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Kristof's current musings in 100 words or less (mostly)

Design, commentary, rants and sharing awesome stuff. Trying out this new approach.

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Happy Game Master Day and some random thoughts on Stories

Krzysztof Zięba
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Today is Game Master Day (or so I'm told), so accept these wishes of many great adventure seeds, awesome NPC ideas and excellent narrative flow from a fellow GM!

Game Mastering is tough, isn't it? It's a kind of work, even though more often than not it's fun work! I, for one, love immersing myself in research, the search for NPC portraits or the perfect soundtrack to a scene.

It's also stressful, at least to me. I get very anxious before running a game, as I mentioned before, I think - to the point that I'm sometimes almost ready to call a game off for no other reason than stress. But then, when I start playing, and get into the groove, I emerge on the other side, usually quite happy!

And despite that, I still feel the urge to play. I keep fantasizing about all the settings, stories, and characters that I want to bring to life. I rarely pay them justice - those ideas are bigger, better, and cooler in my head, and it is really rare when I execute upon them to the desired effect.

I guess that it might be down to stories and how I've been telling them one way or another since childhood.

I've written short stories when I was a teenager. Before that, I tried writing some, and did things like asking my dad to film a "movie" that I was performing with my toys. That doesn't sound special - many dads (and/or moms!) probably had to go through their kids' "creative" phase. But then I did some theatre in middle school and high school. I've read books and watched movies. And then, once I got a good grasp on English, played A LOT of video games, and started playing them for the story. About the same time, I discovered RPGs, and they blew my mind.

At one point I wanted to study to be an actor. Unlike a friend of mine, I didn't even make it to the exam though (he went, but didn't get a place in the school). But I always did a bit of singing, always did a bit of acting, made silly voices, performed in some capacity or another. Being a GM allows me to do all of that, but with none (well, almost none) of the emotional baggage or responsibility. My livelyhood doesn't depend on it. If I screw up, I can apologise to the three or four or five people sitting with me at the table, and they'll likely be ok with it.

And the stories, the characters, the worlds that I keep penned up inside, get to walk the fields and graze, and sure, some of them turn out to be sick and just wither there, but others reach other people's fields, and are welcomed into their pens, and... well, I don't know. I hope they are kept nice and cozy and not made into burgers. This metaphor needs work.

The crux of the matter is, that in RPGs I find the creative outlet that excites me the way video games used to excite me when I started working in the business. This excitement is much bigger than what I get from designing a board game, though the latter can prove to have financial value. And unlike writing, proper bookwriting, RPG storytelling can afford to be sloppy, to be ugly, to be nonsensical. It's dynamic and reactive, it's exciting because it can go anywhere, and - perhaps - because it is cooperative. When I've written those short stories in the past, or when I was really enthusiastic about a project at work, they were always the most exciting at the beginning, when you don't yet know what they are. It feels like exploring, like truly being guided into what the story or world are, not playing god and writing in anything you feel like. And, unlike some ventures, when done right, there is no cynicism in this. No artificiality. RPGs are pure in the way that no multi-million dollar video game, or movie, or even a best-selling book, or (increasingly, sadly) a hit board game can afford to be.

And I just want to share this pure fun with the world, no strings attached. Even if, at times, it's hard, or time-consuming, or stressful. Because compared to all of my other creative outlets, this one promises the quickest, easiest, and least painful fix to that urge that I've had for the most - perhaps all - of my life.

Thank you for reading through this ramble.
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Mon Mar 4, 2019 9:14 pm
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Too many similar games, not enough time

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I played Star Wars: Rebellion with a friend today. It's very well regarded over at BGG, but I walked away with mixed feelings. Most importantly, my problem is that I already own War of the Ring (Second Edition) and as it occupies kind of the same slot for me (big, long, primarily two-player game) it's extremely unlikely that I'll need both of them in the future.

Similarly on the video game side of things, I grew to like Endless Legend well enough, that perhaps I don't need any other 4x strategies - but I still have a few in my backlog. I'm also wondering about games like Age of Wonders III, and how similar or different those can be when deciding which game to play.

