Over the July 4th weekend, I had a chance to play a couple of games, both of which have been around for a while, so I won’t pretend to write reviews. I was meeting family for the weekend, and both my older brother and my son had not really played D&D [although I've played a couple of simple tabletop RPGs with my son]. My 18-year-old nephew has played and GM’ed many D&D 4e games, and he joined us.
D&D Board Game
First, we played Castle Ravenloft, the board game. I had heard good things about the game, and my nephew had played the sequel, Wrath of Ashardalon. There are several reviews that explain how to play these games in detail, but the gist is that it’s a dungeon crawler with 13 scenarios [with different conditions for victory] and a dynamic game board. The game has an element of the 4e rules in terms of healing surges and the different types of powers. But I thought this would be a good sort of intro game for my brother and a little variation for my kids. I loved this game, more than I expected, because it is one of those very well balanced yet somewhat unpredictable games.
What makes the game a challenge is that for each player’s turn, we had to add a new tile with a new monster, or draw an encounter card, which might reveal a trap, loss of points, or some other bad bit of news. And with some tiles, you get both a monster and an encounter card. Fairly early on, we had some awful bad luck with the dice, as we ditched the d20s that we had and searched for a ‘luckier’ one. At one point, we had 5 monsters, and we were all low on health, having used up all our healing surges. More than once, my son’s wizard died [three times, in fact] and my cleric managed to revive him. We were all down to 1-2 hit points when things took a turn for the better.
Quite unexpectedly, when we revealed the chapel and four new monsters, my son discovered a multiple attack that he had been saving for this last card, and he killed 3 of the 4 monsters, enabling to kill the fourth and grab the icon item to win the game. The game has a great mechanic for building tension, even despair, but includes space for strategy as well as chance to allow players to recover from disaster. It’s the sort of design and balance that reminds me of the Advanced Civilization board game. I also enjoyed the coop nature of the game–if you lose one member, you lose the game. I enjoyed it much more than Pandemic, which is a good game.
Castles and Crusades
A while back, while looking at various RPG systems, I stumbled across Castles and Crusades, a supposedly rules-light game that feels like a hybrid of early D&D and 3.5e. Again, this is another game with lots of reviews, with its share of detractors and fans. I liked the idea of no feats or skills and the reliance on 6 attributes for all checks and saves. I grabbed the Quick Start rules and a character sheet and thought it could be something we could play in a short time.
Character creation is indeed pretty quick, though we took some time to explain things to my brother and my son, as well as to go over the classes and races. Still, I can see where creating a character could take 15 minutes, as Troll Lords claims. I used the very simple adventure in the quick start, thinking even a group of newbies would knock it out in an hour or so.
I think this was indeed a great choice for players new to tabletop RPG. Even though my son has played some simple RPGs, like Mouse Guard, this was more complex and closer to D&D, which he has been really wanting to play. For him, this gave me the opportunity to work some on gaming etiquette. He’s a very imaginative sort [a 'hambone' as my mother calls him], so he can get carried away, especially in this session where we had a great mix of humor and adventure. C&C didn’t overwhelm my son and brother with too many options and rules that D&D can bring. It allowed them to focus on their characters and getting into the game.
My brother played his Skullcrusher fighter well, focused on getting money and, where possible, killing. My son struggled with his character but seeing the others, he got the idea to develop a character, not just stats and abilities. And my nephew played his cleric well, bringing his character’s religion into the game on several occasions.
The session took a good two and a half hours, though it had only two fights. [I skipped the treant encounter partly by accident but also because I had them play level 2 characters, who had few hit points. Plus, I wanted to finish the adventure.] In both cases, the creatures pushed the players, who were somewhat acting in isolation. Unlike Castle Ravenloft, the players in this adventure had no reason to play fully coop. In fact, my nephew’s cleric repeatedly withheld information which angered my brother’s fighter, who hated all spellcasters to begin with. We all had a lot of fun with these 15-minute characters, who begin to flesh out during the game.
We ended with player victory and a lot of fun. Everyone was definitely game for continuing to play. In fact, I’m working now on using Maptools for us to try playing online with Skype. My brother admitted that he had doubts about how well the online play would capture the great part of our adventure, which was the interaction among the players. But, as he said, it’s better than not playing.
Castles and Crusades has some issues, even though I plan to continue using it. For example, I thought the money was far too plentiful. The characters had much higher AC as a result. To make it worse, even though I cut back on the gold that the prefab adventure included, they still walked away with about 4000 gold among the three of them. I think 1/20 of that would have been much better. I also did not care for the character sheets, which really didn’t allow space for abilities and which seemed very repetitive and poorly laid out, but that’s something I can rectify myself easily enough. I also think that once I have the actual core books rather than just the quick start, I’ll have a better feel for the game. As it was, I went to the 3.5e spells for details, which didn’t quite fit.
I’m hoping that our online sessions with Maptools goes well so that we can keep playing and maybe move to a better virtual tabletop, specifically Fantasy Grounds.
Just in case I’m one of the last gamers who haven’t tried a Pokemon game, this post is for you. You see, I dismissed Pokemon, like most Nintendo games, for most of my gaming life because I figured they were too kiddie and too simple. I was guilty of judging a game by its color palette and character design. Oh, and let’s not forget the awful anime, which I had to suppress a groan anytime the kids watched it. How could a game so embraced by little kids, even my kids, be interesting for a serious gamer?
The game is deep, much deeper than I expected. Thinking I was touching the bottom of it, I swam into the multiplayer end and discovered a whole new depth, one that I probably won’t touch bottom on for some time. This isn’t so much an introduction to the possible gameplay as much as my coming to see it.
how I was sucked in
My kids have played Pokemon games for more than 2 years, though mostly for a love of learning the various Pokemon and their evolutions. The card collecting side of it, if you will. My daughter especially loved it. So, I bought her Diamond and one of the Mystery Dungeons. She played them for a while but left it to pursue other interests.
About 5 months ago, the kids’ interest flared up. My daughter restarted Diamond and was doing much better. My son bought HeartGold and fell in love with it. Over in Alabama, my brother and his son [now a high school senior] were playing. Not to feel left out, I decided to buy Pokemon White when it released. For the first couple of hours, my fears seemed confirmed–it was a mindless, repetitive hack n’ slash RPG-lite.
finding new depth
Still, my kids were excited that I was playing, and I kept on playing partly on their behalf. Then around 10 hours into the game, I saw some of the depth.
With only four slots for moves [types of actions, like attacks, buffs, heals, etc.], I had to decide which moves to keep and which to forget. [I later learned that I can forget and relearn forgotten moves, though not until much further in the game, some 50+ hours.] For a long time, I looked no further than the game, with little idea of what future moves awaited me. This brought an element of surprise as the levels varied at which each pokemon got a new move. Still, it was a move-by-move decision as the game provided no means to look ahead a la Diablo’s skill tree. Not only did I have to decide what type of move to keep [grass, water, fire, ice, steel, etc.] but I also had to decide what fighting style I wanted to develop for each Pokemon. On the last point, my notions were fuzzy, but I had fought Pokemon that immobilized and drained hit points rather than use attacks. I saw it as a kind of caster vs melee choice, though more subtle.
Similarly, I could carry a maximum of 6 Pokemon with me as I traveled and battled. At first, I didn’t quite have a mental model for this type of game. It wasn’t exactly like the party combat found in so many Japanese RPGs because, for the most part, it was one-on-one combat. But still, it was a kind of party combat.
My first problem in seeing it as a party-based game is that I became very comfortable with my starter Pokemon, Oshawatt/Dewott. Its Sea Shell attack was very effective, and I found myself one-hitting my way through battles. I looked at my other Pokemon more as second-rate backups than as a team of any sort. That is, until I encountered a grass Pokemon that defeated Dewott easily. Then, I focused on building a Pokemon team that could tackle Pokemon of any type. [Insert mocking laughter from the Pokemon oldtimers.] The problem is that there are too many types to cover with just 6 Pokemon. But I knew it would be too much of a time sink to try leveling up more than 6 Pokemon at a time. I did want to finish the game, after all. At this point, I saw there was no easy answer to my question, and my respect for the game grew.
