Jul 292014
 

CognitionBy Paco Garcia Jaen

I think Wizards of the Coast had a  pinch of genius moment when they included the diversity paragraph in the new edition of D&D. Pure genius!

I don’t know if it was accidental or if it was a calculated risk, but my goodness it’s paying off!

Why do I say this? Because everyone is talking about it. People who were looking forward to D&D are talking about it. People who don’t care about D&D are talking about it. People who didn’t want to care about D&D talk about it. People who like the diversity clause are talking about it. People who dislike it are talking about it.

People are talking about D&D. The diversity clause is not the only thing they’re talking about, but it certainly is making a lot of noise.

And that’s good!

I personally believe the inclusion of that paragraph is a good idea. People argue it’s not necessary and I could agree with that. It doesn’t really make or break the game. It’s not pivotal and thus is not necessary.

I think it’s a good idea to have a reminder, though. Although plenty of people have said “this paragraph is telling us we can play the game as we have played all along”, most players, without some sort of prompting or reminder, just fall back into the binary heteronormative paradigm and leave it like that. Most people have no hidden agenda or try to avoid diversity; it’s simply that falling back into “normality” is a very easy thing to do.

Regardless, though, this is an absolutely brilliant marketing technique that’s paying dividends because there’s so little to be upset about, it’s controversial enough to be interesting and long lasting, and it’s therefore raising awareness of the game.

Whether this paragraph is necessary or not, not many people are saying it’s a bad idea. Or that it is a bad thing. I don’t think many people are complaining about the notion of having diversity in their games; people are questioning the need for the reminder more than anything else and a few are resenting they feel they’re being told how to play the game.

Either way, to come up  – even if it’s been accidentally – with a means to make your audience talk about your product for a reason that’s controversial but not pernicious or a mistake… well done WOTC!

I think this is something a lot of designers out there should take note of and learn something!

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Jul 272014
 

img[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

The release of D&D Starter Set sparked many reactions from a lot of people. Mostly, people have been excited and mostly they have been welcoming. Some people, though, have complained about how two individuals who were consulted. The extent of their influence on the game is unknown.

I can understand that. I don’t know any of the two people in question, but what I have read that they’ve written make them come across as thoroughly obnoxious and up-their-own-arse individuals with no empathy or room for what anyone else think.

Quite frankly I would have consulted them too. If anything because whatever they said would have been put in the “this is probably the wrong thing, so let’s avoid” list.

The thing is, these two individuals (I won’t mention them because I don’t want to give them any more publicity) have got more attention than the good people who’ve contributed to the game. Their presence alone is like having a cockroach in a restaurant. No matter how clean everything is; no matter how well cooked the meals are; no matter how it’s pretty much unavoidable that there will be vermin, their mere presence taints everything else even though they are insignificant.

And we are letting that happen. We are contributing to driving people off the restaurant because someone saw a cockroach.

This is a metaphor, of course. I am not saying they’re like cockroaches, just that the reaction the spark is similar.

So how about we do something else this time? How about, this time, we don’t engage? How about we simply let WOTC that having people like that is not what we expect and simply, leave it there?

Yes, people will goad you into “conversations” because how dare you have an opinion that clashes with theirs? How dare you dislike what they so like? Don’t bother with them. Make your voice heard, don’t give them another route to get out and point at more cockroaches in the catering community.

Why aren’t we talking about the good people in the industry? Why aren’t we talking about Cam Banks, Shannah Germain, Christina Styles, Rob Donohue, Bruce Cordell…

Why are we wasting our time with the obnoxious when we have so many *amazing* people instead?

By the way, I have no grudge nor axe to grind with them two individuals. I don’t like how they come across and I feel the conversation would be more constructive if it was directed at the excellent people instead. Neither of them have done anything to me and disliking their Internet personas is not the same as having axes to grind or grudges.

