Making characters together
On a previous post, Googleshng left this comment:
Also, on my whole character fits the game notion there, while it's true that you can't ever be absolutely sure a character you're creating is going to have a personality that meshes perfectly with every situation that ever comes up, it's an area that I really thing more games/GMs/gaming groups need to work on some. Like, for instance, let's say I'm going to run a GURPS Space Opera game. I tell this to everyone who wants to play, they go off and make their characters, we go to sit down and play the first session, and suddenly I'm trying to figure out how to keep the group from self-destructing when we've got a spaceship crewed by a 40k Space Marine, Captain Picard, a robot raping drug smuggler, and some sort of pink feathered 6 armed monkey with an advanced degree in botany. That's not likely to work out well.
Oh boy, does that sound familiar. I know exactly what you mean. But I think I have a solution for you. The source of the problem is this:
> they go off and make their characters
Unlike a lot of RPG social problems, I've found that this one has a simple solution: Don't allow characters to be made in isolation.
Making characters at home, alone with a rulebook, and then bringing them to the game to introduce them to the other players, has never worked out well for me. I can have all these great ideas in my head about my character's checkered past and psychological depths, but then I get to the game and I have no way of bringing any of that out into play because it's got no relation to what we end up doing in play. I end up feeling alienated, not getting to do the cool things I imagined my character doing, not connected to the other characters, and not connected to the GM's plot. It sucks!
Why did we ever start this practice of making characters in isolation? I blame the school of game design that says you need 15 bazillion different mechanical options for your character ( GURPS is a good example, as are D&D 3rd and 4th editions ). When character creation takes four hours, there's a huge incentive to do it as a solitary thing. That means players not talking to each other. Instead of sharing ideas with the other players, you're confining them to the space between your imagination and the rulebook. Is it any wonder each character ends up being an island?
On the other hand, if I'd said it's going to be a Star Trek-like game, or a Lensman-like game, or a crazy dark badly lit metal grating ships sorta game, hopefully the players are going to make characters that work well together. Not necessarily in a team work way, but at least in a we-live-in-the-same-universe way.
That's a good start. Laying down more specific color, e.g. "It's Star Trek like", can get you to the "We belong in the same universe" level, but like you said, that's a pretty low bar to aim for. You can do better! With chargen as a group activity, you can achieve the "I am interested in your character level, where players are as invested in each other's characters as they are invested in their own. That's the benchmark I try to aim for; that's where it gets really fun.
(It doesn't have to be "team work", by the way; it can be that your characters have lots of conflicts with each other, but they are conflicts that you want to role-play, that make the story more interesting, instead of conflicts that come out of clashing player visions and cause social strife.)
That's why my rule is now: Make sure all the players are in the same room, at the table together, talking to each other. Don't even start making characters until you've first had the "What is this game about?" talk. The talk should cover not only setting, but also tone, color, themes, what sort of things are appropriate as character goals, and how the characters are related to each other. (Starship crew? All members of the same family? Leaders of rival nations? Infinite possibilities here beyond the cliche "mercenary company" that so many RPG groups fall into by default.)
During this talk, there is no GM. Maybe we haven't even decided who will be the GM, yet. Everyone is sharing ideas as equals. Agreement, and enthusiasm, has to be unanimous before we move on to the next stage; if we can't find something we're all excited about, we don't play the game, simple as that.
Only after you've had that talk do you start making characters. And when you're making characters, don't let anybody bury their head in a rulebook or write down "my secrets" on a piece of paper. This is a time for everything to be out in the open, because you are not just making your own character; you are contributing ideas to each other's characters, and you are creating the relationships between your characters, which are as important to role-playing as the characters themselves. The goal here is to get as excited about the other players' characters as you are about your own.
(If you're dead set on playing a heavy, crunchy ruleset, and you have limited face-to-face time, at least use the face time to hash out the fictional qualities and relationships of your characters, then go home and do the translation into game stats on your own time.)