At 30+ hours into the game, I was seeing the subtleties of the various types of Pokemon [grass, fire, water, etc.] as well as the different roles to use while in combat. I was using Throh as a kind of tank, my default starter Pokemon for battles, because he had the highest hit points of all my 32 Pokemon at the time. But I also observed that the Pokemon that made the first move in a battle varied, something that I figured was determined by the Pokemon’s speed attribute. I also noticed that the different attribute values changed, even without leveling. As I was to learn later, this is a significant part of the game. I began to re-build my Pokemon team based less on their types and more on some fuzzy roles that I was defining for myself and on their abilities.
thrown into the deep end
One night about a week ago, I met my brother online, and we explored the various multiplayer features, including some friendly combat. The game allows for custom matches, but the point was that I saw a whole new side of the game that was now more like the card game battles. I hadn’t really played the card game, but I knew that it was like others that I had played where building a deck of compatible, complementary cards is key.
We then went to see my brother and his family for a wedding, although for the first night, it was all about Pokemon as the 5 of us played and talked about the games. My nephew had played Pokemon for several years, starting with Pokemon Blue when he was 9.
In short, I learned that the campaign in the game, of defeating the Elite Four, could be viewed as a setup for the real meat of the game–the multiplayer game. Four things in particular opened my eyes about this part of the game.
Effort Values (EV)–In addition to leveling, you can boost your Pokemon’s stats by defeating Pokemon in combat. As it turns out, particular types of Pokemon boost different attributes. That means, by fighting specific Pokemon, you can increase any one attribute by a maximum of 255 points, significantly altering a Pokemon.
Natures–Pokemon have natures–timid, naughty, brave, impish, etc.–and I learned they are more than cute descriptors but important influences on a Pokemon’s abilities. My nephew bred several Zorua to get the right nature for the role that he planned for it. If I want a tank, then I might look for a bold or impish nature to improve its defense against physical attacks or a calm, or careful nature to improve its defense against special attacks.
Effectiveness–I knew that each type of Pokemon was weaker against some Pokemon than others. What I didn’t realize was that it was more subtle than that because the damage might be 0.25, 0.5, 2.0, or even 4.0 of the normal damage.
Roles–The roles are not hard and fast, but the community has some well established roles, with some general agreement on definitions. But the idea is that you have lead, attacking, defensive, and supporting roles with many variations.
There’s more than just these, but just seeing these 4 aspects changed how I saw the game. At smogon university, you can find tools, like a team builder, and analyses of each Pokemon, of good roles for it to play, different sets of moves, distribution of EVs. I also saw that attacks and defenses were more than just grass, water, fire, ice, or some other type–they were also physical or special. So, I might want a Pokemon that was focused on special attacks–raising that attribute and focusing on moves that used the special attack attribute.
Admittedly, I’ve not battled online except with my family. I don’t know that I will. But seeing that the game is a lot more than ‘catch ‘em all’ has impressed me. I’m now playing the campaign a bit differently, more aware of which Pokemon I level, what moves I keep, how I groom a particular Pokemon for a role. I check Serebii and bulbapedia for information about specific Pokemon, their resistances and their list of moves. Maybe I’ll plan a team and try the Pokemon Online battle simulator to see how well it might play.
What impresses me most, though, is that the game works at different levels. It’s a fun collection RPG as well as a sophisticated strategy game. It’s something my 9-year-old daughter can play and love as well as my competitive 18-year-old nephew.
Yes, I’m still around, though I’ve turned into quite a lurker on Twitter and Buzz. I’ve not really had a lot of strong opinions lately, and to be honest, I’ve not been playing a lot of games.
But this past weekend, I tried to change that by buying a 3DS. As I explained elsewhere, I bought a 3DS for a couple of reasons–
First, I lost my DSi to my son, who along with my daughter has become a Pokefiend. And I’ve been missing my DS, of taking it with me to work or wherever to play a few minutes of a game.
Second, mobile games have done little for me. Part of it is the device: not having physical controls greatly impairs it as a gaming platform because it means taking up precious screen real estate. The other, smaller part is that I’ve not found the games quite as engaging. So, my phone has been a poor replacement for my “lost” DSi.
The 3D was a small reason for the purchase. I could have gotten a DSi on the cheap, but hey, I had a bonus that I mostly stocked away, so I felt I could indulge myself.
The other thing is that I bought my first Pokemon game–Pokemon White. My daughter got Pokemon Black from my brother [who is into Pokemon Black as well], and my son bought a copy, too, with money he’s been hording for a long while.
I confess that I was really surprised at how such a repetitive game like Pokemon is still so captivating. I took it with me as we shopped for new clothes for my niece’s wedding, and we all ended up playing as we waited for my wife to try on dresses or my daughter to try on shoes. It has that wonderful pick-up-and-play aspect as well as depth. I do feel a certain bond with my starter Pokemon [Oshawott], but I know I have to play others. And then there’s the anticipation of learning a new maneuver and deciding which of the four existing moves I’ll forget to learn the new one.
And then there’s the experience of sharing a geeky little obsession with my kids. As the picture shows, we sometimes play together at night before bed, playing our individual games but also watching status updates of what the others are doing. ‘What? You ran from a fight?!’ ‘Oh, congrats! You beat the gym leader!’ It’s an intriguing experience of the individual and shared experience at the same time.
And we find that we can turn any space into a gaming space–in the shoe department, after dinner in a restaurant, waiting for the rail. Yes, we’re mockable for gaming in public. But we know it, and we’re laughing at ourselves as well. Yet, that seems much preferable than the guy who’s making his phone conversation about work public for everyone to have to listen to. With us, you just have to endure the giggles and the occasional Pokemonese.
Back in the winter, I bought the PDF for the Mouse Guard RPG, a game based on the very enjoyable Mouse Guard comics, a story that has fans among children and adults. Red Walls is another fantasy that has its fans, but neither the kids nor I really got into it. I never got around to reading the PDF until recently because we had our Star Wars game going. [BTW, if you are interested in Mouse Guard RPG, the book is very hard to come by now although you can download the PDF. A new boxset is expected later this spring or early summer. I also recommend the downloads at the Mouse Guard wiki.]
What I find attractive about this RPG is that it seems so much more focused on the characters–on their beliefs, instincts, and goals–than D&D, which often seems more focused on skills and on consistent character behavior. The GM’s task is less to create a story than to challenge the players, to make them rethink what they value, and to sometimes act contrary to those values. In fact, it is crucial that players fail some tests–to advance their skills and to earn something called ‘checks’ which allow them to take actions in the second part of the game, the players’ turn. The game is somewhat formulaic.
There’s a mission which tells the mice what they have to do.
The players write their individuals goals in the context of the mission.
The GM chooses two types of obstacles [which can be a simple test, or roll of dice, a complex set of tests, or a conflict].
If the players fail to succeed in the
Recently, I got the bug to play it, so I poured over the manual, which is certainly a beautiful book, as well a different organization with character creation coming towards the end instead of the beginning. I decided to play one of the sample missions in the book and use the premade characters with my kids. [For an excellent review and a more detailed overview of the game, see the review at Gnome Stew.]
We played the “Find the Grain Peddler” sample mission from the book. My 11-year-old son played Kenzie, and my 9-year-old daughter played Sadie. Overall, it was good but a little slow in the second part, partly because even though I thought I knew the rules, I found that I had to check the book. My crib notes helped in several spots, but they didn’t capture all the details. The kids said that they liked it, particularly with the action and the opportunities to act out their characters. However, my son had reached a point at the end where he was ready to end since they had accomplished their goals. Although I explained the purpose of awarding the points (to learn that part of the game and to award points for the next session), he was ready to be done.
I think a third or fourth player would have been nice but would have made the game longer. I really enjoyed the game and look forward to more impromptu GMing. All in all, it was a very good session. My only criticism (and this might be more how I played the game than the game itself) is that the kids had a lot more dialogue and roleplaying in our Star Wars game than in Mouse Guard. Maybe it was the familiarity. But I also allowed them to drive a lot in the Star Wars sessions. I had a couple of key bits planned, but we had some fun, extended conversations in Star Wars. I think also their familiarity with the Star Wars characters and universe allowed a lot more opportunities and known history to play off of. But I think we could get to that point with Mouse Guard. By far and away, there was more variety to the conflicts in Mouse Guard. And even though complex on paper, the conflicts went far faster than fights in our Star Wars minis (where positioning has a large role important).
The kids understood their goals, beliefs and instincts and played to them pretty well. For example, my daughter played Sadie as kind-hearted, making sure that the peddler wasn’t injured even though they suspected him as a traitor.
One thing I would do differently is have some kind of flavor roleplaying at the outset. First, my kids (and probably a lot of players) like to roleplay, and, second, I think allowing them to do that first avoids the problem of my talking too much in the beginning as the GM. I could this being something like “You’ve woken up early. You have more than an hour before you report in, so what do you do?” or “Whom do you see on the streets? What is going on in the town?”
I think we’ve definitely found a great tabletop RPG for the family.
