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Last week I posted about running a grown-up RPG session that included some kids, and the insights I gained from that experience (insights that didn’t always mesh with the conventional wisdom about kids’ games). In the three days between that game session and writing the post, I had a second interesting kids-and-RPGs experience: I played in a session of Numenera run by my 11-year-old daughter.

GM-Liv

Liv played her first tabletop RPG at the age of seven. (We have a photo of her rolling a die in a Cthulhu game when she wasn’t more than five months old, but I don’t think that really counts.) She’s familiar with the structure of the activity and has observed plenty of GMing action, so she was not a neophyte to the whole thing. She didn’t do the most awesome job in the world, frankly: She wasn’t great with the pacing, she didn’t circulate the spotlight particularly well, and she didn’t have a good sense for setting task difficulties. She brought the adventure to a conclusion in a way that wasn’t super satisfying, but I think that was in response to the players going off the rails a bit. (Which in turn was probably due to her inexperience at keeping us on the rails, which in turn was probably related to preparation, which I’ll get to in a sec.) In short, it wasn’t the greatest RPG experience I’d ever had.

But: Her errors weren’t out of line with what I’d expect from any first-time GM–the result of inexperience, rather than any inability to handle the fundamentals of GMing. Here are some of the things she got right:

  • She pictured the encounters in her head and then communicated them consistently and well to the players.
  • She gave her NPCs motivations and used them to derive reasonable and consistent actions.
  • She used the rules appropriately.
  • But she also relied on her own judgement when that was a more appropriate course of action. (In particular, there was one item in the text that was very ambiguous; she made a wise decision to simply pick a course of action and run with it rather than let it bog the game down at a key point.)
  • She remained in control of the session–she did a good job staying in charge.

If I had to single out one place where she really fell short (sorta), it was preparation. I don’t think Liv really “got” the idea that RPGs require a fair bit of prep. In the leadup to this, she expressed the desire to GM several times, and each time I outlined what she needed to do to make it happen. And each time she simply didn’t do it. We solved this problem by using an adventure out of the forthcoming Weird Discoveries–a book of adventures specifically designed to require virtually no prep. Even then, although she read the material in advance, I’m not sure she fully parsed how the whole thing was likely to play out. And that accounts, I think, for the less-than-completely-awesome adventure conclusion.

Following my experience running a game for kids I was really paying attention not just to the game itself, but to the experience of playing with a child GM. What did I learn? Surprisingly, not a whole lot. It frankly wasn’t a radically different an experience from playing with an adult newbie GM. I guess that’s something, so I’ll lead off my bullet points by saying that again.

  • It frankly wasn’t a radically different an experience from playing with an adult newbie GM. The same pitfalls apply.
  • While Liv was great at taking the reins in hand with a group that included her parents (a force that moderated the children in the group, while not challenging her GM’s role), I wonder what it would be like in a group of kids her age. How does an 11-year-old respond to the inevitable challenges to her authority that will come from other kids?
  • And then there’s the prep issue. How well can kids adapt to the need to come to the table ready to provide three or four hours worth of content? That takes a lot of dedication.

I suspect she’s taken the prep lesson to heart–it will be interesting to see what her second GMing experience is like. And I think that if she were to sit down with a group of kids, I might recruit a ringer–perhaps take her brother aside and quietly give him the job of moderating any uprisings from the other players.

The bottom line is this: We’ll definitely do it again! It’ll be interesting to see how her GMing style evolves as one of her players. And I know she has some friends her age who would be interested in playing, so I’ll encourage her to try an all-kids game. We’ll see how it goes!

I had an interesting gaming experience over the weekend: I ran The Strange for a group that included several children.

This isn’t really anything new: I’ve run games for my kids several times over the past three or four years. But those were always adventures I prepped and ran specifically as family or kids’ games. Slightly watered down versions of pretty middle-of-the-road fantasy tropes, along with fairly relaxed use of the rules, significant hand-holding, and no expectation of bringing a story through from start to finish.

