For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, about identity politics, and about my role as a creative person. I feel like I’m in the middle of a slow and at times painful process of coming into my own as a game designer, and I’m at a point in my life where “game designer” is about the only label I kinda’ sorta’ feel like making a part of my identity. I am big on gaming and anime, but there are a plethora of reasons why I have a hard time thinking of myself as a “gamer” or “otaku.” Some of it is that there are elements in those fandoms that don’t make them feel like the most complimentary labels to wear, but there’s also the fact that in the areas where I have respect for gamerdom and otakudom, I feel a bit inadequate, as I watch anime sporadically and with odd preferences in recent years, and my gaming habits are pretty out there. (The last video game I played really seriously was Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 2, which for those keeping score at home was originally released for PC Engine in 1995.) My creative works express who I am a lot better than my media consumption, so you can see a lot more of who I am as a person from I Want to be an Awesome Robot or even Channel A than from looking at my DVD shelf.
That in turn means that for issues like diversity, there are arenas where I have very direct control and the responsibility falls primarily on me. Although I’m finding I love when artists I hire for game art surprise me (as James Workman and Clove have done many times working on art for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies), whether there is, say, a brown-skinned character on the cover of one of my books is something I determine when I write up art specs for the cover illustration. That isn’t to say that people who don’t create games don’t have a voice–far from it, and I’m very grateful for those who have spoken up–but simply that these are decisions that are getting up in my face, and they’re doing so for something that defines me, so I want to get it right.
The past few weeks have been kind of bizarre for me. D&D5E and the issues surrounding it have me feeling pretty much done with D&D for the time being. I may wind up playing it if my friends really want to, but as things stand I’m not going to spend any more money on it. When all is said and done if I decide I really want the dungeon fantasy genre there are literally dozens of options, to the point where the only unique thing D&D really has to offer is the words “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover (and if you count different editions separately, there are about a dozen games with that distinction anyway). But of late I’m also just finding D&D’s mass of overdone cliches boring and stifling. I don’t want to be so negative about it, but it’s the truth that it’s really not doing it for me. On top of that, although the playtest of Magical Burst was informative, it was also exhausting, and left me with a great deal to think about, some of it much more fundamental than whether the witch’s Hex ability is overpowered.
After poking at about half a dozen different projects over the course of a week or so, I wound up starting pretty intensively brainstorming for Beyond Otaku Dreams. Of the games I’m trying to design it’s by far the most personal, and also the one that most eagerly embraces being a “story game.” My initial inspiration to take another look at it came from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, featured in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master. SWM is a descendant of MonkeyDome, a simple game that’s fundamentally about rolling to see what tone the scene takes (Grim/Zany in MonkeyDome, Glum/Jovial in SWM). Traditional RPGs are highly concerned with whether PCs succeed or fail at things, sometimes to the point of not having rules for much else. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s a massive, mostly unexplored territory of games that don’t bother with it. Fiasco is easily the best-known such game, and the results are often exceptional. Designing such games is at once incredibly liberating and incredibly hard, and I think I didn’t respect that enough when I made the first version of Beyond Otaku Dreams that just totally faceplanted in playtesting.
I’ve been going through a slow process of trying to really break down what I want Beyond Otaku Dreams to do and how to achieve it. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m trying to make a more fantastical version of real life experiences, so there aren’t really any existing narratives that quite fit what I want to create. Another is that it’s in relatively unexplored territory in terms of design, for RPGs in general and me in particular. Put those together and through a lot of the process I’ve been feeling a lot like I’m trying to build a castle on air. That’s led me to reexamine some of the games I have on hand and explore others. Designing a more traditional RPG gives you a bunch of cliches and habits you can fall back on, and I think stepping away from them requires a great deal of care and originality. I like to think I can come up with nifty ideas at times, but I’m not a natural game design iconoclast, so an important part of the process has been looking at what other people have done with such games.
