Thursday, September 30, 2010

Counter Stand Use

I recently posted about the paper counter stands I got for my birthday but never used them in actual play. In another session I play in, I finally got to test them on the gaming table. None of the paper counters were customized for this game because only the DM knew what we were about to fight and he still hadn't seen them. When I busted them out, there wasn't much a fuss, and I thought, well, they're cool, we just need to use them in context. When the DM described a giant pile of body parts stepping out from the wall in our undead dungeon and a Huge chain golem appeared on the table as a proxy, another of the players ooohed and aaahed over how cool it looked, I wondered, can minis be topped, even as proxies?

But then one of my paper counter guys happened to fit the description of a monster we were about to fight, and he was set on the table. He looked a bit out of place with the other miniatures, but people were really drawn to him because he best matched what the player was describing. When someone killed him, a miniature (still alive) was taken off the table and replaced with the paper counter because it looked like what we were fighting. He was the preferred option, and in a way, I was surprised by how much the paper counter stands added to the atmosphere of the game.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I need to work on a proper Amnesia review soon, but I hope you'll indulge me as I share my second experience as a novice DM. On night two with my group, two things stood out:

First, character creation is an exhausting, complicated process, especially to newbies. We spent the latter half of the night on it and never quite make it through the process. Everyone seemed tapped out, and it made me quite worried, especially since the last session was an exhausting, complicated introduction to combat. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a deal-breaker, but I feel pressure to find the fun quickly.

Second, an inexperienced group can get involved in campaign creation and produce fun results. The last time I tried my hand at being a DM, I dreamed up a setting my players might like and let them react to it. This works, but part of the fun of role-playing games is the collaborative storytelling process, and I wanted a campaign that embraced this right from the beginning.

After humming and hawing, the exercise below came to mind. By drawing on properties they like and converting them into campaign settings, I could build a campaign that would immediately catch their interest, involve their participation, introduce them to the world of D&D, and then play with expectations as the story unfolded.

Here's the exercise:

Inspiration Brainstorm
Step one is a quick, creative exercise that asks each player to answer a few questions. Make sure everyone is equipped with a pencil and paper.
  • List two cartoons you liked as a kid.
  • List two television shows you liked, or that you like now.
  • List two movies you liked, or that you like now.
  • List two other books, videogames, plays, or other miscellaneous settings with characters in them.
Share Your Inspirations
Next, share your (DM) examples of campaigns ideas converted from other settings. This lets the players know what they are up to, get the juices flowing within your group, and sets a casual target to hit. My examples are listed below.

When you feel ready, go around the table, asking for one item from each players’ list. Assign each item a number and think out loud about how it could be adapted to a campaign setting. Jot down a note or two so you remember the important bits. Repeat this step as many times as you like.

Vote
Now read off each number, idea and setting that inspired it. Have players write down the number of any campaign they think they would especially enjoy. Gather the numbers, and find consensus. If there’s none, more discussion might help.

Some players might be disappointed when an idea they liked is overlooked. This is good. Mention that these ideas can be used when creating their character background. (I forgot this mention, but will try to remember it for our next meetup.)

Starting Town
Have the players choose a starting town size from some multiple choice options you create. If they start in the same town, try to get a consensus, with you as the tie-breaker.

That’s it. You’re ready to go. If it was anything like my experience, everyone will open up sharing their notes, and contribute to a campaign that piques their interest, is enticingly familiar, and sure to hold exciting twists.

Example Campaigns
These are rough, often inaccurate sketches, but the point is go fast, be low pressure, and keep sifting until you find that one idea everyone keeps talking about. These are actual examples and notes from the creation of this campaign.

