Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Understanding Game Rulebooks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


If you want to play games more advanced then Chutes and Ladders, Connect 4, and Battleship, prepare to do a lot of reading. Once you venture into the realm of adult-oriented board RPGs, tactical games, board games, and card games, you will discover—as I did—that there is a lot to read and a lot to learn. Get ready for a rant on how poorly most rules for many modern hobby games are written and/or organized. Be aware there is some light at the end of this dark critique. If my rant becomes tedious, skip ahead to the part on the Star Wars d20 RPG by Wizards of the Coast. That rulebook stands out to me among many I have read.

Writing pays the bills here, so I am not unfamiliar with how to write coherently so that what I am attempting to communicate is understood clearly and simply. My wife is not only a writer of textbooks for grade school and middle school students, but she is an editor too. I myself have written almost a dozen books on a variety of non-fiction topics for middle school students. Before writing sucked me in, I was also a full-time graphic designer for over a decade. I dealt with layout, type, and created art for apparel, print, and web design. Aside from just tooting my own horn, I am laying down some credentials before I tear into a few of the rulebooks I’ve read for the games that I enjoy.
For a game to be played by new players, the rules need to be written simply and presented clearly. The writing should be at a reading level so that the full age range the game is marketed to will be able to comprehend it. Oddly, even with a background in graphic design and writing, I find many of the rulebooks cryptic and poorly laid out. The writing is not necessarily bad, but often tends to be jumbled and scattered throughout basic rulebooks, making understanding simple concepts complicated.

The first example I’m going to give is the Players Handbook for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Having never played the game properly as a kid, I started reading the 4th edition book so I could grasp the rules and play the game with my family and friends.

The book opens with Chapter 1 How To Play on page 4 but does not explain the very simple core mechanic of the game until page 11, over 4000 words later. Now while some of the words between page 4 and page 11 are certainly necessary, there is no need for them to be bunched all up front before the game’s core mechanic is explained. I’m sure the big wigs at Wizards want as many people playing D&D, as the law would allow. Simply written clear rules for new players is a must!

Another example I found completely insane was the term [W] that I kept coming across throughout the book. There are so many abbreviations in D&D that it can make anyone’s head spin. Still, once you know what they are, they are quite easy to remember. What exactly does [W] stand for, I kept asking myself as I searched throughout the Player’s Handbook? I looked and looked and looked. The [W] abbreviation is littered throughout the book perhaps hundreds of times. I tried using the index but there is no abbreviation index. Finally after skimming through the book dozens of times I came across the mysterious [W] explanation on page 276! The book states there that: Weapon Damage Dice: A [W] in a damage expression stands for your weapon’s damage dice.

I was so happy I finally found it and was aghast that the book would define something so important that is referenced so much throughout, so late in the text. The information was there, thankfully, but there was no easy way to find it. Rulebooks are not like novels that you read through from page one to the end and that’s that. Scattering information throughout the book might often be necessary due to the content, but if information is to be scattered there needs to be a better way to access that information. Better indexes, abbreviation charts, and other helpful features can help solve this.

My problems with the D&D Players Handbook do not end there. Character creation is scattered all throughout the book. While the information for the many races and classes may dictate the layout, comparing the differences between the races and the classes is far from simple because the statistical information is never conveniently presented in small comparative charts. Quick character generation by hand for casual players is difficult at best. I wound up using Excel to create a few handy charts that conveniently showed information that was scattered throughout the book. I even wound up rewriting the rules simply, minus the thousands of words of mumbo jumbo, for my son and myself to keep handy.

I have been reading Wizards of the Coast D&D Next playtest material over the last few months. My feedback, aside from nuanced rules preferences, is that they should attempt to make the rules, whatever they are, simple. Getting complex is not a big deal. Many gamers thrive on complex rules. I just suggest that the books go from simple to complex. I also suggested a better index, more charts clumped all at the beginning of the three basic guides, and a good abbreviation index or chart, too.

Unfortunately, I have found many poorly-presented rulebooks for great games. Tannhäuser by Fantasy Flight Games is another example of a very cool game with poorly-presented/written rules. Finding simple information such as why the character tokens are ringed in silver or gold was difficult. The fact that the Reich cards are similarly colored gray and the Union cards are beige made any logical color association assumptions even harder. The index did not help. On page 5, the rules explain that the objective tokens have the gold and silver rings for primary or secondary objectives. Equipment Tokens are described right above on the same page. I was mystified about why it was not right there at that exact spot, the rules do not explain that gold represents heroes and silver represents troops. The fact that this silver and gold color delineation is the same for Reich and Union despite the fact that Reich and Union can never be on the same team is also another mystery. It might be because the objective tokens can be used by both sides, but a small symbol for HERO (gold) or TROOP (silver) might have worked better so that REICH and UNION would not be confused. The section that explains that: "Each team is comprised of three Heroes and two Troopers" makes no mention of the gold silver rings that help you know who is a hero and who is a trooper. It also does not mention there that heroes have one more row of characteristics that make them more powerful. This is listed later on page 11.

Again, like D&D, all the information is there. It can all be found and pieced together. Eventually. It's just organized so poorly that I can only assume that someone who knows how to play the game very well probably wrote the rules. The writing assumes that the reader already knows information that is eventually listed somewhere but not where it logically should be. Sure, once you know how to play it all makes sense but getting there alone, and without people who already know how to play sitting there with you to explain, takes a while.

