Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Augury - The Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design

I believe that right after my first time as a Gamemaster I instantly knew that I wanted also to be a RPG writer/designer. It’s a common impulse I guess. Few hobbies are so empowering or enthralling as that of refereeing a table top RPG. It’s an amazing mix of strategy/board game, fiction writing and (perhaps) acting. No wonder many GMs also have interest in rules theory, game designing and literature. Heck, many great masters of modern fantasy literature also are/were Gamemasters (Steve Erikson, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin to name a few).

After running my first D&D mini-campaign (based on the Mystara arcade game) I wanted to know about more game writing and writers. In a month I manage to track down the most famous (and long lived) Brazilian RPG magazine – Dragão Brasil (which, coincidentally, was named at its first three issues “Dragon Magazine”). In two to three years I got my first reviews and articles posted on the greatest RPG portal here in Brazil – Trails (now RedeRPG). Two years later I got my first article on Dragão Brasil and, a few years more, I kind of realized my gamer dream of writing, as a co-author, a full (albeit short-lived) campaign setting for D&D (under the OGL) – Crônicas da Sétima Lua. Lately I’ve worked hard to get an article on Kobold Quarterly… so far no hits (my inaptitude with English isn’t helping in this regard).

I doubt that I’m alone with many of the experiences or goals above. As I said, there’s a strong creative impulse rooted within the job of gamemastering or refereeing. It’s because of that pull (or whatever you prefer to call it) that I find works like the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design (and its predecessors) deeply fascinating.

The Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design (or CKGtGD) is a collection of essays, many already know from previous articles at the Kobold Quarterly site or even from previous Kobold Guides. Actually this is kind of an omnibus edition. It’s also probably the greatest source of inside information on the RPG industry right now – it shows how editors work, who (theoretically) writers get their inspiration, how their designers approach proceeds, common pitfalls, playtesting, basic notions (and basic misconceptions) etc – the 101 of RPG writing if you will.

So – you might be wondering – it’s a big book from professionals for professionals, right? No, it isn’t. In part because of what I said in the first paragraphs of this impromptu review. Another reason is that the CKGtGD is a perfect example (if not the perfect example) of what I like to call a metagame book. Think about a gamemastering guide but go a step further. Gamemastering books presuppose that you have a game to run; the CKGtGD presuppose nothing – literally – or everything. You can use its content to help yourself write a game or to tinker with your favorite systems. Of course that most of you don’t advices or insights on how to change or create games; many in fact will probably keep doing it the way they did before just for the fun of the whole process. My point is that – even if you’re don’t want to change anything in your game or way of gaming – the chance to read how some of the most prestigious minds in our little niche-industry think is just too tempting to let it pass (that’s probably my reason these days for reading metagame books).

The CKGtGD’s advices, methods and explanations may not make you in an instant professional designer, but they will surely improve your approach and understating of RPGs – probably helping to improve your home games. Essays like the one on Creative Thought are a good example of material that can greatly benefit Game Masters (and also writers in general).

Finally, the CKGtGD is also a compendium of game/literature history. It makes constant reference to a great spectrum of games (table top RPGs, cards, computer games etc) and novels that inspire (and were inspired) by RPGs. This aspect turns what could be a dry read to an enjoyable experience – especially by pondering the “why?” behind many design decisions of famous products. A silly but iconic example: do you know what is the point of the Lady of Pain in AD&D 2nd Planescape? Why it is not only perfect, but also necessary that she is never given stats, background or practically anything besides the (parsimonious) information given in the boxed set? You may not agree with the essay’s author, but his arguments are nonetheless food for though.

In certain aspects the CKGtGD is almost a piece of living history itself – take, for example, Rob Heinsoo’s essay Seize the Hook. Heinsoo was the lead designer of D&D 4th; in this article he highlights various elements of the last edition of D&D, some of which are – today – being dumped in favor of the pseudo-old school hype behind the yet-to-be released D&D 5th (or Next Iteration, or whatever…). A few of his arguments are polemic – like the assumption that 4E’s mechanical balance couldn’t be achieved by smaller or indie authors/companies. The true irony, however, is that Heinsoo dedicates a part of the same essay (“Know when to moderate”) to point with prophetical accuracy many of the elements that I believe were responsible of the demise of 4E as a product.

The Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design is available either in PDF (14,99) or Print + PDF formats (29,99). While the price may seen high for a metagame book and thus discourage non-professional readers, your must remember that we’re talking here of a 236 pages book. It’s big. It’s also very dense read and not something that you can quickly skip in one afternoon. Actually, there’re articles here that’ll keep you thinking for a long time (I’m still returning and re-reading a lot of them).

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