Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The untapped potential of RPGs

         For centuries, humans have designed and played games - from the mentally engaging game of Chess to the physically demanding game of Football. Games such as these provide a venue for competition and stimulate growth in the players, whether it be intellectually or bodily. In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published a new type of fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG) called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
This system offered something that no other game provided – it allowed players to exercise their soul.  What do I mean by this? Through in-game choices, players explore practical and moral dilemmas and, more importantly, suffer the consequences of those choices. Decisions made in role-playing games transcend the practical options found in other games. They rely on the players exercising value judgements as well as the implementation of “good” and “evil”. Since role-playing games, unlike most others, offer this potential, are we not obligated to pursue it to the fullest?
       Games like D&D depart from traditional mass-battle war games and, instead, assign each player a specific character to represent. A player’s character then embarks upon an adventure within an imaginary fantasy setting. A story teller, also known as a Game Master or Dungeon Master, serves as the game's referee and moderator.  He or she maintains the setting in which the adventure occurs, as well as role-playing any non-player characters (NPCs). The players’ characters form an adventuring party who interact, individually and as a group, with the NPCs and each other. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles, and gather treasure and knowledge. Over a series of game sessions, players’ characters earn experience points to become increasingly powerful. Through it all, players constantly evaluate what is the best course of action, practically and ethically. To help players make these choices, the game provides a character attribute called alignment.
Richard Bartle's Designing Virtual Worlds noted that alignment is a way to categorize players' characters, along with gender, race, character class, and sometimes nationality. Alignment was designed to help define role-playing. A character's alignment categorizes their outlook on life. A player decides how a character should behave by choosing an alignment and should then play the character in accordance with that alignment.

          Alignment is a guideline to a system of values.  These values are what the character believes are the definition of “good”.  Alignment is the guideline to vices that define “evil”.  RPGs give players the perfect set of tools to adopt a value system that is like their own, or slightly different. All the variations of alignments use the human template as the reference point. For example, a lawful good character is compared to the righteous knights of Medieval times, or the noble Police officer of today.  Even with the deviations of race in RPGs, the values exercised by those characters are the same values we understand from our human experience.  The further a character’s race gets from this human reference point, the less meaningful their alignment is.  As players, how can we relate to the value system of a rock creature whose ideals have nothing to do with anything from our experience as human players?  There is no exercising of the soul when said rock creature makes a choice in the game.  It doesn’t impact us as players, it becomes only a trite mechanic.

The conflict of good versus evil is a common motif in D&D and other fantasy fiction. Although players’ character can adventure for personal gain, rather than from altruistic motives, it is generally assumed that the players’ character will be opposed to evil and will tend to fight against evil creatures.  However, there should be more to the game than a black and white approach to the moral dilemmas.  If choices were easy to make, they would not count as dilemmas at all. Nor would the act of choosing really exist. As a player, one would be strictly following the alignment of their character with little freedom to deviate. If that was the type of game one wanted to play, there are much better systems in which to do so. Namely, video games.

           The true potential of RPGs is found in the vast number of conundrums in which a character finds themselves and for which there is no easy, right answer. Tension is created around the table when players realize their character must suffer the consequence of making a choice that will result in a difficult future.  Making the hard choice is the epitome of what makes a hero heroic.  True heroism isn’t running fast, climbing far, or even sticking a sword into the gut of the raging monster. Heroism is making the choice to perform a “good” deed with full knowledge of the potential harm to oneself.   In the US ARMY, a few Soldiers are decorated with the Medal of Honor, the highest award possible.  The Soldiers who have earned this recognition didn’t do so because they were super strong, exceptionally fast, or brilliantly intelligent. They earned the Medal of Honor because they made choices and acted upon them with the knowledge of the potential deadly consequences and consistent devotion to a value system. RPG heroes should be the same.
To do so, the Game Master should design an adventure to include difficult situations focusing on moral decision making.  While many games allow us to experience the joy of vanquishing a foe, only RPGs allow us the experience of questioning whether or not we SHOULD vanquish the foe.  And, if we should, what are the myriad of consequences to doing so?  
               “And they lived happily ever after” isn’t the conclusion of true heroics. 

