Giant Spiders, the Action Economy, and Your Game

Last session, my D&D party had a great RP-driven evening, having just survived a huge throwdown with a fiend-controlled Arch-druid, a humongo spider, and a zillion spiderlings.

That fight is what I wanted to talk about today. I really like 5e’s Legendary action system. I think it’s a great way to address the primacy of action economy in the game.

What’s an action economy?

It’s the idea that in a tactical combat game, having more actions is a huge advantage. In earlier versions of D&D, a 5-person party vs. a dragon instantly had the advantage if the dragon only got one action per round, even if they got claw/claw/bite.

In the recent X-Com games, you want to get the upgrade that lets you bring a fifth squad member into missions as soon as possible, as it gives you more actions per turn. Having a fifth person is an advantage aside from that, but what I want to focus on right now is the actions. Who has them, how many, and when?

In this case, the spider got a Legendary Action (mostly webbing and biting) and the Lair Actions involved birthing new spiders to throw at us (ala spawning mobs/adds in a raid).

The Legendary/Lair Actions made the combat feel much less in our control, systematized the rate of new monsters coming in, and made the boss feel like a Boss.

The last boss we fought before the spider was a powerful necromancer who had been built up over several sessions as A Big Deal. But then, our party totally overwhelmed him, esp. thanks to our Smite-tastic vengeance Paladin and having several spell-casters who could counter-spell and use Dispel Magic. Even with undead minions around, the necromancer just didn’t have the opportunity to really put the pressure on us or keep away from our DPS. Legendary Actions would have changed that a lot. They become less special if every notable enemy has them, but maybe that’s okay?

The Ruler Reactions in the X-Com 2 expansion are a similar system, whereby the Ruler characters (special unique bosses) get a Ruler Reaction after every one of your characters acts. This means they can move around, punish characters that move out into the open, etc. Being able to interrupt and/or act out of turn is a *huge* tactical asset in turn-based games. The Chosen characters in the War of the Chosen expansion don’t get Ruler Reactions, but they do have a large # of actions per turn, allowing them to move in, attack, and then retreat to cover, etc. Some of your characters get similar bonus actions, especially the Skirmisher. Having all of those active at once could get tricky, but it re-shapes the flow of play, making it far less a game of big chunks of “my turn, their turn” and much more of a fast-paced thrust/parry/riposte kind of game.

Anyone else been playing D&D with Legendary/Lair Actions or have stories of Rulers/Chosen from X-Com to share? Or other games that use the same kind of systems?

 

Solipsism and Celebrities

  • The 80s saw, for example: Call of Cthulhu (81), Paranoia (84), Ars Magica (87), d6 Star Wars (87), Cyberpunk 2013 (88), Shadowrun (89).
  • The 90s brings the World of Darkness, Torg, Amber, Underground, Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Aberrant
  • In the 2000s you get the Forge/Story Games movement (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.), D&D 3.0, the OGL, etc.
  • And in the 2010s we have Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games, RPG Kickstarters, Tons of anniversary editions of old RPGs (WoD 20th anniversary editions, 7th Sea 2.0, etc.), Pathfinder’s rise, D&D 5e, Critical Role, Roll20, etc.

Where’s the stagnation in there? I see mechanical innovation, troupe play, bridging across to other genre influences, acting techniques, roleplay theory, scene framing, etc.. And that was just a short thread overview of a way more complicated and nuanced tradition.

It’s okay to say “I got bored with RPGs, but since video games have become so much their own thing, I got excited about RPGs again.”

It’s also sensible to say that technological innovation with streaming and podcasts enabled RPGs to become an outward-facing art form and that Podcasts of Acquisitions, Inc. PAX events, and streaming games like Critical Role turned small group experiences into shared experiences. Yeah, for sure. You don’t get The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table being A Thing without the rise of podcasts.

Roll20, Skype, & other systems let people re-connect with childhood friends to play across a continent or play w/people they’ve never met. *Raises hand* That’s me. Playing a Roll20 D&D game with old SCA friends and their friends.

There was this trend in confessional gamer memoirs in the 2000s where the white male gamer waxes rhapsodic about loving RPGs as a kid, about how it was this secret only he and his friends knew about and appreciated. But then he “discovered” girls, went to college, and/or “grew up” and cast RPGs aside, only to re-discover his love for them later, returning not just with nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation. Harmon’s bit seems like this, but probably across a different life path. It’s okay to have left and come back, but RPGS were always here.