Very early on pages 6 & 7 of the Tannhäuser rules add supplemental information for an expansion pack. Why this is printed right in the front is odd. Another problematic aspect of this game is that supplemental character packs come with new tokens and rules additions that require you to carefully save more small ephemera that will definitely need to be referenced during game play. If these pieces are lost, believe me, you will be too. I could go on and on about Tannhäuser, but I'll spare you. It’s a good game. It has great miniatures, a wonderful story, and a fantastic Pathfinding System for line-of-sight. It just suffers, as many games do, from poorly-presented rules. The revised rules should be revised again, rewritten from scratch in a logical and easy to understand way. A token chart or game board is needed for quick reference during game play. Also all rules that are added with supplemental materials should be added to the basic rules or made available as PDF charts online. As well, the rulebook should be reprinted in hardcover. Any game worth its salt needs a hardcover book. Softcover is not going to last, especially since the rules cannot just be read and left behind. Unless you are some sort of wizard-like savant, you will always need all the printed material close at hand.

Fantasy Flight Games (FFG ) in general tends to produce very complex games. I’m not going to go into detail on every game I have from them, and list all my problems. It would take too long and much of it is personal preference. I will just talk about the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) game by them since I have been actively reading the source material recently.

FFG tend to produce games with lots of cards, custom dice, and a zillion cardboard punch-outs. Keeping any game purchased from them organized requires the additional purchase of holders for all the tokens. I’m on the fence about all this extra crap. Once you know the games it can make it fun, but I tend to enjoy less junk. Dice, miniatures, maps, character sheets, and even cards are enough. Once you start to get into multiple decks of cards at different sizes, as well as hundreds of different tokens, it gets kind of crazy. I can see eliminating all that extra crap where each player has an iPad for keeping track, but not everyone can go get an iPad. Still, FFG should consider apps to eliminate the extras for those who want to. They already have a nice dice app for their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. It’s a good app and is easy to use. Since the custom dice for WFRP are hard to find, this app helps—not hinders—the game.

I still am finding the learning curve for WFRP to be quite steep. Many online say the game is dumbed down from earlier versions. Maybe I’m dumb? An RPG with so much extra ephemera is quite complicated to me. I’m pressing onward. I like the ideas. I want to learn, but it’s not coming quickly and some of the problem, again, is the rules. The WFRP rules are written better then the Tannhäuser rules, but still could use some help. In defense of FFG and my complaints with all the tokens and cards, I was happy that WFRP does have a section called WFRP Lite. It explains how the game can be played without all the extras and just a few books and some pen and paper. The website forum has a section for house rules, too, where people can show what modifications they have made. I like this. I appreciate that they are embracing different ways to play one game. Many people create house rules with all variety of games, but it’s not always officially sanctioned.  Still, above all, I like to learn the rules before I break them.

So here is the light at the end of the tunnel I promised. Recently in our never-ending quest for miniatures I bought a huge lot of Star Wars RPG minis off Ebay. We use many minis for home-brewed games all the time, so hundreds of creatures from the Star Wars universe could only help with RPG gameplay. Finally I became curious about the actual rules for the Star Wars PPG itself. I figured we already have all the minis, I may as well track down the rulebook. After some research I decided the book to buy was the Saga Edition Core Rulebook. The books are no longer in print so I had to get them off Ebay. With some digging I got one for not much money at all. When I got it in-hand and started to read it, I was happily surprised.

The Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook by Wizards of The Coast is the most clearly-written rulebook I have come across yet. The book itself is a square and only 286-pages with a 2-sided character sheet and a 2-sided, full color map. The contents are on page 3. A very well-written foreword by Christopher Perkins is on page 5. A simple introduction is on page 7 and then the book does what it should do. First off, it’s not cluttered or printed over a faux background or anything fancy. There are not numerous blocks of multicolored text or anything uselessly distracting like other rulebooks have. It’s just simple black text on white paper. Each section heading is printed in a larger, bold, easy-to-read sci-fi style font—also in black. It’s very easy to read. It’s very easy to understand what each section is going to be about because it's well written too. It’s a very easy book to scan. The margins get slightly fancy with a decorative bar that lists what chapter you are in, page number, and what the chapter is titled. There is also a very simple and convenient color-coding system for each chapter in this margin. It’s decorative and useful. It looks nice but it can also be used to quickly help you scan the book to where you want to be. It’s exactly where it should be too, right where your thumb would go if you wanted to look through the book quickly. This is nice.

The introduction tells you how to play the game as well as explaining the layout of the book in 9 short pages. This was very nice to see. Chapter 1 has not even started and the entire mechanics of the game have already been explained simply. Anyone who reads those introduction pages will know how to play the game, if they want to try playing the game, and what they need to do, step-by-step, to continue onward. Next in Chapter 1, in three short pages, character abilities are explained. Each ability has its abbreviation listed boldly right next to it in the section heading. Wow! Ability modifiers are explained, as well as how to generate ability scores. The book’s first real table is printed here and it’s listed as Table 1-1: Ability Modifiers. These tables are referenced throughout the book and their exact number heading is used to help you quickly locate them. They are also always printed the same way, in gray with alternating gray and while bars to make them easy to find. Tables in the D&D 4th Edition Players Handbook have no such system. Odd. Same company–different ways of doing things. Huh?

Chapter 2 is for Species. A handy table is listed right up front with all the basic species and their Ability Adjustments. Then all the species are listed in the following pages. No species takes up more then ½ a page. There are a lot of species but you can easily flip through them quickly.

Chapter 3 is for Heroic Classes. We are only on page 35 and already we are having the various classes explained. The D&D 4th Edition Players Handbook is chaptered just like this, just not written as clearly and concisely. In the D&D book, the classes start on page 50 and end on page 175. Then skills start on page 176! In the Star Wars book you are reading about skills on page 57. I know many will say the D&D book has more information. D&D is more complex. D&D is for serious gamers. All of that is nonsense. There is no reason why the D&D book cannot be written as simply and as economically as the Star Wars book.

There is a reason the Star Wars book is written so well. The reason is George Lucas and Lucas Books. Star Wars is not owned by Wizards of the Coast like D&D is. Star Wars is a license that Wizards needs to pay to use. It is expensive to get the Star Wars license for anything. I know. I used to work for a T-shirt company that made Star Wars shirts when Episode 1 came out. You could not just throw together any old design and run off 10 thousand T-shirts, willy-nilly. You had to get everything approved and often times make changes that came from the people at Lucas Licensing. Star Wars is a big deal. They care about Star Wars. Anything that is officially licensed from Star Wars all needs to adhere to a certain level of quality. That level of quality is very high.  Mostly. Sometimes garbage gets through the system, but for the most part Star Wars products are a cut above.

