NY ComicCon

Nicole and I got back from NYC late on Monday night. Although the trip was pretty brutal in terms of busyness and sleep deprivation, it was definitely worth it. I always enjoy getting back to New York, which was my home for many years. The city has changed a lot in the last ten years, not always in good ways, but it still has that certain magic that makes it unlike any other American city.

ComicCon was pretty impressive when you consider that this is only its second year. They are reporting 40,000 unique visitors, which already makes it bigger than GenCon. It’s like the city was just waiting for something like this to come along. I went to two seminars and got to walk the floor on a couple of occasions, but I spent most of my time in the booth. The show hours were 2-3 hours longer than most game cons and there were only three of us attending, so that made for some long days. It also meant that people could find me easily though and that proved handy. I got a chance to catch up with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years, a college friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years, and a punk rock friend I hadn’t seen since I moved out of NYC. The latter isn’t even into comics but her current boyfriend is and he dragged her along to this show. She stumbled upon our booth and we had a happy reunion while her boyfriend spent time in artists’ alley. Saturday night was dinner out with many members of my college game group, all of whom have written for GR at one time or another. It’s always good to see those guys; I just wish it happened more often.

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing I saw there was the “Jedi Stage”. Do you remember the internet video of that kid practicing his light saber moves in his parent’s garage? OK, now imagine dozens of those kids dressed up in Jedi gear having mock fights on a stage while videos of dancing flames and the like show in the background. That was the Jedi Stage. I couldn’t bear to watch it for more than 5 minutes but the room always seemed crowded.

In our free hours Nicole, Steve, and I did what the GR crew usually does when we get together: spend too much money eating out. We hit a nice spread of old favorites like Katz’s Deli and House of Vegetarian and new treats like Artisanal and Ruby Foo’s. I think Artisanal was the meal of the show. Really, I can’t believe that cheese-based restaurants existed in the world and I had never been to one. That was a hell of a meal and has made me want to try to find a “fromagerie” closer to home. Nicole, as always, has documented our culinary adventures in words and photos on her blog. Check out www.nikchick.com for more details.

A Hell of a Town

We’re leaving for NYC tonight for the big ComicCon there. Since GR had the Mutants & Mastermind’s Beginner’s Guide (an intro product) schedule for this month anyway, this seemed like a great place to debut it. Plus, it’s a good excuse for me to visit NYC. I had hoped to have a little more time to spend bumming around the city, but the brutal show hours plus limited vacation days from Flying Lab are making it a lean and mean trip. Still, I will have a chance to see some old friends and hit some good restaurants, so I’m totally looking forward to the trip.

Today at Flying Lab I’m grinding on missions, trying to finish up my most recent block before I head off. These are some of the first mission arcs I’ve gotten to plan out from top to bottom, so that’s satisfying. I got to create all the content, characters, and missions in several towns. That meant researching their history and then riffing off that to create fun storylines. Totally up my alley.

After work it’s home to pack and get ready for the redeye. Wohoo redeye! My internet access will be limited, so I probably won’t have anything to say until next week.

RPGs Then and Now

I frequently see discussions in which people argue about whether MMOs, and specifically World of Warcraft, are causing a decline in the number of roleplayers. This argument, I think, is too narrow in focus. To understand what’s going on now I think it’s necessary to take a step back and review a bit of history.

In the late 70s and early 80s roleplaying games were not only the dominant category in the industry, they were the games of choice of nerds everywhere. If you read fantasy and scifi novels, if you were in the computer club at school, if you were any sort of outcast with a bit of imagination, you probably played D&D; at some point. Roleplaying games overcame wargames to such a degree that many wargame companies tried to do RPGs to make some money off the new hotness.

Since the mid-80s tabletop RPGs have suffered a number of blows from other types of games:
* Computer games got better and better and each generation became more immersive.
* Games Workshop perfected its business model for miniatures and grew explosively.
* Collectible games became the new revenue generator of the game industry, doing to RPGs what they had done to wargames.
* Console and handheld games became more and more sophisticated.
* MMOs took the computer game market by storm.

Now the very sort of people who were most likely to have gotten into roleplaying in the early 80s have much shinier games to choose from. RPGs are getting some new fans but the lion’s share gets sucked into playing console games, computers games, and MMOs and never gives tabletop RPGs a look.

