Friday, October 13, 2017

Tales of Halloween Past

I was about to fall asleep, when, for some unknown reason I remembered a completely random moment from Halloween of 1984. I was but a lad of 10 years at that point in time, in 5th grade, attending St. John's.

If you've followed along on my various self-indulgent ruminations here on the blog and elsewhere, you may have seen me point out that I started playing D&D in 1985. That is true. However, I stole the D&D Basic set that my sister received for Christmas in the summer of 1984, after seeing the poor thing sit in a drawer for six months.



My favorite part of the book was the section with the monsters. The rules weren't quite making much sense, but the description of the monsters and what they could do was firing my imagination.

At school, for Halloween, we were having a contest to determine who could write the scariest story. The irony in this is that in just two years, we would have one of the prominent families in town start a crusade against Halloween because their youngest was scared by something spooky, and all of our Halloween celebrations were turned into Fall Fests where we could only dress up as biblical characters. But that wasn't the case in 1984.

I'll be honest, I can't remember most of the stories that my classmates wrote. Fifth graders apparently aren't the best horror writers. There are only two stories I remember from that year. One story was written by my friend Mike, who spun a yarn about a haunted house that culminated in a washing machine that started to churn out blood.

But my story? I drew my inspiration from the monster section of the D&D Basic set.

I can't remember all of the nuances of the story.

Let me rephrase that. I was unlikely to have had any nuances in my story, but I can't remember most of the details, except the following.

The story involved an adventuring party traveling into an ancient cave system. Eventually they stumble upon a mound of bones, which they assume are the remains of the dinner eaten by some huge monster that lives in this section of the dungeon. Slowly, the bones start to pull themselves together into an army of skeletons.



Outnumbered by the bones of the dead, our intrepid adventurers ran into another denizen of the dungeon. A seven foot spider called a tarantella skitters out and bites one of the adventurers, and then retreats back down the corridor. The first adventurer feels the poison, which causes him to start dancing. The rest of the adventurers see this, and are forced to dance as well, until they all collapse on the floor of the dungeon, helpless.

At that point, before the poor spider could come out and claim its meal, the host of skeletons catch up with the exhausted adventurers. Unable to run, or even to move, they could only watch in terror as the living dead start to rip them to pieces, too tired to even scream out in pain.



Yup. That's what I wrote about. I TPK'd a party before I ever ran a game. In case you haven't run into it before, the tarantella isn't a misspelling of tarantula. The tarantella is a monster from the D&D Basic set whose poison causes its victim to dance a dance that is so compelling, everyone watching has to join in, until they collapse from exhaustion. That was such a compelling image to me, I had to do something with it.

Mike won the contest. Despite explaining that the tarantella was a unique monster, and not a misspelling of tarantula, I got marked off a few points for spelling. It was disappointing. That said, I got to read the story in front of the whole class, so that almost makes up for my poor, misguided teacher, who didn't understand a masterwork of horror when she heard it.

I have absolutely zero idea why that story popped into my head as I was attempting to fall asleep. I know I couldn't quite drift off without recounting it. Although, now that I think about it, I'm seeing a lot of eight legged shadows in the corner of the room.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Games as Art, Roger Ebert, The Entirety of Human Culture, and Other Light Topics

Strap in everybody, I'm motivated to type some words!

This week, the excellent Misdirected Mark podcast tackled the topic of roleplaying games as art:

Misdirected Mark--Games As Art


In the discussion about the episode, the following article was posted. It deals primarily with the video game industry, but touches on all games, in general, and generally comes to a definitive conclusion that games are not art. Sort of:

An Apology for Roger Ebert



The Wind Up

I'm not going to spend too much time recapping what the fine podcasters at Misdirected Mark said, other than to point out that, from the functional definition they were working from, yes, games can be art. There are different definitions of art, but that doesn't preclude the ability of games, or the act of playing games, to exist in multiple definitions of the term art.

