PAX AUS – Where I’ll Be

To find the Steve, seek out the Steve. I may do what I used to do at GenConOz and give prizes for those who do find me. But also, I have some big gaps in my schedule, so if you want to play something with me or if you want me to run/demo your game for others, then you know what to do. Otherwise in the big gaps I will be hanging around the tabletop areas, teaching people games and/or running my own games. These days I’m moving into the dev style of things so I’m going to panels to learn stuff and pimping stuff for others (this time).

UPDATE: If you find me and say the magic password – STEVE TRAIN – you get a MESSAGE badge for freeeee!

I will probably live tweet most of the panels I’m listening to, so stay tuned to my Twitter for hashtag fun. I really should be a journalist given it’s what I do anyway but PTGPTB is finished now.

If you want me to run something for you that I wrote, or buy a hard copy of a game that I wrote off me you need to TELL ME NOW so I can plan/bring one.

Thursday Night I will likely be at this event at the Melbourne Library  showing off some of Australia’s hottest new game designs for play.  Cancel that, I’ll probably be at the Tabletop Dev meet up, schmoozing. Oh who knows!

Friday:

Morning – pretty much empty, I’ll be milling around going WOW at everything. Find me in the tabletop section or at a tabletop booth.

12:30-1:30pm A Panel about becoming an “influencer” which sounds interesting, at the Wombat theatre

Lunch!

3-4: Jobs in Video Games Panel for those who can’t draw or code – Gamespot Theatre

5 – 6: What would you tell yourself about getting into the gaming industry 5 years ago – Kookaburra Theatre

6:30 – 7:30 Creating safe gaming spaces, which the MESSAGE needs to know more about! – Kookaburra Theatre

7 – 9: Meeting tabletop game designers, maybe, and chatting with them. Not sure what this event is totally? – Tabletop Area.

9 – 10: Whose Panel Is It Anyway, Gamespot Theatre. Honing my improv comedy skills I hope.

Saturday:

10:30 – 11:30 Kickstarting Panel, Dropbear Theatre. Tips for the future, although I know this stuff pretty well I think. If anyone wants to game this morning again, buzz me.

12:30-1:30 Surviving Online Harassment Panel, Galah Theatre. Because as a man it’s my job to fix this problem.

2pm – 3pm: I am a guest on this panel about Diversity in Tabletop Gaming, Kookaburrah Theatre. Come hear my exciting stories about sexist jerks I’ve worked with… (not really). We’ll be taking it as read that diversity matters and looking at how to make it better, with real strategies we can take away.

3:30 – 4:30pm: The Great Debate: Will the Golden Age Bubble Burst? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last year as mainstream acceptance has changed gaming incredibly. I don’t get to debate but I’ll be listening intently. Kookaburra Theatre.

5pm – 6pm: My Friends Keep Leaving, how tabletop gaming is hard in an age of increasing social dislocation. Another topic close to me heart. Galah Theatre.

7:30 – 8:30 pm: Game Dev Explained With Sock Puppets. Because I need to learn more about how computer games are made. Gamespot Theatre.

Sunday:

10:30am – 11:30am The amazing Jimmy Reilly is running Starchildren, the first game I wrote for, on stage at the Dropbear Theatre, should be fun. Will be taking photos for Rich.

Then I’m pretty much free, so I’ll go back to skulking in the tabletop area and playing games. Again, if you need a body, ask me now. Like the journalism thing, I’m already going to be running around telling people how great games are and explaining why and teaching them to play, so somebody might as well be harnessing that for their gain.

UPDATE: The lovely people of Kingdom of Aer (makers of Kingmaker) have acquired the Steve Services. I also maybe hovering at Cosm Games’ booth. But you know, I’m open to offers.

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Overwatch

It’s been a long time between Five Things. Sorry about that, I was getting some games published and setting up a patreon and trying to fix my website. Website still coming. Also, writing a game about the Old West, which came out great (pledge to the patreon for your copy) and a supplement for Daughters of Exile, which would by the way make a great game for playing Westworld, if you’re into that. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Overwatch. Because it’s not just films and TV shows and novels we can learn from…

  1. Recapitulation

Overwatch uses a trope that is well worn, but like most well-worn tropes, it’s well worn for a reason. Once upon a time, things were good, then they got all messed up, but maybe, now, they’ll be better. Once there was Overwatch, then it broke into pieces, now it’s back. This is a lovely combination of ideas because it produces instant nostalgia, paired with the beginning of the new, which are the two strongest forces of attachment there are. We ache for the past, we long for the new. (It’s the pattern of security and adventure.)  In sonata form, this is called recapitulation. Sonata form was developed during the Classical period of music, when people tried to hone music down to a science, to pick out the mathematically perfect elements of what made the emotions soar, without completely losing the complexity of Baroque music that came before. In sonata form, a harmony is exposited, then it is developed, then comes the recapitulation. Basically, the tone is set, then the harmony is broken, and we ache, at a primal level, for the harmony to return…the development holds us in this ache…and then gives us the release as it resolves to the original harmony and restates the exposition. Mozart is really good at this – listen as he sets you up, leaves you hanging, then brings you back.