This weekend’s game was for a mixed group of adults and children, and although I kept it PG (well, maybe PG-13), it was otherwise prepped and run like a real, grownup game. I’ve had some experience with kids learning RPGs in the past (focus grouping the D&D Black Dragon Basic Game, for example), so I was really curious about how the session would turn out. It turned out well–but I learned a few things I’ll keep in mind for future games of this sort!

First, here’s who we had:

  • Ryan adults: Experienced with RPGs and The Strange. I was the GM.
  • Olivia (aged 11): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but mostly in sessions that were run specifically for kids. Played a guest session in my grownup The Strange campaign a few weeks back, though.
  • Rowan (9): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but this was the most grownup session he’d played.
  • Adult friends: Not gamers, but familiar with the tropes. Both had read a bit of The Strange corebook.
  • Adult friends’ son H____ (9): Never played an RPG, but had previously rolled up a character under our supervision. A bit of a prodigy (OK, a serious prodigy); he’d read the corebook cover to cover probably multiple times. He knew the game rules and terminology better than anyone else in the room.

These children were all either a little experienced or extremely precocious—they definitely aren’t typical kids playing a game right out of the box, so while it was interesting to observe their reactions I don’t think they stand in for kids everywhere. It’s also worth noting that there was a 7-year-old present who simply couldn’t parse what was going on, so he didn’t participate.

But for the rest of them, the basic concepts of roleplaying, the rules, and the setting were never an issue. (There was sometimes a bit of confusion over these things, but not out of line with what you’d see in a newbie adult player.) And kids lack the level of life experience adults have, so they sometimes needed to have setting or NPC details spelled out a bit more.

A lot of games with a kids’ focus tend to go with oversized components or text, and that’s not a bad thing—but it wasn’t super necessary in our case. There weren’t any problems with reading dice or character sheets/books/cypher cards/etc. These kids were perfectly fine with adult-scaled text and components. (Heck, we were mostly using the Q-Workshop Strange dice, and while I love them they’re not the easiest dice to read!)

Time also wasn’t an issue. People think kids have short attention spans, and kids games are often designed to run short. We played through my entire adventure–a solid six hours, with an hour dinner break in the middle. The kids were engaged throughout (for the most part); the only issue we had was Rowan’s extreme distress that the adventure came to and end!

So if the kids grokked rules and setting and components as well as adults (more or less), where were the lessons? Definitely in the realm of game etiquette. Issues included:

  • Not understanding when to take the spotlight and when to give it up.
  • A frequent compulsion to over-describe trivial character appearance and actions. When a kid gets an exciting idea in his head (like, the pose he strikes before busting through the door guns blazing), he MUST MUST MUST tell everyone. In detail. Excitedly. Possibly several times.
  • Inability to sit in one spot; a tendency to drift along the sofa in front of other players.
  • Some (but not too much) bad behavior during a “boring” part (read: the spotlight is on other players).
  • No understanding of pacing—specifically, when something has been talked to death and it’s time to keep moving. Not just description, but also interpretation of clues, planning the next step, etc.
  • Not always paying attention to the order of events, even when fully engaged. Not reliable about managing who goes when in combat, for example.
  • One of the kids, although he reads like an adult, doesn’t write well and resists doing it. He almost always had to be reminded to mark points from his pool when applying Effort, for example. Not because he forgot or was cheating, but because he simply doesn’t like to write.

So what did I learn? What makes GMing for kids different than for adults? There are minor issues of having to present and explain things a bit differently, but mostly it comes down to the fact that RPGs fill their players’ heads with exciting flights of the imagination–and when a kid has an exciting thought, the compulsion to share it is overwhelming. So a good GM needs to:

  • Control the pace of the game.
  • Control the spotlight.
  • Control the blathering.
  • In fact, just control. Being the GM doesn’t change the fact that you’re still the parent (or at least the authority figure). Sometimes you have to be a bit more forceful about telling a player to sit down or stop talking.
  • And then look out for any needs particular to your child players–whether that’s imagining what a typical city block looks like if they’ve mostly lived in the suburb or reminding them to write down their pool expenditures.