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Jun 272014
 

tig-conBy Samuel Wilcocks

Sometimes when you think you have planned just one or two moves ahead, the random factor can really whack you out of nowhere. So when I volunteered a while ago to write a report on the Transylvania International Gaming (TIG) con, held from 22nd-25th May 2014 in Cluj, Romania, I had no idea that I myself would miss the con because of family illness. While I could write plenty about emergency surgery, the Intensive Care Unit and the excitement of X-rays, I am not so well-informed about what the gaming group in Transylvania was doing while I was in England waiting for the news from hospital. And then when I got back to Cluj (once the patient was finally well and out of danger) and asked everybody how the con had been, I got the further nasty surprise that our friendly local gaming store, the Red Goblin, was closing down at the end of June.

Board-gaming is a strong hobby in Romania and classic games are extremely popular – it’s the kind of country where there are chess tables in the public parks and you often see people playing backgammon in the cafés in the middle of the morning. Modern board-games are also well-known, with plenty of local clubs and at least two distributors (Lex Games and Ideal Board Games) specialised in localised Romanian-language versions of games. The Settlers of Catan sells well in supermarkets, and many of the country’s bookshops also have at least a shelf of boardgames – and sometimes a big display table, crowded with titles. As well as importing foreign games, Romanian companies also design and produce their own games, with an eye on the export market as well. Some of these titles were featured at the TIG con, either in playtest versions or in Kickstarter-ready pre-publication prototypes. So with such a lively gaming culture in the country, what happened at the Cluj con?

The con was held over four days at the city’s 2,200 square-meter exhibition and trade fair showground, Expo Transilvania. There were already a couple of problems here; four days is ambitous for a first con, and the Expo’s location away from the city center meant that there was very little walk-in trade from casual visitors or family groups. Despite low ticket prices, the venue is simply not in a part of town where anybody would decide to step in on the spur of the moment, meaning that visitors were restricted to those who had heard about the event in advance. Thursday and Friday attendance was very low, although the numbers began to pick up over the weekend. That leaves the dedicated gamer crowd, who came as much as they could but who were not enough to fill the large venue.

Visitors and guests came from across Romania and many nearby countries. There were games companies exhibiting from Russia and Hungary, and a group of gamers came from Bulgaria for the event. Potential Ukrainian visitors had other worries right at the moment, alas, and Serbian guests who might have come to the con were badly affected by the floods and had to cancel their travel plans. There’s that wicked random factor again – when I think about the trouble some people have had with civil war in their country or their homes washed away by three months’ rainfall in one night, it makes my own brush with family illness seem like nothing at all. And it also makes me think that any game designer who stacked the events deck with all these horrible possibilities would be denounced as unfair in play-testing.

So yes, the random factor can really screw things up. But then again, there are certain things that you really have to do when planning a con. The website for the event was not well designed – I really can’t stand gray-on-gray for text, and it’s more than just a personal taste on my part because it makes the words very difficult to read. It gives some of that dark and spooky atmosphere you associate with Transylvania but it also sends readers away. The website was also rather lacking in tourist information for potential international visitors – airline connections, hotels and guest houses near the venue, other attractions in the city, that sort of thing.

This is a shame, because Cluj has a lot to offer tourists and especially it has a lot for gamers to see. Old-school gamers who have played Games Workshop edition of Stephen Hand’s Fury of Dracula (1988) or anyone who knows the more recent Fantasy Flight reissue (2005) will know Klausenburg as a final staging post before the asault on Castle Dracula itself… and that’s the same town. Like many cities in Central and Eastern Europe, Cluj has changed hands many times over the years and has many names. Cluj in Romanian, Klausenburg in German and Kolozsvár in Hungarian. Oh yes, and some people also use the ancient Roman name, Napoca, although as far as I know there are no ancient Romans actually living in the city right now.

