Getting Crazy with Librarians

Nicole and I are in Anaheim for the American Library Association show, while Steve and Hal are back east handling Origins. The ALA show is in the same convention center that hosted GenCon SoCal, so we at least know our way around. The show is quite large, with many publishers great and small in attendance. We came to promote our upcoming A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying game and the idea of gaming in libraries in general. We had a long chat with famed RPG artist Liz Danforth today, who it turns out is also a librarian working on getting more game programs going. That should be a helpful connection. WotC is here but they are not even displaying D&D; in their booth; it’s all dedicated to their novels.

We’ve seen a lot of interest for Ice and Fire, which is great. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome with the non-gamer librarians is getting them to understand that we do not publish either graphic novels or manuals for computer games. Once we get across the idea that these are games in book form, they quickly understand how RPGs are a pretty natural fit for libraries.

The food situation has been pretty crappy. Since Disney is in Anaheim, it’s stuffed full of chain restaurants and tourist traps. Our hotel is right on the Fullerton line, so we have experimented with places in its “SoCo” area with mixed results. Stan! joined us at Roscoe’s Deli last night and while it was no Katz’s, it was pretty good. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a chance to hang out with Stan!, so it was good catching up with him. Tonight we tried Table Ten, which was hit and miss. I’m tempted to drive to Malibu tomorrow to hit Nobu, but that’d probably take 3 hours in LA traffic.

We did get the good news that our Hobby Games: The 100 Best book won an Origins Award tonight. That was my favorite book we published last year, so I’m glad it got the nod. Big ups to Jim Lowder for putting it together. That’ll give us another selling point on the floor at ALA tomorrow. We have much more craziness with librarians ahead of us.

Nothing But Bruges

I haven’t had much to blog about lately. Or rather, I can’t talk about the things I’d really like to blog about and the other recent developments (like, say, going to the dentist) aren’t worth going into. I suppose I could talk about the GSL but I seem to change my mind every other day. That’s why I’m going to let my thoughts gel before I say anything more.

I did finally see In Bruges and it is a fine movie indeed. Since it tells the story of two buddy hitmen, many reviewers have called it Tarantino-esque. That is lazy criticism in my opinion. Other than some basic elements, In Bruges has little to do with Tarantino’s work and that’s good. It tells its own story and tells it well. Brendan Gleeson is terrific as the older, more world-weary assassin. In Bruges is well worth checking out if you haven’t.

Here’s a Product We Won’t Be Doing

I wrote this up a couple of weeks ago, so it’d be ready to go if the GSL was friendly to the concept. It’s not, so scratch this idea.

Power Cards, Set 1
A 4E Card Accessory
Format: 8-deck display box; 80-100 cards per deck
MSRP: $11.95 (individual deck); $95.60 (8-deck display box)
Product Code: GRR3XXX (display box)
Release Date: October ’08

Your 4th edition D&D; character has a lot of options. Tracking so many powers can be a pain, but all that has come to an end. With Green Ronin’s new Power Cards, choosing powers and using them in play has never been easier. Set 1 has four decks to choose from: cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard. Each deck has cards for all the powers of that class. Simply keep your power cards handy and you’ll always have the right info at your fingertips. Set 2 will follow in November with the remaining four core classes: paladin, ranger, warlock, and warlord. Get ready to power up!

On My Sinister Motive

Several threads about my Friday post about 4E and new gamers erupted on various message boards this week. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had actually written an anti-4E diatribe but hey, that’s the internet for you. Many people wondered why I give a shit if D&D; is new player friendly. Some people posited that I must have an ulterior motive, like trying to sell more M&M; and True20 books or some such. Well, it’s true, I do have a sinister motive and here it is:

I want D&D; to attract a lot of new players so there will be more gamers to sell RPGs to.

D&D; has always been the biggest gateway into roleplaying, so of course I don’t want 4E to fail. I’d rather see my boat lifted by its rising tide. To really take the RPG audience to that next level though, there has to be a lot of new blood. That’s why the 4E acquisition strategy concerns me.

4E and New Players

Note: I want to be clear up front that this is not a review of 4E in general. I am critiquing it as a vehicle for introducing new players into roleplaying. I am not saying it’s a bad game or that you are a bad person if you like it. Nor does this bear upon Green Ronin’s plans to potentially support 4E with product. That’s a whole other discussion (the gist of which is, if it makes sense, we’ll do it).

D&D; occupies a unique place in the RPG ecosystem. It was the first RPG and created the entire category it continues to dominate. It also tends to be the entry point for most people into the hobby. While there have been some alternate avenues, most notably Vampire: The Masquerade, most roleplayers get their start with D&D.; Despite this D&D; has a checkered history in attracting new players since the days of the original Basic Set. TSR and WotC after them have had acquisition strategies that were either confused or ineffective. When I heard that 4E was going to radically rebuild D&D;, my biggest hope was that the new iteration would be good acquisition game. The hobby needs more roleplayers, plain and simple, and I hoped 4E might help deliver them.