The article in question, written by Brian Moriarty in 2011 and given as a presentation (Moriarty is a professor teaching video game design, as well as a former employee of LucasArts), does a very fine job of citing the reasoning for the author's opinion, and laying out the thought process behind those opinions. That's good, because simply citing an opinion without any basis for discussion doesn't  do much for the overall discussion of a topic.

The Catechism of Saint Roger

The article also cites Roger Ebert. You may not know this about me, but I live a scant few miles away from where Roger Ebert was canonized. At least one of his critical miracles was first performed on the nearby campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. I actually have a fondness for Ebert, which I may have written about somewhere online. That said, my fondness for Ebert has to do with his ability to elaborate his opinions. As some wise person online may have said, the best way to utilize reviews is to engage the arguments in the review and to use them to highlight those elements of the work that are important to you. Therefore, despite my respect and admiration for Roger Ebert, I can't say that he is incapable of error.

The article in question begins by citing Roger Ebert's authority on the question of video games as art. Spoilers--he doesn't think they are. That said, even in the article the progression of Ebert's opinion is mapped out. He states emphatically that they are not, and over time, concedes that he doesn't think any currently are, but that it is possible that someday one might be. That's an important distinction, because while the author cites Ebert as an authority, Ebert changed his position to one that allowed that the form or structure of video games was not antithetical to games being art, just that no current developer had found the proper means of expressing a game in such a fashion. Roger Ebert's final word, then, wasn't that games cannot be art, but rather, that he did not believe that any video game produced in his lifetime was art. He did not support the absolute position of games being unable to achieve the status of art.

It also becomes apparent towards the end of the article that the author is shifting their burden of proof, by changing the definition of art being used. At some point in the article, the discussion changes from art to fine art. As a supporting thesis, there is a digression towards the concept that most media that produces fine art does not routinely produce fine art, and instead produces a majority of products that aren't able to be considered fine art. That is a lot of words spent to essentially say that "because most things produced in a given medium won't be art, most games wouldn't be art, even if games, in general can be art." That's kind of a smokescreen that doesn't address the actual thesis, which is that games, as an absolute, cannot be art. Or fine art. Because the metric shifted towards the end of the article.

Ancient History

Another argument brought up in the article was an appeal to history. The author, much to their credit, did the legwork to attempt to find if any recorded history references games as art. That said, I have to admit I'm a bit dubious that we know, in complete certainty, that in the 200,000 years that humans have been on this planet, no society has ever considered any game to be art. Or fine art. Either way.

There are actually two flaws with this argument. One is the assumption that you can easily find all references that have survived to the modern day regarding a culture's stance on games and art. Most scholarly searches are still going to be limited by what people have preserved and passed on from those societies. I'm not sure that "are games art?" is one of the primary questions that people look for when unearthing the secrets of the past. If scholars from the last century or so haven't looked for the answer to a particular question, it's going to be hard to find an answer to that question. That means that the supposition is that "no culture has ever thought this to be true" is based on the assumption that everything from every culture from which we have artifacts has been neatly quantified and categorized for easy reference.

The second flaw is that in 200,000 years, only those cultures to have anything worthwhile to say about art are those cultures whose records survived to the present day. That's even harder for me to accept. We know of the existence of cultures for which we have very little cultural reference, and the number of societies that existed that we have no record for is likely much higher than that. How can I make a supposition based on a lack of evidence? I can't say for certain, but I can say that if you go back 100 years, there were many societies we didn't know existed, that we now know about. Modern societies are not the sum aggregate of all human knowledge, just the repository of what has survived mishap and misfortune and managed to be passed down to later generations, often is fragmented and mistaken form.

So, to sum up, I trust that the author did research. Probably a lot of research. I just don't think that a lack of evidence for previous cultures having a stance on games as art can be used as a definitive statement about the objective ability of games to be art. Or fine art.

Dogs Playing Cards (or Are They Playing ART?!?)


