Category Archives: Personal Musings

Of MerpCon, and Middle-Earth memories

Brace yourself for MerpCon! That’s right, a convention devoted to roleplaying in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (largely, but not exclusively, through Iron Crown’s vintage Middle Earth Role Playing game). This will be the second such convention, and this year it looks like Michael Martinez (a familiar name if you follow any Tolkien newsgroups or discussion forums) will be the guest of honor.

I won’t be going this year, but it’s nice to see that the convention is apparently enjoying some success. Things are pretty bleak these days as far as roleplaying in Middle-Earth goes–Decipher’s Lord of the Rings is on life support, Iron Crown has long since lost the Tolkien license, and most of the fan-created Tolkien games out there currently seem to be either outright abandoned or are lingering in perpetual half-finished limbo. Nevertheless there are some good fan-driven Tolkien gaming sites out there at which the faithful still gather.

Iron Crown’s MERP game holds a special place in my heart, for it was one of the first RPGs I played regularly; I got many years of enjoyable gaming out of that thin red rulebook. Critics today tend to scorn it for its complexity and the rather non-Tolkien-ish elements that crept into it from its roots in the Rolemaster game system, but I can say that no such critique ever even occured to me when I was playing and running regular games using it.

Well, I take that back. I probably did realize on some level that the humorous and extremely gruesome critical hit tables in MERP (and there were many, many such tables) did not exactly line up with Tolkien’s grand vision for Middle-Earth, but I was having too much fun to worry about it. So what if, in the novels, Aragorn never had to worry about getting his jawbone driven into his brain by a lucky orc flail to the face, or about the risk of permanent paralysis from a crushing blow to his spine? Let me tell you, it sure made for some mighty fine gaming…

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Innovation is dead! Long live innovation!

Gamasutra has an interview with game-design legend Chris Crawford. Lots of interesting ideas in there, but the gist of it can be boiled down to a theme I’ve heard more than once over the last few years: innovation in games is dead, and the industry is living on borrowed time.

I don’t know much about the economics of the game industry, so I can’t comment on the latter point. But I have done a lot of reading and thinking about the first point–that there is no more innovation in game design. Is the age of game innovation–an era of quirky, bizarre and sometimes brilliant gameplay ideas that weren’t pigeonholed into narrowly defined genres–long past us? Has the experimentation of the 1980s been quashed by endless sequels? Have we been reduced to simply re-playing fancier-looking but completely derivative iterations of the same two or three games?

Looking at the game shelf of your local Best Buy, it’s awfully hard to deny this. Lots and lots of sequels; lots and lots of unimaginative games that simply splash a fresh coat of paint over gameplay that’s ten or fifteen years old.

But I’d like to disagree a bit with the doomsayers–partly out of a stubborn desire to play the devil’s advocate, and partly because the gamer in me (who has played many excellent games in the last decade) rebels a bit against the implication that what I’ve been playing lately is utterly lacking in creativity.

One problem I have with these “innovation is dead” arguments is that they tend to be unclear on what innovation actually is. Words like “storytelling” and “narrative” get tossed around, but these terms are maddeningly vague. Nor is it clear that this sort of innovation will make for games that are more fun. I’d like to suggest that innovation does exist today, but rather than taking the form of avant-garde gameplay styles, it consists of taking tried-and-true styles of basic gameplay (of which there are only a finite number, after all) and stretching them in new directions. Consider the following, none of which boast truly unique gameplay styles but which have earned a place in many a gamer’s heart:

  • Starcraft, which introduced wonderfully memorable characters and storylines into the otherwise somewhat dry-and-mechanical strategy game genre
  • Morrowind, which with its open-ended world design lifted many of the gameplay restrictions traditionally placed on players in roleplaying games and left players to pursue their own path through the game
  • Planescape: Torment, which took the framework of a traditional computer RPG and used it to tell a story with real literary and emotional power
  • Quake, Half-life, and Neverwinter Nights, which through their extreme (and intentional) customizability, spawned a thriving culture of community-built game content
  • The Sims, the game that still defies efforts to fit it into an existing genre
  • Guild Wars, which built an interesting fusion of single-player gameplay in a massive-multiplayer game environment

All of these games came out in the “dark ages”–the last decade, in which innovation has supposedly been dead. Yet each left a profound mark on the gaming landscape because they took existing gameplay frameworks and spun them in new directions. That might not be the textbook definition of “innovation,” but if it produces games like these, I’ll take it.

