Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dying is easy, Comedy is hard

Last week's entry was a distillation of a good bit of research into the soul of comedy gaming.

It started with the ninjas. The jokes were flying fast and furious around the gaming table, some of them at my instigation. As I was browsing the forums on, I found a thread which had people recount their funniest gaming moments. There were a few good ones, but then one fellow jumped in with something like "Comedy gaming is fun for a one-shot, but make sure to kill all the characters so you can do something serious next week." Which makes sense for Paranoia (which I placed in the "joke game" category last week), but not for what I was trying to do by incorporating comedic elements into the setting of a continuing game.

That's when I turned to GURPS Discworld, the officially licensed roleplaying game of Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories. For those of you familiar with GURPS, you might be thinking "Why is such a crunchy and realistic rules system being used for a comedic setting?" A couple reasons were mentioned in the book itself. What it generally boils down to is "Not everything is a joke." When someone stabs you with a sword, it hurts A LOT, which suits the realistic tone of GURPS quite well. While the fellow may be trying to stab you for a funny reason (explained only in footnotes), it still stands a very good chance of killing you (at which point, you get to meet Death, who's not a bad guy all 'round).

That was my first big realization: The only way for comedy to be sustained is if not everything is a joke. If the players of the game have a serious interest in what their characters are doing, they will want to continue to play. Most people didn't tune in to "Friends" because all the jokes were that funny, but to keep up with the character and relationship drama. The jokes were just icing on the cake, really.

The next step also came from RPG. net. On a thread regarding horrible experiences playing at a convention, one poster recounted a scenario he played in once that required the characters to re-enact the punchline to a scatological joke in order to "win."

Second big realization: No punchlines. For one thing, Baum didn't use them either. My thoughts of comedy in Oz always bring me back to Utensia (visited by Dorothy in "The Emerald City of Oz"). Nearly everything in Utensia was a pun of some sort. The whole scene was a collection of rapid fire puns and jokes with no build-up to a punchline whatsoever. And trying to steer a group of players into creating a specific conclusion for a set punchline smacks of railroading (I think I've just found next week's blog topic), which is generally considered a bad thing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Comedy Gaming vs. Joke Gaming

People play games to have fun, right? And part of that is making jokes. But from what I've seen, most people don't seem to take comedy gaming seriously. It sounds funny, but it's true.

They seem to get comedy gaming confused with what I am calling "joke gaming." The big difference is that comedy gaming takes at least some part of itself seriously, be it the setting, the characters or the plot. Without taking some aspect seriously, the game is going to devolve into a series of bad punchlines and an unplayable plot.

Paranoia, although a lot of fun, is definitely a joke game. The setting is George Orwell's 1984 as an amusement park (where everything is wonderful OR ELSE!), the characters have no guarantee that they will be competent in their assigned task (though they generally are competent at something), and the plot is crazily convoluted (all of the characters are secretly traitors to the Computer and are often assigned missions by their traitorous friends to complete alongside the mission given to them by the all-seeing Computer, all while trying to score points with the Computer by turning in any traitors they discover).

Here are a few comedies I've seen and how they fit into the breakdown of Setting, Plot and Characters.

Red Dwarf: The setting and plots were actually rather serious science-fiction fare. What really made it funny were the characters (Dave Lister is the last man in the universe you'd pick to be the Last Man in the Universe).

Discworld: The only thing that got taken seriously in any consistent way was the plot. There are serious characters (Commander Vimes) and not-so serious characters (Captain Carrot). The setting is home to places like Bad Ass and the Place Where The Sun Does Not Shine. When Ankh-Morpork was ruled by a dragon in Guards! Guards! a few members of the City Watch tried to slay the dragon by making the odds against themselves 1,000,000:1 (because million to one chances turn up nine times out of ten). But the plots themselves are rather serious. Rincewind saves the Disc on numerous occasions, Vimes solves murders, and so on.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Here we come full circle. In the Hitchhiker's Trilogy (all 5 volumes!), it seems like the characters are the only serious element. The setting is (maybe) science-fictionally probable, but contains such ludicrous artifacts as the Infinite Improbability Drive, the Vogons, and God's Last Message To His Creation (We Apologize For The Inconvenience). The plots are more picaresque than anything, as the characters bounce around from one ridiculous planet to another. Douglas Adams is quite good at highlighting the silliness of his universe by having at least one character (typically Arthur Dent) notice it and comment on it.

