A Primer For U.S Parents About Video Games

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So, the President of the United States has decided to take some steps, or at least look like he’s about to take some steps, to address the violence in American media, most notably video games, in order to address the epidemic of gun violence in recent years. Ignoring the fact that this is stupid, it also is a good reminder that a lot of people, especially older parents, aren’t super familiar with video games, as well as they way they’re rated. So, I thought I’d take a second to talk about just that.

Hyperrealistic Violence Is Not The Norm

So, some video games are violent. Trying to argue against that is stupid, plenty of video games are violent. However, not all_of them are. In fact, when you look at the top 10 selling video games of 2017 (according to Forbes), three feature violence against realistic human enemies (Call of Duty: WWII, Grand Theft Auto V, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands) . Three feature nonrealistic violence against fantasy enemies (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Destiny 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront II) , and four feature either no violence or minor cartoon violence (NBA 2K18, Madden NFL 18, Super Mario Odyssey, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe).

If you pivot over to the top 10 rated games of 2017, according to Metacritic, which aggregates the scores from assorted sources, the number of games with realistic violence drops to….zero. Literally none. Pretending that all video games are this horrible bloodbath is hilariously untrue. One of the breakout successes in gaming in 2016 was a game about farming, and every kid under the age of 13 right now is obsessed with a game about building stuff. It is perfectly possible to spend years playing some extremely good video games without ever killing a human being in any of them.

Video games are becoming increasingly varied in their subject matter as the years go on, although, admittedly, there are still a decent number of games out there about shooting guys. Call of Duty, the most prominent series about shooting guys, has been suffering declining sales for the last few years, however. So, the market isn’t quite as obsessed with shooting guys as your local congressman or a violent game montage on Facebook might suggest.

If you want some solid recommendations for squeaky-clean games, try:

  • Stardew Valley is a game about inheriting your grandfather’s farm out in the countryside, and growing crops and expanding your farm while getting to know the people in the small town you now live in.
  • Splatoon 2 (pictured above) is technically a shooter, but takes place in a hyperstylized worlds of squid…kids? The objective of the game is not to kill your opponents, but rather to paint the multiplayer map in your team’s color of ink, although “splatting” your opponents with ink is a critical part of gameplay.
  • Civilization VI is a large-scale strategy game where players control an entire civilization as it grows throughout the ages.

Not All Video Games Are For Kids

Despite stereotypes about video games, the simple fact is that the target demographic for most games is not kids. We can look at the demographics data provided by the Entertainment Software Administration, the self-governing body which monitors and polices the games industry, and see some interesting details.

  • The average age of someone who plays video games is 35. The average woman gamer is 37, the average man 33
  • Only 18% of men who play video games are under the age of 18. This number drops to 11% for women.

While there is certainly a market of games which are targeted for kids, pretending that most people playing video games are children is incorrect.

The ESRB

Anyone who’s bought a video game probably knows about the ESRB rating system. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a branch of the aforementioned ESA, is responsible for rating video games which are sold in some (but not all) online storefronts, as well as most retail stores. In case you are unfamiliar, here are all of their ratings:

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We’re going to actually ignore the AO rating for the moment. It’s reserved for extreme violence and lukewarm sexual content (we’ll get to that later), and few retail stores and many online stores will outright refuse to sell AO games, so there aren’t that many. When you look at the aforementioned ESA demographics report, you’ll see that 88% of all games rated by the ESRB are rated E, E10+, or T, with only 11% being rated M.

The ESRB’s rating system definitely works, at least to some degree. In the ESA report, 85% of parents said they understood the ESRB rating system. 90% of parents are present when their child purchases a video game. However, as a parent, there are some things worth noting about the ESRB that aren’t exactly common knowledge:

  • The ESRB was created in the 90s, during our last big video game moral panic. Much like the MPAA which rates and polices movies, the ESRB is not a government agency, but instead is composed of members of the industry itself. While one of its key goals is to inform the general public as to the content of video games, another of its key goals was to get the US government off of the games industry’s butt.
  • The ESRB, much like American media in general, tends to look at sexual content much more harshly than violence. This video describes it much better than I can, but long story short, violent games tend to get lower age ratings in the US than outside of it, while games with even softcore sexual content tend to get rated much higher.
  • The ESRB doesn’t rate all games. With the advent of the Internet and online marketplaces such as Steam, the largest online game marketplace which does not require ESRB ratings, it’s fairly easy to release unrated games. Also, since getting an AO rating is essentially a sales death sentence in most marketplaces, the games that would get it usually just don’t bother and aren’t sold in those markets.
  • The ESRB doesn’t actually play through the entirety of the games they rate. As they themselves state in their rating process, developers send in a filled-out questionnaire along with a video reel of relevant material, which is reviewed and rated by the board. This means that, hypothetically, a developer could just not disclose the more objectionable parts of their game to get a lighter rating. While there have been accusations of people doing so, I can’t find any reported instances from reliable sources.

The ESRB rating range is also fairly limited. Members of the industry most frequently complain about the very wide spectrum of content covered by the M rating, between what are often called “hard” Ms versus “soft” Ms.

For instance, Halo: The Master Chief Collection has an M rating. In it, heavily armored soldiers attack very colorful, non-realistic enemies with fantastical weaponry, with little gore and no dismemberment. There are occasional instances of blood when human NPCs die, but it’s not an emphasis and the player character is never instructed nor incentivized to attack other humans. That’s an M.

