Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Outgoing Goblin's Guide to Gaming Etiquette

(This is a slightly updated article I wrote for the late, lamented Dragon magazine back in the day. It is a humorous summary of all I learned from many years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It is also darn funny. I haven't checked to see how many of the rights to this article I signed away when it was published. However, since they never bothered to pay me for the article, to Hell with them.)

The Outgoing Goblin's Guide to Gaming Etiquette
Etiquette is the art and science of living together happily. It is the set of rules which maintains the peacefulness of civilization. It is the salve which soothes society when it becomes chafed.

Have you ever been in the middle of a long, happy session of D&D, with everything going great, when suddenly you said the wrong thing, and your whole party suddenly ganged up on you and killed you?

Wow. Me too.

Fortunately, I've learned from all the times this has happened to me. This guide is a way of giving something back to the community from which I have taken so much. Follow the advice within, and you will shine as a beacon of politeness to all your fellow patrons of the geekly arts.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Just because you're playing a chaotic evil thief doesn't mean you should be rude. Read on and follow my advice, even when every ounce of common sense tells you you shouldn't! You'll be glad you did!
Do's and Don'ts of the Proper Role-Player

It is a terrifying thing to play a character, massively outnumbered by monsters, surrounded by huge forces you can't understand, trying to keep your dice from mingling overmuch with the dice of the player next to you. Here are some simple rules to help hold off your inevitable, grisly death a short period of time.

  • DON'T stand up, point at the DM, and shout "You're not the boss of me!"
  • DO regale your friends with tales of high role-playing adventure. What's the point of having Frodalf make 3rd level if you can't tell your pals about it in intense, soul-crushing detail?
  • DON'T ask the magic user how much mana is left in his pool.
  • DO give your characters classic fantasy names, to help get people in the proper mood. "Bilbo" and "Mel Gibson" are excellent choices.
  • DON'T blow cigarette smoke in the DM's face after casting a fireball, no matter how much it helps him to "feel the fantasy."
  • DO adopt a special voice to use when your character speaks. Your fellow players will feel much more immersed in the fantasy after thirty minutes in a room with "Squeeky, The Gnome With A High-Pitched Voice."
  • DON'T try to get an automatic rifle for your character. The DM will be forced to give the orcs rocket launchers in the name of game balance.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Well, this may not be so bad. In my games, the ogres tend to come equipped with energy pistols and canisters of the bubonic plague. But then, my campaigns tend to be more lively and fast-paced than most.

Good manners are, of course, not for the player alone. Believe it or not, sometimes the Dungeon Master should play nice too. Not too much, of course, or the players will take advantage, shifty vermin that they are. Never trust them for a moment.

  • DO blow cigarette smoke into a player's face after an enemy throws a fireball at him or her. It will help that player "feel the fantasy".
  • DON'T give the ogres canisters of the bubonic plague until a character in the party can cast Cure Disease. Fair is fair.
  • DO make fantasy speech mandatory. Common use of phrases like "Prithee, my liege." and "Huzzah!" create an environment that makes the players feel blissfully adrift in time and space. (Example: "Prithee my liege, but if mine +1 dagger doesn't end up back in my pack on the nonce, I will have to kick some serious elven butt, huzzah!")
  • DON'T forget to encourage serious thought. Try making your players have to answer a riddle before they can leave the dungeon. Nothing builds the self-esteem like coming up with that brilliant answer after a mere three hours of saying "It is the sun? No? Then how about a snail?"
  • DO encourage role-playing by enforcing an "If you say it, your character says it!" rule. In the middle of a dungeon, do you really want your elf to say "Hey, Jason, get me a coke?" Or "Arrgh. My chest. Aaaghh! Where are my nitroglycerine pills?" Certainly not.

See? Nothing but good, simple, common sense. If any of this seems strange or inappropriate to you, well, it's a good thing you read this article before you really embarrassed yourself, isn't it?

Helping Build a Balanced Party

Remember, the central element of every great drama is conflict. When creating your character, be sure to do so in a way that maximizes conflict! Keep things interesting! Does your friend plan to play a shifty, untrustworthy thief? You must play a Paladin. Is Erik playing a laser gun toting alien hunter? Then be an alien in human disguise, and lay your eggs in his torso as soon as possible. Is the DM's girlfriend in the game? Then do something to tick her off, by all means!

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Any campaign in which the DM's girlfriend plays is destined to be rich, exciting, and complicated. Especially after they break up.

