Friday, 20 April 2012

Con-Quest Derby, new RPG purchases and how CCGs made me realise that I'm not a strategist

EV-9D9: "New acquisitions!"
Con-Quest Derby 2012 has been me revisit some old self-criticsm about myself as a collector, reader and gamer.  Due to some holes in the space-time continuum my time visiting the Assembly Rooms in Derby last Saturday was extremely brief.  This meant that actually signing up for and joining in games at the tables was near impossible.  So I lived up to the second part of my hobby by shopping - i.e. scouring the stalls around the edge of the hall for the goodies.

Firstly, I'll list all the stuff I bought (in later posts I'll add photos), then I'll bore you with my anxieties about modern games.

The games came free with this £180 Veggie Burger.
It's an eclectic list. The Leisure Games and Magic Geek stalls provided some of the following, other bits were from the bring-n-buy table.  Many of the main rule systems had gone by the time I'd got there, but I compensated well.
  1. Mercenary, Spies and Private Eyes bundle pack (Flying Buffalo)
  2. Basic Role-Playing Rules (hard back, Chaosium)
  3. Village of Hommlet (DnD4)
  4. Forgotten Realms Player's Guide (DnD4)
  5. Oriental Adventures (D&D3)
  6. The Mines of  Keridav
  7. The Demon Pits of Caeldo
  8. D&D Wrath of Ashardalon (WotC)*
  9. DungeonQuest (FFG)

*My partner has renamed the Ashardalon "huge" dragon figure "Neville".  In future I will refer to the game as "The Slightly Miffedness of Neville"

This haul was physically difficult to carry back to the train station.  It was as though I had mugged Santa!

Okay, so I did no actual gaming, which feels a little shaming ... I did, however, receive a demonstration of 6D6 Shoot-Out. (Links: Publisher Site / PDFs on DriveThru) The 6D6 company were running back-to-back demonstrations of their indie card based game, and it was hard to escape the enthusiastic staff.  Although the game looks like relatively fast fun for card gamers, it finally sealed shut a box in my mind which I had been worried about looking inside of.

My gaming past is in DMing pen-n-paper RPGs using very open worlds of description, freehand maps, imbalanced fights, incidental narrative, and role-playing (acting out) almost any NPC encountered, and when not playing... dreaming up the ideal "totally immersive" fantasy experience.  A lot more time has been spent dreaming than actually playing, so I've lowered my sights over the years and returned occasionally to Talisman, Warhammer Quest and a selection of PC games - which I still see as lacking in a "quintessential something" that pen n paper RPGs have.  My fussiness has possibly driven me away from seeking out local game groups, since just as I went to college, the tabletop battles of Warhammer and cards of Magic the Gathering took over the shops, years before World of Warcraft became press shorthand for all things gamer-geek.  Okay, this is a simplification - I did dabble with the chaos armies of WH40K(2nd edition).

I've now realised that it's not just because I find modern rules difficult to follow, but that it is simply this: I am not a strategist.

Whilst watching players at Con-Quest "activating" skills and equipment cards (listening to the teacher-player babble something about how "interactive" it was), I realise that I've never been wired this way: I never saw feats, spells or weapons as a collective resource "pool" - I could never truly assess a character's overall power.  Granted, these details were on the character sheet, and perhaps those 1970's-80's games also had their own impenetrable terms.  However, there really has been a conceptual shift in games away from the quick dice, the odd table and the looseness of the pencil scribbled information.  Class choices in the DnD4 PH read like a sports management guide, to the point that I truly respect WotC's awareness of "game balance" - fresh from the minis table game - or whatever it was that made DnD4 so different from D&D3.5.  It's still too different for me.

Glancing at my scavenged Chainmail and OD&D PDFs there's a sense in those rules that play was based upon what figures were to hand - but I'd be lying if I said that was the game I played in my teens.  For myself T&T and D&D and gamebooks were all about living out the tableaus found in fantasy art (and often without figures).  Even today I see the dice system as the thing which stands between me and the game art.  Naturally, I say "dice"-system.  I prefer to throw myself over to the mercy of random fate than build opposing card ziggurats.  Partly, I'm unfamiliar with many card systems, but that also I just want unrestricted travel to unlimited places and meet all sorts of creatures, tackle puzzles, perhaps enjoy all of these within a connected quest (campaign).  But ultimately, as in table-top wargaming, I suspect that my play-style sucks in terms of the choices I make, and perhaps I shy away from commitment to a 1-2 hour game in which the players are locked in a single type of situation (a single battle).

Solo-gamebooks and random dungeon systems have given me a profound respect for RPG information presentated in card form and in fact several of my "back-burner" ideas all use simple card systems, but none of these ever resemble popular CCGs.

Combat Stack? Rotating cards?
I just want to roll a d6.

I've been browsing through the rules for FFG's DungeonQuest and the words "stack" and images of cards turned 90 degrees are leaving me cold.  Fantasy Flight Games have really screwed this one up, but hey, I can still make up my own rules.  I still never quite got over how FFG interpreted WHFRPG - it was like reading a lost cryptic translation where familiar ambitious RPG-style notions would become lost in fixed arena scenarios, press out tokens, high production value upgradeable card stacks... 

In a slightly separate issue, my own gaming experience bypassed RPGs in which the meta-story elements had become part of the scoring - somewhen, maybe it was White Wolf came along, something fundamental changed in systems.  The myth here is that characters now have "more depth" and clearer motivation in play - when in fact to the older players it might just feel like an extra unnecessary layer has been added (and not an enhancement).  I think the closest I ever really got to this was exotic Honour (OA) and Karma (TSR MSH) in games, the rest was all just acting and improvisation. The point being that dice and stats substituted at the table that which could not be simulated in conversation (i.e. fighting, explosions, physical superpowers).  The rest of the game was driven by the rolling descriptions provided by the DM of the environment in the scenario (and the players responses).

Strategy card games and the resolution-solving paper-rock-scissors mechanics from LARPs had come of age and found their ways into common gaming parlance, but that parlance still feels alien to me.  I describe my prefered gaming experiences as being "old school", but often to others this implies a simple (and somehow) derivative game, less sophisticated than Hack or Diablo on the PC -my own jokes about "kill monster, grab treasure, go shopping" aside.  I mean quite the reverse.  Like many others, I'm not trying to create a vision of games from the past being nobler ... okay maybe a little ;)  I genuinely believe 70-80's role-playing systems are intellectually and creatively more rewarding to play than some of the modern systems - but it's really hard to be sure of this because I read a modern rules and sometimes have no idea how those game mechanics are applied in play, and therefore cannot make a decent comparison. It feels like a culture-clash, as though I've wandered into the wrong class.

Ultimately I suspect that, like many RPGers, I play primarily for the experience of being in that alternative world, and not because I believe I'm good at winning games.  This is a generalisation and I know that CCGs can provide a rich and fun experience.   Maybe this is like claiming that if I'd never played chess, I'd probably be more excited by the personalities and roles of the pieces, than defeating my opponent - which seems a little silly. 

Okay, not quite an epiphany, but maybe you get my gist. 

Thanks for reading.  Happy, creative playing and all that. :)

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