Fallout 4

My adventures in the Commonwealth proceed apace.

It is rare that I am completely absorbed by a videogame. I came rather late to enjoying this form of game and it takes something that fits me very well to generate obsession. Oblivion did it, Mass Effect did it, but even though I have enjoyed other games… no obsession.

I am completely in love with Fallout 4. I had a week off of work and I’m pretty sure that I only saw the sun because I had to leave the house once or twice, you know, for necessities.

My wife has just started her third character. I’m playing my third character. I took the first to level 20’ish and the second into the mid 30’s. The new guy is level 8. I’ve played the game intensely. I love the settlement building aspects, I love the NPCs, and I enjoy the heck out of the ability to choose just how involved with the main quest you care to be because there are literally 1.83 billion other choices for  how to live your life in this Wasteland.

So far, I’ve been only working with the Minutemen and the Railroad. Mostly the Minutemen. But I intend another play through dedicated to doing the Brotherhood of Steel thing. Really looking forward to that.

The settlement building aspect has enthralled me completely. Though I’m still getting the hang of constructing interesting buildings, and my first two plays involved some epic fails with setting up my supply lines in an efficient manner, I just can’t get enough of building settlements, attracting new people, giving them new clothes (and new guns), and putting them to the great work of reclaiming the Commonwealth.

One problem I’ve encountered was Provisioners. The folks who run your supply lines. Once you’ve assigned them it is nearly impossible to keep track of them because they are always on the road and don’t really have any way to mark their point of origin or destination.

My solution to this problem was based in thinking like a role-player. Here’s what I do. For each provisioner, right before I assign them a route, I go to the Weapon Workbench and I rename a gun with their route – for example, Sunshine to Starlight – and then I present that gun to the Provision as a trust that they will carry out this vital duty to our coalition of settlements. Now, when I encounter them anywhere I can simply ask to trade and see, right in their inventory, their engraved gun with their route clearly marked.

It’s silly, but the life of the mind roleplaying that I can use to “make my own fun” in a game like Fallout 4 really does make an already great game better. By solving a problem with a roleplaying solution, using the existing tools of the game, I have given myself an added layer of fun and fixed my issue.

If you haven’t tried it out yet, I highly recommend Fallout 4. It offers many layers of interesting game play and different ways to experience the game whether you want to be a community leader, a warrior, a nice-guy, or just about whatever. I have found, that with my first character I was seriously just all over the place with what I was doing and how. My second character was so regimented that I didn’t actually take the time to really enjoy them. With this third character I’m finding the middle ground. I have a plan for what I want to accomplish and what I want to experience but I’m also just taking what the game throws at me.

Fallout 4 has a few flaws. Like Oblivion, Skyrim, and other Bethesda games, the Main Quest is seemingly less important or interesting that many of the other options the game offers (and has a very odd storyline problem that I won’t discuss because spoilers). It also has a few hiccups and bugs that Jenny and I are discovering on the PS4 version (I’m a console guy – what can I say) but these have been extremely minor so far and haven’t hurt our game experience.

So yeah, if you were seduced by Star Wars Battlefront or Tomb Raider and didn’t get to the Commonwealth yet, put on your Pip Boy and come join me, I probably even built a bed for you.


A Quick Review of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

I am not the biggest fan of the Forgotten Realms and effectively ignored whatever was happening in the setting throughout 3rd edition and 4th edition. This book also snuck up on me because it was out before I’d even really read much about it or realized it was on the way. I didn’t even know that Green Ronin had a hand in developing it. But I’m a big fan of 5th Edition D&D and I gladly picked this book up despite the mixed reviews I’d been seeing for it. So here’ my attempt to add a positive review, with a few minor gripes.

Setting Material
As someone who hasn’t read FR fluff since the 1990’s, this was actually pretty fun to read. It was just enough information about the area and its changes to make me feel comfortable in the Princes of the Apocalypse game I’m currently playing in by introducing me to the Realms, 2015-style. I can’t say much more than that as I am not a Forgotten Realms expert. I found the writing to be decent, enjoyable, and concise enough that I didn’t get bored.

One gripe. The maps are terrible. My biggest pet peeve, something that drives me crazy in many fantasy supplements… why would you ever take the time to produce attractive and professional maps of your setting and then not add a distance scale? There is no excuse for this. How far is it from adventure site A to town B? I have no idea! Useful.

Mechanical Material
I am a big fan of the design and layout of the 5th edition rule books. The hardcover adventures are not well organized at all but the rule books are nicely done. This book does not continue that layout tradition quite as well as the core rulebooks, but it’s alright. I struggled with identifying different headers and the breaks in sections sometimes in a meaningful way, but not so much as to make the book a struggle to read.

