Selectivity

June 28, 2015

What is the nature of a customizable cardgame?  Something that has to do with games, cards, and immigration.  No?  Games, cards, etiquette?

Sure, Customizable Card Game is not what I used to call them.  I used to call them Collectible Card Games, and there were many who would use Trading Card Games.  Whatever.  Magic and its ilk.

My deck.  My deck is different from your deck.  Your deck is … okay, won’t get into that song.  Deck Cheaptastic is full of commons, doesn’t max out card limits, gets crushed by … Deck Suitcasium, the deck full of ultra rare promo signed foil holographic …

Insane Designer

I’ve argued I can play this card.  I got challenged to explain the Shadow Mark symbol on the card that is hard to make out.  After all, it’s not like my name isn’t in the credits of the game.

I’m taking a circuitous route to get to the point.  Shocking, I know.

One deck is different from another.  That is the nature of a customizable cardgame.  I make selections that someone doesn’t make.  Decks have authors.  The authors might not even be the people who play the decks.  It’s like being a songwriter.  I’m a deckwriter.  I am not alone.

So, I was thinking about design.  I was thinking about the problem of staples, no brainers, autoinclusions.  I was thinking about the lack of choice.  I’m not talking about the true lack of choice, like how Babylon 5, Wheel of Time, Tomb Raider, and other games require you to start with one of a number of starting characters/cards (see L5R Strongholds, etc.).  I’m talking about how choosing any other option so adversely affects your competitiveness … these are competitive games, you know, not like the modern boardgame age where everything is coop … that you would never not include them.

There’s a line I use – “If a card goes in every deck, it’s badly designed.”

“Every deck” is a fluid thing.  The Wheel of Time CCG is one where you play either Light or Shadow and, outside of craziness, your opponent plays the other.  “Every Shadow deck” is sufficiently broad that it is “every deck”.

The Babylon 5 CCG is one where you play one of the five races – Centauri, Human, Minbari, Narn, Non-aligned.  I’d like to disbelieve in Drakh, Techno-mages, and whatever, but those are add ons to your race.  “Every Narn deck” is “every deck” broad, but I’m willing to let “every Narn military deck” be not broad enough to qualify.  Just as “every Vorlon deck” isn’t broad enough to qualify as “every deck”.

Babylon 5

I’m not that visual, so rather than throw out some sweet, sweet card displays (or not so pleasing card displays), try this link for Meditation.  Besides, Sam’s site deserves more views.

Meditation is an every deck card.  It’s nonfaction card draw, if you aren’t going to bother to look at the weirdly colored Deluxe version of the card.  After becoming a deck-technomage, I chose not to play Meditation in one deck I can think of – an eventless deck.  Oh, wait, there was likely my all rares/all promos deck.

People would argue against including x3 Meditation in every deck.  They were wrong.  Meditation isn’t always a net gain of one card.  The draw mechanic in B5 was to draw one card per turn in the later phases of the turn, and you could apply three unspent influence to draw an additional card, repeatedly.  So, at the end of a turn, if you had six influence unspent, you drew one card plus could draw two more.  Meditation could throw off your perfect threesie math if you weren’t careful.  Plus, many a folk has had problems grasping the idea that “Draw 2 cards.” only nets one card since you had to play a card for the effect, at least until you point it out.

Other generic cards were of a similar level of ubiqcessity.  Not Meant to Be, Carpe Diem, and some would argue Level the Playing Field as cards you can go look up on b5ccg.mahasamatman.com.

Suppose I was playing Centauri, then I would always play The Eye.  That bothers me.  On the other hand, What Do You Want? in every Shadow deck doesn’t.  See, playing Centauri is not really a choice, it’s a game requirement that someone play a race and that everyone be different races (not being different races, when that mechanic came about, sucked real hard).  Playing a Shadow deck or a Vorlon deck or a Babylon 5 Influence deck were all choices.

Or, maybe it’s better to say that the choices were meaningful enough to lead to deck diversity.

Wheel of Time

Which Rand are you starting with?  That was actually a fascinating question to me at one point in my life because I’m the sort of guy who writes a gaming blog and talks about dead CCGs like the Wheel of Time CCG.

