Friday, 27 October 2017

Over the Edge: too many words

My formative RPGs were Traveller and Call of Cthulhu. While Traveller now has a vast background, at the time when I first started playing (in 1981) it didn't.

Both games are mainly character creation and rules, and in Traveller's case I learned about the Third Imperium from snippets here and there from the adventures, supplements and the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society.

So it never really felt like learning lots of background. It was just stuff that I learned as I was going along, and it was never hard work.

(Call of Cthulhu obviously uses real history, mixed with the monstrous. There's a small amount of backstory regarding the war with the elder things and shoggoths, but that's in Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness rather than the rulebook.)

And the other contemporary games of the time (the early 1980s) were mostly the same. AD&D was just rules. Tunnels and Trolls, and GURPS, likewise. I never played RuneQuest or Empire of the Petal Throne, the two background-heavy RPGs of the time. 

Somewhere along the way (I guess in the mid 1980s with the arrival of Skyrealms of Jorune and MERP) increasingly detailed backgrounds became vogue. I remember in the 1990s remarking that I didn't like reading RPGs because they had too many words.

On reflection, it wasn't that they had too many words. After all, I still read novels.

But I really didn't want to have to learn another set of complex rules that didn't really change how the games are played. As far as I could see, there really wasn't that much difference in terms of the Chaosium system, the Traveller system or the AD&D system. They were all rules that just governed whether you succeeded at doing something, and one was pretty much like another.

At the time, I was also heading towards simpler systems. I realised that most dice rolls in RPGs were just answering a yes/no question, and I ended up running my games with players rolling two dice to see what happens. At the time, this was a bit weird. Now I run Fate Accelerated, which has a little more structure, but not much.

I also didn't want to have to learn a complicated new background - not when I could have just as satisfying games set in worlds I already knew.

I guess I don't have the temperament for system or background mastery.

Twenty years later

Twenty years later, my views on RPGs haven't changed.

I know this because I recently bought Over the Edge (OtE) and various supplements from Bundle of Holding. I had high expectations because OtE has a great reputation, but I'm afraid I found it full of words.

OtE rules: surprisingly complicated

Character generation was okay, although more fiddly than I was expecting. The simplicity that I recall from the reviews at the time (3 traits and a secret) is complicated with fiddly rules for hit points and optional rules for experience dice.

The rules were also more complex than I expected. The rules for most things are fairly simple - roll some dice to beat a target number, where both the target number and the dice you roll vary (but not by much). But combat, inevitably, takes up several pages and contains range tables and special cases that, for me, do not appeal at all.

Background: blah blah blah

Then we hit the background, and goodness that's a pile of text I will never, ever read. There are descriptions of people, factions, places and more. There are maps, and room-by-room descriptions of some key locations. Some of these are annoying - such as the room-by-room description of a hotel. I know what a hotel looks like - what I really need to know is why this one is different.

(It's this kind of thinking that lead me to create Tales of Terror, which is nothing but story ideas.)

I know a lot of people like this sort of stuff - and it leads to system/setting mastery which is a draw for some. But for me, mastery is in simplicity - what is the least I have to do to run a compelling game session. I'm all for being prepared, I can improvise most things as long as I know the key points. But that's all I really want - the key points. Unfortunately I found the key points buried in OtE.

To be clear, I don't mind learning background. But I want to do it as I'm doing something else (enjoying a novel, watching a movie, reading or playing a scenario), not as an infodump.

Sandbox

For me, OtE also suffers for not being clear as to what the PCs are up to. I suspect it's a product of it's time (and was also a problem with Traveller and, to a degree, Call of Cthulhu) so I think this is only something I'm noticing from 2017. I suspect that most of my games these days are convention one-shots means that I'm looking for more direction here than OtE was ever going to provide.

To be fair, OtE does have a go, by encouraging players to give their characters reasons for being on Al Amarja (OtE's fictional Mediterranean island). But that's something that needs to be done as a group, and for me I'd rather the game was narrower in scope and gave player characters a defined role.

