Category Archives: comics and geek culture

Shattered Remains card art (artist Matt Zeilinger)

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

The Flash
The Flash is my favourite superhero. He has a simple but amazing power, he’s a scientist and he’s an uncomplicated hero; what’s not to love? So I was quite looking forward to the new TV series, and the extended trailer they released over the summer whet my appetite. Now though, a few episodes in, I’m about ready to call it quits.

It’s worth pointing out that they’ve done a lot right with the series; the special effects are fantastic given the demands of television. Grant Gustin is just right for the role (it’s interesting comparing his frame with John Wesley Shipp’s in the 1990 TV series; it never made sense for Barry Allen to be as bulked up as Wesley Shipp was back then). And I applaud their decision to go for a multi-racial cast. But there are three main quibbles I have with it [SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON]. Continue reading

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

doctorwho50
I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Complete Zenith: A Review

cover to Complete ZenithWARNING: Some minor spoilers in the images, but nothing to get too excited about.

Zenith is a comic strip from “my era” of 2000ad. I first started getting 2000ad from Prog 497 (after already purchasing several Titan reprint albums) and Zenith himself arrived in Prog 520.

In some ways it’s a surprise Zenith was a hit in the comic’s pages. Grant Morrison is one of the few British creators in the 80s who didn’t cut his teeth in 2000ad – his break was in DC Thompson’s Starblazer – and it is fair to say he never really “got” the 2000ad house style as was all too apparent in his work on Judge Dredd and the infamous “summer offensive”. What’s more, 2000ad doesn’t do superheroes. Zenith represented 2000ad’s first non-parodic toe dip into those deep waters.

In many respects, Zenith feels more like a Warrior strip than a 2000ad one and has a lot in common with Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain in that it is a very British treatment of a quintessentially American genre. I wouldn’t over emphasise the similarities however, and feed into Alan Moore’s lazy narrative that Morrison is a plagiarist. Indeed, many of the ideas that Morrison plays with in Zenith are ones which he has revisited in his own work many times since, particularly in Final Crisis, Animal Man and his Vertigo trilogy of The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

Despite Morrison moving rapidly onto bigger things, the story arc of Zenith is complete. The full colour Phase IV came out a few years after Phase III, and Morrison even returned for a one-off in 2000. It has however been increasingly hard to get hold of. Titan Books only reprinted the first three phases and ceased their 2000ad line in the early 90s. There was talk of reprinting it in the early noughties, but it quickly emerged that there were legal disputes preventing this from happening.

What are these legal disputes? Essentially, pretty much everything which 2000ad has ever published has been on the basis of work-for-hire: the company owns the rights in perpetuity (there are actually exceptions to this, but for the most part this is where the comic published work which had been initially commissioned by another publisher, notably Toxic!). However, Grant Morrison maintains that he never signed away his rights to Zenith and it would appear that 2000ad cannot prove him wrong in this respect. They could offer him a new contract or just accept he has the rights, but that would open up a legal minefield which could force 2000ad to revisit its ownership of pretty much everything it published in the 80s. As such it would appear they are at an impasse, the big loser being artist Steve Yeowell for whom this probably represents his most critically acclaimed and commercial work.

2000ad Books’ decision to print the entire run in a single volume earlier this year came out of nowhere. It has been limited to a (quickly sold out) print run of 1,000 and it is entirely possible this is the only time it will ever be reprinted. By all accounts, Morrison was not consulted on this and Rebellion have essentially stonewalled him. The theory goes that this is an experiment to see how he reacts. Either he’ll throw his lawyers at them or he’ll let it pass, in which case their case that he waived his rights and they are free to reprint will be that much stronger. It is far too soon to tell who will eventually win this, but in the meantime those of us willing to fork out £100 get a copy of something they have been dreaming of having in their hands for years.

What can I say about the book? I haven’t read the strip for many years and haven’t had a chance to pore through this edition yet, but I can say that it is very, very lovely indeed.