Overall, I found the class material offered (and the fact that they didn’t feel compelled to offer new shinies to every class just because) to be well balanced and interesting. There are quite a few new class options – mainly centered around the idea of the Archetypes classes separate into at early levels. The new Arcana domain for clerics is just plain neat. The new monk options are cool, and the FR-specific content is handled very well because it is written with the idea in mind that players and DMs may want to use this mechanical material in their own home games, not just the Forgotten Realms. This is much appreciated and doesn’t really cost much word count.

The section of new backgrounds was very fun reading, I’ve wanted a few more options over what the PHB has to offer and these are all interesting and adaptable. The new spells on offer are welcome, though the lack of new cleric spells of any sort continues to be frustrating.

Nothing in this book seems likely to break a game, requiring using any options you aren’t comfortable with (feats, for example), and provides new PC options while not changing any fundamental tenants of 5E design.

I know this is a mighty short review, but overall, I’d give the SCAG a solid B+. This would have been an A if the maps had distances on them… at all.

Can We Talk About Firefly?

I know that today is V for Vendetta day or something like that… and I shan’t wish to be hoisted by my own petard, but… let’s discuss another revolution/rebellion for a moment.

Another of those, “Bring Back Firefly” chants passed through my social media feed the other day and it brought back my complicated feelings about the “Firefly Phenomenon.” First, I should say that Firefly, seen in its entirety and in the proper episode order, is one of the best examples of TV Sci-Fi we’ve ever had as geeks. Second, it is one of my favorite shows* of all time. Finally, I’ll say that Malcolm Reynolds is probably my favorite sci-fi character. I’m a huge, unabashed Captain Mal fan. I also live in Virginia, in the heart of Civil War country. I am a comfortable day trip (or less, really) from about 10 Civil War battlefields and my home city has a Confederate graveyard.

Also, a few hours from my home, there is a yearly event called the Browncoat Ball.

I have complicated feelings about Firefly. Here’s a little part of why…

Continue reading →

One Year of D&D Attack Wing

D&D Attack Wing celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. As an ardent fan of the game, I thought I’d write up a quick “where are we now” post in honor of this first milestone.

Turnout, or, Who’s Playing DDAW?
I can’t say entirely because my experience is only with the player base at two local stores, but it seems that turnout for this game is pretty small. We have about 4 regular and another 4 semi-regular players at our store and the typical turnout for tournaments seems to be about 6. From what I gather from the boards over at Board Game Geek and from the turnout for the big Nationals and Worlds events this year, that is pretty much the standard everywhere.

At least two stores I’ve been to in other parts of my home state (VA) they’ve discounted their entire stock because the game never took off there. I’m hopeful that the game can continue to build momentum but this is definitely a concern.

Release Schedule
Good grief there have been plenty of releases. For a while there, the release schedule had three new creatures a month, plus a tournament figure. Wow. Oh, and four premium figures of massive dragons. This has given players a great assortment of creatures and upgrades to choose from and hasn’t felt overwhelming. I accept that overwhelming for me is different than some other players because this is currently the only miniatures game I’m actively supporting.

The release schedule has slowed down recently and I’m not sure if that will be a continuing trend or if the pace will pick back up after the holiday season. Either way, I’m happy because even one new figure a month is enough to keep interest in the game.

I will admit to being a little frustrated with the tournament structure of exclusive figures. Several good aligned dragons, some excellent monsters, and some important upgrades have been introduced into the game only through Limited Edition figures that can only be obtained through tournament play. Even though the retail release options have still been great and competitive, it is frustrating to think that players in an area with no official tournament support are basically forced to turn to ebay to pick up these additions to the game. I’m not really a fan of this.

The Creatures!
This is a source of never-ending joy and frustration for me. Overall, I am a huge fan of the creatures released for the game. Everything from the Frost Giant in wave one to the more recent Pegasus have been interesting and fun to add to the game experience.

On the one hand, there are so many fantastic options to choose from that I’m very excited to keep trying out new Legions, making up new ideas, and combining creatures in interesting ways. In the course of this first year, it seems that game balance has remained strong and most creatures are competitive if played well. A few options have come to dominate the metagame but that is almost always going to happen in an environment of competition. It still seems that Vakka is a winner, Adamantine Lance is indispensable, Mirror Image is the defensive spell to have, and the Harpy, Wyvern, and Gargoyle rarely hit the table. I haven’t seen a Harpy played since release and the Wyvern/Gargoyle have so consistently underperformed that they just get overlooked except in certain specific scenarios.

