Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Alpha Omega

This past weekend was a gaming extravaganza.  I had my group's session on Friday night, got to play an indie story game for the first time Saturday, and made up a character and played in a new campaign of Alpha Omega on Sunday night.

I didn't really want to play Sunday.  But the DM is one of the best players in my game-- smart, nice, funny, and the only person I've met that can spontaneously create silly rhyming lyrics as well as me. So I felt socially obligated to give it a try.  He told me more than once that the game was "complicated, but in a good way, it actually gives you more freedom."  I was sceptical to say the least.

I was warned that character creation might take about an hour.  And when I finally sat down with another friend I ran into the first big problem.

The Tekumel Problem
Tekumel is cool, I know people still play it but good luck trying to describe it to a new, non-gamer player.  I think Mr. Maliszewski talked about a game recently being dependent on knowledge of D&D.  Tekumel is like that for me-- you have to understand the concept of classes and races and stats and fantasy avatars before they get complicated by this new game.  Anyway, I think this has all been said before by people, but Alpha Omega was a fresh experience of it for me.

So, what kind of player will I make (because it's new school you have to choose, you can't just let the dice tell you).  I always like wizards but this is a post-apocalyptic world.  I ask my friend:
"Is there magic?"
He says "yeah, sort of. Its called wielding."
I say "Oh.  Is it like psionics?'
"Sort of."
"More like superpowers?"
"Well . . ."

Hmm, so there are a ton of races.  Remnants are humans that have been mutated by raditation, but there is another race whose DNA has been modified intentionally. Something called Mesh?  See this game can't use the same old rpg tropes, everything has a cool name.  There is no internet in the future but the Swarm, no cities, but Arcologies.  I think the apocalypse was caused by meteors striking the earth, but there are these huge angel creatures and it isn't clear whether they are angels, or aliens of some sort.

Get the picture so far?  It is like gamers jaded with existing rpgs mash together every genre they can, to try to still get a thrill.  You've got some fantasy, science fiction, superhero, cryptopunk, and post-apocalypse all swirled into a soup of archetypes.  What character am I supposed to make when I don't even understand the world?

I decided I'd be a robot librarian.  The AIs seemed to have pretty good stats and I could take whole fields of skills, not knowing what might be useful. (note, this is actually a silly approach for a skill-based game.  If you want to be effective, be a combat character and chose only skills that directly effect combat.  Trust me, the system will make them matter no matter how much roleplaying the DM will want to do). 

I took the unsophisticated drawback so that I could actually roleplay my ignorance of the world.  Although, it is a little odd that a librarian would be so clueless.  I decided I was a reference librarian that has spent a lot of time in a little room studying the past.  Also, I look like IG-88.  I was a little shocked when I realized no one present knew who IG-88 was!  Anyway, SEO 1337 was born.

4e is so Simple
Look, this part may come off as condescending, but I was doing my best to design my own rpgs when I was a teen.  I had derived stats, and lots of crunch to movement rates, and lots of crunch to how stats mapped to real world abilities.  I don't care about any of that now.  For a reason. You may not agree that it actually gets in the way of play, but you would certainly have to concede it isn't necessary for play if you just sit and watch a session of my current homebrew game and how things work smoothly.

I could go on and on here but in a nutshell in Alpha Omega I found something that made 4e look elegant.  Let me put it this way: six seconds of a combat took 20 real world minutes.

I still had some fun roleplaying my curious robot, but that was outside of combat.  And I always got the sense that at least one of the players there was bored with all that, head down in the huge rule book studying up, waiting for the next combat.

Actually he was the only one present who had a good grasp of the rules (including the DM).  It was interesting to see what joy he had trying to micro-optimize his character for play.  He was most effective at everything: he killed 8 foes in combat while I was studying a turret in our vehicle-- trying to figure it out with the help of the Swarm (I hadn't taken the vehicle weapon systems skill).  When the only wielding character first tried to use his power, Mr. Optimizer had great joy in making a discussion about which wielding power was actually the best and which you shouldn't take because they were weak sauce.

I don't want to begrudge him his joy, I understand that kind of pleasure myself.  I still do some of that min-maxing with computer games.  But, it seems so one-faceted.  If we wanted to "win" the game we would have all made merc characters specialized in melee combat like Mr. Optimizer. But the rest of us had some good laughs at how clueless my robot was, and why our party of mercs included a librarian, mechanic, and rogue surgeon to the detriment of the whole endeavor.

The World is embodied in the Rules
So, to get back to the idea of more rules meaning more freedom. I think the DM meant that here you knew what you could do because it was spelled out for you, while in my game it wasn't.  I could certainly help my players better with this.  And if you've been following my posts you know I'm actually frantically trying to construct the world just in time for the players to interact with it.

But, this idea that rules would help embody the world turned out to be flawed.  The world is infinite.  You will never have enough rules or rulebook space for everything.  We spent 5 minutes of game time trying to figure out which skill the mechanic would have to roll against to try and fix his armor.  And there was no listing of the canisters for his micro-welding torch.  That caused some great consternation: "How much did they cost?  How much did they weigh?"  Mr. Optimizer wondered if they were included in the errata for the game.