It sounds ludicrously simple but the best tricks always are. And apart from the obvious human need for closure, it’s useful to understand why it works so well. How it combines our love for the old and the new, and how that provides a sense of history. Before we’ve even played a single game of Overwatch, we feel like we’re stepping into something old, yet something also about to start, at the same time. That familiarity makes it feel comfortable, which makes it much easier to learn all the new things. How can you use this in your games? It’s not just enough to have a big epic setting behind the scenes, you have to wire people into it. You have to craft scenes where players get connected to that history. We saw in the trailers Winston missing his friends, the two kids marveling at the museum. You have to put your players in the museum. Let them feel the weight of history. Then have history come crashing through their ceiling, and into the future.

2. Unity Over Division

The theme of Overwatch is “unity”. That is what the recapitulation is all about. They had unity, then they lost it, now they’re bringing it back. Well, sort of. Reaper and Widowmaker don’t want to come to the party, but unity is still the big calling card. You could see this as simply a nod to the fact that it’s a team game, but so was Team Fortress 2, and it divided the world into a Road Runner/Coyote battle between red vs blue. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s certainly better for comedy, for starters, but it is less emotional. Overwatch made us care, and not just through nostalgia. Competition is simple and fun but it doesn’t really hit us deep down in our values. Unity does. And that gave the game more heart, the kind of heart that sucks us in and makes us write fan fiction. The stuff that woobies are made of. Other powerful emotions rock through Overwatch too – betrayal, loss, loneliness, betrayal, shame, confusion…and it’s a good rule to put these kinds of things into your games too, to help people connect to the setting. But it’s tricky. Some emotions are just harder to build in a collection of chuckleheads rolling dice around the table.

But one emotion that isn’t hard to build is unity. A lot of RPG design and play focuses on difference and differentiation. Much of traditional roleplaying is built on how character A and character B have different skill sets and power sets that can compliment each other. It’s standard to see a party with halflings, elves, dwarfs and humans all on the same quest. So it’s important in all this division to lay strong grounds of unity. Most rule books suggest parties should have some cohesive overarching narrative to stick together but we’re so used to Random Bunches of Wandering Murderhobos teaming up because they’re next to each other we forget to do it all the time. And games often devolve into shouting at each other and arguing about the plan until everyone gets unified into a combat scene because they can all agree the goal is to kill the orcs. Apply the same structure there is in combat OUTSIDE combat: everyone has different skills but they need clear goals and reasons to unite. Build it into the setting and even the mechanics if you have to. Too many games have died at their birth when the players have gone “wait, why do we hang around each other then?”. Stress unity so this doesn’t happen.

3. The Victory Lap

Blizzard is not a game that innovates a great deal. Their strength is in looking at what innovations other games are doing, and then taking the best of that. And arguably, perfecting it. One example of the latter is the way every game of Overwatch ends. First of all, we get the team pose. That’s more important than it sounds. Old arcade games used to do that too, and it mattered. It made us feel cool because there we were, on screen, being cool! It’s a small thing, but it actually matters a lot. So does the play of the game. Not so much for who wins it but just because it’s reminiscing. It’s instant nostalgia (see point one), right after instant unity (point 2). Then we have the bit where you vote for who was awesome, and you can vote for the other team! Hello sportsmanship mechanics, plus also a way to share energy. Creative theatre and improv sessions I’ve worked in encourage group energy building by sharing what we liked of other people’s activities and performances. It builds nostalgia, and it builds memory as you replay in your head the best moments and all the feels you created, helping you lodge them into long term memory.

How do you do this at the game table? You already do, I bet. Everyone likes to talk about that great die roll when the orc’s head came flying off. But you probably don’t do it enough, and you might not do it the right way. We all know that nobody wants to hear about your awesome character, because outside the game it doesn’t mean anything. And that’s the problem – you’re pushing the energy out, when it needs to go in. Take time to talk about what was awesome, at the end of the session, in chats between sessions, and at the start of the next one. Recaps tend to suck, nobody wants to jump in and explain, and all that people remember is the BAD things, usually (because that’s how our minds work). Don’t do that. Start – and END – every session not just by summing up the plot (and all the other organising trivia): take a moment to recap (short for recapitulate, seriously) the highlights. Strike a pose. Count coup. Upvote your favourites.

