Details and knowledge

Another passing thought, inspired by conversation elsenet: When players tend to turn every offhandedly-mentioned NPC into the most important thing, pretty often it’s not because they like latching onto insignificant details and running off to do random things. Instead, it’s often because what seems to the GM like a random thing is, in fact, a pretty important detail in the players’ eyes.

A key question here is what gets reified. Realistically, when you’re playing the game, you have very limited window into the game world. Oftentimes, the GM has a vastly better idea of what’s going on than the players do. A big part of this is by design — it’s often not as fun to know who the murderer is at the beginning of the movie, and not everyone likes to read the last page of a book first. But another big chunk is just that, in many a game, the GM has had to think through a bunch of subtle, complex details about the game world that may never come to light for the players.

There is a strong incentive for GMs to detail everything in the world. If you can’t explain how door hinges work in this culture, whether or not it’s possible to make gauss rifle ammunition from scratch, or how it is that any given FTL drive isn’t also a world-ending kinetic weapon, then the game can crawl to a halt when those questions come up in play. If you don’t know why Ferid the Ever-Hungry is ever-hungry, the players may become hungry for that information.

Clock gearsAnd because the players often know so little of what’s going on, it’s really easy for it to feel like any insight they manage to get into the gears behind the clock face is superbly valuable information. It can get to the point where every trickle of knowledge from the GM is something to be treasured, and clearly something very central to what’s going on.

So when the GM does mention how it seems like the dagger is missing a gem, or gives the greengrocer an interesting backstory, or describes how the sun has a certain glow today, it’s pretty reasonable for the players to latch onto those things as important information.

Is this something to be avoided? I don’t think so, or at least not necessarily. It can conceivably lead to more work for the GM, but only if you consider worldbuilding to be ‘work’. Or it can lead in the other direction, with GMs winging everything and letting the game just play out from the players’ choices. Again, not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The only real problem that comes to mind is when the GM gets actually, seriously disappointed that the players aren’t following ‘the plot’. This often seems to be a form of nerd self-loathing — frustrated authors who really view their players more as beta readers than as equal partners in forming the story, who view gaming as something that’s only valuable if it leads to a publishing deal. If that’s what’s going on, then the problem does not lie with the players, shall we say.

If the players go off on random tangents but everyone has a fun adventure along the way — well, really, that’s no longer a random tangent. That is the adventure.

Blade & Crown: Characteristic and skill combinations

Another observation brought on by gaming with my ongoing Blade & Crown group: It can be quite fun to have players choose the combination of characteristic and skill with which they’re doing a given skill roll.

B&C is meant to be pretty flexible in how a character does a given task. Usually, trying that will use a single combination of characteristic + skill, so for example, climbing up a wall will be Climbing + AGL. But as I said in the original rules,

…in a different situation, the GM may rule that a different set of characteristics or skills may apply to the task at hand.

So, for example, it’s easy to imagine situations where something climbing-related could be Climbing + STR or END. And other, weirder combinations are certainly possible.

There was something implicit in that statement that I probably should’ve clarified, though: While the GM can specify what characteristic + skill can apply, it can be considerably more fun to have the player specify them.

In our monthly sessions, we pretty often have situations where a character is trying to do something for which there is no obvious combination of characteristic + skill. Last session, one character tried to manhandle an NPC onto a travois for traveling; normally, this would be automatic, but there was combat going on at the same time, so it was challenging. Later, another PC was trying to do a sort of prayer to the forces of the forest — mysterious, definitely not usually very friendly to humans, and not the sort of thing that Divine Favor would apply to. In fact, the forces of the forest often seem directly opposed to the human gods.

Both times, I asked the players themselves to decide what combination of characteristic + skill they were using. For the travois-schlepping, the player very reasonably suggested Physician + STR. Not a combination one would normally think of! But, in the situation, completely reasonable. For the forest prayer, the player settled on Folklore + ELO. Again, not a combination we’d normally think would occur, but here it seemed totally reasonable. (Another players suggested perhaps it should be ELO – DF! A very interesting idea, but alas not one that works with the rules.)

There’s certainly some tendency for players to choose skills and characteristics that their characters are good at. But while this could be ready as cheat-y, in another way it’s often very logical. If you’re trying to maneuver an unconscious person into a stretcher, but your arm is currently injured, you’ll probably try to figure out a way to do it with your other arm, or your legs, or something. If you’re trying to impress someone into doing what you say, but you’re not especially eloquent, you might try to just be physically imposing instead.

Allowing the players to choose how to combine characteristics and skills, when multiple possibilities are available, nicely aids immersion. It encourages players to think about how their characters would try to approach a situation; and it encourages them to explain that to everyone else, which helps all at the table stay in character. (Contrast this with games where, say, every social interaction is handled with a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever. Regardless of how you’re going to do the task, you’re going to roll the same way, so there’s no mechanical encouragement to think of different approaches, or explain them to the other people playing.)