My speculation is that the reason the Star Wars RPG book is the best-written game guide I have yet to come across is because of the people at Lucas Books. I’m sure they did not take anything for granted and made sure that the game mechanics were explained for a person who was brand-spanking new to RPGs. Perhaps even the people at Lucas Books were new to RPGs so they made sure the book was understood by themselves. The result is the finest game guide I own. Say what you will about Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks, and whatever other criticisms you might want to pepper Star Wars with. The Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook is the finest rulebook I own. It’s the high water mark that all other rulebooks should aspire to. I wonder if Wizards even knows what they are sitting on. The D&D Players Handbook is sure not instilling me with confidence that they do in fact know what they have. Further troubling is that the © for the Star Wars book is 2007 and the D&D book is 2008. This means they had already produced this gem before the D&D book. Yikes!
I hope Wizards reads this. I hope they take notice. Use the Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook as a guide for all other rulebooks you might ever produce. It’s gold. It’s Jedi caliber. 

I know it’s not a fluke either, because I have The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide from the same series and it too is laid out and written just as well. I’m now tracking all the books from this series down on Ebay. They are a must-have for any gamer. They also do a great job of explaining the d20 system. Once you read the core rulebook you’ll easily grasp any d20 game.
Lastly, I’d like to write about current Clone Wars action figures by Hasbro. Hasbro is should be noted, owns Wizards of the Coast now. A recent purchase of a random Clone Wars Battle Droid came with a Galactic Battle Card with stats on it and a custom black d6 die with gold symbols on it. A tiny, tiny instruction “manual” also came with it detailing a simple battle game that can be played with Star Wars action figures from this series. The stand has a slot to insert the card into. This is a great little game and a perfect way to get kids into RPG-style battle or strategy games. The card has the d6 symbols on it for the results and there is nothing else to it. Figures, cards, one d6, and an instruction paper the same size as the card. Go grab a few Clone Wars figures and get playing. Customizing this for a home brew RPG with figures you already own would be quite simple, especially if you grab the Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook off Ebay.

–A

Monday, February 25, 2013

Skylanders & The Future of TableTop Gaming.


Here are my 6-year-old son's words describing what the Skylanders are:

“The Skylanders are a toy that goes in a video game. They are little toys and they go on a portal of power. They are little tiny guys that aren’t alive but they go in the game and they come to life. That’s pretty much it.”

He sums it up pretty well, and he had a huge grin on his face they entire time he was telling me, knowing that I was taking some time to write about his most favorite thing. Each kid winds up having that one favorite thing that rises above all other childhood things that they love more than anything else. For me it was Micronauts and eventually Star Wars. For my older son it was Ben10 and Pokémon. For my youngest son, it is most definitely Skylanders. 

It started about a year ago when my older son showed me the game and the toys. Right away I was skeptical. “Scam, moneymaker, gimmick!” was my initial response, and I resisted as I do about a lot of things that come along that we were not getting that game, and therefore would not be collecting all the toys. That was that.

Hehe. Naturally it did not end there. My older son kept talking about them and relating that some of his friends had them. He also kept us wandering over to them when we were in a Toys R Us, or a GameStop. It was inevitable that we’d get them. Rather then fight it I gave in on my own birthday and picked them up for “myself” last year and thus started our collection of Skylanders and my youngest son's attachment to them above all other toys. That is the thing about Skylanders—before anything else they are toys. That’s the hook or appeal to them beyond the game itself.


As videogames go, it’s not the best nor is it the worst. It’s a 6 out of 10 and reminds me of kid- style games like Mario Brothers. I only played it a few times myself. The one thing that makes the game special is that you put whatever actual Skylander toys you own on the portal of power­–a stand that is tethered to your game system. Once the physical toy is on the portal of power the game recognizes it and PRESTO! The Skylander appears in the game. This is cool. This is new. And kids love this. It manages to take an inanimate toy and make it come alive. This concept connects to that deep-seated knowledge that all kids and PIXAR have that our toys come alive under certain circumstances. :) This is a great idea and this is why Skylanders are so successful. Well, that and the fact that to have a richer game you literally need to collect them all. If you are missing a certain Skylander, Whamshell say, then you cannot play him in the game unless you have found the toy in reality. Get ready to get in the car, again, and again, and again, until you find Whamshell. Trust me, it never ends. Luckily I do not mind but if you are a parent who might mind, well, you have been warned. Odds are it’s already too late and you are in knee deep just like we are. Just go with it. Childhood is not very long so I think it’s worth it to see my son happy. They tend to bunch up releases of the game around the holidays, so you’ll be able to justify dropping a few beans on these toys and game.

Skylanders is now into its second game, Skylanders Giants. There are 8 giants and a host of new figures. These magically light up too. How exactly they light up when you put they toy near the portal of power is a mystery. They are called Light Core Skylanders. They have no batteries. The power is coming through the air, literally, to somehow light up small LEDs inside the toys and add to the whole coming-to-life aspect. Obviously some very clever people are creating these toys.  They are well made too. They stand up to my son's countless rough and tumble gathering up of his collection and relocating them throughout the house. Not a single Skylander has yet to break. Compare them to a similar but very delicate game/toy Heroclix that snap and break constantly and I am even more impressed by the Skylanders' durability.

Now after seeing the Skylanders similarity of a figure-on-a-base style toy with Heroclix, I also realized they also closely resembled many of the RPG miniatures we have here for D&D, Star Wars RPG, Pathfinder, AT-43, and Monsterpocalypse. The Skylanders are not unique. Toys on bases have been around forever. It’s their connection to videogames that makes them unique.

