Tabletop Roleplaying: The Nerdiest Post of the Year

A few weeks back, Liam and I were up in Austin to bring a sick iMac in to the Apple store. After having spent an hour driving up and facing a similar return trip, it seemed silly not to poke around town a bit more before returning. I thought for a bit about what was inexpensive, close by, and would be fun for both of us, and hit upon The Dragon’s Lair, a wonderful games & comics shop that I enjoyed visiting periodically during the time I worked in Austin. The store had moved to a new location since I was there last, but my GPS was fortunately more up-to-date than I was, and brought us directly to the new front door.

Having never been to a store like this, Liam’s eyes bugged out as he surveyed the wealth of comics, games, books, toys and miniatures. He immediately latched on to an immense Heroscape setup, created with the combined parts from several hundred dollars worth of kits, and peppered the players with questions about how the game worked. As Liam learned the intricacies of plastic figure combat on plastic tessellated hex terrain, I wandered over to the section of Role Playing Game books.

Role Playing Games are (for those of you who actually had dates in high school) essentially games where you take on an alter ego and proceed through a series of adventures as this in-game persona. The games are run by a “Game Master” who is responsible for describing the game world and what’s going on therein, while the players tell the GM what they want their characters to do.  There’s often a lot of rolling of funny-shaped dice and consulting of tables of numbers approximately seven times more complicated than those used to get Apollo 11 to the moon. There are a truly astounding number of these game systems, specializing in every sort of adventure from time travel to exploring dungeons to being a spy to werewolf vs. vampire battles. The most popular, however, are Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS.

I had recently read Wil Wheaton’s series of posts about running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for his teenage son and his friends. (Wil Wheaton, for those of you who don’t know a Dalek from a dilithium crystal, played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has subsequently grown into a fine writer.) Wil waxes eloquent about the fun that they had together playing the game, working together to essentially tell an adventure story together. (Note to grammarians: yes, I split the infinitive. Bite me.) Since I’m always looking for ways to engage with the kids, I thought that one of these Role Playing Games might be worth learning about and trying out together.

After spending a happy 90 minutes poking around the store, watching various games-in-progress, and (inevitably) buying a bit of candy, we headed back home. En route, I asked Liam if he’d be interested in playing an RPG together, to which he responded with an enthusiastic affirmative. I did some searching around on the Internet and asked a few friends for their input, and eventually decided to try running a game using GURPS. While it’s a bit more rules-heavy than D&D, it had two advantages that were compelling: 1. It can be used to run adventures of any sort, not just the swords, orcs, and dragons stuff that D&D focuses on. 2. There’s a “GURPS Lite” book that has enough information to run a basic game and which can be downloaded for free — an important consideration since I wasn’t yet sure what level of appeal this would have for my crew.

I had hoped that there might be a decent premade adventure that I could use for our introductory session, but I had no luck finding something that really fit the bill. Instead, I spent a couple hours designing a small dungeon crawl that would provide opportunities for exploration, combat, a bit of acrobatics, and some diplomacy, and which was small enough in scale that we could complete it in one session. I also found an invaluable tool called GURPS Character Sheet which streamlines character creation by doing most of the number-crunching for you.

Since I knew from my preadolescent time with D&D that these sorts of games are more fun with more people, I enlisted my oft-times partner-in-crime Jason Young to come down and play with us. Maggie and Abigail  jumped in as well, so Saturday morning found the five of us gathered around our big table with two laptops, a pile of paper and post-its, and an improvised Game Master’s screen made from scrap cardboard I pulled from the recycling bin and cut up.

Liam created a big, dumb stalwart fighter character with a terrible temper and impulse control problems named Spiritman. Abigail’s character was Esme, a nimble archer. With a bit of help, Maggie created Zoey, a Barbie-pretty sword-wielding elf. And Jason created Gront, a gruff but loyal dwarf he roleplayed with relish.

The adventurers began by stocking up on supplies at the local general store. Because Abigail had chosen a “fear of crowds” disadvantage for her character, I told her that she had to stay at the edge of the town and wouldn’t let her talk while the other players bought the gear. (Disadvantages such as these allow one to improve your characters in other ways, but can be awfully inconvenient at times!) They then ventured into a nearby cave the mayor of the town had comissioned them to explore as part of a land survey.

The cave, as they eventually discovered, was the mostly-abandoned lair of a group of bandits that had operated out of the area in years previous. I had spent a fair bit of time thinking about how such a place would be laid out, so was quite gratified when, as they explored the corridors, Jason/Gront wondered aloud “What is this place? It’s obviously not just a cave. It seems to be designed to be very defensible.”

