Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dungeon World: Simple Tabletop RPG with a lot of Potential

One of my table top RPG groups played it's third session of Dungeon World the other night. We had a blast!

The local thieves guild, The Velvet Sash, forced us to enter a dungeon to get them a legendary ruby. If we didn't do it, the Guild would kill us. Kind of a fair deal when "there is no honor among thieves. . .."

The session satisfied my nostalgia for playing as a teenager with peers when I first played tabletop role playing games. Back then, we didn't know the rules and didn't have the sophistication to fully comprehend them. We tried learning "on the job."

We had our imaginations! With the toll that adult life takes on our emotional life and brains, imagination has become a scarce commodity.

I remember the first time I ever played this way. My character's village had been raided by orcs who kidnapped my family. I went on an epic cross country journey, seeking out the orc tribe and my family.

Playing by the rules, I wouldn't have made it past the first encounter. I don't remember details, but I recall enjoying the newness, discovering a strange new world and overcoming challenges I've never had any exposure to. I hadn't watched that many fantasy movies, but I'm sure people who had probably have a fun time emulating them with tabletop role playing.

I know I did with Dungeon World. The game satisfied the urge for adventure from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have a hard time giving that movie a rave review, but it was a fun, romp of misadventures. It made me want to go home, invite one of my gaming groups over and get our game on.

This past game session captured that feeling. It also captured the essence of an Indiana Jones movie or Star Wars: A New Hope. Our party often found ourselves in over our heads, using our wits to solve a problem or running to survive.

I don't think we even won any combat. The enemies ended up being an obstacle in the middle of the room or chasing us because they were hungry.

Encounter one had us overwhelmed by fire beetles emerging from the cave floor. We jumped into a stream down a hole that we had no idea where it went. It ended up dropping us quite a height into an underground lake.

My halfling druid shape shifted into an otter to save an unconscious companion from drowning. A Cthulu-esque tentacle beast emerged, so we had to swim fast as we could to shore. I had to shape shift into a barracuda, so I could chew off one of the beast's tentacles to free another companion.

We entered an underground tower. The front entrance blended the features of a huge banquet hall and library. We set up camp for a good night's rest since half the party had come near to death.

Of course, someone on first watch fell for a classic trap. He pulled a book from a shelf, triggering a trapdoor opening from under his feet. We chased after him into a goblin lair. They had put him over a fire to roast. We saved his ass then escaped by going up an elevator on the other side of the room.

Somehow everyone survived the first part of the adventure and the rest of it. I won't get so much into those parts because they had more to do with problem solving than straight up hack & slash misadventure. If our game master (GM), Jeff Smith, ever wants to run another group through this adventure, I don't want to provide game breaking spoilers.

These type of events make great stories to tell. I also think they show what Dungeon World can do that Dungeon's & Dragons-based games can't do.

I used to think that a good GM could adapt any game to make it into the style of gameplay they want. They can, but why do so if they can purchase another game that already does. The only reason I can see a GM going to all that trouble is to release their own game system commercially.

Dungeon World has a simplicity to it that both provides an excellent intro to role playing games for beginners and encourages high adventure game play like many fantasy and science fiction movies many of us love.

I didn't much care for Dungeon World the first time we played. It felt too rules lite and generic.

Arguing over complicated rules, as this group has done a fair amount with Dungeon's & Dragons doesn't make for a fun night of gaming (I can often times be the main culprit). The cognitive load of remembering all the tricks and features for even just your character can take away from the game, too.

Nonetheless, characterization of characters, creatures and items doesn't affect game play much in Dungeon World. Even situational factors don't feel like they affect game play. Dice rolls needed to fail, succeed or get a mixed result on two six-sided dice doesn't change. Switching weapons doesn't change your character's range of damage.

Choices of equipment, tactics or anything like that not affecting game play make these types of choices feel pointless. These choices feel like they only change the description of how things occur, not the effectiveness of how they occur. Characters still have a lot of choice, but their agency feels stripped away to benefit the narrative.

This feeling lingers. After the last couple of sessions, though, seeing this feature as a vice has been tempered. Albeit, my halfling druid has used his shape shifting skills to avoid danger better than other characters and to change the flow of narrative. I had a good dose of agency.

Also, I think the GM had also adjusted the narrative. In the first session, we had engaged in a combat that had a more Dungeon's & Dragons feeling to it. Some monsters attacked a farm. We set our goal to defeat the monsters at all costs. Some cool features of the environment helped make game play more interesting, but Dungeon's & Dragons could accomplish the same thing.