I’ll definitely do this again. (Spoiler alert: I actually already have, sort of. But that’s a topic for another post.) In the mean time, if you have a few spare kids sitting around, maybe it’s time to start them with RPGs! And if you’ve already done so, what have your experiences been?

Casualty of War

HE was a hacker with the Syrian Electronic Army. SHE was a pro-Russian radical from Donetsk. Together, they were going to teach America a lesson—by taking out the FedEx-Kinkos at 135th and Metcalf in Overland Park, Kansas.

Their target had been skillfully selected to throw intelligence services off the trail. They plotted carefully for entire minutes on their scheme to obtain automatic weapons by attending the gun show at the Overland Park trade center (where, for two days a month, your second amendment rights are unencumbered by background checks or common sense). Their timing was painstakingly planned, after studiously poring through Travelocity for the best airfare from Kiev to Kansas City. The plan was foolproof.

But they hadn’t counted on me. I was at the Overland Park FedEx-Kinkos, checking out paper stocks for a print job related to The Strange Fan Kit. My light infantry instincts, coiled like a spring that had been unused for almost 20 years—because they had been unused for almost 20 years—struck like a 20-year-old viper. The Syrian caught a ream of 32-pound laser paper in the face. He went down, clutching his nose as he squeezed off a random volley of 7.62 (R) rounds.

The Russian shouted something about oligarchs (my Russian is, frankly, a bit rusty) and vaulted the self-serve copier brandishing an AKM that looked suspiciously like it had been recently supplied by the Russian army (despite the fact that it had been purchased at the Overland Park Gun Show Trader event). I ducked behind the Supply Center™, whipping a barrage of unfolded flat-rate boxes, in a variety of convenient sizes, boomerang-like toward my assailant. The paper cuts were too much for her, and down she went.

I got to my feet, ready to inform the FBI and Kinko’s management. But I had underestimated the Syrian’s commitment to the cause of sectarian totalitarianism—and I paid for my hubris with a bullet to first molar (upper right side).

You’ve seen the rest on cable TV, of course, assuming you’re one of the 36% of Americans who actually follow the news. The plot was foiled, America learned no lessons, and the only casualty was my tooth.

At least, that’s what I told Monte when I took time off from work to get a crown put on a broken tooth. I hope he’s not one of the 36%.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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If you follow gaming news, you probably saw the Origins Awards nominations late last week. I’m very pleased that Monte Cook Games’s own Numenera is in the running for Best RPG. (And let me be clear: Credit for this lies in no way with me. The game was almost completely finished before I joined the company.) Congratulations to Monte, Shanna, and Kieran for the recognition of their incredible work.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it. Back in the day.

(Also, congrats to the awesome Jeff Tidball, who’s Eternal Lies, which he ran for us as a campaign lasting more than a year (and about which I wrote in my last post), was also nominated.)

I ran the Origins Awards for five years. (I was the Chairman of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design from 1995-2000.) The process is somewhat different than it was when I was at the helm, but here’s something I often said then and which holds true today: It really is an honor just to be nominated.

In fact, it’s really a bigger honor, and here’s why: The nomination process culls roughly five titles from each category from among the dozens or hundreds of potential candidates. Although not always perfect, this process usually does a pretty good job of identifying the best releases of the category. And these titles are usually the standouts in the field–the games and products that really do stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Beyond that, though, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Among those five releases, there’s rarely a single title that blows the others out of the water. The decision of which is “best” becomes pretty subjective, and easily affected by which has the largest or most vocal following, has better distribution and visibility, or gets an uplift from association with a popular brand. This is not to say these factors overwhelm the issue of quality–just that, when the qualitative differences are slim, other factors become more influential.

And that’s the key: The qualitative differences between the nominees are usually pretty slim, whereas all of the nominees usually stand out in comparison with the rest of the field. Nomination is what really marks a product as superlative. It really is an honor to be nominated.

So congrats to the folk behind Numenera, and Eternal Lies, and 13th Age and Love Letter and FATE and all of the other nominees. It’s an honor to be counted among you!

