Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pax Porfiriana

Sierra Madre has continued on its recent roll for me. I was torn on Origins: How We Became Human, and didn't really like anything before that, but I have enjoyed High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana a great deal, all for similar reasons but all in their own quite distinct ways.

What all the games share is a deeply-researched setting. You have always had to approach Sierra Madre Games with a somewhat different aesthetic sense than other games. You can't go into it thinking primarily about game mechanisms, or how you can work the interacting game systems, or even how you are going to use the game systems to win. You need to think first about figuring out what the game is trying to say: in the case of Pax Porfiriana, it's covering and commenting on the chaotic period before the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This is not to say that the game systems are unimportant, or that you should not be trying to win. It's just to say that you will grasp the game more fundamentally and appreciate it more if you think of it as being about a power struggle between four factions in an unstable Mexico on the brink of dramatic change, change that you are trying to navigate your way through, rather than as a collection of game mechanics that you are trying to extract the most points from. As you play and come to grips with the game, the more gamerly elements will fall into place, but at the end of the day it's going to be the game's deep engagement with its subject that sells it – so build your relationship with it starting there.

The achievement of the most recent 3 Sierra Madre games (High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Profiriana) is that they've been able to mesh this subject engagement with clean, playable game systems. Previous games – American Megafauna and Lords of the Sierra Madre – took their themes too literally, cramming in representative game systems that turned out to be too many trees, not enough forest. Certainly High Frontier and the subsequent games require rather more player commitment and buy-in than a typical game to be worth the effort, but none are particularly more mechanically daunting than an average high-end euro. I found Pax Porfiriana to be much cleaner-playing and accessible than the complicated and thematically tortured Trajan, the thematic but mechanically clunky Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, or Fantasy Flight's straightforward but badly explained Android: Netrunner or Merchant of Venus, just to pick a few.

(As an aside, Origins: How We Became Human, the first of Sierra Madre's "modern" games, is an odd case. I love the idea behind the game and the systems are clean-playing and evocative. But many details of the game balance seems suspect – Acculturation is a major offender – in ways that make it not fun to play. I'm still in search of a set of tweaks that will let that game deliver on its potential. They must be pretty close at hand somewhere. Fortunately the later games seem to have gotten past this).

I think of the period covered by the game as a prequel to the great ideological wars of the 20th Century, the Spanish and Russian Civil Wars. Unlike those conflicts, which were full-on wars, Pax Porfiriana is more of a power vacuum. Ruled by a weakening Porfirio Díaz, Mexico is ready to be pushed in one of four ways.

The key to understanding Pax Porfiriana the first time out, something the rules dramatically fail to explain unless you read the historical background, is the relationship between these four competing factions: the Mexican Federal government of Díaz; the United States; the Mexican local governors, which the game views as akin to modern warlords; and the communist/anarchist rebels. Each faction is keyed by color, and is strongly linked to a "regime" (in the game, the current dominant political environment) and a type of prestige. So, for example, U.S. troops, enterprises, and politicians are blue and tend to fare well in the U.S. Intervention regime, in which the dominant political force is the U.S. actively meddling in Mexican affairs. They are likewise linked to the "Outrage" prestige, in which the U.S. is getting progressively more fed up with the anarchy on its border. Should Díaz be given a shove while the regime is U.S. Intervention, the competition to be Díaz' successor will be decided by Outrage, with a faction that has generated enough becoming governor as the U.S. annexes Mexico. On the flip side, the Communist revolutionaries are red and linked to the Anarchy regime and the Revolution prestige. Anarchy is hard on big businesses (mines and banks) but allows troop cards to move more freely. If Díaz weakens during anarchy and one player has managed to get a big enough share of the revolutionaries and their Revolution prestige points, they can take over after the elections. Díaz will have an opportunity to topple four times during the game, each of which can be under a different regime and so can be affected by different forces.

The relationships between factions, prestige, regimes, and victory are the core of the game and if you can grasp them in the context of the historical event, you will be most of the way to understanding the game. The White local warlords are the easiest: white troop and personality cards will have the Command prestige points directly on them and will themselves enable regime changes to the white Martial Law. Other factions, though, are more complicated: blue U.S. troop cards will change regime to U.S. Intervention, but the Outrage then required for victory will need to be engineered by Mexican elements. Loyalty is required to become Díaz' hand-picked successor should the regime remain in Pax Porfiriana, which can come from a variety of sources including businesses and politicians.

The rest of the game is pretty straight-ahead. Every turn you get actions to draft and play cards. You'll need to build up enterprises (banks, mines, plantations, gun stores) to generate cash. You'll want to recruit troops to protect those enterprises, extort your enemies, and provide political leverage (playing troop card frequently triggers a regime change). While you're doing that, you'll manage a wide variety of other special events, personalities, and institutions driven by action cards. There will be unrest to put down and factional strife. People will be thrown in jail. Lawsuits are filed, enterprises nationalized. The amount of historical detail here is amazing, but it is all built on top of a very clean-playing card game.

I like Pax Porfiriana for a lot of reasons. The main ones are the same reasons I like Republic of Rome: it presents a chaotic period in a chaotic way, with players struggling to navigate an unpredictable political landscape. Unlike Republic of Rome, it does it with very few actual rules and streamlined gameplay, accomplishing everything Lords of the Sierra Madre did with a fraction of the footprint. With a variety of paths to victory – Loyalty, Revolution, Outrage, and Command – players have flexibility in choosing different thematic paths. It manages to be chaotic without relying on the traditional and unsatisfying crutch of "take that" card play; events tend to mix things up more than simply hammer one player or another. The game rewards a nice balance of planning for the future and rank opportunism.

I think Pax succeeds for me because of this balance and nuance. The game comes with 210-ish cards representing enterprises, troops, personalities, and historical events (all of which are unique). In an average game you'll see maybe 60-80 of them. So each game presents only a slice of the whole environment, and will have a different texture as you have shortages or surpluses of troops or enterprises and some subset of the powerful, game-changing cards show up. On the other hand, its enough cards and a large enough percentage of the total for the game to retain thematic cohesion and present the players with calculated rather than arbitrary risk. Players are not going to be hosed for lack of opportunity – you should not have trouble building up your income and power base to be a player in the game (both of which could be problems in both Bios: Megafauna and Origins). A game which didn't generate enough enterprises or troops or cards of one faction to be interesting is certainly a remote possibility, but it's very remote and worth tolerating.

Especially in light of the game's duration, which is only about 2 hours when played correctly (the first time I played, I misunderstood a rule and we ended up inadvertently playing the Iron Hand variant which can be much longer with more players – 4 hours – and is not recommended). It's enough time to generate action, for players and factions to rise and fall and for the fate of Mexico to be decided, but it's also short enough to leave you wanting more.

So check it out. At only $35 direct from Sierra Madre, there is a lot of game in the compact box.


