Friday, May 30, 2014

Do You Have To Actively Play To Be A Gamer?

Prior to my mid-twenties, I gamed a lot. At home, at school, in the library, on the field during lunch, on the front porch, at the dining room table, in classrooms, sitting underneath the stairs, in the car, on the bus. Every single place we could sit down and have room for some books, paper, and dice, we'd play

For the adults in the house, it was probably a bit like this
But, of course, as career and family and other things came up, I slowed down. For the past 15 years or so, I've averaged about one game every couple of years, lasting from a few months to a year in length. Aside from dipping my toes into play testing some things year before last, my last regular game was five or six years ago. I now have a regular Tribe 8 Fate Core game going, but that's relatively recent - and want to try to commit to additional regular, but shorter term, games once we get it stabilized.

At no time, though, did I ever feel I wasn't a gamer. I participated in gaming forums, tinkered around with various game systems, and otherwise kept myself in the loop. The thousands of hours I put into playing during my adolescence and young adulthood gave me a very good foundation for how games work. It's a lot like riding a bike - you might be a bit rusty after not doing it for a while, but you don't just forget.

We all know this is what happens when you try to game after a long hiatus

But the idea that whether or not someone is gaming, or hasn't gamed within some nebulous period of time, shouldn't be considered a "gamer" - which seems to be the point when I've seen it come up - is bullshit. It's nothing more than an attempt to try to discredit...something. Someone's opinion, a design choice, or whatever agenda the person putting forward the notion has. It's the idea that there are people out there - players, game designers, you name it - that are screwing up the hobby but don't play games. They need to be stopped at the bridge for the protection of True Gamers, and how much gaming they've done is obviously the way to do it.

When was the last time you played?
What game did you play?
What is the probability of curve of 3d20-d12+5?
Exasperation with people giving opinions but have never played any game at all is a little understandable, but given most of the discussions I've seen revolve around social issues - table consensus, social contract, player agency, how to actually go about the playing of games - I'd say that someone who hasn't actually had a chance to play any games is still likely to have some insight. They've likely dealt with similar in non-gaming situations. Even then, I'd say that people in a perpetual state of not-playing - either by never having played anything at all or due to other circumstances - are pretty rare. Certainly rare enough that anyone worried about whether or not someone else is actually playing games  is just an attempt to be petty. If someone identifies as a gamer that's good enough for me. I'm not going to demand they pull out their Gamer Timecard so I can verify when the last time it was punched.

As a postscript, I'm not referring to this phenomenon in terms of individual games, rather gaming as a whole. I do believe you have to play a game in order to truly understand all of the nuances of the system, how smooth it is in actual play, what works and what doesn't, etc. It's possible to judge a game purely on a read through - but that's limited to content, quality, and the overall rules structure (sometimes you can identify a "broken" rule before playing a system).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gamex Was A Blast

My son and I went to Gamex on Saturday and, despite not having a real plan for what we were going to do there, had a great time. Even if I really want to burn by boots in a fire and then shovel the ashes into a toilet. I love those boots, I do, but never again to something like that.

You are pretty, and big, and stompy. And my feet hate you.
First, mad props to everyone at the convention. +Jim Sandoval has done an outstanding job coordinating the rpg-related events and I owe him something as yet undetermined. I got to at least say Hi to several people, including +Caoimhe Ora Snow+Mark Strecker , his brother Michael, and a couple others whose names I can't remember their names in my sleep deprived state. We missed our friend Devi and his wife Heather somehow, but that wasn't for lack of looking.

We played in the Artemis simulation which was absolutely awesome. Visited the dealer room a few times, and I picked up a copy of +Jesse Butler's Short Order Heroes (finally) and dead tree copies of Fate Accelerated for myself and my son. We also played a pick-up game of a card game called Smashup that was really fun. We spent too much time wandering around because I found the layout of the hotel to be extremely confusing, and it took longer to get lunch and dinner than we had figured it would.

