Thoughts on Roleplay Games

Many of us who are initiated into the world of roleplaying games started with a gateway ‘drug’ of some kind. For many it was D&D (earlier or later versions). For others D6 games, or even WoD. Dice pools or d20s. And then there’s a slew of indie games. Many different rulesets and arbitration concepts.

I’ve run games for friends since junior year of high school until the present (age 34). That length of time doesn’t mean I am any good, but it has afforded me the understanding of my own tastes and preferences within the RPG spectrum.

My experience with roleplay games has lead to some great group stories, and powerful camaraderie-building experiences. Like many GMs out there, if you’ve run long-term campaigns, and your players dug it, they probably still talk about the stories that were created by the group. That’s a great feeling to have, when someone else remembers the space and world you helped arbitrate.

For me, arbitration in an RPG is adding in the realism factor. The more realistic you want the game to be, the more rules and details get added in.

ROLEPLAYING AND COMPETITION

I think that roleplay games are a terrible environment for competition of any kind. The environment is fiction-driven (or, in my opinion, should be fiction driven). Problems will manifest because the world being fleshed out is a dangerous place, and spits forth danger at every turn. But there’s an order to it – it has its own rules and sticks to them. That’s the essence of consistency, and good storytelling requires compelling through lines (obvious or otherwise), and a clear way those through lines are implemented in fiction.

My opinion of roleplay games is that they are not written solely by the narrator/gamemaster. They are written by all players, game master and characters alike, working together to narrate an interesting tale in a compelling setting. I have met a mixed bag of GMs – some really get the point of making a dangerous and consist world.

But some GMs make a point of saying that their players are stupid, and their characters need to be punished in order to learn. That’s the moment bad competition enters the context.

THE BIG PROBLEM WITH COMPETITION IN RPGS IS THE GM = GOD

The GM is GOD in the game environment of the RPG. He/she/it controls the weather. The land. Natural disasters. The evil tribe of gnolls hidden in the foothills nearby. The goblins that are struggling to survive their new found servitude to an orcish warlord who has clapped them in irons. The GM is every trap you stumble into, every crushing blow pummeling aside your shield until your arm aches and the meat keeps coming, and you keep swinging… that’s all the engine of the mind at work, trying to make it flow and consistent. Players move that story around with their actions, but the GM is there to anchor those actions to a set of logical rules that the world follows.

So, why in the world would it be a big deal if this GOD decides that you, as a player, are stupid, and need to be taught a lesson? Well, because at its core, a roleplay is a play in which you act a role. At its core, it is PLAY. Not punishment from a power-hungry ego tripping GM.

Instead, it is encouragement, and consequence.

PUNISHMENT VS. CONSEQUENCE

Let me paint a few examples. Punishment is when the GM takes something away from you as a player, or your character, through use of GM fiat, and/or introduction of elements outside of the flow of fiction (inconsistency vs. consistency). Consequence is when the party/party member attempts something, and success or not, there’s an opposing action or attempted action against them (or their allies, holdings, stuff, etc.). In a sense, PUNISHMENT is derived from the GM’s judgement of the player’s chosen action. CONSEQUENCE is derived from inside the fiction, is consistent with the motivations of the GM characters, and snowballs logically from the actions that precede it.

The big issue I have experienced, and at times exemplified in play (to my shame), is the conflation of consequence and punishment. Unfortunately, I think this type of mindset stems from poor emotional skills (welcome to the greasy ball of humanity!). I can definitely attest to that from my own experiences growing up and playing games. Its hard to separate yourself from the world you are arbitrating, but the results are so much more compelling when we play to make the world real, and not to teach a lesson, or prove a point.

MY SUMMARY OF AN RPG

An RPG is a space for you and the players to create a story with the characters at its core. An RPG is not a place to push your personal moral code. A GM’s job is to make the experience dangerous and/or interesting. Easy to do when you’ve got good villains operating within the game environment, with defined sphere’s of influence (consistency!).

Many GMs will say it is “their” game. “Their” standards. “Their” rules. Fiat is an extremely powerful tool, and in my experience, misused nearly as often as it is employed.