              Consider the game Dark Souls.  It’s a challenging video game that pits the player against the minions of evil, culminating in a fight against the grand boss.  Dark Souls is much like the table top board games Dungeon Saga, Descent, Wrath of Ashardalon, and numerous others that depict a dungeon crawl.  The satisfaction of killing evil monsters is entertaining, for sure.  Sharing the experience with the other players around the table also heightens one’s enjoyment.  Yet, at no time do we experience the level of moral complexity that a RPG provides. 

In a role-playing game, we should share the experience of not only adventure, but the angst of moral dilemmas. THAT is a truly bonding experience! That is the dynamic which separates RPG groups from other gaming groups. The role-playing game celebrates the act of being “heroic”, where as other games celebrate being “efficient”. On the moral battlefield, efficiently slaying all that stand before you is rarely the “good” course of action.  If there is no morality to explore, we might as well play one of the many games that expertly provide the black and white “kill all the things” dynamics.
Imagine the adventure dynamic as lived by the modern-day ground troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Superimpose the concept of “adventuring party” with the terms patrol, squad, or fire team.   It is common for a patrol to travel in hostile territory, while armed with deadly weapons and body armor. Much like a wizard, able to shoot magic missiles to kill whatever opposes him, the modern-day Soldier points his M-4, squeezes the trigger and, most likely, kills whatever opposes him.  Yet, the Soldier doesn’t have the freedom to just point and shoot, even when surrounded by hostile villagers, or unarmed enemies.  In his case, the “bad guys” look just like all the innocent NPCs that inhabit the area. Additionally, he is keenly aware that killing someone has huge repercussions, not only to himself, but to his squad, his ARMY, and his nation.  Every single day, the modern-day Soldier lives a life of an adventurer and yet doesn’t run around “hobo-killing”, like we often see in RPGs.   This tension, this danger, this moral restraint, could, and should, be pursued in role-playing games.

           Using a common situation in Iraq, let’s contrast what happens in RPGs vs. real adventures.  Imagine your adventuring party enters a town that is known to serve as a refuge for local “evil” war band. While a few of the town’s inhabitants are happy that you are there to provide security, and enforce law, most them resent that you are projecting your own values on their culture and occupying their town by force. Then, there are the members of the war band themselves; they don’t want you there and are dedicated to not only pushing you out of town, but want to kill you in the process.  Imagine that the members of these factions look the same to you. You can’t tell who is the friend and who is foe.
              While on a standard patrol through the town, one member of your adventuring party is mortally shot by a man who sniped from a second story window.  The sniper is able to duck inside before anyone in your party gets a good look at him.  But, you know which house he is in.  Your first choice is, what do you do with your slain party member?  Second, do you assault the house of the shooter, or do you leave the area?  If you assault, what do you do when you burst in the house and see a family with numerous women, children and elderly?  What do you do when you discover a crossbow, and other weapons, (all legally owned)?  What do you do when everyone in the house swears they didn’t shoot anyone and they love that you are there to save their town. You are now is a situation where your actions will have great consequences no matter what you choose to do.  Imagine if the shooter of the crossbow was actually a 13-year-old girl.
              It is this type of moral dilemma that reveals heroes from the “hobo killers”.  Sadly, a typical group of gamers would think nothing of slaughtering the whole family. And, even worse, the typical game master would fail to describe the consequences of that action. The game master should answer the question, “to whom are the characters held accountable (besides their own moral compass).  To which institution do they have to answer?”  Paladins have their holy military orders, Clerics have their churches. Even thieves might have a powerful guild that judges their every move.  
Role playing games should be more than rolling D20s. They should be more than accumulating experience points, +1s, and leveling up.  Role playing games have a potential that no other game system can offer.  It is our obligation to utilize that potential.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

It has been a little while since we last posted.  We have been very busy with both terrain orders and the building of the Knight Watch Games store front.  We'd like to share with you some of our latest projects.
We made this fountain for one of our favorite customers. The fountain has been a popular project ever since Bruce Hirst produced the mold for it. It's difficult to improve on his design. His original can be found here: Hirst Arts

This is a ruin tower that we made and donated to the Alamo GT Warhammer tournament, hosted by Red Star Gaming.  It was one of the items used in a raffle that supported the Children's Hospital.  
We're also happy with our new photo studio. The black background seems to really result in some dramatic shots.