The “innovation is dead” crowd laments the decrease in the variety of gameplay styles available. But I think this is just the natural result of years spent refining gameplay styles that were once new and original: over time, the truly fun gameplay remains, and the not-fun gameplay is dropped. It is unlikely that we’ll see more than a handful of entirely new gameplay styles in the next few years; what falls to game designers now is to stretch the existing library of ideas into unexplored territory. There is art and, yes, innovation in borrowing proven game elements and refining them into something even more fun.

My last game purchase was Galactic Civilizations II, an explore-and-conquer space empire game that consists almost entirely of elements borrowed from games that came before it. I just hit level 37 in World of Warcraft, a game that’s mostly built on all the good ideas from other massively-multiplayer games. And you know what? Both games are really, really fun. I’ll be there to cheer on the new and bizarre when it appears (Spore, I have high hopes for you). And I’ll roll my eyes along with everybody else at the release of the 80th game in the Madden series. But in the meantime, I”ve got some fun, if not strictly innovative, games that need playing.

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The internet makes game shopping boring

Mike Mearls has an interesting post about the effect of the internet on the way he views his local game store:

Before the Internet, a trip to a game store was fun. I liked shifting through racks of Ral Partha and Reaper miniatures looking for cool figures. In high school, I was lucky to have a well-stocked hobby store that dabbled in a few obscure miniatures lines, so there was always something new to find. The same applied to a lesser extent to RPGs and boardgames.

With the dawn of the Internet, that enjoyable part of shopping is gone. There’s little there to discover, because I know what’s out there. My information is a little too good.

This is something I’ve certainly noticed as well. When I was but a wee lad, a trip to the game store was an exciting, momentous occasion; I had no idea what strange and wonderful game books and other goodies were waiting for me on the shelves. I had little concept of the game “industry” and no understanding of the way that game lines were developed; I could never predict what game products were coming next. I might go to the store one month to find a book about psionics in D&D, or I might find a Battletech sourcebook unveiling crazy new mech designs. Whatever it was, it was always unexpected and exciting.

(Sure, I had a few outdated game line catalogs that sometimes came packaged in with boxed sets, but the odds of any particular book from those catalogs making it to my local game store were pretty slim, and I didn’t do the mail-order thing much.)

But with the internet, we now know all sorts of details about upcoming game books well in advance of publication–sometimes years before they actually hit store shelves. Publication schedules are planned out months or years in advance; book previews are made available to entice gamers into pre-ordering products online. If you pay attention to the major game publisher sites, chances are you know nearly as much about the next batch of upcoming games as the developers do.

It’s really, really hard to be surprised by a game these days.

That’s certainly not a bad thing–I like knowing what’s coming down the pipe, personally–but it has robbed the excursion to the game store of any sort of suspense or anticipation. If the game you want isn’t on the store shelf, you can just order it online and have it show up in your mailbox two days later. And so one major reason for bothering to frequent a local game store–to find out what’s new, to pick up rumors about what’s coming next–is gone.

In the post above, Mearls notes that this has caused him to approach his local game store less as a source of news and discovery and more as a social hub. (Speaking for myself, since my own local game store isn’t really a place I’d want to spend serious time hanging out at, I mostly patronize it to support local business.) The old thrill of discovery is gone, so he’s found different ways to make his trips to the game store worthwhile.

An interesting situation, to be sure. I’m a fan of this internet thing, myself, but there are certainly times when I wish for the relative “ignorance” I enjoyed during the pre-internet era!

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Requiem for a packrat; or, The day I lost 85 pounds on my lunch break

“Excuse me–could you help me, please?” I gasped. I clung desperately with quivering arms to the stack of books I was relocating from my car to the post office. I had managed to wedge my foot behind the glass front door, but dared not reassign a limb from the task of holding the books upright to the challenge of pulling the door open. The business-suited man on the other side of the glass must have heard the desperate edge in my voice; eyeing the monstrous stack of books warily, he pushed the door open for me.

