By TC Chan (released under CC-NC-ND 3.0)

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

Recently I’ve read various games I own that fall into the vague class of “Old School Renaissance.” OSR-style play exalts the skill and intelligence of the player over that of the character. And it’s got me thinking about player skill vs. character skill. What do they mean? What’s the difference between the two?

“Player skill” refers to the player’s own abilities, not translated through a game mechanic. In a tabletop RPG, this is the player asking questions and trying to discern things. In a LARP, this is the ability of a player to sway a room purely through the portrayal of his character. In a video game, this is the player moving his troops based on his own strategy, or shooting someone with by testing their own reflexes.

On the other hand, “character skill” refers to the character’s abilities inside the game, which has little to no connection to the player.  In a tabletop RPG, this is rolling a die to see if your character asks the right question or discerns things. In a LARP, this is playing rock-paper-scissors to see if your character sways a room. In a video game, this is activating your character to see what strategy he enacts, or relying on random chance to see if a character shoots someone.

Arguments can (and have) been made for and against both kinds of skill. However, what interests me is that both sides frame the discussion as if the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive. And yet, in my own experiences with a variety of games, I’ve found that every game requires some player and some character skill. In your tabletop game, some things are abstracted through dice, and some things come from player discussion. In a LARP, some things require mechanical resolution or arbitration, and some things are purely based on player personality. In a video game, some things are handled by computer code, and some things are handled by player input.

In fact, I would argue that any game that is purely player skill or character skill ceases being a game. Too much player skill, and the game becomes nothing more than a puzzle — there is no outside factor that changes the player’s input, and it is either solved or unsolved. Too much character skill, and it becomes a movie — the player simply watches, having no agency as the game plays itself to its conclusion.

Certain games can (and should) emphasize player skill over character skill, or vice versa. It’s good to know going into a game or going into your design what you want to emphasize, where, and why. But you can’t have one without the other.

The Sugar House

Peer Review: “The Sugar House” by Rose Bailey

I’m usually pretty biased when I write these peer reviews, but this one I’m really not biased on. Rose has been my friend for close to seven years, and I’ve seen this particular project of hers evolve over that time. I not only got a copy to review, but I also saw several early drafts. Plus, I really like the same kinds of pulp fantasy that she does.

But all that aside, The Sugar House: The Adventures of Sasha Witchblood is a wonderful collection. All four stories feature the titular Sasha Witchblood, a “wild woman” adventuring across the lands of a pulp fantasy world that is as much inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales and Russian myth as Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Sasha is a gruff, no-nonsense woman that likes the comforts and riches of civilization, but can’t actually stand the people within it. This tension constantly pulls her into strange and dangerous situations. These four stories reference and connect to each other, but they don’t necessarily comprise a complete story — rather, they read like a travelogue, a collection of tales about Sasha’s life that eludes and mentioned previous stories. It’s also contains a number of very inclusive characters, which is always a refreshing change in fantasy.

The book is very short (just over 71 pages), but it’s a great read. I hope that this book does well, because I would love to encourage Rose to write more Sasha stories. If you like your fantasy with a high dose of strangeness, I think you’ll really like The Sugar House


Dopamine and Zeigarnik: Game Loops

One of the best insights I’ve ever had into game design came from a lunchtime conversation with a marketer who had quit drinking.

Said marketer had done some research into addiction, and got really interested in dopamine. We got to talking about it one day, and what really struck him was how our brain seems to like getting addicted to anything it can. Particularly, he noted how his own propensity to obsessively check email and text messages seemed to stem from dopamine. And it turns out he’s right — further, the shorter the stimulus, the better. One of the reasons why Twitter is so addictive to many people is because it’s a very quick fix, so you can trick yourself into thinking it’s not much.

Which got me thinking about video game design. That moment-to-moment gameplay can be compelling if it’s short and Pavlovian. Hell, most of the early wave of Facebook games were designed around this principle. While everyone has their own preferences, I suspect many people playing Farmville were doing so because it was compelling and not because they actually liked it. But you can see this in more traditional designs — the random JRPG battle or MMO battle, particularly. If it’s unpredictable, short, and can produce a reward, it’s likely to compel the player to keep playing that snatch of gameplay again and again. Let’s call this the “short game loop.”

