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December 27, 2009

Gaming in 2010

While 2009 wasn't a gaming-free year by any stretch of the imagination, I'm really looking forward to what 2010 will bring gaming-wise.

Let's start with computer and video gaming. Vickie mentioned re-installing Neverwinter Nights on our PCs a couple of days ago, which I did last night. We intend to play through the two retail expansions, Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark. I also installed the now-free MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online on both our PCs on a whim; I don't know whether we'll do anything with it, but Vickie was impressed by the graphics and it might be a bit of fun after we polish Neverwinter Nights off.

After having had a taste of what I like to call “got your back gaming” thanks to Halo 3: ODST's Firefight mode, I find I'm more interested in that kind of pick-up-and-play co-op gaming than Halo 3's regular multiplayer; I'd like to delve into it some more next year. Also, while it probably doesn't count as a 2010 purchase, I bought a copy of the co-operative roleplaying shooter Borderlands yesterday; I hope to be able to play with my stepson (who got it for Christmas) and some friends from the Xecutive Order boards online.

I'm still keen on single-player experiences, though. Mass Effect 2 (by the makers of Neverwinter Nights) hits shelves at the end of January and I've already pre-ordered the Collector's Edition. If I don't pen a review of Borderlands first (depending on whether the paper already cribbed a review from IGN) it'll likely be the first game I review for the paper in the new year. Then, of course, Halo: Reach arrives toward the end of the year, although I'm also curious to see how its multiplayer works after sinking hours upon hours into Halo 3's robust offering.

Speaking of the paper, with any luck I'll be able to land a gig as the weekly local game reviewer! It mightn't pay, but I hope I'll be able to get to sample some new games at the cost of a three-hundred word review!

The future's looking bright on the tabletop front, too. On January 9th, I'll be the superuser for a session of FreeMarket, the tabletop roleplaying game of a brightly humorous future; Vickie, Brett and Sandy, a friend from work, are lined up to be users. If all goes well, I hope I can organise another few sessions, not to mention put some money toward the retail version (per my previous posts, I downloaded the beta test rule set) when pre-orders go live in March.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I got back together with a couple of friends who're working on getting a couple of regular Dungeons & Dragons games going. They currently have one with their young 'uns but are also looking to get one going with some grown-up gamers (oxymoron?) too.

If there's any overal plan here, it's to cut down on gaming-related spending. This isn't a strictly fiscal measure; I'm trying to avoid falling into my old trick of spending on parties that may never happen (as when I rabidly bought supplements for RPGs that I barely, if ever, played or game-mastered). While I'm keen on Halo 3: ODST and Borderlands for their strong co-op content, I feel my investment is safe because I have folks who own the games on my friends list whom I like and enjoy playing with; likewise FreeMarket, which someone who's never gamed in her life is keen to play.

Still, them old "gamer genes" kick in every now and again, especially when I'm reading about Borderlands' two chunks of downloadable content: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and the upcoming Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot. At around 1,600 Microsoft Points in total, they'd only cost me around $30, but I've only just got the main game and I have no idea whether anyone else on my Friends list has them. Steady, Rob...

December 20, 2009

Avatar

This is a damn hard one to write about. Let me just say right off the bat that Avatar is good. The only way you could possibly waste your money seeing Avatar is by not going to a 3D session. This is the first feature I’ve seen in 3D (my first exposure was that Captain EO short with Michael Jackson at Disneyland in 1988) and it’s definitely a fine example of the technology – because it just works. There aren’t any of the “engineered to have something jump out at you because wow it’s 3D” moments that confined the technology to novelty status in the past. We put the polarised, horn-rimmed plastic glasses on and within a few minutes forgot we were wearing them, even Vickie who had to wear her glasses underneath them. The 3D works just as well with the live action footage as it does with the CGI. I was even a bit worried when I walked out that dear old 2D, even hi-def, wouldn’t look quite as good any more.

Speaking of the CGI: It’s top notch. The conceit of the avatars – clone beings “piloted” by humans via mental link – really brings it home, because we got to meet the people whom the CGI character models are based on before we met the CGI character models. The real “holy shit!” moment for me wasn’t so much the waking of Sully’s (Sam Worthington) avatar so much as when another avatar walks in and talks to him and I thought, “Hey, that’s Sigourney Weaver, but that’s not Sigourney Weaver because she’s too tall and has blue skin and huge eyes, but that’s Sigourney Weaver!”

And the rest of it… well, it might be a bit too day-glow Disney wonderland, but what the hell, I loved it anyway. Director James Cameron manages to crank the Sense of Wonder up to eleven; Vickie’s decided that she's moving to Pandora as soon as they grow her an avatar.