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Another game that got the same M rating is Dead By Daylight. In this multiplayer game, a team of four “survivor” characters, most of whom are teens to young adults, must elude a fifth player who plays a serial killer. The killer character is attempting to kill or otherwise incapacitate the four survivors, with means including but not limited to: knives, axes, cudgels, bonesaws, chainsaws, bear traps, and impaling them on giant meat hooks. All of this is depicted with large amounts of blood and gore. Oh, and the killers from HalloweenFriday the 13th, and Saw are all available as playable characters. Same rating as Halo.

Then there’s House Party. Besides being kind of a garbage game, House Party is a game in which the player is at an adult house party, at which they can perform a variety of explicit sexual acts, including the fact that there are literally buttons exclusively for unzipping one’s pants and pleasuring yourself. House Party, as a PC only release, doesn’t have an ESRB rating, and its Steam page can be accessed through an easily-bypassed age gate. (Also, and I really cannot stress this enough, this game sucks)

The point I’m trying to make is that while ESRB ratings can be useful, and are an alright way to roughly guesstimate the content of a game, there are problems with this system, and if you want your kids to only be playing games appropriate to them, looking at the big letter in the corner cannot be where you stop.

Staying Informed

If you’re a parent whose kid plays video games, just looking at the ESRB rating on the box isn’t going to cut it, since it might not even be there, and if it is it might be underrepresenting some element of the game. The only way to accurately understand what is in a game is to actually do some research yourself.

Ideally, you yourself as a parent would play the game yourself in order to get a sense for the content, but not all parents are into video games, and (presumably) you have less time to play video games than your child, so you’d be forgiven for not doing so.

Luckily for you, the Internet has nothing if not a glut of people who make their livings playing, recording, and talking about video games. If you want to get a decent idea of what is in a video game before buying it for your kid, there are a variety of ways to do it.

Some websites, such as Common Sense Media, do in-depth reviews of media, including games, in order to try and give parents a better idea of what’s exactly in the content their kids are consuming. One nice thing they do is break down exactly where objectionable content is in games. However, as is the case with any group that attempts to rate the family-friendliness of media, their ratings are subject to their moral compass. Their age rating of a game will increase with the presence of same-sex relationships, the presence of smoking or alcohol (regardless of who is smoking or drinking), or consumerist behavior, which may not line up with what actually concerns you. So, rely on the write-ups more than the final age rating.

It’s also worth stating that there are a lot of people who upload videos of themselves playing any given game to YouTube, and you’d be hard pressed to find a game for which a YouTube search of “<game title here> gameplay” won’t bring up > 100,000 results. If you wanna see what a game is like moment to moment, search for exactly that, and watch some of the videos of people playing it. A lot of these videos have commentary, some with extremely insightful commentary, but most with just people screaming. While most of these videos are meant to entertain, a subset of them put themselves forward as consumer resources, designed to give a detailed impression of the games they are playing. These are probably going to be your best bet for figuring out how appropriate a game is.

Here are some sources for information with regards to games that I’d give my personal seal of approval:

  • Giant Bomb is probably the most entertainment-focused thing I’ll recommend. While their videos themselves are not kid friendly, their “Quick Looks” are designed to be small encapsulations of what a given game’s experience is like, with an emphasis on providing an entertaining overview of a game to inform consumers. Giant Bomb is staffed by a number of veterans of games journalism, who can provide valuable insights into the game they’re playing. It can get “inside baseball” at times, but they’re still a good way to get a quick snapshot of what a game is.
  • TotalBiscuit, real name John Bain, is a YouTuber who specializes in PC games, meaning he covers a lot of those games that slip by the ESRB. Again, his videos themselves are not kid-friendly, but he does provide lengthy videos about games, with an emphasis on consumer advocacy and helping people make informed purchases. This heavily leans more towards trying to power consumers to be informed buyers, but it’s still a good place to find substantial gameplay clips of PC games.
  • If you search “<game title here> let’s play no commentary” on YouTube, you’ll often find people playing through video games without any commentary on their own. If you find the input of the players distracting or obnoxious, finding one of these will let you see the game exactly how it is with no outside distractions. Rabid Retrospect Games is a channel that does a lot of commentary-free playthroughs of modern games.

Wrapping Up

If you want your kid to avoid the (fictional) scars caused by being exposed by inappropriate video games, as a parent, your options basically boil down to two. The first is to do nothing, and just let them get whatever, and then get mad at some scapegoat when it turns out they’re playing some ultraviolent murderfest. The second option is to take an active role in your kid’s engagement with video games. Figure out what the games they’re playing actually are, and decide for yourself whether or not it’s appropriate for your family.

Actually, better yet, actually sit with your kid while they play games every once in a while. You don’t need to be cheering them on or rooting for them (actually, if anything that’d probably mortify them). Hell, do some work on your laptop or do a crossword or something. Watching your kid play video games will, however, let you see how your child reacts to a game, which is infinitely more valuable to you as a parent than knowing what’s in a game.

After all, every kid is different. Plenty of kids can start to watch violent and scary movies and playing violent games from a young age without any significant effect. I (hopefully) was one of them. Other kids might take certain “mature” content in a way that is worth dealing with as a parent. The only way you’re going to know is if you actually observe them for yourselves. If you see a reaction or behavior from them while they’re playing a game, something maybe concerning or even just kinda weird, then you as a parent can hop in and talk about it with them. And, if your kid is one of the ones who can see a dude get exploded into a hundred pieces without significant behavioral or emotional damage, as many are, then you’re “only” spending some quality time with your kids.

Oh, one last thing. If your kids are one of the ones that scream obscenities in online games, get them to stop that. We have enough of those. We don’t need your kids doing it too.