I'll close with some advice for teaching the game, if you're the one who gets to do that. It's my traditional advice: don't over-focus on mechanisms. Pax Porfiriana is complicated not because the game mechanisms are complicated; they are not. It's the relationships between the cards and the regimes – how the elements in the game are arranged – combined with the large number of options available to the players. So explain the factions, explain a little bit of the history. Because Pax Porfiriana has this different aesthetic, I think having an understanding of what the game is trying to say gives the players more useful context for understanding how to play it than simply running the sequence of play and explaining the individual actions.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rex: Final Days of the Empire

Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Avalon Hill's Dune. I must have played it a hundred times in the late 80s to mid 90s, enough to even have played the lousy Spice Harvest, The Duel, Landsraad, and Tleilaxu variants several times (you have to be pretty desperate for some variety to do that). Whenever someone designs some kind of stupid multi-way free-for-all euroish wargame these days (Antike, Space Empires, Sid Meier's Civilization, RuneWars, Conan, etc., etc.) I always feel like screaming “Hey! Dune did this right in 1979! Why are you still doing it wrong?” A terrific combat system, interesting deal-making diplomacy without backstabbing or force-of-personality persuasion, well-paced, with players able to come back after being out of it, and of course a colorfully drawn and faithful interpretation of Herbert's book are amongst the game's great strengths.

But it fell off out of circulation for me in the mid 90s, largely for one reason: the potentially long and unpredictable playing time. The joke was that a game could last anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours. It wasn't really a joke. While most games would finish in a workable 4 hours, the outliers are a problem especially since the fluid game situation can't just be called early and scored – if you've put in the 6 hours, you want to see how it ends.

When Fantasy Flight announced their Dune remake, sans Dune, I was intrigued mainly because they offered a 3-4 hour playing time. Could Rex get Dune back on the table, and would my fondness for Dune hold up in a truncated version and without the Dune theme? Or would it turn out that It was all nostalgia and my affection for Dune itself, and not so much the game?

I tore into Fantasy Flight last year for a run of truly wretched game designs, so I approached Rex with some skepticism. They seem to have done the right thing though, and kept the Dune game systems largely intact. Players fight over 5 strongholds on the map. They commit their armies, in the form of tokens, to battle, then win or lose on a combination of card-play and risk: each player decides how many tokens they are willing to lose, what leader to commit, and what weapons and defenses their leader will use. The loser loses everything, the winner loses just what he or she committed. Everything is decided secretly and simultaneously, which is cool, because the game has a lot of hidden information but also a fair amount of "information leakage" – you're likely to have some idea what cards and capabilities your opponent has, but unlikely to have a full picture. Weapons and defenses, along with a variety of special actions, are available each turn in a blind auction, and by blind, I mean around-and-around but you don't actually know what you're bidding on. What really makes the game then is that each faction has a variety of strong player powers that hugely impact the core systems: the Jol-Nar can see cards before they are bid on, the Xxcha can force you to do things you'd prefer not to in battle, the Empire has elite shock troops and collects all the money bid for cards. The game engine itself is fairly straightforward, but all the interesting, thematic, and rule-breaking special powers (mainly through faction’s powers, but also via the cards) are what brings it to life.

I ended up enjoying Rex more than I expected to. It does however suffer from 3 major problems.

Firstly is the expected Fantasy Flight horrifically bad graphic design. Compare the Dune map to the Rex map. Can you even easily see where the 5 victory strongholds are on the Rex map? Game-centric information is lost in a sea of visual clutter. The point-to-point map makes visualization of where the Sol Fleet is going next and which territories are at risk of bombardment hard to see. Again, compare to how clearly the same information (the Storm) is presented on the Dune map. As many will surely point out, it's fine when you get used to it, but graphical missteps pervade the design and introduce a non-trivial risk of game-breaking errors. Case in point: the last game I played, the Jol-Nar player played the whole game thinking she had the Emperor top leader for her traitor because the card background colors are not suitability distinct and not a strong element of the visual design, the reference sheet is unhelpful (the Emperor and Letnev both have 6s for their top leader and the sheet doesn't give names), and leader names have been completely genericized. It's not a mistake you make twice, but lousy presentation design basically ruined the game for her. This mistake would have been completely impossible to make in Dune. While this is a particularly egregious example, there are plenty of ways in which the presentation makes it more likely errors will occur.

Chani vs. General
Secondly, the Twilight Imperium backstory is almost completely generic and unconvincing and fails to provide any color for the game in a way which actively impedes gameplay. I knew the Twilight Imperium universe was pretty soulless, but I thought perhaps Dune's wonderfully evocative game systems would help bring it to life. One of the truisms about games, as with stories and photography, is that it helps a lot when there are people involved and not just factions or armies. This was one of the great things about the original Dune. When your leaders are Stilgar, Chani, Ortheym, Shadout Mapes, and Jamis, that means something. Even if you haven't read the book, these named characters with distinctive headshots on their large, round pieces build up associations over time and play and can be easily identified. It's been 15 years since I played or read Dune, and I didn't have to look up any of those names. I've payed Rex 5 times in the last 6 months and I couldn't tell you the names of the equivalent leaders; turns out they are Admiral, General, Colonel, Captain, and Commander. I can remember Chani has a 6 battle rating and can get worked up about her being a traitor. Not so much General.

While on the topic of the Twilight Imperium universe and its many shortcomings, I also must point out the troubling fact that Rex has almost completely erased women from the game. One of the great things about Dune was all the interesting and colorful female characters (even if they didn't always quite manage to escape genre stereotypes), and the boardgame captured this with 1 female faction leader (out of 6), 8 out of a total 30 leaders, and half the leaders rated 5 or higher. Amongst the book's “good guys”, Lady Jessica is a 5 (tied for the best Atriedes leader) and Chani a 6 (second to Stilgar's 7 amongst the Fremen). All of this has been excised. As near as I can tell, there is one female leader, Sol's Captain, but she just looks like one of the guys and you can't tell from the tiny picture on her leader piece, you need to go to the traitor card. The faction from Dune that was entirely women, the Bene Gesserit, has been replaced by alien turtles – all of whom look male to me, but it's of course a little hard to tell. Out of context it just seems dumb and like needlessly throwing away one of the interesting features of the original. In the context of a hobby with serious gender issues, it's especially frustrating and troubling.

Lastly, and most seriously, is Fantasy Flight's persistent trouble with game balance. Rex has been admirably tightened up and shortened from the original, which is great. In the process, though, it has made it far too easy for Hacan to win. As with the Guild in the original, Hacan and their allies win if nobody else has when time runs out. With Rex's greater unit replacement rates, easier leader revival, somewhat greater difficulty in playing traitors, and much larger influence (cash) supply, stalling for time and holding off players and alliances pushing for a win has become noticeably easier. Couple that with playing only half as many turns, and Hacan has won all of the 6-player games I've played, and it hasn't really ever been close. The situation is better with 4 or 5 players; 4 in fact may be the sweet spot. Unfortunately, without the tectonic stresses of 5 or 6 factions competing for Rex, the game just isn't as interesting. It becomes more of a tactical game and less of a power struggle.

Where does that leave Rex for me at the end of the day? I enjoyed it for a little while, and have to give Fantasy Flight their due for bringing this classic back to the table. Unfortunately it just has too many significant issues, and I still own Dune. Mainly it inspired me to break out my old copy of that game, and discover that at WBC they now play only 10 turns instead of 15, which would make for a game of roughly the same length as Rex – and Rex is in no way superior to Dune.