Expertly-balanced rocksInterestingly, we’ve often had situations where a PC could’ve done a task multiple different ways, and each way would’ve resulted in the same amount of dice to roll (say, with a lower skill and higher characteristic here, and a higher skill and lower characteristic there). Yet the player still thought a little about how they wanted to do it. To me, this shows that the players were getting into character: thinking through how their PC would just preferentially approach a problem, regardless of what’s easier or harder. (This applies, too, with games where you just have a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever’; but I feel like the mechanical encouragement in B&C is overall still better.)

Also, viewing tasks this way tends to make them less railroady. If the hurdle to overcome is just ‘get the NPC back into the travois’, there could be a dozen different ways of doing this. Just like situations in the real world, problems in a game can usually be overcome from many different directions. Framing a problem as necessarily requiring only a single combination of skill + characteristic discourages player ingenuity.

Not every situation allows such a wide range of approaches, of course. Pretty often, climbing a wall is just going to take climbing + AGL, no two ways about it. But when a task can be approached from many directions, give the player choice here. The game will be richer for it.

A passing thought: Medical campaigns?

A photo of a medevac helicopter from underneath.Cyberpunk 2020 introduced me to the concept of the medical campaign, where the PCs are medics. They probably all share an ambulance, and go around saving people from disease and injury and whatnot.

For some reason, this always struck me as kind of boring. How many times can you slap on a bandage before it starts to feel old?

I had a passing thought during today’s Blade & Crown game, though: My current campaign is, in some ways, a medical game. The PCs have set themselves the mission of saving various people — common folk, sometimes powerful nobles, sometimes other — in a time when things are starting to fall apart.

And it’s really been quite fun. Some of the best sessions have emerged out of goals the players set completely for themselves, out of a desire to heal someone. In order to bring an important NPC back to their senses, the PCs went on a dangerous mission into an eery magical grove and performed a quite beautiful ritual to defeat ancient forces. This could be framed as fighting a nasty beastie, but a better metaphor would be fighting a sort of spiritual sickness that was plaguing the NPC.

When the world is falling apart, healing can be exciting, dangerous, hugely meaningful, and very rewarding.

The ideal gaming con III: Membership

What is the role of attendees at a con? And how much should they pay for the privilege?

Emphasis on membership

The role of attendees at cons has has been an ongoing, but somewhat subtle, conflict within fandom. When you hand over some money to attend a con, are you buying a ticket? Or a membership?

It may seem like the two terms are just different labels for the same thing. Does it matter what you call it? Aren’t you just forking over money and you get to go to this cool place in exchange and who cares what you call the being at the con?

Well, sort of. Certainly, you can treat them both the same: it’s entirely possible to ignore the conflict and attend cons the same way regardless of what terms they use. But really, there’s a pretty important difference in emphasis.

Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be cons where the emphasis is on passive entertainment: sitting in the audience while movies, famous people, game trailers and dancing penguins put fun in your head. When I see that a con sells ‘tickets’, I expect that a big part of it will consist of waiting in long lines to pay for my Shatner autograph or to get into the Firefly panel. Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be ones where attendees don’t actually create very much of the schedule. They also tend to emphasize the ‘consumer’ aspect of fandom, with huge halls of commercial displays for the latest, niftiest product. And these kinds of cons tend to emphasize and reinforce geek hierarchies; in these, the place of the average fan is to throw adulation and money at people who are already rich and famous. The further down the hierarchy you are, the more passive and consumerist your role is.

In case it’s not clear, the more tendency there is towards the ‘ticket’ mode, the less interested I am in the con. I go to a con to meet and share with cool people of many sorts — people with whom I have a minimal, or nil, hierarchy gradient. I believe that the fun of a con lies not in the big-name, hierarchy-approved guests of honor; in fact, I sometimes don’t look at a con’s guest of honor list at all. For me, there’s a lot more fun to be had in interacting with my fellow fans.

A lot of smaller cons in the Twin Cities don’t sell ‘tickets’. Instead, they sell ‘memberships’. The idea is that when you’re attending this kind of con, you yourself are contributing meaningfully to the fun of the con. Programming items still tend to have certain people on the panel and certain people in the audience, but not nearly as much; you don’t have to be rich, successful (whatever that means) or famous to get on a panel. There’s a much larger expectation that the audience will also have useful things to add, and the programming becomes richer as a result. There’s an assumption that the fun will lie in hanging out with your fellow fans — that the fans themselves are the main source of the fun.

Obviously, the tendencies I’m describing for ‘ticket’-style and ‘membership’-style cons are not absolute. Lots of cons that sell tickets manage to allow a huge amount of the fun to be interactions with fellow fans. And there are tendencies towards fannish hierarchy at even the coziest of membership-based relaxacons. But it really does seem like the different styles of cons have different emphases. It seems like I often hear people saying that the fun of GenCon lies not in the con-sponsored, con-promoted Big Events, but in just sitting down in the hallway and reconnecting with friends, or in a pickup game of Diaspora, or whatever. And every so often I hear that someone has discovered that GigantoCon has a nifty programming track, but the con has put it in the furthest-away hotel, and the programming schedule is only available from a neglected bulletin board located in a disused lavatory with a sign on it saying “Beware of the Leopard”. Cons that sell memberships tend to put a lot more emphasis on the fan-generated fun, which is by far my preference.