Over the weekend we brought our long-running Trail of Cthulhu campaign to an end after a year or so of play. (It was the excellent Eternal Lies, in case you’d like to check it out—which I can highly recommend.)

Trail cover

In a Cthulhu game (of any system), there’s a temptation to tally the score and measure its success according to the number of player characters killed or driven irrevocably insane. By that count, the game was an abysmal failure: Through a year of play, only one death (voluntary, in a world-saving moment), one insanity, and a couple of significant maimings. Despite that, though, this wasn’t just one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve played through—it was, perhaps, the campaign most true to the mindbending horrors of the Cthulhu mythos that I’ve ever experienced.

How can that be? Particularly when you consider that the GM, it turns out, had made a conscious decision not to kill characters? Isn’t it a widely-held maxim of tabletop gaming that without the real fear of character death, players don’t have enough incentive to care—to worry about the consequences of their actions—to fear? And, heck, the mythos all about fear.

I’ve never believed that the fear of death is critical to the RPG experience. When we watch a movie or read a novel, the main character’s survival is rarely in question. What creates tension is the question of how the character will survive a given life-or-death struggle. Of what the consequences will be. And whether the character will overcome whatever grand conflict the plot has put before her.

It’s no different at the gaming table. Our characters might have died—even though the GM wasn’t gunning for us, the possibility certainly existed, and we dodged a couple of serious bullets along the way. But the truth is we were not motivated primarily by keeping our characters alive, particularly once we were out of the first act. We were motivated by a dire, existential threat to humanity, and the knowledge that we were pretty much the only ones who could defeat it. We were motivated by the need to succeed. And that was always in question.

(The fact that the one casualty gave her life, voluntarily, to assure the success of the mission further proves my point.)

So only one death. But along the way three characters lost limbs. One of those ultimately went insane, but not until after the close of the campaign’s events. A couple of us fell into the grip of addiction and alcoholism.  This was a party that survived, but as seriously damaged goods. And that felt more true to the Cthulhu mythos than a dozen deaths.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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It’s 1938, and you find yourself employed alongside this person:

  • PJ is short but athletic, with dark hair cut into a bob. She almost always wears trousers rather than a dress.
  • Her accent gives her away as English–as does her fascination with the details of American culture.
  • She doesn’t take shit from anyone–especially anyone who says or suggests that a woman shouldn’t fly planes.
  • She doesn’t have any visible means of support, but never seems to be short of cash.
  • She frequently mentions a sister whom she adores, but who seems regrettably trapped in the bonds of high society.

Now, that isn’t high literature, but I bet you’ve put together a pretty decent mental picture of this character.

I’ve written before about using “five things everyone knows” to quickly implant an understanding of campaign details in your players’ imaginations. And about using bullet points to give life to your descriptive text. And I’ve talked about the First Session rule for letting players adjust their characters after their “pilot” episode. This time I’m bringing it all together for some advice on introducing player characters–to your game, and to each other.

If you’ve read those other posts, there’s really nothing new here. Basically, it amounts to this:

  • Instead of writing up lengthy, detailed read-aloud prose that will glaze your players’ eyes over, compose your descriptive text as a series of bullet points. Then instead of reading your text at them, you’ll engagingly describe your content to them.
  • Rather than composing lengthy prose treatises on campaign topics, distill them into sets of “five things everyone knows” (in bullet points) that are easily communicated and digested.
  • Treat your first session (or even the first full adventure) of your new campaign like a TV pilot. Let your players make changes to their characters without consequence, and just ignore any continuity issues that arise.

Putting that all together gets you to a technique I use whenever I launch a new campaign: “Five things everyone knows about my character.” This is what I tell my players:

  • List five things everyone who has hung around with your character a bit would know. If you spent a few evenings around a campfire with this person, or a few lunchtimes in the break room, these are the sorts of things you’d come away with.
  • Some of these things should be physical (hair color, general build, etc.).
  • Some should speak to the character’s interests and attitudes.
  • And some should touch on his or her background.