Shared
  • Inspector Gadget—you begin your adventure in teh service of a bumbling wizard who solves crime in your city. You do the work, he gets the glory.
  • Scooby Doo—you are specialists known for investigating undead presences. Mysteries are not always what they seem.
  • The Fugitive—after being wrongfully imprisoned, your adventure begins with a jailbreak. You have to find out who framed you, and why.
  • Dawn of the Dead—a plague spreads through town, turning everyone into mindless undead. A small group of survivors struggles to find a source of refuge.
  • Lost—an airship has crashed on a strange island. A group of survivors struggle to survive and explore it.
  • Dexter—a sect of vampires, working for the city, feed their compulsion for blood while obeying an oath to feed only on evil creatures, while staying one step ahead of their discovery.
  • Super Mario Bros.—the ruler of a faraway Dragonborn nation kidnaps a beloved princess. A small group of heroes travels from nation to nation through desolate sans and icy peaks to find her.
  • Final Fantasy—great titans roam the earth, airships soar the skies, and chocobos scurry across the land. An epic tale about a rising villain that is harnessing the planet’s magic for some nefarious purpose.
  • James Bond—the secret service of her majesty takes on deadly missions of state-sponsored subterfuge, full of high society and nifty gadgets.
  • Deadliest Catch—what job is more dangerous or profitable than recovering magic artifacts from forsaken dungeons?
  • Avatar (Airbender)—prophecy foretells the coming of five warriors who master the arts of five nations and bring the world together.
  • Call of Cthulu—a moody, psychological horror about the ancient forces that shaped the earth long ago, calling to you from the shadows of civilization.
  • Saving Private Ryan—a small group of reluctant heroes play a pivotal role in a greater war.
  • Romeo and Juliet—a party of allies made up of friends from two warring families are caught in a political conflict full of prejudice and difficult dilemmas.
Brainstormed
  • Amazing Race—compete against another group of adventurers.
  • Rama—otherworldly cylinder exploration; start as fantasy.
  • The Office—commander asshat in delicate political scenario, hijinks ensue.
  • Hunger Games—capitol city over 12 impoverished districts, mutants in world, all districts go up against capitol, drawing to fight for district.
  • Knight Rider—government agents with a freaked out warforged companion.
  • Road Rovers—5 dogs, good Shepherd brings them in, evil Parvo cat man w/ assistant, Groomer.
  • Rainbow Bright—fey vs. shadowfell; party is representatives of fey, with close ties
  • Dune—highly valuable travel / psychic resource, start as nobles, get caught in native conflict
  • Double Indemnity—heist campaign
  • Kill Bill—multiple distinct enemies, marked for revenge—wire-fu style
  • Arachnophobia—therapy for members of our group that hate spiders
In our group, we had consensus on Hunger Games and Road Rovers so the campaign ended up as a blend of both, and we had near consensus on Kill Bill. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Obsidian Portal

Over the past year or so, I've heard of a website for running various pen-and-paper role-playing game campaigns called Obsidian Portal. I know Gabe of Penny Arcade wrote about it awhile back, and it caught my eye. Now that I'm running a campaign of my own, I've been looking into it more closely.

What a damned cool tool. Setting up a wiki for your campaign is a great idea that makes prep flow naturally (make pages for characters, locations, factions, etc. and flesh them out later), and your players have full access for creating adventure logs, character backgrounds, browsing personal forums, and all for the base price of free. Even if they don't use it, it's still extremely useful, and way impressive. And I love being able to put notes on every page that are only visible to you. It's a rather great way to game.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Thang

In case you haven't heard... Now back to making my stuff work again. :P

Friday, September 24, 2010

D&D Night Two

There won't be a post for every D&D night, but everything is still new and my nerves are running high. Tonight is night two, where we brainstorm campaign ideas and make characters now that the combat basics have been covered. The same nervous questions run through my mind: Will it be fun? Will they come back? I hope so.

Which reminds me, I've already done a bit of crafting for my game beyond square portrait creation for my paper counter stands. My crafts include:
  • A Magic-sized power card template for PowerPoint 2007, supporting at-will, encounter, daily, magic item, PHB, and DMG cards. Useful for anyone that doesn't use or want the output of WotC's Character Builder and has the patience to make some good-looking, personalized cards.
  • A 2-page D&D combat reference sheet for Word 2007, including (p.1) combat basics and (p.2) a full listing of combat actions (including skills in combat), modifiers, and conditions.
  • A half-page and 3x5" character stat block for Word 2007, modeled after the Monster Manual stat blocks and sorted by action type with abbreviated rules, but for your character, with lots of room for adventure notes.
  • A 3x5" player stat tracker for Word 2007, which puts up to 5 players primary stats (including skills!) on one index card, for easy DM reference.
  • A 3x5" monster stat tracker for Word 2007, for tracking baddies in combat.
Madness.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gifting