If Avatar falls down in any respect, it’s the plot. Not the story, so much; it flows well, it doesn’t feel stretched across the film’s three hours (although my bladder did), the dialogue is solid, the acting is fine (especially Stephen Lang as the menacing Colonel) and the action kicks arse.

Still and all, Avatar is this generation’s Dances With Wolves, with an extra helping of environmental consciousness. It’s not so in-your-face and preachy as Kevin Costner’s epic, but it doesn’t really dig into the themes it’s presenting. It’s a very black-and-white film, and while Cameron, cast and crew do such a great job that you don't feel conned into investing in the movie, I came away wishing that it had included a few more shades of grey. All it seems to say is, “We humans suck.” I guess it's meant to be a cautionary tale, a warning of what we are and how much worse we could get unless we change, but there's gotta be hope in there, a better direction we could take if we choose to. Avatar didn't really offer one.

On the other hand, it wasn't trying so hard to club me over the head that it forgot to entertain. I found Avatar a fun film, a rollicking action-adventure, and I’d be glad to see any deeper greys left to the sequel that’s already being murmured about. Maybe this first film is the Star Wars to the next one’s Empire Strikes Back.

So go and see Avatar. Give me a ring or pop over afterward, ‘cos I’d like to talk with you about it, but see it and SEE IT IN 3D.

December 15, 2009

The Gift of Kindness

I don’t doubt that you’re stressing about Christmas presents as much as we are at the moment. We have local family to buy for; kids and grandkids in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast; parents, aunts and uncles in Sydney and overseas. Plus, there’s the annual avalanche of cards.

While still on my FreeMarket kick, I went and re-read the Guide to Gifting that Jared and Luke wrote for the game. You know what? I found myself wishing that folks worked this way normally. Christmas might be the season to be jolly, but accusations of crass commercialism aside (to me, they seem to miss the point) it’s also the season of emotional blackmail.

Maybe I’m overstating for effect. Still, ponder how you feel when confronting the meme, “I have to get gifts for people by a deadline.” Confusion. Frustration. Uncertainty. Guilt. Indebtedness. What do you get them? Will they like it? Is it within your budget, especially when you have to buy presents for anywhere upwards of ten other people by the same deadline? And what if you just can't find anything right for that person? Gift vouchers? That's just exchanging money, especially if your recipient is getting you one too! And you can't just not get them something! It's not allowed! Say you get proactive, buying something utterly awesome as soon as you see it but holding onto it until the nearest Birth / Valentine’s / Parent’s / Christmas Day rolls around. Doesn’t it suck having to wait that long to give that gift, especially when there’s the chance they might see and buy it in the meantime?

Jesus, why do I have to be so miserable coming up to Your freaking birthday?

Don’t get me wrong; I have no issues with the eventful days themselves, but I’d prefer to use them as excuses for parties instead of obligated orgies of gift-grabbing; I’d prefer the presence of my family and friends to their presents. Plus, if someone did stumble upon "OMG that's tha PERFECT GIFT for t3h Rob!!!!!111!!1" I’d prefer that that someone gave me their gift while the "OMG OMG awsum!!!" mood was still with them.

So that’s my plan for 2010 and onward. If I see something I think would make a great gift for you, I’m not going to wait until the next Calendar Occasion. And when such rolls around, the only things I’ll expect from my family and friends are cards and RSVPs.

Especially RSVPs.

In closing, here's a thought by Scott Kurtz: Noniversary.

December 06, 2009

FreeMarket: Great Minds...

Looks like Allan Sugarbaker of Ogre Cave and I are on a similar tack:

I think everyone who’s interested in the technology of roleplaying should have a look at this. It’s the first game I know of that truly reverses “kill them and take their stuff” – all the way into “no one can die and you want to give them all presents.” And yes, it makes that work, turning it into a tense, motivating, probably hilarious saga of social climbing and idealisms of all sorts.

December 04, 2009

FreeMarket: Lord, Have MRCZ

(Yeah, I'm sure someone's already done it. Still.)

My last post explained my issue with the roleplaying hobby: the irony that, in a hobby that tends to pride itself on storytelling and exercising the imagination, prioritising character development over optimal tactical decisions is counterproductive in many sets of rules.

(Sure, sure, Golden Rule and all that, but if a set of rules doesn't cater for what you and your friends are actually doing around the table to have fun, why are you wasting your money on it?)

