Monday, January 20, 2014

My Response to Fairman Roger's Dev Notes 9 - What is a Roleplaying Game?

What is roleplaying?

The question came up today after reading the blog post Dev Notes 9 - What is a Roleplaying Game? by Fairman Rogers.

There's the snippy bits in the books, trying to break down the "practice" of Roleplaying to those who might not be familiar with the past time. Most of these are blah, but sometimes they reveal the designer/writer's deeper beliefs about roleplaying beyond practice.

Then there's the more abstract answer that has created flamewars and brought down forums as players of roleplaying fight over "What is roleplaying?" For many rpg players, this becomes a a question of how one approaches and plays rps. A rpg style.

I remember the heady early days of the Forge, one of the first forums on actual rpg design. I remember the discussions of the GNS (Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist) Theory by Ron Edwards. It was a real attempt to bring an academic approach to rpgs. When joining those discussions back in the day, I always felt like everyone agreed it was a usual theory but spent most of the time going back and forth on the semantic meaning of the each category. The definitions never seemed to match the everyday connotation of the words - welcome to academia.

I walked away from the Forge with two things:
1) "System Matters"
2) that there was a social contract at the table, usually unspoken, and by being aware of what everyone at the table wanted out of their gaming experience resulted in better gaming

I do see that first theory of gaming styles as narrow now. I think that there are numerous styles out there, and there is nuance in styles. Each player is a compensation rather then merely one style. But I'll get back to play style and how I see it in a bit.

As the Forge went through its flamewars, the Story Games forum emerged to help foster a specific rpg design perspective for a specific style of gaming. Story Games embraced "System Matters" where the rpg system themselves really supported the genre of the rpg in play. But life was changing fast for me, and I never delved back into rpg design forums like I did with the Forge.

As most of this was happening during the recent turn of the century, I saw the d20 emergence and then the following OSR as a large reaction to all the above. At the same time, the OSR has incorporated a lot of the "new school" systems of rpgs while maintaining that "old school" flavor. Interesting that.

I never did get the "BadWrongFun" phenomena surrounding the "What is roleplaying?" For every player that says rpgs are an artform, there is a player who retorts that rpgs are just for fun. How does calling something an art form make it not fun? And yet there is also nothing wrong with not wanting to think deeply about roleplaying, and just play for fun.

I see getting upset of someone's preferred style of play, and wanting to think about it or not, similar to two players getting upset over one wanting to play a supers game and the other medieval fantasy.

All these thoughts came to me after reading Roger's post. He asserts that:
"A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to                      ."Let's break that down.
  1. A roleplaying game is interactive in that it requires input and feedback. 
  2. A roleplaying game is participatory in that the "audience" is involved in the act of creation. (Many people bandy about the term "collaborative," but that sometimes becomes a sticking point as some people see certain roleplaying experiences as insufficiently collaborative. "Participatory" covers all levels of player involvement.)
  3. A roleplaying game is an artistic experience. Yes it is. I am firm in this assertion. It is an act of imaginative creation of a non-practical aesthetic product. It's an art. Deal with it.
  4. A roleplaying game is similar to                      . The blank is there on purpose. What goes in it? Well, here's where it gets tricky...

It's tricky Rogers says, because the blank represents the art form in which you believe roleplaying most closely resembles. And I really like this approach. I agree with all his assertions about interaction, participation, and being an art. It might not (yet?) be a thesis about academic categorization of play styles. But I do think it is a useful rubric to get to the heart of the question about play styles - and how being aware of one's play style preferences helps the social contract at the game table..

For me, my answer is "A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to TV shows." Let me break that down for you.

I was in theater back in the day. I love acting. I'm a writer. I love writing. I see both art forms as elements to roleplaying. But roleplaying is episodic, like TV shows, in a way theater and movies isn't. You can write episodes, but writing doesn't cover the full engagement of acting for me. I would describe roleplaying as similar to TV shows because both are episodic but can engage in epic story arcs, where the director and writers are also the primary actors done as improve. Part of my answer is heavily colored by believing that my GMing and story pacing has improved once I started to try and structure each game session around a TV episode.

What do you think of Roger's rubric, and how do you answer it?
How do you answer the question "what is roleplaying"?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Arrow, S1E1: The Pilot

I'm trying to actually cut down on my TV watching, in exchange for drawing and writing (hello blog!). So the TV that I actually do watch, I want to be good.

Some of the players in my game group have been heavily recommending Arrow. As a CW show, I had an bias against it. I never could get into Smallville, and as Smallville continued, I got less interested. My initial impression was that Arrow was a spin off from Smallville, as Smallville appeared to have a Green Arrow character. My friends let me know that Arrow had nothing to do with Smallville, and that they really thought I should check it out.

So today I watched the Pilot episode. I was impressed. While not 100% into the lead actor who plays Arrow, I thought that over all the episode felt VERY solid for a pilot. They knocked it out of the park on several aspects: action, drama, character development, mystery, romance.

Having his 5 years on the island, his origin, left as a mystery gives the show room to develop the character in various ways while they were still able to establish how Oliver Queen gained his abilities, and the abilities felt grounded. His actions scenes were believable in what he was able to pull off, and how he did them. I enjoyed the interplay between Queen and his bodyguard.

We're given enough pieces of his motivation to see why he is driven, yet we can see we don't have the entire picture. We have a list of bad guys, and within this first story arc, he was able to cross a name off. He sets up his base of operations in a montage that seems to happen within a day, but as a montage, I'll give it a little leeway.

You get the sense that Queen has a agenda and a plan in how to accomplish everything. He even has an idea of his secret identity. But the vague name of the "Green Hood"? Is that really where the idea stopped for him?