My shelves have been filling up with 2000ad’s “telephone directory” reprints for quite some time now (yes, I know that telephone directories these days are thinner than a weekly Prog; you get my meaning). I adore them, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the reproduction and restoration, especially in the earlier days, is a bit iffy – especially when they are working from degraded copies of the comic rather than from negatives. And some of their choices can be a little odd, such as their decision to not include The Dead Man and America from their Complete Judge Dredd volumes (WHY????? Sigh, it still makes me furious). So I’ll be honest when I say that despite being willing to fork out for this volume I was a little trepidatious.

some of the reprint covers which appear in the Complete ZenithBut it has exceeded my expectations in several respects. This may seem obvious, but when they say “complete”, they mean it. It doesn’t just have all the strips, but it includes all the covers. Not just the 2000ad covers but the covers of the Titan reprints (which themselves were Ryan Hughes design classics) and the Quality and Egmont-Fleetway US reprints. I didn’t even know that Simon Bisley drew covers for the latter, although I have to admit that I’m not entirely blown away by them. It even includes a text story that Mark Millar wrote for an old annual, which if I recall correctly was only tangentially related to Zenith and (like many Mark Millar superhero and 2000ad stories) best forgotten about.

And then there’s the colour. Reprinting 2000ad strips from the late 80s and early 90s can be a bit of a challenge because the comic went from mainly monochrome to full colour in 1990. To keep costs down, book publishers tend to get creative when confronted with things like this by printing half the book in black and white and half in colour, but this can often look awful. On top of this, Phase I of Zenith was during a brief period when 2000ad adopted an odd habit of printing the last page of some of its strips on the back page of the comic itself – often in full colour. Most of the time, the solution to that is to print the page in black and white – and most of the time that means a page which looked gorgeous in the original comic looking muddy and illegible. This has particularly plagued the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog reprints.

Colour transitions in the Complete ZenithNot so with Zenith. That £100 asking price means that, to their credit, they have spared no expense. So on the two chapters in Phase I where this applies you get a wonderful burst of colour. There is a slight issue which I’ve noticed whereby one of the annual stories, an Interlude, appears to have been printed slightly out of sequence so that it appears between Phases III and IV (when, if I recall correctly, it should be between II and III), but this is not disastrous as the story is out of sequence in any case.

Overall, I’m very happy with this and am content with paying the money. I very much expect an unlimited edition to appear in the next few years, but I don’t think those reprints will be either as comprehensive or include the nice touches that this one does.

And what of the ethics of reprinting this despite the legal uncertainty? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I’m fairly radical when it comes to my views on intellectual property. I think there is a good case for making all publications public domain 20 years after their initial publication – and I suspect that such an approach would have concentrated minds in both the Morrison and 2000ad camps. The existence of 2000ad slightly challenges my opposition to corporations being able to jealously guard their intellectual property because it has to be said that if their archives were worth less to them, it is entirely possible it would have ceased to be a viable publication some time ago (that said, I’m not wedded to 20 years and a somewhat longer period than that would probably fix that). I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Yeowell and can’t believe that Morrison didn’t know he was working on a work for hire basis at the time. So yeah, I think they are right to test the waters here.

Dragonmeet and widening the RPG audience

I had a great time at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It may surprise some people to know that this was my first Dragonmeet (London’s premiere roleplaying convention which I believe has been going since the 1980s) but in fact, UK Games Expo this year was the first gaming convention I’d gone to since, I think, Games Day ’88 (around the time Games Workshop was transforming from a distributor to just focusing on its own miniatures games).

I had a game of Durance, Jason Morningstar’s next game after Fiasco which can best be summed up as “early colonial Australia – in spaaaace”. I wish I’d played a couple more games, especially Microscope, but Durance took a long time and I needed a break and some shopping time.

As for purchases, I picked up My Life With Master, Psi*Run, Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne and Becoming Heroes – all indie games with their own little quirks. I’ve read the rules to Psi*Run thus far and it looks great – essentially the players are amnesiacs with psychic powers who are being chased by some unknown threat: maybe they’re alien abductees or the victims of some government experiment. They start the game asking themselves a series of questions and end the game when one of them has answered all of them (as is common with indie games, you get to make these up as you go along).

I only went to one seminar, and I regret not going to the one with Robin D Laws about his new Hillfolk game which I’ve invested in as a Kickstarter. I’m still toying with investing in the Guide to Glorantha Kickstarter (I deeply love Glorantha as a setting both because it is highly original and the setting of the first RPG I ever owned), so it would have been nice to go to that, but it would have meant not having a morning game. Priorities!

The one seminar I did go to was about the future of the UK RPG “industry”. But the main point that was rammed home at the seminar was that there was no industry, just four games companies which operate out of the US (Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Chronicle City and Mongoose), a distribution company (Esvedium) and a scattering of shops. And while the general consensus seemed to be that its decline from the “heady” days of the 1980s has probably levelled out now, no one could envision any sunlit uplands ahead to look forward to. There was an agreement that with the internet, we probably don’t even need an industry for the hobby to continue, but it would probably plod along in any case. There was no prospect of a renaissance.