So here’s an outline of the hazards and events in our session. I didn’t capture the roleplay dialog, which was there but less than usual because we were so focused on learning the rules and playing the game for the first time.
Hazard 1 (Mice): Sadie rolled her Scout 2 with additional dice from Kenzie, wise, and gear. Peddler rolled 6D for Nature with 3 successes, and Sadie rolled 5D for 2 successes. She did not have any 6s so she could spend a Fate point to reroll.
They couldn’t find the peddler, but they did see his cart. Kenzie decided to search it for any evidence of the peddler being a traitor. (I thought it was a little vague, but I counted it.) Kenzie rolled 5D for 4 successes, a very excellent roll. As a result, Kenzie found the map.
Since there was no failed search, I didn’t apply a twist.
Hazard 2 (Animal): As a result of their rummaging through the grain, the snake appears behind Kenzie to attack him. Sadie jumps to his defense. This initiates a conflict with the snake. Sadie rolled the disposition and added her bonus for a total of 6. The snake had a poor roll and had a disposition of 5. I then explained how the conflict works and asked that they collaborate on who did what action. They alternated actions: Sadie, Kenzie, Sadie.
Sadie – To kill the snake to protect Kenzie
Kenzie – To distract the snake so that Kenzie could kill it (Not a very good goal)
Snake – To kill the mice to protect the nest
Action 1: Sadie – Attack, Snake – Attack
Sadie used a trait, gear, and a Persona point to roll 6D for 3 successes. The snake rolled 7 and had 3 successes.
Action 2: Kenzie – Feint, Snake – Defend
Kenzie was lucky and had a good round. He use a trait and gear to roll 5D for 3 successes. The snake’s disposition was 0.
I had them describe the fight, and I then added that Sadie cut the snake’s belly at the bulge, which then spilled out the peddler.
The players talked to the peddler but didn’t confront him with the map. The peddler said that he was fine and needed to make it to Barkstone. The mice decided to accompany him with Sadie offering to pull the cart so the peddler could rest, but he continued to look in the grain. Kenzie asked repeatedly if he was looking for something. The peddler acted nervous, and I tried to bait Kenzie with dialogue like “What? Are you suggesting something? I . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Still, Kenzie did not have a direct confrontation.
They reached Barkstone, and the mice parted ways . . . except then Kenzie said that they would follow the peddler to see whom he was meeting. (He didn’t confront the peddler because he wanted to find who the contact was. Sneaky boy.)
Hazard 3 (mice): The peddler tried to hide from the mice to meet his contact. I make this a complex test.
First, The peddler used his Nature to hide, rolling 6D for 2 successes. Kenzie rolled 5D for 3 successes. He described how he spotted the peddler as he was meeting someone in an alley, whom I say runs at the sight of the mice. With the peddler then bound, Kenzie quizzes the peddler.
Then, Kenzie tried to persuade the peddler to spill his guts. I could made this a conflict, but I could tell the session had been long, so I made it a simple test. Peddler rolls 4D for the Persuader skill + 1D for the Cunning trait for a total of 1 success. ONE! Kenzie rolls 5D for 4 successes. The peddler and the players then act out the conversation, with the peddler revealing that he was selling the secrets of the Lockhaven defenses to the weasels for gold. When Kenzie asks if he has no loyalty, he says that as a trader, he has a home in many cities.
There are a couple of games that I’ve been hoping will be localized for the West, and for one of them, that isn’t happening–Hironobu Sakaguchi‘s Last Story. I don’t play a lot of Japanese RPGs, but this one caught my attention, partly because I want to see if Sakaguchi’s return to game directing translates into a significant change in JRPGs. The combat system, particularly the gathering ability, sounds like a good update for the traditional group combat in JRPGs.
I know the story is that JRPGs don’t do well in the West anymore, but FF XIII still sold well in the Americas [2.24m versus 1.88m in Japan]. Instead, it might be a concession that the Wii has lost its audience for these types of game, even though I think Monster Hunter 3 shows that it’s still around.
The other game that I hope is localized is another Wii game for which I’ve seen little detailed information–Earth Seeker. Collection is clearly a part of it, which I hope means exploration, but the combat looks similar to Monster Hunter. But, given the premise and the fact gamers play the same female character, it seems to have a story.
Unfortunately, I now have zero hope that the West will see this game localized. Enjoy this clip, too.
I’ve always been something of a Star Wars fan, but my son’s love of the stories has been very infectious. So, it’s been little wonder that we have anticipated Force Unleashed II. The first one was fun, though hardly great. Yet, as I read about TFU 2 and all the complaints about how short it is, I can’t help but think back to Jedi Knight – Dark Forces II. It was by no means a great game because it had some problems with level designs and some of the linearity. Still, it was very enjoyable, and some puzzles were challenging.
It’s amazing to me that given this is a sequel, why did they not produce a better game when they had so much existing framework and resources. Part of it is that I see they have lost their way on what made their earlier attempts so good.
First, the original trilogy had likable characters who had a friendship that we liked. But they also were part of a good story of the underdog, of the ‘little’ people who stand up and win. Dark Forces II isn’t so light hearted, but it’s still a story of a likable, sympathetic character. But with the prequel trilogy and TFU, we have stories of much more unlikable characters. And whereas Jedi powers were impressive, they weren’t godlike as they have now become in TFU 2 [whereas the light saber now seems weaker, requiring 3-5 strokes to kill a storm trooper].
Star Wars isn’t a great story . . . but it is great fun. And that fun, coupled with characters that we could recognize and like, made it memorable. The Star Wars franchise has lost that sense of fun amidst the darkness. Admittedly, the current animated Clone Wars series tries to create some friendship and fun with Obi Wan and Anakin [and Ahsoka], but we know where it’s headed. In fact, with the more likable characters, like Shaak Tii and even Ahsoka, it’s hard to invest much in them because we know their inevitable fates.
I think what’s missing is the hope, the fun, the parts of life that actually get us through the darkness. Maybe the current writers think that message is too immature for them. I don’t know. But they need to stop wallowing in these dark characters and stories. Giving us a game in which we focus on new, more destructive ways of killing people is not fun. After all, in parts of the Clone Wars, like the animated series, we’re supposed to like them. In Karen Traviss‘s novels, I think we’re very sympathetic to them as creatures that are treated like disposable droids. So, it’s easy to question this mass murder spree in the TFU 2 and to feel that our avatar is little different from Darth Vader.
When you think about it, the game title itself is a bit ominous–force unleashed. It appeals to a desire for power, allowing us the guilty pleasure of having all the power of the dark side. Gaming’s version of the Milgram Experiment, if you will.
Oh, and I have not bought TFU 2, and I doubt that I will.
I have found a couple of interesting tabletop RPG game sites: RPG Blog II and Gnome’s Stew. Gnome’s Stew is a multi-author blog and has varied articles, including some nice How-to’s, reviews, and tips. I look forward to reading them in the feature.
I also had some money from a recent birthday, so I splurged on GameScience dice and a nice reversible, flat-bottomed dice bag from Marsbarn.
Put me down as another gamer who loves Minecraft. Even though it has some significant issues, it does so much right–in fact, more than AAA games I’ve tried lately. It’s a player-driven, open game but one whose mechanics push most gamers in the same direction of creating things. [And humans are the tool-using animal.] It’s a game that illustrates that timing and good suspense is never outdone by shiny graphics and surround sound. Those barely-recognizable pixelated zombies are terrifying in a way that Resident Evil 5 wasn’t. Undoubtedly, the craft of timing and the rudimentary media are worth a good discussion.
But I’d like to look at the game from another perspective–the tension of metaphors.
First, a little background. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a short but great book about basic metaphors called Metaphors We Live By. Their point was to look at the mundane metaphors we use daily but don’t always see them as metaphors. Orientation metaphors are one of those basic groups.
up is good, happy, conscious, health, life, control, virtuous, rational, safe.
‘He’s in high spirits.’
‘I’m in top shape.’
‘I’m on top of things.’
‘She’s climbing the corporate ladder.’
‘She has high standards.’
‘He took the high road in the debate.’
down is bad, sad, unconscious, sickness, death, subjugation, depravity, emotional, dangerous.
‘She’s feeling down today.’
‘He came down with the flu.’
‘He fell from power.’
‘She’s low on the pole.’
‘Things have been going downhill.’
‘Morale is low.’
‘That was an underhanded thing to do.’
‘That’s beneath you.’