Hopefully soon Wizards of the Coast and other companies will realize that embracing new technologies can only benefit them. My earlier article on D&D and the iPad gives a few examples of apps out there but when you take the Skylanders model and apply more serious RPGs to it, the possibilities are endless.

A new company called ePawn has the right idea with an upcoming virtual tabletop gaming solution. For any real tabletop gaming, an iPad will simply not cut it and a larger screen will be needed. Unless Apple releases a larger iPad, companies like ePawn will be able to fill this market gap. The need is certainly there and despite the iPad's small size, there is already a tabletop iPad market sprouting up where Skylander-type figures get laid right atop the iPads touch-sensitive screen for interaction.  The possibilities for more serious RPG miniatures and tactical games are obvious. Games such as Heroclix, D&D, Monsterpocalypse, Warhammer, and just about any game that might use a map and miniatures to aid game play will have a home on larger touch sensitive tabletop screens or larger iPads.

Already the Skylanders look much like many of the existing D&D and Pathfinder minis. To someone who is not familiar with them it might even be hard to tell them apart. Since we play a lot of RPG games here in the house both boys have already used the Skylanders without the videogame and played with them old school on a tabletop with a dry erase map and dice. This was very nice to see happen and I even let my son DM a few games based on just Skylanders.

With all these new ideas percolating and bubbling to the surface it is only a matter of time. Skylanders will always be the first big hit that breached the reality/virtual wall and made it all common.

Now if I could just find Ninjini!

–A

Thursday, February 21, 2013

PS4 & The Future Of Videogames

As my sons pediatric dentist once arrogantly said to me, "you better start saving now."

SONY has announced the PS4. We knew it was coming so it's not much of a surprise. The specs put the new machine squarely in the realm of computers. A clever third world country could easily start WWIII with this.

The specs are as follows:
• X86 CPU - 8 cores
• Enhanced PC GPU - 2 teraflops  (1.84 to be exact)
• 8 GB GDDR5 RAM
• Internal HDD
The new DualShock 4 controller looks nice too. Similar but different. I was hoping for something slightly chunkier but it seems that the size will be relative to the one we have now. 
All the mumbo jumbo aside, you might ask, what does this mean for me? Well, you can expect something along the lines of a system that is an order of magnitude faster than the PS3. One day soon the hyper realistic SFX that drive our modern superhero films will meet up with the SFX in our videogames. The PS4 is clearly inching closer to that eventuality.  Also expect the brinkmanship between SONY and Microsoft to achieve cold war levels now as the desire for home game domination gets ever more intense. We at home know that it is possible to have a PS3 and an XBOX under the same roof and their fights only amuse us at best. 
Personally I expected home game consoles to die out sooner rather than later, or shrink to become more like the tiny blobs that are the Apple TV and the Roku box, but it seems I dont know everything. Personally I'm sick of going to videogame stores and having to hear the robotic (cooperate instructed/programed) know-it-all clerks tell me I need to pre-order plastic CDs months in advance because they will be hard to get. Seriously? They expect me to believe the game industry is going to make the one thing that makes them money hard to get? And make it difficult for me to fork over my $60? I think not. In my eyes those stores have been on their way out for some time now, and have Blockbuster written all over them. One new bump in internet speed delivery and we can kiss them goodbye forever. Skylanders is working to undermine this but with the possibility of 3D home printing eventually becoming as common as microwaves I may never need to ask another clerk for Ninjini ever again. And as well, I long for the day when they can stop hounding me to give them $5 for nothing special, hopefully, sometime in the very near future. 
My hunch now is that the two gaming giants will volley specs and CPU size back and forth for a while longer, much like the digital camera industry has done with megapixel size. Reality and industry inside decisions are rarely congruous. After dozens and dozens of frenetic games that all look and feel relatively the same almost as if nothing more then new skins were laid atop them, most of us are looking for something new. Great games like LIMBO and Journey did not, and do not require more gigantic processors and space heater-like CPUs upping my energy bill, but rather just new creative thinking. The technology for great games already exists. Making the vehicle faster might give you the ability to get to a destination quicker but sometimes driving slower allows for a more thoughtful and pleasant ride. 
I'm sure the PS4 will be fun, and I am excited for its release. I just hope the games manage to rise above the spec jargon clutter and give us something beautiful we can marvel at, and, ahem, actually enjoy. Multiple sequels to existing games are not what Im talking about. Something new. I want something new. Something new, something creative, something original, and something fun to play. I must sound so demanding. :)

–A


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dungeon Temporarily Closed...

My oldest son is sick and I am likely going to be. I did go to the first session of D&D Encounters last night and had a blast. My son had to skip it because of his atomic pain. Hopefully he will get well soon.  He is taking a much needed extended rest now.

Hopefully we will all be 100% soon. Winter break starts Friday and we were planing on gaming, watching movies, going to D&D, and possibly even hitting a gaming convention in MA before the week is up. I'll post more as soon as we have regained all HP and bonuses!

–A

UPDATE:  I'm finally feeling better. 85-90%. Every one of us has been sick now. This was a bad one. One of the worst. We even had the flu shot and still got it. Luckily the winter break was not entirely destroyed. Back to normal. We even managed to play a short game last night.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Son The Dungeon Master

Running a game and keeping players happy requires a certain type of leadership personality. Not everyone wants to DM a game. Many, myself included, prefer to just sit back and play and have invented characters adventure along and get taken on a story as presented by the DM.

My youngest son loves being the DM. He enjoyes sitting behind the giant screen and wielding power over whoever is playing. He understands the basics, which really is all that is needed. He is only just beginning to read on a basic level so using any actual D&D or game guides are out. 

He loves dice. He loves handing out dice to everyone and his games have lots and lots of dice rolls. He rolls and then you roll. If you miss the target number he will often insist you roll again. If you still roll badly he will only knock you prone. Eventually you will prevail. 

