Friday, August 13, 2010


So I just got back from Gencon. There were a few cool things I did here. First, I did some of the same stuff I did at Origins, including some of the same LARPs, an exhibit hall where they were doing demos of games, and some rooms where there were board games set up that you can play. There were a few things I did that were different and worth talking about:

NSDM: They were running the NSDM (National Security Decision Making Game) here again. I played in it but this time it was a lot less exciting than the first two times. Part of it may be because this time there were three cells, so I only got to see about one third of what was going on. Another thing I found is that since so much is based on the actions of the players, it really can be exciting or dull depending on what the players do. While I am glad I participated in NSDM the first few times as it gave me plenty of ideas for blog posts and was really cool, I will probably not do it again. Part of the problem seems to be that in order to get things done in the game you have to be able to deceive and manipulate people, and that's not really my strong suit.

True Dungeon: This is a really cool LARP-like event that is run only at GenCon. When you go into the game, you are given a bag of 10 "treasure tokens" and then get sent into a "training area" where you choose which character class you want to play. You go in as a party, and it is based on Dungeons and Dragons except that instead of rolling dice, you do different physical challenges to do your thing - for example, fighters have to slide pucks on a shuffleboard to hit their opponents, wizards have to memorize a chart with various "planes" on it to cast their spells, and so on. During the game you can earn more treasure tokens by opening locked chests and completing certain challenges. At the end you get to keep your treasure tokens for future events. Some groups have been doing this for a while and have accumulated whole piles of treasure tokens. You go through a series of rooms, and you have exactly 12 minutes in each room, so it is pipelined so that there is one group in each room at a time. Sometimes there are puzzles in the rooms and sometimes there are monsters to fight. This was cool although expensive ($35 for one two-hour adventure if you pay in advance, or $40 if you pay at the door).

Seminars: Also at the convention there were seminars, usually given by game designers and publishers, where they revealed information on upcoming games and discussed different aspects of game design. I went to one of the seminars, entitled "The Myth of Game Balance." The presenters' thesis was that modern role-playing games are too focused on "game balance" - meaning the idea that all the characters should be roughly equal in power (or at least that everyone has an equal amount to contribute, even if they contribute in different ways) - and that that makes it harder to to tell good stories in role-playing games. Some examples they gave were:

- In RPGs, wizards are almost always physically weak and fragile compared to other types of characters. This is almost totally an invention of RPGs because wizards need a drawback to balance out their spellcasting ability - in fiction and literature, wizards are often also accomplished swordsmen.

- In superhero stories, different characters have vast differences in powers - e.g. Superman can do almost anything, while some minor characters have much more limited powers. If all characters are restricted to having roughly equal power then this type of story does not work.

- Games often have many rules and restrictions that keep certain powers from becoming too powerful and making sure characters are balanced - for instance, spellcasters might be limited to casting a certain number of times per day, or some games have complicated point systems that you use to calculate how much each power is worth. This can make it so players are more focused on the mechanics, and less on the story.

The presenters spent about the first 10-15 minutes laying out their ideas, and then the rest of the one hour seminar was discussion and questions from the audience. I asked him what he thought of the HERO System, because I thought that was a counterexample to his thesis - the HERO System does have a complicated point system to "balance" characters, but it is designed so you can make whatever kind of powers and characters you want, and can tell basically whatever story you want. (And if you want to have characters with differing power levels you can just give them different numbers of points.) He said that he had heard of that system but it just illustrated his problem because of all the complicated rules; he said that one time he had played a HERO game and the DM had created a character, and he had a bow as a weapon. However they had to rebuild the character as soon as they got into the first fight because the DM realized he had forgotten to give the bow a ranged attack, so he couldn't actually shoot arrows out of it.

Another idea I brought up was that focusing on the game mechanics doesn't have to detract from the story; it can actually add to it. I gave the example of an item from Dungeons and dragons (this is an actual item in one of the books, not something I made up) that tells you how many hit points a target has. He thought this was "silly" and didn't want to hear about it further. The point I wanted to make, though, is that such an artifact, despite having a power that involves the game rules (like hit points) so specifically, actually has a lot of story possibilities. Would it be possible to use the artifact to identify "future heroes" based on their hit point values, since in the game PCs (player characters) have different rules for determining how many hit points they start out with then NPCs? How much of the system would they be able to figure out using this information? How would people react to a device that could tell them this information? Would bad guys be able to use the device for nefarious purposes, or try to steal it?

Overall, though, it was a very interesting seminar and I will try to go to more seminars at future conventions. Also they told me about a funny book they published called "Qerth", a campaign setting for their "QAGS" (Quick A** Game System) that makes fun of Dungeons and Dragons. For example, some of the special powers include "Detect Player Character" (used for identifying other PCs in a busy tavern to meet at the beginning of the game), "Cheese Identification," and "Find And Remove Traps" (hint: think acronym). You can create characters with character classes such as "Murderer", "Rabbi", and "Troubadour," and then fight monsters such as the "Flesh-Eating Caruso", "Troglophile," and "Corner Barbarian" in an exciting afternoon of "Fantasy Adventure Gaming" (hint: see previous hint).


Dan Mont said...

Sounds like an action packed event. Were there any of your compatriots from Urbana there? Did you learn anything you can suggest to the guy who runs the gaming store?

$35 for two hours is a little expensive, but it is a lot less than a Broadway musical.

Alexander Mont said...

There were some LARPers from Champaign there doing the swordfighting demos. Some of the board gamers from Champaign were there but I didn't see them - I only heard they were there when I got back.