I found it to be quite an interesting talk, not quite depressing although in many ways it should have been. It reminded me a bit of the very similar conversation going on within the comics ironic-quotation-marks-industry and the heroic but seemingly futile efforts of a handful of people working within it to persuade it that there is a mainstream audience out there to exploit if only it would haul itself out of its self imposed ghetto (I promise not to segue into a discussion about Giles Coren being a cock, except to say that Giles Coren is a cock).

I’ve written about RPGs and the mainstream recently. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want to expand your audience, you should focus on games that do not require (at least) 3 expensive “core” hardback books to play and which encourage the sort of play in which one individual dedicates huge amount of personal time preparing a game for everyone else. You should probably look at games which put as much emphasis on plot and character – possibly even sex – as they do on action and violence. You should look at games with a wide range of genres, not just another flavour of fantasy-horror-scifi. None of this is to say that any of these things are bad or that all games should contain none of these elements, just that variety is the spice of life and a narrow idea of what is and isn’t roleplaying doesn’t help anybody. Don’t mistake a genre for a medium.

Of course, there are games out there which tick these boxes, but they are known as “indie” games and seen as niche (from my experience, by their advocates as well as others in the RPG scene). I don’t think there are any particular villains here: most of the industry panellists at the seminar were enthusiastic about the indie scene. Indeed, the host James Wallis wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and is in many ways a godfather of the indie scene*. All the UK RPG publishers produce games which are to a greater or lesser extent “indie” in style or tone. The issue to me is more one of mindset, and a realisation of the opportunities that games like Fiasco bring to the market.

At one stage in the seminar, one of the audience members asked the panel what they were doing to bring children into the hobby and got quite finger jabby. While enticing a new generation is important, I wonder whether too much concern about making it accessible for “the kids” is missing the point. I couldn’t make head or tail of Runequest 2 when I was 8 (or MERPs for that matter; I always seemed to buy complicated fantasy games when I was a kid); it didn’t stop me from playing it numerous times. I persevered because it seemed cool, because my media was saturated with science fiction and fantasy, and – crucially – because there weren’t shinier, easier ways to sate my appetite for immersive fantasy gameplay. Since the latter factor has now been irrevocably lost thanks to computer games and to a lesser extent miniature war games, I can’t really see how efforts to entice them will ever be enormously successful.

I think it’s the slightly older generation that is a more likely prospect and the one thing that isn’t likely to excite them is tabletop versions of something they can do on the computer in a way that is infinitely more immersive. What that suggests to me is that “old school” dungeon bashes are unlikely to cut the mustard.

Tabletop roleplaying’s potential appeal is in providing things you can’t do on a computer, and that means stuff other than killing things and solving puzzles. You can create worlds, endless situations, flawed heroes (and even not heroes at all) with a few simple rules, some friends and possibly some dice in a way you can never do on a computer (and the moment you will be able to do that will also be the singularity; best not to think about!).

Roleplaying’s potential therefore is its ability to provide boundless creativity in a social environment, if only the scene could get over its obsession with stabbing orcs. And what goes for teenagers is also likely to appeal more to women.

What all this suggests to me is that if the industry is to be truly ambitious, it needs to start eschewing notions of “old school” play and deliberately look towards games which offer things that are unique to tabletop roleplaying itself. Surprisingly (to me at least), that would suggest that the approach of moving to simpler boardgame “gateway” games such as Castle Ravenloft may not actually be the right approach. It suggests that, for example, while the Dungeons and Dragons Next project may result in a game the existing fans love, it will be a cul de sac rather than a way of bringing in new gamers.

Psi*Run offers an alternative approach. A 60 page rulebook clearly designed to be accessible to a younger audience, offering a type of game that you couldn’t do better on a computer. I’m thinking of buying it for my niece. The recently released Dungeon World appears to offer old style fantasy adventure with more of an indie aesthetic; maybe this is the way forward?

Piers from the London Indie RPG Meetup made a salient point at the seminar when he suggested that in many ways indie games are more like traditional RPG scenarios than game systems in that they are intended to be played a couple of times before the players move onto something else rather than a game you go back to again and again over a number of years. In some respects, this is a bit like novels as opposed to a massive TV franchise like Star Trek; a one off story focusing on one or two ideas rather than a never ending saga. And that also has a lot in common with how boardgames have developed over the past decade where the designer is becoming ever more important rather than the franchise.