My assessment after having the books for a few weeks: it fails.

I say this because ultimately the new Player’s Handbook is not a viable entry point for most new players. Now I know there are some entry products coming down the pipe, but to my mind a new player should be able to read the PHB and learn how to play the game. Entry sets come and go and stores may or may not have them in stock, but the Player’s Handbook will always be there. It is the cornerstone of the line, the book that sells better than all others. It should be approachable and friendly to new players.

The 4E PHB, however, has some issues. Let’s take a look at them in detail.

No Sales Text: I remember when we got in the 3E PHBs at WotC. I immediately flipped mine over to read the back cover text. I was appalled that it made no attempt to sell D&D.; It basically said, “Hey, it’s the new edition of D&D.;” Imagine my surprise to find 4E repeating this same error. Most of the back cover is empty. There are two short paragraphs of text and again they do not even try to sell the game. They don’t explain what a roleplaying game is or why it’s fun. It is apparently assumed that anyone looking at this book already knows that. You can tell someone that the book “provides everything players need to create and run heroic characters through legendary dungeons of dread,” but that means nothing to folks new to roleplaying.

The Great Wall: Chapter 1 does have a reasonable, if short, intro to the game. Then the book gets into character creation. It’s a little hinky that the races chapter has a bunch of powers in it when they haven’t been explained yet, but I can see why they are there. The trouble starts in Chapter 4: Classes. This chapter is a killer. Since each class has 80-90 powers and all of them are nested here, this chapter is enormous and daunting. It is 125 pages, or almost as long as the entire 1st edition PHB. I’ve been gaming since I was 10 years old and my eyes glazed over the first time I tried to make it though Chapter 4. The powers soon started blending together. Also, a huge number of them use the [w] notation and this is explained nowhere in this chapter. You don’t find out what it means until Chapter 7: Equipment, in fact.

No Newb Class: In every previous edition of D&D; there has been at least one easy-to-play class that you could start people off with, fighter being the classic choice. 4E gives an equal number of powers to all classes, which means that playing any of them is like running a spellcaster in previous editions. There are at least some suggested builds for each class, so that’s something but playing a 4E character for the first time still requires a more decision making than I think is advisable for new gamers

Not Enough Examples: Good rulebooks should have a lot of examples. You might think a rule is clear when you write it, but it often isn’t as crystal as you believe. There are very few examples in the PHB until the combat chapter and even that really needs more. There is no character creation example that follows through the entire process and no extended combat example. Showing a new player how it all comes together is key, so leaving these out is a mistake.

Poor Reference Tools: This is a 320 page book and it has a 1 page index. Not helpful. Nor does it have a glossary of terms. Oh, and all those powers in Chapter 4? There’s no alphabetical list of those with page numbers so you can look them up by name. All of this is bad enough for experienced players but it’s deadly for newbies.

Core Experience Is Hardcore: All the preceding could have been mitigated to some degree if the core experience was easy to get into. Unfortunately, 4E is for hardcore gamers, not casual players. It seeks to provide a robust system for tactical combat and in so doing it makes the game fairly unapproachable. Or to put it more simply: the game is too damn complicated. There are powers and feats and class abilities (which can be like feats or like powers!), there are multiple temporary modifiers that need to be remembered and tracked, and there are ultimately too many choices for new players to make. I learned (ironically enough, when I was working at WotC) that limiting options is often better for new players, as offering too much choice can paralyze them.

What is perhaps most perplexing about these choices on WotC’s part is that their new publishing plan involves releasing one big hardback book per month. That being the case, they could have easily pushed the more complicated elements into the supplements and made the core game a whole lot more approachable. That would have given the hardcore gamers what they want, while not pushing away the newbies and the casual gamers.

Now I understand 4E is selling well and this is no surprise. We are talking about a new edition of D&D; here. It’s a brand so powerful that even WotC’s godawful marketing campaign for 4E couldn’t make this a non-event in the world of nerdery. Only a tiny fraction of the people buying the books are new players though. The vast majority of them are current or lapsed gamers. They want to check out the new edition of this classic game and see if it’s for them. The real test will come a year from now, when the newness will have worn off. Then we’ll see if 4E really sticks.

I am sure, however, that WotC will end up with a healthy audience for 4E. Will it succeed in really bringing in new players though? That I am much less certain of. I do not think the PHB is the introduction to D&D; is should have been. Titles like the Basic Set may help somewhat, but it’s likely that true acquisition will continue to come from existing gamers introducing others to the hobby. That’s a shame because I think 4E had a real chance to bring in the new blood the RPG industry desperately needs.