The author also spends a good deal of time discussing kitsch art (which is where the distinction between art and fine art starts being more sharply drawn in the article). The short form is that kitsch art isn't challenging and uses mundane and known elements to create art, so it can't be fine art. Full disclaimer, this part of the article comes really, really close to pressing one of my current hot button issues. That may be where some of the passion and energy from this article comes from. I'll freely admit that.

Kitsch art drawing on the mundane or the previously existing to elicit a response reminds me a lot of the current internet trend of identifying a trope that is used in a work, and then using the fact that one can identify the trope as proof that a work is derivative, inferior, or bad.

Remember when I mentioned humans being around for 200,000 years or so? You know how long humans have recycled ideas for stories and art? About 200,000 years.

Context is always important. It's not if anyone has ever used a given plot or trope before. It's using that trope with that plot with these additional flourishes at this particular point in time that makes something what it is. That doesn't mean that it's not possible to overuse elements together, or to create a work that is, indeed, obviously derivative of another work. It only means that the reuse of elements has nothing to do with the ability of the work to be great or meaningful, because it's really damn hard for human beings to come up with 100% new material to work with.

Complaining about the reuse of recognizable or previously employed elements in art as a way to say it can never be fine art is like saying there is no difference between carbon and gold. I mean, they are both made up of sub-atomic particles, they just get rearranged in new ways. I'm totally not going to be impressed by a reboot like gold, just because it has flashier special effects.

Nostalgia and Examination

I do have my own take on why it may be hard to find a culture that has defined games as art. We often cite the truism that an artist isn't appreciated in their own time. Part of the reason for this is that our appreciation of something sometimes exists in a kind of super-position. Remember all of those things you loved the first time you experienced them? Remember how many things that we experience later in life, and then wonder why we were so amazed by it when we were younger?

Its not the best functional definition, but fine art is art that transcends the original context when it was experienced. You can come back to it later and still see that it has an impact on you. It wasn't just that time and place, but the time and place that went into the development of the art crystalized a timeless moment that carries forward. Context may be important for the formation of the art, but fine art makes that context broader and more relevant even when evaluated beyond the origin of the work.

The problem is, you need perspective to disengage from artwork to evaluate it in this manner. Games, by their nature, do not allow you to disengage. If the art is meant to be played, to fully experience it, you play it. But, if you play it, you aren't disengaged from it, and you can't gain perspective on it.

The article mentions chess, but one of the problems with chess is, every era where chess is common, chess feels like a contemporary game, because chess is played. It feels like an ongoing element of life, so it's  hard to look back and say, "wow, remember when people played chess--its amazing what that did for their society and perspectives on life."

I appreciate the original author's point of view, and the time and effort that went into the article. I really appreciate that he had so many points that were there to be engaged and discussed. It was entertaining, and I feel like it was a worthwhile effort to create my counterpoints and challenge why I felt compelled to cite those counterpoints. It was a very artfully written article. I'm just not sure if it was fine art.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Time to Crunch Some Data! (D&D Survey Results and My Take)

Last week I ran a survey across Google+, Facebook, and Twitter about D&D assumptions, and I got 1260 responses. Probably a drop in the bucket of actual D&D players, but larger sample than I expected when I first threw the form together. There is still a bias in the data, given that not every player, by a longshot, engages in gaming talk online. That said, I tried to post the survey to "broader appeal" gaming spaces, rather than sites that catered to specific settings or genres of D&D.

The results are here if you would like to look at them directly. My analysis may not line up with yours, and if it doesn't, I'd love to hear from you.

What I Learned

I'm not a professional pollster, and I know I could have structured and expressed these questions more effectively. Once I had options in place, I didn't want to add any options, so that I didn't skew what past respondents might have answered, but I did post some pictures to help clarify editions, and explanations for some of the terms I used in the questions. Thank you to everyone that helped to point out gaps in my explanations, or potential issues. Hopefully the survey can still provide some useful data even with some of my quirks in design in place.