Overall, I think there needs to be an injection of ambition into the RPG scene. There has been more innovation over the past decade than we saw throughout the 25 years before that. Accessible games like Fiasco have the potential to break into the mainstream. What the scene needs is a little more self confidence and a little less comfort with the idea of wallowing in obscurity. There’s already Free RPG Day (itself a spinoff from Free Comic Book Day) but from what I’ve seen of what most companies produce to promote this event, it is more aimed at promoting upcoming stuff to an existing base than building a new one. Perhaps this day, or another, needs to be adopted for evangelising about the mediums true potential – and potential audience.

* (UPDATE) It would appear that I stole that description of James Wallis from Robin D. Laws. But he’s right.

Microscope: roleplaying history fractally

20121119-005738.jpgI’ve been exploring quite a lot of roleplaying games recently, but Microscope is probably the most unique I’ve come across thus far.

Arguably, it isn’t even a roleplaying game, although roleplaying is part of it. The goal of the players is not to play a character but to create a fictional history, potentially spanning tens of thousands of years.

The basis of the game is a timeline with a simple beginning and ending. This could be anything. For example, the start point could be “humanity struggles to recover from the zombie apocalypse” and the end point could be “humans and AIs form the galactic federation” (fantasy and mythical settings, indeed anything, can also be used – I’ve even considered it as a tool for developing a democratic reform counterfactual as an exercise for work).

In each player’s turn, they can either establish a new period, a new event (which must take place during an established period) or a scene (which must take place during an established event). You can place your chosen period, event or scene at any point in the timeline and can thus bounce around continually. The only restriction is that you must follow the “focus” – a particular thing that one of the players chooses all the players must explore during each round.

The scenes are the most complex aspect of the rules, and the closest the game gets to traditional roleplaying. For each scene, all the players pick a role and, in the process, work together to answer a question set by the person whose turn it is. So, if the question is: “Why did Halo Jones kill Luiz Cannibal in cold blood?”, one player might play Halo Jones, another might play Luiz Cannibal, and so on. The scene ends as soon as the question has been answered. If the players want to continue that story, another player will have to choose a scene on their turn to continue it.

One thing the game designer Ben Robbins is quite emphatic about is that the players must not attempt to write a history by committee. Instead, when it is your turn you have complete autonomy. The other players are banned from making suggestions, although they can ask for clarification. The only restrictions are that new elements can’t contradict old ones, and that they must stay within the basic rules. There is a slight exception to that in that during a scene a player can “Push” for something to happen – in which case the options are discussed and the players take a vote. Aside from that, and the fact that the players must initially agree what the overall theme is to be, that is the only point in which players have to reach some level of agreement. I disagree with some of the terminology used in the rule book: far from “banning” collaboration, this is an interesting way to enforce it in a meaningful way (as opposed to having the strongest willed player dominate); it takes the improvisational dictum of “yes, and…” and turns it into a fundamental building block for the rules.

The best genre settings drip with history, yet the idea of developing one of your own has been curiously unexplored by game designers up until now. I say “curiously” but it never occurred to me that it might even be worth considering until I came across this game. Now my mind is racing with possibilities, enthused by such rich histories as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Nikolai Dante, Warhammer 40,000 and Vampire: the Masquerade. But of course, those should only be starting points: the real genius of the game is not letting you explore established backgrounds but in creating your own by having a group of players subtly pulling in opposite directions. In short, this is another game to add to my burgeoning “must try” list.

Fighting Fantasy


A filmmaker is attempting to raise £40,000 on Kickstarter to make a film about the development and legacy of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s an ambitious project which I’d love to see happen, so I’ve chipped in and would encourage you to do the same.

I was one of the first generation of Fighting Fantasy fans, starting with the publication of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. We didn’t have the Puffin Club at my school; we had the Chip Club. Nonetheless, that was how me and my sister discovered the series and I quickly graduated onto the Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Starship Traveller and Deathtrap Dungeon.

I had a bit of a pro-Ian Livingstone bias, which was probably unfair in retrospect and I suspect was limited to the fact that I got Forest of Doom while my sister got the more experimental Citadel of Chaos. That changed when I discovered the Sorcery! series, with its spellbook, overarching plot and gorgeous John Blanche artwork. I was pretty hardcore, buying Warlock magazine from issue 2, the Out of the Pit monster manual, the background book Titan, and so on.

