Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Game Design Is Art (Sort Of)...

This comes up from time to time, flaring like a grease fire and fizzling out again.  But while it lasts, the topic generates discussion and, occasionally, heated debate.  So in this spirit, we jump on board and pick that old scab again to ask...

Is tabletop game design really a form of art?  

On the one hand, we have the naysayers.  They object largely on grounds that it's pretentious.  Kind of like slam poets who read off their grocery list in a fast and dramatic voice and call it art or whatever.  I'm not slamming this poetry (ha!), only pointing out the position of the skeptics.  To them, game design is a technical act more closely aligned to engineering and meant to be FUN.

And they have a point.  Most traditional tabletop games are technical at their very core, even in the sort of rules-light stuff we develop.  We're really just tearing down the QUALITATIVE and reassembling it in a QUANTITATIVE form.  For instance, the idea that dragons breathe fire is qualitative and potentially artistic in nature (at least depending on what you do with it).  

But deciding that dragon's breath deals 3d6 dice of damage is inherently quantitative and represents a technical and simulationist expression for sure.  However (and the other shoe drops), it gets re-converted BACK INTO A QUALITATIVE EXPRESSION in the minds of the participants when these things are described during play...

In other words, it comes full circle, although this assumes that the game is not complete until it's actually PLAYED!

Now suppose you come up with an idea for a monster; something decidedly Lovecraftian or whatever.  What do you DO with this idea, and do any of them constitute actual art?   

Well, you can draw a picture of it (art), or write a story (also solidly in the art camp).  But what if you stat the thing for use in your favorite (or suitably home-brewed) RPG system?  

Is THIS art?  Why?  Or why not?  I mean, game rules here are a medium for CREATIVE SELF EXPRESSION.  Paint is a valid medium, and so is the written word.  But what about those numbers?  Or words written skillfully to describe people, places, and things in a fully realized fantasy world setting?  Do THEY count as valid art?

Or perhaps it's JUST the picture, or JUST the writing, but not the statistical representations.  Who knows...   

Now here's one.  What if the author(s) is trying to recreate the look and feel of the earliest games because they believe the amateur design contributed materially to the experience?  Here production goes beyond just choosing a font.  Each page is an illustration unto itself and carefully (and deliberately) crafted to visually elicit specific feelings and responses in the mind of the reader.

Is THIS art?  Even a form of visual art?  The above is somewhat autobiographical, but we have to admit that we've already drawn our own conclusions here, and WE say that game design is:

(1) A medium of creative self-expression

(2) That combines creative and technical writing with pictures

(3) To equip the reader(s) to play out their own adventures in the milieu and/or implied setting of the rulebook

(4) Where the ultimate expression is the gameplay session and any human interactions that results from it.

And that's it!  Game design is art (sort of).  It's a creative expression on the part of the designer, who is really just making a tool for OTHERS to use in THEIR OWN self-expression!

This combination of artistic and technical elements certainly muddies the water.  But so does the inherently COLLABORATIVE nature of the game designing process.  Frequently, it's several writers working together, often commissioning artwork and/or maps from yet other (talented and appreciated) individuals...  

It's a lot like movies.  Oh, and if we're going to call acting authentic art, then role-playing your favorite character is in the very least a form of creative expression!

Now, there are some who object to this over-analyzing of game elements (you might know a few).  But nothing we've said here is factually incorrect, and the fact is, game design DOES include artistic and creative elements in equal measure.  And it's hard NOT to assign "art" to the stuff of imagination, although not in the purest sense of the term.  It's really its own thing...  

Gaming (and game design, of course) is its own form of creative self-expression.  However, it's also a form of human interaction and the social contract, which further muddies the water.  So perhaps game design is an APPLICATION of art.  One that guides the creative impulse towards something collaborative, interactive, and fun!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Maze of Memory Arrives...

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were abducted and awoke in a mysterious dungeon stripped of your memories and all possessions?  And have you ever wanted something made specifically 
for those one-off, single-session games?  Something suitable for absolute newcomers to the hobby, but easily expandable for campaign play should no one manage to find their way out?

THE MAZE OF MEMORY answers these, and other, questions, being the latest release from Olde House Rules available as a digital download on One Book Shelf!  It's an old-school game in our usual style, but also experimental and our first to use polyhedral dice...