However, visitors to the con did get the chance to play the Roman-themed Praetor from local company NSKN games, a worker placement game which has players as city governors competing for the favor of the Emperor Hadrian as they build a new city on his famous Wall. This was one of the games that NSKN also took to Britain the week after TIG-con for the UK Games Expo, a long-established event in the gaming calendar. Their own edition of Praetor is in English, like many games published by Romanian design houses, and there are German, French and Japanese editions from partner publishers due out soon. Another exciting title from NSKN is the civ-builder Progress: Evolution of Techonology, which is doing very well on Kickstarter right now with over a thousand backers.

Another Kickstarter title featured at the con was Transylvania: Curses and Traitors, all the way from Kansas, USA. WIBAI Games are a husband-and-wife company, and far too small to send a demonstration team halfway around the world to play the game on the spot in Transylvania, but they did generously share a print-and-play prototype of their first title. The game has an interesting twist on the hidden-role mechanic since although all players start out as brave monster-hunters aiming at a (more-or-less) collective victory, during the course of play we might pick up enough Curses to become a vampire, a werewolf or a zombie and have our own individual victory goals from that point on. Kickstarter has now closed on Transylvania: Curses and Traitors, with the backer rewards all assigned, but WIBAI are also taking pre-order for March 2015 on their website.

Sometimes we’re working together for a common cause. Sometimes we’re just out for what we can get for ourselves. It’s almost as though there were a lesson in here on how to organise a gaming con and make it a success. When I got back from tending the sick and asked the organising committee how the con had been, one of them sent me a link to a report by some gamers who attended. Unfortunately it’s in Bulgarian. Was her really trying to help me write this article? But what he doesn’t know is that I have the Secret Ability: Read Bulgarian. Our southern neighbours liked the event and the games they played but they felt that the con was poorly organised, badly advertsised and under-attended.

So what happens next year? Raul Recolta, who managed the local branch of the Bucharest-based Red Goblin, is determined that even though his store will be closing down under the Red Goblin name in June, he will find a way to re-open in September so that Cluj still has its own games store. As for the TIG con, this years’s edition was hit from all sides by bad luck and bad draws from the random events deck, and right now it looks as though there will be no second edition next year. However, in 2015 Cluj-Klausenburg-Kolozsvár-Napoca will be European Youth Capital, with all kinds of cultural and fun events throughout the year. Come and visit, even if you don’t play backgammon in your local café at home!

Samuel Willcocks

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May 072014
 

question_markBy Paco Garcia Jaen

Recently one of my contacts in Spain gave his opinion about the high quality of roleplaying games productions and how the prices of books might be hurting the market. He questions if having cheaper books with fewer illustrations and simpler layout would make for cheaper print-runs and thus affordability so more people can buy more games.

Personally, I *love* good looking book editions. From the lavish material Fantasy Flight produces, Monte Cook amazing production values, Pelgrane lovely attention to detail and layout, Cubicle 7 tremendous art directions… I could go on, but you know what I mean. I love them. And I love limited editions.

And yes, they cost a lot of money. And I know because I buy most of the games I read. And if I get any for free I review the crap out of them and have people in podcasts and talk about their games and make sure I do all I can to help those authors recoup the money they’ve invested in me (yes… giving me free stuff is guarantee that I will talk about your game. What I’ll say though depends how good I think your game is.)

I’m not sure they are expensive, though. The amount of illustrations, greater attention to detail, proof reading and editing, layout work, paper quality… They might cost a lot of money, but they’re certainly not expensive.

But would it pay off to have lower quality editions of the same games, or simply only have lower quality editions, to make them more affordable and thus sell more? Would they really sell more?

And a question to my publisher friends, do you think you sell less because the high quality you put into your books put the price up?

It’s a tricky one!

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Apr 202014
 

jolly_rogersBy Paco Garcia Jaen

Recently I almost got into a conversation about piracy with someone in Google+ who claimed several things I find totally idiotic:

  • Piracy is a great way of publicity.
  • People download illegal movies, music, etc. for many reasons and not because they save money or “because they can.”
  • I download so I can see the game and then decide if I want to buy it or not.
  • It should be legal to copy and distribute the books you buy.
  • Culture should be freely available.