It looks like all my examples are British, which may say something about my sense of humor, or just the fact that I haven't been exposed to the great American humorists (are there any?).

In an RPG scenario, it's oddly difficult to do a character based comedy. Since most players expect to be the heroes of their adventures, they will often be highly resistant to being the butt of very many jokes. Even the Red Dwarf RPG (yes, it exists and I own it) ascribes the typical character with a basic level of competence, even though the main joke of the series is the incompetence of the characters.

If a plot isn't interesting and at least somewhat serious, players will be very unlikely to go along with it. So most of the humor of comedy gaming will typically come from setting.

Another thing to be wary of in comedy gaming is punchlines. For starters, since the player-characters have free will, getting them to go along with a specific plan of action takes some doing. For another, you're basically setting up only one joke. This runs the risk of the players not appreciating your joke. If you plan for a number of small jokes, one-liners and such, the chance that the whole experience will be marred by one bad joke diminishes significantly. Also, by using multiple jokes, it allows you to "read the room" to see which jokes are appreciated and which ones aren't, allowing you to tailor the comedy experience.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What makes an RPG?

What is it that separates an RPG from other types of games? Please be warned that this is my own opinion on the subject. Other writers, many of them with much more education and experience than myself, have tried to tackle this with limited success.

Roleplaying happens when players go beyond the concept of "position identification" (i.e "This is my playing piece" becomes "This is my guy"). Roleplaying is encouraged when this works to the player's advantage. For example, Monpoly isn't an RPG because imagining yourself in the place of a top hat or shoe does not give you an advantage in the game.

The original Dungeons & Dragons game became one of the first games to offer this kind of advantage. Unlike many other wargames available at the time, D&D gave each player control of a single character, rather than a squad or army. And there's also the fact that first level sucked.

I really discovered that last for myself rather recently at the hands of OSRIC. My friend Fishgod had discovered this, dug out an old D&D module, and tried to run it for my gaming group. There was only one survivor. Mostly because we expected the rules to be more forgiving, like more modern games.

On reflection, it was this unforgiving nature that led to roleplaying in the first place. When you've got a visibly non-zero chance to enter play with only 1 hit point, you don't charge up to things with your sword. You get creative. You distract your opponents with changes to the environment. You lead them into the dungeon's traps. By visualizing the situation and putting yourself in your character's shoes, your character's survivability increased dramatically, making it more likely that you'll reach second level, at which point things get slightly less sucky.

Modern roleplayers (including some in my group) have complained that there is little room for roleplaying in classic D&D. The alignment system was not yet fully formed, so there's no real support for characterization and drama. Every adventure published for the system is a dungeon full of monsters to be killed.

By my definition, most of the video and computer games that are labeled as RPGs are not RPGs. They remove the player's ability to improvise solutions, reducing the game to the combat simulation that modern roleplayers decry. A well written story makes the game much more fun, certainly, but it doesn't really replace the flexibility of making your own decisions.

A couple of entertaining examples of what is possible when a person (as opposed to a computer) is mediating the action:

For those who have been following the Actual Play thread I have on, I give you Corbin. In his first adventure, he managed to extend a war that otherwise would have been ended. Rather than tell him his action failed, and that his actions would continue to fail until he convinced the two sides to interact peacably, I allowed his actions to succeed and to let him deal with the consequences of his actions. It will be interesting to see him win over Ozma after that sort of incident.

Last night, Fishgod got us to try Paranoia. As a comedy game, one of it's many schticks that the characters are issued useless items and highly experimental items and are ordered to find uses for them. My character was issued a freeze-dried bagel and another character was issued a briefcase full of expanding monomolecular razorwire. After several characters fell victim to the razorwire, my character got creative and devised a shield made of the densest substance known to man: A freeze dried bagel. A computer would have to have planned rather far ahead to expect that move in order to allow it to work. Fishgod, seeing that it enhanced the fun of the game, allowed the unorthodox defense to take place and much fun was had by all.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

RIP Dave Arneson

Even among gamers, Dave Arneson is not a household name. Along with partner E. Gary Gygax, who died last year, he created the first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. He died a few days ago, on April 7th, 2009.

