Search Results for: role-playing games

Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

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Speak with Monsters

Screen shot 2010-06-22 at 11.39.46 PM.pngAs a palate cleanser after the previous eye-rolling meta-post, allow me to offer a link to Lore Sjöberg’s Speak with Monsters, a gameish webcomic I admire for its doing a lot with a narrow subject space. Specifically, Sjölberg wanders up and down the pages of 1977’s original Monster Manual from first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, adapting its uneven but unforgettable artwork and Gary Gygax’s far-out descriptive text and and rules into a series of four-panel comic strips.

It starts out on a high note with a cartoon starring that mustachioed dude from the original book’s “Rot Grubs” illustration (who quickly becomes a recurring character), and continues to explore other oddities of the Gygax era like Shambling Mounds, Bulettes, and, er, Herd Animals. If you’re like me (where “like me” might mean that you burned all the original Monster Manual illustrations to memory as a child), you’ll gulp down the whole mad menagerie in a sitting, and then subscribe for more.

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[Boston] GAMBIT Talk: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

For those who can make it to the Kendall Square area on Friday, GAMBIT is hosting Jeff Howard for a talk on magic systems. Here's the synopsis:

GAMBIT Talks: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

Friday April 9th, 5-7 pm.

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor (near the Kendall Sq T Stop)

Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

In his talk, Jeff Howard discusses ideas for creating magic systems that are more fun, meaningful, and interactive than those typically seen in many role-playing games. Weaving together examples such as the operatic magic systems of Demon's Souls and the multi-sensory magical language of Eternal Darkness, Howard suggests that the magic systems of the future should draw upon the occult teachings of the past in order to create magical grammars that take input from a variety of sensory modes, including gesture, music, voice, and color. Drawing on many concrete gaming examples, including his game-in-progress Arcana Manor, Howard argues that the total art of opera and the enacted symbolism of contemporary occultist "workings" provide a model for a magical grammar that is connotative rather than purely denotative, i.e. in which gameplay enchants players on multiple levels of emotion and idea.

Jeff Howard is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

GAMBIT does various game-related things on many Fridays, but they usually start at 4:30, a bit early for me to make it from work, so I'm happy to see this one starting at 5.

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My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.

Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.

One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.

Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.

Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.

Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.

The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.


The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.

When we play, we excavate.

Read the whole thing, please.

Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.

I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.

I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.

Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).

Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.

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The Isomorphism of Clerics

Medic and Cleric.pngTwo years after purchasing it (mostly because Portal was on the same disc), I have started regularly playing Team Fortress 2. My delay came from my general lack of enthusiasm about first-person shooters. My writing about it here comes from surprising insights about my own relationship with games that struck me soon after I began to play it.

On the surface, TF2 is an intentionally silly online-only shooter where players, after choosing one of nine character classes, leap into a battle whose goal is one of the time-tested multiplayer FPS standards: capture the flag, king of the hill, or base attack/defense. Sometimes I mix it up with whichever random folks happen to be online when I'm feeling scrappy. My "real" games, though, occur on Sunday evenings with a group known as Clan Elysium who operate out of the web forum Geezer Gamers, a haven for grown-up Xbox Live fans. These times have proven to be some of the most fun I've ever had sitting on the couch with a controller in my hands, and friend, I'd logged a lot of hours under those conditions before this.

There have been three major effects of this experience. First of all, it's reignited my interest in online digital games, both as a player and a ludeaste, and led me to reconsider what kinds of video games deserve the treasure of my attention right now. It also threw some wood under Planbeast, the project I soft-launched last year and then all but ignored; a subsequent post I made to the Geezers' forum unexpectedly led to a small boom of use for that site, and I spent a happy week responding to bug reports that resulted in several significant improvements to the service.

But what I want to write about here comes from the surprising insight this game afforded me regarding the play style I favor, and what this teaches me about unexpected connections between very different kinds of games.

You will not be shocked to learn that I spent much of my youth playing Dungeons & Dragons, and various other games like it. I still manage to sneak a quick session in once every few years, just to touch base. And both then and now, when it's time to create a character, I roll up a Cleric (or whatever the cleric-analogue is in the RPG system at hand). That is, I choose to play a character who, tactically speaking, is perfectly decent at combat, but whose real value in a fight lay in their ability to heal and "buff" (cast ability-enhancing spells on) their allies.