The other hand, my frustration hand, primarily stems from two gripes. One is really petty. Basically, I’m sad that the releases for this game are so tied into the other existing miniatures lines and the “event” driven releases of D&D in general. I’d love to see a few other creatures make the game. There are some excellent choices out there in the D&D bestiary just waiting to be brought into Attack Wing. There are also some obvious voids in the game that need more figures in them. More undead please. And wouldn’t the Couatl make a great addition to the game?

My second frustration though has to do with the fact that the Level assigned to creatures seems to be skewed heavily in favor of Evil and has some weird problems. To illustrate this, look no further than the fact that the game contains a Harpy and a Frost Giant at 14, both a Chimera and a Nightmare at Level 15, and a Mind Flayer at 18, but the Solar Angel is Level 14. The Solar Angel can’t even use the most powerful divine spells available in the game – which incidentally – Drizzt can. Because he’s two levels higher than the Solar. Consider that the vast majority of Good figures are level 12 or below. There are currently only four Good Aligned (non-premium) figures higher than level 12. There are 9 Evil Aligned figures higher than level 12. Once we get the Vrock and the Nalfashnee in play, there will be 11.

These gripes aside though, it is remarkable that the game retains a strong balance at this point and that the creatures from the first wave and the Starter Set are still competitive and interesting to play against creatures from the most recent waves. Lord Maximilian, Claugyiliamatar, Balagos, Eshaedra, and Nymmestra still make regular appearances in games played at our local store. Of those, Balagos and Lord Maximilian also seem to still get plenty of press in the posts I see over at BGG and from the tournament community.

So, a hearty “Well Done” to the design team for keeping the game in a nice sweet spot for this long.

Organized Play
Other than my misgivings about Limited Edition figures only available through tournaments, I can otherwise give a glowing endorsement of the OP program so far. The Tyranny of Dragons scenarios were all great fun. The Elemental Evil games were too. The scenarios often turned out to be more fun to play than I expected they would be and the variety of game types has kept regular play from ever feeling stale. It also provides good incentive to use creatures you might not choose first in a straightforward beatdown fight.

I hope that the OP program continues to be strong and exciting and that we have another good year to look forward to more unique scenarios.

Last Words
Overall, this has been a fun year. I’ve had some great games with good people. The League I started in my local store has been great (and I’m already planning the second league). The game has grown in interesting ways and has maintained an exceptional level of balance.

Happy Anniversary D&D Attack Wing and here’s hoping for a good year to come!

What Makes A Game an RPG?

This is a stupid thing, and it will probably get me in trouble. I’ve seen it many times in my years as a gamer. But I’ve been reading a lot of games over the last few years and I play many different games outside of just tabletop RPGs. Like many in our hobby, I play videogames (console and PC), boardgames, wargames, miniatures skirmish games, card games, and other kinds of games. But even though I don’t ever expect there to be a specific gospel of “this is an RPG!” I do often have a set of very specific thoughts in mind when I approach a game which describes itself as an RPG. That label gets stuck on all kinds of games. So, here is my set of expectations when I approach a game for what is required to call it an RPG. I’ll lay them out and then express my thoughts on each point after the list.

  1. Game mechanic structures existing for the purpose of telling a persistent story.
  2. Systems for making a character that can be played over many sessions and can develop over time.
  3. An implicit structure of expectations that the game is meant to be played by at least two people in some way relating to one another socially.
  4. The ability to support open-ended play.
  5. A person/player who takes on the role of GM/DM/Storyteller/Judge/Guide/Keeper…

A little exploration of these points…

  1. It does not matter what those structures are – rules light, rules heavy, diceless, card-based – or what the focus of those rules are – combat, social interaction, domain-building – so long as the result is a set of game mechanics in service to a group of people telling a persistent, ongoing story over time.
  2. No, this is not meant to exclude running one-shots. Sure, run a one-shot. My point is that the game system itself is not designed solely as a one-shot. To be completely clear… I’m not saying that a game used to run a one-shot is not a roleplaying game (D&D is a roleplaying game and gets used for one-shots all the time). What I am saying is that a game like Fiasco or Death of Legends is not a role-playing game because it lacks any capacity to exist outside of the one-shot format.