Here's what it's all about...

(1) Each character (called a PRISONER) has been mysteriously abducted, stripped of memories, and left to rot, along with others, in a strange cosmic dungeon created by another player, the game master or JAILER, who acts the part of enemies and other supporting characters in traditional role-playing fashion.   

(2) Prisoners begin with no abilities or equipment, but as they explore their prison and try to escape, they might discover armor, useful equipment, and weaponry, much of it archaic, but others obviously alien and/or futuristic.    

(3) The dungeon is inhabited by strange, and most likely alien, creatures, all dangerous (and perpetually hungry) and some highly intelligent and capable of negotiation, etc.  These, along with traps and natural hazards, create an environment of dire uncertainty where death awaits behind every corner and life is cheap!   

(4) When the prisoners reach certain points in the dungeon, they can recover stolen memories and the skills and abilities that go with them, so character creation happens DURING PLAY!

(5) The game is designed primarily for one-off, single-session adventures, and because there is virtually no preparation involved, it's ideal for newcomers to the hobby.  Even so, it's possible to expand the game for ONGOING CAMPAIGN PLAY in this world.

We'll just let the introduction to the rules explain things...

THE MAZE OF MEMORY is unique in that it's central premise, the abduction and subsequent imprisonment of human victims, is left to the jailer to justify as they wish.  Perhaps it's aliens seeking slaves and/or performing some experiment, noting that a whole world has evolved in this place, complete with colonies, trade, and/or warfare, which seems to be a universal thing! 

And did we mention it uses POLYHEDRAL DICE for random outcomes and variable (and unpredictable) damage?  Just watch out!

Finally, this is delivered with our trademark simplicity and emphasis on personal decision-making, exploration, and role-playing over reliance on rules and the rolling of dice.  In this way it's classic old-school in its approach.  However, it also turns several gaming conventions on their collective heads and ultimately comes down to the social contract that underlies the whole hobby!

THE MAZE OF MEMORY draws from several influences, whether common dungeon crawls to things like Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic At the Earth's Core and Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, both generously binged-watched by yours truly, for the underworld can be both dark and isolated and simultaneously alive, and this system tries to achieve a little bit of both.  We invite you to try it out!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Praise of Poor Production!

Back in 1978, I fell in love with a game that looked positively terrible!  Seriously, I can't emphasize enough just how awful this looked right out of the box.  But I'll try...

The ARTWORK was AMATEUR.  Hell, it was SUB-AMATEUR, looking like something someone doodled during sixth grade math class (and pretty clearly traced from a Marvel comic book)!

The LAYOUT was PRIMITIVE and rough.  Although clearly typeset, it looked like someone had access to the college's printing lab or maybe had an old AB-Dick printer in their basement and played around with offset printing as a hobby (minus the proof-reading).

And the WRITING was, uh, UNIQUE.  In all its glory it suggested someone who read lots of older fiction, including the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft.  All written in a flowery and antiquated style with plenty of passive voice...

But none of this mattered BECAUSE...

The amateur nature of the artwork made it look, and feel, like something created by my PEERS.  It was something I could make, which put me into the action.  I felt like I COULD DO IT...

This old illustration depicts
content from the game while simultaneously
leaving something to the imagination!

Ditto for the layout and design.  Modern, well-produced games are wonderful, but they often feel like something from on high delivered to us mere mortals.  It's pretty much a top-down affair, while the amateur stuff came across as PEER-TO-PEER.

And the writing became GAMING WRITING.  A genre unto itself, complete with its own style manual (some call it Gygaxian, although Burroughs and Lovecraft certainly got there first)!  It created a unique reading experience well-suited to its subject matter.   

This is because gaming rulebooks are both CREATIVE writing and a form of TECHNICAL writing that absolutely demands a unique style and approach.  One that reflects its inspirations...    

But its worth noting that the earliest D&D rulebooks failed on critical points.  Where was the sample combat?  And how would anyone know how to execute it?  Luckily, its central idea was so utterly revolutionary that people WANTED to master it, and in the absence of clear rules, they inserted their own interpretations.    

No one could get away with that today, but back then, it actually facilitated many of its own goals and objectives!