 He loves miniatures. He takes miniatures from all our collections to run a game. D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, Heroclix, and even non traditional minis such as Skylanders, Ben10, Secret Saturdays, etc. All are possible in the universe he creates. Skylanders will be the subject of my next blog. Stay tuned for the Skylanders video game and its RPG potential. 

He loves drawing maps. He will take a huge blank wet erase grid map and without any complex forethought he'll bang out a huge map with obstacles, threats, monsters, etc. His maps are often not perfect but he never cares. It's more about the game and creation for him. Kids tend to jump in and make art without considering perfection. This is a good thing. This keeps them uninhibited and very creative. 

Now too with my most recent eBay purchase he loves Dwarven Forge dungeon terrain. Despite the stuff being on the pricy side it has little kid written all over it. It is extremely well made and I cant see it breaking on the table unless someone was extremely rough with it. I also suspect that tumbling to our carpeted floor would have no effect. I'm sure, eventually, he'll put it to the full test. Since it is modular it can be extremely customized  It is very akin to building blocks and LEGO and needed no explanation when I laid it out for him to use. Right away he "got it." It is now his newest favorite thing for running a game. Lucky for him I have more on the way. eBay is a great source for finding sets that are not currently available on the website. 

His stories are imaginative but tend to take up about 20-30 minutes to play. He tends to create maze like settings with obstacles and villains to keep players busy.  He keeps you rolling, he lets you make choices, and he also corrals you to the confines of his settings where you will ultimately encounter what he has laid out for you. We may not play as often as he would like but we are never bored when he runs a game. 

His style of gaming is so simple that I have even begun to write out simple RPG rules set for young kids inspired by his style of game play. When I get that finished I'll upload those rules here. 

–A

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Using the iPad with Dungeons & Dragons 4e


When the iPad first arrived in 2010 many wondered if the device was even needed. We now know from its success that it did in fact fill a huge void that often-clumsy laptops never excelled in. Since I have gotten my first iPad I never carry around my laptop any more. I read books & PDFs on my iPad, browse the web, play games, view photos, write, chat, buy off Amazon, sell on eBay, pay bills, and now…play D&D!

It might seem incongruous to use an iPad to play D&D, but in my opinion the two were meant for each other. They work together so well in fact that I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast do not already have their own set of proprietary D&D apps available. So far all that comes up when searching for apps by Wizards of the Coast on the iPad are Magic 2013 and Kaijudo Dojo for iPad. Nothing for D&D. Wizards is currently play testing D&D Next, (the 5th edition of D&D) and I imagine they must have new software, apps, and more coming down the pipe for the release of that new all inclusive game system. I can only hope.

So what decent 3rd party D&D apps actually exist for the ipad so far that are worth spending some money on?

Cordax Software has 2 very nice apps for sale, Compendium and i4e. Both apps are great, but only if you have a current paid D&DInsider account. With an active D&D Insider subscription you can use Compendium to access and search the D&D Insider online compendium. Your iPad then becomes a database of a wealth of D&D 4e facts, stats, monsters, and more. i4e is a virtual character sheet for the iPad. With this app too you need to have the paid D&D Insider account. When online using the character builder you can save and download a bunch of different created characters. Once the character files are downloaded to your computer you can log onto i4e online and upload the created characters. Then using nothing more then your email again you can access these uploaded characters on your ipad. They are fully editable and contain everything you need to play. I’m not sure if these will still function if your D&D Insider account is not active. My guess is that it will still work. I only ever gave my email. No password. You can also create a character using the app too but I have not explored that feature yet. Still, to get actual D&D Insider characters onto this app you will need to have paid for at least a one-month subscription and created a few characters online. If you really want to save I’m guessing you could use a friends D&D account to create and download a few characters and then use em with no account. If I discover different I’ll amend this information.

Another great app for D&D and map based hobby role-playing games is called Battle Map, which allows you to create, from scratch, huge scalable detailed maps. The map can then be turned dark so that as players explore they cannot see where they are going until they get there. A variety of monsters, traps, terrain, items, and more can all be placed throughout a created map or dungeon maze. This is one of the best apps out there for classic RPGs yet and is also makes great use of the iPad while not taking away from what makes D&D great. It adds to it.

There are more apps available. Some are for D&D 2.5 not 4e. A few worth listing are:

Hex Map

All the apps can be useful but too much can begin to complicate things and slow down the fun. I suggest if you are a paying D&D Insider member to give the Cordax Software apps Compendium and i4e a chance. Compendium is good for a DM and i4e is for players. And again, Battle Map is good for DMs too and not just for D&D 4e. Any edition of D&D as well as the Pathfinder crowd will find this fun. It is the most expensive at $29.99, but after a few good maps have been created you can play D&D right on the iPad.

Explore the apps if you feel you want to. Do not let your game suffer as a result. You may find some players want to use these tools while others do not. Or maybe just the DM could use one to make things easier and keep the game flowing.

I suspect we will only see more apps like these coming along.

Enjoy!

–A

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Collecting Not Hoarding


How a Collector Avoids Being a Hoarder. 

                                        

After years of collecting, (cough, hoarding) the only reasonable way to quickly acquire more stuff is to sell of some old stuff to make room for the new. It might sound crazy, but with a few oddball collections sitting around, you can, if you are willing to part with some old stuff, recycle things on eBay for new stuff. In my case that is now gaming materials. 

Before I move on, I'd like to spend some time discussing collecting, hobbies, neurosis, and other odd eclectic behaviors. Don't be afraid. You are amongst friends. First off, if you are a collector with odd habits, remember to refer to yourself as eccentric or idiosyncratic. You might get referred to as a lunatic, bizarre, nerd, or even bat-shit crazy but just forget all that. Just be yourself. 

Here are a few ground rules to remember if you think you might be an oddball eccentric.

