Thursday, July 21, 2011

Star Wars, MMO's, Old School, and player choice in RPG's

Note: This one is a long one but I promise you that it's worth every penny you paid for it...

A few weeks back it was announced that Star Wars Galaxies, the MMORPG, would be shutting down at the end of the year. The game just had its 8th anniversary but with a dwindling player base, a license renewal coming up in 2012, and a new Star Wars MMORPG launching later this year the developer decided that it was time to wrap things up. Now I never played Galaxies but I watched it a lot over the years as I came close to giving it a try several times. It was a controversial game and went through several major changes that I think mirror some of what today's RPG's have to consider when they are in the design phase.

When it launched SWG was a "sandbox" MMO which means that players can do pretty much anything they want. There is a certain segment of MMO players that want to see a virtual world take shape and they are quire happy to play a "normal" inhabitant of that world - a musician, a crafter, a merchant, a moisture farmer. Now why someone wants to pay $15 a month of real money to do virtual work for virtual money is something I leave up to them - it's not my idea of fun, but it is for some people as evidenced by the community that formed in this game. It was a classless system so that whatever skills a player focused on, those are the skills that would improve, whether it was shooting things or crafting boots out of krayt dragon hide. Between this mechanical approach and the aforementioned sandbox player crowd, a virtual economy formed where hunters would bring hides back into town to crafters who would pay them for the hides, then craft them into wearable items to sell to other players. It got more complex than this but you get the idea of how things started out and then grew organically. Now I think this is a very cool thing but the flip side of it is that some people just want to run around and shoot stormtroopers. If they are willing to spend enough virtual cash to look good doing it then you have an interesting and potentially sustainable economy that keeps all types of players happy. The only probelm was that there weren't enough sandbox players to keep the publisher happy, so they decided to change the game in ways that they thought would attract more players.

As an example of this kind of change let's talk about Jedi. The Jedi are one of the unique elements of Star Wars and it's natural to expect that people playing a Star Wars RPG might want to play a Jedi. The problem was that Galaxies was set during the Galactic Civil War (the first trilogy) when Jedi are rare, at best. So the designers put in a long complicated process to allow players to unlock a Jedi character type. This is an example of good intentions and something that looked good in a meeting ending up as a the worst possible answer as it annoyed both types of players: The sandbox crowd looks around 6 months into the game and finds 50 Jedi walking the streets of Mos Eisley and says "what the heck is going on here?" while the more action/heroic type players log in for the first time after watching Attack of the Clones, look at the process for unlocking a Jedi character and say "this sucks". I think a part of this was timing as launching a GCW era computer RPG with rare unlockable Jedi when the prequels full of saber-swinging masters are in full swing is a tough thing to do.

In an effort to attract more players the publisher implemented the "New Game Experience" or "NGE" which is an infamous event in Star Wars Galaxies history and in MMORPG history in general, comparable to New Coke in the 80's but one that was never reversed the way that one was. A class system was implemented. Entire skills & professions were eliminated. Jedi were included as just another class without the extensive unlocking process that had been required previously. It was a remarkable example of making most of the exsting playerbase unhappy about at least one major change (in particular those who had put in the time and effort to unlock their Jedi option and who felt shafted when it was made available to everyone from the start). The resulting blowback frightened off some new players who might have been interested before all of the bad word of mouth - let's rememeber it's not free to play - it's money every month, so why spend it on a game that so many people are unhappy about?

Bringing this back into tabletop RPG's let's start with Star Wars RPG's. First off look at the d6 Star Wars from West End vs. Saga Edition Star Wars from WOTC. WEG started off with Jedi as a rare, "unlockable" type character and no one could officially begin as a full-on Jedi. That made sense in an era when the original trilogy was all we had. It made a lot less sense in the prequel era once we've seen large numbers of Jedi running around fighting and leading armies. It's one of the things that turned my younger players off about the d6 version as they were not able to make effective Jedi, partially because of the era and partly because of the system (which was built to reflect that era). Their expectation was that Star Wars means they should be able to play Jedi that have a lightsaber and some skills right from the start. Jump to Saga Edition and look - there's a Jedi class and even starting out as a padawan you don't suck! This was much more in line with their expectations and they have been much happier playing that game. Considering that it was released 20 years later and included the 3 most recent movies this makes a lot of sense but it's more than just timing.