I was chatting with a friend over lunch when the topic of game gifts and Steam came up. One of my favorite things about Steam is the ability to gift a game to someone else. There is something pleasantly personal about choosing a particular game that a particular acquaintance may enjoy. Even more worthy of praise is Steam's support for owning extra copies of a game. That is, if I own a game, such as Half-Life 2, and then buy Orange Box which contains Half-Life 2, I am automatically credited with another "copy" of the game that I can send to a friend. How awesome is that?

Using Live, it's true that I can buy someone points to similar effect, but it not only lacks that personal touch, but is oddly impossible to do via the 360 interface, where I normally buy points. Weak by my reckoning, at least.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Amnesia Update

I just wanted to post a blurb for anyone curious about my take on Amnesia that it's already been worth the $20. I recommend it. I'll post more when I finish, but I think the game makes some really clever design decisions that create memorable moments of tension, and likely the only reason I haven't finished it yet is I get nervous to play it, knowing the creeps that I'm in for. Is it perfect? No. But worth $20? Absolutely.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mr. Hyde

Those that know me in real life would probably vouch for my rather long fuse. On the extremely rare occasion when I've found myself seething with rage in a social situation, I've been known to politely ask if I can take a break from the conversation so I can cool off and come back with a clear head. This is, however, the opposite of how I game competitively which is, of course, as an absolute dill-hole of the highest magnitude. A taunting, filthy, and loud-mouthed example of Gabe's G.I.F.T. It can be unnerving even for me, but as long as the those around me are willing to tolerate it (they aren't always, and fairly), I admit to enjoying the catharsis.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Impossible Torch

My post yesterday described how frustrating it can be to discover that my gaming experience is taken for granted by designers, and gives me an edge over less experience gamers. But thinking back and reading the comments from yesterday reminded me of another anecdote where my gaming experience put me at a serious disadvantage.

It happened in Ocarina of Time in an early dungeon. There was a room with a stick in it. Near the door was two torches, one lit, and the other unlit. I remember trying all kinds of things to get out of the room, and nothing was working. The weird moment came when my roommate walked in and started offering suggestions.
"You should grab the stick and light it on fire, then use that to light the other torch."
"That won't work."
"Why not?"
"I dunno. You can't just light sticks and light anything on fire with them."
"Why not?"
"Ugh, fine. Let me show you."
I walked over with stick in hand and to my surprise -- and unlike games I had played before it -- the stick caught fire, and I was able to use it to light the other torch. It may sound incredibly obvious, but truth be told, I wasn't used to games following physical logic and convention. I so expected some peculiar game rule to be explained to me that using natural law to solve a puzzle was an almost game-breaking curve ball. It really opened my eyes to new possibilities.

The same situation is less likely now that physical puzzles are far more common, but there are still times when my preconceived notion of how something should control or play really get in the way of an experience, that might be fine without my gaming baggage.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jen's Meter

Today, an anecdote about my experience as a gamer, and how developers lean on it. Playing Tomb Raider with Jen, my familiarity with design tropes is an unsurprising advantage, but it surprised me how helpful it was in comprehending interface design.

