Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is really pretty sweet.

I could talk about Deus Ex: Human Revolution forever and a day - that's one reason you haven't seen a lot of updates recently, in fact. Maybe I should channel some of that here.

For the moment let's leave aside the story and theme; why not? I'll tell you all about who I think the most dangerous person at Sarif Industries is (hint: not visibly augmented) at a later date. I'll just say that I created a conspiracy flow chart for this game, and I can connect elements of the US government to both sides of the augmentation conflict. So there.

Let's have a few words about gameplay experience. Bioware makes all my favorite video games, and while they've made some serious strides with, say, Mass Effect 2, historically they are not known for games with what we call excellent gameplay, but games with excellent narrative and characterization. That's what I love about them. None of my favorite ME memories are about "Oh, that fight with such and such." Not that there aren't great fights, especially in the second game! Garrus' recruitment mission comes to mind. But on some level, the fights for me are always something you have to do to get to the next conversation or twist in the narrative. There's a moment in Mass Effect where (SPOILER ALERT!) you have to choose which of two major characters will die. That is probably my all-time favorite moment in gaming. I was floored, I couldn't handle it. I think I may have dropped the controller. Not that you don't get sadistic choice moments in other games, but I had never gotten one with characters I was so invested in. Neither (SPOILER ALERT!) Kaidan or Ashley is a red shirt given a line about their sweetheart back home so you get some emotional payoff when you avenge them; these are serious, mature, likeable people who have been given literally hours of characterization.

Those are the moments I live for. I may dig that new gun, but ultimately what I want is story content, characters experiencing drama and letting me experience comedy.

Human Revolution is turning that somewhat on its ear. I love the story, don't get me wrong, and I could probably spend ten minutes telling you my thoughts on Tai Yung Medical and Picus News (there's a but there, and it's reflected in the fact that I just mentioned two factions rather than two characters, but that's another tangent), The gameplay, though, is for once really making the experience. I think the first story I told my girlfriend about the game - she loves Mass Effect 2 and both Dragon Ages, but doesn't play many other games - was how I used some crates to build a platform I could use to jump across a courtyard - and there was something on the other side. This game rewards innovation and exploration at every turn, and not in that annoying, spend-fifty-hours-of-your-life-looking-up-the-location-of-every-secret-item-in-an-FAQ way - if you poke into a dark corner, there's probably something cool there for you. At the very least, they'll toss some experience your way, and sometimes you find a new path that lets you complete an objective in a completely different way.

You should play Deus Ex.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Incident At Owl Lake with Andre Kruppa

I attended the Open Gaming Convention, OGC, up in Nashua, New Hampshire this weekend. I learned a lot from the experience, trying out different games, seeing players with a variety of styles, and getting to play with skilled, experienced GMs. I played two games with variants of the Fudge system, and enjoyed both of them, and I'll definitely be checking Fudge out in the future.

As I said, there's a lot to think about, but the main thing I want to get down right away is a little bit about the last game that I played at OGC, "Incident At Owl Lake," run by one Andre Kruppa (check out his website at gamesoapbox.com. This was a horror game using Fudge. It had many virtues; one of them was - I don't want to use the loaded term 'immersion', so instead I'll say - engagement. The game was extremely engaging from start to finish. It created an atmosphere like no game I've ever seen. Andre used any number of tricks to achieve that effect, but I want to mention the two big ones: presentation and... let's say refrain.

  • Presentaion
    This game had more technical effects than some plays I've been in.  Unlike every other game at OGC, we played in a smaller private room instead of the hotel's ballroom. There were no other games going on, no random bystanders strolling by and looking over our shoulders, no random chatter floating through the room. In fact, the lights in the room were off; we saw by the theatrical lighting Andre had installed, or, when that was off in dark scenes, by the flashlights he'd laid out on the table.Yes, the lights would go out when our characters were in the dark; they'd take on a reddish glow when we were by the campfire; at other times, they'd turn a bright white or a cool green, as appropriate to our increasingly freaky situation. One of the simplest and coolest things Andre did with the lights was a quick bright flash whenever a gun was fired.

    There was also sound, beginning with some period music as Andre explained the rules and we chose characters. The whole game was punctuated by great ambient music cued up by Andre on the fly as appropriate to the scene. I swear, some sequences he must have timed out, because he would get to the big climax of a piece of description just at the moment the music swelled...

    The theatrical lighting and the elaborate, well-chosen sound were the biggest items under presentation, but there were other factors as well; every player was equipped with a number of play aids including writing paper, setting information and laminated cards for tracking health and to help adjudicate rolls. There was water and candy available on the table. Even the use of the quick, intuitive Fudge system enhanced the presentation; from the system on up, everything was laid out for us so that we could focus on the game and Andre's great effects, instead of worrying about taking notes or going foraging for water.

