This year’s Indie RPG Explosion

Here’s a thought on how the Indie RPG Explosion at GenCon might work:

What if, in addition to any scheduled games people want to run, we schedule an open table in each and every timeslot? We make sure there is at least someone there at the table and that they have *some* game ready to run. Then, this table becomes something of a mini-staging area. Players that show up can hand in their generic tickets and either (A) play in whatever the scheduled GM has prepped, or (B) break off into another game at a different table.

I’m even thinking that there could be a forum where interested players & GMs could coordinate their meetings.

We ask GenCon to plan for overflow from the scheduled game. We agree to collect generics from everyone playing in the room. Everbody’s happy.

I’ll be sure to talk with people about this at Dreamation, then run it past the Forge, then propose it to GenCon.

The “other” Forge model

Over in his Ronnies thread, Ron posted about mutualism and the Ronnie Awards It’s led me to some thinking about “the other side” of the Forge model.

The standard Forge model, such as I understood it, is: Design the game that you would want to play. Produce it on the cheap. Sell it direct.

All supply-side stuff. I missed the demand-side of the model: Engage in “mutualism” to generate goodwill and interest in your products.

Okay, I try to be mutualistic as I can manage. I try to be a conscientious Forge citizen. I organize the Indie RPG Explosions at Dreamation & at GenCon. I gladly pitch other people’s games at GenCon. I carry other people’s stock to the con for them. I run other people’s games at cons and post about them. So, with the power of “mutualism” on my side, With Great Power… should be one of IPR’s top sellers, right?

Wrong. Sales are lukewarm, bouyed by an unexpected Christmas rush for everybody’s stuff.

This isn’t meant to be whining, it’s meant to be “obviously I’m doing something wrong. How should I change?” Kinda like Clinton’s insights on sales back in November.

Looking at what other people are doing, and factoring in my own (mis)perceptions of who’s more successful than others, I’m looking for trends.

Who’s publicly happy with their sales? Ron, Luke, Vincent, Matt Wilson, Ben, Tony, and Paul in 2003/2004.

What do they do? Well, they post A LOT. This only makes sense. Selling over the Internet means cultivating an Internet presence. They’ve got heavily-trafficked blogs or active forums devoted to their games.

Who’s publicly unhappy with their sales? Clinton, Matt Snyder, Paul in 2005.

What do they do? Clinton runs the Forge, helps people with websites, upgrades and tweaks the software that makes the website work, creates tools like FindPlay for people to use. Matt Snyder lays out lots of peoples’ games, and published Daedelus.

What’s the difference? The things that Matt Snyder, Clinton, & I do are easy to take for granted, easy to overlook or, at least, easy to fail to attribute to a certain individual (e.g., I doubt many people come to the Forge and say “This is such a cool website! I wonder who designed it?”).

The stuff that the first group does is more public, exposes more of their personality, and promotes a recognition of their unique identity and worldview on other people.

About Paul Czege, it seemed to me that his posting fell off in 2005, and so did his sales (at least at GenCon). Maybe there’s a connection.

So, maybe, if I want better sales, I’ve got to post more. I’ve got to SAY more stuff to more people. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Does that mean I should pull back on the other ways I’ve been pitching in? Maybe. The Indie RPG Explosions are a hell of a lot of work for little in return. I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and I’ve already been reprimanded at work for my online time.

Okay, now it’s getting into whining. End of post.

Went to Bruce’s last night to play board games into the new year. Bruce has played a number of miniatures games. Ended up talking with him about why I want to investigate miniatures gaming as research for the kingship game (also referred to as The Game Aria Was Meant To Be). Also talked with Kat about it this morning.

Although this game is low priority at the moment, talking about it so often has helped me to express my goals for it.

This game will be able to handle Henry V, the battle of Helms’ Deep or Pelinor Fields or the climactic battle at the end of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe just as clearly and dramatically as the recent movies have done. These battles are dramatic because: A) the story has illustrated just what’s at Stake for each side; B) we care about individual characters in these battles. We just went to see Narnia on Friday, and the final battle was very well choreographed. We were shown exactly why each action brought that side closer to victory.