At the core of an RPG is the FICTION. This is the place where all the story and intrigue happen. Everything starts and ends within the fiction. And contrary to the statements of many GMs, the moment you begin play, that setting you create as a GM is no longer owned by you. It now belongs to everyone that is playing the game with you. Without players, there is no game. Without the players’ characters, you have no reason to act or be acted upon.

While the GM might write loads of material, and wax poetic about their world creation ethos, or some other crap that doesn’t really mean anything, the real game happens within the fiction with players at the table. And at that table is where the magic happens.

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A few thoughts from a recent conflict at the game table, which included a not-so-higher-self moment on my part, and some defensive and offensive behavior on another’s.

Friday night is my church. It’s a place to learn the hard and immensely useful lessons of failure, and the fleeting nature of success (you cannot rest on your most recent victory). Sometimes these lessons are being instructed to others, but they aren’t taking them well. It’s during these times especially that we as competitors must remember that this is a very vulnerable and impassioned space. That has been hammered into me a few times, and thankfully, I am starting to reign in my reptile brain. But this space can be incredibly harsh.

So, there was some conflict. The details don’t actually matter as much as the outcome. I was not my higher self, but sometimes I have to raise my voice and say “shut the fuck up and let me speak a word without interruption”. Sometimes that happens with onlookers. It’s shameful, but when you are in a conflict, it’s a vulnerable space, usually with someone you either care about or rely on, or both.

What I can say is this: I was heard. He was acknowledged, and we agreed on a way to arbitrate this same dispute if it occurred again. Wasn’t my higher self, but the shit kicker comes out under duress. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and am very thankful I don’t feel it nearly as much as I used to. So, maybe there is hope for me after all.

I am once again rewarded in my choice of adversaries, and continue to learn about my own trigger-response behaviors through my own emotional responses to conflict. And hopefully learn to create a more valuable competitive play space. One where we can have a reasonable dispute, a calm response, with a measured, negotiated outcome. A very important set of principles that are incredibly useful in curbing those baser emotional responses to potential loss in a high competition environment. And of specific use for games like Ascending Empires with its flicking mechanic.

I always feel raw after conflicts of such intensity. And I am always thankful for the friends I have that can reconnect after a conflict. That’s how I know I have good friends and not just random folks I play games with. And that’s a very good feeling.

The Cult of Ascending Empires

WHERE I PLAY

Before I launch into a discussion of Ascending Empires and why I adore the game, I want to talk a bit about the Play Space. An equally important part of any gaming I do is where I play. My basic response is “a mix of public and private venues” (some games are clearly better with fewer distractions). Finding new adversaries requires going out into the world to  and learn games and meet new minds.

My favorite venue to play at in my neck of the woods is It’s Your Move. The owners, Chris and Will, do an amazing job providing a space to teach and learn new games. And consequently, a place that gave birth to our splinter cell of the Cult of Ascending Empires (I make a wild assertion that there are other members I have yet to meet).

I make it a point to get people exposed to games that I find valuable to play as part of my itch to foster good competition in game environments, and I try to learn at least one new game a week (assuming something being played strikes my fancy). I devote part of my time at the shop to teaching games, and the later part of the evening to getting into something crunchy and satisfying with good adversaries.

That said, if you live near It’s Your Move, and have a Friday night free, come on down, and I’ll teach you game. Just ask for Jeremy. I am usually set up on a table in the rear of the store.

NOW, ABOUT THAT CULT YOU MENTIONED?

Yes, about that… I should mention my primary board game love affair. A game that has captivated a core group of us, and pushed all of us into a deep and nuanced understanding of one of most unique and tension filled 4X games I have played. That game being Ascending Empires.

I say “cult” loosely – though I have been told by third party observers (namely my partner K), that our little group’s discourse on opening moves, strategy, build order, etc. are a blur of esoteria from the outsider’s perspective. So, yes, its cultish – but so is anything you do a lot of. When you seek to flush out the nuances of a thing, you get more familiar with a thing. The more I play it, the more nuances I see and strive to incorporate.