Broadening this out, early RPG's tended to make character creation part of the game by using random rolls to determine class eligibility. Sitting down to play AD&D one really couldn't decide in advance to play a Paladin because it was unlikely you would roll well enough to "unlock" the class. To a degree this was true of Rangers and some other classes as well. Then to unlock the real "uber" class, the Bard, there were all kinds of hoops to jump through.  Even back in the 1E days some people realized that maybe that shouldn't really be a part of the game. Even without using various alternate methods, there were a lot of Paladins running around back then. DM's over time learned that being a stickler for this kind of thing could mean a slimmer table, as in general people that are sitting down to play a game for 4-12 hours need to have a character they are interested in playing, regardless of how the dice rolls fell. Letting the fighter have an 18/00 strength or the M-U have an 18 Int didn't really break the game and it made the players a lot happier to have the chaacter they wanted to play.

Looking at other early RPG's increasing this element of player control about their character is one of the first thigs we see popping up - Runequest stayed with random stat rolls but went with individual skills instead of a class, letting a player customize their abilities. Traveller stayed with random rolls too but had a whole career system where those rolls could influence other rolls and the whole thing ended up with skills and a past for the character that was likely going to be different even if two characters followed the same path. Eventually you get to Champions (a few years later) where every element of the character is directly controlled by the player and that's about as far as you can go down that road mechanically.

Back to D&D - 2E mostly stayed with the early 1E conventions and although it did add more choices (specialty priests, specialist wizards, kits) it also took some away (assassins and half-orcs - annoying a lot of existing players) and it still stuck with the idea of random rolls to qualify for a class. People got a lot more casual with it in this era - at least in the circles I ran - by implementing things like "4d6 drop the lowest" to improve ability scores to the point that you could pretty much qualify for anything. It was still dififcult to plan ahead for it though.

Later 3E comes along and now there is an official point-buy system to go along with the random rolls. Now there's a part of me that still thinks that D&D means rolling for your stats and taking what you get. There is also, however, a part of me that has seen the practical implications of that approach when the person who wanted to play a Ranger ends up with a Wizard because that's how the dice turned out. No one wants to run with an unhappy player for 6 hours so the point buy option at last gives an official, accepted way out of this box - make what you want! Yes it had been around for 20 years in Champions and for 15 or so in GURPS but for D&D to finally come around to this way of thinking was a huge thing. Now it also gave us the tyranny of the "optimized build" but that's a rant for another time. Letting people play the type of character that they want to play is a major shift in thinking from the early days of RPG's and when D&D implements it I think we can call it "mainstream" at least as far as tabletop RPG's go. The concept has shifted from "making a character is part of the game" to "the game is what you do with the character, so make sure you have one you're happy with".

4E carries on this concept - you can even change which ability scores your character uses in combat! No longer is Str the sole determiner of melee damage! There are numerous classes all of which are mechanically balanced with one another.Ability scores are pre-set or point-bought, so random rolls are not even part of the discussion anymore. The player chooses what kind of character they want to play and the rest of character creation flows from there.  Champions is still around and still the ultimate game for player choice and control over their character. GURPS is still around too. Mutants and Masterminds does the same thing in a different framework. Savage Worlds does too. Pathfinder carries on 3E's traditions of any race, any class, and unlimited multiclassing for a high degree of flexibility. Traveller rolls on in Mongoose format with a refined version of the original career system that allows even more player control when it comes to skill selection. I think it's safe to say that this is the current expectation in tabletop RPG's - the player should always start with a character that a) they like and b) is capable in some way. No more Str 9 Fighters!