And so, here was a game that utterly defied every expectation of what a good product should look like.  We could simultaneously note its flawed production while praising its content and the exciting possibilities it offered us.  It was the POTENTIAL it seeded in us, rather than any directive from the rules, that mattered most.

This is GORGEOUS, and we're
not denigrating it.  Long may these games
be available, cause' they're GREAT
and all.  But notice how you've been given
someone else's vision here...

ESSENTIAL TRUTH: No one gathers to "ooh and ahh" at the rulebook, rather, they gather to play a game created by the GM and brought to life in a cooperative environment.  It's NOT the book...

And so the finest games; the ones that stick with us even though they shouldn't because they don't "look" as good, are the ones that engender a FEELING OF INSPIRATION IN THE READER and inspire them with exciting possibilities only they can create...

Ask not what the rulebook can do for you.  Ask what YOU can do WITH the rulebook.  Because THAT'S the game you'll actually play!

Forty years later, this ethos is alive and well in our own games, although adjusted somewhat for reality.  Amateur artwork that conveys atmosphere before detailed depictions that deny the reader their own imagination.  A stylized amateur design that tries to distill what made these games compelling while offering a quality product well-worth picking up.  And clearly written rules that cover the essentials but leave room for personal interpretation. 

This isn't corporate shill.  Rather, I'm pointing out that the amateur production Gygax and Arneson achieved out of necessity and lack of resources engendered an atmosphere that was essential to spreading the hobby and making it fun.  And we're not the only ones enchanted by this.  The entire OSR community is built on these bedrock values of gaming as a peer-to-peer exercise.  But we stand on the shoulders of giants, because OD&D did this first and best!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Tale of Two Hobbits...

OK, it's been over a year since the last installment of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy hit DVD, and suffice to say, I didn't like it at all.  But rather than rant about the movies, let me just compare them to a superior offering, an excellent animated version by Rankin/Bass from 1977.  Now that's the stuff!

So let's examine the versions side-by-side and compare the two productions on their key points, shall we...    


The original Hobbit had a whimsical, storybook feeling to it, and requires imagery to match.  This is something hinted at in Tolkien's original illustrations, which are worth a look!  So how do the two versions stack up on their delivery?  Our thoughts...

Jackson's Hobbit is visually stunning, but everything is visually stunning these days.  Luckily, it had to gel with the superior Lord of the rings series and didn't get too crazy.  But it tried a bit too hard to appear whimsical and ended up being ridiculous, because, let's face it, some things just look better in the abstraction of artwork than in the proportions of real life (and I'm talking about every superhero and D&D movie ever made)!

At times I wondered if I'd walked into some Tim Burton movie and half expected to see a cameo by Johnny Depp, complete with the trademark pancake makeup he's always wearing.  And the axe stuck in Bifur's head was just stupid and not true to the book.  Of course, neither was its misguided depiction of Erabor, which looked for all the world like something out of the Dragon Age: Origins game.

This article appeared in TV Guide (I
mean, who remembers that, right?), and presents
the cast in all their Tolkienesque glory...

The movie needed, and deserved, a homage to Tolkien's vision, undoubtedly rooted in old world sensibilities, and not this cynical pandering to the last ten years of gamer culture!

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit was animated, and delivered an abstracted version more in line with Tolkien's world.  There was something more earthy, elemental, and real about its depictions, something pulled from the pages of the best 19th century storybooks vs. 21st century computer RPGs, complete with their MODERN sensibilities...

Because let's face it.  Tolkien was an old-fashioned fellow who imagined his races looking much as they were imagined in the prior century, where his heart undoubtedly remained.  

So it's Rankin/Bass for the win on the visual front for us!


OK, movie (and television) adaptations require a certain amount of compromise out of necessity, but...

Jackson't Hobbit took a richly detailed story, gutted it, and replaced the best bits with UTTER DRIVEL about dwarves and elves falling in love, building complete storylines around cynically manufactured characters.  Even when they retained good characters, like the shape-shifting Beorn, they trimmed his onscreen time to make room for these silly diversions.  What?  Really cool materials actually OUT OF THE BOOK aren't good enough for you?