You do get the feeling that Queen is haunted, and they drew a great comparison of who he was before the island. This isn't Batman using a mask by the name of Bruce Wayne. This is a millionaire playboy through and through who has experienced a life-threatening trauma that has changed him. And Queen is willing to kill for his goals.

Compared to other superhero TV fare, this is the strongest series out of the gate. I'm looking forward to watching where they take us from here.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Loving Fate/FAE despite the Fudge

I'll admit it. I'm a huge Fate Core and FAE fan.

I remember back early last decade, hanging out around the Forge, working on a game that I was calling Fate. Then the boys at Evil Hat released their game, Fantastic Adventuring in Tabletop Entertainment. Spirit of the Century was released. Fate 2.0. The Dresden rpg. And then Fate Core along with its system on nitro, FAE.

Once my hurts went away over the name - I was intrigued by the system. As Fate has gone through its iterations, it has become cleaner and more streamlined.

What has always blown me away with Fate are Aspects. Aspects to me are and always have been the heart and engine of Fate. They let the core of one's character shine, for good or bad. It's what blew me away over a decade ago and continues to do so today.

Skills have become more stronger with Fate Core's Four Outcomes, and a stronger synergy with Stunts. And while Skills have become better, I think the system actually become more sublime with FAE's Skill replacement, the Approaches. I love how knowledge/perception skills can actually affect the game through the outcome of Creating Advantages.

I appreciate that Fate Core brought in failure choice - but it does feel like the first iteration of rules that will become more refined with time.

In play, the economy of Fate points actually helps create proactive characters and narratives. I admit - this doesn't work for every genre BUT most rpg genres claim this even when their systems might interfere. And for groups used to playing in more "traditional" roleplaying methods, compels take a while to get used to. I love watching the switch go off in a player's head.

Yet what I always stumble over is the Fudge dice.

I have a theory why. My gateway rpg was Shadowrun, just as the system went from first to second edition. From there, in the early nineties, it was Amber Diceless Roleplaying and World of Darkness. Both Shadowrun and the Storyteller system used dice pools, and counted successes.

I never really learned DnD or other systems that added a stat to a dice roll until a few years ago. It is constantly a struggle for me to intuitively understand this type of dice mechanic. I fell like with a stat & di(c)e mechanic, I roll, look all over my character, and then have to do some math. I want to look at the dice and just know.

And Fudge dice, with their pluses and minuses, just make me cringe. Fate's adding skills and stunt modifiers - ugh.

It's irrational. I play Fate despite my loathing of the Fudge. I'm not certain if I'll ever really get over it. I've seen some Fate hacks that use dice pools rather than modifiers...but the Fudge dice alone grate on my nerves.

I feel like I have my favorite system right in front of me - but I just can't get over the core dice mechanic. And it makes me sad.

Luckily, there are other systems out there, and I can take a lot of what I've learned and love from Fate with me.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Rob Wieland's Shadowrun FAE Hack

Rob Wieland is one of the writers of Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow, as the creator of CAMELOT Trigger. He recently posted a Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) hack for Shadowrun. I think that this hack really shows how versatile FAE is in adapting the essence of another game. While I do believe that "System Matters", that not every game/genre can make the translation to FAE, Shadowrun fits well with Fate's emphasis on proactive play and character aspects.

Here's Rob's post on his Shadowrun FAE Hack for the full treatment; I'm paraphrasing:

5 Aspects
1) Archetype
2) Past
3) Team
4) Lifestyle
5) Contact

6 Approaches
1 Approach at Great (+3), 2 at Fair (+2), 2 at Average (+1), 1 at Mediocre (+0)
1) Loud
2) Hard
3) Professional
4) Quiet
5) Soft
6) Street

Stunts represent the various gear, cyber, and magic that is signature for Shadowrun.
It uses the usual FAE rubric:

Because I [aspect], I get a +2 when I [pick one: Loud, Hard, Professional, Quiet, Soft, Street] [pick one: attack, defend, create advantages, overcome] when [describe a circumstance; usually using your gear/cyber/magic]

Everyone in my gaming group was impressed with how succinctly Rob's FAE hack was able to encapsulate Shadowrun's core themes - we're planning to play a Shadowrun campaign soon.

I loved how Rob incorporated tricky mechanics in any system, Lifestyle/Resources/Money and Contact/Social Network, into the character's Aspects. If a player really wanted to make their Lifestyle or Contact stand out, it is easy enough to create a corresponding Stunt.

Rather than going Magic, Cyber, Gear, etc, for Aspects or Approaches, I love how Rob went straight to the themes of Shadowrun's genre, cyberpunk.

Drawbacks voiced:
One person said that he wanted all the tiddly-widdly crunch that Shadowrun has in its various tech and magic systems. I felt Rob really captured that with the Stunts. I think to really get that Shadowrun vibe, you would need to up the number of stunts characters receive. Where as standard FAE suggests starting with 1 stunt, and Fate Core suggests 3 stunts, I would probably go with at least 5 stunts for a Shadowrun hack. Shadowrun is gear/cyber/magic porn and as stunts represent this facet of Shadowrun, you can't skimp.

Another player felt the approaches were confusing since they overlapped in some cases. Some overlap actually doesn't bother me. It allows you to emphasis the character you want by blending which Approaches are your character's best traits. The more we talked about this hack's Approaches, the more nuanced ideas we came up with in applying each one.

Rob Wieland is someone who continually brainstorms great hacks and worlds for Fate/FAE. I know he is contributing to the Fate Patreon with 8-bit adventures in the world of Save Game, which I am looking forward to and if you love Fate, you should patron. Keep an eye on Rob, I think we will continue to see some great things from him.