It seems like all this should be even truer for a gaming con. Although recent years have seen the rise of spectator RPG sessions, and even at-con events where people play D&D or whatever in front of a huge audience, the thought of a gaming con where that’s the main focus seems somewhere between silly and abhorrent to me. Broadcast gaming sessions can be fun, for sure; and they’re a good substitute for face-to-face gaming if that isn’t available. (Or even just not your cup of tea.) But I don’t want to go to a gaming con to watch famous people play. I go to a gaming con so I can play.

Without you, we’d have no convention.Con of the North registration website

An ideal gaming con, for me, is one where everyone gets to play in, and contribute meaningfully to, a wide variety of games that they like. That seems, almost necessarily, to mean that a good gaming con should be membership-based.

Pricing memberships

This is a trickier question than whether to sell ‘memberships’ or ‘tickets’, I think. How much do you actually charge for that membership?

Clearly, the con should pay for itself. Unless you happen to have an eternally reliable wealthy benefactor, the price of memberships needs to cover all the function space, printing of program books, computer rentals, water dispensers, free food, bulletin board rental, insurance, supplies, and whatever else your cons supplies to attendees. If your con is supposed to raise money for some cause, that needs to be figured in, too.

Once the basic costs have been paid for, though, there start to be other, tricky considerations. The one most relevant here is, do you incentivize contributions to the running of the con with discounts on memberships?

Free memberships for being on programming or otherwise contributing to the con is a big issue for a lot of cons. If George RR Martin says he’ll come to your con and be on five panels in exchange for a free membership, do you say yes?

If you say yes, you’re effectively knocking all the work that other people put into the con. Someone who volunteers to runs the registration desk for the weekend probably puts in more work, and arguably benefits the con as a whole more, than any given programming participant. Giving discounts for specific kinds of contributions to the con means you either a) have to be okay with giving almost everyone discounts, or b) you suddenly have to start ranking all the work that various people perform. Not only is it difficult as hell to quantify this kind of thing, it is really easy for it to lead to severely hurt feelings (and with good reason), and it also has the effect of reinforcing the fannish hierarchy.

However, with a gaming con, while there shouldn’t be a gradient of fannish ‘worth’, there is most definitely a gradient of fannish work. People who run games usually end up putting in more work than people who don’t, and if you don’t somehow incentivize people for running games, you’re effectively discouraging the variety of gaming that you’re working towards.

There are some perverse incentives at work here. If you give big membership discounts for running a game, there’s an incentive to register to run games with the minimum prep possible, and then maybe even to forget to run it. I have certainly experienced both those things, though it’s hard to say whether the GMs were canceling or prepping poorly out of desire to do the minimum work possible.

If, on the other hand and as I said above, you don’t give any membership discount for running games, there’s no incentive to actually run anything. You could argue that the people who want to run games only if they get a free membership in return are not necessarily the people you want running games. But that doesn’t really deal with the fact that running a game can be a lot of work: designing a scenario, creating maps, doing pre-gen PCs, creating other handouts, maybe painting minis or finding props… Not every game calls for all that prep, and not everyone does that much prep. But some games do get that much, or need that much. If person A puts in more time preparing for the con than they do actually attending it, while person B puts in zero time, yet A and B both pay the same amount for their memberships, then A may feel, regardless of their commitment and enthusiasm, that the con is quietly discouraging their dedication.

You clearly can’t use fine gradations of pricing for memberships based on the amount of prep done. Some GMs can prepare an amazing game with 15 minutes’ work, while another GM might spend days of labor only to end up with something disjointed and bland. And trying to do something like ‘discounted membership based on how fun games were’ is clearly a recipe for headaches and hurt.

Still, it’s good to have some kind of gradation for how much work people have done in running games or playing them. This is one thing I think Con of the North is probably doing just about right. They have three basic membership types:

  • Players: These folks only play in games and don’t run anything. This kind of membership costs the most.
  • Judges: These folks both run and play in games. There’s no differentiation by number of games run. There’s a slight discount on a Referee membership as opposed to a Player membership.
  • Referees: These folks only run games. They get a completely free membership, but can’t play in anyone else’s games.

Overall, I think the rates are right about what they should be. I’ve never felt like there’s much of a fannish hierarchy to the different membership types. It mostly just feels like the appropriate level of reward for doing different amounts of work to help the games happen. And while there is still some slight perverse incentive to, say, register as a Judge and then not prep well or to cancel events, the incentive is pretty small.

If I ran the circus con, I think I’d price memberships just about as Con of the North does.

Not too expensive, or charged per game

There are a few other issues that are worth considering in the same breath as memberships and pricing of them.

First is that the con shouldn’t be too expensive. If the only way you can make it work is to charge everyone US$500 for a weekend of gaming, it’s probably time to look at a different hotel, or a different city altogether. And even US$50 may be too much if it’s for a single day of gaming.