Remember, one book was stretched into a TRILOGY, and signs of padding are EVERYWHERE.  Tolkien wrote a wealth of appendixes that could have fleshed things out authentically.  Instead, we suffer through a chase scene with Smaug that I FELL ASLEEP through at the movie theater no less!  And it wasn't the lounge seating...

Like Gollum, Jackson's Hobbit
becomes hollow and stretched out until it loses
its soul to become an empty shell...

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit had to, as a matter of necessity, trim substantial portions of the book.  But what they left in was pretty true to the original story and kept my interest. 

Rankin/Bass for the win again!  I was able to go from the animated version to the original work seamlessly.


Yes, music.  It figured prominently in the original work...

Jackson't Hobbit actually did a decent job with the first installment, probably because he didn't deviate much from the book, seeming to recognize that THIS part had to work.  And the songs pretty much rang true.  But this element was dropped in the later films, which spun wildly off course with UTTER NONSENSE.

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit included earthy, folksy songs recalling an earlier time rather than modern sensibilities.  And you get them throughout.  You even get the elves singing as they enter Rivendell, and the whole thing is charming and true to Tolkien's vision of both the elves and The Last Homely House...

The Misty Mountain song (lyrics by Tolkien) really captured the feeling of dwarves at their forges better than Jackson's offering could ever hope for.  And the ONE original piece, The Greatest Adventure, sung by Glen Yarbrough, absolutely fits here, and hey, I really think this little animated movie did a much better job of nailing Bilbo's personal transformation by a landslide!

I'll say it again: This little animated movie did a MUCH BETTER job of nailing Bilbo's personal transformation by a landslide...   

Once again, Rankin/Bass for the win!  Yes, the WIN!

Say what you will about the new movies, but sometimes, it's the thoughtful gems that get it right.  A book first written for children made into a children's cartoon feature that stayed true to everything Tolkien was going for with pure authenticity...

I recommend it for children and adults still children at heart!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In Praise of Polyhedrals...

Our first system, Pits & Perils, was developed in late 2002 as a thought experiment and a way to introduce Robyn to the hobby, although it was my re-introduction as well!  I'd been away from the games for a good fourteen years, and I didn't have my old stuff, meaning we were literally starting from scratch. 

One consequence was making a d6 system.  When you've been doing college (the adult and working full time variety) and spending too much time deployed, life is about other things, meaning the only dice available are the ones you fish out of the Monopoly game in the hall closet.  But that actually suited us...

For one thing, it felt more like the amateurs of old creating a hobby out of nothing, and since I had close to zero contact with the larger gaming community, we sometimes felt like we were, and this fact, alone, inspired us to stick with six-siders exclusively.

Little did we know a d6 revolution was already brewing, and I can only assume for similar reasons...

But after being re-immersed (and a few conventions later) I realized something important: I MISSED those polyhedral dice!

Yes, technically, polyhedrals provide a greater range of outcomes and greater variability.  The traditional d20 breaks things down to tidy (and easy to manipulate) 5% increments, while the d10 allows percentile results that are actually the simplest and most intuitive reckoning of probability anywhere.  So yeah, we get that.

But it's something else.  Something less tangible.

It's the way they LOOK on the table.  I mean, you have the almost spherical d20 and the strangely hive-like d12.  But there's also the d8 and pyramidal d4, bane of bare feet after an all-nighter! 

Their NUMBERS stand out (a good thing for older eyes), with no boring pips here.  You get straight up numbers!  Even the d6 in this context uses actual numbers, which just works better.

Oh, and the COLORS.  You get solids and marbled, swirly patterns, sometimes flecked with speckles.  And when you buy them individually and over the counter (vs. a packaged set), there's many different colors in play, each as distinct as their varied shapes.

Finally, there's just a different HEFT to a bag of polyhedrals, something harder to quantify, but true.  Maybe it's the rounder dice that sink like miniature cannon-balls to the bottom.  Or the way many different shapes feel when you reach blindly for the one you're looking for.  Or maybe it just brings back old memories...

Either way, polyhedrals are special.  So much so that we're incorporating them (formally) into our upcoming title: The Maze of Memory, which should be out sometime this fall.  Expect us to preserve our trademark simplicity, but also look for the greater randomness these dice permit.  And look for something a little more lethal than our previous offerings, although still lots of fun!