Conquering the Empire at Last

In the early 80s Milton Bradley published what they called the Gamemaster series. The best known of these games are Axis & Allies (which has become an institution) and Shogun (later renamed Samurai Swords after licensing issues), but the others included Conquest of the Empire (set in the ancient Roman world) and Broadsides and Boarding Parties (pirates, natch). When these games were easy to obtain, I never picked them up. I was in my “complexity is good” phase and didn’t consider them to be as cool as hobby games like Squad Leader and Machiavelli. By the time I decided I might want them, Conquest of the Empire and Broadsides and Boarding Parties were long out of print and fetching $150 at the GenCon auction. I kept an eye out for the games in auctions and junk stores, but never had any luck finding them for a reasonable price.

A few years ago Eagle Games got the rights to publish a new version of Conquest of the Empire. They revised the original rules, and provided an entirely new second set that could also be used with the same playing pieces. I kept meaning to pick it up but never did. Then Eagle Games invested a lot of money chasing the poker craze and this was their undoing. They went out of business a couple of years back and their assets have been sold twice now.

Yesterday I traded in a game I had two copies of at a local store and got some credit. As I was looking around, I noticed they had a single copy of the Eagle edition of Conquest of the Empire. I decided I better get it now because who knew when it would come back into print? So 20 some years later I finally have a copy of Conquest of the Empire. On my command, unleash hell!

Now to find Broadsides and Boarding Parties.

After Action Report

I revived my lunchtime game, which had faltered after Jess left Flying Lab a couple of months back, to test 4E D&D.; It was going to be 8 players, then 10, and finally 13. Many folks were interested in trying the new edition. I split them into two groups and ran first sessions yesterday and today. Players had quite a range of age and experience. Results so far:

3 players really like it.
3 players really hate it.
7 players are baffled, indifferent, or slightly positive.

Some interest things emerge when we break this down. Of the three that really like it, one is a rules junky, one is primarily a minis gamer, and one is a MMO player who had roleplayed for the first time with 3.5.

Of the three that hated it, one is a 1E grognard, one is a 3E fan who just doesn’t understand why so much had to change, and one is a hardcore roleplayer (though she does also like to kick some ass; see my previous post).

In the neutral group was one brand new roleplayer and two people who hadn’t played in a decade or more. My GMing experience so far has done nothing to dispel my feeling that these rules are not friendly to casual gamers.

Interesting results. We’ll see how it goes next when I do second sessions for each group.

It’s New, Big Axe Barbie

When gamer dudes talk about gamer women, you hear the usual gender stereotyping. Women aren’t interested in combat. They want storytelling, cooperation, and the dreaded shopping.

Uh huh.

Now maybe it’s just the type of woman who are attracted to roleplaying, but in my experience the above is not at all the case. I have noticed that many roleplaying women LOVE to kick ass. In fact, they are often more bloodthirsty than the guys. They want a big axe and they want action.

Not that there aren’t women who are into character development and storytelling. I just don’t think that’s the whole story.

Launch Day

Today is the launch of the new edition of D&D…so; I’m going to talk about politics. Psych.

On game night yesterday we were talking politics and Ray once again brought up the South Park episode that skewers the American political system. In it the school must vote for a new mascot, either a giant douche or a turd sandwich. It’s pretty funny watching the debate between the two mascots and of course the point is that often the choice between democrats and republicans is no choice at all.

I opined that the analogy wasn’t quite right. For me it was more like a sea urchin roll (the Democrats) vs. a turd sandwich (the Republicans). I can recognize the sea urchin as food, but I’d only choke it down if I had nothing else to eat. The turd sandwich I would not eat under any circumstances.

A Question and a Comment

So hey, board gaming friends, I’ve got a question for you. When you play Descent, does your Overlord act like a GM in a roleplaying game or does he/she really try to beat the players? Last time we played to took a turn in the Overlord chair and I found my natural instinct was to act like a GM. For example, when I realized how tough the opening fight with a giant was going to be, I just used the basic giant stats instead of the buffed up ones the scenario specified. Is that common? When you play, is it more Overlord vs. players? And what do you think the game intends?

My comment is on the Lord of the Rings minis game, which I played again last night. I wish the game did a better job modeling the Riders of Rohan. In the books the Rohirrim are the premier heavy cavalry of Middle Earth. In the minis game they got owned in hand to hand combat by Uruk-hai missile troops. You’d think that when your cavalry breaks through and sets upon the unsupported enemy skirmishers, you’d roll right over them. Not so much. Also, it’s weird that the Rohirrim cannot have lances or thrusting spears, only throwing spears. Gondorian cavalry gets lances but not the Rohirrim. I want more shock in my shock cavalry.