In particular, it got me to take a closer look at my copy of the Norwegian Style book, an anthology of short RPGs from the Norwegian Style blog. It’s a window onto a very different style of role-playing, like looking into one of the possible parallel universes where RPGs came about without D&D. Some have fantastical elements and some don’t, but all speak to the human condition in some way. Very few use much in the way of numbers, but many have little cards with words on them: character roles, events, scenes, etc. D&D grew out of certain kinds of wargames, and a huge portion of RPGs show that they grew out of D&D. That doesn’t make D&D or its descendants bad games, but despite them being numerous and popular, it does mean they represent a limited part of what the medium is capable of. There are an awful lot of things that can go into an RPG where the D&D approach basically amounts to handing you a blank page. (Want your character to be something more than a human fighter with these 7 numbers and a list of gear? Write something on this blank page.) The blank page offers freedom, but it also leaves you stranded with nothing to build on. Compared to that, the Norwegian Style games with their little cards catapult you into a rich character and situation. Other games deposit you at other points on the spectrum with varying degrees of success, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to navigate.
I came across Avery Mcdaldno’s blog post on Imaginary Funerals, which I think says something pretty profound about this hobby. Just like with anime fandom, whatever else it is, this thing we do is very human. That thread of thought met another coming the other way. I’m a huge fan of John Hodgman’s “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, enough so that I went as far as to write my own book of fake trivia. The world he weaves, what Neil Gaiman called “Earth-Hodgman,” is often hilarious, but at times beautifully melancholy too. He’s said that that phase of his life is over, and he’s on to doing other things like the Judge John Hodgman podcast. One of the things that’s stuck with me is a particular turn of phrase. Towards the end of That Is All, he says that if it turns out Ragnarok doesn’t come, maybe some day he and the reader meet, and spend a moment enjoying being human together. I think “being human together” describes a lot of what I really want out of RPGs, especially right now. I can enjoy games that are more about problem-solving and tactics (and have done so extensively in the past), but I want more games that are more directly about the human condition, with or without genre fiction metaphors. I don’t care at all about what sells more or what’s more “sophisticated,” what is or isn’t “art.” I just want games that exist first and foremost to help create experiences that mean something to me, to bring me together with friends.
So, that’s about where I am right now. It’s a really weird place to be in, but also refreshing in a lot of ways.
Ben Lehman is of the opinion that the Norwegian Style games are more like a conscious attempt at making RPGs that are utterly unlike D&D, and in a hypothetical D&D-free world freeform fandom RP is more likely to have been the basis for RPGs. Either way at some point I really need to sit down and explore other forms of role-playing, including not only freeform but reading up on stuff like psychodrama.
Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.
On July 3rd the free PDF of the D&D Basic Rules went up on the WotC site, and the Starter Set went on sale at local game stores (with a wider release to come on the 15th). I’ve had a rather unusual relationship with the game, as it’s something I only ever really engaged as an adult hobbyist. For me D&D doesn’t have any particular nostalgia, and it was always one of many, many possible games to play. That some people act as though it were the only RPG in the world is just plain baffling to me, and I probably would not have stuck with this hobby for 20+ years if there were only the one game to play. That’s the kind of attitude I come to this with, so this first impressions thing isn’t going to be hugely positive.
With the Starter Set and Basic Rules on hand, 5E isn’t all that bad, but the parts I actually find interesting are hiding in odd corners, more useful to me as potential stuff to try in other games. Granted these versions of the game deliberately have simple baseline versions of the classes (well, as simple as they’re willing to let the wizard and cleric get, which isn’t very simple at all), but they’re the four most cliche D&D classes, and the fighter is the staggeringly boring “I hit it with my sword” guy. If I play the game before the PHB comes out, there won’t actually be a single class I particularly want to play, and about the best compromise will be shoehorning my 4E warlord character into a cleric. Continue reading →
It was in May of 2013 that I mostly swore off going to conventions. Not permanently or absolutely, but indefinitely, and for health reasons. I have problems with anxiety. In scientific terms anxiety is a sustained activation of the body’s fear response, caused by sustained stress. In my everyday life some days I’m perfectly fine, and other days it becomes a constant thing. Large crowds are a pretty reliable trigger though. I’m also in poor shape physically, which is partly a result of other medical issues I won’t get into here, but partly my own fault too. Between the two, even relatively brief visits to a convention can leave me feeling mentally and physically drained. It was after spending all of six hours at FanimeCon—and subsequently going home, turning my phone off, and climbing into bed—that I finally decided that, for the time being, I’d had enough. Where the fact that I’m alcohol intolerant almost never even comes up, conventions are woven into the fandoms I’m involved in enough that it’s something I feel I legitimately need to make known. Well-meaning friends and coworkers and such assume that as a geek, conventions are a thing I would naturally want to do, and as my role in game publishing has grown I’ve gotten a few fans and business connections proactively asking me to come to cons. I don’t like that things have gone this way, but at this point in my life asking me to go to a place with big crowds of people is rather like inviting a guy with a sprained ankle to Staircase Land. I do need to do something about it, but it’s going to take some time. Continue reading →
I’m getting fairly close to finishing the 4th draft of Magical Burst, which as I said will hopefully be the last major revision before publication. Naturally when I could’ve been working on it I instead blathered for 1600 or so words about working on it.