4. Character is Made From Contradictions

Overwatch punches above its weight in the character and story regard. In tiny little portraits it connects us to characters and gives us all the feels about them. How? With contradiction. With the break in the harmony, that has no recapitulation, and thus leaves us aching to heal their pain. What am I babbling about? Everybody’s got two sides. Winston is a big gruff killing machine – who we first saw as a tiny baby, showing off his keen mind and curiosity, which made him a great scientist. Tracer is upbeat and positive, despite her life being wracked by the tragedy of her time accident. Genji is a mechanical monster murdered by his brother, but has a good heart. Hanzo is a killer, haunted by his crimes. Bastion is a killing machine with a heart of an innocent. Reinhardt is a killing machine with the bad back of an old man. Even the villains have it: Widowmaker was brainwashed. Reaper was a good guy driven bad by jealousy. Every one is a one-two punch.

They sound familiar, but again, they’re familiar for a reason. The one-two punch is really good for instant character generation. Not only does the disharmony tug at our heartstrings, it gives them an immediate appearance of depth. We can see inner conflict, which we recognise in ourselves, and which will naturally drive stories. The way to use this in your games is to use it, if only as the initial sketch, for all your characters, PCs or NPCs alike. Come up with a one-two contradiction punch. And just because it’s familiar and simplistic doesn’t mean it can’t be subtle, deep and meaningful. A vengeful son who hesitates to strike is the one-two punch of Hamlet, and he’s famous for being complicated. Having two heads to your character also makes it easier for you to go along with whatever the story hook (and you SHOULD go along with it) – if one side won’t, the other side probably will find a reason to.

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Be Silly

Someone reminded me recently that the silly option is often the best one. Or at least, should not be off the table. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re going for, humans are silly creatures and if we don’t find something silly we will add it ourselves. So yes, you look at Overwatch and go okay I buy the gorilla and the robot but why is there a World of Warcraft dwarf and a cowboy? The answer is because they’re fun. This isn’t just the Rule of Cool though, but the Rule of Silly is worth adding to that one – the very silliness of the concept helps sell it, and silly is an important steam valve we welcome a lot more than we think we do. And we also like cool, too, which cowboys and dwarfs certainly are. Blizzard could have played it safe and cancelled those characters as not really fitting their hyper-modern almost-SF anime stylings, but they didn’t, because they recognised that players are players, and players like certain things. Cowboys and dwarfs, for example. And you gain as much in fun involvement, probably much more, than you lose in any break in “atmosphere”.

This doesn’t mean that atmosphere is worth nothing; Tobjorn has been adjusted to fitting with the weapons designers of the settings and McCree doesn’t look like Jack Marston. Tone and style matters. But as GMs we can all at times be guilty of not getting how a players idea fits with tone or style and we so want to make a deep emotional impression we pump the brakes. But the cowboy option is powerful for two reasons: One, because its player-facing, because it appeals to the kind of player who wants to do this so badly, and will love you forever for letting them, and will love their character all the more for being “allowed” to do it, that extra sense of permission and “rules breaking” adding extra fire to their connection with their character. Two, because as mentioned silly is a valve we all need, and it can make your game feel stronger in all sorts of tiny ways. It can heighten the darkness when set against it, and release the tension when it gets too much, and it helps the players feel that anything can happen. Silly is a key fuel for suspension of disbelief, in other words. Don’t count it out.

It’s a tool, like all the others, that lets players feel connected to their characters. That’s what Overwatch did in a few short strokes: made you fall in love with the characters. The rules help, but they punched out from the get-go with characters you want to ship, who have punchy contradictions, who are silly fun but cut with sorrow, hitting all our buttons at once. Plus the story combines nostalgia with excitement and hits our value centre by focusing on our loyalty to the tribe strand – and helps us connect to each other by sharing the love. You wish your games leapt out so quickly to engage our sense of fun, wonder, sharing and tragedy in a few splashes. But don’t just wish: take notes, and make it so.

 

 

 

Living the Dream

When I was young, games were different.

Sit down, young folks, and let me tell you about it.