And we’re aware of this cluster of associations so that, when some argue that men are rational and women are emotional, they also argue that men are good, happy, virtuous, and in control. These base, controlling metaphors are prevalent, powerful, and ‘natural’ and I think they evoke a visceral response. For example, Hollywood knows that certain features create discomfort and even fear in audiences–faces with a 45 degree slant are more threatening than faces with more vertical alignment. Think of wolves and other predators. Likewise, being unable to see someone’s eyes makes us uncomfortable, which is why Disney creates doe-eyed characters.
The up-down and light-dark metaphors are strong in Minecraft, largely because of the primitive nature of the game. As this simple and gratuitous graphic shows, the hilltop ‘feels’ like the best place to be in the game while the mines seem the worst.
In fact, I spent a bit of my time early in the game building a good, protective base at the top of a hill for various reasons.
By building high, I could avoid building a roof so that I could see the passage of time while inside.
Monsters seemed to be more prevalent at lower levels.
A tall structure would be easier to find when I explored in search of materials. (Indeed, I had built 2 basic structures which I never could find again.)
The hilltop feels safe, then, because of its height and exposure to light, especially if you have a structure as I did where I could watch even the passage of night and know when to go outside. The hilltop and outside areas in general have a great pull for the gamer [at least for other Minecraft players I spoke with] while the caves and mines have a certain repulsion.
At this point, the game design kicks in for a great experience because Minecraft, true to its name, forces the gamer to the more uncomfortable dark and lower parts of the world, as this second figure shows.
To build more advanced items, the player must go into the mines and caves, almost regardless of how the player has decided to play the game. What is especially brilliant is that most players have a similar experience for that first night in the game–no torch, the player huddles somewhere, probably a dark cave where unidentified noises keep you wondering exactly what’s out there. As crude as the graphics are, that experience of huddling in the dark is an iconic one because the player is completely defenseless, something few games force players to experience. As players, we’re used to having some light for the dark, some weapon to defend ourselves, some knowledge of what is threatening. Not here. And at this point, the graphics do not matter because dark is dark, and you have no weapon to hold.
Yet, if there’s any aspect of the graphics that is superb, it is probably the lighting. First, you have the sun and the moon passing through the sky, which you can watch. With no other means to tell time, this mechanic in itself creates tension, especially in the early stages as the player searches for resources, often far from a base, if one exists. The player might wonder, ‘Do I have time to run back? Do I need to build a new shelter?’
Second, when you go into a cave or mine, you lose sight of the sky and, thus, the passage of time. I don’t think I’ve played any game where that loss of time has been so affective. By the point I was in the caves, I had already internalized that apprehension of the night, knowing what it meant, even if I might not be as affected in the caves. And losing sight of the sky creates another source of tension.
Third, while in the caves, I saw that my torch would sometimes flicker on an object that I could not identify. Did I see something or not? Again, I talked with other players who experienced the same thing. While objects and creatures are primitively represented, we still have the real experience of thinking we see something. Lighting is critical to the game, in my experience, and I think the presence of a torch is not only satisfying and comforting, the torch lighting works pretty well to show a little of the darkness’s secrets.
When asked why Minecraft is addicting, I basically point in the direction of these metaphors, in so many words. It makes me feel, experience some basic emotions. We are used to thinking that sophisticated graphics make us feel ‘as if we are there,’ as people often said after watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and Avatar. The problem is that as gamers and the audience, the details of the movie or game world captivate us, and we’re impressed. Yet, while details can be important, they can also overwhelm, sometimes to the point of distraction.
Minecraft does not make us feel transported to a specific place, but it does make us experience some genuine tension. And I think the primitive graphics and game design actually help us focus on those basic metaphors, of how they affect us.
NOTE: The Android market is expanding, and I’ve seen other d20 and D&D apps added since I wrote this post. I probably can’t keep up with these new apps, but I will look at another roundup in February.
You like tabletop RPGs? Oh, good. You have an Android phone? ah.
My friends and I have been chatting about good uses of smart phone or tablets with our D&D sessions. Not to feed a gadget fetish, it seems that there are some good ways to use technology. In this post, I’d like to take a look at some of the better D&D apps for Android devices. One thing to keep in mind is that the Android market is growing daily. Several of these D&D apps were added only in the last 3 or 4 months.
Overall, it’s not great, but there’s progress. It’s not surprising to see that the iPhone has many, many more D&D apps. However, almost none of the iPhone apps are free, and several are $2 or more, up to $29.99. The iPhone apps have more graphics than the android apps. Perhaps the most interesting tool I see for the iPhone is the various map applications, which a DM could use to display on a larger screen. But I also like the idea of an app that can generate a map or room quickly.
In a future post, I’ll review some ideas for useful D&D or tabletop apps.
d20 Character Sheet [€3.00]
This app allows you to maintain your D&D 3.5 characters. Although I’m not a fan of the UI design, it covers the basic functionality and information that I’d want in a character sheet, as the online manual explains. It tracks alignment, stats, money, feats, skills, abilities, saves, attack bonus, racial traits, items. But it omits languages, deity, class specialization [such as flurry of blows or nature sense], weapon proficiencies, and spells.
Even though the app is flexible enough to allow you to edit classes, skills, feats, weapons, armor, and goods, you cannot add languages and deity. As for spells, fortunately another application handles that hole very well.
I like how easy it is to add skills and feats to favorites so that you can track them more easily. It handles multi-classing well, and it’s compact and easily accessible. I’m not fond of the background image which I think makes reading the basic stats more difficult. Unfortunately, the thing that would make it more valuable than a paper character sheet is missing–descriptions of skills. It does show the basic stats for feats, however. Instead, it lists the page in the handbook for the appropriate description. It also does not calculate weight, something that an app should offer easily. Finally, another missing stat is mana points.
If the app were free, it’d be a no-brainer to recommend it. For €3.00, I’m not so high on it. It still has uses, like being able to modify your money, inventory, hit points. But the lack of reference information and missing attributes are major drawbacks. Hopefully, it’s something the author can add in a future update. This app does a lot right, but it’s missing too many vital and useful features. I have it so I will probably use it, but I won’t be leaving my paper character sheet at home.
Update: I contacted the author of d20 character sheet with most of my complaints. He quickly responded and noted that he’s working on adding the class-based feats. He has deities, languages and weapon proficiencies on his backlog of features, but he’s focused on the most requested items, particularly spells.
Spellbook D&D 3.5 [free]
Our group probably spends more time looking up and parsing spells more than anything else about our characters. Skills would be a distant second. A very recent addition to the Android Market helps greatly. Currently, I use a web browser to visit our group’s site and look up spells and other things, but it’s not well formatted, and I have to zoom, which can be slow. Spellbook D&D 3.5 is a great spell reference. You browse all the spells or search for a specific spell. You can then select spells as favorites. Each spell description appears to have all the information found in the handbook, and where appropriate, there are links to other spells. You can even add notes for each spell.
It’s a simple but very excellent application. It loads quickly and is easy to read. This might be the best D&D app for android at the moment.
d20 Reference [US$0.99]
This would appear to be the motherload reference for D&D 3.5e. It covers information for spells, armor, weapons, combat actions, feats, races, classes, and magic items. Unfortunately, it suffers a couple of faults.
The text formatting is bad. In some cases, several items might be listed, but the text has no formatting to make scanning easier. This is particularly true of the spell lists.
It has no search tool.
You cannot mark items as favorites.
For $0.99, it’s not bad, though a little frustrating given that the data itself is publicly available. I would like to see a little more programming effort to warrant charging me. It is faster than using my web browser, but in some cases, it’s faster than looking up in the handbook.
Pocket RPG Help [free]
This is another character tracker for multiple games as well as a dice roller [which we don't use in our games]. Although this is a free app, it is not terribly useful as it tracks only a few things–hit points, mana points, ammunition and initiative.
RPG Sidekick [free]
This is the third and last character tracker that I’ve found and tried. At first, it seems barely an app. It has no character name information or reference. Instead, this is purely a stat tracking app. Unlike Pocket RPG, however, it allow you to create stats. You give the stat a nice and then specify the maximum value. The stat then appears with a slider, allowing you to easily adjust it. I find the slider using more screen space but easier than + and – buttons or an editable field. You can edit the stats, but you cannot reorder them.
This is a nice approach, but a set of defaults would be nice. The prospect of creating all the stats for a character [and you can track stats for multiple characters] is daunting. It also has not reference information about skills, feats or spells, and you cannot track inventory items. Again, another free app that I couldn’t recommend.
DM Assist [free]
This is a single-purpose app for DMs–to track the intiative order and hit points for monsters during combat. Actually, you can use it track monsters, NPCs, players, and spells. It works well for what it does, but it’s such a specific application that I wonder how useful it is, given everything else that a DM tracks. And frankly, this is one of those things where paper is much faster and easier.