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How to Write Controversial Material

Over the years, I’ve worked with controversial material, both as a writer and a developer. Some of it never saw the light of day (for various reasons). Some of it did, but was controversial for the wrong reasons (like the fact that gay characters exist). But over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to handle it, and I have metrics of when and how best to do it. Before I dive in, though, a warning. Everyone draws these lines differently. What I consider mundane, another person would consider radical. The point of this isn’t to argue what should or shouldn’t be controversial, but what the writer and client (assuming they are two different people) agree is controversial for their audience. Writing dinosaur erotica for an audience of dinosaur erotica readers isn’t controversial in that context, for example, but I expect it would raise eyebrows in other genres. Continue reading

Songs of the Sun and the Moon

A Taste Of “A Nuwisha Walks Into A Bar”

Most people know me through my work on Vampire: The Masquerade or White Wolf/Onyx Path RPG books in general. Not many know that I also do a lot of work in fiction and on other RPGs, covering a range of topics. This “A Taste Of” series features samples of my work from areas most people might not know about, along with places you can buy the book to read more!

Since I started doing this series, another Classic World of Darkness fiction project was released, so I’m circling back around to that. I was asked by the wonderful and talented Jess Hartley to contribute a story to an anthology about the Fera, the non-wolf werecreatures. I instantly asked if I could use the Nuwisha, and she let me use the Corax to book. I decided to write the “other side” of my other Apocalypse story, “The Magadon Job.” And thus was created “A Nuwisha Walked Into A Bar.”

If you like this first part, you can read the rest in Songs of the Sun and Moon. You can get it from DriveThruFiction right now!

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Tales of the Far West

A Taste Of “In The Name Of The Empire”

Most people know me through my work on Vampire: The Masquerade or White Wolf/Onyx Path RPG books in general. Not many know that I also do a lot of work in fiction and on other RPGs, covering a range of topics. This “A Taste Of” series features samples of my work from areas most people might not know about, along with places you can buy the book to read more!

A few years ago, Gareth Michael-Skarka asked me to write a short story for his wuxia-western fantasy world called Far West. He mentioned that the idea came from a discussion on how the cowboy and the samurai have a lot of tropes in common. I noticed that the American detective tradition also had a lot in common with them (the outsider who brings order to a disordered society), and from there I wrote “In The Name Of The Empire.” It’s a detective story that is less about the mystery and more about the detective herself.

If you like this first part, you can read the rest in Tales of the Far West. You can get it from Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, or DriveThruFiction.

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New Books and Interviews!

A lot of things have fallen into place recently! So much going on!

New Books

Three books I’ve worked on have recently released!

Songs of the Sun and Moon is a fiction anthology of the Fera (non-wolf werecreatures) for Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I contributed “A Nuwisha Walks Into A Bar,” which is about a Nuwisha and a Corax trying to uncover a conspiracy. I’ll have a taste of this story next week, but if you can’t wait, you can get it at DriveThruFiction.

Dark Brigade is actually a rewrite and update of the very first book I ever wrote completely by myself. It’s a series book for Cartoon Action Hour, Season 3, detailing a covert paramilitary force dedicated to defeating a terrorist group comprised of vampires, wolfmen, zombies, and other supernatural horrors in the style of 80s action cartoons. It’s available for as much as you want to pay at DriveThruRPG (and I get a portion of the earnings!)

Iron Wolves is another series book for Cartoon Action Hour, Season 3. This one was done as part of the original Kickstarter, and features an intergalactic police force fighting against a collection of space mobsters headed up the nefarious Queen Bee. You can get the PDF at DriveThruRPG.

New Interviews

AndoCon was a lot of fun, and I had a great time gaming and hanging out with people. I also did a version of my LARP theory talk, “Your Game Sucks,” and the fine folks at Altered Confusion filmed it and posted the talk online.

Also, while I was at 221b Con, I sat down with fellow Sherlockian author Stephen Seitz, and we chatted about the original canon and my book Watson Is Not An Idiot. Part 1 and Part 2 of his documentary are on YouTube.

Writer. Gamer. Sherlockian. Usually Not Dead.

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