 

 

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The Five Games I Want To Run in 2018

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I count myself lucky in a lot of ways. Two of those ways is that I have a tabletop RPG group that meets in person on a regular basis, and another is that said group has been open-minded to me running one-shots of systems other than our main fare, and sometimes of my own creation. Because of this, I’ve been able to run a number of different systems, which both has been a chance to learn about and play games that I really like, and to gain experience that makes my games better.

However, like a lot of people in this hobby, I have accrued a fairly shameful pile of game systems that I haven’t actually brought to the table yet. So, I think the new year is a great chance to commit myself to playing some of the systems that haven’t made it to my table yet, and actually sling some dice. It’s like a New Year’s Resolution, except with vaguely defined goals, and no consequences for not doing it. So it’s exactly like a New Year’s Resolution.

Burning Wheel

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You might have gathered by now that I’m quite a big fan of character creation, specifically systems that allow you to generate really interesting, narratively and mechanically unique characters. Enter Burning Wheel, probably one of the most contentious games on the internet, but one that I like quite a lot.

Burning Wheel is a master class in character mechanics. For starters, there’s the game’s fantastic Lifepath system, in which you build characters by selecting these sort of life units, called “Lifepaths”, which as a sequence describe what you have been doing your entire life. Each Lifepath offers certain skills you can (and some you must) put points in, the sort of places you might have come from, where you can go to from there, and other attributes of your character. For example, a character whose Lifepaths are Noble Born -> Squire -> Knight would have very different knowledge, skills, and experience than a character whose Lifepath runs something like Born into Poverty -> Farmer -> Hunter.

On top of that, Burning Wheel characters are defined by their Beliefs, or the convictions that they hold close to their heart, their Instincts, which are a sort of “if-then” logic that lets you program your character’s behavior automatically, and Traits, which are the defining, obvious, demonstrable characteristics of the character (any character can be handsome, but it’s only with the Trait “Handsome” that you’ll walk into a room and people go “Fuck.“) When you play to these things, and specifically when they get your character into interesting situations, is how you get XP in this system.

Burning Wheel is not the easiest game in the world to get in to, and understanding how and when to assemble some of the more complicated subsystems into the rules is kind of a challenge, but I think the way this game handles characters, and builds them into well rounded, interesting, unique individuals makes it well worth some plays in 2018.

Blades In The Dark

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Looking at this list of RPGs now, something I’m realizing is that all of them have one particular thing that they do really well. Burning Wheel handles characters really well, and this game, John Harper’s Blades In The Dark, is a master class in handling time.

The first way Blades In The Dark, a game about rogues and scoundrels making a name for themselves in a dark, steampunk pseudo-London, handles time is through the brilliant use of flashbacks as a codified game mechanic. Flashbacks are so important the game actually explicitly skips past any preparatory measures for a job, jumping right into the action. Whenever the players encounter an obstacle on the job, they may spend some resources to trigger a flashback, allowing them to describe a scene that happened during that skipped preparatory phase that solves this present day problem. They may attempt to inject an easy, but minimally helpful flashback (“I walked through the museum and memorized the layout”) or go for a difficult, but massively useful one instead (“I spend the last three months digging an underground tunnel right into the vault”).

The other brilliant mechanism Blades has to manipulate time is, well, Clocks. As described in the rules, Clocks are just little circles the GM draws, with some number of ticks around the rim. Depending on the exact circumstances of the Clock, some actions will cause the Clock to tick forward, some to tick back, and when the Clock is completely ticked, something happens. This is an extremely versatile tool, capable of representing everything from “The poor of the city are stirred into revolt” to “An explosive is about to go off” to “The guards are mustering to handle your intrusion”.

Frankly, handling the passage of time isn’t exactly the strong suit of RPGs. The weird “a turn is six seconds and everyone takes turns but really it’s all happening at the same time” thing is really hard to imagine, and handling the passage of time in non-combat scenarios is equally cumbersome. By attuning event countdowns to the drama, instead of the passage of time, such that the outcomes of actions taken push Clocks forward, ensues that tensions remain high and the ticking of the Clock remains dramatic, without the introduction of pedantic bookkeeping. I absolutely cannot wait to see the panic on my players’ faces as the Clocks tick down in my first Blades game.

Rogue Trader

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So if Burning Wheel handles characters and Blades In The Dark handles time, what does Rogue Trader, second in Fantasy Flight’s line of five Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, bring to the table? Scale.

Rogue Trader isn’t interested in the actions of the little guy, or the small, interpersonal goals that litter the galaxy by the trillions. Rogue Trader wants to tell stories that are big, and it fits the setting. Warhammer is generally disinterested in small events, instead opting for stories of massive wars where planets are destroyed and death tolls start out in the six or seven figures. So, when Rogue Trader welcomes its new players to the world, it gives them a spaceship that would make a Star Destroyer blush, and a Warrant of Trade, a document granting the party legal extraterritoriality, and the rights to negotiate with new aliens, to consort with the enemy, and to buy and sell commodities up to planets themselves.

Rogue Trader stories traded around the internet have inspired me to pick up this game, if only because the sense of scale brings with it a subset of player problems, and problem solving, simply not possible in other games. Stuck in a battle in deep space with an enemy ship? Get in touch with the first mate, wire them enough money to buy a small island, and watch the captain’s brains splatter across the inside of their windshield. Are your negotiations with an alien? Remind them that you can always call up your old buddy the Imperial Inquisition and tell them to turn this whole planet into a boiling hell. While some RPG campaigns are lucky to get a spaceship or a castle to call home, your team can buy a planet, or hell, a star system, and terraform it how they choose.