The only place to buy anything but scrabble in my city was a placed called Napoleon’s Military Bookshop. It sold AD&D, and only AD&D, and only about five books. All of them cost more money than I could ever afford. It also sold Talisman, and a few Palladium books. All of them cost more money than I could afford. I got the red book D&D which petered out at level 3 and then by the time I was ready for Expert, that BECMI set didn’t exist any more. To get the TMNT RPG, I got my mother to illegally photocopy every single page at her work in her lunch time.

RPGs were like trying to collect stamps. They were expensive and rare and only weird tiny shops sold them and nobody could afford them. Well, not me, anyway. I did get Talisman for my birthday but then my friend got all the supplements so we played with his set more. I hoarded the TMNT books I could find, when I could find them. They were more precious than gold and more costly. And none of it made sense; you were always sifting through the ashes. Here was an adventure for a game you’d never seen the core for; a reboot for a setting you’d never heard of, the vehicle rules for TORG, the miniatures rules for Paranoia, all without context.

I was also into board games you could find in supermarkets, but they were all too expensive as well, and vacuum sealed in plastic so I could never unlock their mysteries. I would stand in the aisles of K-Mart for hours staring at them, willing them to be mine, but they never were. I would go to libraries where they had one – ONE – board game, and find I wasn’t allowed to borrow because I didn’t live in the area. Trying to get my hands on a boardgame was like trying to get some rare Mickey Mantle baseball card, only for a sport nobody has heard of like vigaro. And then nobody wanted to play them with me much either. It was tolerated, thank goodness, by my kind family, but that’s not the same.

So I had this dream, see. I came up with a solution.

A place. A club. It would be in the centre of every city. And it would be a place to play board games and roleplaying games. It would be a big hall just lined with tables. And it would be just a yearly cost to join, or you could visit on a day rate. And – here was the amazing, unbelievable part – it would have a library. It would be stacked floor to ceiling with board games and RPGs and – ANY TIME YOU WANTED – you could take them off the shelves, read them and play them.

For free.

In a safe, quiet space, full of tables.

And maybe even play them.

With other people.

But it was a fantasy. It was in my head with “have a desert island with just me and a hundred dogs” and “win an oscar for my performance as Tanis in the epic films of the Dragonlance saga (which I would also direct)”. It was never going to happen.

To be honest, I still don’t get to play games as much as I want. But that fantasy? Ever single detail came 100% true.

And that is WEIRD AS ALL HELL. To be walking around seeing the things you dreamed of as a kid come true…it would be like finding out Batman was real. Or meeting Tad Williams. Which I’ve done on facebook. We talk often.

I’m not humble bragging. I’m troubled by this. It’s like looking at something that should be an illusion but isn’t.

I imagine, for those younger than me, this seems odd. And probably also for those older than me, or the same age. I never really grew up nerdy, see. Too poor, too isolated, too beaten. It was never my safe space. It wasn’t something I shared with others. It was something I did alone, with no people, and no tools, and no purchases, that nobody would ever understand or appreciate, and I wanted to make a thing I could do out there, with all the things I could never have, or find, or afford, with people who got it, and people who appreciated it.

Everything is insane. Black is white, up is down, and I guess I might as well win that oscar now. Also, please come to my house, I like games.

 

 

 

Gaming With Values

You know about Train, right? The game by Brenda Romero where players compete to load the most people onto little trains and get them to a destination and slowly it becomes clear you are acting out the Holocaust. It (and the associated series) more performance art with a game, but the point is well made. To put it simply: theme matters. But more specifically, theme matters, and story matters, when it intersects with our values.

I can give you an example of this from my own experience. On my first run through on Civilization: Beyond Earth I encountered a story path where you were faced – as is so often the way in modern game design – with an branching choice. One was to send escaping refugees back to their captors (who claimed they were criminals), the other was not. Both options had mechanical value, and the returning option was by far the best one for my game at that point. But with Australian refugee politics as it was, there was no way on earth I felt able to send those people back. Those fictional people, without faces or even symbols in my game; people who were just a sentence.

There are lots of other branching quandaries in the game, all of them about what should be valued over other things – and not just should we build a farm first or a hospital first, but should health care be based on civil sacrifice or given out equally, should religious freedom interfere with scientific progress, and so on. Games prized on their stories, like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have become so famous for their storytelling that branching moral choices are now seen as the default go-to for story-telling. But I stopped playing Mass Effect when the game forced me to destroy the cure for the genophage, a genocidal disease which had killed billions of the krogan, a race whose representative character had become my favourite. I refused. The game could not progress. The game ended, as in I stopped playing and never played again. (Which is a warning to game deisgners: if your story is too good, people might stop playing.)

Again, the whole game was built on value choices. But what mattered was when those hit home. When they encountered MY values.