This app is a monster reference for D&D 4.0, but, because it requires a subscription to the D&D Insider, I was not able to test it. But you can save monsters offline for later use, and it can auto level your monsters. The extent to which I could use it, kmonster seems like a good, quick application. And I think there’s value to this sort of app, even by itself, because managing monsters is not trivial.
Update 2: D20 Helper [free and $0.99]
This app has a nice focus–tracking your hit points and rolling dice. It’s similar to RPG Helper. One thing I like about it over RPG Helper is the buttons for adding or deducting hit points, as opposed to writing in the new hit point value. Yes, the math is simple, but I like just clicking a button. Also, for the random dice roller, you can enter the multiplier. You can’t save your character info with the free version. Like RPG Helper, it seems to support one character. Visit the web site for more info.
I quit for a variety of reasons, and I tried other MMORPGs, but I didn’t find anything that came close to my experience with Everquest. Over the last year, I’ve toyed with playing it again. [Because I first played it over 10 years ago, I guess this might qualify as retro gaming.] As it turned out, some of my original guild and a couple of my fellow D&D game pals were thinking along the same lines. So, about 5 weeks ago, we met, talked about the classes we’d like to play, and set some ground rules to play it casually [1-2 times a week].
Coming back to the game, I found that much had changed [which didn't include the dreadful interface]. I bought into the original vision of Everquest, that forced grouping allowed them to create a difficult game with extreme risk and reward. It was one of the handful of games where I feared dying, that I put myself at risk even trying to go from one zone to another. Yet, when we took those risks, we found great reward in accomplishing what we did.
Yet, returning to the game, I found much that made me think that the Everquest I loved was gone. In sum, I thought the game had itself turned into a World of Warcraft clone, where levels came easily and fast and where everyone could solo. But then I discovered how much deeper the game is than I thought all these years.
easy like sunday morning
At level 10, my paladin had equipment that exceeded anything my old warrior had when he was in his mid and late 20s.
Money came easily. Again, by level 10, my paladin had 7000 plat. [Actually, I made most of that money in about 6 hours. I looted the crates scattered throughout the tutorial to build up to 40plat and used that speculate in the bazaar.] My level 57 warrior had 10,000 plat to his name.
Experience comes fast, whether it’s in the tutorial zone or in the ‘hot zones’ for high levels. Before our guild disbanded the first time, we thought it was good night if we got 1/2 to 3/4 of a level. Now, it’s not uncommon for our starting and high-level characters to level once or twice in an evening.
Players can now rent mercenaries, which they use to solo or to enhance their group. The mercs seem to be overpowered. For example, when our high-level characters had a couple of mercs, including a cleric, they rarely worried about mana levels and hit points for the mercs.
So, I began to think that this return wasn’t going to be as fun as I hoped. But two things changed my opinion.
First, last week, our very balanced group of 5 went out in search of some tough creatures. When possible, we ignored creatures that conned white or lower. We moved along, clearing out a building of its redundantly named undead creatures. Then we went out further, and I thought that we had found a good pull spot. So, we settled in, pulling yellow and red con creatures. The monk and I settled into a groove of chain pulling.
At this point, I realized how we had somewhat tired of the game . . . endlessly pulling and fighting like clockwork. It was too smooth, too monotonous. Someone suggested that we cross a bridge near us and make our way to some caves.
As we crossed, we drew the attention of a tough mob. Once on the other side of the bridge, we parked and fought it, only to find that another creature attacked. And then another. At one point, we had the original creature and 4 adds, which our enchanter was trying to mesmerize. To make it worse, our cleric had a critical phone call that he had to take. Our group was not wiped, but one character died as the rest of us ran for relative safety.
Even without the phone call, we probably wouldn’t have succeeded. In fact, it might have been worse. The key, tough, is that how the game changed dramatically just by moving a few yards in the game.
Second, over the weekend, a couple of the group played their level 60 characters along with two mercs. I won’t go into detail about their weekend-long adventures, but they did things, visited places, and fought creatures that we had never taken on with our characters before. In short, it opened a new aspect of the game.
When we first played the game, we rarely took on named NPCs, especially as we levelled up. The named ones were often too tough for our group, so we tended to fight by finding a safe pull spot and chain pulling what we could. Sometimes, we went into dungeons, but we rarely took on so many red cons. We found back then, that blue and white creatures were often enough of a challenge.
In both of these experiences, though, the key is that while parts of the game were easier, it was still a game of risk. Even with the mercs, the players found many, many close calls, even running for the zone in a couple of instances. The game still had its risks.
What I realized is the original game could be significantly tougher and, thus, riskier if they forced gamers to play in groups and [later, in multi-group raids], allowing them to create significantly tougher monsters than games before had. Yet, 10 years of improved equipment, a vibrant game economy, and various changes to the gamers allowed them to face even tougher challenges. The game now makes the player more powerful, but the player, especially those long in the tooth like my group, has to change, to go beyond the comfortable. Go now and try to clear the Plane of Justice. Those unexpected and exciting back-and-forth fights are what made the game, and they are still there. You can solo to an extent in the game, but you still need mercs, which you have to pay for and which are limited to one per person.
I think the game has some of the old issues as well as some new ones, but I have to credit the developers for building a more resilient, deeper game than I originally thought. And my friends, being who they are, continue to provide good fun themselves.
As a note, we were amazed to see that the changes include the destruction of a city by giants–the very interesting city of Firiona Vie, with its catapult defenses, is no more.
I have a Starcraft 2 story, one of a youthful lad, his female companion, and a magical three-legged cat . . . no, wait, that’s not right. Ah, it’s a story of game balance, wonderful game balance. By the time our game was over, we had played for 1 hours and 22 minutes in which we came back from certain defeat, as summarized in the map below.
A map of our comeback victory
balance in games means that they can have a certain unpredictability while not being wildly unpredictable, possibly the kind of game that goes back and forth. that means you can feel like you’re doing well one minute and feel certain of loss the next. and if the balance is really good, it works for almost any skill level. advanced civilization would be my touchstone for a balanced game because a player in last place can leap ahead, thanks to the game’s mechanics, such as calamities, or to the decisions that other players make which give you an opportunity. [while i prefer the board game, you can check out the pc game at abandonia.]
For some background, I don’t play a lot of RTS games and never really played Starcraft, but my brother and nephew played it a lot over the years. I picked up Starcraft 2 mainly to have something else to play with them. I’ve played 5% of the single-player campaign and maybe 5 melee games against AI opponents. I’ve focused on the Protoss race so that I can learn them really well, reading a few articles with tips and strategies–although I have a handle on them, I still don’t know all the different units that well. Like most beginner of strategy games, I have a basic plan–build some basic infantry for protection, create 8-10 colossus, build 4 Void Rays, and then attack. It’s been a good plan against Terran enemies so far.
Last night, my brother and I played as Terrans and Protoss, taking on 2 AI enemies. The good thing about Starcraft 2 to help with balance is that you have two ways to configure the AI, as shown in this figure.
Set how hard the AI is.
Set the handicap, which reduces the hitpoints for units and buildings.
Also, you can set the game speed, which can adjust the game to the player’s skill. So, we played at normal speed against 2 Zerg AIs, one set to medium and the other to easy with no reduction in hitpoints.
My brother and I perhaps too defensive in our gameplay, but we were doing well for quite a while. I had expanded to 3 bases and build a good army of 4 colossus, 15 zealots, 2 Void Rays, close to my goal for an attack. I was in the middle position on the map, which I thought was weak because there were three ramps up to my first base, giving me different positions to defend. We suffered about 3 attacks but beat them back, with increasing casualties each time. My brother’s marines helped the third attack from wiping out my main base, where they managed to take out my first Nexus. Still, I had two others and managed to rebuild my forces. But I was concerned–their mutalisk units seemed to do a lot of damage. I wasn’t sure what was the best counter. Then, as I built back, they sent a small attack at my brother while the largest attack so far in the game came around my backside.
It was a devastating attack, both on my morale and units. My entire first base was destroyed. My second and third Nexus buildings were destroyed, as well as most of my production buildings. Worst, my workers were destroyed while trying to escape. That meant that I could gather no more materials and I had no way to create any other building. My brother and remaining forces finally destroyed the Zerg attack, however. He lost his entire second base, and I lost my primary base and most of my second and third bases. I decided to build what I could with my remaining resources, but a lack of vespen gas meant that I would not build very powerful units. I managed to get out a couple more more powerful units, the rest I spent on creating Zealot grunts.