WoD (World of DarknesS) and esp. Mind’s Eye Theater enabled women to claim space in RPGing that had been largely denied. Women & people from other marginalized populations/identities have always played RPGs, but World of Darkness and its LARPs were a major vector by which even more people got into RPGs, continuing to shift the balance away from the straight white male perceived monolith.

Yes, this is a golden age of RPGing, but it’s not because of video games. Video games & Tabletop RPGs have evolved in tandem, borrowing back and forth from one another, but tabletop is not a symbiote thriving only because of video games.

Do better, Dan Harmon. Like it or not, you’re seen as a major name in RPGs now because of HarmonQuest. Do right by the community people see you as representing. You need to roll better on your Save vs. Be That Guy.

P.S. Shout-out to SF writer John Appel for strong contributions to this original twitter thread.

Light a Candle

Things have been pretty scary the past few weeks, even within the hard year that 2017 has been. We had a family health scare just a little while ago (all better now), plus the ongoing garbage fire that is US politics.

So I wanted to spend a bit of time focusing on things that have been bringing joy and light into my life, in case these things could do the same for you. At the bottom, I list some resources I’ve been using to stay up to date on politics with a minimum of hassle/frustration.

Sources of Joy

One of the things I do to relax is listening to podcasts. I started listening to podcasts over ten years ago when I was out in Oregon doing my M.A. in Folklore. Back then, the only show I listened to was Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing. These days, I’m a part of two podcasts and subscribe to many more. The two below have been particularly helpful for me this summer:

Friends at the Table – A marvelous actual-play tabletop role-playing game podcast with great players, engrossing worlds, and amazing music by composer Jack de Quidt (who is also one of the players). The current season Twilight Mirage is especially engrossing, telling the tale of a far-future utopia in crisis.

Waypoint Radio – The home podcast of video game website Waypoint. They focus less on giving games scores and more on story structure, design, and the political dimensions of games. They sometimes also talk politics (esp. labor and health policy) and are clear and open in their progressive leanings.

When I’m not listening to podcasts, I am often chilling out with my wife watching TV or watching something in the background while I work on this or that. Here are some shows and video series that have brought me joy the past few months:

DuckTales – The original show was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, and the 2017 remake on DisneyXD is very amusing so far. I am a total sucker for anything that plays in the ‘modern multi-genre pulp’ mode where mummies and vampire and Atlantis and so on are all real.

Breakfast & Battlegrounds – This is a video series on Waypoint comprised of recordings of the game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Breakfast & Battlegrounds is complete with a (funny, loose) continuity, special music (boat jazz!) and fun special guests. Austin & Patrick from Waypoint play as father & son team Crowbar & Sickle, in search of the elusive Chicken Dinner of victory. The most fun I’ve had watching a video game in some time.

Killjoys – A fun, sexy, space-based action-adventure series which starts with great episodic stories and builds to a cool metaplot. The showrunner is the same as the urban fantasy series Lost GirlKilljoys is about a pair of space-age bounty hunters called Killjoys who travel The Quad (four planet/moons bound together by a corporate-owned government).

And of course, since I’m a gamer, here’s a recent game I loved playing:

Pyre – The new game from Supergiant Games, who created Bastion and Transistor. It’s a cool fantasy combination of a visual novel/choose your own adventure and a magical sports game. The biggest draw for me in this game is the cool characters and their evolving relationships with one another. Also, you can complete a play-through in about 10-12 hours.

Podcasts
Pod Save America
 – Ex-Obama staffers break down the news and snark along the way. Unabashedly Democrat-leaning & progressive, a bit bro-y, though not gross.
Pod Save The People – Activist Deray Mckesson provides a grassroots view on politics, with a strong focus on the impact to and organizing by communities of color.

Website
What The Fuck Just Happened Today? – Trump-focused digest of American political news.

CONvergence schedule

Hello, all! I’m headed out to the Twin Cities this week for CONvergence, a large fan-run con that’s been running for more than 15 years. I first attended two years ago as part of an Angry Robot expedition with Lee Harris and Emma Newman, and was completely bowled over by how fun and well-run the convention is.

This year, I’m on four panels and an off-site event. Here’s where to find me!

July 2nd

2pm The Smurfette Principle in Marketing (DoubleTree Atrium 6)

3:30 pm Ebooks and the Marketplace (DoubleTree Atrium 7)

July 3rd

11:00 am Storytelling in Comics and TV (DoubleTree Plaza 3)

July 4th

11:00 am The Skiffy and Fanty Show Live: Space Travel and Its Discontents (Crowne Plaza A-E-I-O)

8-9 pm:  “The Skiffy and Fanty Hangout” in the Doubletree Bar Area! — come play games (Sabacc, Koi Koi, and more!), hang with various members of the crew, and have a drink!