    Andre himself completed the presentation, in a lot of little ways. He was always serious and attentive and always, always kept the game moving. There were a lot of little touches that added to the feeling in the air, but perhaps the most important was his request at the beginning that we stay in character and refrain from asides. That little request was unique at OGC for me and it made all the difference.
  • RepetitionThis game made use of long blocks of prepared text. This made me wary at first; when it became clear that certain blocks were going to be repeated over and over again - they related to characters' internal experience upon seeing something unnatural for the first time - I got warier. I guess I've come to associate prepared text with laziness, with wooden readings of bland committee-written description. I didn't need to worry in this case; the writing was evocative, the reading smooth and spirited. The repetition - even of quite lengthy bits of text - far from getting boring actually became one of my favorite bits, a defining aspect of the game. Part of the point was the eerie similarity between each characters' experience and memory. By chance, my character was the last one to experience anything that triggered one of these blocks of text, and when the time came I was excited for it, even thought I'd heard the same long description read out twice before. It felt like an initiation, and I wanted badly to become an initiate. Andre read the text for my character with the same energy as he'd read it before - he even threw in a quick modification that applied specifically to my character.

    The repetition, combined with the excellent presentation, gave the whole game a solemn, significant, ritual feel that I found engrossing.
I don't know quite how to describe the effect of the presentation and repetition on me and on the play experience. I'm tempted to use words like "transported" or "ecstatic" to signify being brought outside myself, but that's not quite right. It was still decidedly a problem-solving exercise, which meant I was thinking about the game and studying my character sheet the entire time. Other people even moreso; I'd say to majority of the players spent most of their time in "pawn stance," role-playing a few quick asides or one-liners while mostly staying laser-focused on getting through our objectives. I was personally moving back and forth between pawn, author and actor throughout the session. Melissa, the one person I knew at the table, is an actor stance kind of gal and the two of us had a number of what felt like dramatic asides in the middle of the action-adventure-horror plotline.

"Focused" is a word you could apply to the whole game, which was another part of why it was so successful. I'm a huge fan of in-character cross-talk: while the gamemaster is running a scene with Cyrus Vance interrogating a prisoner, Naomi and Kale's players are quietly role-playing a scene together - the conversation Naomi and Kale are having outside the interrogation room, say. It's a way to stay engaged while your character isn't acting and too explore the characters more, always a priority in my group. In "Incident," that didn't happen. I tried once, and the player I was trying to engage politely shushed me with a nod to Andre. He was quite right; this game followed the GM's attention like a film camera. Whatever Andre was paying attention to was what took over our shared imaginative space, completely. That meant there were long stretches where I had nothing to do, which is never ideal for me as a player, but on the whole I didn't mind, because what was going on elsewhere was always fascinating. I'm not sure exactly why it worked so well. I guess it was probably part of maintaining the "ritual" feel; community is part of ritual, I suppose, so being creatively together at all times may be important. It also kept Andre in tight control of the game world, which was a necessary aspect of the experience, for sure.

 One bit of oddness was that there were a few in-character reasons to keep the party split up, but no reward for doing so. Nothing very interesting ever happened to people who stayed behind. The most problematic section of the game for me came when we (foolishly, of course) split the party in the second half. Three of us invaded a mysterious, dangerous place while the rest of us waited outside. The male characters were trying to protect the female characters, from the horrors of this place (very in character, as the game took place in the 50s), and my doctor wanted to stay with an afflicted patient. This left those of us left behind with nothing to do while a lengthy combat ensued - made especially painful because it quickly became clear we should never have split the party, and the lads were being taken apart, but we had no in-character knowledge of it. Admittedly, though, "don't split the party" is such a basic notion I guess that we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple part 2: Pilgrims Get In Trouble!

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Even though I'm discussing the ways it didn't work for my group here, I still love the game and recommend you check it out!

So, like I said, I love Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, But, when my group tried it out the response from the other players - there's no GM in Do, so I can't say "my" players - was only so-so. They didn't dislike it, they seemed to have some fun, but I could tell they weren't 100% invested as we were playing, and at the end of the first letter when I hopefully asked if they wanted to do another there was an awkward silence, and then we watched a movie. So, beautiful game, I had fun... what went wrong here?

First is expectations. I spent some time describing this game to everyone before we played, but I don't think I got across quite what it is, and it's very different from what we've done in the past. One player later said to me that she thought the reason it wasn't a huge success was that everyone expected a role-playing game, and Do isn't a role-playing game. Now, I don't know what Daniel Solis would say about that. In the introduction, Do calls itself a "storytelling game," which I think is an answer to the question that means something in the context of GNS theory, but doesn't mean anything to me.  I'm inclined to think that it is a role-playing game, but didn't meet everyone's expectations for what playing a role-playing game is like.

