Saturday, November 25, 2006

Japanese RPGs!

After hearing what Andy K had to say about Maid RPG and Yuuyake Koyake, two RPGs put out by a small Japanese publisher called Sunset Games, I decided I really, really wanted to pick them up. Since they're not listed on Amazon Japan or anything (unlike the stuff from, say, Enterbrain and F.E.A.R.), I wound up trying to email them directly about it. Shortly thereafter I got a reply, in English no less (even though I'd emailed them in Japanese...) asking if PayPal was okay.

So, today I got them in the mail. It'll take a while for me to read through them (though the base rulebook of the Maid RPG is only 32 pages), but they both look really neat, and not just in terms of the nice artwork.

Maid RPG in some ways feels like it's the otaku world's answer to Paranoia, in that in the game the player characters are maids and the GM is their Master. Especially if you include the two supplements, it takes the concept and runs with it headlong into every genre and genre trope imaginable, and maids can range from a cute girl-next-door to a combat android. Character creation is mostly random, I think to reinforce the game's general atmosphere ("Let's roll... Looks like you'll have blue hair!" "But I don't like blue!" "Too bad! Blue hair it is!"). It uses many, many tables to bring all kinds of crazy anime stuff into the game.

Yuuyake Koyake feels a bit more artsy, and as I understand it is about girls who straddle the line between human and animal, childhood and adulthood. Even the character sheet is adorable.

More on these as I read through them. ^_^

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Moonsick Stuff

So, one of my weirder RPG design projects is called we are flat, an "anthology" of three short games inspired by the superflat art movement and what it represents for otaku culture. The first of these is an experiment called Moonsick, which is going to actually require some pieces of artwork to function. Here are the first few bits of artwork:

Cranium Explosion (Or, Thoughts On Character Creation)

(Because Panty Rats would be just plain wrong...) Over the weekend I finally got around to running Panty Explosion, as well as reading Cranium Rats, and wound up pondering character creation a bit.

Panty Explosion
I first heard about Panty Explosion when Jake Richmond posted about it on, and I instantly fell in love with the concept. I’m not sure what this says about me, but then I also really like superflat, so go figure. My tastes keep getting weirder and weirder, and especially in terms of what’s actually in the rulebook, PE is less shocking than, say, Narutaru or Alien Nine, much less Takashi Murakami’s Hiropon (I would give a link, but for some reason even the Wikipedia entry is NSFW...)

Creating characters went pretty smoothly, and the players were able to come up with fairly interesting characters to boot. The one issue that came up was one in no way specific to Panty Explosion, and one I think I want to look at more in RPG design in general. Since creating a character involves picking out elemental dice, blood type, and zodiac animal, none of which a beginning player can really understand the significance of just by looking at the names. As a result, making four characters at once was a bit cumbersome and required passing the book around a lot. Needless to say it was nothing compared to any number of other games I could name, but next time I think I'll make some cheat sheets or something. Still, once it was done the players had surprisingly distinct and well-defined characters, from Haruka, the socialite kogal, to Kuromu, the creepy psychic girl who always tries to defuse arguments (and whose telepathic abilities cause nosebleeds).

One of the things about Panty Explosion is that the conflict resolution mechanics work best when the conflicts are decently long. We kept having overly short conflicts; this isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it means that the players often had no reason not to dump a bunch of dice on one or two actions. The way narration is distributed on the basis of Best Friends and Rivals took some getting used to, and some players wound up narrating much more than others.

In terms of getting the proper Panty Explosion feel I think I made a mistake in that I had the PCs all be from a school that was closed due to a mysterious fire, and were sent to another school. Hence, it created more of an us-against-them feel, instead of an us-against-us kind of thing, and made it so the PCs didn’t have many hooks into the setting. Though to be fair, I suspect my group isn't used to playing RPGs in any remotely competitive way in the first place (need more Paranoia).

Unfortunately we only got about halfway through the scenario I’d planned, and Real Life™ interfered with our plans for playing more on Saturday. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to run the conclusion, but hopefully this coming weekend.

Cranium Rats
I probably would have overlooked this game were it not for Guy persistently asking me to check it out via AIM. His big thing is what he calls "CSI games," and it being his baby he can explain it far better than me (and he will if you give him half a chance; his enthusiasm is impressive). I'm going to have to read it over again to really see how the pieces fit together, but I'm starting to understand why he's so enthusiastic about it. It's very "indie," and it has elements of both narrative control distribution and almost board game-like competition. Given that I’ve seen none of the films he lists as inspiration, I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on it. The essential idea is that you’re not playing a character, but one of three Aspects—Water, Dirt, or Rat—of a character. Ideally the group makes three characters, and in each scene one player is handling one of each Aspect, and each player plays every Aspect at different times during the game as it cycles through different characters.