The final weeks are counting down quickly until the Knight Watch Games Grand Opening!  We have receive a huge amount of support from the community.  It amazes us that some many people who we have never met are offering to participate in the physical labor needed to finish the store.  We have had over 18 people committed to helping and about 90 people interested and offering other type of help.  That's so encouraging.  When we talk to people, gamers and non-gamers alike, we have always receive reactions that border on amazement.  We do our best in trying to describe the complete Knight Watch Games customer experience but we find its too grand to summarize in a few sentences. Even with our brief description, people respond with "I've always wanted a place like that to play in." We really look forward to meeting all these gamers and non-gamers.

Something we have heard, which we don't understand, is that some gamers (a select few, really) are actually not excited about Knight Watch Game's new business model.  There are those who think the decorations, theme, immersion and "fluff" is an unnecessary expense. The admit they don't understand why we are expending all this effort to improve the gaming experience.  The word "pretentious" has been associated with us, more than once. That's baffling.

We have come to understand that some gamers are satisfied with the status quo (minimal space, zero ambiance, stuffy atmosphere and  claustrophobic retail areas.)  This has been the norm for the hobby store industry for ages.  Some people would even claim it has its own charm.  But, what we hear when we talk with people about gaming stores is a severe displeasure in the execution of local game stores.  
Even the best-run store in San Antonio receives some harsh criticism from the customer's point of view.  Much of this displeasure is voiced from non-gamers, or the parents of gamers. They complain about rude employees, dirty stores, lack of help, bad language and product over-load. 

When asked about the failings of local shops, gamers admit that plastic tables, cheap chairs and stinky bathrooms are nothing out of the ordinary and not a deterrent at all. Is that evidence that we gamers have lowered our expectations of stores mainly because that is what we are used to experiencing, whereas a non-gamer has a fresh perspective and walk away from their initial exposure with a bad taste in their mouth (literally)?

As the saying goes, "You can please some of the people all the time, but you can't please all the people all the time."  So, we're going forward with our designs and the naysayers will have to cope. 

Here are some pictures of the finished store (its never really finished).  We are happy with the progress so far, and the feedback we have received from our customer, they are too.

During our Grand Opening, some great game demos by Mantic Games and Shawn Grubaugh.

Some of the customers during our Grand Opening.  So much energy!
The wall behind the Nobles Table.

Another shot during the Grand Opening. 

Once again, we want to illustrate the amazing work and generosity from the community.  We have had customers donate their personal swords to the store!  That's unheard of.  Multiple games have been selflessly given. Labor, expertise and helpful advice prove that the gamers of San Antonio are some of the best people in the city.  It also proves that Knight Watch's dream is a dream shared by so many others.  We  love that we can share this with all of you.  Adventure Awaits!
Truly awesome people, Joey and Nicole!

Absolutely essential to our success: Nate Skinner (our Sgt-at-Arms), Alan Boenig, and Bill "G-Pa" Tarvin! We owe so much to these fine gentlemen.

The crew at the "Raising a castle event."  No once, did anyone ask, "What's in it for me?"  True generosity of time and effort from everyone here.  

Unorthodox retail space, and some unique merchandise. 

The Noble's Table with authentic chairs from a Danish castle.

The expansive gaming library provided by Geek Out SA. Many games also donated to the store by our awesome customers.

One of the private gaming rooms. This one known as the Dark Ages room.

We look forward to a bright exciting future with our new friends.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Dun Dagan project

Once again, our customers have inspired an epic project.  This time, a three-tier tower named Dun Dagan, in honor of its owner. Dun translates roughly to "Fort" in Gaelic.

This is the first time we've implemented the "Obsidian" color scheme. The tower certainly looks imposing, and if stereotypes hold any truth, there is an evil wizard residing within.