The game features three meters for each character, for health, ammo, and a special attack. Health and ammo are red and blue bars, respectively. The special attack uses special iconography with runes that work their way around the perimeter of the health and ammo bars. Each rune slowly fades in and glows as you collect kills and items, and the last "rune" you happen to be on is orange, as opposed to yellow runes you've completely filled. When all the runes are full, all the runes glow, and you can use a special ability. The visuals confused her.
"Why do you have 3 runes and I have 2?"
"They just represent your progress to use a special ability."
"Wait what?"
"When all your runes fill up, you can use a special ability."
"How do you know that?"
"The game told us about it awhile back."
"But why do you have 3 and I have 2?"
While pointing to difficult to see blacked-out runes, "This is a meter, just like health and ammo. Just pretend your runes show how full the meter is."
"Why do I have 1 yellow one and one orange one, but you have 2 yellows and 1 orange?"
"It's just how they wanted it to look. It doesn't mean anything"
"Oh, maybe the orange is just the latest one, and yellow is the rest."
"They should have just made it a meter like health and ammo. :("
The conversation was more complicated and involved than this, with a lot of back and forth to convey what was going on, and figuring out how to slot inventory items was equally difficult. I'm disappointed whenever I notice advantages I have for playing so many games, and how much designers assume a certain familiarity with convention, most likely without realizing it, and often without caring.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vanquish Impressions

I also played through the Vanquish demo, just to sample Kamiya's latest. If Gears of War were Street Fighter II, Vanquish would be Street Fighter II Turbo - Hyper Fighting. As with most of Kamiya's games, the controls were responsive, energetic, and flashy, but this time they were almost too responsive, like I didn't have enough speed of mind to match speed of character. Sliding across the floor was thrilling, but travels or shifts directions too rapidly to feel like I was in control, and drawing a bead on enemies with my reticle was equally jerky. I liked being able to slow down, but my brain scrambled the controls more than once, and I hated the overheating penalty for letting my meter run out, because I usually slowed down to focus and capitalize on some part of the action, not babysit my meter. Oh, and the main character's voice was very grating. But maybe I'll get used to it. I'm excited to try the final game.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tomb Amnesia

I wanted to throw some impressions out there. I tried the co-op play in the new, downloadable Tomb Raider with Jen and had a really good time. I love how freeform your cooperative abilities feel. And Amnesia can be damn creepy. It makes some clever design decisions, I think, with the relationship between enemies and your insanity meter that push you towards fear, and the sounds in the game impressed me. On both counts, so far, so good.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sudoku Pacing

Ever since I played Brain Age on the DS, I've enjoyed Sudoku. I suppose I'm a logic-puzzle kind of guy, as games like Minesweeper and Picross appeal to me as well. It's a nice way to cap off the evening. I hop into bed, turn on my phone, go through a bit of Sudoku and then its off to dreamland. But I also admire Sudoku for being such a simple example of great design pacing.

Intentional or not, the game has a really nice way of unfolding. The game usually starts fast, with lots of easy-to-find numbers, and it gets slower and slower until it really crawls, and then towards the end it starts to let up until there is a relentless pace of filling in numbers and BAM! it makes you feel like you are the most amazing Sudoku player that ever lived. See how fast you got at the end there? Just one more... Oh yeah, so fast... Now waitaminute... etc.

It essentially has the pace of a good plot, with a good hook, challenges for the protagonist, until there really seems no way out, then something occurs to you and just like rocketing towards a climax, it all resolves. I try to keep this in mind when observing games, too. It's really nice to be lured in, challenged, and have some activity towards the end that just rolls out at a super-fast pace that just makes you want to start all over again. I suppose I'm mostly describing Flow, but still... fun stuff.

Monday, September 13, 2010

PCs and Pirates

Many of you know that while going commando with LittleBot, I've tried to keep my expenses down as much as possible. This means using things like GameFly instead of purchasing games, something I don't give myself much time to think about. After purchasing Amnesia and Machinarium, however, among other digital downloads, it seems ironic that even though the PC is regarded as piratesville, and I do most of my gaming on consoles, I purchase more titles on the PC than any other system, because I can't rent PC games from GameFly.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Paper Betwixt Plastic

I received the Litko Paper Counter Stands I mentioned the other day and was so excited I wound up taking some video of them. Here's the link, if you're curious.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bump In the Night

I bumped into a game I hadn't heard anything about last night. I watched the start of a video review and skipped the rest to avoid spoilers then picked it up from Steam. Hum!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Alan Wake, pt.5: Miscellaneous

Some random, final thoughts:

Jumping is Weird
A jump button feels out of place in a world of foreboding and consequence, and when a game gives me a button that makes my avatar do something strange, I tend to press it way more than I should, simply out of fascination.