First D&D Edition You Played (Including DMing)

 Among the respondents, most responded 5th edition, which is probably a good thing for the future of the game. It does mean that the results are skewed by newer adoptees of the game, and that newer adoptees seem more likely to discuss the game online (these findings wouldn't be too shocking to me, overall). The next most likely editions that respondents listed as their "onramp" to D&D were 3rd edition and 2nd edition. Not overly shocked by this result either.

First Campaign Setting

The most common first campaign setting for most respondents was homebrew, which I was not surprised by. For years WOTC has said their own data shows homebrewed settings as the most common setting used in home games. The next most likely first settings were Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Those don't surprise me, but what did surprise me was that Eberron wasn't higher on the list. When the setting was published, it was designed to be a more accessible way for new players to enter the game, but while the survey doesn't measure IF you played in Eberron at all, it does show that it wasn't many respondents first setting. Also, while not putting in a major showing, it's interesting that Tal'dorei (the Critical Role setting) actually shows up with a few entries.

Should Dungeon Crawls Be An Important Aspect of the Campaign

Two-thirds of the respondents thought dungeon crawls need to be important to a D&D campaign. I'm not shocked, since, well, its in the name. Also not shocked that, of the three big "onramp" editions mentioned earlier, 2nd edition is the least likely to think dungeon crawls need to be an important aspect of the campaign. Yes is still the majority response, but its a narrower margin. There was a huge emphasis on setting in this time, and some of those settings had less dungeon crawling than the established baseline of D&D.

Episodic Versus Serialized Campaigns

I can tell from the responses I got that I needed to explain this one better. My intent was more about continuity than actual session/adventure structure. In other words, if not just the PCs, but the NPCs and locations they interact with, are recurring things, I was picturing that as serialized campaign. It wasn't just meant to be about if a story wrapped up in one session, or one adventure. That's on me.

Even with my imperfect explanation, two-thirds of respondents wanted a more serialized campaign, with elements bleeding over from adventure to adventure. Among those that primarily play in organized play, this number is more evenly split, which isn't surprising. New 5th edition players are a bit more likely to favor episodic games, which makes me wonder if their first experience wasn't organized play, even if they have moved on to home campaigns.

Should the Majority of PCs be Heroic (In the Modern Sense, the Good Guys?)


These results surprised me. I was expecting 2nd edition adoptees to be more likely to think of D&D as a game about heroes, and lower magic or grittier settings players to be less likely to assume PCs are heroes. It was actually the opposite. The majority of respondents think most PCs should be the good guys, but it gets closer to even if you look at 2nd edition adoptees, or people whose first setting was the Forgotten Realms.

Do You Assume Most Adventurers are out for Gold, Glory, or Fame?

The majority of respondents said yes to this. BECMI adopters are the most mercenary of the bunch, and among first campaign setting adopters, Mystara adopters are the most likely to say yes, followed by Greyhawk, then Forgotten Realms. This one wasn't really a shocking data point. The only thing I found weird is that there were respondents that didn't think the majority of PCs should be heroic, but that they also are primarily out for gold, glory, or fame. Which I guess indicates a game predicated on basic survival? I guess?

Does A D&D Campaign Require External Guidance to Make sure People are On the Same Page about Tropes/Campaign Structure/Base Assumptions?

This question was asking if you needed to sit down and talk about tropes and campaign expectations, if it was readily apparent just from knowing how to play D&D itself, or if you primarily play organized play, so those assumptions are essentially "baked in" to the play experience.

About 10% of the respondents said their primary play experience was organized play, which I think is an important data point, because even the survey is even a little representative, that a not insignificant number of people that are compelled to go online and talk about the game, respond to surveys, and their primary playing outlet is only adventurer's league.

Almost 50% of respondents think that you should understand how D&D works by knowing the tropes and elements that make up the game. I'm not sure if this means those groups don't have a "session zero" style discussion about future campaigns and what gets included or excluded, but it does seem to imply that they don't think it's a critical element of playing in a D&D campaign. That really makes me wonder how often those games have stress created by the assumption that everybody is on the same page when it comes to what they expect out of the game.