What about everyone who doesn't have access of the original? Rex is still pretty good by the modern standards of this sort of game – unlike Conan or Sid Meier's Civilization or Space Empires or their ilk, there is an interesting and solid game here (although play Eclipse with the alien races instead if given the choice). Dune itself is a tremendous piece of raw game design, showing how a number of chronic problems with this genre can be solved. While Fantasy Flight has made a number of missteps in adapting it, it's still a strong game, albeit one that will need a house rule to rein in the Hacan. It could have been so much better with more rigorous development and a less boring and sexist backstory, but it's still a game worth playing.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Risk: Legacy

Risk: Legacy is one of the most intriguing new games in recent years. Since I've been playing it a fair bit and enjoying it I've been wanting to write something about it. This has proved more difficult than it appeared.

I think the problem in talking about this game is that the design is ultimately a bit of a mess, a mish-mash of ideas without any coherence or real design focus. As such, it defies easy description. Risk: Legacy builds on Risk: Revised, but it layers on a lot of rules chrome – starting with Missiles, scars, cities, and the requisite rules for customization, with rules being almost continuously added as each packet is opened (this gets to be a fairly complicated game pretty fast). As the silly back-story of multiple cloned worlds being fought for all over the galaxy indicates, there is little creative drive behind all these game systems, and so I can't convey to you what it is all trying to do because, honestly, it's not clear. You get to put stickers on game components and rip stuff up. That's pretty cool as far as it goes. What all this is in service of though, who knows.

Here is an example that combines both game-play and thematic elements. I've tried to keep the spoilers minimal and vague, but you'll inevitably learn a little bit about the packets by reading it.

The game introduces Missiles in the rules, which you start using on game 2. You never get any explanation of what they are thematically, so you play them as just little tactical fillips (you spend them to turn a die into a 6 once per game). Later, the packets develop the missile element by giving the factions special ways to use them, mostly fairly minor. Then later, and all of a sudden, all those missiles you've been using since game 2 in marginal ways and which were never described turn out to have been serious nuclear weapons, and the game introduces mutants and radiation hazards. It's cool but disjointed and completely out of the blue. The packets also introduce biohazards, which are themselves unlinked to any of the game's other thematic elements, but get folded into the mutant thread at that point. If one had wanted a game themed around nuclear devastation, why not unify all this stuff into a coherent thematic thread, with the missiles explicitly specified as nuclear at the beginning, driving a nuclear devastation mechanic, until you get the explosive mutant event? Instead we just get a bunch of random stuff which feels like a thematic paste-on to a blender of game mechanics.

This is the thing that bothers me the most about Risk: Legacy. There is just no coherence to the storytelling. Stuff happens at random intervals. You have absolutely no idea what might be in those packets. Obviously, it's best if what comes out of the packs are a surprise, but if it's just random, there is no anticipation which might build suspense. It's just random. The customization element of the game is fun to play, but a lost opportunity to do something really interesting from a story perspective.

I think other than this, the game's biggest problem is around one key change to Risk: instead of drafting all the territories and filling up the board as in the classic game, players pick a home space, plop a bunch of armies in it, and then expand to fill up the board. This is problematic. The classic Risk had an early game of cut-and-thrust as everyone tried to get their continent bonuses, and while Australia was easy and Europe was hard, the rewards were not totally out of whack with the risks. Unfortunately the new scheme has upset this. Small continents are now much easier to control, since players start with only 8-12 armies concentrated in one space instead of 20-30+ all over the board, as in the classic game. Start areas are more dispersed, and since Asia isn't a viable setup region Australia gets a free ride. With the small numbers of starting armies, even Europe and North America are insanely difficult to consolidate. So Australia and South America become impossibly powerful, since you can get your bonus armies right away and then plink the suckers in Europe, Africa, and America every turn to deny them the bonus until they wither due to lack of units. Risk is a game of attrition, so those continent bonuses are big. Our first 4 games every single winner came out of Australia in a walk. At that point Australia had been nerfed by the various customization options, so the next couple winners came out of South America. It wasn't until game 7 that a winner came out of Europe, and it was only because South America and Australia had finally been totally hammered by scars and game events.

Risk: Legacy doesn't really deliver on its promise, unfortunately. It's still a fun game, especially if you're a Risk fan as I admit I am. If you're interested in seeing some promising mechanics in action, definitely check it out. There are great ideas here. Unfortunately, the game design itself is somewhat incoherent and we will need to wait for the ideas to be developed. In the meantime, we can have fun with stickers and scribbling on the board.

Friday, June 22, 2012

GUMSHOE Tips for Players

As regular readers will know, Robin Laws' and Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE game system has become by far my favorite roleplaying system over the past year. Much as I like it, its focus on character and narrative instead of the more traditional event-driven stories can make for a tricky adaptation for both players and GMs. There is a lot of advice and material out there for GMs, but not so much for players. So, here are are some strategies that I've picked up from playing and running games.