As they made their way through the darkened halls (lit by a throwing axe wrapped up in branches from a bush and set aflame, since they had forgotten to buy torches), the party tripped over traps, discovered secret corridors, and fought with a brace of rats that had taken up residence in the abandoned Great Hall, stopping only for the occasional real-life bathroom or homemade pizza break.

The interesting thing to me about tabletop RPGs, and the reason that people still play them in the era of World of Warcraft and its ilk, is the unparalleled flexibility one has with a human being running the game. At one point, several of the players’ characters had fallen into a pit that was just a bit too tall for them to climb out of. Having forgotten to put rope on their shopping list, they resorted to stripping the leather pants from one of their characters and using them to extend their reaches and help each other up. It was a very clever solution which wouldn’t have been possible in a computer game, but which I was able to handle on the fly without difficulty. (The dwarf lost his grip and fell, getting a bit banged up when he crashed to the floor below, but everyone else managed the ascent without difficulty.)

After making their way through much of the redoubt, the players came upon the former leader of the cutpurses that used to operate there, now an old recluse who rarely ventured out from his dusty underground domain. Because of his extreme loneliness, he forbade their leaving unless they agreed to come live there and keep him company. The party had the opportunity to fight him, to lie and say they would return, or to agree to move in and make that their base of operations for future adventures. Somewhat to my surprise, they overcame their enthusiasm for battle and agreed to report back to the mayor with a fabricated story about the dangers of the cave and to return to live there.

After misleading the mayor, we wrapped up for the day, six hours after we started. Maggie wandered off a few hours into the session, but Liam, Abigail and Jason all had a great time (as did I). Getting to do something that involved with the kids was delightful, and I was really pleased to see that it held their interest so well while putting their creative thinking (and occasionally their math skills) to the test. They are both enthusiastic about playing some more; Liam especially has already been asking me to put together another adventure for them. So, from a parenting point of view, I count it a solid success.

As a gamer, I did find GURPS a little bit cumbersome, but not too bad given the degree of flexibility it provides. For our next go-round, I think I will go ahead and purchase the basic books and a GM screen, which provides ready access to many of the tables and calculations one uses in play. I’m a bit torn on whether to create more adventures from scratch, or whether to try to repurpose something from a D&D module or another source. (Converting such things to the GURPS ruleset is a bit of work, but not generally too bad.)

And as people who like to build stuff, Jason and I are both intrigued by the possibilities of casting our own miniature characters and dungeon pieces from plaster and lead. (We used post-it notes and graph paper for this first session — functional, but not the height of gaming panache.) The one thing that gives me pause here is that this has the potential to be a terrifically time-consuming hobby. But if I can be spending that time happily and productively engaged with my family, I’d say it’s well worth the investment, even if it does mean I add yet another chapter to the already overlong tome of my nerdiness.

Random Shiny Things

Jason Young mocked me recently for not having updated for a while, which, of course, hurt my feelings deeply. (Oh, wait, that’s right — I’m a guy, and therefore don’t have feelings. Sweet!) I’ve not been in a writing frame of mind lately, but do want to keep up with our family happenings. Some recent items of note:

Against all odds and sanity, our zillion-year old Ford Escort, which had 169,000 miles on it when the odometer stopped working a year and a half ago, actually passed its state inspection. To celebrate, Kathy gave it a spiffy new hood decal, and I’m planning to reward it with an oil change.


Death Defying Escort

Death Defying Escort


Emily has four canvases in an art exhibit at Piece You Up, a local urbanwear/gift/art shop at 243 N. LBJ. There was a reception on Sunday where visitors had a chance to meet the artists and where her work was well-received She’s already making far-reaching plans for her earnings.


Maker Faire follow up: here’s a bit of the video that I took at the Faire, including the entirety of the grandest Diet Coke/Mentos demonstration I’ve ever seen:


Million-Dollar Idea follow up: Here’s a sample Old West sonogram I did for one of my friends:

Hernandez Sono

Hernandez Sono

I just picked up Fallout 3 and, being a big fan of both the earlier games in the series and of Oblivion (which used the same engine), have been enjoying it a great deal. (If you don’t know what Fallout 3 is already, and don’t want to think me an even bigger nerd than you already do, don’t bother following that link.)

A couple of weeks back, the library where I work had a fire. Fortunately, it was fairly contained in our break room and the storage room adjacent, but we got to evacuate the building for several hours and admire the firemen in all their gear. There were no injuries and fairly minimal property damage, though the break room still has a pretty distinct stink to it.

I got to lay down some pennywhistle tracks for an album that some friends are putting together. It’s fun to get to do some of that in a semi-professional capacity, though I always forget how demanding recording can be, even in short bursts. (It’s probably easier if you’re not a sloppy player by nature!) Also continuing to join in for Irish Sessions at the local coffee shop, and play the occassional gig with The Patio Boys.