WoT actually has fewer autoincludes.  Certain card drawing engine cards were autoincludes before things got fixed just because you couldn’t compete without ridiculous card drawing.  Thom was deemed by our group the Light’s only hope until the first expansion, but one could argue that you could put a different character in your starting hand and run x3 Thom Merrilin out of the draw deck.  Ha.  Yes, I just gave evidence that the Premier play environment was horribly unbalanced and bad.  Dark Prophecies was some bomby goodness for making the game better.

Lucky Find just shows up every time as there is always at least one bomb advantage to search for (after all, not only was the game all about card drawing in the beginning, search was even better, and the game nerfed card drawing in certain ways to make the game primarily about searching … then Moment of Transition got printed).

When Invasion got printed, OMG.  I’ve mentioned this card before when talking about broken beyond broken.  That brings up a good aside.  I’m not talking about broken cards, though broken cards tend to be autoincludes.  Lucky Find isn’t broken and required knowing what was in your deck and how different cards were important at different times.  But, anyway, if you want an idea of effects that are insane to build cards around, read the text of Invasion.

Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

Whippersnappers just don’t understand how ubiqcessitous Wake With Evening’s Freshness was.  Sure, On the Qui Vive is just better, which is frightening when you think about it, to the point where I often don’t even run a few copies of WWEF.  Meanwhile, Minion Tap didn’t crowd out Blood Doll like Villein crowds out Blood Doll.  Which goes to how crazy Villein is.

Yeah, I’m not giving links as people still play V:TES.

But, what about clan cards?  I’m glad I asked.

Great Symposium hits my bitch and moan threshold.  Sure, there are such things as decks with a splash of Kiasyd.  But, heavy/all Kiasyd will always play this card except for some turbo Kassiym Malikhair deck I’m forgetting about.  Now, you could argue that bloodline decks were not intended to be a defining element to deck creation a la choosing a race in B5 or even choosing a base clan.  Except that thinking was always wrong and led to a lot of bad decisions about how to balance bloodlines.

But, would you ever not run Ecoterrorists in a Gangrel deck?  Unfortunately, I’m not aware of anyone doing the fine work that Jeff Thompson did of categorizing tournament winning decks by clan (hadn’t thought about how this deprives the world of valuable knowledge), so I’m too lazy to go through and validate my contention of autoincludedness.

Does it bother me if Anarch Convert goes in every Anarch deck?  I don’t think so, assuming it was even true that AC goes in every Anarch deck – I can envision a Mesu Bedshet Anarch deck where I wouldn’t bother, for instance.  Does it bother me if The Unmasking goes in every ally deck?  As much as I hate The Unmasking, it doesn’t actually go in every ally deck.  There are Courier flock decks where the metagame is less “throw the Courier in front of the rush” and more “I really don’t want your Shamblers blocking my !Nos”.

Anyway, whether I’ve articulated the point or not, I’ll just assume that I did.

Sesame Street Song

There are those who argue for the value of autoincludes.  The Blood Dolls and WWEFes of the world simplify the card pool environment and provide necessary effects to any and all.  In fact, I would even offer that the more autoincludes you have in a CCG, the easier deck construction becomes to where someone can get going faster and avoid the deckbuilding paralysis issues that can crop up.  In WoT, for instance, once you chose a faction, much of your deck was predetermined.  While that’s the opposite direction of my post’s argument, it’s not like these things are Light and Shadow, there are all sorts of benefits to evil.

But, then there are CCGs like Magic.  Yeah, certain cards in certain colors had so much power that you would expect them in a format for every deck.  Outside of the eternal formats, though, the card pools would change, and the amount of subtlety in deck construction has often been vast enough to make for really interesting decisions.

It’s not that I dislike Blood Doll, it’s that I’d like to see comparable options to where Blood Doll is only one option.  Yes, strictly speaking, Minion Tap was always a substitute.  Except, across a too broad swath of decks, it wasn’t.  WWEF is now just another option where previously it was the king and Forced Awakening was just some seneschal.  That’s good.  I like how the game has gotten to the point where deciding between Eluding the Arms of Morpheus, Forced Awakening, and WWEF occurs after you put in five On the Qui Vive.  Kidding, I know On the Qui Vive doesn’t go in every infernal deck.  Why, I even play decks that don’t play any wakes at all!!  I know, pure insanity.  There can’t be more than a few hundred decks in the TWDA that lack wakes or that play Eyes of Argus.  But, I’m getting sidetracked on examples that aren’t so relevant in modern play.