In the past we've played Vampire and Lady Blackbird, games with very fluid procedures. Everyone at the table can speak at any time, or have their character attempt an action at any time. In practice there's a bottleneck in the form of a GM, so procedures are created on the fly: "Ok, so Little gets the better of the intruder in the club. Now, what is Cal doing outside?" is basically the same as saying "Little's turn is over, now it's Cal's turn," but it's a procedure created specially for the current situation and discarded as soon as, say, Cal joins Little in the club. In Vampire, things get more concrete during combat, but we're honestly fudging even that quite a bit by using one contested roll to model combat, etc. Do has very strict procedures - it's my turn now, and not yours, and because it's my turn I do specific things and you do other things.

This strict procedure does two things: it lets you play without having a GM to play traffic cop (about which more below) and it creates a certain kind of narrative output. When we played Lady Blackbird, narrative output for a scene was anything I said to the players and anything they said to me, and also the two in-character side conversation other players were having, and the one-liner a character threw in "in passing" as the player went to get another beer from the fridge. The output was a lot more dense than, say, a film, where one thing is happening at any given moment. In Do, narrative output is one, maybe two sentences per turn, and each sentence has one of two topics: how the pilgrims helps or how the pilgrim gets in trouble. Output is very spare, much less dense than film, like calligraphy or a Dr. Seuss book (I hope these analogies to other mediums are making some kind of sense). I think I see a lot of good reasons for the enforcement of that low output: besides being an interesting gameplay constraint on its own, it's thematically consistent with Do's inspirations (i.e. Buddhism, or children's literature). But I think my players, used to going crazy and fleshing out a world in a great many words, may have felt stifled.

The other big thing, of course, is the lack of a GM. I know for a fact that a hell of a lot of ink has been spilled on the role of a GM in play, and I don't necessarily want to get into that now. Right or wrong, though, I'm not necessarily a minimalist GM. "Lazy," or whatever, perhaps, but not minimalist. The way play has organically worked itself out in for my group could be termed as "player roles, GM describes." Naomi's player says she's trying to kill Lord Mandrake, Snargle's player says he's trying to stop her, they both roll and then I (the GM) say what happens based on who rolls better. I know that's considered strange in some circles, and I know in other circles it would beconsidered strange that there's an alternative to that, so whatever. My point is, I take a lot of responsibility for authorial control, for saying, "Here's what you should be imagining" at the table. Then, for Do, I turned around and said, "Do players are ruled by their play procedures, not their game masters! Be free and play!" And I've heard from at least one player that they didn't like that, that they wanted to be a persona in the world and definitely NOT take responsibility for the world at large.1

So, to wrap it up: Do is awesome. Maybe it's not for every group, and maybe it's not for my group, because maybe some groups (my group) need things like fluid play procedure and a strong GM. People are different from each other sometimes? Wow! Don't say you didn't learn anything today.

In any event, I haven't decided decisively that Do won't work for my group; nobody wanted to press on to a second letter the first night we played, but everyone was game for trying again with a better understanding of what they were getting into. If we do, I'll let you know.

1. I take this as vindication of my identification of my players as mostly simulationists. Except for th one narrativist. Any guesses who unexpectedly shot a major NPC in our Lady Blackbird game?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

I've decided to split this post about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple in two, because it's getting too damn long. First (here) I'm going to tell you a little about the game, why I was drawn to it and why I like it and what happened in our first session. Then in another post, I'm going to get into some details about why I'm not sure it's the right game for my group.That's going to get kind of theoretical. I may get in-depth about "procedure."

So scheduling for our ongoing Vampire game has proven utterly impossible this last month for my group. Between vacations, work, and other activities (one of us is in a play, another is in a barbershop chorus, etc., etc., etc.) there's literally not a single day all of us are free through - I think we've determined at this point - August 14 (and we haven't met since something like the first week of July). I have a wandering eye where games are concerned, however, and it tells me that this is not a problem but an opportunity, a chance to meet in the interim with whoever is available and try out any game or setting that meets my fancy. Last Friday, that meant Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

I'm a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon, not the movie, as devotees now must constantly point out), so Do - a storytelling game about superpowered adolescent adventurers helping people and getting in trouble in a whacky multiverse where anything is possible - was an enticing option. The rulebook itself is a thing of beauty, and I say this as somebody who owns it as a .pdf. The art, the layout and design, the in-universe letters that provide Pilgrims with their adventures, these are lovely things that make you want to play the game. The rules have a certain beauty to them as well, if that makes any sense. Two of them are "Pilgrims Fly Away" and "Pilgrims Grow Up," and these (with a little more explanation) are fundamental to how the game is played! I mean, I ask you.

