaction between party members, and even the actions of the primary character, the nominal PC, are scripted. There might be a handful of different options, but there is no freedom. How does the ‘PC’ develop as a character? Entirely along the lines determined by the hand of a ‘dead’ GM.

And the worst? The worst mistake levelling up and getting new gear and ‘feats’ as character development. They mistake the mechanics and terminology of a role-playing game for the thing itself.

A ‘dead’ GM? A human GM responds to the actions of the group and invents the world and the events of the game on the fly. Sure, he may do so by drawing on the crystallised labour of other GMs – from the rules themselves, through encounter tables, to whole adventures. But the golden rule, or rule zero, or whatever a particular game calls it, is that nothing is fixed, everything can be house-ruled, improvised, bent to suit the people playing the game.

But worst of all is a lack of any sense of peril in CRPGs. By way of ‘Save Game’. A GM might fudge a roll, he might power down an encounter. But I have never played with a GM has said, ‘well, that encounter didn’t go as well as it might. Let’s start again from just before you kick the door down.’ Where a GM has said that again, and again, and again, until a satisfactory end to the encounter has been reached. The save and reload isn’t just a way of dealing with TPKs, but also with the death of single characters, with conversations in which the wrong option has been taken, with the failed skill rolls when searching for loot.

Don’t use the save function? Well, what sort of game would Baldur’s Gate be then? Endless replays of the first few maps, most likely. The game, like the vast majority of CRPGs, is designed to be played with constant saving and reloading, not for playing through as one does a role playing game adventure or campaign.

What of MMORPGs? Don’t they have player interaction and even, at a stretch, an active, ‘living’ GM? Potentially, yes, an MMORPG could be a role playing game. But the first M – Massive – renders it highly unlikely that this potential could ever be fulfilled. The ‘Massive’ aspect places the hand of the GM at such a remove the world has to operate mechanically and programmatically, and means that rather than a group of players collectively producing a fantasy world and narrative within the confines of a game system, you have just let a thousand – no hundreds of thousands of loons – into your game. Loons for whom RPG means just what they have been taught by CRPGs – relentless grinding and gold-farming, practiced min-maxing, endless meta-gaming, and worst of all, juvenile ‘pwning’. I was going to say anti-social ‘pwning’, but that is exactly the social convention by which many MMORPGs operate.

If you want to play role-playing games online, try play-by-email, try Skype, try RPOL. Human GMs, small numbers of human players, and interaction, improvisation, and invention.

No, computers can’t do role-playing games. But they can do good ‘adventure games’. Some of these call themselves CRPGs, and some do not. The Grand Theft Auto games, Red Dead Redemption, even some FPS such as Bioshock, are all ‘adventure games’. That they lack the mechanics and terminology popularised by Dungeons & Dragons is irrelevant, they are no less, and no more, a role-playing game than CRPGs.