But the gem of the day was +Josh Roby's Vimaryville. It was my first time participating in anything Tribe 8-related as a player. It was my son's first time playing an organized, non-D&D roleplaying game. I was joined by +James Forest (see, it was not a LARP), +Chris Czerniak (who it was awesome meeting and playing with you), and the lovely +Meghann Robern (who discovered the real reason the Fallen can't get anything done - their leaders are idiots).

I won't spoil too much of the actual plot, but suffice it to say that Josh is a craftsmen. He used Cortex+, which I had no experience with but now want to track down some version of, and set up the relationships between the the pregen PCs masterfully. The characters were all "named" characters from the core rulebook - so we had Altara Ven (James), Deus (Chris), Mek the Jacker (Aiden), Veruka the Wraith (Meghann), and Hal Ninva (me), with Troy Fenys and Khymber Reva as NPCs. The relationship mechanics helped each of us really get a grasp for how our characters would interact with the others. Everyone was really into it - my son took a bit to get a feel for Mek and roleplaying in general, and there were some times when a few characters got more spotlight time than the others (although Deus may have solved it by, literally, by saying, "Oooh, spotlight!"). I discovered that Veruka was a bit more Betty White than I had imagined; Deus proved that poets can be dicks; Altara is one whose feelings shouldn't be trifled with; and of course Hal Ninva is Tera Sheban to the core. Oh, and Troy Fenys is a dangerous, violent psychopath but that wasn't a big suprise. The whole thing ended in what amounted to an impromptu stage-show in the Cage that was probably only missing Kanye.

So, all in all it was a very good con with a lot of fun all around. We missed out on a few Fate events due to lack of planning and Sunday and Monday I was basically wiped out from a combination of my being tired, my feet being jacked, and on Monday just feeling like crap. I wish we could have stayed a little longer at BarCon, but it was great meeting some cool new people. With a baby on the way in September I don't know if we'll make Gateway, but we're making tentative plans to bring the whole family to OrcCon.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Gamex Tomorrow!

I'm going to be at Gamex tomorrow for most of the day with my son. If you see a guy in a VNV Nation workshirt with a huge logo on the back, likely wearing combat boots, with a floppy haired lanky teenager in tow it's pretty likely it's me. Don't be afraid to come up and say "Hi".

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things (Or, Heaven Forbid I Have An Opinon)

Apparently, I simply can't win. After being raked over the coals for saying sometimes Roll20 can be a pain - I wrote a "ridiculous slant" against Fantasy Grounds not being what I want in a VTT? For just mentioning some things that put me off from it?

The restraint I had to exercise to keep from using memes in this post damn near killed me. I wasn't even going to post anything about it but the temptation was too great...I just can't let some things slide. It's not all a waste though. From the critique we get a remarkably accurate picture of me:

1) As a database engineer, as opposed to a software engineer, apparently I'm not willing to roll up my sleeves to "make things work". I'm just too used to things working the first time I guess, because that's how I engineer them myself.

2) Apparently my lack of interest in paying money for something that has a large number of features I won't use - and, in fact, would need to put a lot of work into having the features I do need (like a Fate Core rules set at the most, and Fate Dice at least) - is not grasping the fact that I could just ignore those features. There's no feeling like paying money for something I won't get full utility out of.

3) Speaking of which, I'm a cheapskate because I consider $136 total to use Fantasy Grounds for a group of four players plus GM to be a "substantial outlay". Sure, only $40 of it would be mine. I'd still have to impress on my players the need to shell out their own $24 each just to be able to play. That's a mere 2400% increase over the cost of playing on Roll20, to get access to a bunch of features I as the GM won't even implement. A bargain if I ever heard of one.

4) I like looking things up in rule books instead of playing tabletop role playing games. Oh, how I'm not a true roleplayer for the liking of Roll20!

But in all seriousness, I'd like to point out something that is slightly askew about the linked forum discussion.

One poster mentions Fantasy Grounds 3 as streamlining a bunch of things and eliminating some need for creating formulas. Great! Except the download page for the trial is for Fantasy Grounds 2, which is the version that I tried (I believe) a few years ago. Which comes with a D&D 3.5 demo campaign - a game that I don't even play. There is not a mention anywhere on their Store page or product page that the current version is 3. Apparently FG 3 is a free upgrade - but I had to go to the Steam forums to read a muddled discussion to find that out.

