Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Maturing of the One Ring - Songbook

Songs are a big part of fantasy literature, especially where Tolkien is concerned. Setting aside whether you like Tolkien's verse, a Middle-earth game must have rules for songs to be complete.

The problem is that RPGs have historically done a terrible job with songs. D&D set the tone early, with bards being relegated to bland buffbots. It wasn't that the rules for songs in D&D were uninteresting (though they were). It's that there was no interesting fiction attached to them. For repositories of oral lore, bards sure weren't encouraged to keep track of what their songs were about.

This has continued right up until the modern day. Songs give buffs (TOR does this; more in a moment) and that's it. You can track your songs or write something in-character about your adventures, but there are scant few hooks to get you to do so, just like in the old days.

TOR was in a similar boat. For being in a world where song is so important, the base rules relegate it to a social skill only. Rivendell fixes this and lashes it to the fiction.

The PCs can now write songs as a Fellowship activity. The process is simple: roll Song to compose it, with the success of the roll determining how difficult it is to actually sing. You then (and this is the important bit) log the details of the song in a communal songbook for reference throughout the campaign. The idea is to create a shared history through the songs the characters write. It's simple, and by no means does it have to be the emphasis of a campaign, but the mere existence of the songbook tells everyone at the table that songs are important.

Each song is of a particular type and the difficulty is altered during the writing, with Traditional and Thematic being harder to write, Elvish more difficult. The song types break down as: Traditional (tied to a specific culture, +2 difficulty for outsiders to sing), Thematic (cannot be sung outside a specific event, like meal-time or marching), or Elvish (harder to write but can be used more often).

So what are the benefits? Like most rules in TOR, there's a theme of leaning on and reinforcing your friendship in the song rules. The party can sing each song in the songbook once per adventure (twice for Elvish). If you succeed, you're Inspired, giving you two extra dice to spend on rolls for the duration of the adventure.

This can be game-changing in narrow circumstances, like a hairy combat roll, but it's not remotely overpowered. And this is exactly what it should be: a nice benefit without being too much, with a deep attachment to the fiction.

It's this attachment to the fiction that TOR does so well. Because the designers seem to think in terms of discrete and self-contained actions (a la a board game, as stated in the last edition of this quick look at Rivendell), they can drum up the "feel" of Middle-earth in very little text.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Maturing of The One Ring - Rivendell

I don't post much here. I'm a bad blogger. But I'm going to fire this up again in the next few days for something which is, compared to my last few posts oh so long ago, fairly trivial. Which is all good by me, since trivial means I'm having fun.

What's moved me is The One Ring, the pen and paper RPG for Tolkien's world put out by Cubicle 7. I'll spare the intro except to say that the tabletop RPGs put out for the license historically have been (and I'm being generous here) a little at odds with the spirit of Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined.

This wasn't really the fault of the creators of the two prior systems, MERP and Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. They came around at a time when design goals were different and it was both fine and good to plug a generic rules system into a setting. Decipher did better than MERP in this regard, but it was still lacking, while MERP put out remarkably in-depth setting books attached to a slightly stripped down Rolemaster, an explicitly generic fantasy system.

The One Ring is different. Every rule in the game has been very explicitly inspired by a piece of M-E fiction. It plays in an almost board game-esque fashion; by that I mean that there are distinct moves and phases to the game. This enhances the fiction, rather than detracts from it, by making each one of those moves and phases feel momentous. It's no surprise that the designer, Francesco Nepitello, is both a board game designer and inspired by the games of Greg Stafford, a man who also liked those deep dives into rules as a means of emphasizing specific actions in play.

This isn't really a review of TOR, though. It's not even really a review at all, even though it's going to read like one. TOR recently put out a new supplement called Rivendell. It opens up the game to Eriador and the titular vale of the elves. It also adds a lot of new rules which are elegant and mature.

I keep coming back to the word mature when I describe the book. It's the work of a team who have thought about every nook and cranny of where the rules came from and where they're going. They're remarkably well-thought out and clever, expressing the feel of M-E through hard rules text. The rules breathe in a way I don't know that I've seen many game texts do. And they're not complicated. Quite the contrary, they're mostly simple. But that's why it's so tight and interesting.

So that's why I've come to blog. I'm going to do some periodic short entries, each on a different bit of rules text in Rivendell to talk about why they're so interesting. I'm that jazzed about this one single, not even that thick game book. So let me start with a short one:

Rivendell as Land of Dreams

In Tolkien's text, there's a hazy, dreamy quality to Rivendell for everyone but the elves who live there. That exists in any of the elf-holds which he mentions, but Rivendell is almost a anthropomorphized character in its own right.

But that's hard to model in rules text. Hell, it's hard to describe with enough style that your players fully get it, no matter how good a GM you are.

Francesco leans on his board game background here. The GM is supposed to make very clear that characters visiting Rivendell have a choice, one which has benefits and drawbacks. It's very consciously made. The rules:

1) If you spend adventuring time in Rivendell, the Shadow rating of the characters is considered zero. (Shadow is the measure of how weighed down the heroes are by the ugliness happening in Middle-earth). Characters also heal from physical wounds at a much faster rate.

2) If you do the above, however, you only get 1 experience point that session. Period. If you were set to get 2, 4, or a dozen, it doesn't matter. You get 1. Because time is weird in Rivendell. It passes slowly. You get complacent. It's too wonderful to leave, especially when it's so ugly outside of it. You get lazy, basically.