They weren’t perfect. Like most RPGs at the time, they tended to be both combat heavy and leave you rather dependent on the luck of the dice, which was a little redundant as if you died, you would tend to simply ignore the result and carry on. But the Fighting Fantasy books opened so many avenues for me. Like many other people, they encouraged my reading, and it will be no surprise to anyone to learn that they got me into roleplaying games. But I’d credit them with something more fundamental than that, in that they made me realise at a young age that I didn’t have to just be a consumer, but an active participant in my media as well (of course, this also came at the same time as the rise of the home microcomputer – which had a similar democratising effect. As it happens there’s also an open Kickstarter at the moment to fund an updated version of Elite).

This is an important part of my personal history, so I’m keen to see the documentary get made. Plus, it is possible I might be making a minor appearance in it as they appear to be using footage from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s presentation at this year’s UK Games Expo in it, in which you can quite clearly see me in the audience! So please have a look at the Turn to 400 Kickstarter and consider putting some dosh behind it.

Primetime Adventures: a review

Smallville RPG is one of the games that lead me to discovering the wonderful world of more collaborative, story based kinds of roleplaying. Not a fan of the TV show (beyond the first couple of seasons), I was interested in its different approach to gaming and the way it incorporated TV tropes and conventions into the game itself.

Reading about Smallville online, I kept seeing it compared to Primetime Adventures, an earlier game with a similar philosophy. But all I could find about it was the publisher’s website promising a new edition of the game in “2011“. Then, on Friday, I discovered you could still get the second edition, published in 2005, on Indie Press Revolution. I snapped it up (alongside a couple of other games) and read through it. Here are my first impressions.

Whereas it is clear that you can use Smallville to play pretty much any kind of Smallville type TV show such as Roswell or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Primetime Adventures promises even more scope: Battlestar Galactica to the Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives and everywhere in between. The reason it can promise so much is that the system is so simple. Characters are, for the most part, summed up by a handful of descriptive words. The only “stats” used in the game are the “budget” (a pool of points that the gamemaster – or rather the “producer” – can draw on throughout the game to provide a challenge for the players), “fan mail” (a pool of points which players accrue in the course of play for good roleplaying) and “screen presence” (a number between 1 and 3 which determines how central each player character is to the plot of any given episode – these rotate so that a different character gets the spotlight in each episode).

The game mechanic to determine whether Wash manages to outfly and escape the fleet of Reaver spaceships is essentially the same as the one used to determine whether Cordelia wins that slanging match against her rival at high school: combine your screen presence with your traits, add any fan mail and see if you can beat the score which the producer gets, which itself is based on the amount of budget he allocates to that test. Instead of rolling dice, the players all draw playing cards: for each red card you draw, you get one point.

That’s pretty much it as far as the system goes – not quite the simplest game system ever devised, but certainly pretty close (contrast that with the Smallville system which, while it looks like fun, I still find a bit baffling in places without having given it a go). I have a slight concern that in practice it might be too simple in certain places. While I really like its mechanism for changing the focus of the series from episode to episode, and quite like the rules to playing a scene, the rules for how an episode should work seem a little light. I have concerns about how you maintain momentum throughout an episode and ensure you hit the right dramatic beats. The rule book itself has quite an interesting section on how acts work in a standard four act TV episode format, but I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t provide a system for how this might work in practice. I wonder if you couldn’t have a rule whereby you should move on to the next act after a certain amount of the budget has been spent, to ensure the game stays pacy.

For a game that discourages pre-game preparation in favour of collaboration and improvisation, a mechanism for helping the players out with ideas for plot twists and complications would have been nice (a bit like the Fiasco tilt system) – especially given the fact that by using the core mechanic of playing cards you have a very simple system for randomly generating 52 different options right in front of you.