I pushed through the door into the crowded post office interior; the stack of books caught the edge of the door as I entered and threatened to topple. A surprisingly agile torso twist kept a shelfworn copy of Promised Sands from sliding off the top of the stack and dragging Mage: the Ascension (the Revised version, of course) with it. A curious combination of fatigue and adrenaline rushed through my pasty-white and spindly arms; this was the probably the most strenuous activity to which they had been put all year.

I shambled towards the post office desk. Almost there… there. I let the stack of books fall onto the counter with a loud bang. The post office worker peered at me from around the stack as if she had never before seen such a sight.

“I need to mail these,” I managed, proudly indicating the stack of books.

The post office lady nodded. I watched as she divided the giant stack into four smaller piles, put them individually on the scale, and tallied up the weight.

“How much?” I asked. “How much do they weigh?”

“Let’s see… that would be eighty-five pounds.”

Eighty-five pounds! Somehow, I was getting rid of 85 pounds of game books. And they represented just one portion of my sprawling collection of books. How on Earth had I come to possess such a mass of game material? And why was I trimming it down now?

And these were just the ones I had set aside in the “I’m probably never going to play this” pile.

It felt strange–strange that I’d managed to accumulate so many books, strange that so many of them were passing to and then from my possession without ever having been played. Strange that my packrat, collector’s personality was actually excited at the prospect of a slimmed-down, trimmer game collection.

I loved some of those game books. I’d read through them all, adding the ideas within to the pool of roleplaying ideas in the back of my mind. I’d been proud of those games–perversely proud to have them taking up an entire shelf or two in the hallway. Proud that I’d tracked them down on the internet, in used bookstores, in foul-smelling, sanity-shattering comic-book stores.

But over time, that love had soured, and turned to something like hate. By the time I finally decided to expunge them from my collection, they’d become little more than a standing reminder that I wasn’t playing nearly as much as I used to play, nearly as much as I’d always hoped and assumed I’d be playing at this point in my life. The near-pristine books spines stared down at me from the bookshelf, accusing: How can you keep us all here when you’re not even going to play us?

It was time. I knew it. My collection was too big, and there was something just wrong about hording a giant stack of game books and never using them in an actual game. Somewhere out there, somebody was scouring Ebay and his local bookstore for copies of game books that I have and am not even using. They had to go. I had to set them free.

And so I found myself sweating beside my stack of game books, waiting quietly while the post office lady filled out the shipping form. (When she reached the “Contains dangerous materials?” question, she checked the “Yes” option. I decided not to ask.) Beside me sat dozens of books–eighty-five pounds of books, to be exact–filled with ideas that I hoped would find their way to somebody who’d really appreciate them. Books about wizards, elves, vampires, aliens, adventurers, and the myriad worlds they all inhabited. Books into which countless game writers had invested countless hours of their lives.

“Sign here, please.” I scribbled my name on the corner of the shipping form indicated by the post office lady’s pointing finger. I paid the shipping fee, started to leave, but hesitated for a moment.

“You’ll pack them up carefully? I’d like them to get there in good shape.”

“Yep, we’ll pack ’em up good.” The somewhat bored look in the post office lady’s eyes left me unconvinced, but I’d gone too far down this road to turn back now.

“If you need to split them into several smaller packages to keep them safe, go ahead,” I suggested. “That might keep them from sliding around and getting their corners banged up.”

“Hmmmm,” said the post office lady, and I knew my time was up. Besides, I had to get back to work–this little expedition had consumed most of my lunch hour.

“Thanks,” I said, feeling something like sadness, fighting a last-minute urge to leap over the counter, grab the books, and race them back to their spots on the hallway bookshelf. As I pushed my way out the glass door, I glanced back again and saw a small squad of post office workers descending on the strangely forlorn stack of books, bubble-wrap and cardboard freight boxes in hand. I stepped outside.

That was a few weeks ago. There’s still a gap in the bookshelf, an empty stretch of real estate where once Spycraft and Legend of the Five Rings stood proud. Proud, but unused. I thought I might regret my decision to trim down my collection, but I don’t. It feels good to ship my unloved children off to someplace where I think they’ll find a better life at somebody’s game table.

I don’t miss them, not all that much.

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