So overall

So there we go. Over the Edge has too many words for me, but I accept that I'm a bit unusual in that department.

Maybe one day I will play it, but I'm unlikely ever to run it.



Saturday, 21 October 2017

Addicted to World of Tanks Blitz

I have just uninstalled World of Tanks Blitz (WoTB). Again.

My brother introduced me to WoTB a couple of years ago and I’ve been playing it on and off ever since. I find it ever so addictive, and what happens is that I install it, play it a lot (and become quite grumpy when I do), and then uninstall it to break the habit.

And then, a couple of months later, I reinstall it again...

So I was extremely interested to listen to Adam Alter's Irresistible, which talks about behavioural addiction of various forms, including computer games.

Alter defines addiction as something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term — but that you do compulsively anyway. (It seems that most of us have a behavioural addition of some sort.)

Six ingredients


Alter says that: "Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections."

I know I find computer games addictive. I always have. (For example, last time I uninstalled WoTB I found myself playing Star Realms over and over on my tablet.) But WoTB seems particularly insidious - and that may be because it includes all of Alter’s six ingredients..

For example:

  • Compelling goals that are just out of reach: Grinding to get the next tank, playing in events, trying to complete missions.
  • Irresistable and unpredictable positive feedback: the various medals, achieving mastery in a tank (which compares your performance against everyone else’s).
  • A sense of incremental progress and improvement: the slow rise in win rate, learning maps and player behaviour, learning each tank’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time: Climbing levels is easy to begin with, but takes longer and longer as you climb the tiers.
  • Unresolved tensions that demand resolution: I must complete that last mission, I've lost three games in a row, just one more before I quit.
  • Strong social connections: Platoons, clans, team chat, in-game friends.


A rare mastery for me
So WoTB is designed to be completely compelling, and I’ve been suckered. (My wife is less enthralled, to say the least.)

I think there’s an additional factor to addiction - and that’s appeal. For example, despite being highly addictive, I’ve never smoked. It’s never appealed. WoTB, on the other hand, is all about something that’s fascinated me since childhood: tanks, and WW2 tanks at that.

Undermining my long-term wellbeing


I’ve already mentioned that WoTB can make me grumpy, but there are other things it does to undermine my long-term wellbeing.

Playing WoTB means I spend even longer on the computer than usual and can interfere with my sleep (especially when I was playing it on the tablet - I now won’t play it after 9pm). It also stops me from doing more positive things, such as writing or playing boardgames.

At least I’ve stopped playing it on my tablet - that gave me headaches and tense shoulders as well...

Making it harder


Alter’s advice to overcome a compulsion is to make it harder to get to the thing that’s addictive. I thought that by moving it from the tablet to the PC would help that, but it turns out that I just spend more time on the PC instead. (Worse, I find the PC controls much easier than the tablet…)

I’ve tried using a kitchen timer (or my phone) to limit my games and avoid the "just one more game!" syndrome. That only works occasionally, and the best solution is to completely uninstall WoTB, but that means not playing it at all - and I like playing WoTB.

So I haven’t figured out a good way of managing my time while it’s installed. The best thing is to uninstall it, which is what I’ve done.

But I have no doubt I will install it again at some point...

Further reading


Click here to read a New York Times article on Irresistible.

And here’s an extract from Wired.

And relatedly, a piece by Google’s “design ethicist”.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Looking back at Tales of Terror

I first published Tales of Terror in 1990.

Tales of Terror was put together using an Amstrad PCW 8512. I had bought one in 1986 or 1987 to write my dissertation. While I did use it for that, I also discovered a joy in writing that I didn’t know I had. That eventually led to Tales of Terror (and many things beyond).

The idea from Tales of Terror came from my delight in Call of Cthulhu’s elaborate handouts. For me, Call of Cthulhu was the first rpg that made good use of handouts, but one thing that I found slightly irritating was that it was always clear when you found a handout - you could tell from the fact that it had been copied from the book.