WHAT ARE THESE EMPIRES, AND HOW DO THEY ASCEND?

Ascending Empires is a fast-paced, 4X game where by the means of exploration of the game environment requires the use of manual dexterity – in this case, flicking or tapping your wooden pieces (starships) around the board. For the uninitiated, 4X is shorthand for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate.

In Ascending Empires, players will compete for territory (planets), technology bonuses, and even attempt to destroy each other’s ships and facilities. The game has victory point chits (VPs) which function also as a time clock for the game. These VPs are only handed out when a player destroys another player’s pieces during an attack, OR if you’re the first to a technology plateau. End game scoring will also give players VPs (but not chits) for each colony and city built, each planet occupied, and some more difficult bonuses based on placement of cities.

Game Pieces

There are four ‘empires’, color-coded (Red, Green, Yellow, Blue). This decision is purely aesthetic. Each empire comes with 8 same colored cubes (Research Facilities), 4 small discs (colonies), and 4 hexagon towers (cities). Each empire starts the game with 6 Troops (represented by plastic space marine dudes), and 2 Starships (wooden discs with a sticker of a starship on one side). This number of troops and starships can be expanded during play (you have extra in a baggie).

The board comes in 9 puzzle pieces that are assembled to form a 24×24 inch square, with holes cut into the board to place the planet pieces into (discs).

Each player has a color-coded placard that has counters for current technology levels (four types: orange, grey, magenta, brown), and a place to put your supply of Troops and Starships that are not currently on the board. Each player also gets a homeworld of matching color, and a range marker (for measuring distance to ships for means of determining attack).

Game Mechanic

The game mechanic can best be described as parsed actions that lead to point gain actions. And like many games that have similar mechanics, you can learn to spot patterns, and attempt to thwart your adversaries’ moves and future moves.

Each round, players have a choice of one action:

  • Recruit Take 2 Troops from supply, and add them to occupied worlds. (Troops are like currency, recruit is like getting paid).

  • Move You get 2 Movement Points. You can spend them, one for one, to do any one of three specific actions:

    • Launch: Take off 1 troop from a planet you occupy (move it back to supply), and place a starship from supply on or within that same planet’s orbit line.

    • Land: This is the reverse of Launch. Take off a starship that is within or on the orbit line of a planet, and place 1 Troop on that same planet. Planet must be empty or yours.

    • Navigate: This is where you get to flick a starship to move it around the board. Each flick attempt that moves the starship costs you 1 Movement Point. You cannot push the piece. If your starship is not resting on the playing surface at the end of a flick, it is added back to your supply.

  • Build Colony Take 1 Troop from a planet, and place a colony disc on the same planet.

  • Build City Take 1 Troop and 1 colony on the same planet, and place a city Hexagon on the same planet. Immediately gain 1 Troop or 1 Starship from your bag (this is growing your empire).

  • Build Research Facility Take off 2 Troops, and place a Research Facility cube on the same planet.

  • Develop Technology Choose one color of planet you occupy with a research facility. Count up all research facilities you have on planets of the same color, and you may advance one level on that technology tree so long as that level doesn’t exceed the number of bases you have on that color. This requires a bit of explaining.

Planets are color-coded to match the technology colors (Orange = offensive power, Grey = mobility, Magenta = defensive, and Brown = growth). In this way, occupying an Orange planet, will allow your empire to exploit the Orange technology tree.

Each empire can have a single planet with two research bases on it. The limit on all other planets will be one research facility.

  • Mine Take 2 Troops off a single planet, and take 1 VP chit from the pool of VPs. Take 3 Troops for 2 VPs.

Basic Play

You flick your ships around the map trying to get them to new planets. You land on planets, recruit to those worlds, and build things on them. Rinse, repeat. That’s the basic concept. The point gain actions are building research facilities/developing or colony-to-city developments. Getting cities built will expand the troop or starship count you have to work from. Also, getting Level 1 technology across the board will get you 1 troop and 1 starship from the bag (another 1 troop/1 ship bonus at Level 2 across the board).

