Monday, May 20, 2024

The off kilter world of Mars Patel

One of classes I subbed for were listening to The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. It is a scripted podcast for kids. And I have no idea what the difference between a scripted podcast and an audio drama is, by the way.

As my digital stack of untouched Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas can attest to, I have trouble finding the time to listen to long form podcasts and such. However, Sheela Chari wrote a novelization of the first season and I can always find time to read.

And frankly, I find it very helpful to know what students are reading and watching and listening to. Hence binging Demon Slayer a couple years ago.

Spoilers

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It’s a mystery so of course any discussion gives stuff away 

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Mars Patel is a sixth grader in a world where kids have been disappearing, including one of his closest friends. It is also a world where a man named Oliver Pruitt is basically like Elon Musk if Elon Musk was actually like Reed Richards. On top of that, almost immediately, we learn that one of Mars other friends has low grade telepathic powers. And it is something that the everyone basically accepts without question.

While the work is clearly science fiction, it enough to make everything feel off kilter. Which I am going to tell myself is intentional because that sounds like the definition of teenagers.

Mars and his friends are depicted as delinquents but they aren’t like any delinquents I’ve had to deal with. They do remind me of students that I have dealt with but socially awkward does not equal malicious behavior. When they get destructive, it feels out of character.

As Mars and his friends investigate the worldwide disappearances, which you know means getting involved with billionaire genius Oliver Pruitt’s plans, there is a definite adults are useless vibe going on. That said, if Mars and company weren’t the protagonist and working towards an actual solution, doing things like investigating mysterious islands and checking out abandoned warehouses would be really dangerous.

Even more spoilers 

Even more spoilers

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Even more spoilers 

Even more spoilers 

Okay, of course Oliver Pruitt is behind all the disappearing kids. And he’s been kidnapping and probably brain washing kids to become colonists for Mars. (The protagonist being named Mars feels a bit on the nose there) Going from Stephen King to Robert E. Heinlein was a bit jarring.

What I found interesting is that the book doesn’t make it clear if Pruitt’s crazy plans are a good thing or a bad thing. There were two more seasons of the podcasts which became two more books so I assume that gets explored. And that’s the biggest hook for making me eventually read more. (And if Pruitt doesn’t turn out to be Mars’ absent dad, I’ll be bewildered)

Mars Patel was interesting but also felt disjointed. I do wonder if that’s due to the transition from audio to literature.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Roll Crawl: Yahtzee and Fantasy Combat pared down to the bone

I went into Roll Crawl assuming it would be a dungeon crawl. I mean, the word crawl is in the title. But it is really just a line of monsters that you have to fight. Which is all some dungeon crawls end up being but there's usually a little flavor text to hint at exploration and setting. Roll Crawl cuts right to the chase.

Roll Crawl consists of eighteen cards, plus some tokens to keep track of health and dice to make things happen. There is a selection of heroes, companions, and monsters, including boss monsters. Each game consists of two heroes, one companion and five monsters that always includes one boss monster.

The game really comes down to Yahtzee. And, while Yahtzee in and of itself is dry, it makes for a good base to build mechanics off of. Each hero has a pool of three dice. Their abilities are keyed off specific combinations of dice like sets or straights. And the heroes can combine dice to activate the companion. Monsters roll dice to do damage but they have some automatic special powers. Kill all the monsters, you win. They wipe out the party, you lose.

A long time ago, I played a game called God Dice that was fantasy combat based on Yahtzee. I felt that it ultimately failed because it took too long and it was too easy to have turns where nothing happened. Later on, I played a game called Delve that used Yahtzee as a dungeon crawl that worked much better by having a much tighter design.

Roll Crawl falls more into the Delve camp. It is a very short and simple game but your decisions matter. That comes down to getting to reroll the dice, the ability to work towards a specific goal. It does exist in a design space where I feel you can find better games but Roll Crawl works. And that can be a tougher standard than you or I would like to think.

The biggest weakness the game has is that the deck is too small. In particular, the pool of monsters is sparce. You end up seeing the same monsters over and over again over multiple games. Heck, there are only two boss monsters. So, while the mechanics do hold up , the content isn't enough to encourage a lot of replay.

I like how Roll Crawl gives you some actual agency, even if the whole game comes down to rolling dice a whole bunch. As I've said, Yahtzee is a good foundation. However, it really needs at least twice as many cards.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A book from 1983 that is a thesis on modern video games

The late David Sudnow was a jazz pianist who developed a teaching technique that is still being used today. He was also a sociologist who was a professor at University of California.

