Friday, November 25, 2005

In the spirit of Thanksgiving - a note of thanks to influential gamers in my past

In the spirit of the holiday, and given how much I've been thinking of some of my past players and mentors, I'd like to thank the following folks (and sorry if I've missed anyone):

First off, the biggest thanks goes to Glen Blacow who was willing to mentor me as I was getting started in gaming as a teenager. Glen not only gave me tons of great advice (as one of the earliest people who really thought about game design and the implications of different play styles), but he also honored me by playing in my games occaisionally.

Another big thanks goes to Robert Whelan for all the discussions we had in college about game theory. He was the first person who really clued me in to reward cycles and making sure they reinforced the kind of play desired. He also helped me understand what I now understand as hard core gamism.

Reggie, player of Regulus, probably the best player I have ever had.

Ken Walsh, fellow caver and the person I talk to the most on the phone about gaming. He and his friend Richard also participated in the best Rune Quest campaign I have ever run.

Mark Christiansen for a really cool game design, Cold Iron, and Robert Hendrie for introducing me to Cold Iron, and allowing me to copy the rules he had acquired.

Henry Welch, player of Harbinger of Wit, companion of Regulus, the best dwarf PC I've ever seen in Cold Iron.

Dave Tetrault, one of the MIT gamers who made me feel welcome as a teenager after I managed to run a 16 player D&D game at one of MIT's game cons (the first time I had ever played with other than a small group of friends). I should also thank James for insisting I go to the con, and for recruiting those 16 players (while I was doing my usual "duh, where am I" think upon arrival at any kind of convention or retreat).

And I guess I should thank Peter Dwyer's mom for being the coolest gamer mom ever (first for buying the orignal Basic D&D for Peter, and then several later things). And of course Peter for being my best friend in junior high and high school. Ok, maybe my parents deserve praise also, a couple months after we started playing D&D my parents bought me my first fantasy miniatures for Christmas (I still have at least some of them I think).

I should also thank the proprietor of Excalibur Hobbies and Games (Arlington MA, later Malden MA, not sure if they still exist) who introduced me to Glen (and helped my parents pick out those minis), and who even let me watch the store for a few minutes once.

Well, those are the folks I can think of.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

The role of nostalgia in gaming

This post over on The 20' By 20' Room combined with my recent plans to go back to old campaign settings got me thinking a bit about nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerfull emotion that brings back the best of old memories. It can be harnessed to build excitement about a new campaign. But there's also some dangers.

One danger is that of rose colored glasses and the softening effect of passage of time. You might resurrect some ideas from an old campaign, forgetting the fact that the nostalgic memory is based on the one good session in a generally blah campaign. Of course if you can examine what went right in that one good session, you can turn this disadvantage into a strength.

A similar danger is that you just replay the old campaign. The new campaign will most likely feel stale because you're just solving the same old problems. The new campaign has to have new problems to solve. You can reference the old campaign, but don't let all the problems be solved.

A final danger is a crippling one. If you let yourself feel like the new campaign could never live up to the old one, you're doomed. This danger is probably holding me back from playing Rune Quest again. I had one really good campaign, and I wonder if a new campaign can hold up to the standards of the old.

Nostalgia can also be a powerful drive for gaming products. D&D 3e/3.5 is definitely powered by nostalgia. The 3e team used nostalgia to get old players to buy into a new game, but they also leveraged modern design techniques and production values to produce a game that has been popular with new players also.

Goodman games has used nostalgia to power a series of modules that harken back to the old days (and they even use the simpler production values of the old days to constrain costs). Many old campaign settings are getting a face-lift (Blackmoor, Tekumel, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and now I hear even Rune Quest/Glorantha, even Greyhawk had new maps published in Dungeon Magazine).

I will be starting a new Cold Iron campaign that takes me back 15-20 years to my college days. But I don't plan to simply relive the old campaign. I'm bringing some fresh ideas to the table. I'm bringing a much better understanding of play style that will focus on gamism and cut out a lot of fluff I had introduced trying to bring in non-combat skills (I will still have some stuff, but it's designed to not get in the way of designing a good combat character).

I had some failed Cold Iron campaigns using Tekumel and Talislanta as settings. These in part failed because I strayed from what made my old college games succeed. I used complex settings that begged for a less "hack 'n slash" game. They are also both fairly strong settings that didn't bend easily to Cold Iron's magic system. My new campaign will be set in Blackmoor. I'll be able to use some of the material from my college Blackmoor campaign, but other material is based on the recently released Blackmoor setting by Zeitgist games. I'm using the deities mentioned there instead of the mishmash of stuff I had back in college (The First Fantasy Campaign version of Blackmoor published by Judges Guild had no deities listed, making it easy to put whatever I needed in). When I made my first attempt at the deities, I thought they were going to be a problem, but I started over with a different angle, and everything came out ok. So I will be able to power this campaign with some of the excitement from the old, while not being trapped by the old.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Followup on my post about permanent death - changing expectations on players

As I have developed my thoughts on players being able to reject permanent death after a combat is over, I have been thinking more. Recently in our Arcana Evolved campaign, a PC was hit with energy drain and gained negative levels. Now the PCs were right around the corner from an NPC Greenbond who could have restored him, and even without that, in the context of my ability to reject permanent death and extending it to rejecting any permanent disability, the PC could have been restored without using PC resources.

However, the PC Greenbond had the ability to restore and I required them to use the spell slot. Since then, I have since stated that if a PC could cast raise dead, that I would require the PC to use the spell slot rather than just rejecting the death. Is this unfair? Is this changing the rules on the PCs?

My assertion is that it is fair. What is going on here is that when the PCs increase in power, more is expected of them. Low level PCs aren't expected not to die, but high level PCs are expected to be a bit more careful. Granting the high level PC resources to respond to death (or any other lingering effect including ability score damage, level drain, etc.) just means the players are now challenged to manage their resources a bit more carefully. This does not break gamist ability to step on up, in fact it enhances it.

Many games have basic and advanced rules. This is a good thing. It allows players to incrementally learn a more complex game than they might otherwise be able to learn. Handicaps (for example in Go) are a similar thing. One the player understands the basic game, then the gloves can be taken off and they can play the real thing.

This idea can be extended to RPGs, but instead of starting a new campaign when the players gain expertise, we can simply have rules that kick in at certain power points in character development.

In Cold Iron, I usually don't use fatigue in low level combat. Partly because it's not much fun for a low level character to suddenly find they are suffering fatigue penalties because they took a small injury and the combat has taken 5 or 6 rounds so far. Bringing fatigue in when PCs have enough hit point and fatigue capacity to last most battles makes sense from this same perspective of demanding more from the players at higher levels.

What examples do you have from, or could you apply to, your own gaming?