So, that’s what’s up with us. How are things with you? Work going OK? How’s the family? That outfit looks terrific on you, by the way. No, seriously! I don’t think it makes you look fat. Well, yeah, horizontal stripes and all, but you really carry it. Honestly!


A few goings-on of late that bear mentioning:

  • Liam has started playing Little League baseball. It’s a load of fun, and significantly more action-packed than Major League, since stealing bases is allowed and the boys aren’t so hot at catching the ball. During the last game, which due to time limits was only 4 innings long, the final score was 13-15. I got drafted to do scorekeeping, so got to learn what those little sheets that my friend Robert Leahey used to have around the house are actually for. The worst moment in the recent game, however, was when a stray foul ball from an adjacent field abruptly appeared and whacked Liam in the face. He was OK after a 15 minute sit-down and some ice, and his enthusiasm for the game continues unabated.
  • Daniel Priest and I got together for a visit this weekend. After much dithering over what we would do, we eventually decided to watch Nick Cage’s movie Next. Not, mind you, because it looked particularly good, but because it was one of the titles for which there was a download available on RiffTrax. “What,” I (for rhetorical purposes) hear you asking, “are RiffTrax?” Well, consider that Mike Nelson, who spearheads the site, was the host of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for many a year, and you can take a pretty good guess. They’re basically MP3s you can buy to play along with a movie and thereby provide a steady stream of jokes at the movie’s expense. I hadn’t tried one before, but found it great fun. Mike still has a razor wit, and is complemented nicely by different foils for various movies. (Weird Al Yankovic is a guest for Jurassic Park.) Great fun, and heartily recommended.

Emergent Game Design

The traditional approach to designing a game with a narrative has been for the game designer to work like a movie screen writer: he creates a series of “scripted” events at various points in a game level which are followed from beginning to end, and which always occur in the same order whenever the game is played. For example, the designer might decide that when you go around a certain corner, an alien should jump out at you and start attacking. Half Life was one of the early games to do a really excellent job with this sort of approach, and provided some of the most memorable moments in gaming up to its time.

By contrast, some newer games have embraced a more open, flexible approach to the game experience, which is generally known as “Emergent Game Play”. Rather than specifically writing in dramatic encounters, designers will create various game elements that interact in complex, consistent, and interesting ways. So, instead of having an alien always jump at you as you go around a particular corner, that alien would instead be roaming the halls on a search pattern, perhaps stopping to look for food once in a while, and generally actually doing something even when the player isn’t watching it, rather than just waiting to jump out at the player. Or, instead of dispatching said alien with the gun the game designer provided, the player might instead shoot a cylinder with poisonous gas contained therein and then beat a hasty retreat, closing and locking a door behind him until the alien expires.

The advantage to this approach is that every player gets a potentially unique experience, and that the environments feel much more real. The disadvantage is that creating this sort of sandbox is significantly more work and takes considerably more testing. (There’s an interesting article at Gamecritic that uses the recent games Call of Duty 4 and Crysis to contrast these two approaches to game design.)

Another interesting development in recent years has been the inclusion of Map Editors with games. These allow players to create their own levels and to distribute them over the Internet. Dubbed “user-generated content”, these additional battlefields extend the shelf life of a game considerably without much additional investment on the game company’s part.

One of the most interesting experiments in user-generated contents is the world of Second Life, which provides its users tools, a great big open space, and not much else. All the content in its game world is created by users.

But all of this gets even more interesting when all these elements come together in something I’m calling Emergent Game Design, where the game players take the tools that the designers have provided them and create something completely different out of it — effectively turning one kind of game into something completely different.

One of the first examples of this I saw was Tower Defense in Warcraft 3. Normally, Warcraft 3 is a Real-Time Strategy game, in which one commands fantasy armies around a battlefield from an overhead view. The key gameplay elements are gathering resources, building a base, amassing an army, and wiping your opponents from the map.

Though it was built with Warcraft 3 and its editor, Tower Defense provided a completely different experience: the player is presented with a path down which gigantic armies of enemies march. The player doesn’t have any mobile offensive units, but only the ability to build defensive towers along the enemies’ path. There’s no resource gathering, no army building, just a very focused effort to keep the enemy units from making it all the way across the screen. (A nice version of the TD concept that you can play in your browser is Desktop Tower Defense, which I recommend you avoid if you have any pressing engagements in the next two hours.)

I saw another interesting example recently while playing Team Fortress 2, a multiplayer class-based shooter where you can adopt the role of a soldier, a combat engineer, a sniper, or a medic and join in 48 player battles across the Internet. It’s a really well-done game, and a lot of fun if you enjoy simulated combat.