Finally, my intention was never to slam Fantasy Grounds (or Roll20, for that matter). It was to express my impressions, and my initial opinion, from my venture into using a VTT. Did I do a lot of research before my two posts? Nope, only what I needed to refresh my memory. I'm not a journalist and I'm not running a newspaper. This is a personal blog, with personal opinions, observations, experiences, etc. I'm not always on the mark, and I'll own it when it turns out to be justified that I'm not. But please make no mistake that I'll stand by - and back up - my opinions when I am.

Edited to add: Getting your unmentionables in a twist because someone doesn't like your favorite whatever is absolutely the best way to get them to change their mind.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Has "Powered By Fate" Reached d20 Levels of Critical Mass?

Just saw this last night. It's an entire line of Fate Core books - one-hundred pages and some change, all $15 apiece - that didn't exist before October 2013. That's seven ten books in the span of slightly more than eight months

I haven't looked at them in any detail, and other than the cover art looking like it's at least halfway decent I have to wonder: how good can these possibly be? We're talking a month apiece for development - that's not nearly enough time to playtest...well, anything. Considering that all of them contain some stripped down version of the Fate Core rules, I also have to wonder how much new content or new ideas is actually in each.

It's a production schedule to rival...crap, I swore off talking about them

Which comes down to the crux of my post. Sure, it's easy to glom things into Fate, particularly the genres that these books are shooting for. That's kind of the point - anybody can do it. But is it worth $15, particularly if there isn't really anything new? I mean, I don't have Atomic Robo yet but from what I've read it brings some new milkshakes to the yard. It looks like there are cool widgets in it that actually expand upon the Swiss Army knife that is Fate Core. These other guys on DTRPG would have needed about three weeks apiece  to get their ten books out in the span of eight months. Is there any way that could be an honest attempt to put out an innovative product in the spirit of the awesome little blue books currently sitting between my Portal bookends. Something in the vein of Atomic Robo, or Day After Ragnarok, or Apotheosis Drive X, or the other handful of great Fate products that have come out? Or are these guys just attempting to cash in on the current fad ? [That's a rhetorical question, I think I know the answer] I'm no expert on the d20 glut, considering at the time I was too busy spending all of my money on Exalted hardbacks and overpriced Tribe 8 books, but my impression is that the deluge of half-baked products for d20 wasn't seen favorably. Hell, Tribe 8 second edition had fucking d20 rules in it. For me was a total and complete waste that could have been spent, I don't know, fleshing out the setting some more.

Worse still, I have some projects in mind that I intend to leverage Fate Core as the engine. It's just now I have to contend with the possibility my choice to use Fate would be seen as just because it's the latest craze, instead of the real reason: I actually want to use Fate as the foundation instead of just slapping some aspects together and calling it done. Hopefully, by the time any of these projects see the light of day a lot of this stuff will have dried up. Until then, I think we're going to be doomed to see a Fate appendix in every game from now until people get tired of it.

Finally, if anyone not associated with Starbright Illustrations actually has seen one of these books, I'd be very interested to know what the rules quantity vs quality is, as well as if the implementations are vanilla Fate Core or have any adaptations for their genres.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Seven Ways That Roll20 Wooed Me

It looks like my last post didn't come across the way I planned - such is the way with the written word and attempts at humor. My irony meter was definitely off, because several things I thought were good attempts at irony didn't work. For example, "I am really in IT" isn't some kind of assertion of my expertise, but something I actually said while we were having problems because those issues made me look (and feel) like an idiot. When you have to explain a joke, it loses a lot of its power. But, hey, it started several very good discussions relating to online gaming in general and Roll20 in particular.

Subsequently, as I had originally planned, here's my breakdown of the things about Roll20 that have gone absolutely great and the reasons I'm sticking with it over other VTTs I've looked at. I want to hedge this with the disclaimer that previously to deciding on using Roll20 for my game, I only gave a cursory looks at the other VTTs out there. FantasyGrounds, RPOL, and others (including just simple Skype or G+ Hangouts) obviously meet the needs for lots of gamers out there - but they didn't do a good job of selling themselves to me.