Some clarification and expansion would also have been helpful. What should the producer do, for example, if a character leaps out of an aeroplane without a parachute with the intention of catching up with the bad guy and stealing his? In this case, if the character fails he will die (assuming the setting is at least semi-realistic and a dimensional portal wouldn’t fit the genre), so does that mean it should be assumed that he will automatically succeed? If not, what should happen if the character fails (which is possible even if the producer doesn’t spend any of his budget to resist)? The rule book has nothing to say about character stress, injury or death – a bit of an omission. I would certainly be inclined to have a similar mechanic to that used in FATE and Apocalypse World/Monsterhearts whereby characters with a specific named “condition” (e.g. “broken arm”) would have to suffer some kind of penalty if they try to do things that that condition would make harder (or a bonus if they could justify that the condition would make things easier). And I’d be inclined to make character death possible – but only if the character in question was being spotlighted in that particular episode (after all, cast members on TV shows die all the time).

In short, Primetime Adventures is a decent game, but the fact that the second edition was seven years ago now shows when contrasted with the more recent game rules I’ve been reading recently. I’d be tempted to write up quite a few hacks before playing it. But it’s flexibility and simplicity is extremely clever and inspiring and I really love the rules for providing characters with character arcs throughout the season. It would be an interesting experiment to run a game with non-gamer players and a non-supernatural or science fiction theme at some stage.
NaBloPoMo November 2012

John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.

Roleplaying, complexity and mainstream appeal

NaBloPoMo November 2012This was meant to be Monday’s blog post, but I’ve had a really busy week – and ended up making this blog somewhat longer than I’d originally intended. Oops! Looks like I’ll be writing two a day for the next few days to catch up.

My colleagues-cum-friends Emily and John are also doing NaBloPoMo this year. Yesterday, both of them wrote about their experience of roleplaying and story games and so today I thought I’d respond to some of the points they make. You can read their articles here and here respectively (John has actually written a follow up, but I’ve deliberately not read it yet as I wanted to get this article finished).

(As an aside, it is noteworthy that up until now I’ve rarely mentioned my interest in RPGs on this blog, even going so far as to set up a separate Tumblr to write about it. I’ve often wondered why, given that I’m quite happy to write about my other geeky obsessions here. Perhaps it’s because, at its best, roleplaying is the most intimate thing you can do with a group of people with your clothes on – and like all forms of intimacy it feels deeply personal. That, and the whole devil worship, sad sack thing – basically it’s all Tom Hanks’ fault.)

John and Emily have widely differing experiences of RPGs. John has been a hardcore gamer for 10 years, playing several different games on a weekly basis. He’s also deeply involved in the LARP scene. Emily’s first experience of RPGs was just over a year ago. Aside from an abortive game I ran using the Savage Worlds system and the Slaine background (and another game currently in limbo which I started organising but haven’t actually started), her gaming experience is currently limited to Fiasco.

My experience is different again. I’ve pretty much literally been playing RPGs since before John was born. I know this because the Warlock of Firetop Mountain celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year and John is turning 30 at the end of this month. As a teenager I played a lot of games and even helped to set up a gaming club. I got out of the habit at university but began again when I returned to London in 1998 and kept it up when I moved to Leeds in 2000-2. Since returning to London in 2004, I’ve had the odd game here and there, but the last year or so has been the most intensive period of roleplaying for a decade – which is pretty much the whole time John has been playing.

So it was that when I got excited that Mark Rein·Hagen, the creator of two of John’s favourite games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, had not only reemerged after years of disappearance but was actually promoting a new game on Kickstarter, John was unimpressed because Rein·Hagen was some remote figure who had little to do with the game he had got into. Similarly, while I feel that the relaunch of Vampire, now resubtitled The Requiem, was a welcome, get back to basics, step, for John it represented trashing the game he knew and loved.

I differ from both John and Emily in one other significant respect in that while their gaming experience has mostly been (in Emily’s case exclusively) as players, my gaming experience has predominantly been as a referee/games master/storyteller (all games have different terms for the role but in layman’s terms this is the person who moderates and facilitates the game and plays all the secondary, non-player characters).

The difference in experience between GM and player is tremendous. John tells me he has tried being a GM in the past but didn’t enjoy it. I by contrast have tended to be a GM not simply because I tended to be the only one willing to do it, but because if I’m honest, I got a kick out of it and it suited my temperament better. At its best, it is a real blast running a game in which the players are all deeply committed and essentially wallowing in a sandpit of your creation. I’ve seen a lot of writing about the games master as world builder and as a player, but one of the enjoyable aspects of the role I find is as spectator, suppressing your ego while watching the players perform in front of you and jerk on cue when you pull the strings (I feel a maniacal laugh should be inserted here).