For instance, at one point in the battle, the good guys fire this pheonix-arrow that cuts a swath of fire across the battlefield. We in the audience can see instantly (because of the camera angles & FX) that this cuts off the Witch’s reserves from the forces already engaged with the good guys. In this part of the battle, evil has lost its numerical superiority. We’re instantly happy because we can see what good it has done. The geography of the battle-map matters.

I want a game that does that. Without the math and analysis paralysis of traditional miniatures as I’ve observed them. Without the high-concept “make it up as you go” of role-playing games like Uni or WGP…, even. I understand the role-playing aspects, and WGP…’s conflict system could handle massive battles with just a new set of characteristics of conflict. But it wouldn’t be what I want.

Y’see, with WGP… as written, the SIS consists of a few guys beating up on each other with their superpowers. It’s simple enough for everyone to keep it straight in their heads. The Imagined Space remains “Shared” because everyone at the table understands what’s going on.

“Mudslide pummels Debris with a powerful left.” Deanna changes style to “Yes, Mudslide hits Debris, who flies back into a building, breaking through the wall. Picking up a piece of rubble, Debris slams you with it.” One thing leads into another smoothly. The SIS remains internally consistant, and the emphasis on describing things visually keeps everyone informed and on the same page.

In the Narnia example above, if I were playing it with WGP…, I could play a card and describe it as “My archer launces a pheonix arrow that cuts off your reserves.” You might not have pictured your forces with reserves at all. You might have pictured the reserves already out-flanking the archers. Suddenly, the Imagined Space is no longer Shared. Battles are so complex, I want the map back as a running sketch of the SIS—to keep everyone on the same page.

I’m thinking of stuff like putting geographical bonuses right on the map or figure. For example, the high ground might have a big “+1” on the map. If the unit of one of the characters that you care about is protecting that spot, but is facing a potent enemy force, you’ve then got a tough, interesting decision. Do I try to hold onto that +1, but possibly lose my guy that’s been great fun in the story, or do I pull him out and give up the advantage? That’s the kind of decision-making I want in the Kingship Game.

Maybe throughout gameplay each player will have some characters at each level of society, to experience the world more fully. Exactly where these guys end up in units will be a big part of battle set-up. And the whole thing will tie into the Stakes for each battle, each negotiation, each action and how it affects the game world going forward.

Kat suggested that I might meet a number of my goals without the map (and the real-world logistical hangup it brings with it) by using something like a list of Assets and Obstacles—your Assets are the opponent’s obstacles. Each round of the battle you need to decide and describe how your forces are safeguarding your assets and/or conquering your obstacles. How these are achieved, and how much they suffer for it (wounded, fallen morale, etc.) will have repercussions in the post-battle Stakes claiming.

I’m not sure I liked it. But I didn’t like the WGP… Enrichment system when she first suggested it, so I’m going to let it stew for a while.

In any case, along with putting together a release schedule of free With Great Power… support PDFs, and getting R.I.P., the game of ghost stories, into playtestable shape, I’ll be doing some military history research and looking into wargames, both table-top and electronic. I haven’t played many wargames apart from Risk and Axis & Allies, so I don’t have a gut-level understanding of the whole “game of the battlefront” thing yet. I don’t instinctively know what words like “outflank” and “counterattack” mean. How can I write a game that promotes that gut-level feeling if I don’t have it myself?

Anyway, Happy New Year to one and all!

Cards over Dice

Yeah, it’s been forever and a day since I updated this thing. Life happened. A lot. I could spend lots of time going into it, and maybe I will. But not now.

I think I figured out another reason why most of my game designs do not use dice. It comes back to the social context of my gaming: How my gaming fits into my life.

Here’s my dirty little secret: I do most of my gaming at conventions these days. I’ve never been a big fan of the “campaign-length” game. I’ve only ever been in 2 campaigns that lasted more than a year. I have a regular weekly game that goes off more like bi-weekly (life happening, again). But I go to conventions and game!

