Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Theme Matters

For a long time, I wasn't interested in the wild west. Sure, I owned the occasional LEGO set that involved bandits or what have you, but as a setting it didn't hold much interest for me. When it came to entertainment, I was much more of a Batman/Spiderman/Sci-fi kid. In fact, two of those things are still a big part of my life (sorry, Spidey).

Recently I've developed an appreciation for all things Wild West, and I credit all change of mind to 2008's Fallout 3.

Now, if you don't know what Fallout 3 is, here's the brief rundown: It's a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game made by the company who made Oblivion and (later) Skyrim. Fallout 3's world is almost Jetsons-esque, with silly space-cars and funny, clunky computers. It's like the 50's came and never went; when the nukes fell it left a wasteland with all of these weird signs and products that are very old-timey.

For those of you who don't have much interest in post-apoc worlds, here's why it's interesting to me: Short of inventing a time machine, there's no way to experience the past. A time without indoor plumbing or electricity. I've written about why the apocalypse can be appealing and I think it has something to do with changing the status quo. It's appealing because it makes life new and exciting and different, at least on paper. Nevermind the fact most people would die of starvation, radiation or murder in such scenarios. In many ways, it's like communism.

Here's a great matte painting from Fallout 3. You should definitely see the full image.

I digress.

Certain themes excite me more than others. If I were to read a book about a Cherokee tribe migrating from one place to another, I'd be bored. Sure, the book could be very good, but the theme wouldn't interest me enough to ever pick up the book. If you took the exact same book and slapped a sci-fi or fantasy theme on it, suddenly I'm paying attention. Make those Indians into Dwarves or some weird kind of space alien and I'll read the whole thing in a day.

In a way, it's like I'm allowing myself to be manipulated. Conversely, many people are the exact opposite, rejecting anything sci-fi in favor of almost anything else.

The same thing applies to my entertainment; movies or games with fun themes attract me much better than any other. One of my favorite games right now is Wiz War, a game where four wizards fling spells at each other until everyone is dead. If you replaced those wizards with, I don't know, French soldiers, I'd have probably overlooked it. That's why I don't get into wargames more, because I don't care if General Patton took the Hill of Something Something from General So and So. I just don't care. Take that same game and make it Sergeant Ragnar the Crude throwing warbands of Orcs at the Knights of the Lion's Reach and you've got yourself a customer.

These games actually use the same underlying game system.
Which one would YOU play?

Up to this point I've made it sound like theme is an interchangeable tablecloth that can be added or removed at will from any kind of entertainment, but that's wrong. 

Look at the Mass Effect trilogy; the universe is what I call Hard Sci-Fi. It's lore is pervasive and thorough. There are things in the story that don't have a 1:1 translation in every other universe. It's hard to tell the same story the same way without space travel, giant killer space-squids and magical portals that accelerate ships to the speed of light. Sure, you could tell a story with the same highlights and characters, but fundamentally some parts would have to be changed.

The best themes are the ones that aren't interchangeable; the universe informs the story, and vice-versa. It shouldn't be easy to separate; they should be like one single entity.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How I Got Into Board Games

I don't understand these dice at all
If you've talked to me in the last three years you'll know that I've become something of a board game evangelist. At this point, I've stopped being embarrassed when people curl their lip at me and say, "wait, you play board games?"
"Yes," I reply, "this isn't Monopoly or Risk. In this one we play crime lords fighting for control of an entire city!"
Sometimes that person walks away with disgust. Sometimes they'll actually sit down with the slow caution of a deer who suspects a hunter is watching them from the woods. Other times they'll simply stand nearby and watch, arms crossed in a skeptical fashion.

I was like that too, once.

It was fall 2010. The biggest movie of the year was Toy Story 3. I made friends with a guy named Keith in a college math course because of our common interest in video games. A few weeks into the course, he was invited to game night by one of the girls from our class, and he invited me.

The game nights were held once a week, on Tuesdays. Typically we'd meet up at 9pm, drink coffee and play silly party games like Scattergories or Cranium. It was a nice way to unwind while listening to cable TV radio stations and occasionally playing charades.

One night I was suffering from terrible insomnia and I had a surge of creativity. I started creating a D&D adventure. It involved traveling into a cave and later, slaying a dragon. Since I had never actually played that kind of game before, I designed the adventure literally room by room in my head. Each room had one specific solution to get through it. In many ways it was much like a video game. The next morning I wrote down everything and took the printed adventure to game night that week.

Much to my relief, no demons were spawned during the game.
The results were... unexpected. Nothing went as I had planned, the players made silly characters ranging from a Warrior Assassin based on a Resident Evil character, to something called the Candy Queen. I was not prepared, but we were all entertained.

At that time, I went kind of RPG crazy. I began researching the heck out of “real” dungeon and dragons and designing great adventures to play with Keith and the girls. Sadly the game night group fell apart when the semester ended, so those plans fell through.

A few months later, Keith invites me to another game night. This one is all guys in their early 30's, two of whom are either engineers or engineering students.
Are we going to play D&D?” I asked Keith over the phone.
No,” he said, “we're gonna play a board game that's kinda like D&D.”
Pshaw, I thought. A board game! What was I, ten years old? The last board game I could remember playing was Clue Jr!

...To be fair, Clue Jr. was pretty awesome
But I went anyway. I ducked my head as I entered the tiny apartment. The game was spread out on a table almost too small to hold it. The graphic design was terrible, the cardstock was yellowed with age. The illustrations laughably poor.
“How old is this game?” I asked with the worried expression of a man in over his head.
It's from like, 1989,” said the game's owner around a mouthful of Chinese food, “I've had it since I was little.”

Oh,” was the reply. With colossal apprehension, I took a seat. Keith handed me a deck of Wizard cards and said, “pick your spells.”

It was a watershed moment.

The game was called HeroQuest, and it would ultimately change my life.

The game has each player going around opening rooms, killing monsters and collecting treasure. I had a terrific time.

It was a Grinch heart-growing moment: Maybe board games weren't boring. Maybe RPGs weren't the only way to have fun at a table.

When I got home late that night, I looked online to find the game and found it cost $200. Two hundred. Apparently it was very old, slightly rare and quite popular. I also found out that, holy crap, there was a huge community of people who loved this silly little dungeon game.

Very soon after that, a website started called Shut Up and Sit Down. It was created by two British guys who made quite entertaining videos explaining exactly why you should be excited to play board games. Because of them, I bought my first two games; Citadels and the Resistance. Two very different card games.

I found it was quite easy to talk people into playing card games. Easier than, for instance, RPGs. I still loved playing RPGs, but it was just so much easier to throw a card game out there and play it. I didn't have to prep anything. It was a breath of fresh air.

So RPGs kind of faded away. Another group of friends sprang up and we had a regular board game night, this time with much less focus on RPGs One summer, I was a camp counselor and found out there were lots of people in my church who wanted to play board games. Strangely, they acted like it was some terrible secret, like a dead body in their freezer. So I asked a few people if they wanted to play board games (and later) RPGs. They jumped at the chance.

So here I am, still researching games every day. I've long since moved on from any official Dungeons and Dragons product, but I still enjoy Savage Worlds and more recently, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. When I see people turn up their nose, I know what they're feeling; that familiar dread of being glued to a table, forced to play some boring thing like Candy Land.

Where we're going, we don't need Candy Land.