Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

February 18, 2008

Ten great things in gaming that you neither know nor care about – Parts 1-2

Filed under: 10 things in gaming,Games,geekery,the interweb she provides — lexifab @ 3:34 pm

Anyone who’s read more than three consecutive Lexifab entries will be aware that I do as much roleplay gaming as my sparse time and limited energy for seeking opportunities and organising people will allow. With as much of the rest of my time as possible, I rather enjoy reading about what’s happening in the roleplaying world, which usually means America-with-a-side-order-of-Europe-and-the-faintest-of-dashes-of-cultural-backwaters-like-Australia. This usually involves trawling the depths of internet discussion groups, design journals and commentator’s blogs. Like virtually everything on the internet, these various resources are a jumble of useful information, infantile ego clashes, sinister misinformation, groundless speculation, boundless creative joy, idiotic misunderstandings, wilful ignorance, communal goodwill and vicious snark. Ah, what would I do without them?

I am conscious that, for whatever reason, not everyone has the time, patience or remotest interest in replicating my gaming research habits. And to be sure, to delve into discussion groups – on subjects such as “Stupidest person you ever gamed with” and “Why halflings are more offensive to Ukrainian gamers than gnomes” or arguments about whether the ultimate face on a d10s should read ‘0’, a ’10’ or a ’00’ on one face – is to risk rapid and traumatic loss of sanity. However, there are a few pearls out there at the moment that are worth dredging to the surface and flogging to the tourists, so to save you some trouble to which you almost certainly never conceived of going, I hereby present a handy list of the New Cool on Gaming, after the cut. If you don’t care, my next entry will no doubt be about babies or cricket. (Warning: this really is seriously long)
1. Podcasts – I didn’t quite finish the series of mini-reviews of gaming podcasts that I started a while ago, and now there are almost too many to keep up with – at least two worthwhile ones have popped up in the couple of months since Connor was born, and with my listening schedule severely curtailed, I’m well behind. Nevertheless podcast shows featuring interviews, reviews and general discussion – “gamer radio”, as it’s been described (and I think maybe one show I don’t listen to is actually called that) – is really helping keep my gaming motor running at the moment while I don’t have the time or energy for much more than the regular weekly game. Given the striking similarity between a roleplaying session and a 1930’s-style improvised radio drama, it’s unsurprising that a radio-like medium is such a powerful tool for promoting the hobby. Most of the following outstanding examples of gaming podcasts are available through iTunes:

  • The Sons of Kryos, the pick of the bunch for my money, this fortnightly show is full of solid information, suggestions and advice aimed at making gaming better. Judd Karlmann is one of the great gaming evangelists on the internet – and following his enthusiastic lead has led to some great stuff I might otherwise not have encountered – but he’s just one of the three great hosts of this show. For a solid recent example, I recommend Episode 52, about the difference between player, character and NPC goals. Typical episodes come in at 45-60 minutes.
  • The Durham 3. Three (actually, four now) guys who live in Durham, North Carolina. They have a great format, splitting each 20-25 minute show into two halves. Before the break, they’ll do a round-table discussion on some gaming fodder topic (typical subjects including recent-ish examples like ending games, gaming group size, playing GM-less games). After that, they go away and play their weekly game (off-mike) then return afterwards cheering excitedly and (probably) punching the air and throwing up the horns a lot as they talk about the game they just played. Their enthusiasm and love of gaming is obvious and infectious. They take such pure joy in what they’re playing that it’s impossible not to want the same for yourself.
  • Have Games, Will Travel. Paul Tevis is the best games reviewer in the podcasting business, hands down. He does roleplaying, board and card games. After one of his reviews, you’ll have the oddest feeling you’ve played the game he’s told you about. That’s how good he is.
  • 2D6 Feet in a Random Direction. Two guys – one of whom owns a hobby store in Oakland CA called Endgame – talk about the gaming industry (mostly focused on roleplaying and war games, but most stuff gets a look in). They’re really engaging speakers, and they talk about a good mix of old school and newer styles of games, but I like this one most for their insights into the business of being a part of the game industry.
  • This is going on too long and it’s just the first item. So, to summarise a few more recommendations: Canon Puncture (just three guys chatting, lots of fun, somewhat obsessed with Battlestar Galactica); Green Ronin Publishing (the principals of one of the better game publishers talk about what’s happening with their products and in the industry, and it’s compelling rather than sucking like I made it sound); The Voice of the Revolution (the premier distribution/fulfilment house for the better small press “indie” games, includes more Paul Tevis); Godzilla Gaming Broadcast (two guys podcasting from either side of the Pacific, some Japanese emphasis, one of them is Australian) and some solo shows, all of which contain golden juicy gaming goodness: Master Plan, Theory from the Closet, Stabbing Contest and Independent Insurgency.

