Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rethinking my Character Sheets

So, my main computer's hard drive just stopped working.  After just getting gimp/inkscape/files set up to make more silhouettes-- after months of struggling to get data off of my last computer's dead hard drives.  In defiance of the fates that are hounding me I want to post a bit about character sheets.

Index cards or notebook paper are fine if you have a few experienced players.  If you're going to have new players, character sheets need a bit more to them to help players understand and navigate all their character's info.  You can see one solution I came up with here.  And, one I was very proud of, a character sheet that folded up to hold handouts here.

But, if you have different players rotating in and out and/or a lot of player deaths, you can end up with a lot of these.  And if you're a traveling DM like me, they can get lost in the shuffle.  Also, the player handouts I give like maps and such, are often too big to fit in that neat little character sheet 2.0 I designed.  So, last time I met with my group I mentioned I was thinking of going to full-sized character sheets so I wouldn't lose them.  And one of my players mentioned "yeah, and clipboards we can all write on." 

That gave me the idea to glue a character sheet onto a manilla envelope and slide something stiff inside that.

The idea being that these would be big enough to not lose, capable of storing whatever players want inside, and stiff enough to function as a clipboard they can write on when we play.

I had two stiff plastic three ring binders that I actually hate as three ring binders.  I chopped them up with a paper cutter and they were perfect as stiffeners for my envelopes.

I need to print character sheets and glue them on the front (and backside on the back) now.  I downloaded a few but they all have clutter I don't use in my game (like lots of space for the old saving throw categories or to-hit rolls because they use descending AC).  I can make my own, but that will take a bit of work (like finding my icon/symbol files from my old computer's data recovery).  But I thought the idea might work well for you if you have a similar play environment (no game table, dim lighting, and adult beverages in abundance).  Let me know if it works well for you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An Interview about Wayscape

I was contacted by Patrick Mooney about a project he's working on.  I was interested so I thought an interview might be the best way to find out more about it and the purpose of it.  The project is called Wayscape and involves different real world play groups existing in the same shared world.  You'll find out more specifics below.

So, first, can you giving me a bit of your gaming background?

I've been interested games since I was young, with my favorites quickly becoming videogames with a strong narrative or experiential focus like Morrowind or Shadow of the Colossus.  Around high school I discovered the late, great Dungeons and Dragons CRPGs and quickly fell in love with Planescape: Torment.  I first started playing tabletops at the very tail end of AD&D, learning to GM while working my way up through various D20 rulesets and branching out to other systems like GURPS and World of Darkness.

Yeah, Torment was just really interesting, I think Morrowind fits that same bill in my mind, where I, as a player, didn't know what to expect.  Did you ever play Neverwinter Nights?  It had that Dungeon Master feature.  And how about your experience with MMOs or online play through G+ or virtual table tops?  I'm also curious about your experience DMing, did you find it difficult, did you attempt to engage your players in grand narratives?

I first got involved with early 2nd wave Massively Multiplayer Online games like Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies, always playing on the unofficial roleplaying server.  I worked on a few large-scale plots with some guilds I participated in, but communication was mostly limited to forum posts in those days, so it was difficult sometimes to get any traction.  Because I was a little late to the tabletop scene I missed out on the big experiments like Living Greyhawk or the White Wolf apocalypse master-plot, but they're fascinating (and certainly divisive) case studies. The ideas that eventually became Wayscape started when I checked out some old-school MUDs and Neverwinter Nights, logging a ton of hours particularly in NWN2 persistent world servers.  Think of them like small, DIY-style MMOs.  The community is small and specialized enough that players and GMs talk every day, and basically anyone can propose a new plotline if they have a cool enough idea.  The downside is that it can be difficult on a technical level to implement new content, and the game engine is mostly concerned with combat, not narrative.

Aha, I thought NWN might be down your alley.  So, what exactly is Wayscape?

So Wayscape is a web-based map system for massively scaled roleplaying.  We built it as a tool for living world campaigns; an online environment that's shared between many different groups of players.  Gamemasters can push changes to the map in real time, allowing playergroups to leave their mark on the world.  They do this by dropping pins we call Narrative Objects; markers that stand for characters, places, or events, which can be updated over time.   Currently we're using the D&D 5th edition ruleset, although we plan to support other systems in the future.

So, if I've got a group playing here in Fresno and we loot a tomb, a game group in Seattle coming to that tomb will find it looted?  Assuming this is true, do you have a certain buffer distance you put between where groups are playing on the map, or are they able to be, say, in the same city at the same time?