• Remember to bathe, brush your teeth, comb your hair (if you still have any), change your clothes daily (yes underwear too) and above all—put on deodorant. Visit the dentist every 6 months too!

• Try not to keep more than 2-3 animals in your home. If you are a woman, resist the urge to keep more than 2 cats to avoid the unfortunate"catlady" stereotype. Never bring pigeons or squirrels into your home!

• Also, sit and carefully watch a few episodes of Hoarders. Quirky habits can quickly, quietly, spiral out of control. This can happen quickly if you are a hermit with no one around to look you over and raise an eyebrow now and then. Make sure you have a few close friends who do not share your exact tastes, collecting habits, or desires. If you can not maintain strong friendships with people who fall outside your passionate comfort zone then you might need to do some self reflection. A good varied group of friends is healthy and helps us all to grow. Remember you are part of a society. If you cant function in it, well, dont act shocked when others act shocked by you. 

OK, so now back to collecting. Everyone is passionate about something. Some people like shoes, some like hats, some like fancy spoons, some get a thrill from buying lottery tickets. As long as your passion is not excessive then all is well. Can you stop if you had to? Try it for a while just to see. Also do you get bored with stuff and move on? I know I definitely do this. I have a yo-yo collection that I rarely look at it any more. Years back I was buying new yo-yos left and right. Now the thrill has worn off. 

Collecting is not a bad thing. Toys, yo-yos, movie memorabilia, DVDs, T-Shirts, antiques, etc. have all been things I have collected or still do to this day. Once gaming came into the mix over a year ago I could see fast that this was going to not be just a small quick collection of yo-yos. First of all there are a lot of games out there. Too many to reasonably get, play, read, explore, for any one person. Gaming too, I quickly learned, is not just about sitting down and playing games with people. That is the most important part, but there is a lot more too it than just that. 

Almost anything you can think of these days has entire subcultures built around them, and if you want to delve deep you might be shocked to learn just how deep some of these rabbit holes can go. For example, yo-yo's are not a large industry, but there are many websites, online stores, tournaments, tricks, micro celebrities, etc. to honor the trade. Gaming, on the other hand, is a huge industry and rakes in millions every year. In 2006 the board game industry alone made $802.2MM. With video games added to that mix, the figure is well into the billions. It's not exactly a niche market. TSR, which was started by Gary Gygax, was eventually bought by Wizards of the Coast. Eventually Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999 for $325 Million. Pen and paper gaming might seem not to be mainstream, but I suspect it's kept that way on purpose because that is how it originated. When something gets really big though, like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering, you will see it at Target, Toys R Us, and everywhere else. Angry Birds is a good example. Those damn angry birds are everywhere now. Pokemon already has well over a dozen films. I'm sure it will not be long before Magic the Gathering & Angry Birds find their way to the big screen or Cartoon Network. Skylanders too. That is gaining speed quickly. Just ask my 5 year old son. Wait, you don't already know about Skylanders Swap Force

Reading is a big part of pen and paper gaming, too. There are countless books to go through, rules to read, art to admire, and more. Reading alone has taken up more of my time then actual gaming. With D&D there are also maps, miniatures, dice, cards, adventures, etc. When you get into games like Warhammer over at Games Workshop, the construction and painting of miniatures can easily become a full time hobby in and of itself. I recently started painting some miniatures myself and even as the trained artist I am, it still took up a lot of time. Be prepared to allocate your time carefully. Try not to get burned out on any one thing. And take a break from your hobby to do other things. Being well-rounded helps a hobby from becoming an obsession. 

So, if you do want to acquire more than you might be able to reasonably spend in a short amount of time, what do you do? Well if you have been, like me, a collector for decades, it's quite easy to sell old stuff to acquire new stuff. Garage sales are great in the summer months, but one two-day garage sale a year is my limit. Remember to carefully gather up everything you don't want and could care less about parting with, and put it out. Next is to remember to price stuff to sell. Far too often I go to sales where everyone wants to squeeze every last cent out of an item, and they wind up selling little. This is a huge waste of your time. Electronics rarely sell for more and almost always sell for far, far less then you paid. The reality that you paid $200 for a game system and are only going to see $20-$40 in return is not a bad thing. Rather then thinking of it as a loss, think of it as a savings when you bought the system. You paid for it, used it, tired of it, and in the end spent less for it. Take that money and run! Electronics, old bikes, furniture, clothes, utensils, tools, pocket knives, boxes of nails, cans of paint, art, particle board, and just about anything you can think of will sell at a garage sale if it is priced right and someone has a need for it. I suggest posting your sale on Craigslist at least a full week ahead of time. Start setting up a good 1/2 hour before you advertised it would start. Start the day off asking slightly more for items and then go down as the day winds down. On the second day, be even more willing to sell. If someone asks about an item, that means they likely want it. Do not be afraid to let them haggle with you for stuff. Think about what the item is. Some spoons, glasses, old Walkman. More often then not you should be lucky to be transforming most of what you are selling into money. Most garage sales I see have stuff that I'd toss into a dumpster. Sell, sell, sell! 

eBay is the greatest website in the world. Well, OK, Wikipedia is, but eBay is a close second. If you have not already done so, go to eBay and set up an account. Then go to Paypal and set up an account there. You will need to give them both a lot of information, credit card, bank account numbers, etc. It's worth it. Selling on eBay if you have a lot of worthwhile, oddball stuff that you will not get good money for at a garage sale is a gift from the Internet gods. The odds that someone local will shell out a few hundred dollars at your garage sale for your wacky Land of the Lost lunchbox is slim. eBay is where the real money is for items like this. I can't go into detail here about eBay. I'd be here forever. You must learn as you go. My dime store advice for eBay is as follows:

• Always look at sold and completed listings to see what stuff is selling for. What people ask for things means nothing. If you want to sell something fast and get money into Paypal quickly, make sure you use Buy it Now and sell your item at the low end of what the item is going for. Buyers will always look for the cheapest ones first. If you want more, then up the price a bit. Also, make the auction 30 days if you want a lot of exposure and want to make more. 