7. Sometimes I Just Want To Be A Pretty Princess
One of the appeals of a VTT for me is being able to leverage graphic elements seamlessly during the game. Everything from custom card decks (I have both the Fate Deck and a custom deck uploaded), to being able to use tokens for aspect cards, to just simply being able to display a picture of an NPC or location are really awesome capabilities. I can just upload all of these things to Roll20 and drag it right onto the play space. The custom playing deck functionality, not only for cards like the Deck of Fate but Fate tokens, is awesome. Since I have some modest graphic design skills, I get to flex them and put them  - as well as my horde of inspirational images that I've collected - to good use.

I'm so glad I learned how to use layer modes in Gimp
6. Just Because Something Is Free, Doesn't Mean It Has To Suck
There's actually two main points here. The first is the free part. While Fantasy Grounds may look pretty it also requires a relatively substantial initial outlay. While I don't mind paying for tools and applications, and I know first-hand that application development is not easy, what Roll20 has done in terms of features and presentation for a free service is impressive. Which is the second point: free doesn't mean that a product has to look like it dragged itself out of 1998. The differences in presentation and the UI between Roll20 and RPOL - which is also free - are substantial. Roll20 looks good and has a slick interface.

Bill Me Later? When you need financing to buy a VTT that might be a bit much

5. You Know What Else Has Structure? Cages
One of the things that turned me off from Fantasy Grounds was it requires you to play a game that has a supported rules set - either included, commercial (i.e, you have to pay for it), or community-created. If that game isn't on the list, you better roll up your sleeves because you have some work to do. Otherwise, you aren't playing. Now I'm sure all of that infrastructure leads to doing some awesome stuff, but you can only do it if you fit everything in their specific buckets. All I really need is a place to store information and do a couple other tasks (like rolling dice, and maybe tying dice rolls to values). That's what Roll20 gives me.

Based on Mark Knight's template, but about to get completely reworked for character sheet compatibility

4. The Customization Needed Isn't Difficult To Master
In the grand scheme of things, if you can create formulas in Excel you can grok the customization needed for characters in Roll20. I was able to use +Mark Knights' tutorials to get my Fate Core character journals set up with few hassles, but even without them I wouldn't have had any problem figuring it out.  The other stuff - like automatic bonuses, macros, even scripts - aren't anything that is needed to get a game going. The impression I get of other VTTs like Fantasy Grounds is the depth of work in order to even begin playing is on the level of the "other stuff" in Roll20 - and that's not for me.

See as easy as @ + {Modifier|0}

3. Hey, I'm Playin' Here!
When a VTT automates too much, or has too many levers and dials to fiddle with, it puts itself solidly in your face. Granted, this impression is from very short exploratory stints - but I expect that my gut instinct about how much FantasyGrounds would get in the way is right (considering how the hiccups I've had with Roll20 have felt). So far, at least when there haven't been other problems, Roll20 has succeeded in fading into the background when it wasn't needed. It didn't force us to have to interact with it just to get on with the game, and I'm sure as we get more adept it will fade further into the background.

Pulled from the FG website. It looks nice...but wow that's cluttered

2. User-Friendliness

Being browser-based with no application to install is a huge deal - from where I'm sitting, there's very little that a VTT needs to do that can't be done in a web browser. On top of that, everyone has a web browser, and for the most part they all work the same. Some VTTs, like MapTools, require that the GM install a server and set up port forwarding. Fantasy Grounds requires everyone have the client installed.

Also, being browser based means Roll20 doesn't present a mess of tabs and fields and other elements taking up real estate and drawing the eyes. No more and no less than what's needed is presented to the players and GM, which is a sign of some pretty good interface design.

The RPOL game settings might be totally intuitive - but at first blush, it doesn't look it

1. People, People, People

So far, the community surrounding Roll20 has been absolutely awesome. For sure, as evidenced by a number of critical responses to my last blog post, it's a very enthusiastic one that really loves the platform. They've been helpful in answering questions, creating tutorials and giving examples, and otherwise helping out in general. This isn't to say that the communities for other VTT's aren't helpful or friendly - only that it's been readily apparent with Roll20.