Plenty of RPGs let you play heroes, but Rogue Trader lets you play, to paraphrase the words of redditor ryanznock, billionaire bank CEOs in space, and there’s no sum of money nor rule of law that can fully contain your influence.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

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I’m in a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign right now, and actually ran a funnel for my regular group relatively recently (they mostly all died). My infatuation with this system has grown into affection as I’ve grown comfortable in it, and I hope to be able to run some more of this game in the new year (assuming I didn’t grind my players’ hope into dust too badly last time).

The specialty of Dungeon Crawl Classics is definitely in its pure, concentrated weird. An extremely minimal rulesset, combined with the OSR mentality of “rulings over rules”, mean that most of the problems the game presents are to be solved with clever thinking and player ingenuity, rather than just rolling a skill check. Since stat blocks can be written out in a couple of lines, GMs are free to whip up whatever insane enemies they want, and since fights can be won with clever thinking and MacGuyver-esqe schemes as much as they can by rolling the “hit shit” dice and making numbers go down, you’re free to present your players with enemies of any scale, from rats to gods, knowing that any challenge is one of logical thinking, rather than numbers.

Furthermore, the rules of Dungeon Crawl Classics are such that they naturally attempt to inject some weirdness into the game over time, especially with the magic rules. Roll particularly bad on a spellcasting roll, and your wizard might end up with some new features, from a delightful patch of purple skin to some extra eyes to who knows what else. Every spell you learn has its own special flavor specific to the way you cast it, from changing the weather to causing thousands of rats to pour out of your sleeves. There’s no “I just cast a fireball” in Dungeon Crawl Classics, and every spell turns your game for the weirder.

 

Genesys

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This one’s sort of a cheat. I have been running Genesys for a while now, since the core system is just the main rules of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, divorced from the setting and turned into a generic system (Get it? Generic system? Gene-sys?). But I love this system, especially after some fuddling with the other big boy generic systems like CypherFATE, and GURPS. Nothing handles meaningful dice results quite like Genesys.

For those not in the know, Genesys uses some initially wonky custom dice, which are easy to write off as a cash-grab by Fantasy Flight, but are honestly really cool. These dice roll up symbols instead of numbers, with those systems belonging to three pairs:

  1. Successes and Failures cancel each other out. You need at least one uncancelled Success to succeed at a roll
  2. Advantage and Disadvantage cancel each other out, and whatever remains uncancelled generally determine whether or not things get better or worse for the actor as a result of their roll
  3. Triumph and Despair do not cancel each other out, and represent extremely lucky (or unlucky) consequences of their actions. These essentially are crits.

By using these wonky dice, Genesys‘s dice rolls not only describe success or failure, but lay the groundwork for the progress of the story after the roll. Players can succeed, but create bigger problems for themselves (“You blow up the enemy, but doing so blows a hole in the ship’s hull, creating a force attempting to suck you all out into deep space”), just as players can fail in a fortunate manner (“Your laser blast misses the enemy, but it does blast off the shackles of the prisoner they’re keeping behind them”). Every dice roll is customized for the situation, and it prevents the boredom that comes with both constant success and constant failure.

Conclusion

Obviously I want to run as many games next year as humanly possible, it’s just my nature. However, these five games have been burning a hole on my shelf, and I absolutely want to bust them out and throw some dice playing them. Be it Burning Wheel‘s unique characters, Blades In the Dark‘s sense of time, Rogue Trader‘s vast scale, Dungeon Crawl Classics‘s propensity for the weird, or the great dice rolls of Genesys, these games will hopefully fuel the flame for interesting, fun sessions not just next year, but for years to come.

Wrestling Games Should Be Crazier

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There’s a special place in my heart where pro-wrestling lives. I’m not the biggest fan in the world (I generally dislike the need to follow plotlines reliant on years and years of built-up lore, the same issue I have with major comics and the MCU), but the sheer ridiculousness of a multibillion dollar production which is essentially a serialized drama about a wrestling competition is too good to resist. It’s like the plot line from a 90s fighting game, but in real life.

The gut reaction some people have when they here I’m in to wrestling is the stock “You know wrestling isn’t real, right?”, to which I respond “Of course I do, have you seen wrestling?” Pro-wrestling makes no attempt to be real, or at least no more attempt than any other performance art. The WWE’s stable of main characters includes an undead wizard, a masked demon from Hell, and a superhero (who had a crossover event with DC superhero Green Arrow). Wrestling makes no attempt to be “real”.

Which makes the line up of WWE video games so ultimately perplexing, and frustrating. Despite having this rich canon of ridiculous nonsense to draw from, and having the most unrealistic parts of pro-wrestling baked in to the core storylines of wrestling, WWE games are, for the most part, about a gaggle of sweaty dudes (and ladies) getting into a wrestling ring and hitting each other until one of them gets pinned. Sure, maybe they take some extra hits, don’t get as tired, and jump a bit further than a real person, but it’s hardly the realm of fantasy.

For some reason, WWE games are obsessed with this idea of “being taken seriously”. They’re published under the “2k” name, as many sports games are. They emphasize super-realistic character models of the wrestlers, and detailed recreations of wrestling arenas, crowds, and entrances. Hell, even the box art lines up with what has become typical for sports games.

The problem with this is that a realistic approach to wrestling games loses quite a bit of what makes pro-wrestling special. The best part of wrestling is not the part where two dudes just hit each other a lot (there’s actually very little striking at all, which makes its strong presence in the game confusing), it’s watching these ridiculous, larger than life characters engage in the most melo- of drama, which is exacerbated by the fact that all conflicts inevitably end up in, well, two dudes wrestling.