Just making this one change — making characters as a group activity — has dramatically improved the amount of fun that I have in role-playing. Yeah, the brainstorming might take up the whole first session, but it's totally worth it.
(About the only time I break my rule is when the characters are supposed to be strangers to each other; E.g. the ronin in The Mountain Witch are meeting each other for the first time at the beginning, and that's part of the point. But at least the fact that they're all ronin samurai on a mission means they'll have something in common.)
Rock Band pedals like to break in half
I love the heck out of Rock Band. I mostly play the drums. Sushu plays the guitar. (We dressed up our game avatars like the characters from Gurren Lagann.)
The drum set has a design flaw, though. The pedal is made of thin plastic, and too flimsy to stand up to repeated stomping. I held it together for a while by reinforcing it with chopsticks and duct tape, but here's what it looked like after the first time I played the drum part in YYZ by Rush:
The Internet soon revealed that this pretty much happens to everybody's Rock Band drum pedal. Luckily, the internet also had a solution: there's a company called PEDAL METAL that makes a metal plate you can screw into the plastic pedal to repair or reinforce it.
The metal plate and screws came in a flat postal envelope with an instruction sheet that was obviously printed out from somebody's home printer. I'm pretty sure that PEDAL METAL is just one guy somewhere, making these in his garage and selling them on Amazon and eBay.
That thought makes me smile. That's capitalism at its best right there — one company's product is lacking, so an entrepreneur makes an invention to fill a need, and starts selling it. Everybody wins.
Here's what my pedal looks like now:
I haven't had any problems with it since.
Tigris and Euphrates
I've played a lot of Eurogames: Settlers, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Alhambra, Caylus...
A lot of Eurogames suffer from Eurogame Syndrome. Eurogame Syndrome goes like this.
1st game. Wow this Eurogame is cool! It has innovative game mechanics, doesn't take all day to play, and there are tricky strategic decisions to make every single turn!
2nd game. Gee, that game developed just like the last game. Well it was still fun. And it came down to a really close nail-biter ending on the last turn!
3rd game. I will try to improve my skills and figure out innovative new strategies for this game!
4th game. Gee, it seems like doing anything other than tiny variations on the standard script leads to crushing defeat. I guess the optimal strategies are pretty narrow, eh? But narrow and deep? I hope?
5th game. Oh man, I'm going to get my revenge on you for beating me last game! ... ... oh, wait, this game has absolutely no way for me to act against you directly. Hmm. Well, I will still get my revenge by BUYING THE LAST PURPLE CUBE THAT I KNOW YOU WANTED TO BUY! MWa ha ha ha ha! ... somehow that was not very satisfying.
6th game. Every game still develops the same. They all end with a really close nail-biter ending on the last turn. Is this clever game-balance enhancing mechanic actually just an artificial way to create fake tension by ensuring our scores stay close no matter what we do?
7th game. This game is about interacting with the game mechanics, to the near total exclusion of interacting with the other players, isn't it?
8th game. Ugh, not (Eurogame) again. Let's play Boggle instead.
Tigris and Euphrates does not suffer from Eurogame Syndrome. And that is why it's my favorite Eurogame.
Tigris and Euphrates can be very daunting at first. It has a lot of rules, some of them unintuitive, and you have an almost overwhelming number of options to choose from, right from the first turn. You can play tiles anywhere, or save them in your hand as ammo, or exchange them. You can move your leaders around, you can start internal conflicts or external conflicts, you can drop one of your disasters on the board, if you meet the prereqs you can build ziggurauts. You can go after treasures, you can build up a mighty kingdom and use it to attack others, you can try to knock rival leaders out of their cushy spots and steal their jobs for yourself, or you can just sit tight in the corner peacefully earning income from honest work.
But the amount of freedom you have, and the number of interesting options and possible strategies to follow, is exactly what makes it fun. You're not stuck on a single development path trying to squeeze out maximum efficiency from small optimizations like in some Eurogames I could mention. The possibilities are wide open. And you have so many ways to directly harm your enemies or screw with their plans! You're not limited to just forcing them into a premature coffee shipment.