And that's it. A lesser game might rely on the well-worn fantasy game trope of "make a willpower save to leave" or something equally blunt. Rivendell (the book) presents a firm choice, equal parts good and bad: stay here if you want, enjoy it while you do, but realize that you're risking your competency long-term.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Case Scenario With Irrational Games

Yesterday saw the surprise closing of Irrational Games, developers of the Bioshock series. I say surprise because, by all accounts, Irrational was a well-regarded, profitable entity in 2K Games' constellation of studios. Bioshock, of course, is considered one of the finest games of the past decade. Bioshock Infinite was almost as much of a critical success in the mainstream gaming press, though it was much less so on blogs and independent outlets, being criticized for some very unfortunate in-game racial commentary.

(It should be noted that I have not played either Bioshock nor do I intend to. My FPS adventures have always been limited to multiplayer PVP fests, and that was before I lost a noticeable step in my mid-30s.)

The commentary on twitter and elsewhere has been pretty pointed, primarily because studio head and Bioshock series creator, Ken Levine, has landed on his feet at Take Two. He wants to make smaller boutique games. Not small or boutique enough to start an indie studio, of course, and that's an important tell. Between his comments about storytelling blocks, a weird press release by 2K, and his desire to concentrate on "core gamers" (I'll give some easy odds on what gender, race, age, and class his "core gamer" is), it sure looks, from the outside, like a bored guy with an enormous amount of name recognition shutting the gate behind him. And it should be stressed that an awful lot of people were left behind; he's taking anywhere from 0 to 15 people with him, going by snippets, while an estimated 185 people lost their jobs.

Naturally, the conversation has centered on these dimensions. Essentially, the thinking is one of two things.

1) 2K didn't want to back Levine on his next project and told him no. Levine said, "screw this, I'm going on my own". Levine leaves, 2K reckons that Irrational is nothing without Levine, and everyone gets fired.

2) Levine really did get bored and restless. He still had a lot of control and basically just shuttered the studio on his way out.

I'm simplifying greatly, here, but the two most common takes are those. What I've seen less of is an examination of the third option: that Irrational Games was unprofitable and probably misrun.

Before we go further, I think it's vitally important to read two very good pieces on the situation, linked directly below. The politics of the aftermath of the closing are really important.

Games By Humans

Ken Levine Isn't Looking For a Job

On profitability, I'm leaning on my friend, Russ, who pointed out that Bioshock took six years to complete and was certainly over budget. Yes, it sold four million units, but that was maybe just enough to break even. 2K, when Levine started making noise about wanting to do something with narrative Legos or storytelling primitives or whatever pomo garbage he's considering doing, is naturally skittish about Bioshock Infinite's issues.

And what about those issues? Think about this for a moment, away from the politics. Bioshock Infinite moved four million copies and it wasn't profitable. Obviously not all of those were at the release price point of 60 bucks, but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that half were moved at that price and the other half were at an average of 30 (current price is about 15). That's 180 million dollars. And it wasn't profitable.

No matter how long it took or the size of the staff, the fact that 180m doesn't break even is insane. That is not a sustainable number, particularly when looked at in conjunction with Square Enix announcing a few weeks ago that the latest Tomb Raider only just now broke even... after 3.4 million sold in the first month and, presumably, reaching right around twice that overall.

There is no silver lining to those numbers and the unprofitable theory. These simply aren't sustainable numbers and they're a disastrous portent for the industry. Essentially, numbers like that are going to translate into a more rapid revolving door, as people are laid off in greater numbers as impossible targets aren't met, and more consolidation around the biggest players, as the medium studios are priced out of making anything.

The refrain is always that indie games are the savior here (that was said numerous times in response to my Jacobin piece). My response is always the same: they aren't. Indie games are the savior if and when they can provide a livable wage and decent benefits. That's not a slight on the quality of product which indie studios churn out; indie games are good or bad the same way major studio games are good or bad. It's simply an empiric observation that the long hours and terrible wages aren't any better at an indie and, according to Gamasutra's yearly survey data, are probably worse.

This is what we're left with, then: a critical darling which moved a whopping number of copies wasn't profitable. Around 200 people lost their jobs without warning. Ken Levine is going to be just fine.

There's no real answer here. The industry is going to have to implode before it changes. Or the social safety net in the US is going to have to be able to catch people like the ones who just got canned. But I do want to zero in on Ken Levine being fine again.

More than just about any other sector of the entertainment industry, video game creation is reliant on a lot of people. Your writing can be good but if your code is garbage, people will know and remember the shoddy code. Your animations can be great but your art can be terrible. Contrast with film, another team effort (I hate that term) but one where a good actor or director can carry a movie, or with writing, which is almost always an individual effort.

By all accounts, Bioshock Infinite was at least solid, possibly very good. Everyone did their jobs and did them well. Everyone but one person: Ken Levine. Levine's primary job, more than the writing, was to bring Infinite in on time and under budget. If Irrational had become unprofitable because of Bioshock Infinite's overrun, no matter how unfair and insane the budgetary bloat which has taken hold of the industry, that's on Levine's head.

And yet here we are, with an entire studio turned out on its collective ear for doing its job properly, while the one true failure in the story has not just landed on his feet but is poised to crank out vanity projects, post-Spore Will Wright style, for the rest of his life. The games press, for the most part, is salivating about what he's going to do next, thereby enabling this sort of behavior the next time. Hovering over it all is the vicious irony that a man who made his name by writing about a Randian dystopia is going to be just fine because we're currently living in one.

Like I said, I don't have any answers, at least not any which don't involve the industry as we know it completely collapsing. I am heartened that, in the comments sections of major industry news outlets, there seems to be scant patience, this time, for yet another rock star dev landing on his feet after a failure while hundreds go home with a severance check. Small as it is, cracking the myth of the video game auteur may be the first step in fixing the industry.