  3. This one is controversial even to me. Mainly because of the “develop over time” part. I’m not sure exactly how to quantify that in a way that makes sense. I’m not discussing the fact that you have to earn XP or character points or be able to “level up.” That is a part of what I mean, but it’s more important to stress that you have some type of agency in designing your character (you can play something you want to play) and that you have some type of agency in controlling that character’s arc over multiple sessions of play. Even if your idea of a fun RPG is just showing up and grunting at the other players over when it’s time to kill something, you are still able to shape your character’s development as the game goes on.
  4. This is perhaps related enough to point 1 that I should have included it there but it is also implicit in my thinking. World of Warcraft fulfills this requirement, though I would maintain that it is not an RPG. Mainly for other reasons on this list, but I wanted to get that out of the way. Fundamental to the RPG experience is the ability to interact with other players and the game master in such a way that you are neither “on rails” (Dragon Age or Diablo) or completely able to do whatever you want without recourse to rules or a social contract of some sort (simply writing or telling a story or playing a solo adventure). The game does not exist solely for you and solely in the vacuum of your own personal imaginary space. Your character’s actions and reactions are part of an ecosystem with other characters and NPCs who have their own goals and desires and who take action to see those things completed.
  5. Also related to points 1 and 3, it is vital to have a sense of openness to be a roleplaying game. A computer game might have a great big world but there are mountains you aren’t allowed to scale, caves you can’t enter, doors that remain closed, and chests that you can’t open unless you have exactly the right key. A roleplaying game requires the open scope of knowing that your actions are your own to decide. You might not be happy with the outcome all the time (consequences, people) but you can choose to hare off and turn the game in a different direction. You don’t have to care about the goblin invasion to the west. Maybe you really want to go to that weird city that got mentioned in passing with a medusa mayor who promises great power to any who will spend a night in her bed and survive…

    And you know, maybe when you ignore that goblin invasion it eventually gains momentum and shows up at the doorstep of your new home, but you still broke the mold and went where you wanted to go. I’m not saying that campaign settings must be infinite or even fully formed when created. I’m saying that in Fallout 3 I can’t say, “to heck with DC” and move to New Vegas. My character gets to do the adventures right in front of me. That’s it.

  6. Which leads to my ultimate requirement. A roleplaying game needs a player in the role of GM (or whatever your game calls it). Fiasco is a great game. It really is – clever, fun, delightfully wacky – but it’s a party game. Yes, the action of the game involves each player taking up the role of a character (role-playing) as the action of the game but everything is present and, in the end, many of the actions are decided by a set of tables with pat outcomes. Sure, these are modified by the actions of the players during the course of play but it’s more akin to a board game (Clue) or a videogame with proscribed choices than it is a true roleplaying game.

    The reasons for this are many but lack of a gamemaster role is a big part of it. Without a GM there is a lack of the unknown. Without a GM there is no outsider to the party and its goals to present the unique challenges of the world. Without a GM there is no outsider to act as arbiter of the rules/rulings necessary to the success of the game.

    The GM role is one of the greatest innovations that roleplaying gives to gaming. It is perhaps the most important aspect which sets RPGs off from other forms of gaming. The GM role makes most of the other points I’ve mentioned above possible in the easiest form. The GM is not a player, not just a referee, and not just an antagonist or storyteller, but some unique combination of the preceding which creates a role much more like a facilitator.

Now, I won’t say my definition is perfect. I’m sure it isn’t. Looking at the above it strikes me that many games I do not consider RPGs come close to meeting the standards I’ve outlined. Games like Descent and Mansions of Madness seem to meet many of the criteria. I would say they lack in open-endedness what they might show in the other areas.

I also won’t say that the case could not be made that some of my points are less than perfect in their formulation. It’s not that I want to put other games down (again, consider Fiasco or Death of Legends which are spectacular games) because I love those games and everything that they are. I’m not even saying that those games don’t involve a role-playing aspect as part of their play. It really is that I get tired of seeing the RPG label smacked on a game and then have my expectations thwarted because the term no longer has any real meaning of its own.

Choice Points (and Choke Points) in Games

So, I’ll start by saying that this post is more in the nature of a rumination and exploration of thought than it is an attempt to say anything definitive about choice points. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I consider some of the games I regularly play.

One thing that is talked about a lot in RPGs is the time it takes to do something. We talk about speeding up combat by rolling attack and damage dice at the same time, or pre-rolling a bunch of initiative checks for the NPCs. But the act of rolling the dice is a very simple process for most players and even in dice-pool games the tallying takes a few seconds at most.

But adding mechanical choices at each juncture seems to be a larger culprit. Much like a game of Magic: the Gathering, it seems as if some games create a scenario where an action can set off a cascade of following effects triggered on the part of both players and NPCs. 4th Edition D&D had specific, measurable problems with this cascade and it was addressed by the designers in later books and in the creation of 5th Edition. Even games like Savage Worlds (“Fast, Furious, Fun!”) suffer from this to a certain extent once certain edges get into play (though they have started to fix the Shaken issue).

Ultimately, these mechanical choices create logjams where players feel the need to always contemplate an optimal action – because losing is bad – and figure out how to compete with the scenario at hand.

This can be complicated by the scenario as well. In the upcoming organize play event for Dungeons and Dragons Attack Wing there are 7 tokens on the board which launch ambush attacks at all models in range each turn. I expect games to be falteringly slow in this scenario as everyone tries to minimize their exposure by analyzing and eyeballing each movement before committing to anything.