I don’t mind admitting that one of the things I’ve noticed since I started playing Fiasco (which I won’t go into detail about here but you can read my previous article about it here) is that I tend to play more passive characters, happy to leave the dramatic heavy lifting to others. In that respect, I’ve been lucky to find a group of players who are more than happy to do so, but it is a bad habit I need to get myself out of.

This all neatly segues into the the debate over “traditional” RPGs and indie story games. Of course, if this was 20 years ago, John’s preferred mode of gaming would be regarded as pretty radical and cutting edge (I certainly remember the waves Vampire made when it first came out), but by traditional I mean a game which has a pretty meaty ruleset which focuses on detailed statistics defining each character and how well they can “do” things (I believe the vogue term is “crunchy”), an expansive and ever growing list of sourcebooks (or “fluff”), and, of course, a games master to keep it all in check. Not all “indie” games do away with the game master but typically they have a much simpler ruleset, a focus on story and relationships and encourage much greater collaboration between the players in terms of world building – in preference over big chunky sourcebooks which basically tell you how the world works.

Fiasco takes it about as far as it goes, having as it does just two statistics for players to keep track of (the number of black and white dice they have been rewarded respectively), no GM, and a mechanism that assumes you will create a whole new setting – and pretty much wreck it – in each game. There are no ongoing, 10 year Fiasco campaigns whereas for most traditional games that is regarded as all but the default – something which I’ll come onto.

John and Emily are split across this divide. John’s view of Fiasco et al is that “I like them as an occasional thing, but they’re not something I’d want to do every week… they’re more about creating an overall story that’s interesting, rather than individual character’s influence on the story/world.” Emily, by contrast, writes about her experience of Fiasco and trad roleplaying thus: “Taking out the gamemasters and limiting the number of scenes is a real advantage… My first impressions of role play games was that they requires hours of commitment, character development where learning how to fight required homework… Appealing to my somewhat scatty attention span, the great thing about Fiasco is its length and flexibility… The game doesn’t go the way you expect or is tricky to bringing the different story threads. But like any good game [it] has replayability and the scope to build on of what you’ve learnt.”

On balance, my own position is probably closer to Emily’s than John’s. I really could play Fiasco every week – the only problem being I wouldn’t be able to fit in any other gaming. I’ve never had a bad Fiasco experience. As Emily said, adding the special zombies add on to the parliament playset didn’t work especially well, but everyone still seemed to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, our previous Fiasco game was sublime. Using the Camp Death playset, which draws its inspiration from slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, the game we played was a wonderful blend of homage and inverted tropes, in which the slasher was also the scream queen and the real villains were just as colourful. We managed to hit all the right beats in all the right places – it wasn’t just a fun game, it was a film I fervently want to see (to only a slightly lesser extent my first Fiasco experience was also pretty awesome, and you can read about it here).

In short, Fiasco has completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of story gaming in a way I didn’t think was possible. The Fiasco games I’ve played are the first where the rules have served the story rather than the other way round.

But I wouldn’t want to go too far and claim that our Fiasco experience is somehow superior to John’s Exalted one. I truly envy John and his years of rich gaming experiences. It’s something I’ve hankered for myself for many years but never quite managed to find it – probably because I’ve tended to insist on being a GM, despite a lack of application, rather than a player in someone else’s game. And I couldn’t do it now, again because the level of commitment it would involve would have to come at the expense of other interests.

Equally, despite my love of Fiasco, it has it’s limitations. The mechanism is such that it only really tells one type of story: the type of story that ends in, well, a fiasco (to put it politely). I love Coen Brothers films, but that doesn’t mean I would want to watch them exclusively. So, is there a happy medium between Fiasco and more traditional gaming? Something which allows for more collaborative play, simpler rules and a focus on story but which also encourages greater depth than the frankly superficial Fiasco?

The short answer is I don’t know, but am optimistic. The next on my list of games I am determined to encourage, cajole and if need be bludgeon my friends into playing is Monsterhearts. Unlike Fiasco, this game has a somewhat more specific setting – teenage horror both figuratively and literally. Inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and (pfft) the Twilight Saga, the players each play a teenager with supernatural powers, be it a werewolf, vampire, ghost or something more obscure.

Intriguingly (at least for me), the game very much has a queer agenda. Straight characters are encouraged to go gay, male characters are encouraged to explore their femininity, dominant characters are encouraged to go sub… this is a game about exploring sexual identities – as we all do as teenagers.