  • Look at your Drive. Understand it. If it’s not completely clear to you, ask your GM. Never mind your background, character flavor, or skills, your Drive is your single most important roleplaying tool. If you're ever in doubt about what direction your character should be going, consult your Drive. Nobody will ever fault you for honestly pushing your Drive, and your GM will likely thank you.
  • Don't concern yourself with equipment. Rely on your Preparedness skill instead. The GUMSHOE character sheets have no inventory lists – there is a reason for that. The GM is not out to screw you because you forgot a 10' pole. It's just not that sort of game. Let go. Pick a weapon, if appropriate, and leave the rest to Preparedness.
  • For your first few games, don't worry about investigative spends. They make sense, but only once players are comfortable with the system and its goals. One good, simple way to think about them is this: if you monopolize the GM’s time for a little while, that's a spend. If you find that a skill use you've called for has ended up highlighting your character for a non-trivial sequence, dock yourself a point or two based on your sense of how much screen time you sucked down. Once you have no points left in a skill, be careful about calling for actions using that skill that place demands on the GMs time to the exclusion of other players.
  • Think about what information you need, then look at your investigative skills to figure out how your character might go about it if you need help. Remember, GUMSHOE characters are generally highly competent, and as such their skills define them more strongly than in other games. Other systems can develop a pattern of "here's what I want to do, what skill should I roll against?", but this can cause problems for GUMSHOE because of the auto-succeed nature of investigative skills. So know what skill you’re using. The skill list has been carefully chosen to reflect the genre and style. When in doubt, you can look at your skill list and try to figure out how those skills might be useful and interesting in this scene.
  • This is tricky, but try to let scenes develop while also knowing when to end them. GUMSHOE is a character-driven game. If the GM sets a scene or introduces a character, it's something for your character to explore, have some fun with, and see where it goes. Once you've developed something a bit, try to recognize when it’s played out. The GM will try to help you here – pay attention if she is trying to shut the scene down. This is easier said than done, but scenes usually follow a logical narrative flow which you can try to grasp.
  • Recognize each player's character's strengths, as represented by their skill ratings, and let them take care of stuff in their specialties. If you have Library Use 1, that's great, but let the player with Library Use 4 take charge in an appropriate scene. GUMSHOE parties are built as teams, almost to a greater degree even than D&D parties. Let each team member shine at what they do well.
  • Recognize dead ends. If you call for a skill use and the GM doesn't give you anything interesting, there is nothing there. If you've called for Reassurance to calm down an NPC and get information out of him, and he's not forthcoming, there is no key reassuring phrase you can utter in-character that will change this. This is the magic of investigative skills ... you never have to worry about looking for something and missing it. If you use your skills, and don't get results, you can still play out the scene for dramatic purposes if there is something interesting there – but you’ve got all the information you’re going to get. It's tempting to think that anything significant the GM introduces at any point is immediately important, but that's not always true. Sometimes it's laying pipe, sometimes it's just flavor, sometimes it's a background detail. Don't beat your head against things. In an event-driven story, you can never go back. In GUMSHOE, you can.
  • Be very careful about splitting the party. This is of course a truism in D&D, where there are endless jokes about it. GUMSHOE may be a totally different game from D&D, but there remains relentless logic behind sticking together. If half the party investigates one avenue while the other half minds the store, the GM can't run a big scene without idling half the players for a significant amount of time and running the risk that skills key to resolving it are absent. If you lose the argument about what to do next, suck it up.
  • Apropos the last point, another trope of classic RPGs is to strictly cordon off player knowledge from character knowledge. Don't do this. Or at least don’t go crazy. For example, if you do split the party for legitimate reasons, don't duplicate what the other half of the group has already done because that's what your character would do and he hasn’t got that information yet. Remember, your remit as a player is to move the narrative forward and be interesting. What your character does still has to make sense of course, but don't do boring or redundant things because that's what your character would do when you as a player know better.
  • GUMSHOE is about information: getting it, understanding it, making decisions based on it. The emotional tenor of the game will be based on what kind of information we're talking about and how it's revealed, but pieces of information are the corridors, doors, and treasure of GUMSHOE. Have a plan to get the information. Follow the information where it leads. Stay focussed. Let your plans play out.

The most important overarching thing to remember goes back to where I started: unlike most RPGs, GUMSHOE is primarily character-driven, not event-driven. Don't concern yourself at all with what the GM is trying to do to your character. Ask yourself what you are doing to interestingly drive the narrative forward. The GM is not going to hose you, at least not in uninteresting ways. In fact, the only way you will end up getting hosed is if the GM is forced to hose you because you are being boring. Players have a lot of the responsibility for making a GUMSHOE story interesting, and the GM is at your mercy here. Consult your Drive and your skills to figure out ways to move the narrative forward. Most of the time you can go with just doing something obvious, because what is obvious to you in the context of your character, your drive, and your skills will usually be interesting to everyone else, including the GM. There is still plenty of room for dramatic, character-building scenes, but GUMSHOE is an investigative system which requires the players to get the information they need. Figure out what you need to know, what questions you need answered, and get those answers. Answers, not questions, move the narrative forward. Ask yourself, is what I'm doing interesting? Is it trying to answer questions based on what we've seen, what we know, or what my drive is? If it's not, come up with something different.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Lord of the Rings: Nazgul Autopsy

Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is Wizkids' latest boardgame foray into licensed property, after last year's excellent but badly produced Star Trek: Expeditions. In Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, the players play Sauron's most notorious servants, fighting the Free Peoples and killing their heroes, all the while angling to become the Top Nazgul. The box says the game is "semi-cooperative", but make no mistake – like Republic of Rome, there can be only one winner, whether it be one of the players or the game system. All of which sounds intriguing, but the game is an epic fail. It's not clear what exactly the game is trying to say, it executes badly on its murky vision, it's not faithful to its source material, it's boring, and it's ugly.

In games everything flows from system design, so that's the easiest thing to look at first. The game takes the view that from the Dark Lord's perspective, everything is a battle. So far it's a promising premise. There are three simultaneous series of campaigns: against the Rohirrim, against Gondor, and against the Ringbearer (where the metaphor starts to break down, but never mind). In pursuit of these goals, it turns out that Ringwraiths are the striving middle managers of Middle Earth, building up their departmental fiefdoms with teams of Orcs, Trolls, Mumaks, and other various and sundry resources which they then decide how they wish to commit to the Gantt charts of conquest in service of their personal promotion opportunities.

This brings us to the one clever bit in the game, the battle cup. Once a Ringwraith has chosen which battle to commit himself to, he decides how many of his resources he wishes to risk. They throw a cube in the cup for each (red for Mumak, green for Trolls, and black for Orcs, plus a special Nazgul cube to represent themselves). The game system decides how many Free Peoples to throw in – blue for soldiers and white for heroes. Additionally, the hero cubes are assigned an identity from a deck of 60 named heroes. Sometimes you get the vaunted Aragorn or Gandalf which will mean dizzying special powers, pain, and continued undeath for your troubles; sometimes you get the decidedly less fearsome Gondorian Captain. There doesn't seem to be much thematic rhyme or reason to how this happens, and the systems are very confusing, so let's not dwell on it and move on. Once the forces are arrayed, the contents of the cup is settled and fixed. Each Nazgul can then in turn pick cubes (usually 2-4) from the mix based on his tactics rating. Picked cubes do damage to the other side (so if you pick a blue Gondorian foot soldier cube, the Nazgul forces suffer one point of damage; if you pick a special Nazgul cube, you do damage to the good guys equal to your current attack rating). Sometimes you can redraw if you have the right power card. Then, you throw the cubes back in and the next player repeats the process.

While there is a truly unwieldy amount of chrome welded on top of it, this is the core idea of the game, and the only real resolution mechanism it has. So what kinds of player decisions does it drive? Since Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is a "semi-cooperative" game, the game system itself is a player. At the level of each battle, the Nazgul players want to win the battle (which grants some VPs to everyone and serves to defeat the game system) and want to kill heroes (which are a more significant source of personal VPs, and your only lever against the other Nazgul present). So, you win the battle by drawing enough friendly cubes to inflict enough damage to wipe out all the defending heroes and soldiers. That damage is absorbed in strict priority order: first the walls, second the soldiers, lastly the heroes from weakest to strongest. So the only real opportunity you have is to be the person who inflicts the right damage at exactly the right time to wipe out heroes. Too early, and you kill soldier blocks, which personally gets you nothing. Too late, and there is nothing left, or only heroes too powerful to kill. Given the inherently chaotic way in which heroes appear and cubes are drawn, this is an extremely tenuous and oblique idea on which to base a game. 