T&E combines some of the best features of a Eurogame with some of the best features of a traditional strategy game (i.e. chess or go), AND some of the best features of a civilization-building game. It's much more abstract than a true civ game, but this level of abstraction allows it to be finished in under two hours, which is a very nice consolation.
And with a little bit of imagination, you can see a very civ-game-like drama unfolding in every game: Dynasties outsted from power, sent into exile, and setting up shop elsewhere; kings getting overly greedy and extending their kingdoms too far, only to be laid low by drought and famine; provocateurs starting war between two kingdoms so that a third can sweep in and pick up the pieces; zealous priests sacrificing the lives of slaves to build monumental ziggurauts, only to be laid low by the gods for their hubris.
Oh man, those ziggurauts. So tempting, so powerful, so hard to keep control of. I'm starting to think the best use for a zigguraut may be to talk someone else into building one, so that I can then steal it from them.
Curse you, bull tribe! If only I had one more green cube I would crush your people into the dust of history!
Edward Tufte! I choose you!
I used to be a hard-core video-gamer but starting in the early 2000s (when I was in Japan, ironically) I played less and less, until in recent years I dropped out of the hobby completely.
Who would have thought that Aleksa, of all the unlikely people, would be the one to get me back into it? But we both got Game Boy DSs for Christmas, and we've been having a great time racing in Mario Kart over a wireless connection, sharing tips and discoveries, and generally bonding over an activity we can both enjoy equally despite a 20-year age difference.
I just finished Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which is controlled entirely with the stylus using the equivalent of mouse gestures. It feels surprisingly natural after just a few minutes, and even though it's a radically different control scheme from any other game in the series, all the classic gameplay elements translate well. I ought to do a Humanized weblog post about Phantom Hourglass as an example of innovative UI done well. Even though "walk to point X" and "throw the boulder you're carrying to point X" are nearly identical gestures, the game very rarely gets confused about which one you mean.
Weekend before last we got Pokemon: Diamond and Pokemon: Pearl respectively. I didn't actually start playing my copy until last Friday (just after Stephen's concert) but Aleksa apparently logged 21+ hours on it in her first week; Mom complains that she has to physically take Aleksa's Game Boy away to get her to stop playing. So last weekend when I went home to visit, Aleksa was way ahead of me. We did a battle and her level 35 Torterra totally demolished my level 17 Monferno (despite grass being weak to fire). This is the first time she's been ahead of me in a video game, so I'm the one asking her for tips for a change; she's getting a big kick out of that.
Most of Sunday was trading and battling and collecting and swapping tips about where to catch a Machop to trade it to the girl in Oreburg for an Abra, and how you can't get the bicycle until after you beat the Eterna city Gym Leader so you can use Cut to get past the trees to the Team Galactic headquarters... "It's like you two are speaking a different language" is what Mom said after overhearing some of our Pokemon shop talk. I gotta say, I love the social aspects of the game design, like how much you get rewarded for trading Pokemon with other players. I'd like it even more if they took those aspects even farther and had like team missions you could do or something (but then I guess it would be verging on MMORPG territory... hmmm...)
"Why do you give all your Pokemon such weird names?" Aleksa asked me. I think at that point my party contained, let's see: "Shen Long II", "King Louie", "Speak", "Sora Aoi", "Grand Admiral Thrawn", and "Edward Tufte". I started out the game by naming my rival trainer "Ron Paul" and it all just kind of went downhill from there. I've got a Henry Kissinger and a Joseph Conrad and once I run out of Supreme Court justices I'll start naming Pokemon after my co-workers.
Sunday evening we had a massive snowstorm. An astonishing volume of snowflakes was dropping per second.
The weather site that Mom looks at was giving warnings about "Thunder snow", apparently a rare but possible combination of weather conditions. (I didn't think I'd be encountering new forms of weather this late in life.) Anyway, the snowstorm was so bad that I was stranded in the suburbs for the night.