The basic mechanic is this. Each pilgrim has a way that they help and a way that they get in trouble. My pilgrim, Yellow Clock, helped by being organized and got in trouble by being too cheerful. Each individual "session" of Do is based on a letter the pilgrims have which is a request for help from somebody in the wide, whacky multiverse they live in. The letter we attempted, one of the silliest and simplest, was about a tiny world that had been swallowed by a whale. The letter explains the situation in narrative terms, and also provides goal words for the pilgrims.

The players take turns. When it's my turn, I am the storyteller, and I can write a sentence about how my pilgrim helps someone (anyone - myself, another pilgrim, the letter-writer, someone else on the letter-writer's world, whomever, as long as my action makes the situation better). However, the way that I help has to be my way of helping. Then the other players, who on my turn are called the troublemakers, write a sentence about how my pilgrim gets into trouble, based on the way that I've said my pilgrim gets in trouble. In each sentence - mine and the troublemakers - you can use a goal word from the letter. At the end of the game, if you've used all the goal words, you get a "parade ending" - the problem is solved and the pilgrims go merrily off on to the next world. Otherwise, they get a "pitchforks ending" and are chased off in ignominy.

So example time: Yellow Clock, on my first turn, helped Melanie, the little girl living on the little planet inside the whale, get her house ready for the journey out of the whale. But, the troublemakers decided, my cheerful presence put her in such a good mood that she went off to play, and I ended up following her around picking up after her. Silly, yes, but sweet, I think, which is what I was looking for from Do. Some of the letters are a good deal less silly, though some whackiness will probably come in to any letter as the pilgrims stretch to make their ways of helping relevant to different situations.

Now there's a good deal more to the game: it's randomized so that not every turn is the same - sometimes you help but don't get in trouble, sometimes you get in trouble but can't help. And once you're in trouble, you can only help yourself, and you can't use a goal word when you help. And so on, there are a few wrinkles, and some fun stuff to do at the end of every letter as well. But that's the core: write a sentence to help, write a sentence about trouble, use goal words.The neat thing that takes a moment to realize is that the goal word mechanic actually enforces narrative structure. In my first turn, there's no reason I can't write a sentence that solves the letter-writer's main problem and end it, "...and they all lived happily ever after." But now everybody's going to have to write some weird, awkward sentences to hit all of the other goal words.

So, all of that I love. I find it delightful. And I loved it in play, as well. Like I said, silly, but sweet, which is just what I wanted.

I'll close with a brief "transcript" of our game.

First, our characters were:
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf
The exact nature of their "trouble" and "help" is left for the reader to determine. Remember, their objective was to free a young girl named Melanie whose world had been swallowed by a whale.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge convinces the whale to open his mouth by explaining that it has mistakenly swallowed a small planet.
  • The whale is so alarmed by Burly Bridge's forceful explanation that it throws its mouth open and swallows him!
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock flies through the whale's blowhole to help Melanie get organized for leaving the whale
  • But he puts her in such a good mood that Melanie can't focus, and he winds up following her around cleaning up after her.
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg feeds cookies to the whale - but to a whale, that's a dire insult!
  • Pilgrim Slouch Egg is so interested to learn of whale society that she placates the whale with her rapt attention and concerned questions.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well builds a pulley system to fix everyone's problems, but the reciprocal force pushes him into the trees and he gets tangled up.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well sees Melanie's cat in the trees and gives him a treat, and the cat repays him by clawing at the ropes and freeing him.
  • Pilgrims Whistling Wolf dons snorkeling gear and uses echo echo location to find and rescue Burly Bridge from the digestive tract of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf notices someone else the whale ate - another Pilgrim in the digestive tract who needs saving!
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge harnesses the cat to the planet and convinces it to pull the planet out of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock develops an incredible child-care itinerary that keeps Melanie happily occupied. 
  • But Yellow Clock makes the whale so happy that it begins to sing, shaking the house so much that Yellow Clock must dive into a door frame to steady himself and the house. 
At that point, we'd used all the goal words and earned a "parades" ending. Here's our epilogue:

  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg's conversation with the whale ends with the whale deciding to return to the whale homeland (plus she learns all about whales and gets all Melanie's cookies!).
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well spends the remainder of his time in the whale playing with Melanie's cat, and learning the value of small things like string.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf finds herself extremely lost in the digestive tract of the whale with the other pilgrim, where she stays until the whale hiccups them up - but she happily fell in love with her new companion and now boyfriend under the stars of the whale's belly.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge spent a few days impressing Melanie with his feats of strength, eventually leading him to knock down a wall in her house which he had to repair. 
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock made a complete schedule of educational, healthy, and fun activities for Melanie, so she'll have plenty to do once the Pilgrim's leave.
Next time, some caveats about my particular group's experience with this very cool game.