View from the Gutters

So a few months ago I was invited to join a comic book roundtable podcast called View from the Gutters:

View from the Gutters is a bi-weekly round-table discussion about comic books. In each episode we focus on one graphic novel or collected volume of a series. We review the week’s topic work (with frequent digressions to jabber about other comics and creators, discuss the state of the industry, or just bash on Geoff Johns for a while), and then each host nominates a new comic to discuss on the next episode. At the end of each podcast we vote to select which nominated work we’ll be talking about next time, so you can read along with us.

If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you can check it out at viewfromthegutters.com (or on iTunes). My first episode is number 7, which just went up tonight. In that episode we discuss Batman: Venom.

I found an interesting article linked on reddit:

“‘Instant Ambiguity Sauces’ – How NOT to make an uninteresting game seem more interesting”

He makes some interesting points, although perhaps not as universally true as he might suggest. To my reading his main point (which I agree with) is that fun in games is often related to the agency of the player to make meaningful choices. Rather than give the player meaningful choices, however, game developers give players non-meaningful choices which are obfuscated so as to seem meaningful. Your quick time events, and the like—things which present the illusion of agency, but lack real substance.

This actually meshes with a conversation I had with my father about 20 years ago. Growing up I played a lot of board games with my father and older brother, and I often found myself at odds with my dad about what to play. I favored Monopoly, which I thought I was relatively good at, while my father usually insisted that we play either Risk or Acquire, which I always lost.

At some point I asked him why he preferred those games, and what he said to me was that Monopoly was a game of chance. Your ability to make choices was limited because the primary mechanism of the game was rolling the dice, which was random. The games he preferred, although having their element of randomness, were won or lost by the choices you made and the tactics you employed. I seem to recall him mentioning games like Chess and Go at the time, having essentially no randomness to them. The reason I liked Monopoly compared to other games is that, being the youngest and having the worst strategy, randomness actually favored me.

That conversation has stuck with me for a long time, and I find myself even today ranking games by how random they are. Settlers of Catan, for example, is VERY random. You live and die by the dice. Dominion on the other hand is much less so. You do draw random cards from a deck, but the primary mechanic of the game is choosing which cards to add to your deck, so you have a degree of control over what cards are available to draw. It’s easy to flood your deck with useless cards, and prevent yourself from drawing good hands.

Now, not every game is about tactics and strategy. Execution is not always an obfuscation, as the author of the post I linked above states. However, I find the post interesting overall because I find that player agency is frequently overlooked in discussions of what makes a game work or not.

The Game Master is now available from DrivethruRPG

I’m pleased to announce that The Game Master is now available as a softcover book through DrivethruRPG. You can order it by clicking on the banner to the right, or by clicking the banner below:

As a special thank you to anyone who has previously donated any amount of money for the eBook edition, please email me at tobiah@panshin.net and I will send you a special discount code to purchase the softcover edition.

The Game Master, Second Edition (and Print)

I’ve been preparing The Game Master for a print-on-demand edition, which should be available from Drive Thru RPG in the near future (about 2-3 weeks, most likely). However, since I was going through revising things anyway, I’ve also updated the PDF and ePub versions. The changes are relatively minor (a couple of heading changes, plus fixing a number of typos), and I’ve also added the new color cover which will be on the print edition.

The Second Edition is available now from the download page, and will be showing up on iTunes as soon as it clears their review process.

I will also be offering a discount on the print edition to anyone who has already made a donation for the digital edition. Watch this space for details.

Coming Soon

So all of this time I have been busy not blogging, I have been secretly working on a revision/expansion of the various articles I’ve written on the topic of RPGs. The culmination of this work is an eBook titled The Game Master, which will be available soon on a “Pay what you want”/Free to distribute basis.

However, I’m so excited that I’m going to show off some special previews, starting with the illustration for chapter 8, lovingly rendered by the fantastic artist (and my long time friend), A.M. Thompson. Enjoy.

Chapter Illustration

Musings on PAX, and More.

I attended PAX for the first time last weekend, and having pondered it for several days, while I enjoyed my PAX experience I don’t think I’ll be attending again in the future. There are couple of reasons for this:

1) I think PAX specifically has grown too large. It is, in a sense, filling the role that E3 once did. It’s a massive PR event. And I do mean massive. Getting to actually see anything requires standing in Disney World echelon lines. The ability to directly interface with creators is strictly limited.

It is, in this sense, less a convention than a show. And while there is something to be said for the live experience, I’m unconvinced that it’s worth the effort to see the show live when I can watch the same promo videos and demo footage in the privacy of my own house literally the same day.

2) In a larger sense, I am increasingly dubious about the role cons in the geek sub-culture in the modern age. This is both a question of communication and size. In ye olde days, the geek community was both smaller and more tightly knit. There were a few big Science Fiction conventions, and for the most part everyone else fit in somewhere under that umbrella. You would go to the SF con, and there would be anime, video game, and comic book people there. It might be labeled as an SF con, but it was really a Geek gathering.

In recent times, however, SF has fallen by the wayside, as anime, video games, and comic books have grown large enough to have their own cons, and their own independent fandoms. This is important, because as the fandom has grown, it has also fractured. You’ll see some anime stuff at the comic con and vice versa, but they are largely separate communities with their own interests. There is less room for cross pollination or discovering new things. You aren’t going to go to a video game convention and learn about new indie comic books.

Then there is the communication issue. When there was no such thing as the internet, the con was an important intersection in geek culture. You could go there to meet fellow geeks that aren’t normally part of your social order, speak with creators, see promos for forthcoming works, and generally get exposed to and interact with the greater geek culture. Today, that role is largely filled by the internet.

At any given moment I can follow Joss Whedon’s twitter or listen to Kevin Smith’s podcast. I can read message boards and find out what people in St. Louis or Edinburgh think about the new Halo game. I can find out what superhero movies have been green lit and who the director is, years before the movie ever hits theaters. I have constant access to the community. Even the dealers room experience has been replaced with Amazon and eBay.

In this sense, the “con experience” has been diminished to getting something signed, and maybe a minute of face time with a creator. There is nothing novel or special about the con experience that necessitates its existence.

As much as I don’t want to piss in anyone’s cereal, I feel like the con as a central pillar in the geek experience is well past its heyday. Perhaps that’s implicit in the fact that PAX is technically billed as an eXpo, rather than a convention. But it makes me wonder if there isn’t room for something like a con, that isn’t a con in the traditional sense.