Aaaand he briefly became a video game addict in the early 80s and wrote a surprisingly erudite book about the experience, Pilgrim in the Microworld, which has been republished as Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld. (As the revised title pretty much tells you, the game that he became obsessed with was Breakout)

On almost every level, Pilgrim is a fascinating read. From both a historical point of view and from the fact that so much of his observations still resonate today. I find it kind of amazing to read a book published in 1983 examining the emerging world of video games that isn't trite or condescending.

Much of the book is written in a casual and breezy style, making it easy to understand a lot of what Sudnow is trying to get across. He goes into very exacting details about both Breakout and hardware needed to play it. At the time, he would have had to do that because his audience wouldn't necessarily be familiar with them. But it's really handy now because it's an archeological dig in technology for us.

More than that, both Sudnow's world of being a musician and sociologist are on full display as he writes about video games. He compares learning and playing video games learning and playing jazz. But it is when he goes full sociologist that the book gets deep. Sudnow clearly did not view video games a passing fad or a shallow hobby. Instead, he viewed as an emerging socio-economic construct that had staying power and influence.

For me, the point where Pilgrim flips from being an amusing historical retrospective to an actual academic study is when Sudnow starts discussing the economic realities that make video games even possible. Not the technological realities, although he definitely acknowledges those. Instead, he dives into the economic factors needed to make video games ongoing. Video games can be seen as a hobby, as entertainment, as an art form. But for video games to exist, above all else, they need to make a profit. 

And this blatant and obvious observation is one that I feel like I don't hear in video game studies. Sudnow doesn't just say they have to make money but looks at the sociological elements required. Particularly since, in many ways, it was new product that had different requirements to fit into society. I would be curious to know what he thought of both the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 and Nintendo restoring the home market in 1986.

I went into Pilgrim expecting a time capsule. Instead, I found a deep dive into ideas that have only grown in relevance.

Monday, May 13, 2024

It’s not a good sign when I feel compelled to add house rules

 Rally J is the latest game I’ve seen from Alexander Shen. Shen is a designer who I have come to appreciate. They are really good at making games that you can play before your coffee gets cold.


Rally I is a solitaire card game themed around rally cards acing. The deck consists of sixteen numbered road cards and two cards that serve as the dashboard, tracking fuel, damage and gear.

Okay, here’s the basic idea. You deal out road cards equal to your current gear. You then roll dice, anfain the same number as your current gear. If your roll is equal or higher to the total sum of the cards, great. You pass and you can go up a gear if you aren’t maxed out at fourth gear. If you rolled under, you have to pay the difference in any combination of fuel, health or gears.

If you get through the road card deck, you win. If you run out of fuel or health, you lose.

So here is the thing: you really don’t have any meaningful choices in the game. You are just hoping to roll high. Since you also have to fuel just to run your car, you were going to pick health most of the time when you have to pay a penalty. The averages favor you at higher gears so getting up to fourth gear is really useful, but that’s still up to luck.

The last game I learned by Shen was Golem Needs Pie, which was a puzzle that required you to be pretty lucky to make your logical-based solution work. Rally J is better as a game since you aren’t trying to reason your way through. You are just hoping to get good rolls.

And I feel like there’s the start of better game going on in Rally J. If it could be tweaked into a push your luck game, then it would have some game to it.

In fact. I quickly added a house rule, giving the option of using nitro. After you draw the cards but before you roll the dice, you have the option of spending a time to add a die to the pool. However, every six does one point of health damage.

Honestly, this house rule makes the game easier, perhaps too easy. But it is thematic and adds choices and risks to the game. It also means I find Rally J interesting enough that I’ll play it some more.

Rally J is a weak game in all honestly. But it’s amusing and it makes me want to create variants.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Kaos in the Catacombs falls short of its mission statement

 Kaos in the Catacombs is a free download from PnPArcade that is billed as a one-page dungeon crawl that’s designed for children but will work for adults too.


If you don’t want to read any further, I found it a meh gaming experience but I respect the design elements. And, to be brutally honest, it isn’t one-page because you need a character sheet but that’s just being pedantic. The meat is in the one page.

Said one page is a map of the dungeon and a bunch of tables. The dungeon is really a hallway of rooms. You roll to see what is in each room, which will be a monster half the time. There’s a boss monster in the last room. You then have to fight your way back through a hallway again that now has more monsters.

Combat is rolling a die. Even, you damage monsters. Odd, they damage you. So combat is a coin flip. Since you are only have one direction to go, Kaos has very few actual choices. The only actual decisions in the game is managing special items that you find and your character’s special powers. And, in the long run, that isn’t enough to overcome the random.