• When shipping, always use tracking and signature confirmation, especially for expensive items. Insure packages too, to put your mind at ease. 

• Even if you do not offer refunds be aware that people can request refunds for up to 60 freaking days after you sell them something. I know this is insane and I think it should be more like 10 business days for what is mostly second hand goods but that is the reality of eBay and Paypal. The buyer has the upper hand. 

• Remember, most people are good and trustworthy. If you sell a lot on eBay you are bound to come across rogues and scoundrels. Don't let them sour you. Move on and forget about them. 

• For Paypal, if you are worried about tethering it to your checking or savings, simply set up another bank account just for Paypal. Do the same with a credit card for eBay and Paypal and only use it there. If there is ever a problem with any of it, it's not attached to your main account and credit card. You can cancel the card quickly without it affecting your day to day finances. 

• eBay and Paypal can work both ways for you too. Just as you can sell stuff and get more then you might have at a garage sale, you can buy things off eBay too, and find odd ball stuff you want—usually for a great deal. You can save searches in eBay for hard-to-find items, and you will be emailed when people post new stuff.

• If you plan on buying on eBay sign up for eBay Bucks. You will get 2% back on qualifying items and you can use that accrued pseudo cash to get stuff off eBay a few times a year. 

!!! Be aware that Paypal has a service called Bill Me Later. While this might seem convenient, this is (to me) a bad idea. It's always wise to pay for what you want with money you have. If you do buy anything aside for a car or home that you can not pay for entirely up front, then I suggest looking around for deals where you are charged little or no interest for the purchase as long as you pay it off on time. This requires paying close attention to the bills. When I sometimes do this, I always pay the item off a month or two early just to not even come close to the danger zone where HUGE interest payments that have invisibly accrued all along suddenly come due.  

Crazy large items that cannot be easily sold on eBay nationality can be sold on eBay locally. Craigslist is also a good place to go. With Craigslist, always make sure you get cash from the buyer. Be careful who you let into your home, too. Carefully read the warnings and guidelines on Craigslist. 

So remember to get new stuff, just purge and sell your old stuff. Getting a bit zen every now and then can be a good thing and will clear up some space and free up some money for you so you can enjoy what you are currently indulging in. 

–A

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What is the Deal With Unboxing?

We've all seen the videos. Well maybe most of us have. Those not afraid to admit it. Some nerd gets home with a new gadget, game, tech, toy, or some other brand spanking new thing and in an effort to help others less fortunate who have not yet been able to acquire said item will video the process of opening up the package, often slowly, and explaining all the while as they go.

Wikipedia even has an entry for unboxing, and refers to it as "geek porn." We are obviously adding quickly to our language and culture, hopefully mostly for the better. Now while I have never actually made an unboxing video, (until today) I will say that I am definitely guilty of watching them.

So here is my first attempt at unboxing. Forgive me for not narrating. I could not bring myself to speak. Sometimes body language is all that is needed.

video

So there you have it. Me unboxing new Magic cards. Wild stuff. In case you were wondering how I held the camera with both hands free, well...I held it under my chin. Now someone go invent a Sniglet for what that is called!

–A

Update: Video does not seem to work on my iPad or iPhone. Not sure about other devices. Sorry. This will not be a video heavy blog anyway. 

The Burning Wheel, Michael Clayton, & Realm + Conquest

Recently in my quest to discover and absorb all sorts of games I came across a niche RPG game called The Burning Wheel. All the reviews I read held the game in high regard along with awards, and multiple accolades.


The game is not easily found at local book stores or even local gaming stores and needed to be ordered online from a few different book sellers to get the 3 core books. Once they arrived I was surprised to see how small the books are. Instead of the large 8.5" X 11" trim size that every other RPG system I own is manufactured at these books are shorter and fatter at around 5.5" X 8.5". The core book, pictured left, is a new updated edition of two books combined in one. It explains the core rules of the game as well as adding the mechanics for creating a character. This new edition is called the Gold Edition. At almost 600 pages it's not a quick read. I have not read it cover to cover.

The game uses a simple system conflict resolution system with only common six sided dice. Character creation is more in depth then D&D or other RPGs I've encountered and requires creating a characters full background, history, desires, acquaintances  etc. Characters in Burning Wheel are everything. The character burner, the section of the book that gets you up to speed with character creation, does not get going until page 77. The book itself recommends that first time players of Burning Wheel read the first 75 pages and then "burn" a character. After that you and some friends should start playing the game.

I myself have not actually played The Burning Wheel yet. I tend to do more reading of game books,  and guides, (especially the complex ones like this) then actually playing. Short games of D&D, Heroclix, Monsterpocalypse, and some home brewed stuff the kids cook up tend to be the norm at my house. Still reading and absorbing other gaming guides is fascinating for me and The Burning Wheel is no exception. This is a very well thought out game created by someone who obviously loves to game. think of it as the ultimate home brewed system taken to the Nth degree and published.

There are no adventures for Burning Wheel and the book states early on that there are already so many great settings and adventures out there. Can this system use other adventures from old and new D&D as well as other adventures from Dark Heresy, Gamma Word, etc? My guess is yes. The system seems to be heavy on the story/RPG aspect of the game. Game mechanics and task resolutions are well thought out and constructed for a GM to run a game using other game adventures as source material and overlaying Burning Wheel mechanics over top. I find this system completely fascinating. All the gamers, GM and players alike, are encouraged to come together to decide on what type of story everyone wants to play. The core book even lists fiction, non fiction, games, films, and music in the back of the book. The rules too are not listed as mechanics that must be adhered to entirely, but rather decided upon by everyone. varying levels of complexity are encouraged. If you want to play a simple game with the core dice mechanics, burned characters, and a GM taking you through a heavily story based game, that is fine. The core book has expansive rules that can be used or ignored. More than enough is contained that you will never feel something was left out. The back of the book has entire in depth indexes to help you quickly find anything in the lage book you might suddenly consider needing to refer to.