This about 40-45 minutes in the game, and I was left with this for an army:
2 Immortals (one of which was probably half health)
It was a far cry from the army I had at one point, and further from my goal. I felt utterly defeated. My brother had a similar force, though he had a couple of medic units, about 4-5 aircraft, and upgraded marines. The computer then attacked us again with a much smaller force, but it had a demoralizing effect. I then told him it was time to go down in glory like in a Sam Peckinpah movie. Though he was reluctant, wanting to try to rebuild, I told him that I couldn’t build or gather anymore and that we were at our strongest for the rest of the game. So, we left in unison, going for the base that we thought was the weakest.
It was a path that skirted their main force, but we hit the weaker player’s main base. At that time, player 4 had not created a second base. We then moved to Player 3′s base 4, as shown in the map above.
At this point, our confidence surged because we did, in fact, attack at the right time–the AI had sent a lot of their forces in the three recent attacks. We briefly debated what to do next, but we decide to charge the main base, again with the idea that we were at our strongest. We had lost few units but several were weakened. And we pulled off a destruction of their strongest base. It was a costly campaign thus far, with my losing 2 Void Rays, both Phoenix units, 1 Immortal, 5 zealots. My brother had similar casualties so that we were probably at 40-50% of our original force. At this point, we stopped to heal, though I was nervous about the remaining bases gathering forces. But we healed our strongest units and then moved on.
afterwards, we lost few units and pulled off what I thought was a great comeback, one of the best game experiences I’ve had in a long time. In the graph of the game, my resource gathering was trending upwards for half the game and then dropped to zero. Player 3 and 4 were flat in resource gathering until the very end, whereas my brother and I had a pretty sharp increase in the first half. But at the point where we lost bases and my ability to gather and build, even the graph showed a game that seemed over with. The unit graph, though, showed a slightly different story, one that gave us a chance with our last ditch attack.
Starcraft 2 might not have many features of other RTS games, but I think the balance in the game makes up for much of that. Without a doubt, this one experience has sucked me into the game.
One way of looking at gaming is where it occurs. The mapping of gaming at our house at different times tells a story about our family, about roles and embedded rules and boundaries. It’s not a particularly unusual and even interesting story to any one other than me. But I find the effort to make the map and tell the story interesting.
I’ll assume a simple definition of gaming–places where we play computer, board or card games. I was tempted to look at it with Edward Soja’s work on spaces or Denis Wood’s work on maps, but I think that type of analysis works at a larger cultural level. But it’s at the back of my mind because 1] a family has its own micro-culture and 2] the larger culture is still in play in our homes. A home, even before we move into it, has its own map–a dining room, living room, bedrooms–and we have ideas what goes on in those rooms and who does it, ideas often formed by our culture. For example, when we were looking at houses, our agent constantly tried to direct my wife’s attention to the kitchen, even I do probably the majority of the cooking, especially then. Even though we explained that I’d have a much greater interest in the kitchen, the agent [a woman] continued to call my wife to the kitchen in each house.
Gaming Before kids
The first map shows the gaming spaces in our house before we had kids. Our computers were in separate rooms, and my wife played computer games though rarely. We played several board games between ourselves and with friends at the dining table. The significant point is that little of our common space was used for gaming, and the primary game spaces were separate from each other. These computers notably faced the wall so that the gamer’s back was to the rest of the room. We didn’t own a game console at this time.
The game spaces reflect our marriage at the time–having married in our mid 30s, we still needed and pursued our individual interests, but we made time to come together. You can almost see that in the map as the place where we played games together was between where we gamed separately.
Game spaces before kids
Some parts of the house were undefined in that they had little or no purpose, except as maybe storage. The common game area was meaningful in that it’s one area where we developed our relationship as a couple. Even though I can’t say that we developed our roles through gaming significantly, I think our playing games together reinforced our relationship as one of equals.
Gaming In my childhood home
This is a map of gaming in the house where I grew up. [I grew up in several houses, but this one differs little from the others.] It’s similar to our pre-kids home in that there is little game space, and little of it in a common area. For the most part, we gamed in our rooms–on the bed, floor or desk. I didn’t have computer or video games growing up, although I graduated high school in 1982. Besides not being a wealthy family [I didn't dream of asking my parents for a video console], I was more into playing sports and reading. In later years, when I was in college and met the family for the holidays, we did play games at the dining table–card games mostly but also some traditional board games. Our kitchen, dining area, and living room were almost one room, broken up by visual dividers, such as a sofa splitting the areas.
The kitchen and dining area was always the focus of our houses growing up for many reasons, and our holiday gaming emphasized it all the more. It was loud and the center of activity. Players changed seats, new ones joining as other took breaks. Although my parents didn’t play much, they did come over and watch and talk with those who played. At that time, I developed a love for gaming because it felt good, a way to interact with family. In a sense, gaming removed the familial roles because in a game, everyone plays as equals. And as most adults find, it’s hard for their parents to allow them to grow up. For me, gaming was a way to do that. For example, my mother tends to ‘mother’ me because I’m the youngest, usually by telling me what to do although I know what needs to be done. It’s can be very irritating, as you might imagine. But when the family played games, she was no longer telling me what to do. The games wouldn’t allow her to do that.
So, although the game space here looks similar to what my wife and I had, it was much different because of how it changed roles among parents, siblings, and children.
Games spaces in my parents' home
What does our house look like now when mapped with gaming? Significantly different than before. Because my wife and I now work at home more frequently, I’ve included those spaces as well. I’ve also included the more common areas we play portable games–my wife on her iPhone, the kids and me on the DS.
Games spaces after kids
Unlike pre-kids when my wife and I were more isolated in our individual gaming, no one really games alone, even if on the DS because someone is going to ask what you are doing or even sit beside you to watch or help. That doesn’t mean no has privacy because we believe that if you ask for it, you should be able to have it. It’s that no one really asks for the privacy or complains.
I rarely play PC games anymore for many reasons, but one is that when I played PC games, I was cut off from the family. My wife commented on it, feeling that I was literally and figuratively turning my back on the family. I gave up gaming for a while, but realized that I enjoyed it too much. I thought a console might be a compromise, so I purchased a PS2 and initially focused on games to play with my son, like Teen Titans. I eventually played my own games, but the difference was significant. My wife can now talk to me while I play, and I can easily pause the game and interact with others. Sometimes, my wife watches and even helps. For a while, she played console games with my son, too.
My first reaction to seeing this map was ‘wow, we play a lot.’ But maps don’t tell time or duration, just a perspective of space over time. I think the map has two significant stories.
Our kids are important to my wife and me, and we spend a lot of time together. And we have so many more game spaces because of the children. The different platforms might seem an obvious reason for the variety, but I think that is secondary to the interests and to the children.
Similarly, the spaces reflect the parenting approach that my wife and I take, which is to foster as much openness and sharing as possible. None of spend much time in our bedrooms. Instead, we play [and work] in open, public places. Not to be critical of other parents, I know that others have a very different approach where children are more encouraged to be alone or, at least, separate from the parents.
As a result, we have a shared interest in gaming, too, a context in which we create and share stories. For example, my son has recently thrown himself into Assassin’s Creed 2, and he has been telling his experiences, even though we have seen and heard them, even if only piecemeal. My son loathes timed quests in games . . . hates them with a passion. But, rather than give up, he persisted until he completed the task. He told the story about himself, how he kept trying different strategies to complete the task and then telling the game’s story as well. Games are a kind of water-color talk for the family.
Another effect is a kind of self-censorship, particularly on my part. Because I primarily play on consoles, I don’t play games that might inappropriate for my kids. Sometimes. I’m not particularly interested in violent games, but I’m interested in some horror games. But when I played Doom 3 on the 360, my son watched and was really unnerved. Now, I could have asked him to go to another room, but I choose to turn it off, to find something in which I could include rather than exclude him. Now, I play Silent Hill – Shattered Dreams only when the kids are not home. I don’t even play it late at night because I don’t want to turn down the sound.
The boundaries are fuzzy as well because so much of the house is public and open for gaming. The kids have their rooms, which my wife and I respect as their areas. But I don’t see a ‘mother’ room or ‘mancave.’ No one establishes a territory. The house space is not gendered [that I can tell], which is again something of a conscious effort. My daughter doesn’t feel excluded from any of these game spaces because games are not treated as a male hobby.
I know that we’re not unique. We know a couple of parents who have a similar home, where parents and children share. We don’t even call the rooms ‘the den’ or ‘living room.’ Instead, we jokingly call them now the ‘Wii room’ or ‘big tv room,’ even the ’360 room.’ But the truth is that it’s a changing map, and, now that I’m aware of it, I’m watching what we do where and how the space affects us.
