I’m Mad About Conan

Let’s talk about Conan.

In the past several years we’ve seen a variety of different Conan books, games, and even new comic books arise, all of them telling new and different Conan stories. Well, telling the same stories with a slightly different twist.

What inspired this post, however, was the new Conan board game. Not to be confused with the old new Conan board game. The new one is based around controlling Conan and a group of his close friends from the Conan novels as they murder stab their way through a bunch of people who want to stop Conan from doing whatever it is he wants. This is different from the previous game, which was arguably the more definitive Conan experience, and was about controlling a head of state in the Hyborian age as you attempt to gain primacy and your main interaction with Conan is hoping like hell he doesn’t fuck up all of your shit.

I have two major types of quibble with the new board game, but I would like to say at least that from everything I can tell, it is quite fun. The mechanics seem very interesting, the scenarios they produced are great, and I have a special place in my heart for asymmetric gameplay. Now with that said, I have two major embuggerances.

The first and most pressing is that they’re selling me half a game. The retail price of the core game is about $115. The kickstarter price for the core game was about $95. That’s acceptable to me. That is 100% within reason for a post Kickstarter markup. There was even a special king version of the game during the kickstarter which cost about $30 or $40 more, about $125, and contained additional content. And itself not an issue. The issue comes from the kickstarter version of the game for $95, or perhaps a better example is the version for $125, contains over double the amount of content as the base game on retail shelves. Over double the miniatures, almost twice as many playable characters, an extra 30% more game space, and that’s not to mention tokens beyond measure. Again, this is perhaps within reason, but it’s certainly annoying. Especially considering that most of the content that exists in the kickstarter game, but not in the retail version, fell under the purview of stretch goals. Nominally, at least in my experience, a stretch goal is additional content added to the game. However, since this content is not included in the retail version, and they currently have no plans to produce it for sale, and given the rather intense markup between price per content for retail and on Kickstarter, I’m not sure what the feasibility of purchasing it would be even if it was eventually available. I believe we can, for all intents and purposes, call this Kickstarter exclusive content. And here is where I believe they may have shot themselves in the foot, and pissed me off a great deal. There are eight scenarios in the base Conan game. Perhaps less than that in the retail version. These scenarios are not linked in any way, nor do they form the basis of any kind of campaign. That in and of itself is fine. I was a staunch player of HeroScape back in the day. I don’t necessarily need to have a linked campaign, as long as I have multiple ways to play, preferably somewhat varied, and the ability to create my own content. Which the Conan game has. However, they have an indeterminate amount of user created content behind an insurmountable paywall. Because odds are, if you bought the kickstarter, which most of the people who own the game at current did, and if you then create content, for any piece you pick up there is a 50% chance that the people who are reading your creation simply do not have that piece, be it an important hero, the pivotal monster or it’s statistics, a piece of detritus you were going to line your dungeon with, or the very map you arrayed for the encounter. And that’s bullshit. I couldn’t tell you why they made this decision. Their website has an under construction area for stretch goals, so I can only assume they intended to eventually release some of them, but even then a vast majority of important aspects, such as the additional game tiles, additional Heroes, and the fucking ape man from one of my favorite Conan stories, are Kickstarter exclusive, so you will simply not be able to purchase these models or play with them. This begs the question, are exclusives positive or negative for a community? Obviously, my thoughts on this are fairly simple. For a community, especially one where user generated content is the lifeblood, exclusives are a deeply negative factor because they artificially segregate the ability of the community to grow or create. Perhaps there were logistics issues in the process. Perhaps they simply didn’t believe there would be a demand for these items, even though this was perhaps the most successful Kickstarter board game. It’s very possible they genuinely didn’t have faith in their own product. I can understand that sentiment, I personally think everything I’ve ever written is garbage, but they did have some evidence to the contrary.