The big feature that I think changes game play: the accumulation of experience points that can be used to improve your character's skills and abilities. Characters in Dungeon's & Dragons-based games get experience fastest by defeating enemies and monsters, mostly through combat. We often joke about awaking or resurrecting enemies just to kill them again for the experience points.

Back in the days of Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons, accumulating gold and magic items awarded experience points well. Selling magic items before returning to home base could generate even more experience through gold. That could make an interesting cost-benefit analysis for a character. These alternatives gave players options for how to approach the game rather than just resorting to hack and slash for most efficient level gaining.

Dungeon World flips the reward structure on its head, though. Characters most efficiently get experience by failing at dice rolls to accomplish things. Such things can include hitting a monster, finding a trap and avoiding danger. You make a mistake, you learn from it.

Experience can be gained in other ways. I don't have the most clarity on those approaches, though. I think they involve development of character and relationships with other characters.

The gaming group has discussed the positives and negatives of this approach. We've come up with supplementary ideas to address what are seen as demerits. Such as: a certain number of successes will provide as much experience as one failure.

Overall, though, I think the reward structure provides a satisfying balance. Yes, failure provides the most efficient way for min-maxing your character (which seems contradictary). Enough failure, however, will lead to character death or prevent the story from moving forward. Easy enough to make a new character but how to weave them into the game?

Story delay gets annoying and frustrating. That argument stands by itself.

Dungeon World has so much balance in character, enemy and monster combat statistics that it's deadly. All our characters have around twenty hit points. We all had come close to dying at least once during the night, though. Monsters, traps and tricks all took their toll on us.

The balance falls on EVERYONE having the same general chance for success, failure and mixed results on two six-sided dice. Some character attributes modify those rolls but not by much. 10+ is a success, 7-9 mixed result & 1-6 is a failure, I think it goes.

It doesn't help that armor acts only as damage reduction, not influencing a hit or miss. Most of our characters have a max armor of just 1. It helps, but when we get hit, we get hit.

Unlike in Dungeon's & Dragons-based games where characters and creatures can get power scaled to never getting damaged or always hitting weaker creatures. Enemies and obstacles have to constantly get scaled up to provide a challenge. It makes sense in a high fantasy/movie type of thing. We love to see the hero mowing down minions in epic fashion until they reach the big boss that provides a challenge.

At the same time, that power differentiation feels unsatisfying at times. Watching it on a movie screen can provide excitement and establish the power of characters. Playing through it, though, can feel like a lengthy churning slog that lacks some degree of realism and challenge.

Even by the end of that slog, the movie hero has gotten all smudged up, cut, bruised and those trevails play a large part in weakening them against the big bad. Why else would the huge, powerful big bad need those minions, anyway? If they're so powerful and invincible, why risk an army that could revolt and oust their leader. . .except that he's so powerful and invincible that he doesn't need them, so he can put down such a revolt.

Dungeon World returns that sense of danger while maintaining a high level of fantasy. Sure, the players can still face an underwhelming challenge that they defeat easy like a small patrol. On one hand, though, the game master has control of that and on the other, it's easy enough to get failure die rolls that could turn the tide along with the ingenuity of the enemies.

The players can turn the tide through their wit, too. If this last session indicates anything, they often have to.

Changing the reward structure and power balance this way changes the play dynamic. Having enemy and monster killing providing most efficient rewards gives the game tunnel vision (interesting moral philosophy discussion could be had here, too).

Dungeon World, on the other hand, elevates other goals. More often than not in the last session, the party tried to evade monsters or sneak through enemy ground. We wanted to accomplish our goal, but we didn't want to die foolishly. These slapdash efforts often ended up more exciting and fun than head on, rules laden combat to get more power.

Advancing the story proves more fun. I also like the idea that if we get frustrated with a problem, we don't fall back on entering combat to attain our goal. As Isaac Asimov has characters say in his Foundation series: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

Combat as the most useful resort also primes us players to not bother thinking of better solutions. We're just going to be entering combat, anyway, so why not just do it right away?

I see myself playing Dungeon's & Dragons-based games in the future. Pathfinder has become a favorite of mine. I feel like it blends the above gameplay elements better than the latest iterations of Dungeon's & Dragons. It also allows for characterization features that change the game and provides a little more agency. The power trip has its fun, too.

You won't find my arguing against playing Dungeon World based on the game system, though. It's fun. It makes a good gateway game to beginners. It allows for a more cognitively light game to provide the brain some rest.

I find myself wondering, though, if it's possible to find some other game sysem that blends the best of both systems I've mentioned. Can we have a system that doesn't use combat/domination as the primary reward system but also allows for more agency for characters by item, weapon, armor, feature, skill choices and the such?