I ask the players to come up with this info during character generation, and I find it’s a low-pressure technique for building well-rounded characters.

But maybe I should have said “ten things,” because I actually make them do this twice. The first time is, as I said, during character generation. At that point, I let the players keep the info to themselves if they want to (or to share as much or as little as they like).

Then, a few sessions into the campaign–usually a couple of sessions after I’ve implemented the First Session rule, I ask the players to do it again. At this point, they might have made tangible changes to their character. And their internal conceptions of their characters might have evolved. Or both, or neither–so it’s OK if the second five things is identical to the first, or completely different. But this second set they share with the group.

This is a great way to convey the basics: “Short but athletic, with dark hair cut in a bob” does a much better job of communicating appearance than the “Height: 5′ 3″–Weight: 125lb–Hair: Brown” that’s typically at the top of the character sheet. And it gives the players a way to express a bit about their characters’ inner workings that might not become obvious in play until the other players have already formulated (possibly very different) impressions of the character.

Even better, it helps the players to, well, not so much flesh out their character concepts as articulate them. Give them a bit of focus. Which makes those characters a bit more fun and a bit easier to play.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
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Game mechanics are the operating system of your campaign. And like computer operating systems, they are built from thousands of lines of code that interact with one another in complex ways. Kit-bashing your system can be a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. And it can lead to unpredictable results or the need to improvise rules issues on the fly.

But not all rules are as closely tied to the overall system as others. In fact, sometimes even a signature rule or subsystem isn’t really wired tightly to the core mechanics at all. Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system can pretty much be lifted, lock, stock, and barrel, and used in just about any other game. Pathfinder with sanity? D&D? Hero system? Just plug it in. You don’t really need to bring anything else over from CoC, and you don’t need to add anything new to the core of the recipient’s rules.

I’m a big fan of taking great ideas from any source I can get them to improve my campaigns and GMing technique. So here are three rules sets that can make your game better today, with little or no kitbashing required.

GUMSHOE’s clue system: I’m playing a Trail of Cthulhu campaign now, and it’s pretty damn cool. One of the signature innovations of GUMSHOE, the game system under Trail of Cthulhu, is the idea that in an investigative campaign, finding clues should never be in question–it’s what you do with them that matters. If you go to a scene, and someone is so much as slightly trained in the relevant skill, and you look for the clue, then you get it.

This isn’t even a mechanic, per se. It’s really more of a philosophy, a GMing style, which makes it particularly easy to steal for your own campaign. That said, in GUMSHOE there are mechanics for finding extra, or more detailed, clues. So to make the most of this you’ll want to think about how you implement clues in your game.

If a Gather Information check at the seedy bar would have been the means for finding the pirates’ secret lair, that info is now “free” to the characters if they go into the bar looking for it. The successful Gather Information check (perhaps with a more challenging DC) also tells the heroes how many pirates to expect there, or their next target, or the secret entrance to the lair, or whatever. You’ll want to rethink your adventure design, so that the key clues necessary for moving the story forward are always destined to be found–but the information that makes things easier, or more interesting, or that unlocks cool subplots, still lurks behind the game’s mechanics and the players’ use of them.

D&D 4th Edition’s bloodied status: I was first introduced to the idea of a “bloodied” creature two years before the launch of 4th edition, when Rob Heinsoo and James Wyatt pitched the first concept draft of 4th’s (then code-named “Orcus”) core mechanics to the rest of R&D and the Brand team. I’ve used it in every game I’ve run since.

At its core, “bloodied” just means “has lost half its hit points” (or whatever measure of vitality your game uses). As such, if nothing else it makes a nice shorthand for that “it looks like it’s starting to get pretty badly hurt” line that every GM says on occasion. Adopting the concept will improve your game just with that use.

But you can also easily hang specific effects off the “bloodied” descriptor. Cowardly creatures (perhaps the word “sensible” is more realistic) might flee when bloodied. Ferocious ones might gain a +1 bonus on attacks. Bloodthirsty ones might focus all their attacks on bloodied characters. Creatures with limited-use resources (a drama point, or a single-use weapon) might be most likely to use them when they become bloodied. Groups might change tactics when their leader becomes bloodied. Et cetera.