Still, at least it's simple and not too hard to grasp. Throwing cubes into the cup alters the mix is a straightforward way with some subtle implications, and there are a few – not many, but a few – choices in how to go about it. The problem comes in the truly vast infrastructure that is built on top of this. Every turn there are 7 distinct secret-and-simultaneous bids in which your Nazgul fills out his department by adding troops, getting actions cards, calling on the aid of the Witch King, altering turn order, leveling himself up (this is a WizKids game, so it's got clix figures in it whether it needs them or not – so your Nazgul's capabilities change over the course of the game), and so on. Every turn a number of side quests pop up with various benefits and costs – often reinforcements that you have to intercept or they will add to the difficulty of a plot line. There are various mechanics for giving the players some control over committing Free Peoples Heroes to battle that are somewhat opaque. All this is far more chrome than the underlying game mechanisms can accept. At the end of the day we're just choosing a quest to tackle, then adding cubes to a cup and drawing them out. The number of cubes and number of draws rarely gets that large – a truly gargantuan battle might see 25 cubes in the cup with 5 draws of 3 or 4 cubes, but the players have huge incentives to make sure that never happens. More normal, once the game picks up some tempo, is 8-12 cubes with 3 draws of 3. This just isn't a very large canvas on which to paint. All the stuff on the table weighs the game down with baroque details – especially since the font sizes are again ridiculously small so you can't actually see anything – without making it interesting or thematic. It's just tediously repetitive.

The real killer though is that not only is the game boring, it does real violence to the story it is trying to tell, or at least the one it is theoretically based on. The Nazgul were Sauron's executioners. They did his bidding, killing his enemies, leading his armies, even doing his diplomacy. They were slaves to his will. They didn't try to undermine each other with inter-office petty politics. Roman senators, yes. American senators, yes. Nazgul, no. When Sauron wanted something done, he sent orcs. When he wanted it done right, he sent men. When he absolutely, positively, had to get something done, he sent his trustiest servants, the Nazgul.  You could perhaps buy that to the extent the Nazgul had free will, they strove to outdo each other – Beowulf style – in Sauron's service. But the idea that they were constantly actively trying to sabotage each other is ludicrous.

This is just the beginning. Since this is a WizKids game, we get clicks. At the start of the game (pre-Weathertop), the Nazgul are puny, exuding no terror and unable to face down a Gondorian Captain and a couple companies of Soldiers. As the story goes on, they grown in power as they connive for favors from Sauron. I never realized Nazgul were all that interested in personal growth.

And then the details of the various game plotlines ... The Nazgul in the game personally take charge of the assault on the Rohirrim, which of course they never did. They command Mumaks, which they never did. Worse than that, the game doesn't even require them to deal with Minas Tirith at all. Even on the hardest levels, you can knock over Rohan, then hunt down the Ringbearer, and call it a day. Was not Sauron keenly focussed on Gondor, greatly fearing the One Ring might end up there? (UPDATE: it turns out we made a significant rules error. Even after you've re-aquired the One Ring, you need to complete all three quests – you just can't do Mount Doom until you've finished off Rohan or Gondor. This still doesn't make any sense, it just doesn't make sense in a different way. It also makes the game a lot harder. Good luck. My recommendation: you might want to play 2-3 turns to get the feel for the game, then restart. Because of the oblique nature of the cup resolution system, it's easy to get critically behind in beating the system in the first turn or two).

It is possible for a game to stray from the strict parameters of its source material if it can remain true to the story's emotional content. We won't get too worked up about quirky details if the big picture is clear. For example, we know from Tolkien's description of Weathertop that Gandalf alone could hold off all 9 Ringwraiths, at least for a time, and that Glorfindel was terrifying enough to cause them to retreat into the flood. We would forgive the game if, in the interest of giving the players some hope to feed their desperation, it made Gandalf somewhat less fearsome. But Lord of the Rings: Nazgul can't deliver the emotional punch, so we are left to look at this stuff.

Finally, I'll just say a few words on presentation. The Nazgul's sculpts are hard to distinguish (in the game's one concession to theme that perhaps should have raised questions about the wisdom of this entire endeavor), which leads to both significant playability problems and an inability to form an emotional connection as everyone is constantly trying to figure out which piece is theirs. The clix serves to make game-critical information much to hard to see. Font sizes are too small. The cards are not of high quality and the image grabs seem oddly murky. The board is a mess, with the quest tracks hard to identify and follow in addition to being just plain physically unattractive. All it all, it's not quite the disaster Star Trek: Expeditions was in the presentation department, but if that's your standard, that's bad.

As you may be able to tell, this game really bothered me. It's complete amateur hour. It strikes me as a version of a game which might have just emerged from its first playable playtest. It's nowhere near to being publication worthy. It needed more play testing just to figure out what it was trying to do – I don't think it's even ready to enter the phase of cleanup, polishing, and pruning.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Scoring and other problems of drama in boardgames

There was a little bit of interesting discussion over on BoardGameNews on the topic of games with convoluted, boring, or anti-climactic scoring. It got me thinking about a few things.

I think of some kind of scoring or endgame reckoning as an inherent part of the boardgame form. Games are structured player interaction, and specifically measurable goals are a natural part of the structure. Still, could you design a boardgame without any scoring at all? I don't mean by this just not tracking points, I mean no game-specified objectives of any sort: no idea of player victory as in Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, no achievements as in Power Grid: The First Sparks, nothing. Just a set of rules that defines a system through which players interact and something that specifies how the game ends, and then the players discuss how it went.

The answer is clearly yes, but it would be hard. Republic of Rome is already somewhat close. I can imagine the Republic of Rome rulebook rephrased in such a way that the victory conditions simply became game-end conditions, with the players free to interpret them however they want. In actual play this already happens, as the game's victory conditions are usefully vague on a number of key points. Players are left to figure out on their own how much they value the Republic surviving but them not winning, as opposed to the Republic falling. Also, because the routes to victory are so elusive and opportunistic, players will spend a lot of time pursuing goals of their own choosing in the hopes that it will ultimately set them up in some way for a big play. Republic of Rome wouldn't quite work if you took away the entire concept of winning and losing, but it's conceptually close enough that I could imagine something that would.

This leads me to my main point: boardgames, just like all the other media we consume, are not about winning and losing. Yes, performance evaluation is part of the form; but it is no more or less fundamental to the success of a boardgame than it is to a roleplaying game, book, or movie. In roleplaying games there are no victory conditions, but in reality players pursue well-understood core activities which present characters with challenges they are attempting to overcome, where success is victory and failure is a setback, and that sense of "winning" or "losing" drives the tension of the game even when it is not explicitly said. That tension of anticipation or expectation is what is important. That we have goals, and that pursuit of those goals creates tension and drama – even if the expectation is failure (Fiasco). The goals needn't be explicitly specified, but it helps avoid inevitable misunderstandings when they are at least sketched out.

When thinking about opaque, implied, or non-existent scoring systems, ask yourself how it heightens the tension or drama of the game. In the case of 7 Wonders, it doesn't – we pretty much know the couple people who are going to be within the margin of error of winning well before we start the tedious aspect of counting points. Having so many categories to tabulate doesn't add drama because it doesn't interestingly affect game choices, and ultimately only a couple early-game factors make or break your chances: getting a good production engine set up that works in synergy with resources you can buy from your neighbor, having a reasonably steady flow of cash in trade, and not getting stuck in an arms race.