Not everyone plays games the way I do. Not everyone feels things as acutely as I do. I couldn’t play black when I used to play Magic, for example (too evil). But one of the things we desperately need to learn about game design is how much values are a key part of how human beings interact with the world, and not just because more and more people game like me.

Humans make decisions based less on logic or reason and much more on what we need at any given moment, and those needs depend on where we are on Maslow’s heirarchy. And certainly a lot of stories and games like to talk about that. It is the central appeal of the zombie genre, really: to see how our values at the top of the pyramid, our philosophical and moral values, stand up when the values at the bottom – safety, survival, basic belonging – are threatened. Dead of Winter is a board game about that very thing, although it doesn’t really succeed therein: you can only win by achieving your personal goals so it’s mostly about being a selfish jerk keeping yourself alive at all costs. A far more interesting game in this area is the legendary Pandemic and the unbelievably good Freedom: The Underground Railroad. In both of them success can only be achieved by sacrificing individual lives, which alone takes its toll as the symbolic dead rise (I’ve been told not to describe the deaths of the slaves for each cube I take off the board in Freedom, as it makes the game too painful) but also the game rules mean you can lose if that death toll gets too high. It is literally about balancing achieving the good of the many at the expense of the few – but not too many of the few.

The thing is, this clash of values is actually much more potent to an every day human. For most of us playing board games, our daily struggles are not far down the Maslow scale. If we can afford board games, we typically have food and shelter and safety, and either can’t imagine not having them, or don’t want to remember the times when we didn’t. Yet games are, for historical and technical reasons, typically focused at the bottom of the pyramid. Chess is tactical, but it’s kill or be killed. It makes sense as I said for technical reasons: games tend to be about expending resources to capture positions and we naturally think of that in terms of warfare. Or the other habits of humans: status racing, as we try to build the nicest kingdom, the richest trade empire, the tallest tower. Status is all very well and good, but again, for most of us, not one of our values.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who isn’t a typical gamer and shies away from typical boardgames because they’re full of status competition and being mean to other people. Those people’s values are removed from that, so even in abstract form they don’t want to do it. Let alone in a thematic sense. This is why it was a misstep, I feel, for Bloc by Bloc, a game aimed at people interested in social change, to have hidden goals and betrayal mechanism, because social change people usually don’t like those mechanics because those mechanics go against their values. A much better idea is the full co-op of Rise Up (on kickstarter now).

And that’s the point: engagement peaks and great storytelling comes not when there’s a clash of values but when the values in the story connect with OUR values. Pandemic hits home with me a great deal because I work in public health and social change; ditto Freedom. Much more so than Robinson Crusoe, with its similar mechanics. But mechanics have values attached to them as well, which is why I – being a squishy sentimental wolly-headed bleeding heart – play collaborative games almost exclusively.

Understanding the values your game expresses, in its mechanics and its theme, will tell you what kind of people will want to play your game. And more importantly, who will NOT want to play your game. Or how to expand it or tweak it or reposition it to get in touch with different values in different players. Abstract games are good like that, you can make cubes mean anything you want. So are game variants to suit different mechanical values, or different victory conditions (your business might be richer but my building is taller). And trying to tap into people’s values, to what they personally care about, is a great way to sell games. People like kittens, which is why Exploding Kittens did so well. I used to pitch Guillotine to people by saying “it lets you kill annoying French people”. Because “being annoyed by the French” is a value. Other times I’ve pitched it as “it lets you lead the glorious revolution against the aristo scum” – to socialist types who have that value. Because people think in values, not in logic or reason.

If you’re making your own games, think about what you value. If you’re making RPG characters and want them involved in the adventure, find ways to tag in your own personal values into them – and be careful not to ever tag your values in ways that would compromise going on adventures. A pacifist character who gets dragged into a dungeon crawl is NOT going to be fun if you’re an actual pacifist. On the other hand, a game of something about clashing agendas like Hillfolk, Smallville or Prime Time Adventures might be a great place to tag that agenda into a character, to make those struggles hit home as they reflect your own.

I personally struggle with value clashes all the time, and am constantly curious about how they intersect with social change, politics and psychology. So much so I wrote an RPG about it. Two of them, actually. One very recently called It Is Forbidden, which is about the cultural clash aspect, which was available through the crowdfunding only. And another long long ago called Walk the Line, a Firefly/Serenity emulator where the whole basis of the game was swinging between your own conflicting values. Very very old Steve fans might remember it and expected it to never see the light of day, but it’s here now. What can I say: fulfilling promises and pleasing fans, those are BIG values to me.