And if you feel like kit-bashing, the “bloodied” state is a great trigger for specific bonuses, penalties, or powers. It’s pretty easy to implement without getting too tangled up in your game’s existing mechanics. Give that creature some unexpected ability–or weakness–that only shows up when bloodied.

Numenera’s XP: In Numenera, you gain an XP point if you make an interesting discovery, meet a goal of the adventure, or accept a GM intrusion (an unexpected complicating factor the GM tosses in to throw you off balance). You can spend these points to improve rolls or advance your character. The GM intrusion concept is a pretty cool twist, but the rest of it isn’t new–the Deadlands experience system worked almost identically 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure its ideas spun out of TORG and a couple of other games around at that time.

There are two components to this one: A system for advancing characters, and a system for granting bennies for clever or challenging play. The first is a bit tricky–you need an algorithm for advancing characters with XP points instead of your game’s native system. But you can skip that if you like.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of just rewarding your players for accepting your plot twists, coming up with exceptional ideas, or even (as we often did back in my Deadlands days) just making the group laugh. Giving people the odd re-roll is a small price to pay for this improvement to your game. For best results, use some sort of physical token (Numenera uses cards; Deadlands used poker chips) to represent the points; it will make them feel like a sort of currency.

These are three subsystems I’ve ripped out of other games to use in virtually every campaign I run, in virtually any system. I’m sure there are plenty of others that could be lifted just as easily. What are your suggestions?

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing

The Strangest Week of All

If you follow this blog, you’re probably at least vaguely aware that I’m involved with a Kickstarter campaign for a forthcoming tabletop roleplaying game called The Strange.

Concepts2

You may also know, if you’re into tabletop games at all, that Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell are two of the most imaginative and admired designers of RPGs in the business. And perhaps you are aware that they’re the creators of this game. (You might even know that the two are childhood friends who reached the heights of their careers without ever working on a major project like this together.)

And you might know that Monte Cook Games, the company I helm and which is producing The Strange, recently released the critically acclaimed Numenera roleplaying game. Numenera was also funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which, a year ago, blew away all previous crowdfunding records for an RPG.

But here’s something you might not know: While several other RPGs have crowdfunded at levels approaching Numenera’s (and a few have even beaten that record), not one of them—not a single one—was a new property. Every other major RPG Kickstarter has been for an established brand that had a built-in audience eager for new product. Cthulhu. World of Darkness. Exalted. Shadowrun. All venerable names with decades of brand-building behind them. Until now.

Recursions-Ardeyn

Every Kickstarter is different, and we’re four days away from closing this campaign. The last days often see a huge spike, but I’m not willing to prognosticate. One thing is already clear, though: We’ve done it again. Even if we don’t raise another penny, The Strange will still stand next to Numenera, head-and-shoulders above any other new crowdfunded RPG.

If you haven’t checked it out, you really should. In addition to being the masterwork of two of the greatest RPG designers of all time, it’s a hell of a deal: It’s one of those Kickstarters where the stretch goals have snowballed, growing a great set of rewards into an incredible deal. And we’re hitting new ones every day.

If there’s one comment we’ve heard over and over again about Numenera, it’s “I missed the Kickstarter campaign, and I really regret it.” Don’t let that happen to you!

And don’t dawdle: The campaign ends Friday!

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing

Getting all Maleficenty

In Sleeping Beauty (the Disney versions, at least), a princess is caught up in a conflict between two fey forces: 1. Good fairies, who lavish blessings on the newborn princess, and then raise her in protective secrecy from 2. The bad fairy queen, who is bent on her destruction. (I became quite conversant in this tale six or seven years ago, when my daughter was a preschooler and Disney princess tales were a staple of the bedtime story.)

Little motive is given to either of these fairy forces. The good ones are Good. The bad one is Bad. That’s apparently enough, as far as preschool concerns go.