All of those things are reasons I've found to stick with Roll20. There are always going to be minor glitches and other annoyances - but it is the best I've seen so far. Also, since I play Fate Core a large portion of the play area features that are provided just don't apply to me - particularly the tokens, although I really, really want to find a use for the token features like the radial menus.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Just Noting A Milestone

Today, my little blog exceeded 100,000 pageviews.


That's kind of hard to believe, and I'm humbled at the number. Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to read what I have to say.

Five Ways Roll20 Is a PITA

Roll20, and virtual tabletops in general, to me are the best thing ever to happen to tabletop gaming. It makes gaming more flexible and less dependent on time, location, and having to clean the house before everyone shows up (not that that stopped some people I've gamed with, but still). For people with busy schedules, who can carve out a couple hours a week after the kids go to bed (like myself), it's the only way we'll ever get to game.

But, there's some warts that I've uncovered using Roll20.

5. Really, I Work In IT

So far, nearly every session has run into some kind of technical error. Mostly on my side, which is sad because I'm a certified PC technician and a fucking MCSE. Finding developers who aren't great on the hardware side isn't hard, and from the network issues, sound issues, and random random crashes I've had you'd think I was one of them.

It's embarrassing for me, frustrating on all sides, and eats into play time. Last night I think we got about an hour of actual play in.

This was me after I was actually able to get everything working

4. Where Is That Setting Again? 

Beyond the purely technical issues, getting used to having an extra layer of abstraction to deal with makes things awkward at times. Have you ever covered up everything on your dining room table and wondered where all of the maps, tokens, miniatures, etc. went? I think probably not. Yet last night, we went through most of the session with the players seeing only a black screen instead of the pretty background I made and the custom cards that were being doled out. Turns out I had Fog of War enabled. Also, tying back to #5, some of my audio issues have had to do with my son - who uses the PC to play games and do his homework - changing the audio settings.

3. It's Not Me, It's You

Then there was the "Can you hear me? I can hear you" clusterfuck that turned out to possibly be something on the Roll20 end. Of course, that was after fighting through my own audio settings issues. Once those were resolved, my players could hear me, I could hear all of the Roll20 blips and bloops, but I couldn't hear my players' audio. I didn't know that the problem was on the Roll20 end - again, because I had worked through my own issues so I went upstairs to get my laptop - from a dark bedroom where my partner and her daughter, who was sleeping in there because she had been scared by something on TV earlier, were. That's pretty much like walking in a mine field, especially if your night vision is as bad as mine. After successfully avoiding waking a little girl in screaming terror, I set up the laptop only to have the same audio issue, which resolved itself a few minutes later.

2. If You Just Look Right Here

The issues with the background having Fog of War enabled highlighted one of the other minor disadvantages of a VTT. When you're running a meatspace game, you can flip the book around the show the players a picture, or a particular block of text, or hand out some kind of prop. In theory, you can do the same thing in a VTT - and it's one of the things I get really excited about because I'm able to exercise my journeyman level graphics skills. But it doesn't quite replace being able to dig out some props and pass them around.

Like hats. Especially jaunty hats. We did find party hats for Hangouts though....

1. It's All Just A Setup

Which gets us down to the number one thing: setup. There's a lot of setup that has to be done with Roll20. I guess you don't necessarily have to, but the ability to have all these cool widgets at your fingertips is kind of the point. You have to set up character journals, templates, have some graphics on hand, get familiar with the tools, all kinds of things. There's figuring out how to handle all of the options for the tokens and how to leverage the built-in capabilities like macros. There's the API, which I don't have to use, but I'm paying for the service now so I want to. No sooner did I get the character Abilities and Attributes set up, and Roll20 implements character sheets. Which are such a crazy obvious thing to have, so damn if I don't want to use them too. They only require some HTML/CSS hacking to get a customized one set up, so that meant that I needed to find a nice, free HTML editor. Another tool to learn. They also require rethinking the way the Abilities and Attributes were set up in the first place, which means more setup. None of these things take a lot of brain power with tabletop games, at least not the way I run them.

