Thursday, June 13, 2013

Character Death and the Repercussions It Brings

I have been mulling over the use of character deaths in a game based on telling a group saga, dealing with the repercussions of a character and player out of the action for a considerable chunk of time. Why do authors kill major characters, and why would a game master kill off a player character? Sure games are about the luck of the dice, but there is something to be said about having characters live through to the final chapter.

Characters that have been around a while have time and energy invested in them, and that time and energy should be rewarded by at least wrapping up the loose ends of their story. This isn't to say a character cannot die in the game, but it should be meaningful and generally after they have dealt with their major character issues. Would Lord of the Rings have had the same impact if right before Samwise and Frodo made it to the mountain they were killed by orcs, and two new characters, whom no one had ever heard of for the last 9 hours or 900 pages, finished the task for them? And just where did these two new characters come from, or even know the importance and location or the event they were just thrust in to by being the next character sheet on the pile?

I do understand that players can, and often do, make some easy mistakes, like counting hit points before deciding to stand in front of a dragon with teeth larger than they are. In situations where the player decides to take the worst possible course of action, gently suggest there might be alternatives, if they don't act in the path of self preservation then just let the dice fall where they may. Indeed the warrior my have a thousand hit points, but to the dragon they are just more nourishing calories. If the player acted smartly, and was the only one felled in the battle, perhaps just making them knocked unconscious  with a bit of healing required as it isn't really a free out, so that the player doesn't miss game time to build a new character because the numbers didn't roll right once or twice.

For TaleMix I am instituting a rule, er guideline really, that unless it is a total party wipe out, the fallen player characters are merely incapacitated. If even one player remains king of the hill in a fight, there is a good chance they can recover their team, there is always the chance of player or character personality that would just as easily loot friend as they would foe, and go about their business. A good way to alienate a table full of friends though.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Using Anthropology With Game Design

This was a paper from Fall 2011 in my Anthropology 2346 course.

How Does This Course Apply To Me

Every semester, in every class, someone has to ask the age old question of how the class applies to them. This student could be an art major in a math class or a business major in an art appreciation course, or it could even be a game designer in an anthropology class. Of course, being of a category three myself, I chose this course because I knew a multitude of ways it would apply to my planned goals in game design. How does an anthropology course help a game designer? The course helps the design of a full and functional world in even a fantastic environment.

As man evolved from a simpler form, so does a game world. A designer has to first decide if he is creating a high or low fantasy setting, a historical world setting, or any number of sci-fi or punk worlds available to the imagination. The basic setting of a game come together like the building block of a hominid, and depending on just how much you build your cultures determines how upright your ape will stand. What this means is that unless you give some realism and culture to the world, it will be a cookie cutter facade.

The world begins as any other, in the beginning of it's existence, and whether or not it was created by a supreme being or a chain of events over billions of years. Most often in a fantasy fiction world, the supreme beings are cast as world creators, and this leads to polytheism in the characters. The gods and goddesses are broken into categories based upon their role in guiding society. There is a deity for just about any role the character chooses, war gods akin to Thor are most common. Only in a few fantasy fiction worlds that I have seen are there major monotheistic religions.

In a fictional world, humans aren't the only people, nor are they the only ones with a semblance of religion or spirituality. Elves are usually brought in, and tend to be caricatures of the more natural side of humans. They tend to veer towards animism in their religion, and live in a romanticized tribal culture, though they are found in some instances building cities and taking a more technology bent than usual. Lineage for elves is matrilineal for wood elves and patrilineal for most others. Their languages are generally based off of the phonemes of finnish or other flowing european languages like gaelic. Their writing morphemes have more curls and loops than straight lines.

Dwarves by contrast generally are polytheistic and follow a set of gods generally like the Aesir and Vanir of the norse. Their lineages are strictly patrilineal and they are introduced with the previous three or five generations of fathers. Their architecture and other parts of their culture show the strictness and rigidity of their lives. Their phonemes in the language they are given are very germanic, and their morphemes are based off the runes of old. Everything they do seems to be centered around war, minerals, or alcohol.

Orcs and goblins are almost universally given a warring primal culture with few taboos. Cannibalism is attributed to them to make it seem as if there is no limit to their brutality. The strong and vicious lead the bands, and the weak are eaten or must have a quick mind to survive. Linguistically they sound like they have taken the dwarves language and twisted it so far there is no word for peace, love, or friendship. Religiously they are akin to the Aztecs in that every god demands almost daily humanoid sacrifice, which leads to raiding and taking slaves and sacrificial candidates.