Choice is a good thing – to a point – but at some point it seems that offering too many reactions, caveats, and “stuff that can happen” just ends up reinforcing the RPG as Math Problem issue that I so often deride.

Not to only speak ill of games with many choice points. Probably my favorite miniatures game of all time, Battletech, has very few choice points each round (~2 or 3) but these each include a number of traps for the player which can bog a game down into painful oblivion. Movement leads to players counting hexes and turns over and over again, declaring fire leads to more hex counting and enemy targeting while also including the need to debate how much heat you are willing to generate vs. damage potential.

A fellow blogger recently posted about playing OGRE with 12-year-olds and made the comment that 12-year-olds are not burdened by the same analysis paralysis as the 40 year old generation. I was saddened and chastised by this. Because I don’t know that if I suggest that we all “play like 12-year-olds” that will really help much. I suppose what really worries me here is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear point where you can say, “too many choices! Game no play so good!”

I have found that for encouraging roleplaying and deep character delving, the best games move choices out of a purely mathematical realm and have hidden information. In my own experience I get more mileage out of rules-light, diceless system like Amber or a “old-fashioned” system like ACKS or Star Wars D6 than I do out of games like the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars with its narrative dice creating exponential mechanical choices every time they are rolled. Age of Rebellion nearly put me off Star Wars altogether I was so frustrated running it as a GM. Honestly, being the GM in a game with a lot of mechanical choices is like being a single player in a boardgame with long turns. Each player gets to have their moment and only has to worry about one thing but the GM sits through 4-6 turns of soooooo manyyyyyy choooooiiiiiices that you eventually just want to pull your hair out and start running amok.

Funny thing. I’m one of those, like, 6 people in the world who love the game Diplomacy and think that you should play it with your friends. Because it’s a great game that really does something innovative and shouldn’t be taken seriously in terms of ending friendships. (Does that really happen? Really?) I like it because even though turns are long and there are many choices to make from the diplomatic side, there are very few actual mechanical choices, which constrains the action to a manageable set of interactions. I also like it because that diplomatic side really involves talking to other humans and has a time limit. There are consequences if you don’t make it back to the board with fully written orders in time. I’ve played a lot of Diplomacy. I’ve never won a game. I’ve been lied to so many times I couldn’t even count them. I’ve been taken out of games early and nearly pulled off wins a couple of times only to see it all go away in an instant. And I don’t care. Because winning is awesome and the thrill of winning is awesome. The tension of a close game in the final rounds is great. But when it’s over, as long as everyone played fair and didn’t cheat – then you shrug, let your friend who always seems to get to play France pat you on the shoulder, and move on with your day. Because the game itself is fun. Diplomacy is inherently fun (for me at least). And it has very few mechanical options. The rulebook is tiny and consists more of examples than actual rules.

I’m not sure if this rumination makes sense to anyone outside my head. Ultimately, it’s just something I continue to struggle with in my quest to just have fun with this hobby I’ve spent most of my life with. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I just need to give it all up and just go climb rocks for a while or join a gym and see what “normal” people do with their Sundays.

As always, thanks for reading.

The Work/Theme Dichotomy in Games

This is more about boardgames than about RPGs, but I think it could apply to both at some level. I don’t like doing work. I don’t mind a game being hard, but I don’t like it to only be hard. I see a lot of people playing casual games – timewasters – and I’ve tried a few myself. They always feel like I’m just doing work disguised as fun. There is no connection, no engagement, just a relentless task to be completed.

I want something more. Then I think about the games I do play and claim to enjoy and sometimes I realize that they are just as much work and don’t really improve on the engagement aspect to make it feel like fun.

The DC Deckbuilding game is a perfect example of this. Even though the game is splashed with pretty art from the comics, the game itself is very repetitive, only focused on victory points, and doesn’t require much from the players in terms of engagement with the theme. We don’t think about the cards in terms of how much we want to play Aquaman or Green Lantern, we think about how many points of power Solomon Grundy generates or whether or not we have Bizarro when it comes to racking up Weaknesses. Ultimately, even though the game designers did make an effort at tying card effects to the character pictured, the game is still just a task oriented effort.

The Car Wars card game was surprising to me in that, for all its simplicity, it manages to evoke a certain feeling of whipping madly around an arena trying desperately to hammer the other cars into submission. Even though there is no difference between the cars you can play and no difference in the hand mechanics from player to player, the game feels really fun.

Some games, which are otherwise excellent, like Lords of Waterdeep, can easily fall into the trap of being work. I have noticed when I play that I’m the only one who refers to the adventurers (resources) as Fighters, and Thieves. Everyone else just says, “I’ll take a purple and a white” and then we don’t even read each other our quest cards – we just pile them up and add victory points to the total. I can’t be upset with the other players because they are playing the game and having fun, but when we play that way it all just feels like a task we’re completing rather than a truly enjoyable experience.