That's right, although we're more concerned with creating plot hooks than inventorying someone's session. GMs can create new Narrative Objects, even flag them private so only their party can see them on the map.  So if the second GM really wanted to run a dungeon crawl, they could always make a new haunt in a different location.  Or, they could incorporate what happened in the crypt into their story.  Maybe ghouls from deep within have emerged after their resting place was desecrated and wander the countryside.  Maybe a cleric from a nearby village has arrived, and asks the players to investigate a mystery that the first group's adventure uncovered.
        We tossed around the notion of tying players' physical location to in-game geography, and decided against it for our current prototype.  I think it's a cool idea, but it really only works for some types of games.  In the long term, we want users to be able to create their own worlds and have some flexibility with sharing and persistence options.  But for right now we're playtesting a basic proof of concept.

 Ok, so players can't really bump into each other or interfere with each other in a resource competitive way.  Would you say Wayscape is, overall, about trying to make worldbuilding easier and richer by having DMs share pieces (these Narrative Objects) they are already having to create for their own games?  I suppose another way this might be different than just running your own group is that things would be happening in the world as time passes so there would be constant sort of external prompts of creativity for a DM.  I mean, it wouldn't be just that a npc created by another DM would save me work, but I didn't expect that npc to show up at that time and that gives me something to bounce story ideas of of.  Am I on the right track?

That's right.  Ideally, Wayscape will slip seamlessly into a GM's regular prep time.  We want it to be quick and intuitive, to cut the bureaucracy out of living world systems.  I think the most interesting and fundamental way different playgroups can interact with one another is by cross-pollinating content, in effect.

These Narrative Objects are still neutral though, so one playgroup's actions might affect another's in a deleterious way.  For instance, Playgroup A could have a brawl and burn down the tavern that Playgroup B uses as a home base.  When Playgroup B has their next session, they realize that the world is growing and changing, sometimes out of their control.

They could chose to help rebuild the tavern, or maybe hire some mercenaries (so long as both GMs approve) to go after the other party.  We have plans for more sophisticated PvP systems later on, but for right now we want to use a simple "cold war" actions for rivalries between playgroups.

To continue with the idea of shared world building, are there communal encounter lists?  I suppose anything you could encounter might be a narrative object but where you encounter them and how likely might be dependent on the a more overarching view of how you want the world to feel.

Is there anything you would like readers to know?  And, finally, how would someone get involved if they are interested?

There aren't encounter lists per se, though I'll look into that idea.  As far as monsters go, we have a Bestarium page that lists creatures (old and new) appropriate to Shrouded Isles, as well as templates so GMs can use to adapt entries from the Monster Manual.  The idea to establish a certain atmosphere for the world, but to still give GMs creative freedom to add new story elements.  That's why a lot of the Codex entries are based on folklore, or have stories of vague or conflicting events.  A lot of the history has been lost to time, because we want to embrace different perspectives and allow the narrative objects to get a little messy.

We're always looking for new GMs, players, and collaborators!  We're just starting to build a community around Wayscape and the Shrouded Isles campaign is taking off. User feedback is really important to us moving forward, and we want Wayscape to become the best tool available for living world campaigns.  If you're interested in participating, please get in touch with me at info@wayscape.net. 

I don't have any experience with living roleplaying systems or even mmos, so I might have been the wrong person to interview about this.  And yet, when I first looked at Wayscape I thought it was more about story driven play (that's why I was asking Patrick about grand narratives above) so it was helpful to realize that its kind of communal world prep might actually be something that a old school minimalist like myself could find very helpful.  So in that sense, if readers of this blog are similar to me, then this may have been a great place to have the interview.

Also, my questions were about sussing out what the project's goals were.  I don't particularly want PVP.  From my experience every online game ever devolves into PVP and I think D&D can be much more interesting than just trying to exterminate or out-compete other parties.

Feel free to add your own questions in the comments.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

8 Recent Open World Video Games II

I think I'll talk about two similar games in this post: Salt and Stranded Deep.  Stranded Deep is basically a Castaway simulator with relatively realistic graphics of islands and sea life.  Salt is a more cartoonish island-exploring game where your main enemy is the pirates that pepper various islands.

But both involve gather rocks and sticks, crafting tools, acquiring food, and exploring infinite islands.  These games focus more on the exploration part of a sandbox game than some of the others on my list, and island hopping is a really good way to do that.

I think the strong point of Salt is that the islands you find can be quite different.  Some have pirate encampments, some ancient ruins.  I found an ancient altar once, and have found merchants that traded with me and gave me a simple quest.  I've hunted black deer at sunset and had a few terrifying nights fighting spiders by torchlight.

While you can build better boats as you get more materials and the books that teach you how to build them, one thing I found myself craving was the ability to make a change in the world-- to build a house or somehow make an island mine.  But the world is not a voxel world, and when I last played the only things you could build on land where a campfire and a flag.