With RPGs, I mostly avoided owning similar stuff so far (an argument could be made that maybe I don't need a Savage Worlds Solomon Kane book, given that I own the basic ruleset and could easily adapt it for any setting; plus a few other cases like this), and I think that's probably the smart thing to do. Having a bunch of rulesets to choose from to fill different needs is sensible, and I've filled a few "holes" with officially licensed stuff (like the Conan 2d20 system, or the FFG Star Wars RPGs).

So maybe doing the same for board games video games going forward might be the right idea? Tabletop-wise, I'm already kind of doing this, and I'm constantly wondering about trimming my collection, instead of having boxes gather dust. VGs are different though - often similar playstyles offer new exciting stories or previously untapped aesthetics or themes. But with so many games out there, and so little time to properly experience them, why not stop exploring at least a few of the more endlessly replayable genres?
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Sat Mar 2, 2019 11:19 pm
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How I might end up remaking Fury of Dracula for my own purposes...

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Fury of Dracula (Second Edition) is one of my all-time favourite board games, despite the huge swinginess and some janky, dated mechanics. A while back I got Fury of Dracula (third/fourth edition), hoping that a remake of the game 10 years onwards would fix some of the issues I had with the copy I owned... sadly, I found that while it fixes some issues, it introduces many new ones, and the game still has two features to it that I really don't care for:

1) there's a general complexity and crunch to many of the game's interactions which feels like it doesn't need to be there;
2) the game's length (anywhere between 2 and 4 hours and beyond) seems to mostly take away from the best dramatic situations, and makes the game feel unevenly paced.

It just so happened that I played 3rd Edition yesterday, and after around 3 hours of play I casually remarked to a friend at the table that I love the spirit and general idea behind FoD, but would love for somebody to remake it into a more streamlined, 90-120 minutes experience with crisp mechanics. He mentioned that, with FoD being Games Workshop's IP, it coudn't be that hard to translate it into a Warhammer Old World setting... and just like that I said "Hell, I should probably do it just for the sake of it."

I took some time yesterday and today to have a closer look at what changed in the rules and components between the 2nd and 3rd Editions, and started a list with those changes - annotated with some remarks on how I feel about each element. I'm currently in the process of comparing Event cards to get a glimpse of what the designers tackling the 2nd and 3rd Editions wanted to accomplish, and if I feel like they succeeded. At the end of this preliminary autopsy (or, possibly more accurately, vivisection!) I hope to get a rough idea of what makes both games tick, and maybe get some ideas on how I would improve them with that goal in mind.

And, if I don't find this an insurmountable task, I might just make my own adaptation of this game and playtest it for a bit to see if my gut is right and the essential Fury of Dracula experience really can be simplified into a more compact, more elegant game, while retaining the same (or achieving a greater!) level of excitement, without the constant breaks to check how another two cards might or might not interact.
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Sun Feb 24, 2019 9:36 pm
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Numenera and Endless Legend

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Outside of some of the usual issues, this year started pretty well. Most importantly on the hobby side, I started running Numenera for my three friends. While I think a few things in the system don't quite gel with me, the general mechanic makes a good first impression and I'm homebrewing the setting to fit my tastes.

The second part of that equation is, right now, Endless Legend, which I finally managed to kind-of, sort-of get into. It bears some resemblance to Numenera's world - being science-fantasy with a whole lot of weird places, artifacts and cultures, and focusing on rediscovering an ever-changing world. It's a source of inspiration in terms of names and concepts, but it's also an overall good 4X game that stays interesting many hours in. Plus I've started playing it with a friend, so that helps too.

Leaving this here as a recommendation of sorts - if you like one of these, you might fancy the other, too.
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Thu Feb 21, 2019 9:46 pm
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Can "skill" ever be anything but an ego trip?

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I originally meant to post this in the general forums, but I feel like it's a shitstorm waiting to happen, so instead I'll limit its exposure to here.

I've just watched Mark Brown's video on rogue-likes and rogue-lites.


His analysis is pretty spot on overall, but it got me thinking about the amount of focus we put on "skill" in certain genres and video games in general. While I can definitely see the appeal of this focus in competitive, one on one or otherwise tournament-friendly games, I really fail to see it in single player games.

I think for me that comes down to the fact that I treat video games as a medium not dissimilar from books, movies and other story-driven media. The added interactivity provides to me a better way to relate to the medium, a way to feel like I'm a part of the story or the world, and it's less about the challenge for the challenge's sake, but more about keeping you entertained and offering that perfect difficulty curve that you just sync with. This phenomenon has been dubbed "flow" in the past, and trying to provide it is probably the number one reason for even having a difficulty curve in the first place.