I also tend to strongly dislike cons where specific events cost extra to enter. I suppose that some things, like Magic tournaments or whatever, don’t work if participants don’t pay. But the idea of having to pay extra to get into the ultra-exclusive Sunday afternoon D&D game strikes me as wrong in a whole bunch of different ways. Hopefully, all games get treated equally. And hopefully, actually getting into games doesn’t cost more than registering for the con itself.

I suppose that some people might just want to wander the dealers’ room or whatever. Should they have to pay extra for games they’re not going to actually play in?

I like how Con of the North handles this. There isn’t much badging, except for people getting into games; at the beginning of a game, the Referee or Judge is supposed to collect tickets from everyone, and also to make sure that everyone is a correctly-registered member of the con. It’s pretty possible to just wander in off the street and look at the dealers room, though, if that’s what you want to do. The con doesn’t point this out as an option, because of course they hope that everyone will be full attending members. But it is possible to do.

Also, different games don’t cost different amounts. Registering for an eight-hour Civ game or a 15-minute Guillotine session costs the same, because membership includes any number of games you want to register for. There’s no feeling of being punished for registering for multiple games. Con of the North is effectively encouraging people to register for lots of games, and try lots of things, and contribute to the fun as players.

Encouraging membership by those who can’t afford it

Something cons have started doing recently (or at least something I’ve noticed recently) is putting together assistance funds. The fact is, even in the best of times, there are people who can’t monetarily afford to attend a con. It’s not just the price of membership; there can often be additional effectively-required costs, like a hotel room, dining at restaurants, parking fees or transport costs, airfare, childcare, etc. etc. Often, the membership is actually the cheapest part of attending the con. And taking the attitude that attending your con is a privilege, not a right, tends to enforce fannish hierarchies and social injustice. It cuts people off from amazing communities that they should be able to access. And it makes the con more boring, because it limits the pool of amazing people from which to draw members.

I think the Carl Brandon Society may have been the first group to create assistance funds for fans to attend cons (in their case, to help fans of color to attend cons, writing workshops, etc.). WisCon also has an assistance fund. Other cons are starting to do likewise.

It would be nice to see this happen for gaming cons, too. There’s no reason that attendance at a gaming con should be different from attendance at any other kind of con. The con benefits by having a diverse group of members, and many folks otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the amazingness that is a gaming con. Clearly, the ideal gaming con should have such a fund.

Taipei Game Show

The logo for the Taipei Game ShowI’ve been missing cons a lot here. So much so that last weekend, I went to the Taipei Game Show, which is a mixed industry-to-industry and industry-to-players trade show that happens every year at the Taipei World Trade Center. It was both very huge and very commercialized. It was also mostly about electronic gaming. Giant sculptures or electronic displays shouting about the latest FPS or whatever; long lines to wait to meet famous Twitch streamers; dancers and huge crowds and inflatable hammer giveaways for correctly naming which mobile app has the best characters; all that stuff.

There was a small section for tabletop games — which meant almost entirely boardgames and cardgames. I think I saw a boxed set of D&D for sale, but that was the extent of that. There was a separate space for Magic that seemed to be doing well. Most of the space was dealers and things to buy; there were tables for actual gaming, but it appeared to be entirely demos, with no open gaming, nor any scheduled games. Way too commercialized for my tastes. But then, it was a trade show, not a convention.

Maybe in spite of myself, I bought some cool stuff, including a couple one-sheet wargames set in historical Taiwan; a fantasy story-based card game; a couple issues of a local boardgame design magazine; and an expansion for The Wonderful Island. These were all at very small booths staffed by local, rather indie-seeming designers and publishers. I talked to some of the designers a bit more, which was nice, and I got a few questions about The Wonderful Island answered. It was an enjoyable time, though I’m still hankering for a real gaming con, and more face-to-face gaming here.

Back to Morrowind

I haven’t had much time to post here lately. Short version: Real life. And not much gaming as a result. My monthly Blade & Crown game is still going strong, but it’s on hiatus for a couple months due to scheduling issues.

Recently, I got OpenMW running again, and thought I should write a little about it. The game runs very nicely these days. That means that, in short order, I was back to playing my favorite level 37 sneaky archer in Morrowind. Who, unlike in Skyrim, is quite able to fly over mountains.

Morrowind is, of course, a much older game than Skyrim. The graphics aren’t nearly as pretty as Skyrim’s. No flowing waterfalls, no auroras at night. Trees don’t have many leaves; ground cover is just a 2d image of grass; round shields aren’t really round; textures get repetitious after just a short distance; the polygons are pretty obvious everywhere. The sounds are also a lot more basic; most NPCs have no voice recordings, just text interactions.

But other than that, I think I like Morrowind a lot better than Skyrim. One major factor is that not all the NPCs are hostile. In fact, most are pretty friendly. It feels vastly more realistic, and just plain less annoying to play in a world where the NPCs aren’t all either jerks or even actively trying to kill the player character. And in general, it feels like there’s more ways to interact with the NPCs than “kill ’em”. This makes the game feel more realistic, more dynamic, richer, and deeper.

In terms of sheer depth, I think Skyrim and Morrowind are probably about equal. There are hundreds of hours of things to do in either game. But the relatively variety in Morrowind — in that not nearly so much consists of “go to X, kill Y” — makes it feel a lot deeper somehow.