2. Actual play recordings – I use my mp3 player (a functional but hopelessly antiquated iRiver T30 missing the back battery cover, a product so obsolete it appears nowhere on the site linked) primarily to listen to podcasts and sometimes for voice recording, either writing or game ideas breathlessly committed to digital posterity for later recognition of their inspired genius, or more usually to record entire game sessions for future reference. The reasons for my doing so are obscure – usually I use them to help me type up session notes later on, or to reconstruct what happened during passages of play that moved too quickly to follow, let alone commit to memory – but they are manifestly for personal use rather than widespread publication.

Happily, there are others in the gaming universe who are a little more willing to share their games with anyone prepared to download and listen to them. Once you go looking, it’s possible to find quite a few recordings of people’s gaming sessions. Sometimes these are snappy, well-edited highlights of no more than 20 minutes. More often they’re meandering, unfocused, pause-filled, warts-and-all recordings more than three hours in length. Sure, listening to someone else’s game – redolent as these things are with unidentifiable players speaking over the top of one another, tedious rules discussions and book referencing, risible in-character discussions complete with idiotic accents, sudden spikes in sound levels as handsful of dice hit the table and bounce off the recorder, interruptions as someone answers their mobile or otherwise has a long one-sided conversation with someone out of earshot – sounds unendurably dull, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I find them fascinating.

For one thing, the thing that drew me to the idea in the first place, they’re a very useful tool for learning how a game is supposed to play. A lot of the newer small press games have some pretty radical and challenging modes of play, which can be cool to read about, but which occasionally leave you scratching your head wondering how it’s all supposed to work in a real live game. For someone who finds it easier to learn by observation than by self-teaching from instructions, these are a godsend. When I was trying to figure out how the hell the scene economy of Burning Empires is supposed to work, listening to the Prometheus Chained series of recordings of a bunch of guys in Winnipeg helped make sense of it for me. Now, I’m not for a second saying that anyone should have to listen to upwards of a dozen recordings over three hours in length just to understand how a game works – if the rules are that impenetrable, then they should never have been published in the first place. But listening to how others interpret it or figure things out can help to crystallise procedures and if you’re on the border they can give a feel for whether a game might be one you’re interested in trying out for yourself. I know that it was the recordings of a Primetime Adventures convention game (called Life on Mars, no relation to the sublime British time travel/Sweeney mashup show – and warning, that’s a link to the mp3 itself, so don’t click on it if’n you don’t wanna listen) that helped sell me on that game. More recently, the cunning human marketing engine that is Fred Hicks released a recording of a convention playtest for an upcoming game called Escape or Die! that has me slavering for more.

The other reason that I find these recordings so fascinating is that it’s such a strange evolution of the form. For much of its history, roleplaying has been characterised by the fact that it’s essentially performance art where the audience are the performers themselves. It’s an ephemeral form, having no more lasting impact than the collective memory of the participants, the impressions formed by anyone who hears about the game later (the dreaded “Let me tell you about my character” syndrome) and potentially a handful of supplementary artefacts like session writeups, maps, pictures and so on. The capacity to easily and cheaply ‘bottle the lightning’ has the curious effect of both elevating the game by making it possible to both enjoy again and disseminate to non-participants, and diminishing it in the sense that it no longer belongs solely to that moment and those players.

Also, this is clearly is the first step in turning ordinary introverted nobodies into superstar performers of legendary acclaim and universal fame. It’s inevitable, really.

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