Challenging yourself can give you a nice sense of self-realization when you win a particularly difficult scenario, but unless you're the kind of player for whom that's a prime motivation, it is a bit weird that video games are the only medium that explicitly hold progression hostage and require being well-versed in the thing you're going through to reach the end. It's an additional layer on top of what books and movies etc. already do - with some being difficult or nigh-impossible to understand if you're lacking some knowledge, context or cultural background. But the same is true of video games, and then on top of that they also require that you grok their inner workings - or prove to have excellent hand-eye coordination - to even get the chance to misunderstand the story.

More and more I find that if I pay money for a piece of entertainment, and it holds my fun hostage, that's not the best investment. After all, I'm doing this in my free time, and I don't want to work for it. Or, more precisely, I want to work for it, but not one bit more than I have to.

After all, why would it matter that I've beaten a notoriously difficult game or not, if not to boast about it later and pump up my ego? But that's not why I play single player video games - pvp multiplayer games or board games are a different story. In single player games, any challenge that's more pronounced than it needs to be makes me feel like a trained animal in a Circus who needs to jump arbitrary hoops for the entertainment of... yeah, whose? It's the whim of the designers - and the reward? More challenge, usually. To what end?

To me, rogue-likes and rogue-lites are attractive because their random generation offers a fresh scenario every time, and a new puzzle to solve. But I do feel like progression between runs is necessary for me to not feel like I'm wasting my time. I have this "journey AND the destination" approach to pretty much all media, and so the end result of each session is just as important to me as any fun I had during it. Otherwise, it's just grinding for grinding's sake, getting better in a game for no particular reason, only to eventually leave it behind and commit to mastering another similar title for no particular reason.

And, after all what does it matter to Mark Brown, or any other designer, or any other player, if I have enough skill to go through a video game that I bought to play alone? So what if I can get the same result (finishing the game) by attempting it enough times instead of actually getting better at it? Because then their achievements are lessened, I guess? But why should I care?
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Tue Jan 29, 2019 10:27 am
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Learning to shut up

Krzysztof Zięba
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For years, I've been quite eager to share my opinions on things online. Video games I played, movies I watched, books I read, politics. I still do some of these - mostly video games (on our annual lists locally) and books (on Goodreads), but I'm mostly steering clear of criticising stuff on Facebook, and I've discontinued my Twitter use a while back. A lot of this comes from my teen-age/University years, when I wrote reviews and considered my opinions to have worth. Heck, as lately as 2014 I tried running a vlog in which I'd share my opinions on things, for no other reason but to - I guess - appease my ego and fish for those nice, Skinner-boxy dopamine-releasing clicks. Hell, I'm doing basically the same thing now, writing this post instead of keeping all of this for myself.

Well, I'm trying to remove myself from the internet shouting factory, because almost every time I share anything about my thoughts or feelings, somebody will almost inevitably disagree or say something that will hurt me in some way. And, besides, I'm learning that nobody really needs my opinion. I don't have a whole lot to contribute. My game criticism is shallow and heavily flavoured by my personal biases. Same goes for anything I have to say about culture - not a single original thought there, I'm just too lazy to actually find who said it better than I did. I feel barely competent to share any game design tips or offer solutions to problems that I see.

And so, I have to keep myself in check. My inclination is to chime in on any discussion that seems vaguely interesting to me - especially if I feel like I hold an unpopular belief that shakes things up and gives people perspective, or if I feel like that belief can do good in the world if spread. But incresingly, I fight this urge. I'm learning to shut up, and let other people talk. I usually don't have a horse in the race, bah, I usually don't even grasp quite what the race is about!
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Wed Jan 16, 2019 8:06 pm
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2018 is gone, will 2019 be better?

Krzysztof Zięba
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Some random musings during a time a lot of people have these. Just wanted to share them with somebody.

2018 hasn't been a bad year by my count, I certainly had worse ones in the past... so why does it feel like it's been worse than 2017? Hard to say. I finished 2017 unsure of my future, frustrated and tired, and 2018 isn't that different... maybe I'm less tired since I took a longer leave from work.