It’s about this point in the argument that people will start yelling about how computer games can never replace the true roleplaying experience. That’s probably true, but here’s the thing: the number of roleplayers who really do something more sophisticated than what you find in WoW or KOTOR is tiny. For all the vaunted imagination of the roleplayer, most of them are conservative in their tastes and really just want to buy the same thing over and over again.

To be clear though I am by no means sounding the death knell of tabletop RPGs. People who think that MMOs and their like are going to outright kill RPGs are deluded. As a hobby roleplaying as we know it is here to stay. The larger questions are how viable will RPGs be as a business in the future and what might be done to capture more of tomorrow’s young gamers?

Too Much Choice

I got a copy of Cold War Commander last week. This is the post-1946 version of Blitzkrieg Commander, a minis game I’ve been enjoying lately. The basic rules are the same, but there’s a lot of new material to cover things like helicopters, ground to air missiles, and the like. Rick and I are talking about giving it a try, which means settling on a conflict and collecting armies. The trouble is there too much to choose from. CWC covers everything after WWII and in fact goes far beyond the end of the Cold War proper. I don’t have much interest in wargaming conflicts later than 1980, as they just feel too recent and it’s hard for me to divorce my politics enough to game them. For many years I shied away from Vietnam War games for the same reason, but now I feel like enough time has passed I could enjoy them. Even limiting ourselves to pre-1980 though that’s still 34 years of history, compared to the 9 covered in Blitzkrieg Commander.

It looks like I’ll end up doing commies of some variety, as Rick is keen on things like Hueys and the Vietnam’s brown water navy. I’ve been investigating what minis are available in the various scales and in this too there is too much to choose from. The game can be played with anything from 2mm to 28mm figures, so it’s a matter of finding what lines cover what periods the best. Our three main options are shaping up to be the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the theoretical clash of NATO and Warsaw Pact ground forces in Europe in the 60s or 70s. Here’s what I’ve looked at so far.

Microarmor: This is 1/285 scale, which is very small indeed. GHQ makes nice tanks and vehicles and they cover all the periods. The downside is that this scale isn’t great for infantry because they are so tiny. It’s hard to tell from three feet away if the figs are supposed to be carrying RPGs, for example.

N Scale: These are 10-12mm figs. On the upside, they are pretty affordable and model railroad scenery is the same scale and thus provides ready terrain for the tabletop. I have not been able to find much in this scale for the Korean War though.

15mm: This is the scale we’ve been playing Blitzkrieg Commander. This can be advantageous if we go with the Korean War, as a lot of the equipment for the two conflicts is the same so we could get some double duty out of the figs. There’s also a new company from New Zealand called Flashpoint doing a nice range of Vietnam War minis if we go that route.

20mm: This is a scale I’ve never collected before but it has one big advantage in that 20mm figs match well with 1/72 scale plastic model kits. That means that hundreds of kits from model companies become useable and it’s likely that just about any vehicle we could want exists in someone’s catalog. I’ve also discovered a nice range of Korean War Chinese from the Platoon20 line.

I will continue to dig and ponder, though realistically this is going to have to wait until March at the earliest anyway. We’re heading off to NY ComicCon this week and many projects are demanding my attention. Perhaps by April or May though hordes of Chinese will be ready to assault the Chosin Reservoir.

Quote of the Day

I was watching an interview with James Cromwell this morning. He’s the great character actor who nailed the Dudley Smith role in LA Confidential. He’s also a fire-breathing lefty of the old school, which I appreciate. Peter Bart of Variety asked him if he read the critics and Cromwell said no. When asked why, he quipped, “Did ever a dog praise its fleas?” I am amused.

Designing New Editions

When you sit down to design any game, one of the first questions you want to answer is, “Who is the target audience?” This is doubly true when you are starting work on a new edition. Most new editions choose one of these two options:

1) The game is for newbies.

2) The game is for the entrenched fanbase.

So basically, are you trying to attract new players or are you trying to please your existing fans? Now obviously you have some room to move here, but this fundamental choice is going to affect everything about the game. When I was designing the second edition of WFRP, making the game attractive and easily accessible to new players was my most important design goal. That’s why I considered it crucial to make character creation fast and simply, keep the entire game less than 300 pages, avoid overly complicated rules, and limit the setting info to the Empire. I’ve been reading Ars Magica, Fifth Edition lately (because Nicole is starting a game) and it takes the opposite approach. The design choices seem to be made for longtime fans first and foremost. This is good in some ways, because you have plenty of choice, but not so good in others, because character creation has so many options that it takes a lot longer than it used to. Generally speaking, many things that used to be simpler now have more comprehensive and thus more complicated systems.