Moving on to some other things that piss me off, I think it’s time to talk about the ism’s. Specifically, sexism and racism. I know a lot has already been said about Howard fantasy and sexism or Howard fantasy and racism, and I will be honest most of it’s fucking stupid. I’m not actually here to talk about Howard and racism, because, I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s particularly racist, especially because they take place in a time before any conventionally extant “race” exists. Sexist maybe, but that’s a keener point to draw, and again I am not here to talk about the sexism or the racism of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I’m not even particularly upset that, of the several hundred models available for this game, exactly four are female. That’s fine by me. Weird, certainly, but fine. Not really a matter of not being in keeping with the world. What pisses me off is that fully half of those female models are Kickstarter exclusive, and two of them are two of the three female Heroes. So if you play Conan and you want to be a female hero, you have to either go back in time and buy the version of the game that actually comes with the entirety of the game, or play is Belit the Pirate Queen. And I know for a fact the initial reaction to the words “Bilit the Pirate Queen” is that that sounds fucking awesome, and rest assured, that is the correct response. She is fucking awesome. She’s a Pirate Queen. It’s really pretty self-explanatory. The problem that you run into is that she’s not a broadsword swinging axe murderer, a crafty mage, a stealthy assassin, or any of the normal types of hero you task with combating jabbering hordes of Picts or malicious slave takers. She manages pirates, and you don’t always get to bring pirates. Ergo, so she doesn’t always get to be good at most of her stuff. The other two Heroes of a female nature, who include a swordswoman and a swordswoman with a murder wolf are Kickstarter exclusive, and you cannot have them. This is part of a practice often described as locking women behind a paywall, except normally in these scenarios you would at least have the option to pay more for the women. If that sounds bad, it’s probably because it is. But systemic fucked up sexism aside, I’m pissed because I mostly game with girls and none of them are going to want to be Belit and they are going to be super pissed if they find out that there is a wolf wielding warrior they can’t have for whatever reason. Hell I’m pissed off because I wanted to throw wolves at people. That’s fucked up in a nice tie in to the earlier fucked up stuff with the exclusive content, but I also mentioned racism.

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Conan takes place in the Hyborian age, thousands of years before all recorded history on planet Earth. I have heard a lot of people say a lot of things about what exactly is racist about Conan, and my normal response to them they should probably just shut the fuck up. 99% of people who are arrayed against Conan are assholes, Evil wizards, or evil wizard assholes. This is 100% true. It is true of everyone he meets, everywhere. Howard has a really weird idea of how evolution works, so there’s ape men everywhere, and sometimes people go too far north and turn it to Yetis and then they turn back into people. I fucking love the Conan books. You should read them. That’s not the important part right now, but I definitely needed to preface with it. There is a country called Khitai located approximately in the area China is today and named after Kitai, an old Russian word for China. It’s not China, but the people who live there have what could be described as Asian features, which is understandable because they live in what will eventually become Asia, and, last time I checked, that’s where a good number of Asians are. They also have many traits to their society that could be construed as eventually becoming traits prevalent in the society of the Han Chinese dynasty. Are you with me so far? I assume so, although I’m sure this is been very complicated. At some point Conan goes there, and kills more evil wizards. That’s pretty much Conan’s thing, and he’s done that everywhere. Presumably to avoid accusations of racism, in the Conan board game the people of Kitai have been replaced from their Proto Chinese aspect as the fucking Kaminoans of Star Wars. That’s pretty fucked up to me. When you would rather take a mythical culture and do away with it entirely because you’re worried that it might bear some resemblance to one that exist today, and then replace them with actual freakish monsters, I have to cry foul. The takeaway, then, is that the ancestors of the Asian people, in this case specifically the group that will eventually become the Han Chinese, probably have absolutely no representation in a game where they should feature, if not prominently, then at least distinctly. I’ll be honest, the thing that pisses me off the most about this is the this would have been my first real opportunity, to own passable Chinese miniatures. I know I’ve had opportunities before, I could have bought the Men of the East from The Games Workshop Lord of the Rings line, and I certainly still have my Atlantean Guild Mage Knight figures, but besides those two, and the Tongs from Legends of the Old West, I can’t think of a single Chinese miniature, and I really want to run a game of Qin, so it would be nice if they had some representation.

It should be noted that if you have read any other blogs or articles about the Conan board game, you’ll find that they have been accused of racism and sexism a number of times. That in and of itself would not bother me, Conan is a property that is often accused of such things, but their defense has almost unilaterally been that they are trying to stay true to the source material. That went out the window the second they introduced magic healing potions into the game, let alone on turning the ancestors to the Chinese into fucking giraffe people.
So I suppose the takeaway is that I like Conan, and I wanted to like this game, and instead I’m just pissed off again.

Strength And Dexterity

Today I want to talk about statistically influenced mechanics.

In a game of any kind, mechanics control the methods by which you as a player interact with the game world. This is as true in a color matching block game as it is in Football Manager, but I have a very specific topic I wish to discuss today.

Specifically, I am going to talk about the different ways in which accuracy and power are presented in games, especially role-playing games, and what they mean for the players. We’re going to be using Dungeons & Dragons as the ur example, but this is applicable in what should be a fairly obvious array of cases.

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character possesses six statistics, including the eponymous Strength and Dexterity. Strength purports to be a gauge of your character’s aptitude at at tasks requiring physical power, while Dexterity measures your character’s natural talent in challenges that require speed and coordination. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that Strength is the traditional purvey of a melee focused character, while Dexterity more greatly benefits a ranged combatant, as in both cases the single statistic does a fine job of seeing that character through their allotted tasks.

So, this clearly works perfectly well. But why does it do so, and how might it work differently?