In the morning I got up at 6 AM and helped Dad shovel the driveway before taking the Metra express back to Chicago. Shoveling snow builds Character, don't you know, and this might be my last chance before going to California, where everyone is soft and weak due to insufficient snow-shoveling-derived Character.
And now because that last post was entirely too serious...
...here's a doodle I did of a Sister of Battle, using my half-finished "Pencilbox" drawing program.
She's only part colored in because I hadn't added the rest of the colors I needed to my program yet, and I couldn't add them without restarting and thus losing my work.
I also uncovered a bug (now fixed) with the eraser tool. And, looking now at how wiggly those lines are, I think I need some kind of auto-smoothing algorithm on the pencil tool.
Pencilbox is getting pretty close to ready; I shall continue to doodle around with it and post the results, because that's simply the best way to discover what features I still need to add.
GenCon was meh
Blogging from the public library at Frankfurt, Michigan.
GenCon was underwhelming.
There were a few neat things there -- a guy dressed as Link who actually played the ocarina; a giant-sized RoboRally board with remote-controlled lego robots that followed the programs the players punched in; Homestuck cosplayers, including a (male) Vriska carrying around Tavros' severed legs; the display case with the winners of the miniature painting contest; and the writer and artist of Erfworld, who happily signed books for me. And the True Dungeon was pretty neat.
But other than that, well... there was a lot of carrying heavy bags around while lost in Indianapolis, a lot of missed connections, a lot of waiting around for people to gather up so we could get food... some napping on benches in hotel hallways due to sleep deprivation... a lot of glitches figuring out the rides to and from the sleeping arrangements that Cat and Kent were kind enough to provide (thanks guys! And thanks again for the pancake breakfast, Cat!).
I never managed to find the role-playing that was supposed to happen with the Forge people at the Embassy suites. I went there at the time I was told it was happening, but I couldn't find anybody. That was very disappointing, since it was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to GenCon in the first place.
Played some Warmachine in the Iron Arena. Extra points were given for fully-painted armies so I didn't have to play against the Silver Horde of the Barren Pewter Wastelands like I often do at the local game store. Got in a 75-point game with both sides fully painted, which was neat. I won a tape measure. (It sounds dumb, but I had broken my old tape measure, so it was actually something I really wanted.)
Alright. Gamers. We have to talk.
We have to talk about the quantity and aggressiveness of gamer identity totems you guys had on display at GenCon. Like, I get that the normal social order is inverted and everybody can't wait to brag about what a huge dork they are. It's OK to care a lot about your hobbies. That's cool.
But, like, would it kill you to be a little more creative about it? Supposedly gamers prize themselves on creativity, but I just saw the exact same tired played-out gamer memes on display over and over again. Guys, that Star Wars pun on your shirt, like the joke about the guy attacking the gazebo, was already old twenty years ago. You guys have ruined zombies, Cthulhu, and "steampunk" forever by reducing them to the stupidest possible cliches and then beating them into the ground. I don't want to hear any more Monty Python and the Holy Grail references ever again, and I hate to tell you this but Army of Darkness was not a good movie to begin with. Neither was Highlander. But apparently what passes for humor in gamer culture is all about getting references; no actual jokes are required.
And the slogans about living on pizza and ramen, or killer GMs, or staying up all night playing video games... it just felt like people were bragging about their unhealthy lifestyles. Ick.
Overall I felt like I would have had just as much fun, with 1/100 of the hassle and aggravation, if I had just spent the weekend visiting some friends and gaming with them. I spent most of Friday night and Saturday morning at GenCon wondering why I had come. I contemplated giving up and hopping on a bus back to Chicago.