Plenty of games out there. I think the answer to this question comes more down to me making the time and effort to finding them. Until then, these games have their fun sides and make for some fun game sessions.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Geek Bar Chicago's Kickstarter Campaign Launch Party, a Grand Success

Last night I went to the Geek Bar Chicago Kickstarter campaign launch party at Mad River Chicago. I could care less for Mad River (beer selection didn't impress me and the trivia and music got loud), but you have to give them credit for hosting last night's party and the Chicago Game Lovers Meetup for past events.

The links above do a fairly good job of explaining Geek Bar Chicago. I don't link to their main page, though. I don't have the best luck loading it.

To sum it up, the guys of Geek Bar Chicago/Cantina Forward, David Zoltan an Matt Wolf, see a demand for a social place for geeks to hang out to do geeky things. Sure, there are game shops with game rooms, cafes to hang out, conference rooms/theaters to rent out. Those avenues focus too much on one activity, don't necessarily encourage larger social crowds or require complicated planning and organizing money logistics for a couple hours of a movie screening.

Sports fans have sports bars. Other bars cater towards more general audiences by showing reality TV or pop culture TV. Beercades have arcade games, but that doesn't necessarily mean geek. The bars here in Boystown have their drag shows.

Why shouldn't geeks have their own bar to have showings for Doctor Who, play table top games (board or RPGs are fine, I figure), have a quieter atmosphere to discuss the finer points of Lord of the Rings or The Avengers, work together to come up with theories for the next piece of technology or heck, have a cosplay fashion show.

Zoltan and Wolf have worked successfully to get seed money over the last few months from qualified investors through their social networks, larger networks like The Chicago Nerd Social Club, contests, civic organizations and entrepreneurial events.

Last night they reached their next stage: the Kickstarter campaign. Time to let the crowd funding bug in and let more everyday folks have their chance to contribute finances to the venture. Crazy as it may sound, just a little more than 24 hours later, they've already exceeded their goal of $10,000. This accomplishment doesn't surprise me. By the third or forth hour of the party, they had already exceeded the $4,000 mark.

Zoltan and Wolf have the right idea about demand being out there for Geek Bar. Just look at how much they raised in about 24 hours and still continue to raise!

Suffice to say, if they progress like they have so far, we can expect them to get established by the end of 2013 and have a place for geeks to go where they can be social and do what geeks do. Fifteen, twenty years ago, can you imagine even think of the possibility?

If the Geek Bar Chicago take over of Mad River for the launch party indicates anything, it shows that Geek Bar Chicago will provide a fun place to hang out. I made great conversation with friends, new and old, and didn't do much else. That's just me, though.

The Geek Bar Chicago people took over one wing of the bar and good deal of the main area. Most of these areas had board games set up with full rosters of players intense on competition. In the front of the wing taken over by the Geek Bar Chicago crowd, they had set up laptops for people to make Kickstarter pledges. Why encourage people to go home and contribute when you can offer them the opportunity at the bar?

Mad River had their trivia night going on the same night, so they couldn't accommodate full on Geek Bar. If last night was just a 25% to 50% sampling of how Geek Bar Chicago will run, though, I can't wait to see it running at 100% with its own space. I know I'd rather see Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings on the big screens, yells of triumphs of games won rather than loud music, and other fun geek themed activities.

How about you? You know what to do to make it happen.


Monday, July 08, 2013

C2E2: "Hanging Out" with Peter Davison and An Auditorium Full of People

Peter Davison came out to the cheering crowd in the auditorium at McCormick Place. We all had gathered together on that April Saturday afternoon to spend some time with Mr. Davison at C2E2.

He sounded quite youthful, much like he did during his earlier years. I shouldn't expect any less. When I've only seen a youthful version of him on television, though, it feels a little unsettling to see him having aged so. Felt that way even after having seen the "Time Crash" short.

Maybe more apt to say that he broadcast a youthful spirit rather than simply sounded youthful. Somewhat uncanny.

His charming demeanor, both at the lectern and when he played the Fifth Doctor, still makes it hard to believe that he was something of a trouble maker in his youth. How could he have trouble with academics during his secondary school years (or whatever they call it England). An interesting story to hear that he ended up in acting very much because it captured his passion unlike any other activity or field.

Entertaining to hear that his role in All Creatures Great and Small, which made him a household name in England, consisted a lot of sticking his arm up the asses of cows. He played the role of a veterinarian and that job apparently consists of putting your arm up cows' asses a lot. Who knew. . .that someone could get famous doing that?