Wrestling merely exists as the capstone of the sheer lunacy that is a pro-wrestling show, the crescendo for a build-up of nonsense including ridiculous monologues, shows of emotion lacking the subtleties of a midday soap opera, and feuds being started over the most petty, ridiculous things. One time, Dean Ambrose got mad and started a feud because another wrestler broke his potted plant. I am 100% not joking.

But alas, the WWE games have the payoff without the buildup, and it all falls flat. The story mode creator has been absent in recent years, despite having been a fan favorite and source of many amazing fan-made storylines, including the classic “Ghost Problems” and “Ghost Problems More“. There’s little attention paid to the ridiculous plots, the feuds, the powers and supernatural things, all of the pillars which raise pro-wrestling to the narrative scale of watching real-life superheroes. Instead, wrestlers in wrestling games are just sweaty punchdudes.

The most infuriating part of this is that the WWE has broken this schema before, in the form of WWE Immortals.

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A game that was boring mechanically (it was largely a reskin of the mobile Injustice game), but incredible thematically, WWE Immortals was a mobile game in which WWE superstars from parallel dimensions were drawn together into fight for…some reason. The game featured John Cena as a superhero, Triple H as a sort of barbarian warlord, Brock Lesnar as a Terminator-style cyborg, and Bret Hart as what appears to be Tommy Wiseau.

The existence of WWE Immortals proves that the WWE, at least to some extent, is willing to let WWE games get a little crazy. So you’d think that they’d make some more games which use the liberty of the medium to run a little wild. After all, watching an athlete do something athletic is much less impressive when that athlete is digital, so why not attempt to capture the sense of spectacle by scaling everything up with the flexibility of the game. Let wrestlers leap dozens of feet in the air, piledrive people through skyscrapers, crazy stuff!

Even if you didn’t want to descend into the madness that is the weirder parts of kayfabe (the wrestling term for ‘stuff that is true within the context of the storyline, not in real life’), then the strict adherence to reality in wrestling games is still misguided because it attempts to simulate the wrong parts of wrestling. Attempting to capture feats of great athleticism in combat is not interesting or new ground in games, in fact one can argue that melee combat is one of the first things games tried to emulate.

The thing that wrestling does that is great, the thing that is not simulated at all in WWE’s games, is the way that physical grappling is used as a vehicle to deliver drama. I can’t explain this idea as well as Max Landis’s fantastic video about the way wrestling tells a story, but the core synopsis is that wrestling is a vehicle to create, build, and release tension within an audience. You can make the audience fall in love with some wrestlers and hate others, and then using that to make an entire arena of tens of thousands scream with hate as that hated wrestler pins a beloved one, or cheer with joy as their hero takes down the villain. Every big hit raises the stakes as you see wrestlers wince with pain, limp, or scream. A really good wrestling match ends like a good martial arts movie, with every combatant breathing heavy, heavily injured, tired, sweaty, and worn out, but still driven to deliver the final pin.

And yet, wrestling games look like this. Emotionless slabs of polygons just sort of wail on each other, showing no signs of tiring, of injury, of passion, of any emotion at all. The moves look the same every time, delivered with a sort of bored repetition. In good wrestling, just like good dancing, each move should be an expression of something, some idea, even if that idea is just “I would like to beat you and take your shiny belt”. But in games, it just tends to be fighting for the sake of winning the fight.

What a wasted opportunity.

Turn It Up To 11: Music In Tabletop RPGs

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I don’t think I’ve talked a whole lot about my relationship with music, but while I’m basically totally tone-deaf and am utterly incapable as a creator, I have a very deep and special appreciation for music in media and pop culture. Specifically, I’ve found that I’m always a sucker for a very stylish usage of music that I have trouble vocalizing. While there is no shortage of franchises known for their music, my focus lies less on things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings which just, y’know, have good soundtracks, and more on media that embraces its soundtrack and maximizes it.

Instead, my love goes out to pieces which make music an active element of the storytelling. The earliest time I can remember recognizing this was during a musical performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. During a fight scene between the Montagues and Capulets, the actors timed their sword collisions with the music. Since then, I’ve seen other clever uses of music, from the adaptive soundtrack in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the synchronizing of the Reaper horns with the soundtrack early in Mass Effect 3, crossing into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, the way the music soars upon climbing a Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, and recently, the way the soundtrack is used to such great effect in Baby Driver.

So, of course, since it’s a major focus for me recently, I was left wondering, how can I use music like this in tabletop RPGs? The idea of bringing music to the table isn’t novel. Plenty of resources are available which provide background music for tabletop games, and many GMs, including one of my own and myself, will create playlists befitting certain situations. For example, my Shadowrun game, which frequently features characters getting into assorted niche bars, has spawned a half dozen playlists ranging from industrial punk to Frank Sinatra.

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And were I playing Vampire: The Masquerade, I’d presumably just put Marilyn Manson’s discography on loop

But that’s not what I was looking for. That’s just cool background music, some light window dressing on the mood that usually just comes to conflict with the lighthearted tone with is present at the table 99% of the time (after all, most tabletop groups are just a group of friends sitting around a table hanging out, usually with snacks).

The problem, in my eyes, was that for music to be used the way I wanted it to be used required foundational work in the mechanics themselves, it couldn’t just be slapped on to a session in hopes that it’d work. So, because I’m an insane person who doesn’t already have enough on his plate, I made a game: Leitmotif.