There were more, but those were all the needed ones to get my blood boil. However there was one that truly got me angry. Angry enough that I left the conversation before I said something someone else might regret:

  • “As far as I’m concern the games industry can go bust and I wouldn’t care.”

I believe the gaming hobby has a healthy future ahead. Very healthy. And I believe that because I can see companies becoming more and more professional. And whether people like it or not, Kickstarter and crowd funding are helping a lot. Tons of people are learning what it takes to release a game and that even the launch of a PDF product is a costly affair, both in time, money and resources, not to mention the stress of having to deal with deadlines and feedback.

But we have assholes out there that don’t care. And they think it’s OK to download illegal copies of books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are assholes in every hobby and every industry, so that’s not new. However that doesn’t mean they don’t damage the industry and the hobby. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call them out for what they are: Parasites. Sucking and consuming from a hobby without giving anything in return.

And no, “great publicity” doesn’t cut it. The only publicity you generate when you promote something by means of piracy is that you’re a douchebag.

Admittedly I am somewhat biased because I know a lot of people in the gaming industry and some of those people I love very much, so I don’t want anyone to do anything that hurt them. Not everyone is as privileged as I am and we care less for things and people we don’t know enough about.

Which doesn’t justify the pirate behaviour.

I haven’t downloaded anything illegal for many, many years, but I have downloaded some stuff in the past. So I am no saint (as I doubt anyone out there can claim to be) but I try to be responsible.

Disagreeing with someone’s price is not “having no other choice” though. If you think a PDF is too highly priced at $20 then don’t buy it. Buy another game for the amount of money you want to spend, but don’t download it illegally.

When you do that, you’re just being petulant and puerile with an attitude of “I want it, I want it I want it and I’m gonna get it regardless.” You are a parasite. Get out of my hobby please.

Actually no… just get off my hobby. Scrap the please. You don’t deserve it.

Downloading the book before you buy to check it out is total crap. There are tons of people out there who write reviews and most publishers give away a chapter so you can take a look before you buy. Feeble, feeble and stupid excuse.

I tell you what. I am going to go to your home and help myself to your food in the fridge so then I can go and buy it in the supermarket if I like it. Yes, of course I’ll replenish your fridge. If I like what I eat and end up buying it, of course!

I agree that culture should be freely available. This is why you have libraries. When you go to the theatre to watch a Shakespeare play you’re not just watching the play he wrote, you’re also watching and paying for the production you can see.

You want free Shakespeare? The library has it. You want a free performance of a Shakespeare play? Do it yourself. Either that or pay the actors and actresses, producers, light technitians… They deserve to be paid for their job.

Just like the game author, designer, layout artist, editor, printers… See why the free culture bit is bullshit?

No? You can’t see it… ah… that’d be because you’re an idiot. Get off my hobby!

And then we have the assholes who simply don’t care.

I’m not going to try to convince them to change their minds. They’re way too stupid for that. And they’re worthless. Yes, sorry human. You’re worthless.

Because anyone who tells me “I don’t care about the livelihoods of the people who work in a whole industry” is a worthless human being.

Get off my planet. Seriously… this Earth would be a lot better off without you. And if you’re reading this and feeling the indignation, explain to me why I should feel differently about you than you feel about the people who write or create the game you enjoy.

No. Exactly. I don’t care if you go to hell either.

So go to hell, and pirate from there.

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Feb 232014
 

destiny-quest-196x300By Jonathan Hicks

I’m delighted to welcome Michael Ward; gamer, author of the best selling DestinyQuest game books and all-round decent guy.

Perhaps you’d like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ha! This is the part where I wish I lived an exciting and outrageous life, filled with extreme sports and hobbies, and at least one exotic pet. Sadly, I’m pretty boring. I spend most of my life in my dressing gown, Arthur Dent style, sat in front of a computer – swearing occasionally, shaking my fist, cackling maniacally, but mostly just frowning in a constipated fashion and willing words of wisdom to appear on the screen.