Also, the movement is much more freeform in Morrowind. Skyrim, for all its massive amounts of detail, has a lot of railroady bits. Trying to get up mountains, especially, quickly reveals how little of the game you’re actually meant to explore. Morrowind, on the other hand, is pretty much entirely open. With levitation or flight, there really isn’t anywhere in the game that you can’t go.

The default game can feel a bit empty at times. The flat surfaces and only occasional wild animals can make it feel underpopulated, or abandoned.

Also, with the save importer that comes with OpenMW, old game files result in most NPCs being dead. Hrm. Not pleasant.

However, that has given me a new mission: to resurrect all of Morrowind. It’s an odd duty, but an interesting one. And it makes the game feel a bit like the typical CRPG in reverse: rather than going around killing hostile NPCs, I’m bringing them back to life.

Also, with a few mods, the game becomes much prettier and a lot less empty. The default OpenMW water shaders are already better than in original Morrowind:

OpenMW water reflections

With mods, the surfaces become higher-res:

OpenMW Telvanni council house with texture upgrade

I’ve tried mods to add general wildlife to the game, but they end up slowing it down too much. However, a mod to adds birds works nicely:

OpenMW: Telvanni houses and birds

Mods that add plants also help make the place feel more lived-in:

OpenMW: Ground cover and netches

I still consider Morrowind one of my favorite CRPGs (the other being Darklands). The richness of play gets very close to the possibilities in tabletop gaming, and the worldbuilding is quite deep. When tabletop gaming isn’t available, Morrowind does pretty nicely.

There’s a lot I haven’t done yet in Morrowind. How much longer will I be playing it this time around? Not sure, but the game still has a lot to offer, and a lot to ponder.

OpenMW: Im-Kilaya, pondering

The ideal gaming con II: Organizing games

How to actually form games, schedule them, publicize them, registered for them, and (when necessary) cancel or communicate further about them is a huge problem for a gaming con — probably the single biggest one.

When do games run?

One thing I don’t like about Con of the North is that events run until exactly the top of the hour, and start at exactly the top of the hour. That means that, if a game actually runs the full length of the session, players will either end up late to their next game, or have to have a blank block of time. If a game runs late (which, realistically, just sometimes happens), or if people just want to take a bathroom break or get something to eat between sessions, players can end up late to their next game. This means that exposition/character development/other beginning-of-the-game stuff also runs late, and the game may end up running later, and the cycle continues.

It would be nice if there was a way to have games end with a half-hour or fifteen minutes between one block and the next. But that’s difficult to do, because when you have some games that run an hour, others than run eight hours, and others that run everything in between. Games also run less than or over their slots. I guess if it’s just accepted that games will have to end 15/30/whatever minutes early, it could work, but it would feel like the reduction in gaming time for shorter games wouldn’t be proportional. I assume that the Con of the North people have thought about this problem and decided that having the blocks run until and from the top of the hour is the only way that works. At a small con, it’s possible to just, for example, set a morning slot and an afternoon slot each day and then leave plenty of time between them. But once you have a bunch of games, it gets harder to schedule them without conflicts.

What better methods are out there? I haven’t encountered any. What do you think?

When to hold the con?

Another kind of schedule conflict that is pretty basic, but still worth mentioning, is: trying to avoid conflicts with other cons and fannish activities. In the Twin Cities, that can be pretty difficult; there’s something going on almost every weekend. Here, though, it might be easier. Of course, avoiding conflicts requires knowing in advance what else is going on. And sometimes, WizardCon decides at the last minute that your weekend is a great time to hold one of their events, or whatever. Conflict isn’t perfectly avoidable at the best of times, but it’s good to minimize when you can.

Starting, getting into and leaving games

One continuing problem for gaming cons is event registration systems. You’ve probably heard the tales:

  • Running around a massive convention center or clicking madly on a website to register for a game you’ve been looking forward to for months, only to not get in.
  • Finding out that you got into none of the games you were hoping for in a given block.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for even more months, only to get to the con and discover that the game has been canceled.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for months, only to get to the actual game location and time before discovering that it’s been canceled — and now all the other games you would’ve gone to in that slot are full.
  • Showing up for your favorite game and discovering that your least favorite player is in it.
  • Finding out that your two favorite games are running opposite each other.
  • Finding out that no one has registered for the game you spent months preparing for, or that all the player slots were taken but no one actually shows up.
  • Not understanding that you need to be au courant with the latest edition, or that the game is going to have themes you’re uncomfortable with.

There are a million ways the registration process can go wrong.

Having run programming for a science fiction convention (though not a dedicated gaming convention), I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties of creating a good game registration system. The whole process is something that, I’m sure, the Con of the North people have dealt with a lot. Their system uses physical, paper tickets for games. They’re graded into something like ‘primary’, ‘alternate’ and ‘probably-not’ classes. Each ticket has the name of the event, the location and time, the number of player slots, and various other information. In your registration packet, you get a letter-size print-off of whatever you sent in for your event preferences, and stapled to it is your own little pile of event tickets.