The thing about it that I found exceedingly cool was the sort of "round robin" character creation. In CR it comes from the fact that each player is playing Aspects of characters, rather than the characters directly, and as a result it naturally lends itself to the different players having different kinds of input into the character.

The writing in Cranium Rats is interesting in terms of how Guy uses and controls voice. This is something I find incredibly hard, to the point where I’m designing an entire RPG (Moonsick) around working the writing style. It’s really frustrating, since I don’t have the same struggle to control voice when I write fiction or poetry. CR has a mixture of a lot of different things, each “compartmentalized” in the text. There are “Legends” sections that set a deep, philosophical tone (“And Man and Woman tempt Snake - into coming and tempting them once more.”), fairly measured rules explanations, and footnotes that very much remind me of the virtual noogie giver I talk to on AIM (“Fuck that lie! Play for the win!”). This is one interesting solution to marrying the need to present clear and concise rules and the desire to give the game personality and teeth.

Creating Characters
One of the things I'm noticing is it seems like not too many RPGs give much thought to the circumstances in which characters are being created. Some make it much easier to create characters as a group than others (and to a certain extent it's just page-flipping that makes this annoying), but the question is what kind of experience is born at the gaming table, and how it fits in with the aims of the game itself. Risus' roll-your-own Cliches make the book (all 6 pages) almost completely unnecessary, and there's games like Toon, where if you know the basics, the character sheet has everything you need. For Tokyo Heroes you have to create characters as a group, and if my playtest is any indication the brainstorming was far more time-consuming than anything stemming from the game mechanics.

Of course, like not a few indie games the character creation in Tokyo Heroes is in part a codification of stuff my group tends to do during play. Ever since the first Mascot-tan playtest, where all three PCs had Smarts at 1 (and thus my original scenario fell apart under the weight of the characters' stupidity), my group has been trying make characters that are as distinct from each other as possible. In the case of Panty Explosion, without any prompting from me they made a point of having no two characters with the same Zodiac sign or primary element. D&D encourages this kind of behavior to a certain extent, since a party can get into big trouble without a cleric or rogue (when we played no one really wanted to be the cleric though…), but you must have a copy of the Player's Handbook to create a character. In the cases of Cranium Rats and Tokyo Heroes, the way the character creation process is carried out stems from the intended genre and such, but the end result is that both games strongly take into account the environment in which a group of players will be creating characters.

What published games do this particularly well or badly?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

[In-Character] Truth & Justice, Episodes 23-24

I feel empty, empty as a high school student. I should be feeling all kinds of things right now.

Raz and Sam left for Utah, intent on doing detective work or some such to find Raz' mother. I went out for a long ride around the city, to clear my head. I took long enough that they'd already left. It was somewhere along the Embarcadero that the numbness set in.

It turned out Raz' actions forced the monks to move up their schedule. We were teleported to a safe house, which was the ultimate in spartan living. Raz and Sam were brought there too, though they weren't really happy about it. They'd apparently gotten lots and lots of guns from somewhere and, unsurprisingly, they turned out to be worse than useless. Worse, because for some reason Sam decided to shoot the tire of the van. I remain of the opinion that superheroes shouldn't need them, and experience has yet to prove otherwise.

Anyway, our mission went relatively smoothly, considering. Raz went off on his own, which proved every bit as pointless as the gun and grenades he brought with him. We wound up side-by-side on the same stairway anyway, after all. He calls that his "insurance policy," whatever that means.

The guards were just normal humans, and bored, tired ones at that. The real problem was in the office. It was Razmus' mother, sort of. The woman there was definitely the one in the photo, except the she didn't smile once. She threw a punch that sent me flying, and had no qualms about sparring with Raz, easily deflecting each and every attack he brought to bear, while the rest of us freed the imprisoned metahumans.

Then, this woman gave us more pieces of the puzzle, but unpleasant ones. She's part of Project Perseus, and one of the Beast Race aliens, a Devourer. She's working to help protect Earth, but apparently purely for her own selfish reasons. She showed us the true face of the enemy: she is cold, inhuman, and vicious. And according to her, everything Raz has believed was a lie. He and the others like him were created by fusing the DNA of Rekemi herself and a human, a living weapon intended to protect Earth from the invasion. He is unique only in that he is the pure, general-purpose model, while the other, of which there are over 100 remaining, have been more extensively modified. She feels nothing more towards him than she would a laboratory specimen. His childhood, his adolescence, that town in Colorado, everything until about 10 months ago, was a fiction.

I can't imagine what he's going through. What would it be like if everything I thought I knew about myself was a lie? I don't know. He used me up, and I can't make myself care right now. We're as close as he's ever had to family, and like a family there was little choice involved. Even now I can't abandon him, but I also can't be what he needs right now. Sometimes not feeling is convenient, but sometimes the yawning cavern of silence presses down too hard.