I suppose the better way to say this is not, “I don’t like to do work” but rather, “I don’t like to do work for the sake of work.” Honestly, it’s why I never liked chess but I love Diplomacy. Chess is a pure, diceless strategy game but it’s lifeless to me. Diplomacy is a strategy game with a social/bluffing element which really puts you in the life of the general moving your armies around the board. It almost tricks the player into a deeper level of engagement.

This has led me to consider that as I weed games out of my collection (which has grown too large to be playable at this point) that my criteria might be less, “how often do I think I’ll play this” and more “what do I get out of each experience of playing it?” Is it fun, or is it just work disguised as a game?

Perhaps I haven’t articulated this well. Does anyone have suggestions for games that really brim with theme and engagement and slough away the cold mathematics of victory points?

Thanks for reading.

OBS is Wrong; So Are The Rest of Us

I’m a little late to this latest gamer kerfuffle. I thought about not discussing it at all – for a lot of reasons – but it was bothering me too much to just ignore it. One BookShelf is just plain wrong, for a lot of reasons, but, so are all of us.

TL;DR: OBS needs a better up-front plan rather than a reactionary, one man stance and the creator of ToR should probably have considered the impact of his actions a little more thoroughly when deciding what to call his latest work.

First, let’s talk a little about censorship
I work in Higher Education and my primary social interaction is gaming. I hear censorship thrown around all the time these days. I also hear a lot about freedom of speech, academic freedom, and intellectual/creative freedom. Here’s the thing. OBS is a business. It doesn’t need to boil down any deeper than that: OBS is a business. As such, we should have every expectation that they are going to attempt to protect their business and insulate it from negative action which will hurt their business in the long run. If that includes removing a game based on a controversial movement or a game with a title like Tournament of Rapists (ToR), then we shouldn’t really be surprised. And it’s not really censorship. They have no obligation to let you use their business for practices they deem unacceptable.

And Here’s Where They Get It Wrong
A few years ago, I read a wonderful book by Jack Miles. God: A Biography, works its way through the bible examining god in the light of a biographer examining their subject. When Miles discusses the story of the first murder, it seems that god acts in an odd way. God has never said – at this point – anything at all about murder. But when it happens, when Cain kills Abel, god reacts as if Cain broke some sacrosanct rule that had been in place all along. (This is a very simplified version of the point Miles makes – read the book for more depth; it is excellent).

And this is what OBS is doing now. They are reacting. They are reacting to a community that is divided along ideological lines rarely seen before in the gaming community. It used to be “us against them” but we won, being geek is cool now (why did we care?) and so instead we are turning inward and devouring our own.

I’ll say it again, OBS is a business. As such, they can remove products or refuse to publish products, but they should not be doing so in a maelstrom. They should not be doing so in the reactionary manner of Instagram or YouTube where all it takes is a simple reporting to remove someone’s creative efforts. They need to put on their big people pants and establish a stronger policy of terms and conditions on the front end.

Will such a stance limit their business model in some way? Of course it will. That’s what happens when you try to be a one-stop shop that serves everyone. It also prevents them from having a public outcry and a painful, uphill battle every time they have to make a difficult decision on a product that appears in their store. OBS is no small concern just existing to provide games for everyone. It is a big deal. It is almost monolithic in its appeal as the best place to go for digital games. I’d probably weep openly if I considered how much money I’ve spent on OBS sites in the last five years. And I love OBS for it.

All this means that it’s time for them to step up. You want to be the industry leader? Lead. You want to have the ability to monitor your storefront and ensure that it takes care of itself as a respectful community? Then tell the community what your standards are. Yes, such a change would be difficult and lead to a time of transition for the site and its users, but it would also save a lot of grief in the long run. The general terms and conditions could be as broad or as weak as OBS needs them to be but once in place, they must be adhered to in order to prevent the reactionary stance they are taking now.

To be clear, and sum this up, I read the letter from Steve Wieck and I appreciate his insistence that bright line rules are a problem. Well, they are. But hey, I work for the government – I get to see the difficulties that bright line rules create every day. I also get to see how they protect us. They might sometimes be a blunt instrument but that instrument has been shaped by constantly dealing with occurrences which precipitated the need for a rule to be put in place.

If you are going to remain the sole arbiter and final decision-maker [update after an additional OBS post: a small committee will decide] over content after it has been flagged, then you are creating more problems than you solve. While I don’t expect the deluge of flagging that some creators are worried about, I do believe this system will be abused and I do expect that good intentions will not be the reason. Steve Wieck says he’s uncomfortable with OBS making decisions about content up front. But he’s willing to do the same on the back-end only after he’s under public pressure to make one decision or another? This seems like it will cause more problems (especially for him) than it will solve.