I have always preferred the particular rhythm that Cleric characters enjoy. In combat, rather than primarily focusing on how to mash the most damage onto the enemy in the shortest time, Clerics instead keep their eyes on their friends. They must actively manage their limited resources (such as the limited number of spells they can fire off) to not just keep their allies' health topped up, but apply the most appropriate buffs to the right combatants at the best times. As an RPG campaign wears on, a good cleric learns how their friends play, and optimizes their strategy to best complement them. The rest of the party, in turn, learns to put a lot of trust in their Cleric. Over time, through communication and repeated play, the team can become a truly formidable force, with the Cleric at its hub.

Clerics are the support units of real-world combined-arms strategy, transformed and abstracted into individuals on the fantasy battlefield. They are perfect for players like me, who get more of an emotional lift from the feeling of helping to drive the whole team forward and keeping it glued together, rather than being part of the front-line offense that's actually putting the smack down on the assembled orcs or whatnot.

Come back to this year: I am not a hardcore fan of shooters. So, while learning Team Fortress 2, I initially messed around with the Heavy and the Pyro: two big sloppy damage-dealing classes that are friendly to beginners because of their general disdain for subtlety. (I would suggest their doubles in D&D to be the Fighter and the Mage, respectively.) After a few games, though, I had gravitated towards the class that has become far and away my favorite to play: the Medic.

This character has some fighting ability, armed with an oversized bonesaw and a gun that can burp out a stream of deadly hypodermic needles. (If you didn't already know, TF2 is not a game that relies on real-world practicality in its achievement of goofily hyperviolent cartoon combat.) The Medic's main armament, however, is a "Medigun" that shoots a magical healing-energy ray at teammates. A few seconds' worth of zap can restore a grievously injured friend to the pink of health. All players can press a button to call for their team Medic's aid, causing a directional indicator to appear on the Medic player's screen. As such, one of a Medic's main jobs involves scooting around the battlefield, patching up his allies as needed.

The Medigun can also act as a buff, and in practice (at least in the games I've played) this tends to be its more common role. When used on a healthy character, it increases their health past its usual cap. Furthermore, by keeping their medigun trained on a ally and following them into battle, a Medic make them a much more fearsome combatant, with their wounds healing as soon as they receive them.

This feature leads to some interesting tactics, on both sides. A smart opponent, seeing a foe approaching with a tethered Medic - the bright glow of the Medigun's beam is a dead giveaway - will focus all their fire on the Medic before engaging the primary threat. A smart Medic anticipates this antipathy, moving constantly and seeking cover will still keeping that crucial health-beam connected with their friend. The friend, in turn, needs to both dish out the damage to the bad guy while also keeping the Medic, his meal ticket, safe from harassment.

All told, I find it a fascinating microcosm of the teamwork that defines the whole game (it's right in the title, after all), and one that's entirely and elegantly emergent from the simple rules that define the Medigun.

Much as with the cleric, a Medic's player starts building strong relationships with their teammates. In one recent game, I was finding a lot of mutual success teaming up with my team's Pyro, repeatedly breaking up enemy positions with our Medigun-enhanced sweeps of flame. At one point, after I had broken off to go tend to an injured ally, the Pyro noticed some more enemy activity, but then saw that I had left. Over our team's voice channel, she asked, "Where'd my medic go?" We all laughed about her asserted possessiveness, but I accepted the accidental compliment as well: were making a fine team-within-a-team.

It occurred to me that the particular joy I felt after a really solid game full of highly silly yet emotionally intense battlefield medicine - and joy really is an appropriate word, here - was the same that I'd feel after an eventful D&D session where my priestly character got to show his stuff, knowing without a doubt that his divine incantations had proved instrumental to the whole party's success.

More interestingly, I hadn't felt this way since the last time I'd played a paper-and-pencil role-playing game around a table with friends. This despite the fact that I'd played any number of digital RPGs where I controlled characters with "Cleric" printed on their stat screens, casting pretty, particle-effect-laden spells labeled "Heal".