As a Keeper I liked the idea that you could drop other handouts into a scenario that might lead to other places. I envisaged a product that was almost entirely handouts (newspaper cuttings, extracts from books, letters, and so on), with some simple ideas for where the handouts might take you. (When I look back on that now, I wonder if that was really a sensible idea. As a player I might have found it very frustrating.)

From there, that lead me to the Tales of Terror format. (The idea of three different variations I took from Traveller’s 76 Patrons.)

That’s why the first edition features so many newspaper cuttings and book extracts. Over time, I realised that they weren’t necessary, and they’re rarer now.

Garrie Hall was my co-conspirator with Tales of Terror, and he helped with the printing. Garrie had produced a small-press fiction fanzine called Tales After Dark. As luck would have it, Garrie lived in Loughborough, where I was studying at university. I liked the feel of Tales After Dark; its glossy card covers gave it a veneer of quality that was lacking in many rpg fanzines of the time. We used the same printer for Tales of Terror and printed 250 copies.

I did the art in the first edition, inspired by Lynn Willis’ silhouettes in Call of Cthulhu. I didn’t like later editions of Call of Cthulhu that had detailed picture of the entities. Silhouettes left plenty to the imagination, and let me fill out the details. So I took the same approach with Tales of Terror.

Pulling it all together and getting it into print was one thing. Selling it was another. I’m not very good at selling. I sold a few by post, I sold a few at Convulsion, and I sent a whole bunch to John Tynes to sell via Pagan Publishing.

I sent a couple to Chaosium, just out of courtesy. I got a nice letter from Lynn Willis, followed by a scary letter from Greg Stafford telling me I’d infringed their trademark. That caused me a sleepless night or two before it was resolved, but it seemed that Chaosium thought that Tales of Terror was a professional publication, rather than the not-for-profit small press zine it most definitely was. (Mark Morrison suggested I should consider it a compliment.)

Pagan Publishing persuaded me to edit two more volumes, one in 1996 and one in 2000. All I had to do this time was put the words together. They took care of the layout and the sales. That was easier, but looking back I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not.

In 1994 I got my first web-space, and one of the first things I did was create a Tales of Terror website. That’s now defunct, as is the website that followed it. I am now slowly populating a new Tales of Terror website using Blogger, here. If you want to keep up you can follow it via RSS, or my Tales of Terror Google+ collection.

I still write the occasional Tale, but only two or three a year, just to keep my hand in. My most recent was The Old Quarry.

As for the future, I will continue to populate the new website with all the old Tales, and I will continue to write new Tales now and again, as the mood strikes me. But a new collection? I’m not so sure.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Knee Deep in Doom

I’ve just finished listening to 2003’s Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner and read by Wil Wheaton. I couldn’t stop listening to it - I was even kicking everyone out of the kitchen so that I couldn’t continue to listen while I did the washing up. (It’s not something I can listen to when Megan is around - the language isn’t very age appropriate.)

Anyway, I really enjoyed listening to how John Romero and John Carmack met, created some astonishing games, and then self-destructed. And it got me thinking about Doom again.

Doom was released in December 1993, but I don’t think I played it until 1994. My first PC was a 486-66 DX2 (if I remember correctly). I bought the parts from a shop in Armley and, with my good friend Richard’s help, built it. I bought it so that I could play X-Wing, but it wasn’t long before I was also playing Doom.

Richard introduced me to Doom (and X-Wing and many other games as well). He was always a lot better than me, and we played cooperatively at first - he helped me learn the levels.

I loved the shareware levels, Knee Deep in the Dead. We played them over and over. We didn’t often play much deathmatch - Richard was so much better than me that it wasn’t that much fun. I’ve never really liked deathmatch (which is particularly interesting given the prominence that it had in most of the Doom community, at least according to Masters of Doom).

I didn’t enjoy the later levels of Doom (The Shores of Hell and Inferno) as much as the shareware levels. To my mind they weren’t as attractive, nor as memorable. They’ve sort of faded in my memory into a bit of a flesh-coloured blur. Doom 2 I really liked, and was one of the many millions that bought it as soon as it came out in September 1994.