One thing that’s been on my mind a bit lately is the thematic underpinnings of magical girl anime. Anime is a weirdly skewed window into a particular culture, and magical girl anime straddles at least two distinct segments of that culture. There’s magical girl stuff aimed at little girls, which is more likely to have women in creative roles, but at the same time is extremely mainstream. Sailor Moon was the queen (and in some ways the originator) of this phenomenon, though Precure pretty clearly holds the crown right now (at least until Sailor Moon Crystal starts up). There’s also magical girl stuff aimed at adult male otaku, and while Madoka Magica is unusually restrained in a lot of ways (nary a panty shot to be seen for one thing), it’s still mainly a show very much by and for men. Where the show displays a lot of restraint, the merchandise and the fandom certainly don’t, and if for some reason you decide you want plastic figures of the characters in swimsuits, there’s official merchandise for you.
The shows aimed at girls are hard for me to fully take in. They present a lot of ideas about femininity, and those are grounded in a foreign culture and put through the filter of a show for little girls to watch in the morning. The actual style of storytelling is in my experience pretty similar to sentai shows, with the bad guys doing stuff that twists a characters’ desires in order to do evil. In magical girl anime stereotypically girly stuff like clothes and jewelry and dancing can be the focus a lot of the time, but they’ll also feature things like chess tournaments and martial arts where it fits the characters. Sailor Moon has the brainy Sailor Mercury and the tomboy Sailor Jupiter among the heroines, for example. As Lauren Faust put it, “There’s more than one way to be a girl.” Magical girl anime for girls tends to treat femininity as a virtue, but it presents many different kinds of femininity. It also has an aspirational streak, showing the characters striving for various notions of happiness and success. Sometimes this comes off as shallow and materialistic, and other times it can be pleasantly altruistic or otherwise noble. I’m reminded of the thing that being girly isn’t anti-feminist, only the notion that all girls must be that way rather than being free to choose.
The issues with male-oriented magical girl shows are more apparent in titles like Lyrical Nanoha and Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Ilya, which although not without substance, have some pretty gross male-oriented fanservice at times, compounded by rather young characters. The stories tend to have very little to do with femininity, and instead play out a lot more like other genres of anime. Nanoha has a female protagonist and most of the major characters are also female, but in a lot of ways it’s more like an unusually succinct shounen fighting series. There’s a greater than usual emphasis on themes of friendship in Nanoha, but then that’s true of, say, One Piece as well. Friendship and striving to accomplish things and so on are really important values in Japanese culture, and very popular among boys.
Magical Burst belongs to the Madoka camp more than the Precure camp. For starters, the game is by an adult male designer, and if I were going to make a game aimed at anything like the girl-oriented magical girl anime and its original target audience, it’d look very different. I’m certainly not going to put deliberate fanservice into the game, but I have no illusions about what gender the majority of the audience is going to be. It’s also an RPG, which means that a certain portion of the thematic content comes from how the particular gaming group comes at it.
I also took some influence from Superflat. Superflat is an art movement from Japan that’s a bit pretentious and hard to explain, but the core of it is exposing the absurdity of certain aspects of Japanese culture, in particular expressions of powerlessness and the lack of distinction between product art and fine art. As a result, Superflat art shows include a lot of outright bizarre stuff that uses imagery from anime and such. Magical Burst’s use of a zillion d66 tables that put a kaleidoscope of weird images and tropes in front of you is very much from Maid RPG, and even more so Magical Burst asks you to take a disparate mass of images and try to make some sense out of it. Although it doesn’t perfectly line up with Madoka Magica (on purpose), I want it to help foster some of the feeling of strangeness I and doubtless many others felt in the first episode when Madoka and Sayka find themselves inside a witch’s barrier. Looking at my introduction to the setting I see a lot of stuff about alienation, about lacking answers, which I think has a bit to do with how I feel about real life. So there’s that.