Like a lot of post-collegiate RPG lovers, I sumblimated my loss of access to regular tabletop D&D sessions by playing computer games that emulated their rules. In games like Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights, you begin play by creating a single D&D-style character, and once again I would always create a cleric. Why wouldn't I?

But I overlooked a key difference: in single-player games were you control an entire party of adventurers, they are all essentially "you" (even if some are AI-controlled to some degree, a la Mass Effect). Casting a healing spell on an ally carries all the emotional urgency of choosing to move one's rook rather than a bishop in a game of Chess. It's a matter of cold tactics based on seeing all your pieces as entirely under your control, rather than the improvised, trust-driven play one can only find in multiplayer games. The reward for playing your clerical powers well drops from "Wow, guys, we make a hell of a team" to "OK, I have overcome yet another designed obstacle, and can advance to the next chapter".

I did not truly realize what I was missing until I slipped on the TF2 Medic's ridiculously large rubber gloves, despite all the superficial differences this character has from my beloved faux-medieval warrior-priests. While being quite different in both medium and genre, TF2 benefits from exactly the same sense of dynamism that one finds in a good D&D session - albeit writ in triple-time. This kind of team play involving other humans is the only environment that the clerical archetype flourishes in, no matter what kind of container it's been poured into. Whether the pace is a measured turn-by-turn affair with miniatures on a tabletop, or a real-time computer-moderated finger-twitching exercise, I find both my motivation to favor this play style and the rewards I take away from it identical.

When I started playing Team Fortress 2 on a lark last month, the last thing I expected to happen was a rediscovery of a particular kind of ludic joy I didn't even know I'd lost. It's a surprise testament to the way that a common spirit can unite two games with wildly disparate play mechanics, and one that drives me to spend more time investigating online games to see what else I can unearth. With luck, I'll find spaces to explore outside of the American obsession with first-person shooters - but that is a story for another time.

Image credit: Picture-frame photo by D Sharon Pruitt; Medic image yoinked from the TF2 Wiki, who in turn got it from the game itself; Cleric illustration from the 1st Edition AD&D Players' Handbook by correct-me-if-I'm-wrong David C. Sutherland III.

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The Nephilim notebooks

I have been an on-again, off-again role-playing game player since I first discovered the hobby in high school. Since moving back to Boston at the start of this decade, I've had the pleasure of playing with some remarkably creative game masters. The first of these was Joshua Wright, an archaeologist and world traveler who expertly applied his first-hand knowledge and experience of cultures past and present to help guide and shape the stories that our group would tell together.

Josh recently departed for greener scholarly pastures on the left coast. After settling in there, he put back up online some web pages, PDFs, and other digital goodies that he'd made as supplementary material for the many games he's run over the last couple of decades. The campaign I played in is under the red "Nephilim" link; it was an instance of Nephilim, an RPG of supernatural secret histories.

I link to them here with Josh's permission, and present them without further context, both because they are more delightfully mysterious that way, and because I am lazy. I invite players and GMs of all role-playing game types to poke around; among the character sketches, plot outlines and historical-fact (and "historical"-"fact") compilations, you may find some unexpected inspiration.

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Game Chef indie RPG competition

Kynn Bartlett alerted me to Game Chef, an annual role-playing game deign competition. (Kynn's one of the entrants, with his game Awesome Women Kicking Ass.) As its name suggests, it's inspired by the TV show "Iron Chef", insofar as each year's competition stipulates a "secret ingredient"-style restriction on its entrants, who then have only have a week or so to create an entire, playable game.

This year, the contest was split into two parts; artist-entrants had a week to sumbit sets of black-and-white illustrations for RPGs that didn't exist, and the following week the designer-entrants picked up those sets and designed games around them. The competition closed a few days ago, and is currently in a judging phase - I look forward to reviewing the entries myself!

I know about the existence of indie RPG design culture from listening to the Ogre Cave Audio Report, a podcast involving Gameshelf friend Mike Sugarbaker. It's turned me on to fascinating games I'd really like to try playing sometime, including Dogs in the Vineyard (which puts players in the role of heavily armed clerics in alt-universe frontier America) and the Shab-al-Hiri Roach (where academic politicking and the schemes of ancient insect gods collide in an early-1900s New England university).