The worst thing about Salt for me was the poor quality of the art work for the pirates and the item icons in the UI.  I realize the game is still in development and that you might want to put some placeholder artwork in a game you are making, but if your main enemy is going to be pirates I think you need to find artist to make you a better representation, even if a cartoony one.  The item icons are small and cartoony and I would often have a hard time distinguishing them.

Stranded Deep
It is really cool to be able to dive into a shipwreck and find random loot in them.  After a while you know all the possible items you can find in this game, but more items could be added- the point is that this setup scratches a fundamental exploration/scavenging itch I have.  It's also neat to be paddling along and see a marlin, a sea turtle, or a great white shark.  There are whales and sea urchins and sting rays too.

One of the things that get's frustrating is dealing with your limited inventory.  I think this is another common way some of these 8 games try to make themselves more difficult and more "realistic" than minecraft by limiting how much you can carry.  But when you have to go from island to island with sharks trying to bump you off your shaky raft carrying your precious bundle of sticks, rocks, and palm fronds, it can get irritating.  I wonder why I can't make a raft of logs and then break it up at another island, or at least tie a bundle of fronds or sticks to my raft.

Another thing that bugged me was the way the game renders distant islands.  Islands in your peripheral vision zoom closer and then zoom back out when you look directly at them.  It makes it quite disorienting when trying to judge which island is closest and which you were trying to reach before the sharks attacked you and you lost your line of sight.

But I'd say the most disappointing thing is the homogeneity of the islands.  Yes, they have interesting assortments of wrecks around them, but once you've seen one of the islands you've seen them all.  The game really needs some islands that are bigger, with hills, waterfalls, and caves.  The latest update to the game introduced Sea Forts and I've heard they might be trying to add caves, so that's cool.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

8 Recent Open World Video Games

I've spend a lot of time exploring single-player video game worlds.  I wanted to reflect a bit on what I've experienced in the last few months.  Of course most of these are early access, but from my experience that doesn't mean a game will change significantly once they once they remove that label.

Not one of the 8 and obviously not new, but the benchmark.  If you want a tenuous connection for this series to pen and paper gaming, Minecraft is the D&D of open world games and the rest on this list are fantasy heartbreakers.  Which, actually is a pretty good fit because I think most of these games are trying to fix one of two traits of Minecraft -- making the world less cartoony and making survival more difficult.

7-Days to Die
Set in something like a post-apocalyptic Arizona, you scavenge, gather resources and try to survive.  It's a voxel based world, so you can dig up every block.  It touts its building physics which requires building with adequate support to prevent structural collapses (unlike Minecraft's floating blocks).

It's fun to go through the modern buildings looting, but there are way too many zombies for me.  I think this might be because it's aimed at multiplayer, so they expect you to have help.  Ammo is limited, weapons wear out and do less and less damage as they do, gathering and cooking meat brings more zombies down on you.  But worse, for a game that includes building, it undermines any kind of building you do.  You can't prevent zombie spawns in an area, so walls are useless.  Zombies will dig at anything in front of them, so ditches or moats will just mean they eventually end up digging up through your floor.   Worst of all, the dead flesh hands of zombies can break through anything given enough time, even reinforced concrete.  In my play-throughs the only viable strategy has been to build an underground bunker, which is kind of boring.

I finally got frustrated and turned zombies off completely, which turned out to be a lot of fun.  It felt oddly peaceful being the last person on earth.  I was quite surprised, then, when I came back from a short break to find out I'd been killed.  Apparently the zombie sieges are coded separately from normal spawns and there is no way to turn them off..  Hah, how's that for hardcore, you get monsters even when you specifically turn off monsters.

So anyway, this heartbreaker succeeds in being more realistic than minecraft, but over-does it on the difficulty aspect.  Unless you enjoy killing infinite zombies forever and living in a hole, it will lose it's shine quickly.

The other 7
I'll talk about these in future posts:

Stranded Deep
The Forest
Savage Lands
the Long Dark
Space/Medieval Engineers

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Update with Magic Item

My blogging computer died sometime in July.  I attempted to recover the data myself and failed.  My next step was to check local businesses with good Yelp reviews.  Found one.  And they proceeded to give me the run around for months.  I finally got my data back and the good news is that it looks like most of it is there.  The most important stuff anyway.  I'm now on what was my gaming rig trying to set up a smooth process like I had before, but little things make it feel weird (like the fact Windows 7 can't understand svgs).  It feels like swimming against the tide to get back going, but I value the conversations with you and I like making stuff, so I'm going to do my best.  I might do some mini-video game reviews as a start.  Anyway, here is a magic item I came up with right at the tail end of that last set of posts:

Aspasia's Shroud - Cover yourself with this threadbare length of linen, fall asleep, and your body will disappear until you wake.

(DM might want a table for who picked up your shroud when you were sleeping and where they took it :)