Sunday, April 29, 2012

Print vs. Electronic Media

I have eight bookshelves. 

Just typing that out makes my brow furrow—who needs /eight/ bookshelves, really? And I should be clear—eight bookshelves is not enough. These eight bookshelves are groaning under the weight of all the books I’ve collected over the years. These bookshelves are stuffed to the gills with more books stacked on top of them.

Gentlemen... Behold!

I’ve always been a bookhound from an early age—my father got me started reading a lot of high-quality sci-fi and fantasy, and we made monthly trips to Waldenbooks (back when they had a special card you could get). Things only escalated when I got out on my own and had a disposable income. I would estimate I’ve spent easily $50,000 on books in my lifetime, possibly as much as two or three times that amount.

It’s important to note that the current eight-bookshelf situation is actually an improvement… once I started working professionally in the game industry, it was my standard practice to get two copies of everything I worked on. At a minimum. Plus, working at Fantasy Flight Games provided me with easy access to tons of extra games at a low discount price, which meant… well. My eight bookshelves are what remains /after/ I’ve culled through my collection at least half a dozen times to get rid of stuff I just didn’t care about or didn’t play. This is after losing a big chunk of books and comics lost due to a really nasty eviction of my parent’s house (which is an entirely different story).

Once upon a time, I was one of those guys who swore that I’d never give up my books. That, no matter how useful pdfs and electronic media is,  no matter how good it looked or convenient it was to transport or reference… you’d have to pry my books from my cold, dead hands.

Keep in mind, these are just my RPGs... novels, DVD's, and video games take up four more bookshelves...

Moving out to Texas, though, definitely made me reconsider my stance. Eight bookshelves is a lot, even for a bibliophile. It’s approaching Hoarders-level  of collecting “stuff.” So, nowadays, I am definitely looking more at pdfs and electronic media. I am very, very carefully considering what I collect and want to put on my shelf. In fact, recently a co-worker offered to sell me a large collection of Judge Dredd and 2000 AD graphic novels. I mean, these were in great shape, with all the classic stories and his price was dirt cheap. My inner nerd was saying “Hell yes! Take the books!” but I had to stop and shake my head. “Sorry,” I told my colleague. “I’d love to give them a good home… but I have eight bookshelves full of stuff already and I need to really be careful about what I choose to keep these days.”

Fortunately, my colleague is a really classy guy. He laughed, and nodded, and looked me in the eye. “Me too,” he said.

You have too many books already, citizen!

So what did I keep? 

I focused on games that I felt had some intrinsic value to me. That’s obviously a very subjective qualifier—the old FASA Renegade Legion boxed sets, for example, are something I feel have a very distinct and unique style that I’ve never quite seen captured before or since. So I kept them… despite having never played any of them (and if anyone wants to try out some of these games with me… /please/ contact me!).

I kept anything that had been signed by the author or developer. I kept any games that I remembered playing and enjoying, or /wanting/ to play (such as Exalted). I kept anything that I thought I might use for inspiration someday. And man, that is a long, long, long list.

It’s tough to look at my collection and wonder “what would I take with me if the house caught on fire?” Right now, it’s very likely I’d grab my phone, my ipad, and if possible, my desktop. And I think that says a lot about how I’ve come to view electronic media.

Friday, April 27, 2012

King for a Day: Car Wars

Right up front I should say this: I’m a huge Car Wars fan. When I was a young lad, I absolutely enjoyed reading Uncle Albert’s catalogs (he of the Gas Stop and Gunnery Shop!), the AADA road atlases, and endlessly building different cars, trucks, tanks, and helicopters. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play too many games—only a relative handful. I read the excellent novels for the genre (Double Jeopardy by Aaron Allston and Square Deal by David Drake are both well worth reading), and I even collected the comic books!

Having said all that, I’ve often thought about changing Car Wars—about how I… if I were King for a Day… would choose to do something different.

  Uncle Albert would be so proud!

This Certainly is a Tidy Armageddon

I’ve always felt that, at its heart, Car Wars was founded upon Mad Max and (especially) the Road Warrior. However, taking a closer look at the world of Car Wars reveals some very significant differences. For one, the future of Car Wars is awfully clean, especially for the bombed-out wreckage of a post-nuclear war. Cars run on electric power plants, cloning, lasers, and targeting computers are all accepted and fairly regularly-encountered technology, and while there may exist tribes of militant mutant motorcyclists out in the wastes, most of the action takes place in relatively up-scale and flashy autoduelling arenas, complete with sponsors, ad blimps, and holographic cameras recording everything.

Naturally, my first instinct would be to tweak some of these facts.

#1. Gas burners, baby! I’d do away with the notion that Car Wars is a setting built on the electric car. Everything runs on “the precious juice,” which means everything can (and should) blow up. Spectacularly. Obviously this means that fuel would definitely be a valuable resource… and an excellent plot point for any missions that take place outside of the arena. You could even emphasize it inside the arena with special caches for refueling or make targeting an opponent’s pit crew a valid (and fan-favorite) tactic.

#2. Grit and Dirt are the “in” thing. This is mostly a minor cosmetic change, but I envision the future of Car Wars to have a lot more dirt and grease in it. Even in the posh surroundings of an autoduel arena, I’d expect the head honchos to have patched-together suits and the regular attendees would not look out of place in Waterworld or Bartertown. This is basically my inner art director coming out to the fore and wanting to establish a unique and iconic trade dress for the Car Wars IP. With all the other post-apocalyptic IPs out there, however, this is definitely a challenge…

This is so true. Especially around the DC Beltway.