But beyond the good-bad issue, there’s a broader question of motive: Why the hell do any of these fey folk care one whit about this earthly princess? Why are they involved in the kingdom’s affairs at all? What’s their angle?

Maybe Disney’s new movie will shed some light onto these questions:

I think that would be pretty cool, because if ever there was a fairy tale that implies something much bigger (and perhaps more sinister) going on in the backstory than occurs in the plotline itself, Sleeping Beauty is that tale. In fact, ever since those bedside storytimes (those many, many bedside storytimes—preschoolers have a high tolerance for repeat listening), I’ve often imagined running a game set against that backstory. What’s going on in the fey underworld that makes this kingdom—this royal family—this particular person—so important? What other storylines might play out against this conflict?

Too busy with other games (or other things in general) to chase this idea, it’s lain fallow. But that trailer has me thinking again. And mulling over what system would be just right for this. Hmm . . . I’m not married to Disney’s vision, but maybe there’s something to their vaguely-late-enlightenment-period setting. Castle Falkenstein, perhaps? What do you think?

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A few months back, for my birthday, I received an iCade, a bluetooth controller/stand for the iPad that makes if feasible to play 80s arcade games. There are a lot of these games available for iOS–ports of the actual, original games, not modern remakes–but they are very hard to effectively control via the touchscreen. Anyway, last week I replaced my decrepit, severely challenged first-generation iPad with a new iPad air, so I was finally able to take these games out for a real spin.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

Rowan tries his hand at the iCade.

So one of my favorite games from that golden era of the arcade was Xevious–and that’s the first I sunk my teeth into over the weekend. I have awesome memories of that game, which had astounding graphics, incredible gameplay, and an amazing atmosphere. Or maybe my rearward-looking glasses are heavily rose-tinted?

Nope. That game still rocks. Here’s why.

The graphics may be chunky, but they’re still something to write home about. The designers managed some incredible effects–shimmering, morphing metallic forms out of black, white, and four shades of gray. And amazing glows out of red, black, and an intermediary brown. They used these, along with an interesting array of motions, in really imaginative ways, to create a set of evocative opponents that would make any 21st-century game designer proud.

Check out that gun turret, in particular. Black, white, and four shades of gray. Throw in some motion and some glow effect in the dark areas, and then cast your mind back to 1982. Genius!

In the same way that Numenera’s sweeping vistas are a key to unlocking that game’s profoundly imaginative setting, the importance of Xevious’s graphics can’t be understated. But there are a lot of nuances to gameplay that make this game stand out among others of its era–and hold lessons for designers today.

For example, many (most?) games have respawn points–if you make it past a given point in the game and then die, you start again at that given point. But in Xevious, if you make it more than 70% of the way to that respawn point and then die, you start at the respawn point–you actually jump ahead in the game. This bit of brilliance means that you may still be discovering game content, even at the early stages of the game, many plays into it.

While many games of that era had different opponent types, Xevious had a lot and was somewhat random in the mix of bad guys it threw at you (at least the aerial ones–the ground targets are fixed). They seem to have different rarities, too, so you could play many, many times and still run into things you hadn’t seen before. Or had only seen once or twice, and so had an incomplete understanding of what it could do. The game was (and still is, now that I’m playing again!) constantly giving you something new.

Xevious was the first top-down scroller that played against a meaningful background (as opposed to a starfield or whatever that had no effect on gameplay). In an effort (I imagine) to deal with memory limitations, the background is one giant square of terrain–you scroll all the way up it, and the start again from the bottom, but offset just a bit. (This is seamless within the game.) Each pass overlaps the others, so you get new terrain but with recognizable elements from previous passes. The designers turned this into an advantage, by designing terrain elements larger than the screen width. This gives an incredible sense that the game is larger than the playspace. Flying over a partial Nazca bird figure instills the game setting–which in other games of the era was entirely without context–with real sweep and mystery.

Technology changes (especially in the world of electronic games). Game design itself evolves. But Xevious, now 30 years old, reminds us that truly good game design does not go obsolete.

Now excuse me–I have a game to play!

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing
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