Agricola's scoring system, on the other hand, does heighten the drama of the rest of the game. If Agricola can be said to have a theme, it is of being spread thin, of having to build a farming empire when you have to spend much of your time just putting food on the table. By forcing you to diversify with a large number of potential penalties for failing to achieve minimal goals in a host of areas, Agricola's endgame spreadsheet does serve a purpose in driving your decisions in support of the game's theme. Also, because Agricola manages its tension well throughout the entire game by dramatically shortening the harvest cycle over time, scoring is rarely anti-climactic even when we have some idea of who has a chance to win and who doesn't, because in the end it's nice to know how we've done against the difficulties the game system has thrown at us in addition to how we've done against the other players.

There are similar arguments to be made about open scoring (like El Grande) vs. closed scoring (like Small World), or straightforward scoring (Through the Desert) vs. indirect scoring (Samurai). In each of these cases the choice of scoring dynamics serve the overall goal of maintaining game tension. El Grande's open scoring adds tension to its somewhat constrained on-board tactics, while open scoring would drastically reduce the game tension of Small World, where board play is much more open. In Samurai, the slightly opaque scoring system both supports the game's overall theme of indirection and heightens game tension by making theoretically trackable hidden information in practice very hard to track. Compare Samurai to Samurai: The Card Game, which is essentially the same game. Making scoring open in the card game heightens the tactical appeal, but slackens the game tension. We play the card game with screens.

The important thing here is that it's the underlying tensions and how they are managed over the course of the game that are crucial. Scoring simply as performance evaluation or identifying winners is not interesting. You have to actually care about the game for winning to be meaningful so if you're going to score, the way you do it has to validate the game experience. How it's done matters a lot. Open versus closed scoring, for example, is usually not just a matter of which way players prefer to play with a simple house-rule bringing things into line – one way will usually work much better in terms of maintaining the game's focus and drive, and will be the right answer.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

2011 – The Year in Hobby Games, Part III: Wargames

Trying to take the pulse of the wargame zeitgeist once a year, while entertaining to try to do, may not be the most productive use of time.

For one, it’s a small market. There are only a few publishers who reliably publish a few games  a year (GMT, MMP, Columbia) supplemented by a wide variety of players that range from inconsistent to not-yet-proven to low-volume single-man operations (OSG, Academy Games, Compass, L2, Clash of Arms, and Simmons being a few that I buy from occasionally). While what to me seems a rather surprising number of wargames get published each year, a lot of it is clearly game-designing/publishing-as-hobby or labor-of-love type stuff.

Secondly, wargame companies have tried pretty hard, with significant success, to isolate themselves from the brunt of market forces. The widespread use of pre-order systems (as pioneered by GMT with P500) has allowed publishers to make a lot of games, but also to offload a lot of downside risk, with all the moral hazard associated with that. While GMT has been a great asset to the hobby, producing many games of very high quality, at the same time they’ve also been the poster child for preorder funding gone wrong, churning out a shocking amount of absolute dreck – games that aspire to be as good as Fantasy Flight’s biggest misfires. Far too many of their games still have an underdeveloped, unfinished feel.

Two years ago, I was pretty depressed about the state of wargames. GMT had just gone through a bad patch of printing a bunch of junk (PQ-17, Pursuit of Glory, 1805: Sea of Glory, Fields of Fire), MMP had recently published The Devil’s Cauldron with its interesting system married to a spectacularly bad rulebook and set of scenarios, Columbia was coming off the badly underdeveloped Athens & Sparta, and outside of ASL things were looking really grim for medium-to-high end wargames.

Then within two years, we’re getting Sekigahara, No Retreat! The Russian Front, Breakthrough: Cambrai, Battle Above the Clouds, Normandy ’44, and Bataan!, just to pick a few recent top-tier type games. So I’m out of the “where are we now” business. I’ll take what I can get.

My game of the year for wargames has got to be Sekigahara. I have a review on my blog here, cross-posted to BoardGameGeek here. It’s by far my most-played wargame (almost my most-played game of any kind in fact), has been well-received by everyone I’ve played it with, and is a brilliant game design by any standard. It has what’s been missing from the vast majority of eurogames of late: attention to detail and real artfulness. There are still a couple rough bits – Tokugawa may be favored significantly until you find the rhythm of the game and slightly after that, and it doesn’t seem to have quite as much range as one might, ideally, like. Still, it’s one of the most striking wargame designs in many years.

Let’s not stop there, though. There was a lot of good stuff this year, including many games that are playable in an evening and have 12 pages of rules or thereabouts.

No Retreat! The Russian Front is easy to underestimate both because it’s not that novel, system-wise, and because of its Victory Point Games heritage. It’s a really terrific, compact game that packs a lot of punch though, and like Sekigahara it gets a top recommendation from me. I think the key thing that I like about it is how well the card deck seems to have been designed. The capabilities of the events provide uncertainty, tension, and the occasional nasty surprise without being generally overbearing – all of which give the game some drama and make it a lot more than just a chit-pusher. Skip the always-uninteresting ’41 game and start with the short ’42 and ’43 scenarios, which are great and highly playable. I’ve played over a dozen times, had a ton of fun, and am yet to attempt a full-on game. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the GMT version has an unfortunate and unreasonable amount of errata, and you’ll need to get updated rules and play books from GMT’s site, as well as make a note of one card (General Mud) with an unfortunate mis-wording. Yeah, I wish they had done a better job and normally this would be a huge red flag. In this case, though, No Retreat! still plays very well and I hope later entries in the series will jump from VPG to GMT and get professional treatment.

Breakthrough: Cambrai is the latest entry in the area-impulse game genre from Mike Rinella, the current torch-bearer for this system. I like Mike’s games and am a fan of both Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden and Shifting Sands, even though both have a couple minor rough edges. Breakthrough: Cambrai feels like his best effort yet. It plays quickly, in 3 hours or less, and gives a really good feel for late-WWI-era battles, which feature a strange alchemy of lightning blows which rapidly gain a lot of inertia. The British player has to know when to chip away and when to use the sledgehammer. The battle is undeniably a British show and the pressure is on them to win, but available local artillery means the Germans will actually do more counter-attacking here than they do in Breakout: Normandy, or the Soviets do in Turning Point: Stalingrad. There is a pretty nasty one-game learning curve on this one, the British may well not get much past the start line the first time, but after that games are tense and go to the wire. This is another top tier game.

Nightfighter is a niche game as it’s a game where one player moderates and one player plays. I like it because it sets out to do something interesting, capturing the flavor of the air war at night both in terms of a cat and mouse tactical game and its technological back-and-forth. It works, it’s fast-playing, it’s quite playable. I have a review here.

Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour restored my confidence in this series. Like Commands & Colors (and unlike Squad Leader, ASL, or ASLSK), Conflict of Heroes has a somewhat narrow range of types of scenarios that are going to work. With limited turn counts and punishing system-level penalties for destroyed units in both gameplay (command points) and in victory points (dead trucks count the same as dead King Tigers), the force disparities, scenario sizes, and unit quality ranges have to work in a somewhat constrained design space. Which is fine, but you do have to live in that space, which in previous games the scenarios have not always done. Price of Honour seemed to me to do a better job and brought me back on board with the system.