So what does FreeMarket do in this regard? Well, it removes the possibility of a user's profile being removed from play,* but it still keeps user death firmly on the table. The twist in the tale is that, as previously mentioned, death isn't an end; it's more a pause.

At the start of a given set of sessions, every group of users is part of the same MRCZ (pronounced “mercy”), the bastard offpsring of a company, a commune and a charitable organisation. All the users define the MRCZ in terms of its overall goal, its general operations and what it needs in order to expand and improve, giving the users direction and the superuser an idea of how best to mess with the users, i.e. such that they'll be itching to issue challenges instead of frustrated and putting the telly on. The game text also defines the MRCZ's resources (living and working space, equipment, etc.) by tier (ranging from 1, a small, startup company of a handful of friends, to 7, the FreeMarket equivalent of a major corporation).

Now while it may seem tempting to make a group that sticks to the two-guys-in-a-garage ethos, there's one big incentive for the users to improve their MRCZ's tier: Resurrection. While resurrection is always an issue of “when”, not “if”, death still means trouble for a user. A tier 1 MRCZ only allows users to return to play with the profile they had right at the beginning, minus any bionic hardware. It's only at tier 3 that a resurrected profile matches its state at the start of a session and only by tier 5 that cybernetics start being restored. I'm not sure whether this means lower-tier MRCZs have to play “hunt the body” in order to get a user's cybernetics back, but if so it's certainly fodder for more drama and challenges!

All this means that, as a dead user's profile resets to his or her last backup, “deathing,” as freemers call the act of murder, is a great way for someone to make sure a given user loses a memory that could cause that someone trouble. Add in the facts that FreeMarket is kind of lawless and that people can come back from the dead, and deathing becomes a fact of FreeMarket life that the users may well deal with on a semi-regular basis!

* A user can certainly remove his or her profile from play, both in the traditional manner (whether "this character's getting old, I want to try something else" or "thanks, folks, but I'm pretty much done with this game") or by opting out of resurrection in the event of "perfect death". My point is that the character cannot be entirely eliminated due to a bad die roll or poor tactical decision.

A Side Note on Taking Characters Out

Since my early days in the hobby, I've always wondered what a roleplaying game where eliminating a player's character sheet wasn't a possibility would be like. See, while most RPGs claim to be avenues for telling stories and freeing your imagination, their rules are often still quite tied to the hobby's wargaming roots, devoted to the challenge of "kill the other guy before he kills you" - possibly because games about action and combat are easier to grasp (and sell to young boys) than games about, well, stories. Naturally, suboptimal tactical decisions aren't good, which is a pain if you want to play out an interesting, compelling character; optimal dramatic decisions, ones that feed into more interesting story, are often suboptimal tactical decisions.

A perfect example can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons podcast of October the 9th, 2009. As an aside, I'd just like to recommend this particular series of D&D podcasts, which feature Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of the Penny Arcade webcomic, Scott Kurtz of the PVP web comic and Wil Wheaton (yes, Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation Wil Wheaton) play D&D 4th Edition with one of Wizards of the Coast's staff dungeon masters. They are hilarious, truly. If you don't have iTunes or another client for downloading and managing podcasts, you can always listen to them on the D&D site.

Getting back on track, though, this particular podcast and the one following it detail how Wil Wheaton decides that his eladrin avenger is going to break away from the rest of the party in the middle of an encounter to chase down an opponent his character has a history of emnity with. This act is in keeping with the personality and back-story Wil created for Aeofel. One of the other player characters urges him on. It could lead to all sorts of character moments, both immediately when he catches up with his enemy and in the future when the rest of the party confront him about his reckless behaviour.

But as decades-old D&D grognard wisdom holds, splitting the party is a suboptimal tactical decision. Never split the party.

Wil split the party and Aeofel is taken permanently out of play in one fell swoop by a freaking acid pit trap, in part because no one can get to him in time to pull him out.

Was dungeon master Chris Perkins being cruel or unfair? No. Was he punishing Wil? No. Perkins was running a straight session of D&D as written, with dice in full view. The trap wasn't conjured out of thin air; it had placed in its location on the encounter map before the session began. I'm pretty sure Wil got to make a perception check and failed.

There has been some offhand talk about bringing Aeofel back as some sort of revenant. But subsequent opportunities for character moments aside, such an option needs new rules through either a) some house-ruling, requiring time and effort to ensure "play balance", or b) another supplement, which would cost a regular D&D group money and would still concentrate on making such a concept tactically interesting. As it stands, all of Wil's work in making his character an interesting protagonist in a story has been rendered useless.

