Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fans and Critics

The buzz has surely died down by now, but I wanted to take the time to make a well-thought out comment (part of why you read this blog, I hope).

Right about 2 weeks ago, KS posted an "informal survey" that he had conducted among fans and varying employees about the how the company was doing. Since the general vibe of this was "Keep on keepin' on, KS!" many people in the gaming community (including members of the Palladium forums) cried foul. The two main complaints seem to be that KS only asked people with a vested interest in keeping him happy, and that the survey was so informal and unscientific that its results could not be relied upon.

The official response to this doubt must be read to be truly believed. He opens with befuddlement. I can almost imagine a cat macro with a kitten looking piteously into the camera "Y U no Liek gud nooz?" Then it shifts into betrayal rage at all of the people who he thought were fans (including one uber-fan whom he calls out by name) who clearly aren't because they had the temerity to doubt his survey.

He also details some means that Palladium is supposedly looking into so that they can finally experience some growth. My guess is that these moves are just like the Palladium fan page on Facebook: Something they were trying to avoid as long as possible while pretending to "work on it" but ultimately got shamed by the fans into actually doing.

So as much as the "fan" numbers were telling him to "keep on keepin' on", the actual fans want him to be doing more to promote and advance Palladium as a company.

Watching this play out both on the Palladium Forums and makes me want to take a slightly closer look at fans and critics. Because the Palladium "party line" seems to indicate that you have to be one or the other. You can't be both.

Now, I'm a publisher, too. I don't talk about my published work because it's not often germane to the things that I'm talking about over on this blog. It's a neat little indie thing that is designed for an entirely different demographic than BTR is. Check it out!

Speaking as a publisher, I consider my critics to be some of my best friends. Firstly because they are people who are not me who are talking about my game. Free advertising is worth its weight in gold. Really. Secondly, critics tell me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. For example, my game has gotten a couple of reviews that pointed out that the magic system didn't really work (They loved the game otherwise, so I think I'm doing okay). So I looked, and sure enough, the magic system was missing a key rule. So I updated the PDF versions of the game (both the one that I sell direct to customers and the one that I have printed into book form) and released an errata notice via the blog for that game.

One poster on the thread made a very interesting point: In order to criticize, especially with the vehemence that Palladium critics do, you have to care. And the other posters seemed to confirm this. Several of them, in fact, were ex-fans. Some of them were introduced to gaming via Palladium products, but then found other games that did what they wanted more easily. Or some other action on the part of the company made them decide never to give the company money ever again. (Like the infamous Cease & Desist policy on fan publication.)

I think that if Palladium is going to grow and thrive, it needs critics at least as much as it needs fans. It needs criticism and it needs to listen and learn from that criticism rather than using it as an excuse to circle the wagons even tighter. Especially since the circle is so small there's not room for everyone within it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Old School vs. New School

Let's face it: Rifts is an old-school game. It was a response and improvement upon old school D&D/AD&D. And because it hasn't seen a significant revision (although plenty of minor ones) over its life, it retains a lot of that old-school vibe.

One of the big mantras of the Old-School Renaissance is "Rulings, not Rules." And this approach does have its benefits. When a new school player finds an old game, they find the lack of rules as a flaw. "If there isn't a rule for it, then you clearly can't do it," they think. But in actuality, when an old-school GM is faced with a gap in the rules, he looks at his player and says "There's no rule that says you can do that, but also no rule that says you can't. Give me some reasons I should let you do that."

The end result of this process is immersion. Because your ability to imagine and describe the scenario is what allows you to succeed. In large part, this is what an old-school gamer means when they talk about roleplaying. When they say, "Yeah, I defeated that wizard purely through roleplay" they generally mean that they used their own wits to probe their GM for the information they needed to defeat the wizard. The drama and characterization that a new-school player would consider roleplaying might be there, but there's no real guarantee.

The popular example of this is the "Search check." A new school player has a skill or stat on their character sheet and the ability to say "I rolled a 21. What do I find?" The old-school player asks their GM "What's in this room? Is there anything that looks like it could be used as a lever? I knock on the statue. Does it sound hollow?"

There is a trap to this, and it's one that Palladium has fallen into. Ironically, it's can be directly blamed on their success. Especially in a long running game (or game line), it is very easy for those rulings to become rules. And since they are made at different times to cover different situations, they're not wholly consistent.

The new-school counter to this is a "web" of rules. While old-school gamers may decry the fact that modern games have rules for "every little thing", that's not necessarily the case. Most modern systems, no matter how "light" or "crunchy," spin a web of rules designed to catch as many cases as possible. The advantage to this is that rules can be more consistent; Rather than having to devise a new rule off the cuff to cover this instance, you simply take a more general rule and refine it to cover your special case. Combat becomes an extension of the skill system, for example.

The downside is the tendency to reduce everything to dice rolls. So when an old-school player tries to roleplay his way through a situation, he is a bit stunned when the GM then tells him to "roll for it." Especially since he likely built this character on the presumption that he would be rolling for certain things and roleplaying the rest, just like he used to.

Another big difference between new school and old school gaming is the definition of "fair play." In old school games, the GM was a neutral arbiter of the world. His job was to make unbiased rulings regarding player actions in their world. One of the reasons that so many old-school games include random tables is to heighten this impartiality (at least in appearance). Players have less ammunition to claim that the GM is hosing them if the horrific event was rolled randomly on a table.

In the new school of gaming, "fair play" is about giving players the opportunity to strut their stuff, being awesome and, generally, successful. Drama Points of varying descriptions enable players to seize success from the clutches of failure and make their successes even more awesome. Encounter balancing tools are provided to ensure that your monsters are just tough enough to be interesting, but only going to trounce the party if you really want them to,

The best example of this difference is a first-level party chasing down rumors of a deadly dragon. A new-school GM is likely to have several responses to this.

1) Make sure the dragon is far enough away and make sure that the party has enough adventures that they will be of a proper level to face a dragon when they arrive.

2) Make the dragon a baby, or perhaps some other sort of encounter that the party can handle.

3) The dragon is there, but not hungry. It will laugh off attempts to slay it, and will banter or parley with the party.

The old-school GM, on the other hand, will simply allow the dragon to be there in its full draconic glory. It will talk or eat the party depending on how they approach the situation and potentially a roll on a reaction table of some kind. But if you piss off a dragon, you had better believe that it will eat all of your tasty hit points and you'll be rolling up a new character.