There is no better time for exciting role-playing and intrigue than when splitting up the loot. Look at is this way. Think about how important it is to get paid at your job. This of the loot as your character's salary. Imagine working hard at, say, McDonalds, cleaning the grease traps and mopping the floors and waiting for the end of the month when, finally, you will get that Girdle of Hill Giant Strength you've been busting your butt for. But then, when the time comes, the shift manager tries to stick you with a lousy +1 Glaive-guisarme instead! And you're not even proficient in Glaive-guisarme!

I'll tell you what, that is the time for some serious, noisy role-playing.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Remember, if your party is created with enough conflicts, you will be able to have hours of wild, noisy action without even making it to the city gates.

Creating a Proper Gaming Environment

All right. The game is at your house tonight. Everyone will be coming over in three hours. You look around your living room. Everything is neat and clean. There is no debris on the couch. The carpet is freshly vacuumed. There are no strong odors of any kind. So everything is perfect and ready for the game, right?

No! You dunce! What were you thinking?

Remember, we are trying to imagine ourselves in a fantasy environment here! Were the middle ages sterile and clean? No! They were pretty stinky, actually. So, before your players come over, you must provide a fantasy-like gaming environment:

  • Pens. Pencils. Paper.
  • Spare dice and rulebooks.
  • Tortilla chips.
  • Comfortable chairs.
  • A fair amount of grime, lint, and dirt.
  • Open flames.
  • Live snakes.
  • Ethereal, fantasy-themed music on the stereo. I recommend Rush. Or Jethro Tull, in a pinch.
  • Numerous copies of Dragon magazine. We can't stress this one enough.
  • Mysterious "blood stains" on the floor. If you can't figure out a way to create realistic looking blood stains, I recommend using blood.
  • A large pot of suet, organ meat, or other appropriate medieval food.
  • A rich, musty, dungeon-like odor.

And remember ... science has shown that if something is good, ten times as much of it is ten times better, at least. Thus, you should strive to provide everything on this list. That way, if the screams caused by the presence of snakes distracts you, you can always just turn up the stereo.

Follow the Standard Rules of Etiquette

When we spend a happy evening gaming, we create a new, fantastic world in our caffeine-addled minds. However, our corporeal bodies, sadly, remain in this world, growing older and rounder. This means that, since we remain in this world, we have to live by the rules of etiquette everyone else lives by every day.

Your mother was right. Please and Thank You are magic words, just as capable of opening doors as any magic spell. There are lots of other magic words, too. Like Critical Hit, and I'm Bleeding To Death, and Huzzah! These are phrases which make every gaming session run a little bit smoother.

When your host has you over for a gaming session, be a gracious guest. Compliment his collection of Star Trek novels. Don't spill Mountain Dew on the Firefly DVDs. Don't point how lame he was for buying a Wii, when Playstation III has much better graphics and plays Blu-Ray. Instead, compliment his taste in furniture and wall decoration, and, if he has crusty dishes stacked in the sink, just think of it as his effort to create a "dungeon-like" atmosphere.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: How can you role-play exploring a gruesome, dungeon-like atmosphere when you're not actually IN a gruesome, dungeon-like atmosphere? You think goblins fold and put away their laundry? No!

And, finally, after a good session of gaming, one should always send a proper thank you note, hand-written on some sort of lovely stationary:

Dear Mr. Dungeon Master,

Thank you very much for having us over for that lovely adventure last Saturday. Also, thank you very much for the lovely +1 longsword. It was exactly what my character needed, and the experience points I received for getting it really hit the spot. Ha ha.
Also, I'd like to apologize for that little misunderstanding that we had. I was mistaken. You are, in fact, the boss of me. I'm sorry for any upset my loud and unexpected outburst caused you.

- Warmest Regards,
Jeff Vogel

The Importance of Timeliness and Understanding

It is a sad fact of our role-playing lives that most campaigns are killed by indifference and the absence of players.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Well, actually, most of MY campaigns are killed by a natural 20, an orc, and a rocket launcher, but, as I mentioned earlier, my campaigns are a bit more lively and high-spirited than most.

If you are the DM, it is important to be flexible when players miss sessions. If Sue can't make it, let another player play Sue's character. Give that player one of Sue's magic items as a gratuity for the extra work. Or, you can run Sue's character as an NPC. Playing Sue yourself will give you a chance to humorously satirize some of Sue's more notable personality traits and verbal tics. This will help you work out frustration over the time Sue spilled Mountain Dew on your Firefly DVDs.