As a player who started out on games like 1st Edition AD&D and Gamma World and Traveller it's easy enough for me to slip back into those games because that's the way they worked. It feels normal to me, to the degree that when I step back and look at the degree of player control in more recent designs I am just amazed. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate many of the things that have changed in the years since then,  but having lived through it I can see the trend. When I see some a new game come out that either intentionlly or not features next to no player control when it comes to characters I understand the reasoning (usually) and I think it's perfectly fine when going for a deliberately retro feel, but I think it's usually a bad choice from a "business" point of view.

Example: Mutants and Masterminds 3E starts with a point-buy system - ultimate customization - and then adds a random character generator in the DM Screen package. I think that's a cool approach. ICONS, in contrast, assumes random character generation and then mentions point buy somewhat later and suggests a very low point level for that approach. Being an old Gamma World/MSH/V&V player I appreciate the creative exercise in melding a random set of powers into something coherent but the reaction towards the two games could not be more different: M&M 3 debuted to massive appreciation and the only people who didn't have high praise for it seemed to be some who were highly invested in M&M 2E and didn't like the changes made for 3E - that's understandable. If you think 2E is nearly perfect then odds are that any change from that is going to be less favorable to you. ICONS was pretty widely appreciated too as a lighter, faster system for supers play but many many comments included a line about "except for the random aspect of character generation"  and included a suggestion to just ignore it and use the points. This was common enough that I believe many modern players just cannot stand the idea of random character generation or giving up any control over playing what they want to play.

I'd like to blame some of that on D&D finally giving in, so I will - we have a generation of players raised in the 3E era that spent a lot of time online or with friends learning about "builds" for certain character types and most of that kind of discussion assumes a point-buy approach. So the random roll was already endangered during the 3E era. We also have a generation of players raised on MMO's where there are a lot of classes and races to choose from and where there is zero random element to character generation, not even the amount of coin you have to spend at start*.

In this environment it was interesting to see a new edition of Gamma World (home of the utterly random character). I saw that they attempted to reflavor the random element with cards, because hey, cards are cooler now than tables or charts. Even wargames have embraced cards (take a look at Command and Colors Ancients or Combat Commander) as a replacement randomizer over tables recently. I don't know how well it did for WOTC, but I am curious about it. I suspect it fell into the double-whammy of 4E mechanics annoying the old guard who might get excited about a new edition while at the same time the random character element turns off a new generation who wants total control over character creation. I'm not sure, but that's my suspiciion. I haven't seen it in the bargain bins yet so maybe I am wrong there.

To tie this back up with some Star Wars again, the Knights of the Old Republic MMORPG is supposed to release later this year. It does not feature unlockable Jedi - you can play several different types of Jedi right from the start - again notice the catering to increased player control over the character. When you assume from the start there will be lots of Jedi (and you set the game in an era when the Jedi are plentiful) then it makes sense to let players pick from more specialized types. Heck, you can even choose to play a Sith, so you can play a BAD Jedi in the new game, anathema to every previous iteration of the tabletop RPG at least.  If you thought letting the Drow into D&D as a playable race was a bad idea, you can sit back on watch the fireworks on this one. There's a certain type of player that is really only happy when they can play the rebel outsider or just a flat-out bad guy, and now they get to do it with a lightsaber - wheeeeee!

I don't have some profound insight to share about this, it's just something that I dug into a little more deeply while reading some of the SWG shutdown articles and then looking back through older D&D material and seeing some similarities. The trend towards increased player control over character creation has not been a directly linear one but it does look to me like a solid overall progression. One of the most-noted trends over the past decade or so has involved the lack of time to play, so more games have been streamlined to cater to shorter sessions or faster play  like ICONS or Savage Worlds. I think this trend is more important because it has more of a direct mechanical impact on the game and player satisfaction/interest level and I think the younger set still has plenty of time to play when they want to. Schools still have summer vacation after all. It's just us older types that have to schedule it like a meeting to have a chance to actually roll dice regularly. Even if it's not so much for character generation anymore.