No future, no name, no hope. No choices, just someone else's script.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Can you believe I've put up 80 posts on this blog so far? Anyway.

My order from Titan Games came in the mail today. Elton, one of my best friends doesn't do birthdays or Christmas for religious reasons, so I constantly intend to get him something cool but forget because there are no calendar dates to force me to do something. But finally, at long last, I've gotten him a copy of the Ghostbusters RPG that was published by West End Games in 1986 (Wikipedia article, RPGnet review). I'm especially interested in it because (1) I've heard it mentioned a lot, particularly as an example of a perfect introductory RPG, and (2) S. John Ross listed it as one of the major influences on Risus, which is by far my favorite free RPG.

It comes with some inserts and cards, and two rulebooks -- a 24-page Training Manual for players and a 62-page Operations Manual for the GM ("Ghostmaster"). Since Elton is going to be running the game for our group (that was one of the stipulations for me buying the game for him), I'm avoiding reading the latter, since it seems to consist mostly of adventures. (And while they're not part of the original package, for some reason the box also contained two adventure modules!)

This game was literally published 20 years ago, yet it reads like a crazy mash-up of D6 Star Wars, Unisystem Buffy, and some crazy John Wick game (and InSpectres is definitely its successor). And one of the things I totally didn't know was that it was published by West End Games, but the game was designed by Chaosium. Anyway, characters have four stats (Muscles, Brains, Cool, and Moves) rated 1-5, and one talent for each stat. You roll a number of dice equal to your stat, plus 3 if your talent comes into play. Each character has Brownie Points (20 to start with), that work a lot like Drama Points. The game doesn't have any kind of hit points/wounds either; you either spend enough Brownie Points to convince the GM to let you off the hook (and you narrate how exactly your character does it) or suffer the consequences. Overall, it reminds me a lot of certain indie games, and for that matter some of the games I'm working on. On the other hand, there are elements of the design that are very old-school, and a few that are sort of board-game-like. It comes in a box, after all, and comes with all the dice you need, plus equipment cards and handouts. It also has a goofy sense of humor that very much fits the tone of a mid-80s humor RPG.

As an aside, each character also has a "Motivation," which gives them an avenue for gaining Brownie Points. And to my surprise, one of these is Sex (which, naturally, is Peter Venkman's). The game description talks more about going on dates with random partners for shallow reasons, but even today you don't see the word "sex" in RPGs all that often.

The only thing that was missing from this used copy of the game was, unfortunately, the handout that supposedly explained the basic rules in the space of 2 pages. Although the rules are simple enough that it's easy to imagine how they could fit in such a small space (it might look something like this), I'd really like to see with my own eyes how they did it. The other handouts have an example of play and some amusing handouts, so the GM can have players fill out their characters' Ghostbusters International franchise paperwork, last wills, etc.

Especially considering how big of a Ghostbusters fan he is, I'm very much looking forward to playing when Elton runs the game.

Back to the video game thing, the other day I got Children of Mana for Nintendo DS. I haven't played it much because I'm still obsessing over Final Fantasy IV Advance, but the thing that CoM does (which isn't unusual or anything) is to introduce you to how to play the game a bit at a time, and through the characters in the game speaking to you. It can sound a little odd to have someone saying "Hey Tamber, you know you can press Y to use your healing items, right?", but I wonder if a similar approach could actually work with the right kind of RPG, with an NPC (or just the GM as narrator) telling the players/PCs how to do things in the game, in the early stages of an adventure. Hmm...

Friday, November 03, 2006

Things I Learned From Video Games

Of late, I can't really call myself an "avid" video gamer. I have so much in the way of work and hobbies that other stuff takes up a lot of time, and it's become rarer for any given game to really do it for me. The most recent game that I got obsessed with was Final Fantasy IV Advance, a GBA port of a game I played more than 10 years ago on SNES, so go figure. But still, I do play video games when I can (my Nintendo DS is helping save my sanity on my long train commute for graduate school), and pay attention to the industry. Although they're in many ways a very different medium, I do think that RPGs could learn a lot from video games -- and vice versa.

Story Genres and Functional Genres
Lost Garden is a really fascinating blog about video game development, and its most influential entry is about Nintendo's innovation strategy with the Wii, its potential to engender whole new genres of games, and the life cycle of video game genres. One or more breakout games hits it big (Castle Wolfenstein and Doom), and there's a growing demand for similar games which creates an explosion of popularity, and "genre kings" (Half-Life, Quake) emerge to dominate and define the genre, and over time the parameters of the genre get narrower and narrower, until they primarily serve a hardcore audience that looks down on games that deviate from their notion of what the genre should be (Halo), and eventually it becomes the realm of hobbyists (like what happened to turn-based strategy games).