And – on Thursday, July 2nd, I’ll be at Source Comics & Games with several other writers for ‘Gaming with Authors’ – as fine an event idea as I’ve ever seen.

 

I also have a few other ideas up my sleeve, so keep an eye on Twitter.

Phoenix Comic-Con Schedule

I will be attending the Phoenix Comic Con this week, working the Angry Robot Books booth and appearing as an author. I’ve been to New York Comic-Con twice, and I love seeing and participating in these huge celebrations of popular culture.

Aside from basking in the geekitude, here’s where you can find me:

Friday

Angry Robot Preview Panel – 12:00-1:00, North 128a

Urban Fantasy and the Real World – 1:30-2:30, North 126bc

Saturday

Drinks With Authors – 8-11PM, Renaissance Salon 5-8

 

And the rest of the con, I’ll mostly be at the Angry Robot Booth, #2410-2412.

In Praise of Tabletop

I’ve been enjoying the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, especially the Sword & Laser video show, but today, I want to talk about the awesome that is Tabletop.

I’ve been a gamer nearly all of my life, but I became a Gamer at the tender age of nine, when classmates at school invited me to play D&D with them. My first character was a Barbarian with a Dune Buggy, and it was all downhill from there.

Like many geeks of my generation, large portions of my teen years were spent in front of dining room tables, consoles, and PCs, playing games of all types: video, board, collectible card, strategy, miniatures, and so on.

Wil Wheaton had a distinctively different upbringing than I did, having been a child star and all, but this thing we have in common: a great love for tabletop games. Wheaton brings this love to Tabletop, a web series where he invites friends and colleagues to hang out and play board games, card games, and strategy games. Wheaton has taken up a role of advocacy for these games, touting their ability to train critical thinking, strategy, teamwork, and to strengthen social connections. But rather than doing it in a Suzanne Somers “Please adopt this hungry d12. Just a quarter a day can help it get the crayons it needs to have clearly defined numbers…” kind of way, more a “this is really fun, let me give you the jist and then we will show you!”

The gameplay shown in Tabletop is intentionally heightened, as the players are clearly ‘ON’ in terms of giving a performance to maximize watchability, but it is usually not a huge stretch from an animated game between good friends.

One of the benefits of the show for me (and I hope many others) is the chance to introduce loved ones to the joy of tabletop games. I’ve bought several of the games featured (at my friendly local game store, of course), and shared them with my girlfriend, who is very gracious about sharing my passions, and whom I hope to turn to the Dork side of the Force (at least a little, if she wants).

I’ve embedded the first episode here to give a sense of the show.

What are some of your favorite tabletop games? Anything you think would be especially good for the show?

Reality is Broken (review/essay/gushing)

I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry JenkinsConvergence Culture.  I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways.  This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills).  More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.

The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:

Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.

The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games.  Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.

Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer.  Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more.  I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on.  I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer.  From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win.  And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.

It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons.  For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within.  McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.

Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:

“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles

Compared with games, reality is too easy.  Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”

The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge.  I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned.  I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task.  If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).

McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness.  Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness.  I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).

As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them.  When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power.  The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).

SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.

There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons.  These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).

Not just any old game will save the world.  But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished.  They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.

Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools.  Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.

If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.

Save The World With Gaming [TED]

There’s quite a Theory — Praxis gap here, but her group has already taken steps along the path she proposes, and it’s a good thing for culture-makers, game-designers, and policy-makers to keep in mind.

I find it especially amusing that the "Social Fabric" she discusses runs along the same lines as the descriptions of social bonds/cohesion that are developed and affirmed by gaming (in my research’s case, it was with tabletop rpgs, a predecessor of MMOs). So I suppose I would count as a part of the “researchers have shown…”

For me, there’s two main points here — identifying that the kind of engagement that MMO players achieve is something that can be well put to work, and also the notion that by imagining our future, we can influence/create our future — which is an idea well-known in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Theory world. Judith Butler would agree with William Gibson in this, I believe.

The hard thing here is getting enough people to care enough about the games that she's suggesting that they put in the time and effort — then you also have to have a game where the result are directly applied to enact social/technological/scientific/economic change, or that the game has a direct effect on these issues/matters. So there’s a social trick (get the players), a design trick (make it relevant), and a policy trick (do something about it).

But for all the difficulty jumping the Theory-Praxis chasm, there's good ideas worth spreading here, in keeping with the TED mandate. I’ve put “Give a TED Talk”on my list of life goals, btw. Just you wait.