Speaking of C&C, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics was a really nice addition to the system, if you can get past the horrible rulebook and terrible player aids. I like the force asymmetries (the French powerful in melee, the British at range), I like the variety of units, and the way it models combined arms is as good as anything. Like all the C&C games, though, it’s hugely dependent on well-designed scenarios, something that every C&C game ever published has struggled with. There is a limit to what you can do with the meeting-engagement victory-by-body-count format. If you live within that format, you’re fine. Try to break out and it’s a slippery slope to boredom, frustration, and the flea market. C&CN is good, but the second scenario – Rolica (French Second Position) – is truly terrible and if you just run through the scenarios in order you can get a pretty bad impression. The recent The Spanish Army expansion is good too and has new and better – but still not good – player aid cards.

L2 reissued Breakout: Normandy this year, and while the quality of the reprint isn’t as good as it could be, this is still one of the best wargames ever made and it’s great to have it back in print. I like that they added color-coding to the counters, but the huge footprint on the new map isn’t great and the plastic X’s for disruption seem a little cheesy. I think I still prefer my original Avalon Hill edition. The rule changes are fairly minor but all to the good, I think. I still wish there were scenarios starting in week 2 or 3, though. Unlike the games I've mentioned so far, Breakout: Normandy is meatier and probably takes 5-6 hours to play to conclusion.

War of 1812 is a fun, nicely-flavored Risk-derivative team wargame. It runs a touch long for what it is, and operations have a lot of inertia once they enter enemy territory (admittedly faithful to the history), so the risk of drawn games is non-trivial. But, it’s got well-done asymmetric sides and the team aspect works. Not likely a lot of staying power, but fun for what it is.

With all that, I still have a large to-play pile, and some of it I'm really optimistic about – particularly FAB: Sicily, Birth of a Legend, No Retreat 2, Rommel's War, Shenandoah Campaign, Strike of the Eagle, and The Last Success. There were also two new monsters that I'm actually going to try to play in 2012, Decision Games' Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg! and Dai Senso!. I rarely buy Decision's stuff, and don't have much room for real monster games like this anymore, but I got sucked into learning these games because of their intriguing take on allowing the early days of the war to develop in different ways, and because they seem to have found a good scale. There are red flags, but I hold out hope.

Of course, not everything that came out this year was great.

A Few Acres of Snow is a bubble game for me. It’s clever, and I like the concept of wedding the popular deck-building idea into a wargame as a planning/command-and-control engine. A Few Acres of Snow just hasn’t really grasped the limitations of deck-builders, which can have problems when decks either get too small, or too large with respect to the complexity of the actions they are required to perform. Once your empire gets too large, it gets much too hard to get things done, and conversely the game is vulnerable to deck-pruning strategies. It also doesn’t have much to say about the period. This is an idea that if further developed has promise. As it is though, it shares the unfinished feel of most of Wallace’s games, even with the major rules revision released late in 2011.

I was excited to try King Philip’s War after getting a lot of value out of the designer’s Hearts & Minds, but it couldn’t get traction like the previous game did. An obscure topic that isn’t cleanly presented, gameplay that was surprisingly static, and some odd gamey tactics all combined to sap the energy of the game. It was fun for a play or two but didn’t live up to hopes.

Storming the Reich from Compass was an odd game. I kinda liked Red Storm Over the Reich but it was too large and there were some odd ways the various movement phases played out. I thought Storming the Reich might find a sweeter spot with a system I found fundamentally interesting. But too much seemed out-of-kilter. The Germans field units of wildly varying quality in this campaign, but their good divisions (like Panzer Lehr) oddly lack any staying power. There is a bunch of clunky design-for-effect stuff like Monty’s Blind Spot that constrain the game. This whole campaign is one that is really fought on three different scales: tactical for the breakout from the beachhead, an operational race game to the German frontier, then a strategic supply-driven slugging match for the final battles. No game I’ve yet played has managed to put all three phases comfortably under one roof.

Case Yellow was classic Raicer: a couple clever game mechanics which neatly capture important bits of the campaign, weighed down by a hugely excessive playing time. This would have been fun at 3 hours or so, but at the easily 6+ it runs, not so much. When combined with Storming the Reich and Stalin’s War, I think Raicer has finally burned through his stock of goodwill from Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin.

Space Empires 4X is a totally mystifying game. The designer has repeatedly said on various forums that he understood the problems this genre of games has (do I really need to list them all again?), and then proceeds to design a game which still clearly has all those problems. This is a frustratingly bad game because it it seems like it just couldn't have been played outside of the designer’s game group, seems to have never really been in front of a critical audience. Tediously long, painful bookkeeping (which is also hidden and unverifiable), attritional combat that leads to endless indecisive slugathons, inability to accomplish anything ... I really wanted to like it and gave it every chance to work, but it just doesn’t at a fairly basic level. Everyone I played it with was even less charitable than I. There is absolutely no reason to play this instead of Eclipse.

Fighting Formations will almost certainly appeal to you if you are a Combat Commander fan. I’m not, but it had a chance to suck me in, but it didn’t – the order system is too abstract for my tastes, and the game doesn’t really have anything to say about platoon-level combat that hasn’t been said.

Sun of York would be fun I think at half the game length. It’s very nicely evocative of period combat, but I just don’t think it offers the players much of anything in the way of interesting decisions. Given that, I think it needed to play quicker.

Looking Back

Looking back at my 2010 piece, I’m pretty happy with my picks. Normandy ’44 has probably gotten more table time than Battle Above the Clouds or Bataan, but I attribute that more to topical draw than game quality. Julius Caesar and Stronghold have retained their pull and held up well.

Hearts and Minds is an easy game to like but a tough game to love. I’ve played it in 2011 but the feeling of problematic pro-NVA balance persists. The game plays very well but it’s hard to resist the feeling of inevitable NVA victory, not just on the battlefield but also on the victory point track. I still like the game, but will try starting in later years if I play again.

The outlier is Labyrinth. Apparently it got 5 plays this year, not bad for a game that isn’t “current”. On the other hand, it hit a wall after that. I am still fond of the gameplay, which is interesting in a lot of ways. I am less fond of how it treats its theme. For example, preemptively invading Iraq is a really good idea for the US, almost a no-brainer. The more I played the game, the more I got the impression it was an ex post facto rationalization of US policies and not a nuanced view of a tricky topic or a game with anything of its own to say. Then, the Arab Spring fully revealed the game’s fundamental misunderstandings, consigning it to being more of a historical curiosity that tells us more about the people who created it than about the topic it covered. And yet ... it’s still an interesting game, mechanically and narratively. I still rate it pretty highly on BoardGameGeek. You just have to get past the theme.

Finally, from 2009, The Caucuses Campaign is still going strong, with another 5 plays this year.

Wrapping Up

I felt really positive about wargame releases this year. We didn’t get any great medium-heavyweights like we did in 2010, but in terms of highly playable games 2011 was terrific, and there are (as always) several rather promising games I haven’t even had a chance to try yet. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll be a trend.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Intermezzo: RPGs in 2011

This review of my role-playing experiences in 2011 will necessarily be of a different character than my boardgame wrapup, since my time for RPGs is so much smaller and I make no attempt, generally, to be on the cutting edge.