And with that, I’m going to end here so that I can play some Rock Band with the family . . . wait for me!
Okay, I find this trailer pretty enticing, even though it’s not entirely original.
Yet, where do gamers fit into this story? Are they in the dark future world, or do they play in the pre-Braniac world? Either way, gamers are playing as their own character creations. That might be a strong appeal for RPGs, but comic book games are different. I’ve watched the game trailers for DC Universe Online, and while they look okay, they don’t entice me the way this trailer does. The fact is that I want to play that story setup, not whomp on some thugs to gain control of my powers.
I think moreso than normal action or role playing games, MMOs are repetitive, which is a fault of the genre although some MMOs make that repetition fun. But, as noted before, comic book games suffer even more than most games from repetitive gameplay because comics books are interesting for their character development and the stories. Anyone who wants to play DCU Online after watching that trailer will be assuredly disappointed because of the game design. How does this game being a massive multiplayer make it better than a limited multiplayer game?
Imagine a much smaller scale for a multiplayer game in which gamers play one of the named villains or heroes–100 or so players per game instance. There’s no leveling. Instead, there’s a sort of endgame design, but one with many of permutations. Multiple paths, multiple endings. Gamers can play their individual game so that they don’t have to all be logged in at the same time, but the characters play and affect the game world so that when the other games log in, they have to deal with the changes, maybe reversing or furthering the change. When that particular instance reaches a conclusion, maybe you then go find another and play it, to see a vaguely familiar game that is very different. In that way, it’s not about identical repetition, as in most MMOs. Instead, it’s more like iterative gaming.
Do the gamers manage to change the world or not? It might even be that there are ambiguous endings. The focus on playing is to resolve that objective and deal with the impediments. It’s not about delivery or rat killing quests. It’s about meaningful interactions, finding ways to change the world.
Badly needing a break from work Wednesday night, I asked the kids if they wanted to play another adventure from the Star Wars game that we started. They bolted from the computer, ‘yes!’
I told them the name of the story [Building a Better Dreadnaught], which obviously gave away what was going on in the game. Grace exchanged Ahsoka for a much more powerful Aayla Secura. Overall, this was more of a role-playing adventure session with no combat. I was trying to teach them while in game about what they could do, so I was giving them a few hints, like searching places. They tended to focus on talking to characters as the main means of getting info, as opposed to looking for themselves. They are still trying to gain their confidence and to look at alternatives rather than the first idea that comes to them. Again, I feel that I was trying to get them to talk with each other and agree on a plan, not arbitrarily but for good reasons.
Also, I had a planned story around their undercover attempt, which would fail. But the kids had the dice rolling their way all evening. So, I was scurrying for a plan when Gage provided me a great opportunity.
I thought this session was too talky for them, but, no, they assured me that they really liked the game. They wanted to play more and looked forward to the next one.
The game starts on the Nelvaan snowy plains. Secura and Fisto are wearing the uniforms of the assassins to try to get into the separatists’ base on Nelvaan. I tell that their assignment is to 1] find out what’s happening on Nelvaan and 2] find out where the separatists are building their weapon.
The kids have the Delta Squad clones and Captain Rex with them. I ask them to place their characters and ask them to think what clones, if any, are going with Secura and Fisto and where the others are. At first they wanted to take 3 clones with them into the base, but I mentioned that the Separatists might not want all of them and kill them except for one. The kids talk and decide to take only Sev. The others are in cover further away and track Secura and Fisto. They approach a cave they think is the base and indeed see a T1 loading crates onto a small ship with two commando droids, a chameleon droid, a separatist commando, and a Techno Union Warrior.
Sep commando – ‘Halt! Who approaches? Take another step, and you’re dead where you stand!’
Secura – ‘We are the assassins!’
commando – ‘What assassins? What are you talking about?’
Fisto – ‘We were hired to kill Lem Garon. And we were told to come here.’
commando – ‘Urm. Hold on.’ [summons droid to guard and then leaves for the cave. He returns moments later with General Loathsom.]
Loathsom – ‘What assassins . . . are you?’ [speaks in a halting gutteral, aggressive voice]
Fisto – ‘We killed Lem Garon as hired. Our comm device was damaged in the fight–’
Loathsom – ‘Fight? What . . . . assassins get in a fire fight . . . on Coruscant?’
Secura – ‘There were two Jedi with him.’
Loathsom – ‘And you . . . escaped from the . . . Jedi?’ [His tone is very incredulous.]
Fisto – ‘Yes. I mean, no, we killed them?’
Loathsom – ‘You killed . . . Jedi? You two? Impossible!’ [He orders more droids.]
Fisto – ‘Yes, but we snuck up on them and hit them with grenades.’ [I ask Gage to roll for persuasion. I set Loathsom's doubt very high at 19. Gage rolls a 20.]
Loathsom – ‘That is . . . interesting. Who is the clone?’
Secura – ‘A prisoner.’
Loathsom – ‘Kill him. We need . . . no prisoners.’
Fisto – ‘But he’s a member of the famous Delta Squad. We could possibly get valuable information.’ [Again, I ask them to roll, and Gage throws another high, 19. I'm wishing he could throw my d20 at games.]
Loathsom – ‘Well . . . then, you are . . . in time. We have loaded . . . and are leaving. Your next assignment . . . awaits.’
[We switch maps to a ship interior. Sev is put into a detention chamber and the assassins are told to rest for the journey to Concordia. The NPCs go to assigned stations to pilot the ship, check the engine, guard the prisoner, and man the one canon onboard.
Gage then talks aloud, to both me and Grace, proposing two options--1. Try to take over the ship by throwing the droids in the air locks, or 2. explore the ship for clues. Grace wants to fight, but I remind them of their objectives. Secura and Fisto decide to split up and to look for information.]
Secura [approaching the commando at the reactors] – ‘Can you tell me what’s going on here?’
commando – ‘What? We’re going to Concordia? Do you know how to stabilize reactor cores? If not, you need to leave this area.’ [Secura leaves.]
Fisto – ‘T1, I need to know what were you doing on Nelvaan?’
T1 droid – ‘Sir, all procedural routines are accessible in my data logs. Please refer to the T1 version 683 user manual for access to those logs and any other functions. This T1 unit has completed its routine and is shutting down for hibernation until the ship arrives at Concordia.’
Secura [going to the Techno Union Warrior/scientist, who took something from the crates and is working in the small workshop on the ship] – ‘What are you doing? Can you tell me what is going on?’
warrior – ‘What? Why are you asking such questions, assassin? You have your job and I have mine. You do not look smart enough to put a slave bolt on a droid.’
[Secura leaves and heads for the bridge, going directly to Loathsom. Meanwhile, Fisto addresses the commando who is now in the hangar.]
Fisto – ‘So, we are headed to Concordia? Can you tell me what is the crates?’
commando – ‘You assassins ask a lot of questions.’
Fisto – ‘We can’t be too careful. Besides, I do not trust Loathsom?’
commando – ‘What?! What are you saying?’
Fisto – ‘I’m only saying that I do not–’
commando – ‘You had better be careful what you say. Why are you suspicious? You are a hired assassin anyway.’ [He puts his hand on his blaster.]
Fisto – ‘I am only saying that I do not think killing Lem was wise. We should have –’
commando – ‘ah, I see. A separatist general want-to-be. We all question sometimes what we do, but these generals have a bigger picture. They know things you and I do not. Stay in your place and keep a low profile.’ [He walks away, still somewhat suspicious but needing sleep.]
Secura appears on the bridge.
Loathsom – ‘What are . . . you doing . . . here?!’
Secura – ‘I wondered if you could tell me–’
Loathsom ‘Tell you nothing!!’ [His anger is intense. Gage then Grace, 'Leave! He's getting mad!' Grace isn't quite picking up on the verbal cues as I thought she might. But at Gage's urging, she leaves and then heads to the cannon manned by a droid. She takes the droid and throws it in the shaft. I stop her and explain that if she really wants to do that, I'll be forced to react. She retracts the action and goes back to the rest area where the Techno Union Warrior is asleep.
She picks up on it and goes to the area where he was working. I ask to roll for all three work areas, and she, too, has the god of dice with her. She finds nothing at the first two stations but at third, the display shows the following message that I give them on a slip of paper:
Gholyhu wr Pdod Ydglwk rq Guxfnhqzhoo
Gage immediately sees it for what it is and begins to work on breaking the code. He tries a couple of Caesar codes but they are wrong. I then tell them to hang onto the message. They might find a clue later. But they still fret about solving it.