The characters have statistics and, significantly, the game is overseen by a GM (or rather “Master of Ceremonies”). But in all other respects it is closer in spirit to Fiasco than a traditional RPG. In favour of extensive preparation by the GM, the Monsterhearts rule book suggests the “MC” deliberately avoids preparing much in advance at all in favour of “staying feral” and letting the players take the lead. And while the rules system is rather more complex than Fiasco, it’s pretty simple as rules sets go – with the focus on social interaction rather than combat. For the Emily’s of this world who lack the patience to play ongoing open ended campaigns, this game is designed to tell an overall story over the course of around half a dozen sessions – a fairly happy compromise. Further “seasons” are possible after that, but they provide a useful point for both jumping off and getting on board – and indeed finishing to move onto other things.

With Monsterhearts, the game master facilitates the players’ game; all too often with traditional RPGs, it’s the other way around. A growing number of indie games have adopted a similar approach (I’m also keen to try Mortal Coil and Monsterhearts itself is based on Apocalypse World). The question is, can you get rid of the GM altogether? Joe Prince certainly thinks so, and argues the case in this article on Geek Native. Personally, I think that’s a step too far. There is certainly a place for GM-less games like Fiasco and I suspect designers have many more amazing and ingenious GM-less to come up with. But in terms of building a larger, cohesive narrative over several sessions of play, I’m yet to be convinced you can get rid of the role altogether.

The real issue is not whether GM-less games are better or not but that traditional RPGs tend to encourage a type of GM which only a tiny minority can ever hope to aspire to. My RPG experience, and I’m sure I’m far from unique, is this: I started gaming at 8 with a game called Runequest. I didn’t really understand the rules or what GMing entailed, made it up as I went along and had a blast. As I got older I realised we were playing the game wrong and discovered others. I spent the next decade collecting games, playing by the rules and trying to get back to that original, rawly creative experience – but while I had some great times, that magic was lost. My mistake was to think that if I played by the rules, I’d find that magic. In fact the rules were stopping me.

Most RPG rule books like to emphasise how hard it is to GM and how much preparation you’ll have to do. This not only puts most people off, it encourages a very narrow view of how you can play the game. And while most RPG publishers are pretty amateur in terms of outlook (if not income), the simple fact of the matter is that if they encourage that style of play, they’re encouraging a model which puts pressure on wannabe GMs to buy every sourcebook and handbook they can get their hands on. So it is the RPG “industry” survives, but the cost is that the hobby remains niche and impenetrable for the vast majority of people.

How about, instead of making preparation heavy games the norm, RPG publishers focus on developing their own gateway games where the rules are simple and the role of player and GM is as interchangeable as possible? Then, if people want to take it further, one option would be to move onto more complicated modes of play? To be fair on some of the bigger publishers, there is now a focus on producing simple introductory games. The introductory 4th edition rulebook of Dungeons and Dragons is written like a Fighting Fantasy game book in which you learn the rules as you play (and the book comes in a box which closely resembles the classic “red box” Basic Dungeons and Dragons set which my generation grew up with). Even then however, the publishers steer you pretty ruthlessly towards a style of play in which the GM does all the heavy lifting and has all the control.

There’s nothing really to stop people from playing D&D et al in a more collaborative manner, but that would challenge convention and – perhaps more significantly – encourage people to simply make it up as they go along rather than use endless sourcebooks as a crutch.

You can’t blame the publishers for keeping the hobby in its ghetto entirely though however. In my experience, there are few people more reactionary and conservative than gamers. One of my friends told me that when he tried more collaborative approaches in the past, he got complaints from players accusing him of “attempting to get them to do his job for him”. And there are parallels with the comics industry as well, which is stuffed with people who are determined to ensure that the medium is confused with a genre (superheroes) to as great an extent as possible.

I can’t help but feel that this is all holding the RPG industry back though and, again as with comics, preventing it from connecting with a latent mainstream audience that would lap up some of the material on offer if only it knew it existed. I also suspect the industry at large is missing the zeitgeist here; in the 21st century we seem to be inexorably shifting towards a blurring between medium producer and consumer, whether it is via blogs, YouTube and social media (I should acknowledge at this point that major RPG publishers do now regularly experiment with more extensive, collaborative playtesting and open source, but only within their existing base rather than attempting to reach out more widely).

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there who would get a lot out of roleplaying, who simply aren’t aware of the breadth of different types of games out there. Somehow, the gaming industry needs to do more to connect with those people.