The world is a vast place, but although mankind as always told stories of magic, to their tribes, to themselves, to the night sky, men have never held it in their grasp. Magic is real even so. Magic is dangerous and terrible and beautiful. Magic is our only weapon against magic. Perhaps someday the world will forgive you for using it, but for now it hates you for it, hates your good intentions as well as your base desires. That is the world you will live in, a magical world.
On the design front, I wound up doing some major streamlining of the Fallout rules. Naturally this involved making a bunch more tables, since among other things I decided to make d66 tables for the two levels of Distortion type fallout. (My favorite particular entry being “Small candies rain down from the sky.”) A big part of the point of having tables is to provide inspiration so that you’re less likely to get stuck trying to think of something on the fly, so it made sense to have tables rather than just giving a handful of examples. It was really fun to come up with Magic distortions, and very difficult to come up with ones for Heart and Fury that would be impactful but not too out there. That also means that so far the game is up to about thirty d66 tables in it. So yeah. I also revamped the Change tables, trying to keep them from being overt fetish fuel, overly contextual, or any number of other problems. They’re still really out there, but hopefully better overall. I’m definitely liking how the Fallout rules are looking in general.
The three Specializations and the related Magical Talents are now done, albeit in a first draft kind of way. The Witch, which specializes in Attack, was probably the easiest to design, since “does more damage” is a pretty simple thing to accomplish. For the Knight (Defense) I really want to make sure such characters can be active enough to be fun to play, and absolutely not MMO tanks. For the Priestess (Support), D&D4e’s leader classes provide a lot of inspiration, though there’s also potential for doing some interesting things that are specific to this game, like playing around with Overcharge. I want the roles to be relatively flexible, with the ability to do some stuff outside your specialization’s role. The Priestess has a better healing talent, but anyone can get a healing talent, for example.
The big thing I’m trying to figure out right now is how to work the Sorcery rules, which essentially means coming up with an improvised magic system (or a stunting system if you prefer). The core idea at the moment is simply that you make a Support challenge with a target number depending on the effect you want, plus some stuff to make your life interesting if you fail or don’t succeed quite enough. Threading the needle of making something that can cover a huge variety of possible magic effects without being too complicated is proving a really interesting challenge.
It’s hard to say how soon I’ll get it done–I certainly don’t have any shortage of other things I need to get done, not to mention my day job having some tumult–but assuming I can untangle the remaining knots there’s not too much left to do. From there I’m hoping to launch into some pretty intensive playtesting, because I feel like I need to really learn the ins and outs of the system I’ve made, make some important refinements, and collect and communicate knowledge of how to play. Also, it’ll motivate me to get back into role-playing proper, which I haven’t been doing anywhere near as much as I’d like due to scheduling issues.
Sentai shows are very similar to magical girl anime in this respect, which makes sense since they’re the early morning show for boys. Some day I really need to finish my Tokyo Heroes RPG, which covers both sentai and Sailor Moon style magical girls.
My friend Aaron Smith is in fact working on a game aimed at more traditional magical girls, and it’s looking quite good and totally different from Magical Burst.
I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m really looking forward to the games that draw on D&D4e for inspiration but improve on its ideas in various ways. (And I really need to get around to playing Last Stand some time soon.) One thing that I find especially fascinating is the use of roles (and the myriad things that flow from them). 4e’s roles show distinct inspiration from video games, but they’re also carefully tailored to the tabletop experience. They reinforce the notion of D&D as a team effort incredibly well, though they have certain drawbacks, like making non-standard party configurations potentially more difficult. (Early on we tried playing 4e without a Leader character. It was rough.)
In the typical MMO the three main roles are tank, DPS, and healer. Tanks are durable and can draw aggro (i.e., get the enemy AI to concentrate on them), DPS (damage per second) characters dish out lots of damage to take enemies down, and healers, you know, heal, and in particular keep the tank standing so the rest of the group can do their thing. “Crowd control” exists as a fourth role, though usually rolled into DPS or healing. Most of what I know about the finer points of MMORPG play I know from osmosis by having several friends who like to blather about it, but one thing people are really clear about is that relatively few players enjoy playing tanks, and good tank players are kind of hard to come by.