At the Con of the North registration desk, they have these pretty amazing peg-boards on which all the tickets for all the events hang during the con; at-con event registration consists of asking the folks for a given ticket, which they then find within its time-slot and either give you a ticket or tell you ‘sorry, all the tickets for that event are gone’. Importantly, the ticketing doesn’t cost anything extra, either before the con or at the con (except maybe for some of the minis events, I think). All games are included in the membership cost.

Really, it’s a pretty ingenious system, and it works amazing well, all considered. And really, given some of the horror stories I’ve heard about GenCon and other cons, CotN’s system works quite well.

But it does have its drawbacks. For one thing, if people have registered for a game but decide — early on, or at the last moment — that they don’t want to actually attend, there isn’t a lot of incentive to return their tickets to the registration desk. This means that other people who are interested in the game can’t officially get in; they might not even think to, or bother to, show up to the game and see if it really is full up. CotN has been encouraging people to return tickets for events they aren’t actually going to use, but not enough people bother. Having no breaks between schedule blocks also discourages returning tickets.

Bulletin board at Con of the North 2016Related to this, GMs and hosts don’t get clear information about registration for games they’re running. By default, no information is given about how many people have registered for games you’re going to run. That means that the game you spent months preparing for might end up with no players; this is a perverse incentive, because it has the effect of encouraging low prep and even sloppy GMing. (“Why should I bother to prep, since I don’t even know if the game is going to actually happen?”) CotN of course does state that GMs should prepare adequately for games they’re going to run, and I think even has an official complaint channel for players who discover that a GM didn’t do enough prep. But still, the lack of feedback about how many players have registered makes lower prep tempting. If you go to the registration board, you can ask them how many tickets have been pulled for a given event; but even knowing that doesn’t tell you how many people will actually show up (see the problems about not returning tickets for games you’re not actually going to), or which people. (And sometimes it can be good to know if everyone who has registered for your game is, say, already familiar with the system, or 18+, or whatever.) There is a moderately strong perverse incentive to register for a bunch of things simultaneously (such as registering for a two-hour game that overlaps with a four-hour game, just in case one or the other doesn’t pan out), which means GMs get false positives for interest levels.

Another related problem is that it’s hard to get information out about canceled games. If you wake up Sunday morning and discover that you have a horrible case of con crud and shouldn’t go to the Con, but you’re scheduled to run four games that day that are all fully registered, what should you do? And if you cancel, do you call the CotN people? At best, they might let the folks at the registration board know and add your game to the list of canceled games on the bulletin board; but not everyone checks those sources (and with zero break time between slots, they often don’t have time to). So it’s entirely possible for a full slate of players to show up to a game that has actually been canceled. This adds another layer to the perverse incentives to register for more than one game in a given slot, which results in something of a vicious circle.

Another big problem is that the paper ticket system doesn’t really allow for pick-up games. If, at Con of the North or any other con I’ve been to, you decide at midnight that you’d like to play a game of Zar or Moneyduck or Advanced Civilization or whatever, the only way to get it together is to run around and find people you know and try to cajole them into committing. In my experience, this often results in basically playing the same games as usual with the same people as usual. Often quite fun, but I also go to gaming cons to play games that I don’t usually get to play. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to feel like playing at the con several months in advance.

Cell phones make this whole process slightly easier — texting to the rescue — but it still means furious communicating back and forth, and not everyone has a cell phone, and sometimes connections get missed, or whatever. Cell phones make it easier, but not easy. CotN has some large standing whiteboards, on which people write impromptu games they’re running; but from what I’ve seen, this is not very systematized, and doesn’t work very well. Trying to get pick-up games started at most cons is an annoying process at best.

Alternatives

So, okay, the paper ticket system has problems. It’s got strong points, but are there better alternatives?

Specifically for pick-up games, I’ve long thought that there should be a portable system by which players can signal to other players that they’d like to join a particular game. Some kind of flag that players can set up to let others know that they have a space open, and some kind of flag that players can display to let others know that they’re interested in a given game. (Kind of a hankie system for games, I guess; but I won’t go further into that.)

I recently heard that some cons have implemented this, in a way. Rather than flags, they use balloons: if a table has a balloon floating above it, that group is looking for additional players. Maybe even multiple balloons for multiple players. I can’t imagine there are enough kinds of balloons to allow designating what system the table is playing — even if it’s a giant-size game of Catan, it may not be obvious what system the group is playing if you’re seeing the balloon(s) from across a crowded gaming hall. And while I suppose it might be possible to make a Blade & Crown balloon animal, it’s going to be hard to get across something like “GURPS 3rd edition” in that medium. So I think balloons are a great idea, and pretty easy to implement; but they still leave some problems unresolved.

I think what I’ve seen at Convergence in recent years might be a good alternative to work toward. They use Sched, which is a for-profit event planning software package. There are tons of other kinds of convention planning software out there, too, some open source and free of charge. Minicon has recently started using ProgDB for programming (brainstorming, schedule, etc.), and we used the Mnstf wiki for the same functions earlier. (I wouldn’t recommend Mediawiki for actual registration — I don’t even see how it could work — but it works great for keeping track of a long list of discrete data, such as a selection of programming items for an SF con or a listing of games for a gaming con.)