Well, traditionally, most games with a more complex set of data for the player to consume benefit from streamlining when they can, as long as it is not at the expense of the experience. Accessibility is a wonderful thing, and any veteran of gaming knows that any game with any RPG elements at all benefits greatly from the ability to say “This is my strong guy, I put all his points in strength, now on to the next fellow”. It also makes things easier on new players, as a character who possesses a great deal of information but relies on a central attribute is one that can be explored at the player’s leisure, absorbing information in their own time.

So, why change it? For a different, more thoughtful, more balanced sort of game, of course. Imagine, if you will, a game of Dungeons & Dragons where all bonuses to strike the enemy were derived from Dexterity, and all bonuses for damage were derived from Strength. Ignoring the more recent invention of Finesse weapons (which can be disregarded if you haven’t heard of them), think of what this does to the landscape. The Ogre, a tremendously strong brute with a previously unerring club, is suddenly a lumbering thug whose strikes spell death for those it hits, if only it lands one. Suddenly, the man mountain in armor and the nimble rapier duelist are on an equal footing, one dodging war-hammer blows by a hairsbreadth and the other trusting armor and luck to save him from death by a thousand cuts. It brings a certain air of Robert E. Howard fantasy to the concept, and is at least a departure from the norm. It also encourages a broader array of abilities than previous, as a warrior with moderate speed and strength will likely prevail over one solely focused on either.

White Wolf actually makes use of this concept in some of their World of Darkness games, in fact. A character needs a solid combination of Strength and Dexterity to stand a chance in combat in Scion, for example, where a strength focused hero will find they cannot land a blow. However, White Wolf also often makes use of an interesting mechanic wherein a well aimed strike gains additional chances to do damage, providing further incentive for improving your character’s Dexterity to prepare for combat situations.

In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want the effects of your mechanics to be on your game. Decide what you want the player to be able to do, and what you want the game to feel like, and then work backwards to create mechanics that support that feeling.

Parallel Paths: Or, Why Dishonored Needed A Club

This week we’re going to talk about player choice, and making sure that you’re prepared for the ones they make.

For starters, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about choice as it pertains to letting the players do whatever they want. If you’re running a D&D campaign and the players decide they want to open a ladder re-purposing Ten Foot Pole Emporium rather than actually play out that cool story with the dragon and the intrigue and the world ending terror you have prepared, then you may as well just ignore them, because they clearly did not show up to play the same game you did.

What I’m talking about is making sure that your game, be it a video game, tabletop RPG, or board game, supports a reasonable number of parallel paths to victory. These are all fairly straightforwards, so I’m going to touch on each of them in turn. I’m also going to focus largely on single player or cooperative games, as with multiplayer games this strays more into a discussion of game balance.

So, to finally get to what could easily have been the opening line of this post, the most important part of presenting a game in which parallel paths are implied is to make sure they are all supported. They don’t have to be equally difficult, but they have to function.

Let’s talk about Dishonored for a moment, if only because I put it in the title. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dishonored is a first person stealth and action video game about betrayal, revenge, and absentee parenting. The core choices of the game, the ones presented during every moment of game-play and not just during the major moral choices towards the end of each level, are whether you are playing a stealth game or an action game, and whether you are a big murdery murderer or not. Overall, at least in the experience I had, the game does a good job of making both of these choices a great deal of fun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t let itself down in a few key areas, notably by rather limiting to player to being an action murderer or a nonlethal sneaker. By and large most of the choices the player will make in the game, from the use of either normal crossbow bolts or more limited sleep arrows to the decision of whether to stab a major villain in his neck meat or decipher a fairly elaborate puzzle to send them to a nonlethal fate worse than death, the dual focus design rewards more murder prone players with a quick and easy solution while providing nonlethal players with a more complex but perhaps more rewarding alternative. There are two notable exceptions to this ethos, however. When presented with an unaware enemy, one has the option of loudly and messily stabbing them to death while simultaneously alerting all nearby enemies or quietly strangling them into a restful sleep. While the murder option is quick to reward the player with more murder, something the player may or may not be thankful for, it is something of an issue when the nonlethal option’s only downside is a minor increase in the time it takes. So you have the potential to be spotted, which is a moot point with the other option is to always be spotted. Simply allowing the stealth kill to actually be stealthy would have solved this discrepancy, although combining that with making the strangling somewhat alarming to nearby guards would be more in keeping with the game-play philosophy, if not as balanced.

And then there’s the club I teased you with. Or, rather, there isn’t the club. There is no nonlethal melee weapon in Dishonored. This seems like a severe oversight when every other piece of game-play has a lethal and nonlethal option (for the sake of this argument, the sleep darts from the crossbow are also an alternative to the pistol). It seems like a rather easy fix, simply giving the player a nonlethal melee weapon usable in the same manner of their sword, possibly with a reduced reach and definitely with requiring them to land a few extra blows, and thus not completely removing the nonlethal gamer from the action half of an action stealth game. It could even be upgraded, as with all the other equipment in the game, perhaps adding taser like stun charges and such.