Video gaming-wise, this year wasn't great. I just couldn't get my enthusiasm up for most titles I played, and there weren't many truly special titles among the stuff I completed. It seems like I brushed with cutting down my backlog to a year, so that's good, but we'll see what I have to say in the matter in December 2019.

My board gaming suffered, and I feel like I reached the limits of what my collection should be - sure, I could get more games, but I'm not playing them enough anyway, and most of the genres I enjoy are covered, so what's the point in buying more of them?

RPGs were good this year, but mostly for the first half of the year. I played a fair amount, felt like I took a few things off the bucket list, and generally enjoyed myself - when I could bring myself to actually running them instead of calling them off at the last moment. My anxiety still gets the most out of me at times... and frankly, many sessions were cancelled or moved due to other people's affairs, too.

Creatively, I did some of my best work this year, I believe, but for different reasons it probably won't count for much in the end. Three of these projects are still kind of up in the air, so keep your fingers crossed for those if you can However, this was paired with near-crippling anxiety and self-doubt, which still hovers over me whenever I do anything that isn't my everyday job (and often then as well).

Financially, I'm doing as best as I ever did, but somehow it feels enough to maybe take a break for a few months and let my savings dwindle a bit, and not enough to actually DO something long-term with it.

So yeah, it's a weird time to be around. The future of Poland, Europe, and the world at large are all under question, and so it feels like I can't even properly plan anything for next year. I don't know where I'm going to live, or what kind of work I'll be doing. I guess I'll just have to keep on keeping on - one game / RPG session / book / music album / YouTube video at a time.

I wish you all well, and I hope I can get count on some good vibes sent this way, too.
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Sun Dec 30, 2018 9:53 pm
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Geekdom under siege... no more

Krzysztof Zięba
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So an actor was invited to an entertainment show, which almost immediately devolved (evolved?) into him and the host nerding out about Dungeons and Dragons. And the experience of watching this unfold feels kind of unreal to me.



It's a foregone conclusion that the nerds and geeks of yesteryear are now dominating pop-culture, and no longer as just the butts of jokes. Board games have been the biggest in history for at least 10 years now (20, if you take a look at Germany specifically), and still growing. Video games are a multimilion dollar industry. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may not have influenced comic book sales in a groundbreaking way, but is still a testament to the popularity of the characters that were birthed by that medium. And now, RPGs.

I've seen a comment by somebody (might've been Adam Koebel) on Twitter that was disappointed that people now equated DnD with tabletop RPGs at large. That there were other, great(er?) games waiting for the same mainstream appeal that DnD seems to have been gathering since Critical Role got their start. I'm gonna say that's a good problem to have, because not 10 years ago this hobby was pretty much dead in the water in Poland... and now it seems to be everywhere.

It feels entirely surreal to have your identity formed for years as a geek who has to constantly defend his hobbies (yes, pretty much all of them) from attacks from the media, from overzealous parents (didn't happen to me much, fortunately), from the general public's opinion... and now to not have to do it anymore, or at least not on nearly the same scale. On the one hand, that's a huge relief. On the other, I feel like I need to reinterpret myself, and I do feel the slight tugging that many have embraced - to say "Those people are fake geeks, you're not a real fan if you don't know <enter obscure factoid here>." Our tribal tendencies and atavistic "us vs them" narrative is strong in geekdom, too. Some fandoms are taking the brunt of this (Star Wars, recently), but we can see it crop up everywhere - including, sadly, RPGs.

And I'm sitting here, observing it all, a smile and a frown on my face in turn. I'm loving the promise these hobbies carry with them, while hating the ugly reality they come with, at the same time.
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Wed Aug 8, 2018 12:53 pm
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Why create?

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Got into one of my dour moods again.

Watching videos about things like why Black Panther has a really well written villain, or the story behind Isaac Asimov made me realize how high the bar for entry in the creative arts actually is. More precisely, how hard it is to make anything good.

If I can’t hope to compete with the best out there, and I don’t really even want to put in the work I’d need to be able to do it, should I be doing it at all? What’s the point in endlessly reshuffling stuff other people imagined, if I have nothing of value to add to the conversation?
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Wed Jul 25, 2018 10:09 am
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cRPG epiphany via Skyrim (also, The Witcher 3) - slight spoilers

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So, I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday about the inner working of cRPGs. First, a little bit of background.