Now I am not saying that if you choose to try to attract new players, you are writing off your existing fanbase. There’s plenty you can and should do to keep the old players as you move into a new edition, but I do think focusing too much on pleasing the hardcore players can be a mistake. When you launch a new edition, it’s an event and a chance to bring in a whole new group of players in on the ground floor. I think you want to show off what’s best about your game and to make it approachable to those who aren’t steeped in its lore. If you can hook people with your new edition, you can always add in the other material in supplements. If the new edition fails to engage them in the first place, your plans for follow-ups are academic.

Thoughts on BattleLore

I’ve played through all the scenarios of the BattleLore game but the last one and I think I’m ready to say a few things about the game. Overall, it is a fun and I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve played. Ultimately though, I think I prefer Memoir 44 (and not just because it’s a World War II game). Although the two games share the same basic system, Richard Borg’s Commands and Colors, BattleLore is quite a bit different due to the addition of the lore rules. These provide a system to handle magic and heroic abilities and they are manipulated by a war council made up of classic fantasy archetypes (wizard, warrior, priest, and rogue). As we got into the war council scenarios, I was reminded of the less stellar eras of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, when wizards and magic dominated the battlefield. When powerful game-changing effects can be played at nearly any moment, it’s hard to develop battle-winning tactics until the very end of the game. What I mean by that is while you can plan a turn or two ahead, you never know when some lore card is going to radically change the tactical situation. For example, in one of our games, I was able to use a lore card to swap two units. I took a heavy cavalry unit from behind my lines and swapped it with a goblin unit of Rick’s. All of a sudden I had a heavy cavalry unit rampaging in his rear while his weak goblin unit was surrounded by my battle line.

One of the things I love about Borg’s basic system is the way the command deck controls the pace of the battle while also representing the difficulties of communication and the fog of war. The more powerful lore cards can really undermine some of the design’s fundamentals though. There’s one card, for example, that lets you not only move every unit you have on the field, but also grants all of them +1D in combat. Now there is some control over the lore deck in that you must spend lore tokens to activate these abilities. I found that in play thought this isn’t much of a restriction once the game heats up. So many dice get rolled that lore tokens are generated at a fast clip. It is true that many of the lore abilities are similar to special cards in other Commands and Colors games, but there is a key difference. In Memoir 44 or Battle Cry, you can only play one card per turn. In BattleLore you can play a command card and a lore card together and then potentially play other lore cards in that same turn. That means a lot more can happen in one turn and consequently the battle can swing from loss to victory (and vice versa) very quickly.

I realize this doesn’t sound too positive, but as I said I do enjoy BattleLore. It has some nice improvements to Commands and Colors system, like the support and strike back rules, and the production values are fantastic. The addition of the lore deck though adds a bit too much swing into the game. I like Memoir 44 better because it rewards strategic play more and it is less susceptible to gimmicky wins. That said I will be curious to see how Days of Wonder supports the game and how expansion material affects the gameplay.

Runnin’ on Go!

Hard to believe it’s Monday already. The weekend flew by, though I did get some fun in. Friday night Nik and I saw Children of Men, which was a really good film in the tradition of the best science fiction. You know, the kind that is about something more than shiny spaceships and special effects. Saturday night we met up with Erik and Danica for dinner at the Ipanema Grill, a Brazilian rodizzio near Pike’s Place Market. If you think an endless line of guys carving off meat onto your plate until you cry uncle sounds like heaven, rodizzio dining is for you.

The rest of the weekend I spent working on GR stuff. It was time to catch up on e-mails, sort out contracts, make a few offers, write text for a catalog, plan out a Freeport adventure, and work with a cartographer on a map. The latter is for the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport and it’s a map of the Continent, revealed and detailed for the first time. I had sketched up the basics, scanned my rough, and sent it to Andy Law, who’s doing the cartography. He shot back a first draft of what is shaping up to be a truly awesome map. He numbered areas he felt could do with names and I spent Sunday morning naming rivers, bays, seas, oceans, hills, forests, straights, mountains, and so on. It was a lot more detail than I had planned to provide, but I think it’s really going to take the map over the top. In fact, the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is shaping up to be a really deluxe book in all respects. This makes me happy.