In the social context of a convention, Time is king. You’ve only got one shot to make a good game for these strangers at your table, and you’ve got to make it fun and fulfilling in four hours and then they’re gone to the four winds. There is a great deal of pressure to make every moment count.

When looking at this as a system designer, that means making every application of the resolution system count. Here’s where I think cards (at least the way I use them), or point-bidding like Discernment, have an edge over dice. They are not as subject to luck.

Probability tells us that luck runs in streaks. If you have a 75% chance of success on a die roll, that means that if you make a hundred rolls, probably between 70 and 80 will be successes. Rolling several failures in a row is not unlikely, but it will even itself out with lots of successes in a row later on.

That’s all great in a campaign where, over the life of the game, you’ll make a hundred rolls. But in a convention game, you’ll make maybe 3 to 6 rolls on a given stat. With the smaller sampling size, the vagaries of luck are more harshly felt. That streak of several failures in a row may encompass ALL the rolls you’re ever going to make for that character. So a character that’s supposed to be pretty good in some way ends up coming off as a schmuck. The character sheet and the player says that the guy’s supposed to be one way, but the dice and the system-in-action say he’s another.

Before you say it, I know failure can be fun. Really, I do. I write games about failure. But consistant failure and unlikely failure can be demoralizing.

Cards, as used in With Great Power…, sidestep this by emphasizing the play of the cards you’ve already got. There are usually multiple ways to respond to your opponent, so it’s very hard to draw consistently bad cards. If you don’t have high cards in the current suit, that means you likely have enough cards of another suit to change style and play in that suit instead.

Putting the choice in the center of resolution, rather than the appeal to Dame Fortune, increases the impact of each use of the resolution system. More impact per use in a short game format leads to better game.

At least for me.

An Amazing Film

Kat signed us up for NetFlix, partially because our old video store that had a bit of anime got bought by a chain. I hate chains. Our new video store doesn’t even have Spirited Away.

Anyway, we watched one of her first discs yesterday. Millenium Actress is, without a doubt, the best anime I’ve ever seen. A Japanese Citizen Kane, it flashes back to the life of this great actress, how her life is reflecting in her films, and in the periods of Japanese history where those films are set, and on the value of dreaming the Impossible Dream. Stirring, beautiful, moving.

I’ve got to design an RPG that does sweeping, flashback-format, “This is the story of life” stuff like this, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol. I love them all and I need to render them in RPGs.

But first, I’m working on a ghost story game with Kat. I kid you not.

The good and the bad

The bad thing about last night: I had to work 2 hours late (which was actually the least late I’ve been all week), but had to bring about an hour’s worth of work home with me.

The good thing about last night: Since I brought the work home, I got to listen to the Sons of Kryos Wicked Dead show while I did it. Great interview. This was only the 2nd SoK show I listened to (I have dial-up, so downloading is a logistical task), but I’m really liking them.

At one point in the show, Jeff is finishing up his “GM Tools” segment on GM screens. He’s listed some sort of survey results about the whys and hows of GM screens that he culled from an RPG.net thread. I can tell he’s finished, and I’m thinking to myself “But he hasn’t said anything yet!”

At that moment, Judd says, “Jeff, you’ve gotta make a stand. This is podcasting, you’ve gotta say something.”

It’s cool to be on the same page with the recorded voice on the computer.

So, I made a pilgrammage to The City this weekend to impose on the hospitality of Luke Crane. It was a great time. Hung out with him and Dro and Thor. Got far too little sleep (I miss my ability to sleep in).

Ran a session of With Great Power… The game is sound enough to please someone who’s looking for an excuse not to like it (one of Luke’s friends) and also someone who isn’t generally fond of superheroes (Luke). It went quite well.

I also playtested the latest BW convention game. “Inheritance” is the strongest game yet, I think. Vikings dealing with the death of their grandfather. Very cool. I got to play the hot ingenue that everyone wanted to marry.

Talked about a bazillion things. Got some of my own hypocracy exposed, i.e., I give other people great advice on how to promote their games but don’t follow it for WGP. That’s what friends are for.

All in all, a great weekend. Much thanks to Luke, Thor, Dro, and all the folks I played with.