Most Adventures Should End With A Villain

I was surprised, again, that 2nd edition adopters were less likely to expect an adventure to end with a specific villain. Players whose first campaign setting was the Forgotten Realms are more likely to think an adventure should end with a villain than Greyhawk first timers.

Preference for Epic Fantasy

This is another question where I had to work on my clarity. To me, Epic versus Gritty meant "national/global scale stakes versus local/personal stakes" for adventures. Assuming that most people came to this same conclusion, two-thirds of respondents want most of their adventures to end up affecting the nations and continents of their setting versus just dealing with local and personal issues over time.

Preference for High Fantasy

Almost 75% preferred high fantasy (which I tried to define as how common magic or supernatural elements are in the campaign). This preference was higher for players whose first campaign setting was the Realms over first time Greyhawkers. The preference is higher for 5th adopters than for 3rd or 2nd edition adopters. For people that wanted a gritty game, that preference shifts to about 50/50.

What Media Do You Think of When You Think of D&D

Hard to paint too broad a picture of these responses, but in general, a lot of people think of Lord of the Rings or Tolkien, although I wish I had more data points for if that meant books, video games, or movies. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire was riding high on this list as well, and again, I would love to know the split between books versus television. Critical Role shows up on the list, and video games definitely spring to mind for some people, as Skyrim, Dragon Age, and the Witcher get multiple mentions as well.

Wrap Up

I'm not sure if I learned any one unified useful thing from all of this, but the results were definitely interesting. Fifth edition has definitely brought a lot of people to the party, and organized play may not be the majority play mode, but it's got a significant (10%) chunk of players in the game. Critical Role and video games may not be as high on the list as Tolkien, but Game of Thrones is certainly a modern heavy hitter, and, a little sadly for me, some old standards like Fafhrd and Mouser and Thieves' World are not quite as "top of mind" as they might have been at one time for D&D players. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

An Open Letter to the Internet About Source Material

Internet, I feel like I know you. I've talked to you a lot. Can I ask you something?

At what point did you get the idea that because you can identify the inspiration for something, that identifying the inspiration invalidates the thing that is utilizing the inspiration?

I mean, you are the Internet. You contain multitudes. Somewhere inside you resides the sum total of human knowledge. From porn to kittens to physics. But way more kittens and porn than physics. So you can pinpoint a whole lot of source material.

The problem is, I feel like you are missing some context. Humans started running out of new material about 20,000 years ago, and have been doing reboots of older stories since that time.

Don't get me wrong--some of those reboots are way easier to criticize than others. They barely change anything other than proper names, and the retell the story in a way that is less interesting than the original.

On the other hand, I like the Moses story where Moses shows up and absorbs solar radiation until he leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Also, Internet, pal. I love you. I really do. We've had some great times, and you've shown me somethings. We've had some great talks. But pointing out that something is inspired by something else, as an accusation, when the person making the thing has said it is an inspiration--I mean, that's not even trying on your part.

Most recently, you seem to have seized on the idea that giant robots existed before Pacific Rim was made. I mean, I really thought I could expect better from you. Good on you for finding all that anime and the old Japanese movies where a robot fights a guy in a monster suit. Not so good on you for not noticing that the people making the movie have openly discussed said sources when talking about the movie.

We'll get past this. I know we will. We've been friends since that time when you used to run my phone bills up all of the time. But really, I expect better. Also, quit talking about politics when you're drunk. Nobody wants to hear that.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Actual Play Report--Cypher System, Predation

In my quest to actually keep my "gaming resolutions" for 2017, I finally got a Cypher System game to the table today for a one shot. Here were the impressions that my usual face to face group came up with. As a disclaimer, this came from one play through. We spent about two hours making up characters, and played for about three and a half hours.