What an autoinclude is in the abstract isn’t all that clear.  At the same time, I don’t hold the view that what got printed in a game to begin with is somehow sacred and the game must always build around its roots.  Point being that never adding other cards that compete with autoincludes is bothersome in that it just leads to the ubiquity of autoincludes and/or removing autoincludes from a play environment doesn’t strike me as removing the core of a game, necessarily.  If the Centauri can’t drop The Eye to get one influence closer to winning, I’m not going to be crushed.

I even ad nauseam argue for everyone (except winnie decks) having inferior Deflection, which would be awfully stapletastic on the level of an On the Qui Vive.  But, then, my last TWD didn’t have any wakes.  And, Telepathic Misdirection, Deflection, My Enemy’s Enemy, and Redirection would still all see play (the last would see more play if we could just get rid of The Unmasking) because they offer something more.  The game has so been distorted by the access to quality bounce … and that’s enough of this rant for today.  I need to save up the identical rant for many another day until the promised day.

TL:ROO – Designing for CCGs is hard.  It’s easy to be lazy in some areas just to see stuff get made.  One area is creating cards that should go into every competitive deck, whether that’s truly every single deck or just every deck in some broad categorization where choice doesn’t really exist, such as faction.  It is actually possible to design in such a way that certain cards are usually the best but not always.  V:TES is a game, to its credit, that has in more recent years moved away from having the feature of predetermined choices, though I could hunt around for a few more Great Symposium situations.

I didn’t mention Shadowfist.  Well, next time, after I beat this dead horse by doing another post just like it, I’m sure I’ll add in Shadowfist and Ultimate Combat!.


Easy Roads, Paths, Ground

June 21, 2015

I’ve had in mind thoughts about RPGs that don’t seem to coalesce into a single topic.  This topic is about simplifying.

I will read forums and blogs to see what people say about running campaigns.  How much actually penetrates and leads to different behavior is questionable.  The impetus for change is routinely some sort of negative experience rather than a “shoulda done it differently” thought that occurs.

One thing that keeps coming to mind, however, when I think about theoretical campaign experiences is oddly D&D.  Not necessarily what D&D has become or ever was but the stripped down, hack and slash dungeon crawling that I picture when I read play examples in not only D&D and AD&D books but in The Fantasy Trip and whatever (with less of the obsession over distances, light sources, poking refuse piles, whether you look up to see the spiders above you, etc.).  Much more akin to what it’s like to play the HeroQuest boardgame (or Descent for a more modern reference).

I believe this vision of a simple, straightforward, easy to play (and run) game comes up because my experiences seem to make things more difficult than they need to be.  If you have to spend more than 30 minutes getting a character together to play, that’s too much work and too awkward for something you aren’t going to be sure you want to do.  If the players are lost in terms of what they are trying to do, what the world is about, how the system works, or whatever else, that’s … weird.

Why should anything be hard?

Character

It’s not important to have a coherent character.  It’s important to start playing a character that becomes coherent.  The more you understand a system and a world, sure, the more tailoring that can be done up front.  But, most campaigns fail to run very long, so sayeth others and so I observe.  Even campaigns I run that I’m motivated to keep running fall apart in the face of spotty attendance, if not something else.

What interests me in character creation isn’t necessarily what interests someone else.  Some people like shopping for their gear, for instance.  I quite can’t stand it, which is why I have characters running around in game worlds that have no armor when everyone is expected to be outfitted for warfare.

But, even where mechanical details like this are supposed to matter, just … start … playing.  What determines the length of a campaign?  Well, how much you play.  So, play more.

Why is length important?  For some, character advancement is a major or primary appeal.  In my experience, duration of campaign has led to depth.  Where a character starts out as a character sheet, eventually you hit some point in the campaign where you know who the character is.  After that point, then you start playing to who that character actually is rather than who you might have thought it was supposed to be.