I'd love to put a short session on the show somehow, but even a short one would probably be too long to film with a full crew. Which isn't to say we can't do it anyway...

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Computer Role-Playing Games

Since this is my first post, a bit of an introduction. My name is Kevin Jackson-Mead, and you can see my lovely face in Gameshelf Episode 1 (playing Shadows over Camelot) and Gameshelf Episode 3 (playing Gnostica). My current favorite game is usually one that I have recently learned, but right now it's Strange Synergy, an old favorite (anyone want to play?). By day, I am an editor at a book publisher where I am responsible for, among other things, books on computer game development.

Some of the books may be interesting to this audience, but I don't want want to come on here and plug my books all the time. However, a book that just came out is, I think, particularly relevant, so I'll get the plugging out of the way with my first post.

I would imagine that the genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is known to most people reading this, but the basic idea is tabletop role playing (like Dungeons & Dragons) brought to the computer desktop (or console). My introduction to this genre was via my uncle, who played the Ultima games. I only watched him play a little bit, and I never ended up playing the Ultima games, but I do remember that one of the games came with a cloth map and a metal ankh. I now know that this was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is widely considered to be the best in the series and even one of the best computer games ever.

The first CRPG that I played on my own computer (Commodore 64) was Phantasie. I was completely thrilled with all of the stats, figuring out what spells my wizards and priests could get at what level, the Tolkienesque theme, the little noises during combat—pretty much everything about the game. I ended up playing all three games in the series. I later played Pool of Radiance, the first of SSI's "Gold Box" games. I made lots of maps on graph paper for that game, and it was also a magical experience for me. Perhaps my favorite part of the game was the combat, which was a turn-based combat that had the feel of combat played out on a tabletop with miniatures. I played at least six of these "Gold Box" games, perhaps the favorite of which was the second one, Curse of the Azure Bonds (yes, I realize now that starting a story with the main charcater(s) having amnesia is hackneyed, but it enthralled my thirteen-year-old self).

Over the years, I dabbled with a few other CRPGs, but I never got into any as much as I did these first ones. Fast forward to Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games (I'll spare you the story of how this book came to be, but I will point out that the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell, renowned fantasy artists whose art graced some of the "Gold Box" games). In working on this book, I was introduced to my old friends Phantasie and Pool of Radiance, and I was introduced to many new friends. The book tells the history of the genre, starting with the earliest games and going right through to the present day. It talks about what was good and not so good about these games, what design decisions were made and how these affected gameplay, and how these games influenced later games.

It got me excited about the genre again. And so when I saw a mini review of a shareware computer role-playing game recently, I decided to give it a whirl. The game is Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia, originally published in 1993. You play a fixer, a member of a group whose aim is to keep time in order, or something. You're sent to this land where there has been some kind of problem detected. That frame story doesn't matter much once the game gets started, however; you're basically in a standard swords-and-sorcery game.

It is very much in the style of the Ultima games, and it is an homage to them. I found it challenging while still being doable, although I admit to checking out the walkthrough for a few things here or there—although only once for something other than as an alternative to taking notes. Because you're going to have to take a lot of notes in this game. There are many different quests, and you get little bits of information from talking to people scattered throughout the land. A piece of information, however, doesn't make sense until you have gotten to a certain point in a particular quest, so you either need to have a good memory or take many notes (or cheat). The nice thing about all of these quests is that they are not linear, so that if you get stuck on one quest, you can switch to working on another quest. There's lots of running around the map for some of the quests, but I found that, after a while, the monsters you encounter are no longer a problem, so it's simply a matter of the time it takes.

I made a tank of a character (a giant warrior), and after suffering through a few levels of barely scraping together enough money to get healed and eat, I became powerful enough to survive for a while, and then I discovered a few key spells (mostly the healing spells) that a warrior can cast. After that, it became pretty easy to survive just about anything (I did occasionally get killed when I would get hit by a sleep spell and then get pounded to death while I blissfully snoozed).

I've never really reviewed a computer game before like this, so I'm sure I'm botching this somewhat. Let me just say that this is an extremely enjoyable game, and I highly recommend it if you're at all a fan of old-school CRPGs, especially the Ultima series. There's a sequel, too, called Excelsior Phase Two: Errondor, although I haven't played that one yet.

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