Be the leader that you are by default. Define your content terms, stick to them, and be willing to review and edit them based on the outcome of your decisions.

Why We’re All Wrong Too
So, I read the introduction to ToR when it hit shelves. It opens with an introduction which basically discusses a certain subset of a subset of anime/manga. It is also a supplement to a larger game line with pretty decent sales. Good on you. ToR was a very poor decision for a title. Let us all consider for a moment that if ToR had been entitled something like, “Demon Tournament Danger” or “Violation Beyond Space and Time” that we likely wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The title was primed for an outcry in the current environment of our little, fractious culture. Sure, the author/creator can title his book whatever he wants and I applaud that freedom, but just because you can do a thing does not necessarily mean that you should do a thing. The Black Tokyo line that ToR is part of has been selling on OBS for a while and it has not generated this kind of public outcry.

Rape is a difficult topic and one which carries a lot of painful associations. Rape is one of the most horrible crimes which can be inflicted on a person. The author of ToR did not seem to have a real, mature grasp of this crisis and his book would probably have been better served with another title. I don’t think that’s a reason to pull the book from sale and I don’t think that we as a community should have the right to say, “Don’t sell this.” We should vote with our wallets – not by boycotting or attacking OBS – but through our choice not to buy this work. We should write letters – not to OBS – but to the author and explain why this particular title might have been a poor choice for his business.

See there’s that word again. The fault for this product – if there is any – lies not with OBS allowing it a space to be published; but with the designer, the writer, the creator. We, as a community, erred by expecting big brother to solve our problem (if we had one) for us. You want to make products like ToR go away? Focus your efforts on the product.

Another brief aside, then I promise to be done. Sara Douglass is a fantasy author. She wrote Hades’ Daughter: Book One of The Troy Game, and I read about ½ of it before I realized that I would never touch her books again. A warrior-king attacks another country, brutally murders a young girl’s father in front of her and then rapes her until he gets her pregnant, along with kidnapping her and holding her hostage. He brutalizes her in every way he can. It’s violent and awful. She hates him. And then, with no compelling reason whatsoever, she starts to love him… And this is a book by a female author that spawned a trilogy. Douglass speaks about this in an interview I found if you are interested but the larger point here is, I don’t see a huge pushback against this book. I don’t see readers lining up to convince Amazon and Barnes & Noble to pull it from bookshelves. And I originally supported it with my dollars because I bought the book when it came out and it was already too late then… but it convinced me to be done with Sara Douglass as an author. But it had a compelling title and great cover art and a connection to Greek mythology so hey, I was all in.

Deciding for ourselves, as adults, what offends us, what hurts us, what we should work against is a very individual decision. It takes a commitment of time and emotional energy, just like reading a novel takes a commitment of time before we see whether it held value for us or if it sickened us. Sure, ToR was given a very poorly considered title that is almost inevitably going to create controversy. As Steve Wieck points out in his letter, when he took the time to read the book he found it to be 1) different from what he expected; and 2) not a very mature representation of that difference. But he took the time to read it.

For those out there offended by the title enough to leap to everyone’s rescue by insisting it be pulled; I think you all spend a little too much time patting yourself on the back and not enough time considering your actions. Which is the essentially the same offense that the creator of ToR can be accused of in this case (most likely). He didn’t consider the outcome of his decision (or maybe he did and he chose to go this route in order to create controversy). Either way, that seems to be the worst sin he can be accused of in this case.

This is insanely long. Painfully so. My apologies and thanks for reading.

Car Wars: the Card Game, A Quick Review

I’ve always been a periphery kind of Car Wars guy. I like the game, have the old Deluxe Box Set, and spent many hours pouring through Uncle Al’s catalogs. But I was never really a hardcore player and it was a game that dropped off my radar over the years. So when I saw the card game advertised, I was surprised to find out it was a third edition of a game that had previously been released in 1991 and 2001. My experience is only with the current version of the game, so I’m not sure how it stacks up or doesn’t with previous iterations…

First Impressions
Even if I didn’t know that Car Wars was a Steve Jackson Games property, I could probably have guessed it from the production values of the game. Steve Jackson stuff has a quality to it that really is unique. This is neither a good or bad thing, just an observation. The game doesn’t have the ultra-slick components of a Fantasy Flight game but everything is well-made, attractive, a little bit retro in style, and inviting in a kitschy sort of way. On a more personal note Creede and Sharleen Lambard wrote my favorite adventure of all time making this an easier purchase for me seeing their names on the box.