Leitmotif is my answer to the question, and ideally, an inspiration for others to consider using music in their game design as a more active component. I won’t post the rules, because they’re a half-edited mess, but the core principle is this: every character in the game has a small set of stats, typical of any RPG, but also has a playlist, consisting of real world songs. The songs in this playlist are tagged using a system of tags presented in the game, ranging from genre tags (“punk”, “EDM”, “country”) to descriptors of lyrical content (“love song”, “fight song”, “about cars”) to more general descriptors (“sad”, “fast”, “loud”). These tags grant characters statistical modifications. Load your character’s playlist up with love songs, and they’ll be more personal, more of a charmer. Load them up with heavy metal and gangster rap, and you’ve got more of a bruiser on your hands. The idea is that the playlist should be a reflection of the character, an effect sort of cheated into existence by actually forcing the reverse: the character is a reflection of their playlist.

The key of Leitmotif is what I call the Juke, which is just the game term for a physical object on the table playing music, be it a phone, bluetooth speaker, radio, computer, whatever. You see, not only do songs have effects on their character, but like spells, songs with specific tags will have global effects on the game when they’re playing on the Juke. Play The Trooper by Iron Maiden, and a global combat buff will be bestowed upon every character present in the game scene. Play some Barry White, and everyone will get a charisma bonus. The core principle is the same as before: make the music always fit the scene, but do so in reverse, by having the mechanical effect of the music encourage players to play according to the song.

The key, though, is in Quarters.

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Quarters are a fictional metacurrency in the game (although I suppose you could use real quarters) given out by the game master and generated via character abilities. You use Quarters in game the same way you use Quarters in real life: to play a song on the Juke. Specifically, to play one of your songs, a song on your character’s playlist. When a song on your playlist is going, it’s your time to shine, your triumphant scene. Your Rules of Nature is playing, your Imperial March. When you spend a Quarter, the effect of your song only affects who you want it to, so those global stat buffs become yours. It’s time to reload your shotguns, come out of cover, and just blast everyone.

Now, some interesting design considerations come out of this design skeleton. First off, the tagging system needs to be robust enough to handle someone picking relatively obscure music (“I think my character is best summarized by Tibetan throat singing”), or multiple people picking similar songs for their playlist (Ensuring a character whose playlist is full of the Sex Pistols is mechanically different from one whose playlist is full of, say, KISS, two bands which are musically distinct but could be tagged similarly). Furthermore, to maximize the effect of the music, dice rolls and combat need to be clean and fast. After all, it would be a bummer to spend a Quarter, blare Kickstart My Heart, and have the song end while you’re still calculating your first dice roll.

Anyways, that’s Leitmotif in a nutshell. It still needs to be playtested (traveling for a month and a half straight is a real nightmare to schedule around!), but it’s my entry into a conversation I think should be had. In a modern design space where it seems like tabletop RPGs are trying to bring new and interesting things into the game itself, from playing cards to candles to a Jenga tower, I think music is so ubiquitous at the table already that we designers should be seeing what we can do with it.

What If We Had Concerts For Games?

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I don’t go to concerts terribly frequently, but I do really enjoy a good concert. This went doubly so for the most recent show I saw: a concert headlined by heavy metal pantheon members Iron Maiden, opened by a rising star in the metal scene and a personal favorite of mine, the Swedish band Ghost. While I obviously really enjoy the music put out by both bands, there was a commonality between the two performances, which was a noticeable amount of attention put into, I’m not sure how to put it, the things that weren’t music.

You see, both bands clearly put painstaking work into the entire experience, beyond just “play the music real good”. This is the third time I’d seen Ghost live, and as a result I’m very used to their appearance: 5 anonymous demons play the instruments behind a similarly disguised anti-Pope known to the crowd as Papa Emeritus (I should note that Ghost sings almost exclusively about the Devil).

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These costumes are very good (Papa even has two looks, allowing him to switch into something less cumbersome about halfway through the show), and that combined with the stage dressing, the ambiance (Ghost usually begins a set with about twenty minutes’ worth of Latin chanting and incense), and an assortment of other tools used to get the audience in the spirit of some good ol’ Satanic mass (my favorite being women dressed as nuns passing Communion wafers and wine to the front of the crowd).

Iron Maiden, while perhaps not as committed to their costumes as much as Ghost, still went heavy into the accouterments, featuring massive curtains featuring painted scenes depicting a sort of narrative throughout the concert, giant inflatables of band mascot Eddie, as well as the Devil, and a lumbering, lanky Eddie costume with which the lead singer engaged in a fistfight, before ripping a faux heart out of the costume and tossing it into the pit.

This concert reignited an idea I had a while ago, back when I was at South by Southwest last year: what if games went on tour? They sort of do, insofar as some companies will take their in-development games in buses on road trips to visit press, and there’s also those weird “video game party in a van” things you can rent for a children’s party.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is for you to buy a ticket and go to a venue, along with a large crowd of other people, to play a video game.

So, much like a show where a band just plays their song and leaves, just going to a concert hall and sitting down for just a regular ol’ game is boring. I’m not gonna buy a $25 ticket and drive to Deep Ellum (a Dallas neighborhood known for music venues, for those not in the DFW area) for a glorified LAN party with bad air conditioning, and neither is anyone else.

I don’t 100% know what this idea done right looks like, but I have ideas. For starters, going to a concert where you don’t know the band is never as fun as one where you do and can belt out all of the words. Ghost concerts are usually good for this, as the band is niche enough that people who seek them out and go to the shows are dedicated enough fans to know the relatively small discography, and that feeling of chanting along with a whole crowd and the band is really cool. Even if you don’t necessarily know the band, a lot of more crowd-oriented concerts make picking up what the crowd is “supposed to do” as easy as possible, with an extreme example being a lot of Blue Man Group shows.