Masters of Doom describes the t-shirts the designers bought themselves with the Doom logo on the front and “wrote it” on the back. I remember seeing Sandy Petersen at Convulsion in July 1994 wearing one of those t-shirts, and thinking how cool that was. (Wil Wheaton does a great Sandy Petersen impersonation.)

I also remember Sandy saying that each of the Doom levels was designed to be playable from scratch on ultraviolence. That added a new dimension for me - each levels was a puzzle to be solved. Sure, they were easy enough when you started a level with all the weapons from the previous level, but starting with just a pistol? That was a new challenge.

With Doom 2 I really started noticing how the levels were designed, with the ever more powerful weapons leading you through the levels.

It’s interesting that Masters of Doom comments that while Sandy’s levels were fiendish, they weren’t as pretty as those designed by John Romero. That’s something you can see in Knee Deep in the Dead - Sandy’s only level (the finale, Phobos Anomaly) is difficult, but not as visually appealing as the previous levels.

My favourite Doom 2 memory is playing level 15 Industrial Zone (I think) cooperatively with Richard. We were working our way through the levels and unexpectedly encountered a cyberdemon. It’s not there when you play single player. We lured it into the respawn area where it killed us. We respawned, fired a few shots with our pistol before it killed us again. And again. And again. On and on this went. I don’t know how long it took us to take down that cyberdemon with just a pistol, but our corpses filled the area.

I tried Quake, but didn’t get on with it. It was a too brown, the controls were too hard to use, and and it just seemed like Doom but harder.

I played a few other first person shooters. I enjoyed Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D. I enjoyed the story aspect to Half-Life, but I missed having discrete levels to play through. My overall favourite was Dark Forces 2, which (for me) blended levels with story perfectly.

But that was the end of first person shooters for me.

I pretty much stopped playing computer games altogether in 1998. They were taking up too much time, and I was finding them a little too addictive.

(Since reading Masters of Doom I have found shareware Doom for android. It’s a bit fiddly saving a game as you need the keyboard, and as I can’t figure out how to call that up mid-game I’ve been using my bluetooth keyboard. But it works and it’s as fun as I remember - although the controls aren’t as intuitive as they were on the PC.)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Eating our own dogfood

I recently played A Will to Murder, and I wrote about it on the Freeform Games blog.

Mo described this on Facebook as me eating our own dogfood.

Ugh.

I do feel that playing A Will to Murder is a lot more enjoyable than I imagine eating dogfood is.

Unless you're a dog, of course.

(Monty, our 7 month old golden doodle would probably disagree with me. He likes dogfood. On the other hand he's never played a murder mystery larp, so I could be wrong.)


Saturday, 10 June 2017

Swallowing Bones

I’ve just finished running The Bone Swallower, a one-shot urban fantasy investigation using Fate Accelerated set in what we have called Other London. The players were members of Desk 17, responsible for investigating “other” crimes, and they had a missing person to chase down.

Overall, the game was a success. I had a good time, and from what I could tell my two players enjoyed themselves, there was some good banter between the players and also the NPCs.

Anyway, here are some thoughts.

Setting: I loved running a game in Other London. The setting was originally created by my good friend Jon Freeman (and Jon was one of my players this time around). Back when he created it (in the late 90s I think) it probably would have been considered unusual, but these days London-based urban fantasies are everywhere. Anyway I really enjoyed playing in Other London and creating my own, slightly weird urban fantasy.

Jon tells me that he found it interesting seeing my take on characters he had created (I reused some that I had encountered previously), and he was kind enough not to criticise me for doing it wrong.

(And I’ve only just realised that I put a green witch into Greenwich. That pleases me.)

My one-page introduction to Other London Desk 17.

Pregens: My players seemed to like the pre-generated characters that I’d created. I designed the pregens so that the players could tailor them to suit (partly inspired by these). My experience is that allowing the players to tailor the characters gives them more ownership than they might otherwise have.