D&D4e’s four roles of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller roughly correspond to tank, DPS, healer, and crowd control, but there are some very important key changes to make them function in a tabletop RPG. RPGs don’t generally have aggro mechanics, so rather than directly inducing enemies to attack them, defenders punish enemies for attacking anyone else. A monster that the fighter has marked can either attack the fighter, or take a -2 penalty to its attack on someone else and risk taking an opportunity attack. Defenders are still reactive (enough so that I didn’t enjoy playing them personally), but they’re definitely not as unpopular to play as tanks are in MMOs. Leaders meanwhile have a much stronger emphasis on buffing allies (or debuffing enemies in certain cases, notably the bard) with healing as an important but secondary function, thus avoiding the problem of “cleric as healbot.” Strikers meanwhile are pretty straightforward, whereas controllers were the one role that took some time for WotC to really figure out how to implement (much to the chagrin of many a wizard player), but could be a very useful support role once they hit stride with the design.
To a degree 4e’s roles are an extension of things that already existed in D&D. The meatshield fighter is an old cliche, and the cleric was pretty much the quintessential leader class well before 4e came along. There’s a degree of rigidity to the roles though, which makes them easier to use but harder to customize. For some people it went against expectations for particular, though it is a little silly to complain that to make a swashbuckler means writing “rogue” instead of “fighter” on your character sheet. On the other hand Sacred BBQ took the step of actually decoupling roles from classes, so that what in 4e would be Fighter/Warlord/Slayer as separate classes could become Defender-Fighter/Leader-Fighter/Striker-Fighter. (Plus it adds a “Blaster” role.)
This has been on my mind in part because I’ve been working more on Magical Burst, the new version of which adds three “Specializations” of Witch, Knight, and Priestess that emphasize Attack, Defense, and Support (and would roughly correspond to Striker, Defender, and Leader). These are deliberately “softer” roles, and the game lets you build a character that gets into the stuff other roles do (and more advanced characters have the option to outright take on a second role). Also, while a group with all three specializations could potentially synergize better, a group without the complete set ought to still be effective. On the other hand they’re still derivatives of the 4e formula, and what I’m most curious about is an implementation of roles that is substantially different from that.
MOBA games (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends) are the other major video game genre that has a concept of roles, though they’re also a genre I find totally inaccessible. Consequently I’m not going to try to dissect and explain MOBA roles, since I’m pretty sure I’ll inevitably get stuff wrong, plus they’re fuzzy and vary between games anyway. I will note that the roles in MOBA games seem to be very strongly shaped by the way the game functions, in particular being so heavily team-based that solo play isn’t a thing that even makes sense, and having characters level up over the course of a match as a major gameplay element. Thus one of the major roles in MOBA games is the “Carry,” which starts weak but eventually gains a lot of power, so that it needs other players to “carry” it to that point. The arenas, which have a neutral area with “creeps” (NPC monsters) not allied to either team, allow for a “Jungler” role that earns XP by killing those creatures, and represents a potential threat to enemies that have to venture through the jungle.
The big takeaway here is that there are lots of possible ways to apportion roles. The trick is to come up with a set of specialties that fit together into an overall approach to the activities that the game involves. MOBAs have roles that are pretty different from MMOs I think because they have so many key gameplay elements that are so different. Having a character with an uneven power progression would pretty much be a screwup in an MMO, but since the basic unit of MOBA play is one match, it’s an avenue for differentiating the heroes. Roles for tabletop RPGs are a largely unexplored technique, and there are a lot of areas where it could go in new and interesting places. To me the big thing there is the possibility of roles that effectively address non-combat stuff. D&D4e has a lot more support for non-combat stuff than an MMO, but skills are one of the most haphazard parts of the game, and other non-combat abilities are all over the place. Fighters are arbitrarily screwed over for skills, while bards could be utter monsters in terms of using skills. To some extent there’s already a notion of having characters that specialize in being the Face, the Nature Guy, the Techie, etc. (The Risus Companion has pretty good writeups of that kind of thing.) The difference there is that that kind of specialization lends itself more to particular characters being the one guy in the group who can handle a particular obstacle, whereas the advantage of combat roles is that everyone can more or less always contribute to the group’s success without being relegated to the sidelines. How to go about crafting roles is still above my head, but it’s something I’m really interested in exploring in the future.
I’m not good at tactics, and I’m not good at keeping track of lots of things at once, least of all in small amounts of time. MOBAs are derived from RTS games, which are already pretty much the perfect storm of a Game Not For Ewen in basically every way, and add a need for extremely tight teamwork. Even Rob Heinsoo, the guy who is responsible for keeping wizards in D&D4e from being just plain better “because magic,” initially had fighters and paladins have crap for skill (background) ranks in 13th Age.