*Boy could that be crippling as a fighter - visions of plate mail and two-handed sword shredded by the tyranny of the starting money roll! Now you have leather, a shield, and a shortsword and maybe a short bow. All the more incentive to get ahold of that first loot, or even strip the first orc bodyguard of his smelly, punctured chainmail, because Real Fighters Don't Wear Leather.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Problems with Actually Running Supers Games

Looking at this post over on Barking Alien where he points out all the awesomeness of supers RPG's it made me start to think a little more about why that genre isn't more popular. I mean I have a pretty strong attatchment to it but even I haven't run an ongoing supers campaign in years. Why not? I blame the players...

1) Throw out a "Let's play supers" at a let's-play-something-session to start a new campaign and people tend to be a little fuzzy. Some start seeing Justice League, some start seeing 1980's Avengers comic books, some see the X-Men movie, and some are going to see The Tick cartoon or Mystery Men or even TMNT. Compare this to "Let's play D&D" (where the only questions are which edition and what setting) or "Let's play Star Wars" (Which era?) and you have a laser-like focus and clarity in comparison. Supers is mushy. Probably not as mushy as Science Fiction (Starships? Robots? Lasers? Cynernetics? Post-Apocalyptic? Time Travel?) but it's a suggestion that requires a fair amount of further explanation - Silver Age? Four-Color? Tights and capes or leather/goretex? Straight or ironic? Black and White or Shades of Gray? Planetary scale adventure or street level vigilantes? Cinematic or realistic? If you're lucky this discussion involves an entire group and settles on something that everyone likes pretty quickly. If you're not  lucky then everyone wants to do something different and no one can agree on enough to actually put together a campaign. I've seen the latter happen more often than the former.

2) It's goofy - tights and capes are the most common form and it takes a certain amount of security in oneself to play Captain Tremendous and especially to speak in character, and especially especially to do it in a public place. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but people seem to be a lot twitchier about this than they do about playing an elf or a paladin in the same sense. Maybe there's an unconscious role-playing element in many people's heads where it's OK to play yourself as a Ranger or Wizard but people feel like they have to stretch more to play Stupendous Man and they shy away from the opportunity.

3) The tremendous flexibility blows many people's minds - it is an awesomely open type of game - magic, robots, alien invasions, atlanteans, greek gods, space stations - pretty much anything is fair game for this kind of game, so people don't know what to expect. Clarification: They do know what to expect as far as their character, but they do not know what to expect that they will be doing so much ala D&D, Star Trek, and Call of Cthulu and that goes back to the lack of focus and clarity I mentioned above. People tend to like to know what they're going to play and with Supers there is more unknown than in many other types of games.

4) It's for kids - despite all the graphic novels and movies and "maturation" of the genre over the last 20-30 years a lot of people still equate superheroes with kids and kid stuff. Less so than in previous decades but it's still a factor. D&D has been around long enough and has been well-known enough, and Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft have also helped make fantasy more mainstream. Star Trek, Star Wars and a bunch of other movies and books and shows have made science fiction pretty mainstream. Supers still lags behind.

5) It's more effort - thinking up, constructing, and then playing a superhero takes quite a bit more effort than "Roll these three dice 6 times, write it down, pick a race and a class, jot down your equipment, and then let's go" or even "pick a template" ala Shadwrun and Torg and others. Unless using a random roll system there's a lot of creative brain exercise involved in making a hero and sometimes after a day at work players would rather not invest that heavily in it. Just look at something like Champions where to build a character you need to decide on hunteds, dependent NPC's, psychological limitations, and physical vulnerabiolities and limitations - that's a darn sight more involved than "neutral good sword and board human fighter". It's a deepr level of thought than a lot of players want to put in when sitting down for a game

Now none of these are reasons not to play the game. They are just some brainstorming and reflections on why there seem to be more barriers to this sort of game. In the end I don't know why superhero games aren't more popular, but maybe if some of us consider these kinds of things when bringing them up we can find a way to push past them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Branching Out

The Apprentices have been playing for over a year now and are talking about starting their own D&D games with their friends. I was tempted to give them each an extra copy of Moldvay Basic and a copy of The Lost City (they already have their own basic rulebook but it's easier to play with two, and B4 is a nice self-contained adventure) but while they like Basic D&D, well, 4th Edition is what they want to try with their friends.