C2E2 is a nerdy geek convention, though, and most everyone there knew him as the Fifth Doctor, as the father of the actress, Georgia Moffett, who played the cloned daughter of the Tenth Doctor and then, as the actress, married the actor who played the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant.

Suffice to say, that's just the tip of the iceberg in the relationship and acquaintence of Peter Davison and David Tennant. You, fine reader, can attend a con and see Peter Davison to hear these stories. The thought of sharing those stories as my stories feels a little wrong. I'll let those fine Doctors breach their own privacy.

Also, I don't want to take the man's "market share." I have a hard time seeing more people visiting my blog in a month than going to see Davison just once. Nonetheless, they're his stories to tell, not mine.

Davison had some fun stories about the interaction of his family and Doctor Who before Tennant became part of the family. One story involves one of Davison's sons preferring other Doctors before him. Another fun story made for interesting one upmanship in traumatizing the exit of two of the Doctor's companions: Adric and Rose Tyler * * * SPOILERS: Don't read these links if you don't want to get spoiled * * *

One question and answer interaction really has stuck with me, though: an aspiring actor or actress (OK, maybe the question doesn't stick with me so much) asked Davison either about tips on how to make it in the business or what kept him going. Davison had a pretty frank answer: Don't act or really do anything creative unless you have the love or compulsion for it. If you can stand doing something else, do that. If you can only act or something like that, then go for it.

There's generally not enough money in the creative world to make it worth it. Too much crap and dependence on luck to get to that point.

Something I heard on a podcast the other day made me think of that answer. For the life of me, I can't remember where I heard it, sadly. The interviewee said something to the effect that to them not to create and not to work on their craft caused pain to them.

I think for most of my life, I had felt this way. Whenever I took time away from my academic project, I felt like I would keep going back like some kind of battered spouse (not to make light of such a situation, but the combination of distraughtness and compulsion made me feel that way).

Davison's statement about doing something creative only if you have the love for it really hit me in the heart. For a good while now, I've been going though a lull in that love. Life has gotten in the way too much. I've started doing a lot of manual effort to save time. I've been working long hours to just keep up at work. I've focused on investments and trying to make them grow. I spend more time with my wife and have more of a social life. I watch more TV and play more role playing games (like D&D, Pathfinder, etc). . .but read less.

I've largely relegated my writing to mornings, this blog and Tuesday nights with the Just Write Chicago Meetup group at Dollop Coffee. I started going to Just Write Chicago after "hanging out" with Peter Davison at C2E2, even though he has no idea who I am. I need to put myself into situations that will surround me with the energy to create.

At that point, I had reached a low point with my writing. I had grown tired and my love had grown weak. It had reached that duty stage, suffice to say. Davison articulated the need to feel that love at the perfect time for me.

I've had to go through a couple more interactions with other creatives and do a bunch of my own thinking to start pulling myself out of my rut. I can't say that I've pulled myself all the way out of the hole yet, but I've reached a good point.

I've realized that I had gotten so focused on legitimizing myself to the world. I had become so focused on doing the academic stuff. I wanted a degree to qualify for a job that I would like to do everyday. That's all well and good, but then. . .what?

In this day and age of financial ruin, I have a hard time seeing my liberal arts degree having a direct impact on my job prospects or getting me more respect than I have from people. Not to speak poorly of liberal arts degrees. I just don't see it providing me with a practical benefit.

I went to college to write creatively. The academic side of things got tacked on to legitimize the writing. Someday, I would like to complete that project, but not for legitimacy. The project has grown on me. I feel like once I can finish it and figure out what there is to figure out, I might help make a difference in the world with it.

But with all my other activities, I don't have the time or energy for it. I can hardly keep all the facts straight in my head. That difficulty may come from having too many drafts of the same essay. More of it comes from not having a concentrated amount of time to think about it. My time has become way too broken up and fragmented.

I've settled on the goal of trying to do what I can to free up more blocks of time. I can't do it freqently enough in the short term. Too much life in the way. It comes down to needing enough money that I can live off the yield and interest. That's far in the future if I go at the pace I'm following now. Maybe I can figure out how to invest smart and speed things up, but that route will still take some time and free up time the short term.

What if I can write a best seller, though? Maybe I won't, though. Even if I don't, though, I'll be engaging in the love that started this journey: writing stories.

Going at things this way will even fulfill my dream of being a working class writer. I won't really do the working class part, but I'll do the creative writing schlub thing on top of all that life stuff. Even if I don't find success, at least I'll be doing what I love, not looking for legitimacy from the world around me. Maybe I'll find time to do all that other stuff someday, too.

Thank you, Mr. Peter Davison, for inspiring me both as a child and as an adult.