For games, this means that you either need to be playing a game that the crowd has already played before, or can pick up extremely easily. Simpler control schemes and familiar genre trends are probably going to be favorable here, instead of trying to get a sweaty crowd of people well versed in Crusader Kings 2 in a couple of hours.

Speaking of which, obvious requirement: length! Whatever you have to play needs to be able to be a complete experience in a couple of hours, and needs to end cleanly by the end of a concert. Imagine being at a concert and halfway through your favorite song when all of a sudden the lights come up and a roadie tells you to go home. The end of the event needs to feel like the end, not just the point where time is up. Although, as an aside, you could have multiple, small games building to a climatic finale.

The key, I’d imagine, is that you need to try and harness the coolest part of the best concerts, which is that sense of being in a sort of positive feedback loop between the performance and the crowd. You know when you’re at a concert and the crowd is just all going wild and you can tell the band is noticing and just feeding off of it? Obviously, a video game cannot in any way harness that raw emotional energy, but what you can do is pick or make a game that meaningfully changes when exposed to a large amount of players.

Consider EVO, or other video game competitions. While games are certainly at the center of these events, in my opinion, the games are merely the setting for the skillful interaction between players. You’re not competing in or even watching EVO because you just really like Street Fighter, you’re really there for the interactions of players. And while the crowd can certainly behave like a concert pit at EVO, they’re not playing. That’s not what I’m interested in.

What this leads me to believe is that a game played live should be a collaborative experience, one where this group of strangers works together, earnestly, toward a common goal, like when the audience at a concert sings in unison to a song they all like. These are the moments that stick out to me at a concert. Imagine being in a group of 1000 Minecraft players, all working together to build a single massive structure (technical issues aside). Imagine playing in a 1000-piece Rock Band band, like a plastic version of the Rockin’ 1000. Hell, imagine a 1000 man World of Warcraft raid, or a 1000 man game of Johann Sebastian Joust (I know this is competitive, but JBJ is a game that definitely changes meaning based on the number of people in the game).

Earnestness would be key. You can’t have griefers in your massive collaborative Minecraft game, nor someone embarrassed to mumble some Foo Fighters lyrics into one of your 250 plastic microphones. I also don’t think an emphasis on “being good” is healthy for the experience either, or else people will be afraid to even go to such an event for fear of embarrassing themselves.

Imagine, though. If there’s one thing that, in my opinion, games have done really bad, it’s gameplay moments en masse. Even games that we tout as “massive”, like Battlefield, usually feature no more than 64 players at a time, spread out over a huge map. Imagine 500 people simultaneously storming the beaches of Normandy in a Battlefield-like game. Environmental sound is piped through the entire venue. The people directly around you are put in a squad with you, and you form an impromptu bond as you save each other from virtual peril and work as a team.

Of course, this idea is still extremely vague, and has massive technical problems (how are you going to get that many consoles or PCs in a room, and it sounds like a fucking technical nightmare, although networking might be slightly easier than having as many machines connect wirelessly over long distances). However, I think that games have the potential to harness the positive power of the concert as a medium, even if it’d require a lot of work.

Running Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a Tabletop RPG

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Boy, this one’s…this one’s gonna be niche

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about running a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure tabletop game. It’s a combination of two of my most niche interests into something that would require a group so oddly specific that I’ve basically resigned myself to never, ever doing this ever.

But, man, it’d be cool.

For the uninitiated, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is the story of the Joestar family, a bloodline for extremely stern people who basically constantly find themselves at the center of a great deal of trouble, from fighting vampire kings to chasing serial killers to fighting the President to fighting the time-stopping, blood-sucking uber-villain of the series, DIO.

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Yes, he is named after Ronnie James Dio and, yes, you are supposed to spell his name in all-caps.

In Jojo’s, a party of heroes usually ends up in encounters with enemies one at a time, in a “villain of the week” sort of format. Most characters of note in Jojo’s possess what are called “Stands”, which are these sort of ghostly manifestations of their inner psyche, each of which has a unique power. Some of them, like DIO’s “The World”, pictured above clenching his fist, have immediately useful powers like stopping time. Others have more niche abilities, such as “Highway to Hell” in Part 6, which has the ability to kill any target in range, so long as the stand’s user…kills himself.

That’s the joy of Jojo‘s, and why I think it would make an excellent tabletop setting. Jojo’s is all about people with extremely specific powers trying to out-think one another, to put each other into situations where their powers will shine. The most recent season finale of the anime, finishing off the Diamond is Unbreakable arc of the manga, had two stand users basically just outwitting each other for an entire battle, as the hero, who’s ability is to reconstitute anything he punches into its original form, faces off against the antagonist, who can turn anything he touches into a bomb. The battle is less of a direct fistfight and more like watching two very precisely laid-out plans weaved into one another.

So, specifically, why would Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure make for a good tabletop game? Well, what I just said above has me instantly interested. Traditional RPGs can sometimes devolve into rote “I hit him, he hits me” combat, in which combatants just smack each other with weapons until one of them falls over. JJBA instead has fights which feature a distinct pattern: Meet the villain. Figure out what his power is. Concoct a ridiculous strategy to defeat it. Execute. And then punch them a lot. Actual physical combat is usually the last thing in the fight, and it usually provides a satisfying conclusion to the fight.

As a result, every time players would show up to the table, they’d have a new puzzle to solve. First they need to put their heads together to figure out what the hell the enemy is even doing, which is easier said than done. Here is a list of actual abilities that Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters have had:

Basically, the sky’s the limit for what sort of antagonist you can have. When you have that down, your players have to actually be clever and figure out specifically how they intend to use their specific abilities to beat this foe. Then, they get to enact that plan, and change it on the fly, and beat foes with the strength of their strategy, instead of just through sheer force of numbers and statistics. Then, when they finally have the enemy in a corner, it’s punchin’ time.