I’ve always been a geek –and now I’m a middle-aged geek, embracing the highs and lows of mid-life crisis. Whereas most males deal with it through fast cars (and probably fast women), I er… embrace it through middle-age spread and writing the occasional gamebook. I win obviously. Ahem.

Tell us about your gaming history – what got you into the wonderful world of roleplaying, wargaming and adventure books?

Well, as I mention on my site, Dungeons & Dragons was the event that really sucked me into the hobby. I had glimpsed the metal miniatures and was always curious of the ‘game’ that lurked behind it all, but it seemed like something mysterious and underground – the type of thing to be Michael J Ward author picwhispered in shadowed corners, usually by older kids who looked a little bit scary. It wasn’t until I saw the movie ET: The Extra Terrestrial, that I got my first glimpse of what a D&D session was like – and when I left the cinema, I was determined to get involved.

Of course, at the same time, the first Fighting Fantasy books were being released – and these were incredibly new and exciting. I remember the book clubs we used to have at school, where someone from outside would bring in a sort of portable rack that was opened up to reveal the books for sale. Cue a class of screaming kids (gripping their spending money in sweaty fists) rushing forward, elbowing and kicking to get the best ones before anyone else. In those days, I was but a puny mortal (before I developed my special abilities and put extra points into brawn and vitality) so I had no chance of getting to the front. But I always remember one time, when the dust settled and the “best books” had been taken, I finally reached the book rack to scrutinise what was left – and there was ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. It was meant to be. I grabbed it excitedly – the cover screaming at me ‘FANTASY GEEKNESS!’. Once my friends realised what the books were all about (‘Wow, you roll dice and stuff!’) then I suddenly became Mr Popular pretty quickly! Fear my skills, fools!

Seriously, at that time, there was nothing else around quite like those books – and computer games were still pretty much in the stone age, so for the first time we got the chance to imagine a fantastic adventure where we were the hero and got to make exciting choices. Gaming bliss!

517LADGhaTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The DestinyQuest books are incredibly popular so tell us more about how you came up with the idea?

Well, my love of role-playing games was soon surpassed by another, more compulsive passion, which was computer gaming. I was lucky in some ways to grow up at an exciting and innovative time when games consoles (like the Atari 2600) were just being launched, and then computers came onto the scene (the ZX Spectrum, C64, BBC, Amiga etc.). Each new platform brought with it incredible new gaming opportunities. I’ve always stuck with the hobby, from Pac-Man through to the latest MMORPGS like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2.

I got pretty addicted to online gaming and that got me thinking about how I could replicate that online RPG feel in a book. I guess the gamebook format that I grew up with was an obvious connection there too. I already had a completed manuscript (for a kids’ book) doing the rounds with my agent, so I was kind of twiddling my thumbs. Time and again I kept coming back to the idea of an MMO experience in book form.

So I set about roughing out a system and writing some quests. I came at it as something just for fun. If no-one else reads it, who cares – I just wanted to create something I could play myself and have a laugh with. But as I carried on writing, I realised it was evolving into something quite exciting – something that I felt could be commercial.

What makes DestinyQuest different, if anything, from other gamebooks?

Traditional gamebooks tend to have a basic combat system. You roll dice, apply damage and just hope that your rolls are high enough to win. There is no real strategy – and the opponents don’t have much personality other than being a bunch of numbers. With DestinyQuest I wanted the combat to be much more dynamic – almost as if you were bashing buttons and selecting abilities in a computer game. I wanted opponents to have their own ‘battle scripts’ if you like – so that you were forced to react to their abilities, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

Tied in with the dynamic combat, I also wanted to provide full-customisation of your hero. So instead of rolling some stats at the start of your adventure and that was it, I wanted to bring in the computer RPG experience of collecting items as you progress and then having these items boost your hero and give them abilities. Obviously, all this was a complete nightmare to balance (there was much swearing and shaking of fists) but I got there in the end.