Unfortunately, while I was aware of his name and his role in the industry, I never knew him very well. There are several bloggers and writers who did, though. I encourage you to Google "Dave Arneson" to see all the obituaries and reminiscences of people who have met him and worked with him. Just based on what I've read over the last few days, he has made quite an impression on those who met him.

Farewell, Dave.

My gaming history

One of the reasons you got the "Googling" blog on Monday is because I wanted to make sure that this blog didn't get pushed back too far after my "Yes, You Can!" blog. After I posted that one, I realized that you guys might be interested in what got me into gaming in the first place. So here it is.

I didn't start gaming until after high school. I didn't start doing much of anything until after high school, but that's a different therapy session.

It was actually my girl who got me started, in a way. When we were still feeling each other out (we didn't really date, we just hung out a lot) she brought along her copy of GURPS Wild Cards. She was a fan of the Wild Cards novels and the book was a convenient reference work on the series. She had played a little D&D in high school, but had no experience with GURPS at that time.

At the local game store, I would browse the used books section, because I didn't have the money to buy any new stuff. That was where I first saw the Dream Park RPG. Looking throught it's "What is roleplaying?" section, I had to shake my head. There was no way that roleplaying was as simple as it was described there. There had to be charts and tables and miniature figures that take days to paint! All those things that hurt my brain and cost too much money! (Turns out I was wrong on every single count, but I wasn't there yet.)

Remembering her GURPS book, I picked up a used copy of GURPS Horror (first edition) as something of a present. It might still be around here somewhere, but I haven't seen it for a while.

When she left for college in LA, I went with her. She got a job on campus and I discovered the joys of the internet on the campus library computers. We started picking up the GURPS core books, mainly to figure out what the supplements were talking about (being supplements, they had lots of things with ST scores, for example, but no explanation of what an ST score was and how to tell if you had a good one) and partly to see what other options were available (lots, it turned out).

Via the internet, I discovered a variety of other roleplaying games as well. The main one that I still recall from this period is Forgotten Futures, which is still being supported after all this time. (Thanks for making me feel old, guys.) I also connected with a roleplaying group in Culver City (still part of the Los Angeles metroplex) and got my first taste of roleplaying with the RoleMaster system and the old D&D Temple of Elemental Evil. My human paladin was built for me via a computer spreadsheet. I heard some muttering about how hard it was to build a character in the rules. I didn't discover exactly how hard until I tried to build a character under those rules myself many years later. After two hours, I gave up.

It was during this time that I started development of my own roleplaying game. Me and the girl had the idea of a comic book, with me writing and her drawing. I thought it would be fun to put a simple RPG in the back of the comic. Each issue would contain the basic rules of the game, plus a little more information on the world or stats on a certain character. Nothing ever really came of it, unfortunately. I still have the RPG rules somewhere, but it would take quite a bit of work to make them really usable.

Fast forward now to the wondrous Year 2000. Although the flying car did not debut in that year, the third edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rules did. Even though myths about roleplaying games had been shattering right and left, I was still intimidated by the granddaddy of them all: D&D. One more myth shattered when I picked up the Player's Handbook. Here was a version of D&D that was comprehensible.

Not long after, I joined a group and created my first D&D character: Konrad the Barbarian. It's more like he was a Barbarian named Konrad, but some people have no sense of subtlety. He wound up being the only character that I played for any significant length of time.

Because another role was forcing itself on me. The role of Dungeon Master. At the same time I was playing in that group, Another group of friends thought it would be fun to play our own game, and the role of DM fell to me. So I picked up a Dungeon magazine and picked an adventure out of it to run. I can't say I did the best job. Heck, there are times even now when I feel I could be a better Game Master.

But it was a role I've been kind of stuck with. A few years after that, I discovered the Fantasy Gamers Guild at the local university. I wound up joining a group with a DM who was the worst stereotype of the D&D gamer. Fat and smelly and no sense of story. Our characters woke up in the dungeon (an old game board) with no idea how we had gotten there and no real memory of what brought us there. All we knew is that there were monsters.