The ship then lands and we use a third map. I ask what has happened to the other clones. They say that they have followed at a great distance and are on the other side of the planet, where they are monitoring.
When Secura and Fisto exit the ship, I position a host of powerful characters, including Durge, to discourage a possible fight . . . for now, at least.]
Durge – ‘Loathsom! Finally you are here . . . I want off this moon before I can no longer resist killing all the Mandalorians here. You brought the slave circuits?’
Loathsom – ‘Yes. We were able to use Nelvaan’s low gravity and extreme cold to remove traces of the Hive Virus.’
Fisto – ‘Hive Virus?’
Loathsom – ‘Yes . . . it can drive one . . . insane in a few hours.’
Durge – Who are you?’
Loathsom – ‘Oh, these are . . . the assassins we sent after . . . that talkative Lem Garon. You should like them . . . Durge. They killed 2 Jedi.’
Durge – ‘You two? Jedi killers?!’ [I ask Grace to roll . . . and their luck is with them still because she gets a 17 with a +5 bonus. I might have to rethink my checks and saves.]
Secura – ‘The Jedi did not see us and we threw grenades that killed them both?’
Durge – ‘Tell me you were not so scared that you forgot to get their light sabers!’
Secura – ‘We did not have time . . . others were coming.’
Durge – ‘Well, then, it is good to have more than 1 Jedi hunter in this tin pile of an army’ [He laughs and Secura, Loathsom, and Fisto laugh too, where it then becomes a silly laughter.] ‘And what is this clone trooper? Why is he not dead?’
Secura – ‘We thought that he might be questioned, to reveal more of the Republic’s strategy and plans.’
Durge – ‘Highly unlikely. I have questioned clones before, and they are too well trained to succumb to threats and torture.’
Fisto – ‘But what if we infect him with the Hive Virus and send him back?’
Loathsom – ‘Durge, I believe we have found someone cunning enough to match you!’
Durge – ‘That is a good idea . . . we could leave a small group here while we leave with the slave circuits. Then attract a republic ship.’
Fisto – ‘On second thought, that might not work.’
Durge – ‘No, it is good. In fact, you two assassins will stay here with the droids.’
At this point, I stop the adventure. I really wasn’t sure where to go with the adventure for a while. I expected their undercover attempt to fail, but they had those 3 very high rolls that prevented their discovery. The plan was to imprison them all and then have Delta Squad report their capture, leading to another adventure in which two more Jedi join Delta Squad to free the prisoners. But Fisto’s idea was a good opportunity.
However, Gage is very anxious. He wants me to play on their side, but I explain that I will take care of things. He starts talking about a very complex plan for the next time, but I remind him of Durge’s idea–to leave a small group behind. And I point out that their group already includes 3 very powerful characters in Rex, Fisto, and Secura. He then sees where I’m going and he relaxes until he remembers the coded message. ‘How are we going to solve it?’ I tell him that there’s still more to come and they might find a clue for solving it . . . if they pay attention and remember to look around.
Even though my son and I have enjoyed playing Star Wars miniatures, I’ve wanted to adapt for it a while, to make it more like an rpg. Now, you might ask, why not play a straight-up rpg?
We have a lot of star wars minis, not to mention some 10 maps. Many of these characters aren’t very useful in a normal Star Wars mini game, but in an rpg, they become very useful.
The Clone Wars offers very good, strong female characters that my daughter likes.
The Star Wars universe, especially the Clone Wars, is really quite rich in existing characters, plots, and intrigues. It provides both ready-made resources as well as room for creative ideas.
The kids know these characters and can play them while adding their own touches. We don’t have to spend gobs of time creating characters and stats.
Though lacking the subtlety of d20 RPGs, adapting minis allows for simple but flavorful checks and rolls. The story and the interaction are the most important parts of playing while the checks add some element of chance but do not dominate the game.
My kids love stories and role playing, so giving them the chance to interact in the game in ways other than fighting is a sure success.
I’ll briefly describe what I did to adapt the game and then describe our first session.
Adapting the minis game
I explained to the kids that they could talk to each other, could interact with anything that was logically on the map or on fallen characters, and could take whatever action they wanted as long as it wasn’t impossible or unreasonable. For example, the kids wanted to immediately leave for a planet and started pulling characters to include in their ship, but I reminded them that they couldn’t simply recruit without going through the proper channels, which was the Jedi Council in this case.
Star Wars minis have only basic numerical traits–hit points, attack, defense, and damage. I broke down skills into basic types: physical feats, computer hacks/repairs, stealth/tracking, dialogue/persuasion, demolition/traps. Anyone could roll a d20. To figure bonuses, I used the characters’ attack bonus but only if it made sense for the character to have that bonus. For example, Sev is a sniper and would have stealth or tracking abilities. Fixer, on the other hand, would have computer hacking, repairs, and trap bonuses. Jedi always get dialogue/persuasion bonuses. To make it work, I found that using 1/2 the attack bonus worked well. For example, if Ahsoka was trying to convince a character to talk, she would get a +5 persuasion bonus on her roll–her attack bonus is 9, so half of that is 4.5 which I round up. If a clone trooper tried to persuade, he would get no bonus. [Yeah, there's threaten, but I consider that different and would use it, if the kids called out that specific action.]
Death and dying are a little tricky. Normally in minis, a character who loses all his or her hit points is removed from the game. I adjusted this somewhat but only for major and secondary characters–once they lost all their hit points, they were unconscious. If their surviving party members won or even retreated, the fallen character lived to fight another day. Fallen characters cannot be revived during a battle, however. But I think I need some way to allow the players to render an NPC unconscious, particularly a grunt who might give up information. I think a simple option is to allow them to say they are shooting to maim or stun, not kill, before an attack.
Other than this, I stayed with the standard rules for Star Wars minis. [Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast no longer has the Star Wars license, and they have removed the minis products and downloads from their site, so I have no active link for the rules. The closest that I have found is this Word doc at the Kansas City Star Wars Minis site. You can still find starter sets and boosters on Amazon for decent prices.]
The result? So far, it’s working wonderfully. It’s fairly easy to get up and running, and the kids really wanted to keep playing it today in our first session. I may tweak it, but I think it’s a great intro to tabletop RPGs without getting bogged down in the details that put off young kids who just want to play. In fact, after we finish our little campaign, I might create something like it to use with my son’s friends. I love the idea of a house full of kids playing some tabletop games, especially if they played together when they’re older.
For those who don’t want to read the following, I really enjoyed when my daughter suggested taking the uniforms of the would-be assassins and pretending to be them to go to the next planet. I wasn’t expecting that at all and it forced me to rethink the next adventure somewhat. It was exactly the sort of thing, though, that I was hoping for, the bit of creative thinking.
As we put up the game, my wife says, ‘You’re making up a story for them? They are really enjoying that.’ Even my 87-year-old mother watched and listened for a while.
Indeed, as we played, we had a time quite unlike any that we’ve had playing any other game. It’s that experience in which we sort of let go of parent-child-sibling roles and interacted with each other as gamers. We didn’t forget those familial roles, but, for an hour, they were less important than the ones we played. I’ve played a lot of video and other board games with my kids but none of them were like this experience. And I think the reason is that the face-to-face gaming had something to do with it, a lack of a screen. But I think it was as much the fact the kids had only a few rules but lots of room for creativity. When my kids play games like Lego Batman, for example, they enjoy just running around and doing their own thing. I’m reluctant to call this minis RPG adventure a sandbox. It was much closer to an improvisational performance. I don’t want to exaggerate what we did, but it was different than games that I’ve played with my kids in the past, except maybe when they were very small and we’d play with figures in some ad hoc adventure and conversation.
But gone were the typical frustrations of computer gaming, of trying to deal with awkward controls, bad cameras, and poorly implemented cooperative action. I can’t tell the number of times someone gets upset about the other going a different direction. There was none of that frustration. Similarly, my daughter normally hates playing the minis because it’s all about moving and combat. But she likes the characters and will occasionally play with them, acting out some scene on the coffee table. This time, she was into the game. More importantly, she had a couple of really big moments that made her feel good and gave her a reason to brag.
I’m no Wil Wheaton, but here it goes. To set it up, my daughter is 8 years old, and my son turns 11 in a month. My son and I had been talking about playing some miniatures for a while. We were at my mother’s with a subset of the minis when I had the idea for a story, something to get both kids to play. I spent the night before thinking through the details of the intro part and the first adventure, collecting my cast of characters, choosing the maps, and figuring out the locations of key characters and objects on the maps.