Video games, by and large, are divided into genres not by the subject matter, but by how they play. Halo: Combat Evolved and Starcraft are both science fiction, but to video gamers the fact that they're an FPS and RTS (respectively) is far more important. It could be argued that RPGs also have genres in the video game sense, with different ways of framing the overall experience. Of course, trying to create categories or define genres along this axis would inevitably lead to all kinds of annoying arguments over semantics, and it's something that's further complicated by drift -- how an RPG's rules can be interpreted or repurposed in play. When you play Halo, it's going to be an FPS no matter what you do, but regardless of what is optimum Dungeons & Dragons can range anywhere from a tactical game to a court intrigue game. On the other hand, even in video games the divisions between genres are porous; you could easily make a continuum between third-person action and CRPG. These days action games routinely have some kind of RPG elements too them -- stats that can be booster over time and such, and there are "action RPG" games like Jade Empire and Zelda too.

So, here's my utterly non-authoritative, thrown-together attempt to divide RPGs into "functional" genres, whcih in turn wound up being sort of a continuum between D&D and story games. (It should go without saying that none are "better" than the others, any more than RTS games are "better" than CRPGs).
  • D&D's class/level/kill things and take their stuff setup. It's rarely imitated anymore.
  • GURPS, Hero System, and other crunchy, point-based universal systems.
  • "Non-interference" systems that provide a basic, generic framework and little else; BESM, Cinematic Unisystem.
  • Games focused on a specific setting or premise; World of Darkness, Cat
  • Highly thematic/story games; The Mountain Witch, DRYH, DitV, MLWM
  • Systems that primarily serve to distribute narrative control; PTA, octaNe
  • Games that are narrowly focused on a specific roleplaying type activity; The Shal-al-Hiri Roach, Breaking the Ice
In this respect, the fact that the functional genres of tabletop RPGs are so few and relatively rigid isn't too surprising, but the fact that one game dominates the market so thoroughly is something unique to the English-speaking RPG hobby. On the other hand, it could be argued that within the microcosm of the indie scene, there are in fact genres and genre kings, of which Dogs in the Vineyard and Prime Time Adventures would seem to be prime examples. It's also a small enough hobby that games that don't have much staying power for whatever reason tend to fall by the wayside completely, if they ever existed, so it's hard to come up with more crunchy/universal/point-based systems besides GURPS and Hero.

In some ways, I think the indie RPG scene represents some of where some in the video game industry feel they need to go, whether it's Greg Costikyan who wants to tear apart the current order, or Alex Seropian's efforts to found a company that's small and streamlined with lots of outsourcing, or just Will Wright using radically different programming techniques. It would be a mistake to discard the mainstream or to assume that the new hotness (procedural generation) is going to totally change everything rather than becoming part of the overall palette.

When it comes to video games the need for changes comes from the many trends that run counter to open creativity, and the production costs that are spiralling out of control. The demand for spectacular big-budget games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy won't go away, but there have been plenty of break-away hits (Guitar Hero) and cult classics (Katamari Damacy) that make it clear that the big-budget approach isn't the only way to go. For the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 there will be support for small, downloadable games. There's still something of a walled garden thing going on, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Although it's a lot harder than with tabletop games, it is still possible for a small number of people to make games in their spare time, and its exciting to think that there's a place for a simple, fun, innovative $5 video game to be sold on a major console.

The major importance of the Wii is that it introduces wholly new ways to play games, by doing away with what has become the standard type of controller (a thing with 12 buttons and 3 directional controls) in favor of something more intuitive (handing someone a white remote control and telling them to just swing it like a tennis racket). Some look at this kind of accessibility as both a boon to gamers who are growing up and have less time, and a way to court non-gamers. In terms of RPGs, D&D is kind of the PS2, considering at a minimum you'd want to have three 300-page hardback books and six kinds of dice, and it involves its own special breed of Tolkienesque fantasy. In this respect, the casual side of video games represents where some from the indie RPG scene want the hobby to go: something that could be mainstream and accessible to everyone. There are zillions of housewives who play casual video games on Yahoo, and not a few who get together with their friends to play Bunco, so what if they started doing the same for, say, Primetime Adventures? The conundrum, of course, is how the hell to make that happen.

One of the things about video games, that's very difficult but potentially valuable for RPGs to do is to make it possible to get right into the action with minimal preparation. There are very, very few video games where reading the manual is even necessary, and many games teach you how to play themselves through the early stages. The Ghostbusters RPG (still waiting for it to arrive in the mail) supposedly does something like this by teaching the rules through a series of three short adventures, and for that matter Cybergeneration also had a default introductory adventure. There's also Deep 7's 1PG games, which give you a complete beer-and-pretzels game in 13 pages, 6 of which are 1-page scenarios. I think it's a really cool idea that I'd like to explore more, though from personal experience I know that introductory adventures can run into the problem of having a portion of the group that's played through them before.