I got back into role-playing about 10 years ago with D&D 3.0, which quickly became 3.5, which became 4.0. The arc of my story is one of mounting frustration with D&D specifically and d20 more generally. The question I always had was, what exactly is this game doing for me?

D&D, as a game, emphasizes resource management, which boardgames do much better. And tactical combat, which again, boardgames do much better. And power-combo-seeking, ditto. What’s left? Narrative? Boardgames like Beowulf, Tigris & Euphrates and Lord of the Rings do this rather well too, in most cases far better than a run-of-the-mill D&D adventure does. We’re left not with anything concrete, only with this elusive idea of roleplaying, of immersing oneself in an alternate world and trying to vicariously experience it.

So I spent many years trying to figure this whole roleplaying thing out, what it was and how it was different, how it was supposed to be fun, and how you actually did it. The various treatises on the subject are surprisingly unhelpful, as are all the boilerplate “what is roleplaying” bits you routinely find at the beginning of sourcebooks. It seems that your GM (or Keeper, or DM, or whatever) has come up with a story, and you need to find some way to play your character in the story in a way that meshes with the GMs vision, without actually knowing what that vision is or where the story is going. You need to come up with motivations for your character that will feed the directions your GM expects you to take, without knowing what those are.

If you take the whole roleplaying thing seriously, it can be a bit frustrating.

This year, I finally got it. From where I stand, this entire genre is misleadingly named. It should not be called “roleplaying”. It should be called “collaborative storytelling”. Obviously we can’t change it now, after 30 years, that would be confusing, but I found that when I just flipped that switch in my brain and viewed the whole exercise from a slightly different perspective, everything about why this genre is different, fun, and worthwhile clicked. Roleplaying can obviously be a large and fun part of collaborative storytelling, but it’s not primarily why we’re here and – interestingly – you don’t actually have to do any roleplaying at all for the whole genre of “roleplaying games” to work and be fun. You do need to do collaborative storytelling, however.

As always, the light came on only by running and playing in actual games. In this case the system was Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, built on Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE engine, and the adventures were from the excellent collections Out of Time and Stunning Eldritch Tales. The transition was rocky and I’m not sure if I’ve brought most of my fellow-players along, but for the first time in my many years of playing these games I feel like I’ve found a good spot and understand what’s going on and why the experience is interesting and different and worth playing in addition to my primary interest in boardgames.

GUMSHOE is confusing for many people I think because it is simultaneously very different from and very close to traditional RPGs. On the one hand, you can argue that systematically, the only difference between GUMSHOE and traditional RPGs like d20 or GURPS is a single die roll. In scenes where characters are pursuing the core activity of the system – solving mysteries – skill checks are automatically successful. That’s it. It’s a complete game-changer in practice though, because it makes the default expectation for core activities success rather than failure. Instead of thinking “I wonder what the difficulty level of that task should be”, the GM instead has to think “what information can I give them as a result of this course of action, and what are the consequences”. Instead of our first thought being about how the players’ ideas might be negated, we’re instead forced to think about how to move the narrative forward in a collaborative way. This is huge.

This of course opens up a whole set of ancillary questions for gamemasters: how to we encourage good, story-building ideas in our players? How do we set expectations, set tone, set parameters? These questions are not always easy to answer, but they are much more interesting, tractable, and amenable to reason than the frustratingly open-ended “how do I tell a good story in an RPG?”.

This brings me to my second discovery of the year, which is Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe, the best and most useful practical guide to good roleplaying (for both players and GMs) that I’ve come across. It’s a fast read – I finished the whole thing in a couple hours – and provides concrete and useful tips that anyone can pick up and put to use right away. The key insight here is that the techniques we should be drawing on for inspiration in our roleplaying are not from acting or narrative writing but are the skills and ideas of improv theatre. Once it’s properly explained it’s so obvious that one wonders how the hobby got this far without figuring this out and using it as the foundation for everything we do. The old and often-repeated conceit that the characters play in a world created and described by the GM is seductive but, I’ve come to understand, fundamentally misleading. In actual practice, the GM brings his or her idea of the story to the table, and perhaps it is the dominant one, but unless your GM is master-level everyone present is going to have in their minds a different idea of what the world is like, different ideas of the flavor of the story and how it will proceed. A good roleplaying experience will take these different ideas, weave together the good bits, and tell an interesting story. The best, perhaps only, way to do this is via the techniques of improv.

Bring these ideas together, and you’ve got an understandable, practical, working structure for how to really make RPGs fly. Two more pieces would help fill in the details and round out 2011 for me.

The first was Robin Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points, which I wrote about at some length in August. I won’t say much more about it here – you can go back and read the piece, if you want – except to mention how clearly things clicked into place as I read it. Because of my background in music and music theory, I recognized immediately and correlated the technique of cycles of hope and fear, or tension and resolution. It was also clear how these same techniques were used in boardgames. Again, the default literary tendencies of my RPG creations were running up against the collaborative reality of how RPGs actually work, producing bad results. I needed to be much more adaptable and sensitive to story beats. Actually integrating the lessons of Hamlet’s Hit Points into my RPGs is what I’ll generously call a work-in-progress, but it was clear this was something to aspire to as part of a good roleplaying experience. It was also clear that the ethos of collaborative creation was the only practical way to accommodate it, and so GUMSHOE provided the structure in a way that traditional techniques did not.

The last thing I’ll mention from 2011 was Ashen Stars, the big new addition to the GUMSHOE family. The reason I am so excited about Ashen Stars is how it brings all this collective thought together and trains it on a game. We have the core GUMSHOE system, which is systematically based on this idea of collaboration which I have come to believe is absolutely core to fun roleplaying. The many useful, practical tips the book provides for players and GMs emphasize this. We have a backstory of a Star Trek-like universe fallen on hard times which is not only broadly accessible and incredibly creative, featuring fascinating species and a great mix of the familiar and unusual, but is also highly sensitive to the very specific needs of gaming. This is not just a cool or imaginative setting; this is a setting that is designed from the ground up to actually be gamed in. I love how the game prioritizes the practical details of interesting collaborative storytelling. The core activities are well-specified, with the tenor and tone of the game set within reasonable constraints the GM and players can work with. The character creation process has at its core a feedback loop which allows players and GM to negotiate the flavor of the game and how they will explore the world; this is key not just because it kicks off the process in a productive way, it also gives the players the important message that “hey, your ideas are important and you have a stake in the creation of this story”. I love the section on GM advice which gives specific, practical, actionable ideas that will easily have you up and writing good stories (and as an aside, these tips are extremely helpful for writing adventures of any kind – Kim and I have been using them for an Arcana Evolved adventure she’s working on and found them very useful). This whole thing is a terrific package which begs to be gamed, which hopefully I’ll have a chance to do in 2012.

So that’s the story of my total conversion to GUMSHOE as the most sensible solution to the practical problems of roleplaying, one that keeps the flavor of the stories we’ve come to love but allows you to actually game them. If, like me, you come from a long background of D&D, GURPS, Traveller, or even Call of Cthulhu, the conversion process may involve pain. Trust me, it’s worth it.