The two other books I picked up from this system are Monster Burner and Magic Burner. Monster Burner is a Monster Manual of sorts. In addition to listing monsters, it aids in their creation, (burning) just like when you create your player character. Magic Burner builds on concepts from the core book and the monster book and expands on them adding new systems of magic, modifications, a new attribute, guidelines for creating your own magic systems, and new character lifepaths for wizards.

The second two books are obviously not necessary to get playing but they seemed to fall into the trilogy of core rulebooks that most RPG systems have.

In conclusion The Burning Wheel is a RPG game system that stands out amongst all other RPGs. It is obviously a labor of love and is so well constructed and thought out that it reads more as an intimate bible then a game. If you and your friends are creative enough to bring your own stories to the tabel or have the will to convert existing material that you always wished could be a RPG but does not exist then The Burning Wheel is for you. Be prepared to do some heavy reading as the book is not written for kids. My guess on the reading level is 12 and up. Also this would be a great gift for any gamer as it is something they just might not have already stumbled across in their travels.





Possible Michael Clayton Realm + Conquest, 
Burning Wheel Connection?


A few years back I saw the film Michael Clayton staring George Clooney. The film centers around the morally ambiguous character Michael Clayton, a fix it man for a large law firm. Michael is the guy who gets his hands dirty for the prestigious firm doing questionable stuff the high ups dont want to dirty themselves with. In the film Michael Clayton's son is a young boy named Henry who lives with his mom and step dad. He does not live with his dad due to a divorce. When Michael and Henry are together heading to school he tells his dad about this fantasy book he wants him to read called Realm + Conquest. He quickly describes aspects of the book to his dad and lays out a fantasy setting in a small town with many characters with few or no alliances. He mentions Mages, Unbidden Warriors, etc. he wants his dad to experience the thrill of what he is experiencing through this book but his dad has bigger problems and has not even given the book a glance despite his son already having left it at his place the week earlier. Now in the film  Realm + Conquest play a very significant role and ties everything together in a way no thriller that I know of does. The film is fantastic and should be viewed if you have not already seen it. I'm not reviewing the film here though. Maybe that will be in a later blog. This is about the Realm + Conquest book and it's possible connection to The Burning Wheel Game.

After seeing Michael Clayton I was so taken with the film and the book Realm + Conquest  in the story that I went looking for it online. To my dismay it does not exist. The writer/director of the film Tony Gilroy created the book, card game, and computer images in the film to fictionalize real life books and games he and his son played and connected together with. Realm + Conquest in the film are made up likely from source material such as Magic the Gathering card game, Pokemon, various video games, and RPGs that already exist in the world–stuff most young kids tend to play.

So my search for Realm + Conquest led nowhere but I was still left with this odd feeling like I wished it actually existed. I read that Tony Gilroy went so far as to write out a large portion of Realm + Conquest for the film so it would seem as real as possible. If only he had finished it we might have this cool game. Many places I have read about Realm + Conquest speak of it as if it were a novel in the film, not a game. I suspect though that it was meant to be more of a narrative style source book for a card/RPG game, much like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering. The Pokemon video game even has a new book that comes out each year with new additions of new characters. It is shaped similarly in size to the Realm + Conquest book in the film. If Tony Gilroy and his son played card games together they were likely either Pokemon or Magic the Gathering. They might have also played video games or D&D. Naturally this is all speculative but in the film Henry is looking for a deck of cards. We also see Realm + Conquest on his computer screen as well as many wild and fantastic toys and art in his room. Seems like a fictional melding of Pokemon, Magic the Gathering and D&D to me.

When I stumbled upon The Burning Wheel I was struck right away at how similar the books cover looked to Realm + Conquest in Michael Clayton. Also too since I had never seen any actual Burning Wheel books in person I was unsure at first which books were the most current. It took me a while to figure out that the newest book was the gold edition that combines the older books 1&2 together. The original Burning Wheel Character Burner book looks strikingly similar to the red Realm + Conquest book in the film. The book is small and has a similar trim size too, as well as a circular wheel with spokes coming out from it. It is possible that when making Michael Clayton the films designers used the Burning Wheel book as inspiration. It is also possible that Tony Gilroy's son may have actually had copies of the actual Burning Wheel books. The game was originally published in 2002 and Michael Clayton came out in 2007.

Much of my comparisons are speculative but the resemblance between the original Burning Wheel books and the Realm + Conquest book in Michael Clayton can not be denied. In almost every way these books look similar. The red cover with the spoked wheel at the top and the books title prominently placed below are uncannily similar. Further reading led me to discover that the Realm + Conquest book was custom made for the film by the Praxis Bookbindery. Also the book itself does not seem like a novel but rather a nicely bound game system rule book that describes the many characters, game mechanics, ideals and setting. The cards and computer screen logo in the film further serve to illustrate that this was not just a novel but a game system with character archetypes and a setting that eerily mirrored the modern day setting Michael Clayton exists in within the film. This is a setting of mistrust, individuals sharing similar but disconnected experiences, dream-quests, etc. Henry speaks of this from Realm + Conquest early in the film. Only later, at the end of the film, is its uncanny synchronistic connection to his father's journey apparent.

Even side by side comparisons of art from the two books show similar pen and ink styles.

Burning Wheel is not a story but its sophistication and concentration on character creation does have similar overtones to characters in Michael Clayton and the personal moral conflicts they experience and how these moral conflicts arc and shape their destinies. Burning Wheel relies heavily on a players character creation, and like Michael Clayton in Burning Wheel ones "character" or "morals" drive the story and the direction of game events.

I'm glad I stumbled upon this possible connection and as I further read Burning Wheel and re-watch Micael Clayton I will add more information or insights I have as they come to me.

Thanks for reading.

–A