Thursday, September 6, 2007

Rant: What Game Mags Should be Doing

In my previous post, I ranted that game magazines have ruined many a game by Revision Creep: introducing new and niftier rules and items that are not fully playtested - quickly warping the original game.

I think there are two reasons for Revision Creep:
1. Laziness or Desperation in keeping the pages filled
2. Irreconcilable debate over Game Source

I. Laziness or Desperation in keeping the pages filled

I understand the tyranny of deadlines. And even in a monthly magazine, there's probably very little time available to fill those many blank pages. So introduce a new character class or new magic item or new weapon and viola! So what if it makes an old play-system obsolete... the article was just a thought experiment, or whatever. Except that in Car Wars, these experiments were often introduced as street legal.

My solution? There are three things that game magazines could and should do that would both fill up space and be invaluable for the player:
  1. Modules and Scenarios
  2. Split-level description of how a game scenario is played out
  3. NPCs (or for Car Wars - car designs)
Modules & Scenarios

Why do game companies create and sell these? Because newbies need them. So don't be cheapskates, we're buying the game magazines, fill up half or a third of the space for each magazine with scenarios. They require the time and skill and knowledge of the game that the game company employees are supposed to have in a greater amount that we players have. Making a new device takes seconds (e.g. here's a new weapon for car wars: Vehicular Staple Gun, $300, 50 lbs, 1 space, 1 DP, 2 dice damage, to hit 5... that took 10 seconds, including typing time). Scenarios take work and that's what the mags can do best.

Split-level descriptions

I *love* it whenever a game rulebook or magazine does one of these step-by-step background descriptions of how the die-rolls and the character descriptions translate into how you and your friends will play - and how the action would look were it in a movie. An example I can recall is from the d20 D&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 130-132.

This is really easy to do. Just play a game and write down what you are doing - die rolls, rules consulted. A few of these in every magazine will both be good reading and will teach people how to play (and/or play better). It's especially good when illustrating difficult rules. And Car Wars has many difficult rules.

NPCs/Car Designs

Who doesn't like reading car designs? And I can design a car/NPC rather quickly. It doesn't have to be with new equipment. To make it more relevant, have the design be scenario based (like a 2057 police-cruiser). This category can also include new arenas, new adventure locations (sorta like modules-lite).

With these three idea categories, game magazines would have pages filled with easy-to-write and useful pieces. Instead of the unplaytested 'nifty' garbage that mucks up game history.

II. Irreconcilable debate over Game Source

This is more fundamental to things that try to re-create the extant world. In a pure fantasy setting (e.g. superhero, magic) this is less of a problem. But as I've seen with D&D and Car Wars, there are two main sources for the design - reality or fiction.

The D&D debate was over whether the source for the rules and the 'world' was (a) Thomas Mallorey's King Arthur or (b) Robert Howard's Conan. If it's the former, then there should be rules for how arrows were truly made in 13th Century France, how Bards were trained in Celtic colleges, and how there's no such thing as a martial arts Monk.

If (b) then Barbarian warriors can defeat twelve men with one swing of a Tulwar, where devils take the shape of men and where a full life can be led adventurin' and wenchin.'

The realistic school demands incontrovertible detail. There are 12 types of pole-arms in 1st edition AD&D because, hey, there were 12 types in Medieval Europe. Who cares if nobody used polearms; that remembering the names was ludicrous and that the damage difference was negligible. The details were there so all is right in the world. Note, this makes sense because D&D was a development of an actual realism school Medieval wargame (Chainmail).

The d20 rejuvenation tries for the second school - that the heroes of D&D are mini-Conans with feats, critical hits, and superhuman capabilities. And the weapon list reflects this: there are different swords but only insofar as there are different uses. No more idiotic longsword/broadsword nonsense. A d20 longsword is just another name for "a one-hand d8 damage device with 19-20/x2 critical hit zone."

The D&D Lesson for Car Wars

D&D started as a realistic system and eventually evolved into a fantasy system. Car Wars appears to be the opposite. It started as purely fantasy and over the years became over-burdened with realism.

For example, is the "MG" a:
(a) .50 caliber, belt-fed, air-cooled, machine gun (like Ma Deuce)
(b) the basic model for an arbitrary system of gameplay - the MG is 1 unit of space, 1 unit of cost, 1 unit of weight, and 1 unit of damage with 1 unit of ammo that hits on the average unit of accuracy? It's not a fifty-caliber machine-gun, it's a 1-space-1-die gun. A Recoiless Rifle is a 2-space-2-die gun; an Anti-Tank-Gun is a 3-space-3-die gun.

Naturally, given my ranting, you can tell I prefer the latter description. It's just how play-balance works. The playetesters found that a 3 die weapon needed to have a high to-hit to make it equal, so too how the 1 die weapon needed 20 shots.

But we gave these units names (MG, RR) and the game itself is designed to fire up our imagination. So it was natural for there to be crossover into what a 'real' MG would be, what ammo it would take, what variations there would be.

This realism direction is fine - because it's the seat of imagination - but it needed to be balanced with the internal game dynamics. And it wasn't.

Next up, some examples of the broken system and what maybe can be done.

2 comments: said...

The machine gun WAS, in the original pocket game, a .50 cal machine gun with a moderate load of ammo. It was a one-space weapon because a human sitting in a car seat took up about twice as much space (as it worked out), so the basic math went from there.

Ditto for a lot of the other weapons in the game - they were based off of approximations of actual weapons of different sorts (37mm anti-tank cannon, for example), and the original vehicle classes were based off of actual cars and motorcycles of the time - outer dimensions, volume, and weights (in most cases).

For example, the three basic motorcycle classes were based off of the Yamaha RD400, the Honda CB900 Custom, and the Honda Gold Wing of that time.

Cars? Cadillac, Ford Torino (mid size), VW Bug, et cetera. Actual math was involved (fudged only slightly to make round numbers for spaces and weight).

The big limiter for the game was how much math people would be willing to put into playing it. Too much, and it became a chore. Too little, and it wasn't a challenge.

Plus, it had to fit in a little plastic bag.

JC said...

Cirby, that's a lot of good information. Thanks. While I assumed the .50 cal stuff (based on Crazy Joe), the other information is enlightening.