However, some enterprising gamer took the level editing tools that Valve provided with the game and created a map called Skyscraper. Skyscraper completely revamps the game, segregating the two teams into discrete areas which allow no direct interaction whatever. The challenge suddenly changes from besting your opponents in combat to getting to the top of an enormously tall and perilous vertical space in the shortest possible time. Team members no longer help each other destroy the opposing force, but use their weapons and combat tools to help each other get progressively more altitude.

Another example: English educators used Neverwinter Nights, a superb fantasy role playing game with good editing tools,  to further educational goals by rebuilding the game to require literacy and numeracy skills, such as comprehending written material and calculating area to load a ship’s hold.

The fascinating thing about these examples is that players have been given rich enough tools to not only choose their own approach to achieving the game’s goals, but to actually carve out their own game with entirely different ends. Though Tower Defense, Skyscraper and the West Nottingshire project were all created with an existing game’s tools, they are utterly different games from those that provide the technology they’re built on.

Which brings us back again to Second Life. Since it has an exceptionally powerful set of editing tools and everything in its world is created by users, it seems logical that it would be a rich field for Emergent Game Design. And that turns out to be true. Second Life members have created in-game versions of lots of gaming standards, such as slot machines, trivia games, etc., but have taken things much further.

There are many examples of original games that have been created in that world, from first person shooters to role playing games to entirely original creations. In fact, a game created in Second Life called Tringo has been such a success that various companies have licensed the game design to create Game Boy and standalone PC versions of the game. And, in spite of persistent technical and business issues, Second Life continues to amass a larger and larger following because of this strength.

So, what can we take away from this? Lessons for the game-player:

  • Try some of the top-rated user generated maps for your favorite games. You’ll almost certainly have a good time, and you might discover a few gems.
  • If you have ideas you’d like to try, don’t be afraid to crack open the editing tools that come with your favorite games. Many have active and helpful communities that make it pretty easy to get started.
  • If you’re interested in getting into the game industry, creating a successful level or mod for a game is one of the best ways to do so.

For game designers:

  • Emergent gameplay and rich worlds are worth the extra effort. (Full disclosure: I used to work for Origin, whose motto “We Create Worlds” shows a certain bias to creating complex game spaces.)
  • Your customers are smart and collectively have way more free time than you do. Give them opportunities to use those facts to your advantage.
  • If you want your game to have a long life, one of the best things you can do is provide the community with great tools to tweak the game. Even if only 1% of the game owners ever launch an editor, and only 10% use user-generated content, it will keep interest alive far longer than would have otherwise been the case. And if you can lower the barrier of entry by building easy-to-use editors and content browsers into the game itself, you might just hit a gold mine.

Detroit Barristry City

The Romantics are suing the makers of Guitar Hero for the use of their classic What I Like About You. The game makers properly procured legal rights to do a cover of the song, so what’s the band’s beef?

They’re upset that the cover band that performed the song was too good, and sounded too much like the original. Yep, you read it right. They’re cheesed because the cover band, which was hired to sound like them, did their job well.

To me, this smells like a bunch of opportunists trying to cash in on someone else’s success. Due props to The Romantics and their musical accomplishments, but I hope the judge gives them a smackdown they will not soon forget on this one. Ridiculous.


While shopping for Maggie’s birthday, I stumbled across a copy of Loot, a pirate-themed card game I remembered having read good things about. Noticing the various award stickers plastered across its box, I decided it was worth dropping a few bucks to try it out.

After I spent a couple minutes scanning the rules, Liam, Abigail and I played through one round with our hands down on the table in front of us to help learn the game, and then another the proper way with our cards hidden. The play is fairly straightforward and easy to pick up — no trouble for our 8 year old, and I think our 6 year old could have kept up with a little coaching — but the strategy becomes moderately deep once you don’t know what resources your opponents have at your disposal.

Some other reviewers suggest putting in chocolate treasure coins and having everyone talk like pirates for the duration to enhance the fun, but we really enjoyed it even without the additional pirate trappings and in spite of (or because of) the fact that the kids walloped me both times. Good, approachable fun. I give it a 2.5 on a scale of -7 to π.

Bioshock and Ayn Rand

In another world, Ken Levine might have been a novelist, and his team at Irrational his writers group, meeting around a dusty table in a Parisian cafe. Like Ayn Rand, he might have written a 1,000 page opus on power, free will, and human fallibility.

Instead he’s making BioShock.

One of the games I’m most looking forward to this year is Bioshock. My anticipation was further heightened by reading this article, in which the story that Ken Levine, the game’s designer, is crafting is examined. It’s exciting to me that he’s approaching the project primarily as a way to tell this story, with the game elements pressed into service to further that goal — a shift in priorities that I think will have to happen before games will be thought of as an artistic medium on par with music, theater, and cinema. Very interesting read.