If you are a player, on the other hand, try to meet the DM halfway. Suppose that the gamemaster for the evening, Frederick, walks in carrying a copy of the module Scum Orcs of the Hills. He sets out a box with twenty carefully painted Scum Orc miniatures. An issue of Dragon magazine drops from his pack and falls open to the well worn article "Ecology of the Scum Orc." For the sake of realism, he has carefully cultivated a personal scent very similar to that of a Scum Orc. He lays out a map of the hills surrounding your village. And he asks you, "What do you do now?"

This is NOT the point where you say "We go to the lowlands and hunt kobolds." Not unless you want to find yourselves face to face with kobolds wielding rocket launchers and canisters of the ebola virus.

A Helpful Example

In closing, I would like to present a transcript of one of my recent gaming sessions with four of my friends. It was a pleasant experience for all concerned, and everyone was so polite that I could barely stand it. Read, and learn.

The group for this session consisted of Player A (chaotic-evil thief), Player B (chaotic-evil thief), Player C (lawful-good paladin), and Player D (chaotic-evil fighter/thief). The DM was, as is ideal, me.

(Note that this is a near-perfect group for the creation of exciting role-playing. A group like this can have hours of enjoyable treachery and intrigue over the discovery of a single healing potion.)

Me: OK. The gnoll is dead. Unfortunately, your attacks damaged its kevlar vest too much for it to be of use.
Player A: OK. We head west.
(I bend down behind my screen to see what comes next. As I look, someone slaps it with the palm of his or her hand, smacking me in the nose. I jump up.)
Me: Who did that?
Player B (pointing at C): It was her!
Player C: You sneak!
Player D: Huzzah!
Me: OK, Player B. You get 500 experience for helping.
(Always be polite and reward people who help you.)
Player D: Prithee, my liege!
Player C (to Player B): I'll get you for this.
Me: And Player C, your character catches tuberculosis.
Player C: I'm breaking up with you.
Me: OK, done. You also lose your paladin-hood.
Player C: OK. I become a chaotic-evil thief.
Me: Excellent! Done.
Player A: OK. Like I said, we head west.
Player C: I backstab Player B.
(All right! Now we're getting some interesting conflict! Now none of the players will find out that I forgot to design an adventure.)
Player B: Ow. Dang. I drink my healing potion.
Me: You look in your pouch and realize that it's gone.
Player B: OK, who has my healing potion?
Player C: I run behind player B and backstab her again.
(And so on. This goes on for about an hour of pure, scheming fun.)
Me: Suddenly, you are distracted by an explosion. You look up and see a dozen scum orcs on the crest of a nearby hill. One has a rocket launcher, and the rest are holding small metal canisters of some sort.
Player A: I pull out my wand and shoot a magic missile at them.
Me: Your wand is gone.
Player D (stands up, points at me, shouts): You're not the boss of me!

Great, huh? Like I said before, there is nothing like a little bit of good manners to create a lively, non-stop, action-packed gaming session. See you in the dungeon! Huzzah!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Brief Oscar Thoughts.

Every year, I say I won't watch any of the Academy Awards. And every year, I disappoint myself, my family, and the whole idea of human dignity by giving in. I know they don't matter, but darn it. They're just too fun. If only watchable with the aid of a Tivo.

And, after so many years, this is the FIRST year I can recall when the movie that won Best Picture was, arguably, the best picture.

So let me conclude by saying, Hurt Locker! HELLS YEAH!

The only thing that would have made me happier is if Inglourious Basterds won its much deserved award for best documentary.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More Thoughts On the Anti-Pirate Measures That Will (?) Work

Well, the storm of commentary and attention directed at my Assassin's Creed 2 DRM article has died down a little bit. I suspect that that little blog post is one of the most read pieces of text I've ever written. At this point, 90% of the Internet has posted on Slashdot, The Escapist, or somewhere else to say I'm an idiot. The intensity of the reaction was quite interesting to me, and the various responses left me with a lot of what, for me, passes for thoughts.

I think a lot of the intensity of the reaction was because, simply, many people hadn't heard about this new DRM system. Or, if they had, they were still heated up over it. Add in the constant need among pirates to come up with increasingly overwrought justifications for their obviously illegal and immoral actions, and you have the expected traveling firestorm.

It is now rumored that crackers are making short work of this new DRM software. Believe me, I hope this is the case. As I said in the previous article, I think these measures are overall bad for the PC games industry (of which I am a part). However, this alleged victory will, I think, be short-lived. Once these games are being coded to constantly contact the developer's servers, developers have a lot of new weapons in their anti-pirate arsenal. More about this in point #2, below.