I decided to stay for the True Dungeon, though; that was the one thing I couldn't do at a friend's house. Kent was Very Serious about collecting the round plastic tokens which represent treasure in True Dungeon; he had a special sash holding them all so he could pull out a healing potion or wand of lightning bolts right when he needed it. He loaned me a custom set of tokens to boost my Elf Wizard stats up out of the newbie level, since we were going to be playing on Nightmare mode.
Imagine that cool dad in your neighborhood who makes elaborate haunted houses every halloween for the local kids? Now imagine he's got the budget for fog machines, lasers, blacklights, and animatronic monsters, and there's game mechanics to it. A GM standing in the corner of each room announces events, tells you you've sprung a trap, answers rules questions, rolls for the monsters, etc.
There were seven rooms, with fake rock walls. Five had puzzles, three had monsters. Some of the puzzles were quite elaborate, like the one where we had to line up a laser to bounce between ten orbs with mirrors in them, in the right order, to hit a spot on the door. Hit a gong to start the laser, then we've got 30 seconds to try, and the whole party takes damage each time we fail. The monsters were an animatronic gargoyle, an animatronic red dragon, and a (conveniently invisible) astral stalker. You attack monsters by sliding weapon disks across a smooth table to try to land in a good hit location on a monster silhouette. It's like shuffleboard of the damned or something. Each spellcasting class has some random knowledge to memorize (for wizards, it's memorizing a map of the planes); when you want to cast a spell, the nearest GM will quiz you.
There were some tensions between the ten people in the group, most of whom didn't know each other, and some of whom took the whole thing way, way too seriously. (I got yelled at by the bard for wasting a spell in the second room which she thought I should have saved for the dragon.) The puzzles involved a lot of everybody yelling ideas at once. Anyway, we beat the dungeon with only one character death, huzzah.
True Dungeon was a fun thing to try once but I don't think I care enough to go back, and that about sums up GenCon for me as well.
Two weeks in Illinois
Just got back from 2 weeks in Illinois. Since I'm
unemployed "in a pre-revenue startup", I can't afford to fly home for every holiday like I did in past years, so I went for a longer visit at Thanksgiving in exchange for not visiting at Halloween or Christmas. Mom is disappointed, of course, and so am I. The underlying unhappiness here is the unavoidable result of marrying someone from the other side of the country, so there may be no good answer, but I promised to do weekly video chat and to come visit again in June.
Fun stuff I did in Chicago:
- Hiking in the autumn woods at the Morton Arboretum and at Starved Rock with Mom & Dad
- Cooking with the family! After a trip to the Korean grocery store I made tom yum, green Thai curry, miso soup, and braised daikon/lotus root. Of course we made Thanksgiving dinner together too; they did a brined/smoked turkey on the grill, and I hand-braided a pumpkin pie crust
- Meeting Cat, Kent, and Jonathan in Hyde Park for board games
- Learning to play "Always" (the song from Robot Unicorn Attack) as a guitar-accordion duet with Stephen, and meeting his gonzo Homestuck-fan roommates
- Hanging out with Atul again at our old favorite tea-house, talking Mozilla Foundation and having great Russian food with him his dad
- Meeting Jon's roommates and girlfriend, tossing a Frisbee around and playing a Magic: The Gathering "Commander" free-for-all that was a total nostalgia trip
- Passing the Wiimote back&forth with Aleksa to beat Zelda: Twilight Princess together. (After a year of Minecraft being our main game, it feels weird to play a game that's always telling us where to go and what to do! What is this, a job?)
- Helping Aleksa figure out how record screencasts and how to get started modding Minecraft, which might just be the thing that gets her into programming
- Watching Adventure Time and talking like Lumpy Space Princess
- Finding out that Kristin's been doing work for the Onion's video production arm, and watching their videos together (like their spoof of TED talks and spoof reality show Sex House).
OMG Epic Morvahna
OMG look who Circle Orboros gets as our warlock in the next Hordes expansion!
I want this model so bad. She rides a fuckin' antelope, how baller is that?
Don't even care if the stats suck, I'm gonna build my whole army around The Dawnshadow.