There are some elements I do like. The flavor text is cute. The graphic design is very clean and easy to understand. But I found the actual gameplay lacked agency and was monotonous.

When I was first looking at PnP games in general, well before it became its own hobby to me, I played two one-page dungeon crawls that were touchstones for me: Solo Tower Hack and Delve. I would play Kaos over Solo Tower Hack but Delve is a better game.

Kaos in the Catacombs is aimed at kids. And it does do the part of the job of being accessible. However, just being aimed at a younger audience doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t be making the choices.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

My spoiler-free first reaction to My Hero Academia

I heard enough about the manga  My Hero Academia over the years that I finally decided to give it a go.

It’s basically school for superheroes. 

Yes, there’s a lot more going on than that and I’m pretty sure it will go beyond that. However, superhero school is the cornerstone and if you can’t get beyond that, it’s just not going to work.

(Is it weird that to me while the X-Men were technically always a school but it never felt like one until the 2000s because there was never a real student body until then?)

It is a Shonen manga and, oh boy, is it ever Shonen. It reads to me like mashup of Sports story and an action/adventure story.  Midoriya, the protagonist, is having a coming of age story as he slowly masters his Superman-like potential. It’s like the creator Horikoshi wrote a checklist of Shonen elements.

So, is it any good?

I have to admit that I was not impressed at first. It felt like a parody of a sports manga with being a superhero being a comedic standin for being a professional athlete. All Might, the Superman/ Captain America figure, in particular, seemed like a parody. The initial introduction of superhero economics seemed silly and the world building felt shallow.

But I kept trudging away, hoping to find the magic everyone said was there.

Then came the point when actual supervillains showed up. Not rivals at the school. Murderers and terrorists. Serious, dangerous plot elements.

Suddenly, My Hero Acamdeia had stakes.

The world stopped being one where superpowers were economic commodities and one where they were matters of life and death. Characters get horribly hurt and death seems like a real possibility. 

All Might stops being  a silly figure as we are shown how much he has risked and sacrificed. More than that, as opposed to an ideal word where super hero shenanigans just get to happen, we are shown that his example of morality may be all that keeps the world from sliding into a dystopia.

I went from wondering why I should care to Shogoth got real.

It took a bit but I eventually saw why folks get engaged by My Hero Acadenia and why the characters are interesting. How there is a deeper world beneath the shallow sports metaphor and that world is scary.

So I’ll keep reading. (I was on volume four when I started writing this and I’m on volume ten as I finish it up lol)

Monday, May 6, 2024

Game books, railroading and what’s okay

 As I've mentioned, I have been poking at some gamebook-style RPGs. Which opens up the question: "Do these even count as RPGs?"


I think, given the fact they have been a part of the industry since the 1970s, the answer is yes. But, even with that yes, I think you also add a 'but' because there are clearly obvious limitations to the format.

You already know them. With the exception of character builds (which can make a big difference in some cases), you can only make the decisions that the book offers you. Your agency is very limited.

Which, in some respects, is how many video game RPGs work. The difference is that a computer can handle a much, much broader decision tree. With enough decisions to pick from, you get that agency back.

Computers have gotten much more complex over the years while physical books haven't.  Computers keep discovering new limitations while books hang on to their old ones. (I am aware that the Fabled Lands series was designed to be a sandbox game book system. I have sadly never read/played any so I have no idea how well it worked. And it is clearly an exception to the rule)

But... if you pick up a gamebook, you are agreeing to those limitations. You know the deal and if you still play a gamebook, you are saying you are okay with the restrictions. So if you choose to have a gamebook RPG experience, you go.

But here's the thing I always come back to. I have had face-to-face, tabletop RPG experiences that have also lacked agency. Railroading is real. Some of the best GMs I've known have even resorted to it, because they had a story they really wanted to tell or because they were burnt out or because they didn't want the party to commit suicide.

I’ve said that before and I still think it’s true. For whatever reason, sometimes, an experience with limited control is what you are going to get when you sit down at the table. But I’ve changed my condemnation of it.

Because , frankly, it’s not always a bad experience. I mean, if you're at a con or a game store, this is what might be reasonable to get run. You still get to play your characters and interact with other human beings. You get to react to the story.

And a lot of OG adventures were really just maps with monsters on them. Your decisions were which way to room to walk into and how to fight the monsters you found in them. That's functionally the same as the original Buffalo Castle. (I understand the reprint does add a goal beyond experience and treasure)

And if that’s fun, who am I to play gatekeeper?

The first goal is to experience a story. To have some kind of fun. After that, we sort out the details.