But, in the mess, interesting things were said. Here is what I have learned (or still believe):

1. To "work", anti-piracy measures only need to stay unbroken for the peak sales period of the game. That is, the first three months or so. If it stays uncracked for that long, the developers win. I never said that there was uncrackable DRM, because that is not true. It does not need to be uncrackable.

2. UbiSoft's "Have the game maintain a constant Internet connection and move a lot of the processing onto the server" solution will slow down cracking. If not now, then in the future. Developers can move more and more processing onto the server. Right now, it's just saved games. Later, they can move more and more code off of your machine and onto theirs.

You want your very-difficult-to-crack DRM system? Here it is! Take all the statistics (and maybe scripts) for creatures and items and weapons and put them on the server. The game only downloads them when it needs them. This is ten thousand little chunks, only a handful of KB, of vital and irreplaceable data, and it will take a long time for a cracker to get the game to download all of the bits so he can isolate and read them all and put them in his fake server/cracked game. And God help you if he missed an item. Don't just wave your hands and go, "Oh, someone could break that easy." This system is already routinely used by MMOs, and it would work.

(And I suspect Assassin's Creed 2 has some of this and they just haven't told us yet. Remember, it has to be using that constant net connection for something.)

Once the game is developed with a constant net connection in mind, the developer can heap an arbitrary amount of work on hackers. I've read a lot of "easy solutions" to the problem over the last few days. All assume they know everything that's going on on the server side. Not a good assumption.

3. Oh, and by the way, the constant server thing is temporary. UbiSoft has already said that, when they don't want to maintain the servers anymore, they will release a patch removing the need for the game to talk to them. I give it about six months until this happens. Maintaining that many servers is expensive, and once that period of time has passed they won't need the DRM there anymore. Then Assassin's Creed 2 is free to appear on ten buck shovelware DVD compilations, coming to a Best Buy near you.

4. People have an almost religious need to believe in the power of the cracker to overcome any obstacle in his (or her?) way. I think that part of the ideological structure pirates build to justify their actions must include believing that, "Hey, it'll always be cracked anyway." Either that, or people just don't wanna believe that the river of cool free stuff they believe they are entitled to might dry up.

5. If you use the terms "hacker" and "cracker" interchangeably, you will make a small number of people very angry at you.

6. Suppose, for the sake of argument, they did develop pirate-proof DRM on the PC. Lots of people seem to assume that, when people can't pirate the game, they just won't buy it. Hogwash. People LOVE games. If they have to pay money to get games, they will. Just look at the XBox, Wii, and PS3. It's possible to pirate games there, but it is not easy. Thus, people pay tons of cash for them. It's easy to talk big about how you will never pay money for games with restrictive DRM, but everyone has a price. If games as sexy as Diablo 3 ever start coming with the mean DRM, a lot of people are going to sigh, grit their teeth, and accept it.

So, as repellent as the new system is, they aren't insane for trying. The rewards for success are considerable.

So thank you for all the attention. And, if you don't think I'm an entire idiot, my newest fantasy RPG for Windows and Mac doesn't have any scary DRM at all. And the demo is huge and free. Please excuse this blatant self-promotion. Thank you, and good night.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Last, Best Article On How to Fix the Olympics!

I don't just spend my time writing games. I have interests. I have passions. And that is why, every two years, I plop my well-rounded self onto to couch for several weeks to watch an abusive amount of the Olympics.

And we're serious about it in this household. We were dumb enough to renew our Tivo subscription for the Winter Olympics, just so we wouldn't have to sit through commercials like animals.

Of course, those who feel that they are oh so superior to any mere sporting event have totally tuned me out by now. Good. They don't deserve the Olympics. Sure, the event is expensive, commercialized, and occasionally full of corruption, stupidity, and incredibly tight-assed officials. But there is an awesomeness there that the bad parts simply can't obscure.

However, speaking as a game designer, the Winter Olympics could really, really use some tightening up. There are countless ways to make the events more interesting for the people who count. That is, us. At home. But I'm not going to suggest, as some have, dropping sports. That is cowardly and Unamerican. Also, if some young, strapping lad has spent his short life wrecking his body to be best at something that is almost surgically absent of interest, I'm not going to be the one to tell him that his sport sucks beyond redemption. Even if it does.

So here, offered free and out of my pure love for humanity, are my ways to make the Winter Olympics much more cool and watchable. I'm not the first to make up such a list, but I plan to be the last.