I'm OK with that as it is this generation's D&D of the moment but it left me at a little bit of a loss - they have dice & Player's Handbooks but they don't have a DMG or a Monster Manual. They don't have any mini's of their own. They don't have a battlemat or wet-erase markers of their own. HOW ON EARTH ARE THEY GOING TO RUN A GAME? How the heck did we run games without all of that stuff? I've been running with a bunch of mini's & a battlemat for 25+ years now and it's hard for me to remember how we handled some of this stuff in the time before. I know we weren't as concerned with tactical positioning back then - the game didn't really demand it in quite the same way as 3E or 4E -  but they're going to need some of this stuff to run a session the way they've seen me run it. They don't even have DM Screens!

So I looked around at things and the one item that solves more of my problems here than anything else is that !$$%^&#$&^@$^ Neo Red Box set that I trashed late last year. Finding myself in a somewhat hypocritical position is not a comfortable feeling, but I did want to explain my thinking. Extra introductory rule book: Check. Introductory adventure: check. Monster stats: check. Monster tokens: check. Handy box to store notes and maps and character sheets in: check. Thirteen dollars at Amazon because I need at least two of them: check

My alternate option was to pick up a DM Guide/Kit and a Monster Manual/Vault for each of them which pretty much doubles my cost, minimum. DM screens and dungeon tiles might follow down the road somewhere, but I'm thinking we will see how this goes with the intro set and if it goes well then there are birthdays and holidays where these other options could come into play.

The one thing I am getting more on board with is the monster tokens. With them showing up in many of the newer 4E products I realized I kind of like the idea - not so much for me, as I have a pile of mini's that's only going to keep getitng bigger - but for a kid starting out and trying to haul his stuff back and forth to friends' houses and all it's a pretty handy way to go. I think that even if you can round up miniatures for the PC's and then use tokens for your enemies then that should work just fine too as a transitional stage.

One other note on bringing in new players: I used to love grabbing a big thick RPG book and sitting down to pore through it on a Sunday afternoon or a summer weekday. No one handed me most of my gamebooks - I looked through them at the store, read about them in Dragon, scraped up some money, and bought them, usually one at a time. So I might buy Gamma World while a friend bought Boot Hill and another friend bought Top Secret and then we would all trade the books back and forth after we had read them. GURPS, Shadowrun, and Rifts were all pretty good-sized books that we were all excited to acquire. Nowadays though, I thnk trying to bring in new players with a 500-page rulebook is doomed. Even with my apprentices who rip through fiction like it's an addiction, from Harry Potter to Ranger's Apprentice to the Drizzt books, when I handed them the Champions 4th  edition Big Blue Book I could see their enthusiasm waver. When they look at some of the other books in collection there's a definite cuoff point where it starts to look more like homework than fun. Old Basic D&D, Savage Worlds, Old TSR Marvel - those all went over fine as far as "read this and then let's talk" but there's no way they're going to get excited aboiut something like Aces and Eights, Hero 6th Edition (Two Huge Books?!), or maybe even Pathfinder. The one thing that does seem to help is color and illustration. That shiny new DC Adventures book was a big hit. D&D 4E, Star Wars Saga, Pirates of the Spanish Main - none of them are small books but all of them are full color and have quite a few illustrations and that seems to lighten the load in a way. So despite some of our old school sensibilities the art and layout does make a difference for some people - for sure the younger crowd. Remember the things they are judging it by are not whether it looks better than an early 90's GURPS book - they are comparing it to Facebook and Wizard 101 and WOW and Call of Duty and Force Unleashed and all of those other birght shiny things that they spend time on. The imagination is there but it takes a stronger effort to punch through and ignite it than those black and white doodles in the original PHB.

Hopefully the new seeds will take as they journey thorugh junor high and high school and they will start having games that don't require me or rely on a bunch of my stuff to have fun. I'm not sure about the future in that regard but they will at least have the option. That's what I can do for now.


Had some sick time over the weekend and it put me behind but I'm getting it back together now - posting will resume presently.