Rule of 3: Any planet you occupy can only ever have THREE pieces on it, no matter the combinations.

Scanning: You can always SCAN a planet at the end of any action you take. When you SCAN, you can look at any planet you are in the orbit of, but haven’t landed on yet. You put it back down.

Attacking: Attacks occur at the end of any Move action. Attacks are a straight comparison battles. Attacker must have 1 more attacks than target has Defense. Most pieces have a defense of 1, with a couple exceptions:

  • Research Facilities has a defense of 0

  • Cities have a defense of 2

  • Battleships have a defense of 2

  • Planets have a defense value of the sum total on the planet

Each piece destroyed by an attack nets the attack 1 VP chit. If an opponent’s Battleship is destroyed, the attack takes 2 VP chits. Starships must be in orbit of a planet to attack it.

Defended: If there is an opponent’s starship in orbit of a planet, that planet cannot be attacked.

Blockade: If an opponent has a starship in orbit of a planet you occupy, you may not do anything with that planet (no recruit, research bases don’t count, launching and landing prohibited).

Ram: When a player strikes another opponent’s starship during play. The first two opposing ships to touch are removed. Other pieces moved due to the activity stay where they stopped moving.

Off the Board: Any starship that ends its movement off the playing surface (that includes on planets), are removed from play and added to your supply.

Technology Trees

Each tree breaks the game rules as follows, but only for the player at the technology level. You never lose technology when your research facilities are destroyed. You just doing get to count those bases any more.

Orange Technology

Starting: You attack at Short Range (short side of range marker)

Level 1: You attack at Long Range (long side of range marker)

Level 2: Starships may attack multiple targets

Level 3: Remove 2 starships from supply or play, and take the Battleship from your baggie, and put it in supply. Battleships attack as if they were two starships.

Level 4: Gain +1 VP for each starship destroyed.

Grey Technology

Starting: You gain 2 movement points when you declare a Move action.

Level 1: You gain 3 movement points instead of 2.

Level 2: You may now Launch and Land at Blockaded planets.

Level 3: You gain 4 movement points instead of 3.

Level 4: After you declare and complete a Move action, immediately take a different action.

Magenta Technology

Starting: Research Facilities at 0 defense.

Level 1: Your Research Facilities now worth 1 defense.

Level 2: When you are rammed, gain 2 VP chits

Level 3: Your Starships in orbit of your occupied planets count as 2 starships

Level 4: Gain 1 VP chit when YOU ram an opponent.

Brown Technology

Starting: Recruit 2 Troops

Level 1: When recruiting, recruit 3 troops instead of 2.

Level 2: When you build a City, you may either take 2 troops or 1 starship

Level 3: When recruiting, recruit 4 troops instead of 3.

Level 4: You may recruit to unoccupied planets.

WHY I LOVE THIS GAME

The planets are face down, and randomized. Making the most of your context is crucial, but so is exploration. And so is flicking well. All that under pressure. It makes for an intense and awesomely competitive experience. I could go in great detail discussing the nuances of this game, but I shall say that I have built my own board, out of a solid piece of material, specifically to pull off longer shots more precisely. That should expose the drive behind it sufficiently.

Another big reason I love this game is that I have seen people that are terrible at flicking win games! Which is a clear indicator that the rules and their manipulation can defeat good flicking. It’s solid. I personally think it plays best as a two player game, but three player is incredibly fun. And four player can be an odd mix of luck sometimes. Definitely prefer 2 or 3 player games.

The final reason I love this game is that it rewards nuanced play. Our group of players have pushed into some interesting nuances of the rules, and have taken turns bludgeoning each other with some interesting positions and attack patterns. Until we start to adapt and develop counter strategies. Its deep. I’ve played near 200 games of it. I love teaching it, and watching people start to ‘get’ it. Its a beautiful thing to behold.

I’ll get into more nuances of game play at a later date. With pictures, too. Definitely need to get some pictures up on here.

Peace, and more to come…