Downhill Skiing, Speed Skating, Slalom - Here's a rule. Any sport where you can't tell with the naked eye who is winning is dumb. These events are always decided by a margin of three squintillionths of a second, periods of time too small for the human brain to process them, and only magic, time-telling robots can tell us who won. And maybe the robots are lying. Because robots hate us.

My game designer powers tell me that this is an easy fix. Just add a factor that will cause a greater variance in the finish times for the athletes. A polar bear randomly wandering halfway down the course should solve the problem. And, for extra exciteness, put a ribbon on the bear's tail. Pull it off on the way down and we shave five seconds off your time.

Ski Cross, Snowboard Cross, Short Track Skating, Any Four-Person Roller Derby On Ice -
These are how downhill skiing and speed skating should be done. Fast races. You can see who won. Awesome crashes.

And in Short Track Skating, on average, 90% of the skaters are disqualified. Anyone can win! Heck, I just got a Bronze for the men's thousand meter, and I never left my house!

Anything With Ski Jumping That Doesn't Involve Lots of Nifty Flipping In an XTREME Manner - These are the most tedious sports to watch that don't have the word "luge" somewhere in the name. Every jump looks exactly the same. Also, these sports are harder to fix, as the slope doesn't really have a good place to put the polar bear. The only way to fix this is to change the rules and equipment to make ski jumping exactly identical, in every way, to snowboard halfpipe and hope that nobody notices.

Any Event With a Snowboard - Thank God for XTREME sports for keeping the Olympics watchable. Enjoy it while it lasts. Give it a decade or two and the Olympics-fun-sucking-machine will have its way with them. Remember, a snowboarder got booted from the Olympic village for getting photographed displaying his bronze medal in an (ahem) erotically suggestive way. The fun window is closing fast, folks.

Hockey - Basically soccer on ice. Which means it's boring. The best way to fix it is to force the players to play 60 minutes straight. No rests. No interruptions. Watching their desperate efforts to flail the puck into the net around the 50 minute mark will be awesome. Also, the profound fatigue will make it much harder for them to keep away from the polar bear.

Figure Skating - The perfect sport for the Winter Olympics. No sense of fun or spontaneity. Comically corrupt judging for us all to argue about. And sparkles, sparkles, sparkles! Plenty of excitement, but not the sort that is ever, you know, exciting. Perfect viewing for those of us with cardiac issues.

There's still room for some minor changes. First, no skaters under eighteen. I want to be able to watch some contestant pull out her sultry Salome dance without feeling like my name should be on a list somewhere.

Second, three nights isn't near enough for Ice Dancing. We need a minimum of eight nights to fully appreciate the splendor of whatever the hell that is. Oh, and finally, the entire current pool of judges could perhaps be removed and replaced with ANYONE AT ALL.

Bobsled - In my brave future world, everyone in the bobsled will be forced to switch places halfway down.

Curling - There is a general progression that goes on with curling. People hear about it and go, "They do what? What brooms? That sounds dumb!" And then they sit down to watch it for a few minutes, hoping for a good laugh. And then they say something like, "Wow! How lame! They're just playing shuffleboard with brooms. And they ... Ooh. That was a nice shot. And the shouting and the snacks and they're all middle aged. This is so dumb. And ... Sweet. Completely knocked their rock out of there. ... Where was I? This isn't a sport. This ... This ... ... ... SWEEP HARDER, BITCHES!!!"

Curling is the ultimate sport of the Winter Olympics. It moves relatively quickly, compared to, say, hockey. A lot of points get scored. There is strategy. You can tell who is winning with the naked eye. And there is an eccentric, low-tech charm to the thing, an "I could do that" air (even though you really can't) that makes it far more approachable than watching wiry, teenage pixies jumping eighty feet into the air.

So to fix curling? Show more of it. Especially the woman. A lot of them are totally hot in a kind of naughty librarian sort of way.

Oh, and One More Thing - The best way to fix the Olympics is to get rid of the tight-assed, suffocating self-importance of the Olympics. After the Canadian hockey-women won their gold medals, they took to the ice and drank champagne and smoked cigars. Look at the pictures. They are awesome! And so some officials got angry and made them apologize. Hey, we aren't talking someone performing an act of love on a bronze medal here. It's celebrating your hard-earned victory by cracking a cold one on the back of a Zamboni.

The Olympics is about (i) insanely dedicated young people (ii) doing crazy things (iii) for our enjoyment and then going off to have (iv) mind-bogglingly athletic sex. Anything that does not directly contribute to one of those four key factors must be destroyed without mercy. Preferably before 2012, when the next Real Olympics will happen.