As an aside, I hated every platforming moment in Wake. The occurrence was rare, but always a distraction. I can't think of a time when the game benefited from having a jump.

Uncanny Valley
I found myself comparing Alan Wake to Heavy Rain on more than one occasion, and one of the things in the former that I never noticed in the latter was the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley in Alan Wake isn't noteworthy because nearly every game deals with it, but if Heavy Rain conquered it, that seems like a big deal. (Did I mention it in my review?)

Good Bits
(Major spoilers in this paragraph)
There were a couple moments that stood out as excellent. The first is a level where cops are searching for you with their flashlights in the forest because it did a great job of capturing the atmosphere of a scene from the movie, with pressure from incoming characters, an impetus to stay out of the light, and lots of interesting scripted events. I really liked it. Second was near the very end, when words hovered in the air instead of actual game objects, and shining your light on them made the objects appear. The whole "I'm writing the adventure I'm in"-thing struck me as pretty uninteresting, perhaps because you get the gist of it so early, but I actually liked the way the word-level reinforced the idea with novel presentation.

Conclusion
Despite various criticisms, the game was decent enough. The story felt a bit clumsy but friends (whose opinions I respect) enjoyed it well enough. The gameplay is interesting, it just wears its welcome quickly. And the technology and art have a lot of production value that make you feel like you aren't wasting your time. I just wish it handled its fear better, and better-capitalized on its potential.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Alan Wake, pt.4: Thin Play

Removing shadow-shields with your flashlight was an interesting idea, but the game leaned too heavily on the mechanic without adding enough to it and combat wears thin quickly as a result. Environment lights and other level-based gameplay are occasionally used to mix things up, and Wake gets upgrades like bigger lights -- flares, flare guns, and flash grenades -- but everything is just a different grade of light intensity that never really changes baseline tactics.

Cheaper Thoughts...
Not a lot of quick solutions for mixing up combat spring to mind, but...
  • The game features black ink splotches on the ground but they never connected to gameplay to my knowledge. Perhaps splotches could be a source of enemy spawning. Finding and destroying them  could stop spawning or weaken enemies. Communicating this might take some intentional dialogue or tutorial interactions and "hunting the black splotch" may only be an interesting distraction once or twice, but it could make flashbangs or flares more interesting if using them highlighted splotch positions. This could add some interesting risk-reward, since being able to find spawns or annihilating immediate enemies could be an interesting choice. Maybe not!
  • I liked that there were oases of light that could be used in combat but didn't like how non-interactive they were. Often, lights just break from a supernatural force when you near them. Instead, it might have been fun if a clump of shadow was thick enough to block out a light. You could see through the shadow a bit, like a deep, dim glow, and you could shine your flash light to disintegrate the shadow and fill an area with a sudden blast of light. I like the idea that enemies could then build up a scream or something and destroy the light, so it only works briefly, but enemies can be killed while readying this attack.
  • Wake actually features a dodge-to-slow-down-time mechanic, a la Bayonetta, but never does much with it that I could discern. It would have been nice if it created weak points or let you do a lot more light damage than it appeared to. The risk-reward (let enemies get close and attack) is so simple and satisfying that the game could have leaned on this one mechanic alone, just like Bayonetta did, to great effect.
  • Similarly, just having moments in an enemy animation when they were extra-vulnerable to light would have been nice. Perhaps a strange sound could cue the vulnerability. Perhaps enemies that lose their shadow shield can attempt to rebuild it, but during this moment, being shined on with light will destroy their corporeal form instantly. This could add some interesting risk-reward, since leaving a guy without shadow for a bit could mean letting you insta-kill them without using ammunition, but leaves them threatening on the field for a bit, and could allow them to regenerate their shields if the window pass you by.
Costly Thoughts...
I also wonder if combat always feel less interesting because every encounter begin with the exact same thought: "how do I get rid of its shadow," which is always resolved with light. The story once described the enemy as shadow with a human mask, and taking this idea more seriously might have made combat easier to design, and grittier. This alternative approach would require blasting through a physical barrier (e.g., skin or metal,) to expose shadow. The challenge involved in removing the physical barrier could be as varied as in any game, requiring any number of weapons or tools, and shining light on shadow is instead the finishing blow or a momentary point of weakness. It might allow for a wider variety of enemy visual concepts and intuitive, physical design problems for players.