15-30 minutes.  Can spend more than that off on your own when you aren’t wasting anyone else’s time, but I find that many a campaign sees people creating characters with everyone else around, and it tends towards being a waste of time to spend more than this when the important thing is playing long enough to have your character become something more than a character sheet.

In The Beginning

I only think of two campaigns I played in as long running.  I don’t include Heroes of Rokugan because of the structured nature of the campaigns and because of the incredible inconsistencies in the schedule of play.  I don’t include the RuneQuest play as the actual number of sessions is nowhere near as high as the span of realworld time used to play.  Plus, my characters keep changing while the situations hardly do – essentially, there’s no story arc.

The Conan d20 campaign started off uncluttered.  We had a reasonably clear need at the beginning, being on the Pictish frontier.  Whether actually doing our jobs or fleeing before an implacable foe, survival was the focus.

In contrast, the Princess Police campaign was much less clear in what we were supposed to be doing and had a very slow start.  It ended up working out because of the commitment level of the players.

I’d encourage the former.  Simple, clear goal(s) with straightforward play to “get into” the campaign.  Not everyone is highly committed to a particular campaign idea to keep going when things aren’t meeting their expectations right away.

I know I can’t escape it, but, for some reason, it’s far harder to articulate and define a campaign vision at the outset than you would think it would be.  Even when you have a campaign mission statement, somehow different players expect different things and GMs expect different things than players.

Deepen

It’s not just characters that add dimensions over time.  I see the play (plots, setting pieces, NPCs) as gaining more dimensions through continued play.  I wouldn’t say this depth necessarily comes with complexity.  I would put it down more to just investment in what happens in the campaign.

This is where I struggle with the idea of a dungeon crawl campaign.  Isn’t it just doing the same thing over and over, with the names changed?  Sure, the Gygaxian model, as far as I can tell, is to dungeon crawl until you get enough resources to establish yourself in the world as a territory manager or whatever.  So, there is a shift from murder hobo to murder lord.  Economics, politics, whatever become relevant at some point, and the 20’x20’x20′ rooms get pushed somewhat to the side.

On the other hand, I’m still trying to wrap myself around how to do more episodic play.  TV shows have done very well with the idea of the same setup every week with only modest evolution in the main character(s) or what they do, i.e. minimizing depth.  There has to be some way to have a satisfying game that is “The Case of the Broken Rubber Band” each week (think Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, etc.).

Maybe others have seen it and I just haven’t, but I’ve yet to see a campaign where there was essentially no concern for change in the PCs mechanically, where a campaign focused on plots, instead.  Come to think of it, I’ve played in adventures at cons that were part of a series where the focus was on the story arc and the characters undergoing changes didn’t really matter.  That doesn’t seem like something with “legs” for a home game.

Even episodic TV shows saw character development.  Magnum P.I. saw a greater focus on his Navy background.  MASH, to my recollection, got more and more into the frustration with the war continuing and, of course, moved into the reality of characters being done with the war.  Not that Jeannie and Tony getting married (or whatever evolution of a show along similar lines) is necessarily much more than a nod toward how things can’t stay exactly the same and be remotely plausible.  My observation, which admittedly does come from most of my TV watching being when I was growing up and relatively little since the ’80s, is that entertainment became more sophisticated over time.  It was fine to have an incredibly repetitive show in the olden days (some weren’t), but the demands for novelty led to more character development.  Unfortunately, at least when I look around, I feel like modern TV has to make every protagonist tortured because simplistic characters don’t satisfy more “sophisticated” audiences.  The idea of simple fun seems to be missed.

What?

I think I got ramblely there.

To restate:  It can’t be that difficult to start a new campaign quickly and with clear goals and expectations that the players buy into to where the campaign has legs.

Characters don’t need to be hyperdetailed – that can arise later.  Motivations don’t need to be complex or convoluted, not even for the villains.  Missions and accomplishments don’t need to be involved – I keep coming back to how one of my failings is that I don’t give clear short term wins and losses to my players; the impact of actions is too enigmatic and subtle.