A lot of other races are given more ethology instead of ethnology, making them almost animal like in comparison to the civilized humans, elves, and dwarves. Gnolls will have a pack mentality and their heirarchy based upon wolves or hyenas. Naga will act as their namesakes and be generally solitary, but come together for orgy-like snake balls. Naga however do vary from the pure animalistic by having a mystical religious and magic structure to their daily lives. These are the two best examples of using wild animal behavior on humanoid hosts.

Interaction among the races is much like the interaction among different cultures in our own world. Dwarves and elves seem to hate each other, but will work together if a more hated enemy comes along, much akin to the English and the French. They war with each other every century or two, but come to each others aid when a bigger threat comes in like the Germans in the two world wars. Humans have bits of just about every culture, but in a fantasy world their mortality of lifespan makes them breed like rabbis, encroaching on the lands of other races like a hoard of cockroaches. They tend to ally with the dwarves and elves because they show less taboos in their visible culture than orcs and goblins.

When designing a game that is all humans with fantasy elements, you can however just do a ton of research and use real cultures on them. The all human games are the ones that tend to have a christianity style religious structure, with a hand full of pagan cultures hanging on to their roots. A good game of this style will have a nice write up on the culture of each, to use the term loosely, racial division. You will have an Arthurian England culture, a rural Spain, psuedo medieval Germany, a Renaissance France and Italy, a split Dutch and Viking scandinavia, and a fierce Tsarist Russia. Using these cultural dividers gives players the chance to play generally any literature archetype, and if done well can teach about the different cultures. Surprisingly tabletop gamers actually get into the stuff so much they have those fancy library cards and read those things called books.

In most fantasy fiction worlds since the races are generally created by gods for specific purposes, their isn't much of an evolutionary chart. One could, however, do a more scientific world and show the point of play as one that has many off shoots of a common ancestor. Each race is another species that has evolved to fit it's environment, and while some are strikingly similar their gene drift has caused them to be completely different and can no longer produce reproduction viable offspring. The time of play centers when most have developed their own cultures and become civilized enough for advanced architecture and metallurgy.

Using just this class as a guideline, one can make a decent attempt at a more fleshed out world than just knowing they want pirates and ninjas to exist among musketeers and cavemen. Knowing that lineage, linguistics, culture, and religion are all important factors in the daily lives of characters is a major boon to the world created. A barbarian cannot be a barbarian unless there are metropolises of people who consider themselves civil and cultured, and nor can their be the notion of civility without barbarous acts. Norms and taboos keep these ideals in check even in worlds of pure imagination. While someone could do most of this stuff without the course in mind, knowing the ideas of anthropology will make them easier to do because you know you are doing it, and know what you are doing when you give it a chance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Using Games To Enhance Education

I saw this interview with Malcolm Harris located HERE and I got to thinking about how games could be used as motivation or inspiration to enhance education.

Because a lot of us game designers like to use odd and archaic terms, partly to show how smart we are HAR HAR, there is the distinct possibility that during the reading of a game manual a dictionary or its online counterpart may be pulled out from time to time. A lot of these words are frustrating when reusing them in a document, invariably getting the red squiggle line that tells me whoever made WORD, didn't have a dictionary. And unfortunately not all of those fun words will be covered in the glossary. Asking questions dealing with the text during play will make young people learn to use the table of contents and the index to find things in the text faster, and use this in reading other books.

Using the 3 main reference points of a book is a skill that is taught in school, to some sense of success, but making use of it with an interest of the child or teen cements it in the mind. Psychologically concepts adhere to the mind better when using a point of interest rather than when just being instructed. The reason you know all the words to the song you love to sing on the way to work is the same principle, you are really into it and willing to repeat it over and over. Using the ToC, Glossary, and Index repeatedly in a fun game will take away the instructional feel of doing it with a droll school textbook.

Most games have a relatively simple character sheet with only the very basics of character descriptors available. As a parent or educator, this would be a good place to pull out writing material, or in the case of a lot of kids and teens, a laptop and have them write about their character. Throughout school there will be more than one major grade attached to a descriptive essay about a character or an image, practicing in a fun environment will potentially make it that much easier when those situations arise.