An acquaintance of mine works in academia and his area of interest are games in general. At one point, some years ago, I took part in a lecture he gave where he proposed the following - that cRPG worlds are by necessity dependant on the player character being there, to exploit the world, clear all the quest markers etc. (viewed through a clear post-colonial lense). One remark connected to that was that the world of an cRPG is in stasis for as long as the player doesn't do something about it, at which point the world might advance.

This struck me in the face yesterday when I visited the city of Markarth in Skyrim. The first thing that happens when you enter through the gates is a scripted moment in which one character assassinates another (that it happened in the middle of the night in a place that was supposed to be a busy marketplace is just another example of how an open world structure is unhelpful to storytelling, as an aside). This serves as a way of involving your character into a certain conspiracy... but what struck me was - if I never visited Markarth, this WOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED.

At this point, following through that quest line, my involvement has brought an end to seven or eight additional denizens of the city. And sure, the story said that people have been dying for months, if not years... but it's a different thing to read a bit of lore or dialogue, and to actually witness - or take part in - the killing.

This reminded me of one of my least favourite things about The Witcher 3 - a game I loved - and that's a questline which progresses one of a character's relationships. The first quest brings them together and everything's fine and dandy. So, naturally, when a follow-up quest pops out, you want to do it. But that task advances the story in a very unexpected way - one of the characters is attacked and seriously injured.

You can see where the problem is. The game tricks you into doing something that hurts a character you wanted to help. If I left the questline after the first branch, this would have never happened. The characters would be stuck in limbo, yes, never doing anything important unless the main character is involved, but at least they'd be healthy and spared of the trauma.

So I guess that a huge issue I'm seeing with open-world RPGs is that they are "living, breathing worlds" that are anything but. It's all an illusion - a world the size of an ocean, but the depth of a puddle. The Nord-Empire conflict in Skyrim doesn't progress unless you, the player gets involved. The titular Wild Hunt doesn't make any moves to find your foster daughter unless you keep investigating her disappearance. You are told you're a hero, one who does good - but really all the good you do is barely remarked upon, while some of the things you do make the world a WORSE place.

I much prefer linear stories, because there's no half-assed illusion there. The game only progresses as you keep playing - fair enough. Yes, you are usually involved in world-altering events, but it's because that's what the story IS about, and not because you just did a completely optional side quest.

Of course, Skyrim goes above and beyond being ridiculous with its main story. It's a game in which the "living, breathing world" revolves entirely around you, the chosen Dragonborn. You are in the Nord's fatherland, but can be of any race - but you have no history. You can always ask any NPC about any basic concept behind the world: the pantheon, the local city, the races and professions. It's like you just appeared in this world... but you're a fugitive. You must've done SOMETHING before, right? If I'm a Nord, why do I ask people about typical Nord stuff? Did I not live in Skyrim before? Where am I from? If I'm not a Nord, why is a Redguard or Imperial or Elf from some far away land The Dragonborn? The game, of course, doesn't seem to address any of that - you're a blank character with no history, because that's what this kind of game offers. Deal with it.

And then, there are situations like that in Markarth, when you are approached by an NPC who tells you that you're secretly a cannibal. And she might be lying, sure, but I don't know. My history is a blank page, I don't know who I am or who I was. But in this world, because everything revolves around me, I'm the Dragonborn AND I can be a cannibal AND I can be a Mage AND I can be a Bard AND a Companion AND a Vampire or Member of the Dawnguard AND... anyone, and all things at once, but not really ANYONE, because I remain a blank page and the world rarely every reacts to ANY of it. It's extremely annoying.

That's why I liked the more local-but-with-global-repercussions stories of the Shadowrun series by Harebrained Schemes. You are typically out for your own, and only by accident do you get involved in a story that's way beyond your paygrade. But there's no "heroism" to speak of - you do your job, and it might influence the world in a good way... or not. The locality is what matters - the lives of the NPCs you spent time with, what happens to the neighbourhood, what happens TO YOU. Not the world, not the country, usually not even as much as the city. They will go on. You are too insignificant to make such changes.

There's a lot more to unpack here, but I'll leave it there. Any thoughts?
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Wed Jul 18, 2018 10:07 am
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