The Convergence system is pretty well integrated with smartphones. That means that — if you have a working smartphone with a working data connection — you can register for games on the fly. Heck, you can probably start games on the fly. It’s certainly easier to imagine success getting together that midnight game of El Grande or Risus via a registration website than via a physical bulletin board located in just one spot. And, from what I understand, with these kinds of computerized registration systems, you can quickly find out how many people are registered for a given game, and even find specific information about them. (“Available from 1am to 6am, really want to play an Ao-Ryuu game, but really, any Ryuutama is okay”). I think people can even leave private messages to explain why they’ve registered for a game, or left, or inquire about specifics.

The assumption that everyone has a cellphone that can interact with a registration system is of course problematic — for starters, not everyone can afford a smartphone. The assumption that everyone’s cellphone can currently interact with it is even more precarious (batteries fail, and so do websites). But maybe it’s getting to the point where computer access is widespread enough that the convenience of using an online registration system outweighs its inconveniences. Not having to run back and forth from a central registration site may make the con more accessible, for example.

I don’t know if computerized registration systems allow it, but clearly, it should be possible for them to allow freeform game descriptions. Not just what the content of the scenario will be — stuff like trigger warnings, system descriptions (“We will be using Blade & Crown with the optional healing rules” or “A homebrew I’ve been playtesting for a few years that uses Fate mechanics for aspects added to basic 4th edition GURPS Traveller for skills and equipment, with original Newtonian space combat rules” or whatever), specific parts of the social contract (“will use X-cards”, “must be comfortable with Monty Python jokes”), level of maturity required, etc. could all be given much fuller treatment if the games don’t have to fit within a tight character limit.

Of course, this could be abused, and excessive verbosity can be a problem in game descriptions as bad as excessive brevity. And it could be problematic if there’s no ongoing editing to check for unclear descriptions, incorrect locations, etc. It’s good to have some things standardized, when possible. But allowing for more freeform descriptions of games would overall be a good thing, I think.

Whatever system a con uses to organize games, it’s pretty clear that there are always going to be trade-offs. And for a con that’s just getting started, I bet that investing in some plywood and pegs and the time to put them together, and maybe buying some balloons, would be a lot more affordable than finding, installing and implementing a well-designed computerized registration system. Still, it’s good to be aware of what’s out there. It’s good to think of the con’s goals and how best to attain them within the resources at hand.

The ideal gaming con I: Size

The call for submissions to Con of the North has come and gone. For a long time, it has been my main gaming con. I like most things about it, but it has its little problems. And now it’s kind of a moot point, because it looks almost certain at this point that I’ll be on the other side of the planet when Con of the North happens. For that and other reasons, I’ve been thinking recently about starting a gaming con from scratch.

That naturally prompts the thought, what would I want such a con to be like? A realistic goal, of course, might just be “a bunch of people in a room for an afternoon or day, having fun gaming with each other”. But it’s also interesting to think about loftier goals. If I could organize an ideal gaming con, what would it be like?

So what is the right size?

The more I think about this, the more thoughts I have, and the longer this article gets. So I should break these up into chunks that are a better size. And that’s the first topic to talk about with gaming cons: size.

Convergence 2013 registration line

Luckily, Con of the North is not like this.

This is one thing I like a lot about Con of the North. The con gets a few hundred people every year, which feels just right. In the past few years, the hotel has also felt just about the right size.

I feel like there’s something of a minimum critical mass for a gaming con; smaller than that, and it can be hard to get a good variety of games going. (Small cons, like relaxacons or even just big game parties, can be great; but a big part of why I want to go to a con is to play things I ordinarily don’t get to, and if it’s just me and my friends playing the same games we usually play, it doesn’t feel like a gaming con per se.) Con of the North is comfortably above that minimum. The variety of games isn’t always perfect for my tastes, but I don’t think any con can offer everyone precisely the games they want. At a huge con that has everything,

Wait, there are five different HârnMaster games on Saturday night alone?

it always seems like there are other problems that get in the way.

Yes, but three of them are overlapping, they’re in four different hotels, and they all finish after the shuttle buses stop.

Importantly, Con of the North is also not too big. It fits very comfortably into one hotel, for example. Some games are a little hard to find, and some of the the current hotel fittings seem to be designed for summoning hounds of Tindalos. However, it’s all one complex. There’s no need to trek outdoors to get from one game to the next — an important consideration, in frigid February Minnesota conditions, but also just nice any time of year, anywhere. Everything is close enough together that you can peek into the LAN room on your way to the dealers’ room, or check out the minis on display while heading to your group’s theme room. Some cons in the Twin Cities are near to bursting their buildings. Luckily, Con of the North is not one of those.

It seems that an assumption for attending a lot of the big gaming and other conventions is that either a) getting from one activity to the next will require sweating and walking long distances, or b) you will basically just camp out in one area (dealers, restaurant, the Settlers of Catan suite, whatever) and not leave it for most of a day. Not only for GMs or minis gamers or completists or whoever else with a lot of stuff to schlep, but also for people with mobility difficulties, and just tight schedules, having a con spread out across a huge complex makes big parts of it un-fun or downright inaccessible.