Why did you decide to have a go at writing a new generation of adventure gamebooks?

I think it was probably a pretty crazy idea. At the time, gamebooks were considered dead in the water. There were a few FF titles getting released but nothing that was mainstream. This was also before the explosion of Apps, so really no-one was even thinking gamebooks. I stuck at it because I was convinced there was still a market – those vets like me who grew up with gamebooks, but also a new generation of computer gamers who may be eager to experience books that were more interactive.

I met with a lot of opposition. So much so that I ended up self-publishing. Thankfully, I was lucky and the book sold well – and I do have to thank the gaming and blog community for embracing the book and help spread the word. That success won me the attention of a mainstream publisher who decided to take a punt on the series. So far, so good – but still a rocky road.

What were your inspirations/influences?

My main inspiration was World of Warcraft. It was such a huge part of my life at the time and kind of occupied most of my waking thoughts! I also loved action-orientated RPGS such as Diablo and Titan Quest. I’m a fan of most genres of gaming, if I’m being honest, and I think all of those influences got distilled into the DQ game experience.

LegionofShadowDid you create a specific world for the adventures to take place in, and will we see more of it?

Yes, I did create a source document that outlines the history of the world. One interesting thing that I frequently see misquoted is that Valeron (the setting for the early books) is the name of the world. It isn’t. Valeron is just a kingdom – one part of a much greater whole.

I try not to overload the books with too much exposition of the world, I prefer to keep them action-based and filter in the ‘history’ when it is needed. With each book, I feel like I am opening up the world a little more, showing more of the broader canvass. If there are further books in the series, then more pieces of the puzzle will be revealed. I really want to explore Mordland, for example, (an area only briefly mentioned in the first books), which is very cool. Time will tell!

A lot of work must go into creating one of these books, more than producing a straightforward story – what’s your plan of attack when writing one?

They certainly are incredibly complicated and time-consuming, which miffs me a little bit when the mainstream press turns their noses up at interactive fiction as something ‘just for the kids’. These books are monumental projects.

I suppose I start by deciding on the environments (or zones, if you like) and marrying that to the story I want to tell. Then it is a matter of breaking down the story into the individual quests. I write each quest in a separate document then compile them together as each is completed into a ‘master document’, which has all the numbers and links.

What do you see as the future for DestinyQuest? More books? Computer games? Maybe even a tabletop roleplaying game?

I have lots of ideas for things I would love to do. The thing is, to reach that point of having spin-offs, you probably need quite a huge player base. I don’t think I have quite achieved that yet. If the books continue to be successful and reach new markets, then who knows.

At the very least, I would love to finish the series (which is six books – originally seven, but one is now superfluous to the overall story). I do have ideas roughed out for interactive spin-offs and a customisable card game (played too much Hearthstone to resist, sorry!) but nothing concrete. Always open to offers!

If you could sit down with several friends and play a tabletop RPG right at this very moment, what would it be and why?

At the moment it would be the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game by Paizo. A friend of mine recommended it to me last year (I was sort of aware of Pathfinder but had never given it a go). He urged me to try it because it was ‘a bit like DestinyQuest’. In some ways it is – you have individual quests broken up into locations, and guide a hero (or party of heroes) through the challenges, equipping them with better and better gear as you do so. It is very addictive, both as a solo game and played with friends. I highly recommend!

Are there any other projects you are working on, or is DestinyQuest a full-time thing?

Contrary to what people might think, writing is a tough profession – one that doesn’t come anywhere near to paying the bills – so I still take on a lot of freelance projects (I write educational materials for schools). At the moment, freelance work is taking up a lot of my time, but when I get a chance I am scribbling down ideas for DestinyQuest 4. I do have a cool idea for a novel that I would like to write, but I feel – at the moment – it would be “cheating” to ditch DestinyQuest for another project. Ultimately, I guess I am your typical male – chronic at multi-tasking! But, as they say, watch this space. Who knows what the future holds…

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