#3. Technology exists, but is hella rare. I have nothing against cloning, lasers, and targeting computers, per se, but I’d like to make sure and establish that this stuff is like uncut diamonds—extremely rare and extremely valuable. In fact, most autoduellists who aren’t in the top circuit would probably have vehicles closer to the Road Warrior standard. I’ve heard of a concept called “Chassis & Crossbow” that seems to grab that idea really well—where Mad Max Rockatansky is killing most of his enemies with a sawed-off shotgun and the heavy, scoped revolver of the Humungous is obviously a precious relic rather than just a standard sidearm.

Naturally, this would be lessened for the really good circuits of autoduellists—that’s where the money is, and generally I think it would be just fine for fights at that level to involve a lot more “James Bond” tech and gadgets. ‘Cuz, to be honest, that is also a lot of fun.

#4. More dynamic combat. Car Wars is a good rules system for what it is, but one thing I think it lacks is a certain level of style. Ideally, I’d like to imagine an autoduel with lots of cool, tricky maneuvers, and the drivers are definitely concerned when they get hit… after all, they’re not driving around tanks! In the Car Wars rules, it’s fairly easy to build a giant brick of armor with a few guns and drive around in circles in a drawn-out war of attrition. I’d like to move beyond that—perhaps the heaviest armor can only stand up to say three or four good hits, with the average car only able to weather one or two before exploding in a greasy fireball.

So this is basically a two-part change. The first part is that maneuvers should be easier to accomplish and generally flashier—if the question is “Can my car use an enemy car as a ramp and jump over a dividing wall?” the answer should probably be “Hell yes you can.”

The second part is combat is a bit deadlier with armor being reduced in value—autoduels would be more about maneuvering and getting a solid hit, whereas taking more than a few slugs from an enemy turret is likely to end in a sedan flipping through the air, on fire.

#5. Blood Sport! In my opinion, another undeniable influence on Car Wars is Death Race 2000, the movie where you get points for running over pedestrians and collateral damage is not just accepted… it’s expected!  This goes hand-in-hand with #1 and #4 in helping to make the feel of the game shift slightly. I think it would be cool, for example, if you got some advantage… possibly “points” or just a morale or fame shift, for example, for doing bloody things during the autoduel. Firing into the stands, intentionally driving over pedestrians, etc. Obviously this is pushing some limits here both of taste and gore, but I feel it is definitely appropriate to the genre.

Hell, yes. Now, time to put some guns on those cars and we're in business.

In Conclusion

All of these ideas above are really just that: ideas. It would take a great deal more effort to really transform them into workable, balanced concepts—working on Dust Warfare hammered home to me just how difficult it really is to build a solid, balanced wargame! However, I stand by my “King for a Day” thoughts presented here: In the end, I like to imagine that my version of Car Wars would bring autoduel closer to Thunderdome and further away from the Indy 500. :)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Making a Start/The Ground Rules

Greetings, internet!

This is my first blog, so I’m going to ask you to be patient with the first few months of this experiment. My intention is to grow the site with plenty of content, including articles on games, game design, reviews, and so forth.

I should start with a brief introduction: I’m Ross Watson, and I’ve been making games for over ten years now. I started out as a freelance writer for a number of D20 products and became the line developer for the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs from Fantasy Flight Games. Recently I’ve started designing for computer and video games as well, starting with Darksiders II from Vigil Games/THQ.

So, why make a blog? I have a lot of fascinating conversations with other designers and enthusiasts quite often and thing to myself “I should have written that down!” This blog is going to give me a place to put down on virtual “paper” some of the thoughts, conversations, and reactions to the things that make me tick: games of all kinds plus geek and sci-fi culture.

I like to work with lists, headings, and clear statements up-front… it’s just how I roll. Therefore, you will find below some of the ground rules for my blog.


One thing I can’t… and won’t… discuss on my blog is anything that I’m currently working on (with some exceptions assuming I’ve received permission or the information is already released via official channels). Having worked for a number of companies with highly sensitive material in the past, this is just one of the realities of the industry and I have no intention of compromising it for brief internet celebrity.

No Hate

Much like the distinguished gentlemen of the D6 Generation Podcast, I don’t want my blog to become a pit of negativity—I feel that reasoned and reasonable dialogue is much more constructive. My pledge is to never express a hateful attitude. This is not to say I won’t give a negative review… I believe there is certainly room for disappointment and constructive criticism where it is warranted! However, you won’t find extreme levels of “nerd rage” on this blog.

Some of the article ideas I’d like to present include:
  • King for a Day—I have a really large collection of games, and often I’ll put together some thoughts on what I’d do if given the reins to the game (or a chance to reboot it) personally. Just to be clear, anytime I write one of these articles, it will be with total respect to the original creators and designers. See the note about “No Hate” above.
  •  Table Tales—Similar to KODT’s “Tales from the Table,” I have a ton of gaming stories of yore. Some of these stories I’ve used many times in panels at conventions, and it seems like now would be a good time to give them a home on the internet!
  •  Game Gab—Yeah, it’s a bad title, come up with something better in the comments section! Basically, this is where I chat about some concepts of game design that I’ve found to be interesting and significant during my career. Again, to give credit where it is due, my plan is to include the names of the people that inspired or collaborated with me on these ideas. :)