I may be lost on what HoR3 is supposed to be about, but I do find the format enjoyable.  One benefit of the format, I perceive, is how each module typically has a well-defined mission and how the results of mods are immediate and defined.

I own far, far more modules for D&D/AD&D than the number of modules of a RPG I’ve played in home games.  I would imagine that playing a module based campaign for something other than L5R could work much the same way, but I don’t know.  Maybe the “videogame role-playing” comes through much more with D&Desque adventures in play, as it does when you read them and read over and over again about room descriptions with monster statblocks and what sort of implausible treasure can be had and read not much else (well, there are random encounter tables, too).

As we started up a new campaign that uses Savage Worlds for the system and a pseudohistorical setting, I’ve been looking at my Solomon Kane book recently.  It is an interesting contrast to my ’80s D&D modules, where there’s far less detail and much more focus on a simple, one session adventure with hardly any sort of randomness to the plot.  I certainly grok the SK adventures far more than I can envision how the D&D modules play out.

In my recent experiences, I’ve run across difficult to understand systems, labored character creation, unclear motivations/goals, difficult to resolve scenarios, and maybe a couple of other things.  My intent isn’t to complain.  My intent is to figure out how to easify playing RPGs.  The heights of RPGs are greater than the heights of other games I’ve played (except for the ousting multiple players with Jake Washington experiences).  It shouldn’t be challenging to reach those heights.  I’m not looking to play some dungeoncrawl, hack and slash wargame.  I’m just wondering where the ground is that captures simplicity of action with richness of narrative.


Fisticuffs [20150611]

June 14, 2015

Let’s jump ahead to the important bit.

Turn before mine, Lusignan the Fool riding a Fire Horse jumps in front of a Scrounger in a MegaTank.  After surviving that, Lusignan and vehicle go to the Car Wash to heal up.

My turn comes.  I have three cards in hand.  Due to Lusignan’s Automaton, I have to draw 18 cards (Bull Market/Sucker Rounds deck to my left …).  I have 16 left.  I have six power, a Bloodlust in hand, there are no damaged characters in play.  I play Boundless Heaven Sword on Lusignan the Fool, and he superleaps for the win …  until the Neutron Bomb goes off and I lack one power to play Winter’s Laugh.

Yup, that’s Shadowfist.  Many a CCG has hysterical things happen within context of the game.  Mr. Morden gets Vorlon Rescued, for instance.  This is where much of my enjoyment comes from.  I don’t need a great theme, I don’t know that I’d even say Shadowfist has a great theme any more than Magic has a great theme.  (Of CCGs I’ve played more, I’d tend to go with Babylon 5 and Wheel of time as better themes, though the latter is rather constrained in cardpool and deck construction since, you know, it had only a few expansions.)  But, a game is something more when it’s not just numeric values contending with numeric values.  Unblockable 20 Fighting removed by character control is just not the same thing.

Rewinding, we played three games.  Four player, five player team, four player.

Don (Syndicate) -> Ian (Hand Toughness) -> Joren (??) -> Justin (Hand/7 Masters)

Don won the first game, amassing a mass of power and putting out Mars Executives hordes without anyone else putting out much.

Don (Shaolin Surprise) -> Ian (Only Auramancer Is Broken) -> Joren (Architects) -> Justin (Purists) -> Franco (Vampiric Demons)

Franco joined for the second and third games.  Hadn’t played in a while.  I managed to maintain a reasonably solid position with my Lotus/Auramancer Fractured Soul deck, so that it was relatively easy for Franco to win on his turn with Hungry Ghosts, another 2-Fighting dude, and states after Lotus beef had put him at 4 FSSs.  Joren taking out Don’s Fox Pass relatively early on left Don weak, and Joren never put much into play.  Justin could hang around three FSSs but only had modest impact.

Franco (MegaTank) -> Ian (Netherworld Magic) -> Joren (Bull Market/Sucker Rounds) -> Justin (Dragon Recursion)

I had two early Bloodlusts, with a bunch of losers in play.  I managed to Chain Lightning to get 2+2 power off of them.  In other words, including the ending mentioned above, basically, my deck did everything it was supposed to do – play goofy unaligned uniques, Lightning people, play Boundless Heaven Sword.  I didn’t have five Auramancers in this build, but that just meant I drew more entertaining cards (and a stupid amount of FSSs, maybe too many in the deck).