I will state that this is a particularly harsh example, and I believe that the Dungeon Master's Guide for D&D does include rules for non-combat challenges. But as I said in my own play report, D&D 4th Edition is at its very entertaining best when it's played as a skirmish wargame, and part of D&D 4th Edition is the risk that any given combat encounter will permanently eliminate your character from play. The "roleplaying" aspect, in the "compelling character" sense, is ultimately an extra spice that makes the tactical game a bit more fun, and if you try to give it any higher priority in a D&D 4th Edition game, you're going to be disappointed and frustrated.

And while I'm happy to play D&D with a bunch of mates, I have always been and still am interested in the concept often bandied about in RPG texts for years but jettisoned as soon as rules design commences, the RPG where the gamey aspects serve to enhance, add flavour to and perhaps even ease the process by which several people collaborate on a story that entertains them all.

Sheesh! Where did all that come from? You know, this was originally going to be a single paragraph in a post about multiregional cultural zones in FreeMarket but it just sort of ballooned when I started writing! I must've been brewing on that subject for a while. I'll return you to your usual programming in a second.

FreeMarket: Challenges, Card Decks and Memories

Freemer Fever seems to have taken hold in my brain. After my first pass of the FreeMarket beta rulebook I'm giving it a more sedate reading, spotting bugs (i.e. typos and grammatical errors) and submitting them to the bug report page as I go (Firefox's Find utility makes seeing whether anyone else has spotted a bug already easy).

I'm also thinking about how I'm going to run it for whomever decides to give it a whirl with me. I'm glad to say I've already got one person keen, a co-worker who has never played in an RPG before. I think the quirky, semi-philosophical, semi-political, off-the-wall-SF nature of the game is what hooked her, and I want to make sure she's thoroughly entertained. I've sent some requests to some other gamers, but I'm starting to wonder if I can rope any other non-gamers in. Either way, I'm aiming to run a session sometime mid-January.

Vickie's declared she's out of this one, by the way; her current condition is giving her a bit too much trouble for “sitting and thinking”, as she puts it.

Here are some of the things I've noticed about the game as I go. I'm going to try and stay away from specifics, as I don't want to give the game away and although I think it's pretty much done rules-wise, I don't really know whether anything is going to change between now and the March launch.

One distinct memory comes from finding out how the rules for challenges work. They don't use dice, they use cards – custom cards. The beta includes a PDF sheet with fronts and backs, but poor little cash-strapped me was rather horrified to discover that I'd need to somehow do up a forty-five card “challenge” deck not just for myself but for each player, plus a twenty-card communal “tech” deck.

Thankfully, I took a few deep breaths, stopped panicking and realised that the challenge decks actually feature four “suits” of identical cards, while the tech deck features two suits. So, for testing purposes, I can substitute actual playing cards. Heck, I can buy a few cheap decks and mark them up with a permanent marker if need be (hell, I've already done it with dice in order to make some Fudge dice). The game also requires a few counters, but I have enough poker chips to cover these easily. Actually, I had an idea today to use heart-shaped chocolates for Attaboy/girl counters...

I still have to wonder how many challenge decks the actual retail product is going to include and how much the lot will cost. Thankfully, the current exchange rate means I may still stand a chance of affording the game come March, but I can't see a 150-page full-colour book plus decks and counters being cheap.

On the second read-through, some of the concepts I was grappling with at first became clearer. The first is the conflict system. Any conflict of significance, whether fighting, arguing, doing a deal, hacking, building, repairing or even stealing memories uses the same process, which is cool, and I'm getting a better idea of how you manage the card deck in order to score points. The fact that either user (player) can call an end to the challenge after the first round adds more tactical weight to a user's choice of what you do each turn.

As I may have indicated in my last post, FreeMarket is pretty setting-light. There isn't much explicit detail about FreeMarket Station; no maps, few place names and minimal pictures. It gets defined in play, and therefore only the parts that are important to the users get attention. Still, both users and the superuser get a great springboard for both developing the world and inspiring challenges in the users' memories; when first creating his or her profile, each user has to define two long-term memories (events of significance in the not-necessarily-recent past) and one short-term memory (an event of significance that happened yesterday) in terms of people, places, objects, actions and/or groups, and each term must be named. This gives the superuser a working stock of characters to use to make life interesting for the users, and as they're from the users and not out of some sourcebook which only the superuser is likely to have read, the superuser knows the users are going to be interested and invested in them.

The second thing that's suddenly making a lot of sense is how FreeMarket makes a user's memories an important feature: by making them a form of currency. As previously mentioned, memories can be traded and even stolen but users can also spend their profiles' long-term memories on upgrading the profile's “experiences” (i.e. skills). This makes room for new short-term memories, which are generated from the events of the session; at the end of the session the user can upgrade chosen short-term memories into long-term memories (space permitting). This is a lot more tangible than the more abstract trope of the “experience point” or “level”.