Props to one of the IT guys at my work for that quote

A lot of it comes with the territory - it's a tool, and in order to use it there's a learning curve. But like many technological tools, it's dependent on even more technological tools to use effectively. Luckily I'm a stick-with-it kind of guy, and I recognize that with only four sessions or so under my belt that it's going to be rough. Even luckier, my players seem to be pretty understanding (and forgiving), so once we get the rough spots ironed out I anticipate it to be an enjoyable experience.

I also feel like I should amend this to note that some of the things I mention are inherent to online playing period, and not just Roll20. It just so happens that Roll20 is my platform of choice because so far it's worked out better than the others that I have tried. Online roleplaying has been around for a long time and a lot of these issues are part and parcel of the experience over the exact tool being used.

Friday, May 2, 2014

My GM "Binder"

Since I've moved over completely to using Roll20 for running my planned weekly game, I've likewise started to use a completely digital solution for tracking and planning my games. In the past, I had the literal GM Binder, typically a three ring binder with colored tabs something like these:

I'd fiddled around previously with a few ideas, and since starting my search had a few options fall by the wayside:
  • Google Docs. Sure, I can have everything from spreadsheets to documents, but navigating all of it is a bitch. I still lean quite heavily on Google Docs (and Drive) for quite a few things, but campaign organization isn't one of them.
  • Google Keep. Nice for shopping lists, but doesn't have most of the functionality I would really want for a "binder" feel.
  • Evernote. Honestly this came the closets for my needs, but it does lack a few features that I really was looking for - particularly separating out various sections within the same notebook (I realize it does it, I'm just not as fond of how).
  • YWriter. This is a free program similar to Scrivener. The biggest issue I have with it is that is purely a desktop application, and would require hacked together syncing using Google Drive or similar. 
Then Microsoft released One Note as free, stand-alone application. I'd seen it lurking around MS Office at work - but I never played with it since I don't use Office at home. I saw the video below about configuring One Note to work as a campaign organizer and, after looking into it, I was hooked.

Also, my issue with a lot of custom-made campaign management software is flexibility. They tend to either be targeted toward a particular audience (usually d20, Pathfinder, etc.) - which is great, because those games probably benefit a lot from having tools like those - or are just shy of being configurable enough without a lot of futzing around. In the future, I may take up an offer to take RealmWorks for a test drive - when I do, I'll likely be comparing it to OneNote.

Throwing together a morass of text, images, links, and who-knows-what-else pretty much matches my GM organizational style. I can have sections that are complete and total chaos, which slowly get winnowed down and organized into something more polished and useful. One Note has proven to be perfect for this.

My final layout of the sections and section groups went through several major overhauls until I came to something that I was comfortable with and presented the information I needed. It's a bit different than what you might see for, say, a D&D game. I don't really need tabs for magic items or monsters, but I did want tabs for the campaign milestones, aspect lists, etc. Of course, there's no reason why I can't add them in if I happen to need them. I also made use of section groups, mainly to conserve real estate and make things a bit easier for me to find quickly.

Click to embiggen

OneNote is filled with a few features ranging from useful to just cool. I'm still exploring the tagging functionality - basically, you can tag various notes and even create custom tags. This is useful because you can use a "Find By Tag" search. Unfortunately there's no way to customize the icons, but there are about 50 or so that can be selected when creating a custom tag.

On the "just cool" side, you can add lines or a grid to your pages, as well as make use of some rudimentary drawing tools.

Combine this with the ability to bring pretty much any kind of content into the notebook - links, images, PDFs, you can even record audio or video - as well as a handy feature called Linked Notes (that I still haven't quite figure out how to get to work as advertised). There are also ways to send pages and clippings to OneNote directly  from the browser (IE includes this natively, but there is a plug-in for Chrome, not sure how to make it work with Firefox or other browsers), and I know that Feedly has a button for it as well.

All in all, OneNote has single-handedly helped me organize my campaign. It just goes to show that when Microsoft hits a home run on an application, they hit it out of the park.

I'm also interested in hearing about other people's solutions for campaign organization - different layouts, templates, formats, etc.