So, In the end I'm just surprised that this kind of game, like I was toying with 30 years ago, is still around, still bought, and still capturing the hearts and minds of gamers.  I guess it amounts to people thinking they want something and thinking they are getting it.  What would happen if I stood up next session and said "Look we just spent an hour on a minor combat.  Is that what you want?  Really?  Because I got bored and started surfing the web on my phone."
Have a couple mini-tomb entrances as my coin for joesky:


  1. Who was Ig-88? I seem to remember an experimental combat droid, who eventually became a bounty hunter, but I might be thinking of another model.

  2. That's the one. In his later career he became a wizard and appears on Jeff Rient's blog.

  3. That was my beef with 3rd edition - tons of modifiers on skills so that I can make sure that I'm getting the precise chance of doing a make-believe thing in a make-believe world. Dude - mechanic fixing armor - thumbnail a 4 in 6 chance of success and move on to the good stuff, the exploration and interaction and just plain action. Nothing against the systems that are very precise or the people that enjoy them - they just aren't my cup of tea.

  4. I read this right after reading an Eric Carle book to my daughter. It had the same politely bewildered tone. Thank you.

  5. Thanks guys. I'll try to have fun with this. I think Mr. Optimizer will be surprised when my robot who is ambidextrous and a fast learner picks up a few combat sklls, haha.

  6. You touch on several general interest points here which I came to regard in later life as game design 101.

    A game is only possible when the players know the fundamental activity, so they can act instead of just reacting. That is, there needs to be a shared culture of what the game is about. It seems like the people who wanted to play got that desire (and ideas about what they might do) by reading the rulebook. Probably everyone should have read the book first, but that's a tall order.

    This is where high concept and low concept come in: high concepts are quick to communicate, usually being mashups of familiar media, like the stereotypical movie pitch: "it's like Little House on the Prairie meets Knight Rider, with goblins." people who want to write novels almost always go low concept, which is why they have to write a novel to explain it all. I'm guessing this was low concept. You adopted the classic Tekumel defense: "I am a barbarian from somewhere else, so it's normal that I don't know which fork to use."

    Rule complexity - takes me back to our conversation about small, stackable systems. I'm increasingly inclining toward one or two core die rolling mechanics. I'd like combat and any other opposed roll to be susceptible to some tactical thinking by players, but once they've done special pleading it should be one roll and deal with the consequences. I say there's a reason video games these days take you through training levels with reduced toolsets. Pokemon actually handles this brilliantly: combat is very lightly tactical but the first opponents you meet require no specialised knowledge to beat, and you only have one or two attacks at your disposal so you learn the architecture of the game before you have to do any real thinking.

    These days stuff like you describe here just screams "bad design" to me. It may even be good art, but it's not built to be used.

  7. I was not clear above. Some work must be done by both speaker and listener for communication to happen in all media. Interactive media require much higher standards of clarity and understanding than non-interactive, so there is heavy lifting to be done even when interactive options are few. I see 3 ways to make this heavy lifting palatable:
    1. Package it as entertainment (write a book or movie that gives clear ideas about what you might do);
    2. Use reading/watching your players already did (licensed gameworlds, high concept mashups);
    3. Spoon out the rules and setting in mini-games, so you learn by playing but are not overwhelmed at the start. This is how language courses are structured: you start with a few words and inadvertently learn how to make statements out of them. The trick here is to start players with a focal activity or a boundary that will limit their interactive choices. I'm thinking something abstract like ship combat could be perfect: it's a simple tactical game, it teaches the fundamentals of the system, and you don't need to know any deep social setting to begin.

  8. Makes sense. I hear you saying two things:

    1) a setting has to be transmitted to the players somehow, and

    2) the rule mechanics have to be transmitted to players somehow.

    In the instance of Alpha Omega both were a problem but you could have a baroque Tekumel-like setting with very light rules and you could have an abstracted space travel campaign with Space Opera-madness type rules.

    There are things, like you mention, that can help transmission. I guess my main goal would be to ask designers to think carefully about how much they really need to transmit. If you imagine this transmission happening like digital communication, I'm saying don't clog up my modem with your gigs of super specific angel-apocalypse-multiple-mutant world detail... go write a novel.

    As for rules mechanics I'll make a bold claim: every crunchy, super-simulationist role playing game was designed by someone who had played a roleplaying game before. In other words, the crunch originates from meta thinking about rpgs, not from actually trying to make a game about being a vampire.

    That's probably an overstatment, but I think there is a ton of truth in it; you don't get 4e without 3e, you don't get 3e without 2e, you don't get 2e without 1e, you don't get 1e without 0e, you don't get RuneQuest, Vampire, or Rolemaster without D&D.

  9. my heart sank when I read Grognardia's review of Skyward Steel and saw it has a history of the navy attached. These days I'm a fan of James' (and your) campaign building method: don't write it until you need it, that way it's fresh when the players encounter it and you aren't already invested in some goddamn story path.

    There's probably a psychological term for the Alpha Omega (Talislanta, Harn, Jorune) tendency.

  10. Thanks, I don't want to react too much against the worldbuilding urge. I think it is one of the fun ingredients of this hobby, but there is a point where preparation before the fact actually cuts off potential for fruitful developments and discoveries.

    Figuring out that balance is probably one of the main challenges of a DM. I think I may be erring on the not-enough prep side lately. I'm trying to work up at least some loose frameworks for guilds and such so players will have things to interact with/make decisions about..