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I highly encourage to let players scream wildly while they do this.

Another nice part about Jojo’s, other than its resistance to getting stale and how it incentivizes creativity, is that it’s episodic. Like I mentioned in my superhero game post, games featuring a “villain of the week” structure are extremely resistant to player schedules, allowing you to simply tell a story with whoever’s around the table that day, without worrying about where the other characters went off to.

So, what we have is a setting where players can build characters that can do basically anything, where every fight is unique and a chance to be creative, a game that requires smart thinking on part of the players, and a game that will work with a volatile group. You know what we don’t have? A game. Like, an actual system to use. Surely, I don’t have something already primed and ready to go?

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Behold, my face as you fell into my classic bamboozle

However, there is a system which I think is a perfect fit: Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream. MaoCT is a system in which children have adventures alongside their own personal monsters, otherworldly things which are unique to the child and have unique and interesting powers. Find “monster”, replace “Stand”, and done.

MaoCT uses the One-Roll Engine, which is an extremely simple and fantastically clever dice system which I am a big fan of. The system is designed from the ground up to allow for versatile and unique powers to be represented mechanically, and the fantastically good character creation system, which ties monster abilities to parts of their body, works pretty well in Jojo‘s, where it is frequently the case that protagonists have to attack specific weak points of an enemy.

So, I have a system, a motivation, and an infinite wellspring of characters to create, mechanically represent, and set against my players. Now, sadly, all I need are players.

Rip And Tear: How To Make Very Smart Stupid Things

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At the risk of parroting basically every major games publication this year, DOOM is a very, very good video game. I only just recently started playing it since I got it for Christmas, despite the game having come out last May, and I’m honestly blown away by how good it is. Every second of the game feels good to play, and the genuine feeling of ramping difficulty combined with the fantastic feedback loop of the combat just keeps me craving more.

DOOM ties in to a recent trend I’ve seen across media lately, and that’s a trend I’ll hastily call “Very Well Done Stupid Things”. This genre comprises games that seek little more than visceral, action-focused thrills, but do so with a level of craftsmanship befitting of more “high brow” pieces. This is a category I’d fill with movies like Mad Max: Fury RoadDredd, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and DOOM‘s game contemporaries in the genre might be BayonettaMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

To clarify, this does not mean that these pieces of media cannot contain commentary on greater topics (Kingsmen is a deconstruction of the spy genre, and Fury Road certainly has something to say about feminism), but these topics require some deep reading to find, and the initial impression has less to do with those topics and way more to do with “Oh my god, this is ridiculous”.

I think the first essential key to such an experience is knowing what you’re making. One of the things that distinguishes a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road from, say, a Michael Bay Transformers joint is that George Miller fundamentally understood that what he was making was a movie about cool dudes in leather driving cool junker cars across the desert and shooting each other. A precious minimum of minutes of Fury Road are spent doing things that aren’t driving or shooting, basically the exact minimum needed to push the plot forward. While Michael Bay might say that he knows he’s making “exploding robot car movies for teenage boys”, the amount of time in each Transformers movie spent detailing the (boring) human characters, or reciting (forgettable) lore proves that this sentiment has been lost somewhere in the filmmaking process.

The next essential key is, in fact, an essential key to most storytelling media in general, from games to movies to books: every element of the piece needs to be expertly designed to drive the central focus. DOOM is a strong example of this. DOOM‘s central thesis is thus: move and shoot, or die. Thus, every single mechanic and room in the game is designed to be conducive towards moving and shooting. Traditional cover systems or “Wait long enough while not being shot to recover your health” systems are forsaken in favor of a system by which you weaken enemies (by shooting them) then melee execute them (by moving to them) to get a bounty of health pickups, meaning the best way to survive a fight is to remain in the middle of it for as long as possible.

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The glory kills are also a great source of going “AH GOD JESUS”

When you’re developing a game for pure, visceral joy, you need to make sure that everything in your game ties directly into that. Otherwise, the parts that do not, like DOOM‘s codex entries or Metal Gear Rising‘s walk-and-talk sections, will stick out like a sore thumb against the rest of the game. This certainly isn’t to say that you can’t include dialogue or lore in your game, but do so in a way that acknowledges that players might certainly not care at all, and want to return immediately to the bloodshed.

Finally, I think the last necessary component to make a “good dumb” game or film is an understanding of tone. You have already recognized that you’re making a silly thing, so any attempts at evoking real emotion should be done with the fact that they are going to be framed by ridiculous ultraviolence in mind. Mad Max‘s poignant moments have some good buffer space of quieter scenes leading up to them, ensuring the transition isn’t jarring.

This isn’t to say your game needs to be all jokey and comedy.  Get too jokey, and you drive full steam into Duke Nukem territory, with every moment tainted by jokes that feel like they were just there to make the writers laugh (not to mention the simple fact that a lot of dialogue tends to repeat in video games, leading to groan-inducing repetition). Again, take DOOM as a strong positive example. There are no jokes in DOOM, no one quips, there’s no pithy one-liners or references. Yet, the game is funny by the pure nature of how serious it is, how absolutely self-important it presents itself, while still knowing deep down how ferociously stupid it is at a conceptual level.

“Low brow” does not mean bad. Quite a few of my favorite films, shows, and games in recent memory have been in the pursuit of cheap thrills and dumb violence. However, shallow narrative meaning is no excuse for bad craftsmanship, and just like any other genre, what separates true legends in this genre from the dollar a dozen crap is a real attention to detail.