I wound up hijacking the game out from under him by bringing in games from my growing collection and trying to tempt the other players with them. I finally found a winner with IronClaw. The DM wound up making a character with the Smuggler career, but was disappointed that I didn't give him much to smuggle. He dropped out after a few sessions. On the one hand, it could be considered not much of a loss, and I really didn't miss him much at the time. In retrospect, however, it could be seen as my first big GMing failure. By failing to reach out and accomodate players, I basically drove him off.

Another part of it was that I was still going from prebuilt adventures. I ran D&D using scenarios from Dungeon Magazine (The encounter and treasure building system still intimidates me, so I would use published scenarios if I ran D&D today). The IronClaw adventures were from the scenarios printed in their supplements. When I ran GURPS Prime Directive shortly thereafter, I dug through my collection of Star Trek RPGs for scenarios.

I didn't create my own adventures until I started running Exalted. I had every supplement, but there were no real published adventures for it. One of the players suggested that something had been stolen from each of the characters and they joined up when they realized that it was the same thief. This led to a pretty epic and awesome storyline. But then, Exalted really is an epic and awesome game.

I ran several games over the course of my involvement with the Guild, including GURPS Wild Cards (the game that somewhat started it all), and my little comic book RPG (which did not go well and convinced me that I couldn't design settings at all).

I never really got much of a chance to play a character, though. Once I started going to DunDraCon, I got to play a few games there. Occassionally, my girl would run D&D for varying lengths of time. Every so often, Fishgod (one of my regular players whose name I'm not going to drop without his permission. Plus, it's a funny nickname) would change things up by offering to run something to help me recharge my GM batteries. I have mentioned this to him at least once, but Fishgod is the kind of GM I want to be when I grow up.

More recently, my confidence in my ability to design settings has been restored as I built a setting for a pulp fantasy game. It started as an experiment to try out the D6 System, but my play group decided that the system was not working out well for us. We wound up converting the game over to the Cartoon Action Hour rules and we had much more fun that way.

Now I'm on my second attempt at running a game that I've designed and it's going much better than the last time. Probably because it's a much stronger idea than the previous one. A system tailored to a specific setting and set of ideas. Fishgod has even offered to run a session of it himself to see how it stands up to a devious mind like his.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Go Google yourself!

This is something that I don't usually do, but yesterday I got the itch and this is what I discovered. It's always nice to get free advertising.

I also discovered that there is yet another product titled "Adventures in Oz". I was aware of Eric Shanower's comic book, but now there's a board game with the same name. I'm not going to link it, because this blog is about Googling. One more reason to try to come with a new name for the game. Any suggestions?

Also, here are a few people who might get a kick out of their Google searches turning up one more hit:

Bryan Fowler, Amanda Webb, Brad McDevitt, Colin Throm, and Loraine Sammy. The last two artists are fairly new to the fold, but you'll probably be seeing their work soon enough. Sooner if you Google them.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Happy Anniversary to the blog!

It was one year ago today that I started this blog. I have learned a lot since then.

I thought I could have the whole thing banged together in a few months. I was actually planning for a release around September of last year, but it took me a while to get actual playtest feedback (which is darn useful) and getting money to pay for all the art is something I'm still working on (but making good progress on it). I'm actually glad that I've gotten delayed, as I think it's become a much stronger product for the extra time that I've taken. It's gotten a good combat system and is about to get a much better magic system.

I thought filling a weekly blog was going to be a challenge. I am really not a person strong on the "connected" life. I do not have a MySpace, or a Facebook page. I have a small presence on LiveJournal, but it's nowhere near regular. The blogging thing has since grown on me. Occasionally, instead of just the Thursday blog, I'll give a bonus blog if something comes up that I just have to comment on.

I would like to thank everyone who has commented on the blog and been supportive of my project.

Also, I'd like to give a shout-out to Cynthia Celeste Miller, a great RPG designer. I have run the first edition of Cartoon Action Hour numerous times and had a blast. The second edition is now available and I plan on getting it as soon as is practical. Also, her latest project, Slasher Flick, lists me as a contributer. I am an occasional poster on where she was asking for advice. And as a bonus, she got my name right! If you'll recall, not everyone does.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...