There are a lot of other considerations about the venue, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Social combat and Cartesian dualism

I’ve only played a few games that included dedicated social combat mechanics. And I’ve played even fewer that had social combat mechanics that actually seemed to work in play. Even when the mechanics made sense in themselves, the actual play irked me somehow.

There’s been a lot of theorizing about why social combat mechanisms just don’t work for some people. I think I’ve had a small insight into the underlying problem with social combat for a lot of people.

Many of us tend to view our existence as people as being a mental force enshrouded in a material body. There are, of course, many different ideas (philosophical, religious or both) about what exactly that mental force is, what the material body consists of, and what the relationship between the two is. Whether that mental force is something ultimately above the physical realm, or dragged down by it, or simply an emergent state of that physicality, a lot of us have a tendency to our bodies and our minds as very separate things. Cartesian dualism, in other words.

I know I certainly have that tendency. If you have this view of existence, it’s easy to tend towards viewing your body as just something you’re in, while your mind is who you are.

Image of Golden Boddhisattva characterEspecially if you’re playing a character who’s physically very different from you, then it’s easy to feel a huge amount of distance between your in-character body and your actual mind. Put another way, it’s very easy to play a character with a body completely different from your real body. But, on the other hand, playing a character with a completely different mentality from your own can be difficult or impossible. As the authors of Hârnmaster once noted, it’s very difficult to play someone who is fundamentally smarter or less intelligent than you are. The body of my PC may be incredibly different from my own real body — heck, I once played a character whose body was a bunch of tiny, separately-propelled metal spheres, like a wandering pile of ball bearings — but the minds of my PCs are rarely so different from my own. While I may try to model a different personality somewhat, the possibilities of modeling a different body are vastly greater.

This seems intimately tied in with the tendency of so many RPG gamers to reject social combat mechanics. Physical combat is basically physical action — actions that are not only easier for some to envision than all the subtle nuances of social conflict, and also somehow easier to accept. Suffering a physical wound to a body that isn’t actually mine seems somehow not that hard to accept. The damage is to a body that isn’t actually mine.

But accepting damage to my character’s mind — whether in the form of suffering humiliation, or of being convinced of something against my will or better judgment — is that much closer to hurting my actual mind. I think much the way my character does, therefore I am hurt when my character’s mind is.

There are a lot of other issues involved with the ill-acceptance of social combat mechanics among so many gamers, certainly. Closely related to the mind-body dualism I’ve noted above is deprotagonization. Really, deprotagonization and mind-body dualism problems may just be two sides of the same coin. If the GM throws my character in a cell, that’s only physical danger; but if they start dictating to me how my character’s imprisonment has changed my thought patterns, the seat of control for my character is no longer my own.

Another big problem for social combat mechanics is the social contract. If we play a game with social combat mechanics, we have to agree, rather explicitly, that we’re going to allow our PCs’ heads to be messed with. And because the damage seems that much more real, and that much more personal, the damage our characters suffer from social combat has to feel equal, or at least fair, much more than it does with physical combat. If we all agree that our PCs can be (for example) gaslit, and then somehow only I suffer gaslighting, then it feels like I’ve been doubly gaslit. If we all agree that our characters can be enticed to fall in love with each other, but then only your character actually gets charmed to do so and I just wave it away as ‘well, my character would never do that’ — then the social contract has, I think, been quietly but deeply broken, and in a way that hurts more deeply than in my character just suffered more damage in physical combat.

There are also the ways that social combat in games doesn’t model actual social conflict well… Physical combat, for all its feints and tumbles and jabs, contains only a fraction of the back-stabbing, frenemy action, curiosity probes and wheels within wheels that true social conflict can have. It’s all too easy for an RPG’s social combat system to ring hollow. And for many of us nerdy folks, social interactions can be not just a minefield, but a multi-dimensional, constantly-evolving mine-nebula, that makes social combat mechanics seem like too complex a thing to ever try modeling in a game save by a roll or

So there are a lot of factors that contribute to many folks’ hostility to social combat mechanics. I’m sure there are others I haven’t listed here. But I think it’s a useful insight that a big chunk of it may be due to Cartesian dualism.

Pre-gen PCs 2: Kathalla the Theologian

This is another of the pre-gen characters from my Medieval Mountain Monastery Mystery scenario.

Kathalla is not from Morensia, the main culture where the adventure is set; instead, she’s from a nearby kingdom that is, arguably, more advanced than the main culture. However, she practices the religion of the main culture, so she’s a sort of minority within a minority within a minority. Like a lot of religious practicioners from enclaves, she knows the religion better than those who practice the religion in the comfort of a majority setting. The combination of being more religiously knowledgeable and in some ways more culturally sophisticated than the people she lives among, yet inextricably linked to their culture, has given her a wry sense of humor and a critical eye. People have had a great amount of fun with this character.

Kathalla the Theologian