Another often assigned school writing is the persuasive argument. This could be a tool used to go along with role play to convince a npc that an action is good or bad to bring forth a wanted outcome. Creating a campaign of political intrigue and upheaval, these small assignments could be seen as the distance correspondences of nobles and officials before the advent of the telephone or even the telegraph.

There is also the good old How To essay, for gaming it could be as simple as "In your own words how does initiative work". If the book isn't handy and there is someone who wants to play, have them write out how the game is played. If it is a boss fight you can say that the combat can be avoided or cut short if a how to is written of a creative way to stop the threat. Sometimes neutralizing the threat without violence makes a creative writing assignment in itself of how to achieve the goal.

Other things that could be written for compositional assistance based on gaming.
-Short Story

This one is simple and straight forward. You have numbers, apply dice, add them up. You have health and get hit, subtract them down. Take a sword and cut the enemy in 2, division. Mage uses mirror image, multiply.

Now that the silly section of math is complete, how can gaming improve math skills in more serious ways? Addition skills can be improved by shortening the time to count the dice rolled and add the numbers to it. Using dice, like the ones sold at Roll2Play, with pips instead of carved numbers is great for this, and they will also learn to quickly recognize the patterns involved in pip placement. Finding dice outside of the six sided range without numbers is more difficult. Start out with a few egg timers, 1 minute timers and 30 second timers, SOLD HERE, may sound like plenty of time for someone, for a younger gamer they may be a struggle. With standardized testing running rampant in schools, some of them timed, learning to do even simple math quickly can help a school age player.

As mentioned in the How To section, gaming is a lot about problem solving. How do you stop the dragon from eating the sheep? How can you get across a pit without falling? Stuff like that. Have the players plan out how they will solve a problem and give them limitations to do it with. Remove combat as a resolution, give them a time frame, limit materials, and so on and so forth. Making them have to think to solve a problem that would just be compounded by using muscle.

By giving them interesting things to do outside of combat, it could make for a more interesting game. Games where the XP is not tied to combat are the best for this as there is no reward for one more dead orc on the field of battle. Rewarding the best ideas in the group with bonus XP will give the ones that did not get it that session a reason to think more creatively next time, also good to avoid giving it to the same player each week to not make the ones who are actually trying to come up with options disheartened with the hobby. You also do not want to avoid rewarding someone who came up with a brilliant solution just because they "won" last week.

Some people just don't know how to interact in a group setting, and gaming can help overcome this. By playing quick play games you can change who is the leader each session to give everyone a chance to give the narrative, and to follow it. Putting someone in the hot seat in a fun environment, makes it easier to do the same in a more serious or academic setting. From a personal standpoint I can see how well it has worked for me. Back when I was in school I would sit in the back and try not to get noticed, I hated talking in class and just wanted to draw and do my work in peace. Then I spent a few years gaming and am back in school, I find myself having to hold back to give other people the chance to speak during discussions in class, sure it is community college and most of the people there just want to go to class and go home, but I am having FUN in school.

Drama: Taking on the roles of the characters can be great practice for a budding thespian.

Debate: I guess when it comes down to it games are just playing pretend with rules. The great debate is always going to be "I shot you" "Uh Uh" "Yes Huh" "Prove It". Much like the persuasive writing idea, gaming helps with debate because you have to convince other players and the game master that doing a certain action is the best course to follow.

When looked at closely, tabletop games are great tools to boost education, not supplant it, just enhance.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Populating A Fantasy World

It is very easy to see how a fantasy world could become overcrowded, especially with so many types of sentient beings running around. How as a game designer or story writer does one keep from having a person on every inch of the globe? It isn't always easy or overt to do so, at least not in my opinion. I can also only go by my own design ideas for how I would do it.

How do the near immortal elves not overpopulate the earth? Wouldn't they have massive families and just run rough shot over everyone? The elves for my fantasy setting may be practically immortal, but there are natural mechanisms to keep their population mostly in check. Even though they stop aging at about 25-30 physical appearance, for a while but that's later, they do continue to have a long cycle of physiology. An elven month lasts as long as a human year, so the females only cycle 1 time in a human year. Their nature of how they view time is also skewed towards disinterest and lack of focus, so they generally don't focus on procreation out of boredom like lesser lifespan beings. With the longer cycle as well it takes almost a decade for an elven female to have their child, 9 months becoming 9 years, and being pregnant for a decade isn't a fun idea for mother and father.