But it would probably be to costly to retroactively implement, and with uncertain impact. It would probably take a team of designers doing some brainstorms to see how the ideas compared to the shadow-shield method, only earlier in production, and at an unacceptable cost to the story or visual themes. It's just interesting food for thought.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Labor Day

Monday is both a holiday and my birthday, so expect no post for Labor Day. The last two parts of my review will go up on Tue and Wed. I hope everyone has an awesome long weekend, filled with gaming.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Alan Wake, pt.3: Voiceover Smarts

(No spoilers) Alan Wake is constantly narrating, and I found it interesting to note when narration would pull me out of the experience. It struck me that whenever Alan was making a comment about his emotional reaction, it never bothered me, but when he made a factual statement that related to game progression, it invariably got under my skin in a way that a simple fly-through never would.

I have to wonder if this disruption is tied to my pride, and wonder whether others have the same problem. If Wake says something I already knew about level design or my progress within it, I feel like time is being wasted, and that I'm being insulted. If he says something I didn't know, I feel a disconnect between Alan and me -- the emotional mirror cracks -- and I grumble about level design not providing the in-game cues to avoid it. He can say anything he wants about his emotions and story-related thoughts, otherwise. Mastering gameplay is my job, and presenting a masterful story is the designers'.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Alan Wake, pt.2: Never Fear

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

My biggest letdown with Alan Wake was how it failed to make me feel horror, even at a superficial, "boo"-level. The game seemed to want to present a mood of oppression and despair, using a blurred line between reality and dream to induce sensations of dread and horror; and though the depiction of light and dark via technology was impressive, too many other things worked against the mood it aimed for.

Defining Normality
At game start, Alan runs over a homeless man and confronts shadow-covered people. I heard creepy music and gathered from the narration that the horror had begun, but it all just felt... normal. Normality is defined at the start of the game. If it begins with running people over and shooting shadow zombies, then this becomes the norm, and you have to work much harder to make a situation seem horrific.

After the starting sequence, the game has you arrive town on a ferry, giving you an opportunity to meet townspeople and settle into the world, but the chance for defining normal had already passed, and the damage was done. I wondered if the opening sequence was a later addition to the game, as someone's idea of "getting to the action" sooner, to ill effect.

Dreams vs. Blurred Reality
Another problem was asserting that everything could be a dream. The game pulls out the dream card at game start, and once you open this door, it's difficult to gather which of your actions have consequence. Consequence is necessary for weight, and weight necessary for horror. It might have been better to begin the game set firmly in reality and add elements over time that twist it without ever bringing up the consequence-shattering word, "dream."

Unsympathetic Characters
The game also suffers from uninteresting characters. The only memorable characteristic of Alan's wife is being afraid of the dark, and Alan, in the limited interactions with his wife, comes across a jerk, and has almost nothing redeeming presented up front to investment me in his quest. Barry, Alan's agent, was loud-mouthed, fast-talking Joe Pesci wannabe that seemed to exist only as a bad comedic device or a way to drive mechanical story events. A sidekick that challenged Alan emotionally (e.g., challenging Wake's relationship with his now-missing wife) would have been preferable, along with humor that still respected the context of a horrifying scenario.

Graphic-less Novel
A point I'm less sure about is the lack of graphic content. Nothing is visually unnerving. Covering enemies in shadow with computer-tweaked voices never came across as menacing (even normal voices might have come across as having more grit). It might have only seemed lacking because fear was otherwise missing, but it was a noticeable absence to me.

In-Game Spoilers
Finally, the game baffled me when it presented prompts to read collected manuscript pages containing spoilers about my adventure. It's hard to imagine the logic that went behind this decision. Was it to reinforce the idea that your experience was being written? It seems hard to imagine a good reason for reducing the story's emotional punch.