The only problem is that the players chose neither of the two combat-facing characters, and I knew that there was combat coming up. (I prepared the scenario assuming that I would have four players, giving them five characters to choose from there would always be one fighter.) It wasn’t a huge problem, as I just dialled down the difficulty of their opponents.

My pre-gens are here - my players chose Gunn and Ironwood.

Timing: It wasn’t a real test of the scenario, but it took too long to play. We completed it in four sessions. Each of our online sessions is two hours long (I’m strict about finishing on time as we play on a school night), and in that two hours there’s a bit of chatter and catching up, so we didn’t play for eight solid hours. Probably more like 6-7.

Most convention games are fairly linear, and as an occult investigation I’d planned a clue trail and various scenes. However, to hide its linearity I'd thought out some alternative routes and some optional scenes. The players didn’t need to visit every scene, but because I was happy to let them go where they wanted to, they did end up in a couple of scenes I would have skipped if we'd been at a convention.

Overall, we ended up running nine scenes (with two combats). I think I could drop three scenes easily - but balanced against will be having more players. Will more players make the scenario run quicker or slower? I don’t know and I need to test.

One thing I can do is plan out how long I expect the scenes to take, and try and keep to schedule. I’ve never done that as a GM, so that will be interesting to try.

Fate Accelerated: I like the simplicity of Fate Accelerated, but even having played it a fair bit I still  struggle with approaches. I’m finding it hard to unlearn skills.

The other challenge I have with Fate is that I often forget to use my GM’s Fate tokens. I need to get better at that. I should probably give myself a rule to use them as soon as I can in a scene, rather than save them and end up not using them.

Having watched the recent Tabletop Fate Core episode, I’ve discovered that I don’t play Fate the same way as I tend to keep the system in the background. But I don’t think that matters, and I subscribe to Risus’ most important rule: there’s no wrong way to play.

Online Play: I don’t know if this is normal, but every time I’ve played online we’ve typically had 3-4 drop outs each session, where one player has to log back in. It doesn’t seem to matter which system we’re using (we’ve used Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook messenger).

But other than that, online play has been ideal, particularly when we’re located in different parts of the country. (But it will never replace face-to-face play…)

What next for The Bone Swallower? I need to run it again, probably at GoPlayLeeds. And if that works then I will run it at Furnace or Continuum or both. And at some point I will make it available in some format or other.

What next for Other London? We enjoyed The Bone Swallower so much that we’ve already started on the next case: Murder of a Templar.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hunting Hitlers Nukes

I have just finished listening to Hunting Hitler's Nukes: The Secret Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Deadliest Weapon, Damien Lewis' gripping account of the SOE operations to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant during WW2.

The book accounts in detail operations Musketoon, Grouse, Freshman, and Gunnerside - the allies missions to stop Hitler's atomic bomb programme. Musketoon, Grouse, and Gunnerside involved injecting a small number of SOE agents into Norway (by sea or air), them trekking across the wilderness before executing their mission with surgical precision.

Several things struck me:


  • The achievements of everyone involved - and how young they are. I was aware of this with my Dad, who was a Mosquito navigator. It seemed as if he had two lives, one during the war and one after. I know events in my lifetime haven't been anywhere as tumultuous (thankfully), but even so it's humbling. (I often feel this when I read WW2 histories.)
  • Grouse and Gunnerside makes for a great RPG scenario. A small team, a clear mission, a dramatic location, huge consequences, plenty of obstacles. It would be easy to turn this into a Star Wars scenario.
  • How effective a small group of commandos can be in tying up other troops. Thousands of German troops were shipped into Norway following Gunnerside, effectively hunting just 11 men.
  • The complacency of the German defenders.  Why didn't anyone say, "Okay, so we've got this precious installation - I want you to take a squad of troops and spend a couple of months trying to infiltrate it. Let us know what you learn." Or "Imagine you're the British and you want to stop this extremely well guarded train carrying heavy water from reaching Germany, using only a small number of undercover agents. How would you do it?" (But that maybe hindsight, of course. That and I’m a gamer.)


Anyway, very enjoyable.