Finally, as memories are how the user tells the superuser “this is something I find interesting about my character and want to explore in session”, upgrading them into experiences neatly says “this particular thing doesn't really interest me any more, I'm done with it”. So profile improvement is an explicit reward to the user for keeping his or her character and the world of the game in general fresh and interesting!

Now, without something to unify them, all the disparate bits of world and character can overwhelm. Which do the users (including the superuser) focus on at the beginning? How do they decide what to do next?

December 01, 2009

FreeMarket: Early Impressions of the Beta

Well, I know I don't do much tabletop RPGing at the moment; in fact, the recent game of D&D with Simon and his kids broke an eighteen-month drought. But I still dip my toe in the waters every now and again, mainly by browsing various RPG-related sites and fora.

Just recently I signed up on the website Project Donut. A rather odd name to be certain, mainly because it supports a rather odd game: the soon-to-be-released collaboration between game designers Jared Sorensen (whose games InSpectres and octaNe I've game mastered and loved and whose game Lacuna I own and would love to try sometime) and Luke Crane (whose game Burning Empires I own and would love to try sometime), called FreeMarket.

I've signed up for the beta program and have downloaded the 150-page rulebook and assorted extras, and after a loose read-through I have to say it's really odd. The setting is a whopping great space station orbiting Saturn where death isn't permanent and all basic needs are taken care of (no one goes hungry or without shelter), leaving folks free to... well, be as explosively creative as they want.

It's odd. It's got the... well, the funkiness that I think I've been looking for in the RPGs Cyberpunk and Shadowrun all along without realising it. Heaps of tech toys without going overkill on stats (or even pictures), crazy-arse ideas on the nature of humanity without Essence or Humanity stats telling you how far away your character is from going berko, and conflict that doesn't have to involve Friday Night Firefights or shotgun blast spreads. Or violence full stop. And death isn't permanent, although it certainly has effects.

It's odd. Most games I've read rely on at least one of two things to get people interested and involved: A clear concept of what characters do or the opportunity to be badasses. D&D, I think, codified the latter in its “wandering band of mercenaries” model. Cyberpunk and Shadowrun certainly expanded and expounded upon it (and added a thick icing of guns-and-cybernetics badassery), although I still think 4th Edition D&D is the best at making killing monsters and taking their stuff as fun as possible. Sorcerer, the granddady of the bunch, gets the badass factor as pure as it can probably be, abandoning setting, pattern or overt goal in favour of a core character premise that screams ambition, action, and heaven help anyone in your way.

The former concept is better seen, I think, in the more oddball games I like. In InSpectres, you're ghostbusters, eliminating supernatural pests whilst struggling to keep your company afloat. In Lacuna you're agents traversing a dream city fighting your own heart rate as you hunt monsters of the id, a situation that just begs to go all David Lynch. Burning Empires has an arse-kicking premise; you're political, military, corporate and / or theocratic movers and shakers on a far-future planet that, unless you get your acts together, is doomed. Why? They're here. I mean, just read this. Angsty, but bloody gripping!

Whereas FreeMarket... it's odd. There's the space station, which isn't really under threat although it's getting overcrowded, and all these groups with goals and agendas and the players make a group of their own out to... well, that's entirely up to the players. It's odd, because while there's nothing hugely hooky that covers me in petrol, hands me a lighter and tells me what fun it is to play with fire, I read about how every character has a set of short- and long-term memories which give the GM - sorry, superuser - characters, places and events to create challenging situations from, and how memories can be traded and rewritten and turned into skills, and how both characters and the group have reputations that fuel conflicts and one of the best ways to get what you want is to get on with folks, and... damned if I don't find myself in the oven being slowly roasted in the game's fine sautee. It sneaks up on you like that.

There is a question there: “You neither now nor in the future have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. What do you want to do?” It's a question that I don't think another RPG has bothered to ask, and it implies situations that are potentially more meaty than those supported by other RPGs on the market.

Here's a good way of looking at it. If you got hooked on that classic SF TV show Babylon 5 by its idea of a political neutral ground of scheming diplomats, wily merchants and people hoping for something better, and if you were disappointed when it turned into another (albeit bloody good) Galaxy-Spanning Space Opera, FreeMarket may be for you.

I'd love to give it a try sometime.

Anyone else? Either interested in what I've just written or willing to spend a few hours indulging me?