My Up Front Preparation

I printed out "cheat sheets" for the Cypher System for my players, and I tried to create a broader cheat sheet for myself. That said, it wasn't the best effort I have made when it comes to preparing a group for a one shot.

I wanted to see character creation in the system, but the highlights that I wrote for character creation didn't end up being as helpful as I thought as I was making my notes.

Initial Impressions

In general, I've always thought that the Monte Cook games books were well formatted. They have nice sidebars with page references, descriptions of various terms, and some really nice call outs and highlighting in their charts.

Without getting too far ahead of myself, I think the style of formatting and annotation that appears in the books is much more directly useful for the GM than it is for the players.

Character Creation


Because we were playing Predation, the book is set up as a supplement to the main Cypher System core rulebook, as opposed to the "all in one" approach with Numenera or The Strange. That means that to create a character, players are going to be cross referencing at least two books. I had hoped with the page references in the sidebars, this would be more intuitive, but character creation took a long time, and wasn't as easy to walk through as I would have hoped.

Part of the problem is that about 75% of what the character needs for their modified character types is present in the Predation book, but the other part of the core character type information is in the core book, but just about every player thought they had all of the information they needed for type just from the entry in Predation, until they reviewed their sheets at the end.

It also feels as if the initial player choices could have been laid out differently than the other "tier" information. Just about every player missed the paragraph that explained what they got at tier 1, and all of the tiers are laid out in order, without a specific call out to just starting character options.

Starting equipment proved to cause some consternation as well. Equipment in many cases is listed as how many items of different expense "levels" are available. Many of the core equipment choices seemed less than optimal for the setting, which meant that after referencing the core book for number and expense of items, the Predation book was referenced again, to find the more setting specific equipment.

The final issue with equipment is that, outside of weapons and armor, its seems that most equipment is either narrative permission or an asset to rolls, but the way equipment is organized, it feels more granular than it needs to be.

Imparting the Rules

Every player had a cheat sheet, but I ran all of them through the basics of the rules--it may have been my explanation, but for a game that "feels" simple, it's hard to explain all of the most important bits without the game starting to sound more complicated than it is.

Additionally, while the concept of lowering the difficulty worked well for everyone, the "helping out" rule, where players helping one another adds a +1 to the roll, wasn't  overly popular. It's not that it was hard to track, just that it ran counter to how everything else in the game works.

It also took a few times going over the rules to get Edge and Effort straight.

XP being used for re-rolls, intrusion denial, and advancement wasn't overly popular when explained to the table.

Setting

The setting of Predation was the most popular thing at the table. It was pretty much universally enjoyed by the table. Additionally, the setting rule of the players handing their companions to one another to play seemed to be popular as well.

Apparently people trapped in the past after a time-travel accident and having dinosaur companions while using super-science is a hit.

Playing the Game

Despite the somewhat complicated way the rules came across when I was attempting to explain the rules to group, once we started playing, with only a few references to the cheat sheet, the rules flowed pretty well at the table.

Additionally, while the table was hesitant about the XP rules, at the rate I handed the XP out at the table, they were less concerned about XP having multiple uses.

Overall, the game made a better impression after we played than it made when we first started making characters. It did feel as if some rules could have been trimmed a bit to make them more intuitive, but in actual play, everything went pretty smooth.

The setting had a lot of potential for story. I wrote a quick outline for the game session, and about of third of the story shifted just based on how some of the intrusions played out and based on player actions.

I also think that my general positive impression of the game system may have been reinforced by the fact that the game is very well set up for the GM to run the game. I think the rules work well at the table, but getting players into the game and interacting with the rules may not be as quick and intuitive as I had hoped.

Takeaway


  • If I run Cypher System again, I need to plan more time for character creation
  • I need to get a better handle on explaining character creation to the characters
  • I need to see if I can tighten up my explanation of the rules if I present them in the future
  • I want to see if character creation is more streamlined in an "all in one" ruleset like The Strange