Alright, so that was video games, but what about tabletop RPGs, I hear you ask. Well, the good news, is that I’m not going to ask you to completely rewrite all of your favorite systems in order to cater to as many potential player actions as possible. That way lies madness, and as such has already largely been done. I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that if you were planning a game of courtly intrigue, you have to let Krod the loin-clothed barbarian swing from the rafters and throw axes at the punch bowl. The object isn’t to cater to the players, but to create a story with them. If you’re playing a game of courtly intrigue, and the viscount is holding a piece of important information, make sure that it’s not kept in a mental chest with a single lock. It makes no sense if a character would spill their darkest secrets for five gold, but will resist weeks of torture or the threat of a scary man standing over them with a knife in the middle of the night. If the players want to get into the ancient tomb of a long dead king, and the front is guarded by living statues who ask you three questions about your deepest fears, it’s understandable that they might want to just figure out around where the tomb is laid out and start some exploratory strip mining. Remember, the important thing is not that the players follow your story, no matter how cool you think it is. If you build a world and it reacts to the players actions appropriately, you will find all manner of fun and exciting role-playing opportunities crop up over the course of game-play. Maybe Krod wasn’t a good fit for courtly intrigue, but if he’s allowed in as an amusing oddity, he might just overhear some interesting rumors from folk who don’t believe he can understand them.

In conclusion, make sure that when the player has a choice of paths, each one is worthwhile to walk.

Rallying Round The Banner

This has been a long time coming, but I need to talk about Banner Saga, storytelling, and integrating game mechanics with story.

Starting off with what I liked, Banner Saga is a lot of fun. It manages to marry turn based strategy and choose your own adventure game play around a core of Oregon Trail but with magic. The core resource, Renown, is used to pay for both supplies and character upgrades, so you occasionally have to choose between everyone being able to eat and leveling up your heavy hitters. Granted, that’s an odd situation to be in, but it definitely serves the game-play well. The interplay between story choices and turn based strategy is mechanically one-sided, as your decisions will change who joins or leaves your party, but those choices are in turn informed by your tactics and which characters you are most attached to. More than once I made what was in retrospect a poor decision and lost a character I had invested a lot of time and Renown in, but the events always felt like a natural progression of the story.

The turn based strategy itself deserves a special mention, as it incorporates a couple of fairly interesting mechanics. Opponents alternate moving a single unit at a time, unless one side only has one remaining, and unit health is measured both by an ablative layer of armor and the unit’s strength. Damaging armor is largely inconsequential, while damaging strength reduces an enemy’s capacity to damage others, but remaining armor reduces strength damage. It’s a very interesting interplay, and the leveling mechanic ensures that it’s possible to build any character in a variety of different ways, as a character’s stats are leveled individually and each have a specific function (Armor, strength, ect.). If I have a gripe about the combat system, it’s that there is almost no randomization, which I tend to prefer in games simply for the sour losses and epic but unlikely victories chance can bring. More than once I ended up in a situation where the exact outcome was a foregone conclusion, but of course I had to play out the remaining turns anyways.

Now, to get into the things I did not like as much. When I mentioned earlier that there was no effect from the battles on the narrative (Other than winning or losing), that was not strictly true. In many battles, you are tasked with choosing an overarching tactic for your forces, and that combined with how well you do in your ensuing match helps determine the outcome. The issue I have with this, is that I had no idea in what way my actions were effecting the outcome. There was no indication I could see for which tactic was the correct choice, so I simply picked the one I liked the name of best, and there was no feedback on how that effected how many of my warriors survived. On the subject of surviving warriors, I was initially very enthusiastic about making sure as many people made it through my play through as possible, but as their numbers dwindled, I stopped seeing a reason to care about them. I didn’t experience any negative effects, not even really any grumbling despite the amount of time we spent without food. Even just a few messages or the idea that they might want to take my inept, fumble-fingered self out of command would have been nice.

The big issue that I have, though, is that at the end of the game they changed the rules on me. The game comes down to a final climactic battle, which is beautifully set-up and upon which the fate of every person and place I had seen in the game rested. And then they forced me to take a character with me I had never used, had no idea how to use properly, and had specifically told not to come with me. With my limited for selection, that was crippling, in the face of a legitimately challenging boss battle. That honestly soured me on the whole experience, although it’s a testament to how good the rest of the game was that WAS legitimately upset when it buggered me.

In conclusion, this game is not without flaws, but I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for a good blend of narrative and tactical game-play.

Monster Mash

Working on a game with a couple of friends. It’s about making monsters with punnet squares! Here’s a few pictures from our most recent playtest. I’ll have the rules up soon.