What keeps the peoples who breed like rabbits or roaches in check? War, plain and simple. The people with shorter mortality rates and higher birth rates go to war like rappers. If one king or chieftain looks at another the wrong way or says the wrong thing, they send 10, 20, 30, 50, or so thousand people off to die a bloody painful death for it. A high death rate goes hand in hand with a high birth rate.

Dragons, wouldn't they have eaten everyone by now? This is an odd thought, how often does a dinosaur with wings need to feed? I like to look at Anacondas and Crocodiles for this answer, and that is because they don't exactly do a major kill every day to survive. In a setting that has megafauna from multiple periods of earth's history, eating people for major consumption isn't a dragon's first option. Like the snakes and crocodiles, a dragon may only eat a major kill every few weeks. If the prey is large enough, say an elephant or a sauropod, it could be months between hunts.

What about the truly large and truly monstrous races like giants and trolls? Because I mix some science with my mythology, I believe that the faster breeding, shorter lived, races would have fought or outright killed the greater threats to near extinction, making finding of mates even harder. For a species like the troll that can only venture out at night to find food and mates, this makes distance travel to find a mate difficult at the easiest of times. Clans of these beings form but maintain their numbers at a low level to avoid being on the radar for violence, or because they understand the rarity of resources and know how to self regulate. The groups based on supposed diseases like Vampires and Lycanthropes keep their turning or breeding down to do the same thing.

In a medieval setting, a city with a million people is very rare, and likely reserved for imperial capitals where multiple kingdoms send ambassadors and so forth. Ideas like magical contraceptives and other things can also keep populations low. City families will have less members than rural households because of the need for labor in numbers on a farm or ranch. Resource management regulates wealth and family structure. All together there are many reasons a fantasy population can explode or contract.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


This is an article I wrote for Examiner, but it is the Talemix version of the creature so here it is.

The image can be found here on my Deviantart

Tabletop RPG's have been around for several decades, and each new one seems a close cousin of the last. Sometimes the rules are identical, especially with the open gaming licenses of the last few years, but what makes them different? The setting and flavor text of a game and it's inhabitants can make a big difference to some people. For this article we are going to take a classic monster and see what twists can be made.

The Basilisk has been around since the first century AD, and has gone by several names or been indistinguishable from other monsters. It has been called or connected to the catoblepas (a cow like monster with a death stare) and the cockatrice (same descriptors as the basilisk in reverse). The main constant, and it's main gameplay mechanic is the look of death. One describer in the renaissance gave it's gaze the ability to turn silver into gold.

First way to alter it is simply to change it's appearance, in fact sometimes an art style can drive the way players percieve the game world they are playing in. For this creature we went with a lizard body instead of the normal snake. Chameleons have some cool features for a sight predator, stereoscopic and independant vision, color changing skin, and fused digits for climbing. For extra creepyness and to take out a party of six, we gave him six chameleon eyes that can look at six people in different directions. A dimetrodon or spinosaur type sail with an eye pattern and bright colors for a visual hook. We top it off visually with a rattle tail.

Going with the visual provided, it is easier to come up with ways to vary this creature mechanically from predecessors. What if mechanically the eyes were not it's deadly weapon? What if it had a paralytic saliva on it's tongue, and how would it hit the attack? Distraction is built into this creature all over, from it's dancing eyes to it's noisy tail, he has ways of ambushing a character from plain sight. The color change or the skin can also make it nearly invisible in almost any setting, and the climbing feet can make it deadly at any altitude.

So if the tongue is the weapon and the visuals are so different, how is it still a basilisk? Setting lore and flavor text. When a creature is designed for the setting, the canon characters and histories can be written to fit anything. With the basilisk we have here, his legend was probably spread by a survivor who was missed but only noticed the eyes, leading to the look of death that is prevalent in all basilisk lore. With all of it's pretty little distractions, one would think if it looked you in the eye then you were toast.

So to create an age old creature with a twist is the way to stand out from the crowd just a bit. Using the visuals, mechanics, and flavor you can cook up your own alteration on an old idea. Game on, roll high (or low depending on system), and have fun.