What’s the takeaway?  I do a lot better when not playing smaller games with tighter decks.  Sure, play skill could be a significant factor, too, but, while I’m willing to concede that people playing in KublaCon’s tournaments are better players than our weekly group, tempo seems to have a lot to do with how the games play out.  Our weekly games are much slower in terms of people building up, in general.  Don’s decks are much faster, usually, but that just means he jumps out ahead and everyone beats him down, as the games are also either four or five players.

My observation is that my faster decks do seem more impactful in tournament play.  Or, put the other way, my slower decks just get run over and I don’t actually play much.

Another topic is how much character kill I should run.  I know, I kind of beat this dead Fire Horse when I pontificate about how I build decks, but I just find the usual suspects to be less enamorful.  Math Bomb – fun.  Actually, I often observe that I’d love to play a Final Brawl in a lot of games.  While I’m not really fascinated by Brawling as a strategy, I am inclined to multifaction some Dragon action to strategically Brawl.  There are just too many annoying dorks that can sit around for too long or that come back, like Black Helicopter Squads.

While I should really work on V:TES decks in the short term, I do need to get around to some trifaction Shadowfist decks or other dual faction.  After all, have to put those Dockyards to work.


China Game Balance

June 6, 2015

Okay, this has nothing to do with balance within games.

Amount of time I spent actually gaming in my recent trip to China == 0.

I did talk about a game store, about the ability to buy Magic cards, about Yu-Gi-Oh!’s (parody) world and the best episodes of them all – the Dungeon Dice Monsters episodes.  I had a conversation that involved bridge and 7 Wonders.  I did give away four decks of cards – just playing cards.

There were ideas – travel always seems to hit my superhero nerve and my Feng Shui nerve, of course the latter is in mind due to 2e, anything Chinese relating to it, etc.

Sure, I failed the “24 hours” test.  Whenever a “real” gamer goes to another country, failing to find a local game within 24 hours is pathetic.

So, that’s kind of where I’m going.  As it’s highly probable I’ll be going to China 1-2 times more this year, what sort of gaming do I want to get in?  Can play cards, probably, without too much difficulty.  Mahjong is an obvious thing to try to generate because it’s always funny to play with people outside the family.  I don’t really care about getting Magic cards in Chinese as I still have half a box of Invasion I haven’t bothered doing anything with, but it would be interesting to hunt up any game stores.  I wonder if that boardgame store I went to still exists.

I can speak virtually no Mandarin and understand that much less, so RPG play is out with the sort of people I’ve gamed with (and I have little interest in repeating my Werewolf (Mafia) experience).  CCG play would be a thing, but I’d probably have to teach Shadowfist or V:TES to people as Magic is kind of unnecessary to do again.  Shadowfist might be easier to sell, though most of the people I already know aren’t the type I can imagine being that interested.

Boardgame play should be relatively easy.  The question is whether it’s funnier to learn a new game or more productive to play something I don’t need to read the instructions for.  Poker was always highly profitable for me, but I think I’ve done that enough.  Chinese chess would be a checklist item to do, but I’ve never enjoyed the game much.

There is, of course, a Meetup group.  That seems like the easy way to go for playing with expats and others.  That’s even something where RPG play could be possible, though being someone who drops in for one session is likely disruptive, anyway, unless it’s just a hack and slash fest.

The question is whether there’s any point to trying to promote games or just to find the local groups and play something to socialize and for the humor value.  The latter means likely just playing Euroboardgames or regular card games.  Where boardgames are considered acceptable, mahjong has some negative connotations and is far too much of a gambling game to want to play with strangers.

I certainly don’t want to carry much.  I suppose a box of CCG decks is feasible.  I doubt there’s any boardgame I care enough about to actually want to put into my luggage.

And, that’s kind of that for what I can think of in terms of trying to get some gaming in 在上海.

As for using Shanghai as inspiration, such as setting a game there, well, that seems like effort.  Maybe if I keep going back enough, I’ll get more motivated.