3rd Edition (2015)

Basically, all the things I think of when I think of SJG and Car Wars were front and center when I opened the box, so that’s a good thing. Regarding the “ultra-slick” components bit… I was also happy to see that the game consisted of cards and cars. No crazy bits for the sake of crazy bits. Simple straightforward rules. We were ready to go in five minutes. Perfect.

Awesome Stuff
Players get a car and a hand of cards. There is some drawing and then you attack. Then play proceeds to the left. You fight until only one car is left in the arena and then you play another round until one person wins by accumulating enough victory points.

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. It’s a game about shooting other cars with flamethrowers and autocannons. It has a good ratio of attack to defense with the randomness of drawing cards making for the possibility that some rounds are very offense heavy, some are defense heavy, and some are balanced out. This is definitely a plus.

If you don’t attack on your turn or play some kind of special card, you must discard at least one card which I think is a great mechanic because it forces the deck to keep churning and represents that “missed opportunity” for taking a shot or defending yourself and helps thematically with making the game feel like cars moving around the arena instead of just four people playing cards.

The game can get tense. Once your armor is breached, every turn is a moment of holding your breath to see if you’ll skate through another round or if it’s time to bail out. This is a byproduct of that relentless hand churn and even more relentless attacking that happens each turn. And the more players you have (the game takes up to 6) the more brutal it can get.

Overall, I love the flow of the game and how fast and loose it plays. The special cards have some slightly complicated interactions but nothing that disrupts play or overly confuses people. Looking back, I can see one place where I think we were playing something wrong but it’s an easy fix.

The Not So Awesome
A simple, straightforward card game about cars killing cars is hard to find fault with. But there is one thing that detracts from the experience a little. Because the game is played over multiple rounds, with players attempting to be the first to accumulate 60 Victory Points, there can be significant down time for players who are eliminated early in a duel. In our four player games, we often had at least one car eliminated quickly and usually, the last two cars would play cat and mouse for a long time before one could finish the other off. This left two players – at one point – with about 15 minutes of downtime while the remaining two cars attempted to end the round. This isn’t always the case but it can happen. It happened often enough for our group that it was noticeable.

A little lag is not a bad thing when players can sit at the table, watch the rest of the duel play out and enjoy the back-and-forth of the remaining cars but when it drags on for too long, players can lose interest and focus.

I really enjoy this game. Fast playing, hits good Car Wars notes, is exactly as complicated as it needs to be and no more, and it has a strong thematic feel during play. I can’t really ask for much more. During play we laughed, we groaned, we got excited, and we got crushed. Overall, I recommend giving this a try and just really letting yourself get into a car-killing mood. Just don’t let your opponents kill you too fast.

Thanks for reading.

The Simple Pleasures

Last night we did character creation for the Shadowrun game I’m starting (Anniversary Edition, of course) and I was thrilled when one of the new players at the table said to me, “you are absurdly organized” as we prepared to play. I had several hand-outs I had prepared to try and simplify character creation, a worksheet to help streamline working through the process, and a cheat sheet of NPCs that I already know are going to be in my version of Seattle along with ideas and assistance for creating contacts of their own.

They were also thrilled when I offered to make them each a spiffy custom character sheet that will keep all their game information front and center for them so they don’t have to constantly reference a million things during play.

It’s a lot of work. It’s not really necessary. And as I read what I wrote up there, it sounds a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes. But here’s the thing. I don’t do all these things just to make game run smoother or to make life easier for my players. Those are by-products of the process. I do this because it’s fun for me. I love making documents and handouts and play-aids. I created a fancy-looking reference card for D&D Attack Wing that I gave to the local store I play at so that it could help speed up game play. I make packets for my players in ACKS with relevant character info so that they can enjoy character creation (and I do the same for Amber DRPG).

But I’m kind of a paper nerd? I like making stuff. Tangible stuff that gets used at the table. I like the challenge of organizing a character sheet so that it gets everything a player needs on the front of one page and looks nice. I like making NPC references, and calendars, and menus for the restaurants the players shop at. It’s all just fun for me and it really keeps my enthusiasm level up as a GM. When I know that I can hit send on my laptop and have stuff pop up on players smartphones and tablets during play as their PCs encounter these things, it’s just a little shot of joy for me. Doesn’t matter to me if the players enjoy it, are indifferent, or if they are just humoring me (well, it does – I want them to be having fun at the table). You get the idea though, this level of engagement is what works for me and I’ve found ways to make it work in time frames that don’t ruin the rest of my life.

It’s a small thing but it keeps me happy as the GM and helps me to stave off burnout. As long as I can create for a game and think about it away from the table, I’ll stay even more engaged at the table. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. And when players do appreciate it and say so, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

Thanks for reading.