It was important to us to make the tower as useful as possible; each level being removable made the tower transportable.  Its owner can use the individual levels as dungeon rooms or combine them to form smaller versions of Dun Dagan.

Initially, the project seemed simple enough and both Brenda and I have experience building the towers that Bruce Hirst designs.  The new challenge was designing levels which would allow circular stairs to grant access to the next floor above. Because the floors change size, we had to take into account the smaller diameter and adjust the stairs accordingly.

With some Smurfy help, we got the whole thing figured out. We even produced a new mold specifically for the floor sections. This strengthened the structure and lessened the number of seems that might flex under the weight of all the die stone - a total of about 20 lbs. The walls are straight and the tower, perfectly round. That's a feat in itself.

The first three floors.

Floors 4-6 with removable stairs.

Floors 7-9 with removable stairwells.

The three tiers assembled as individual towers.

Elminster approves.

I think I see Rapunzel's hair to the left.

The doorway is a splash of color.

Let us know what you think. We would love to hear from you.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Knight Watch Games progress.

Construction has started on Knight Watch Games!  With over 3100 sq ft, we have big plans for each area.   The main area will be called the Great Hall.  It will consist of three tables, two of them parallel and the third perpendicular.  The two parallel tables will be about 24' long and have comfortable benches that can seat as many as 8 players on a side.  That's 40 players with lots of room to play.

The floors will be dark wood and the wall will have a rock base that transitions into a tutor beams. Hanging on the walls will be weapons, tapestries, and suits of armor.  Wrought iron chandeliers will hang from the ceiling and light the playing area.

The Lords of the realm discuss the arrangement of the court.

Music will be playing over a comprehensive sound system.  During the quiet hours, music like Enya, Lorenna McKennitt, Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance.  At more active times, engaging music like Omna, Fever Ray and Nox Arcana .  Soft incense will be burning to fully transport customers to the medieval realm of Knight Watch Games. 

Building the two exclusive private gaming rooms.  (12' x 15  and 12' x 14')
In addition to the "Grand Hall", we will have two private gaming rooms that can seat 8 players each comfortably.  One of the rooms will be decorated in high renaissance style, while the other will have a more rustic tavern feel.  Both rooms will be equipped with multi-media support (video projector, 5.1 surround light and sound, WiFi) adjustable lighting, a large rug, dedicated AC, and a multitude of props to immerse the players.

The rooms will be isolated from the rest of the store so that noise can't enter or escape the playing rooms. The concept of the rooms will be similar to what Brenda and I had done with our apartment in Germany.

Towards the back of the store will be our "Death Star room".  This is the area dedicated to Sci-Fi and war gaming with tables that can host Warhammer, War Machine, Dust, Bolt Action, X-Wing Miniatures, Star Wars Armada, Imperial Assault and many other table top war games.

The walls will have the well-known Death Star pattern. The floor will be glossy black.  The tables will be 4'x8' and tall enough for comfortable war gaming.  Stools are available for those marathon games. Cool robotic lamps will hang down from the ceiling, allowing for spot illumination. Gaming terrain will be available to rent to players.  This terrain will be the high-quality game pieces typical of Knight Watch Games.
Image result for chrome industrial stool

The archway into the Death Star is installed!

To make all this terrain, we have included a workshop, complete with sinks, hood vents, plenty of counter space, recessed lighting and a window that will allow people to see the terrain being made.  Knight Watch Games is currently hiring an apprentice terrain maker.  If you know of anyone who has a steady hand, an eye for detail and a creative streak, let them know we have a job for them!

The workshop.

The store will also have a boutique area that sells all manner of high-quality costumes, aimed at LARPers, Rennasisance Faires goers, and Cosplayers.  Cloaks, tunics, shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, gloves, armor and weapons will be available.  We have a exclusive merchant agreement with European artisans to provide the coolest articles of clothing you would need.

We're excited to bring our dream to the San Antonio community.  If you want to get involved in this adventure, please feel free to contact us and let us know.  Slowly, and surely, people are realizing that Knight Watch Games is not only going to be a reality, it's going to change the standards for gamers. Adventure awaits.

Stay tuned for another article that describes all the services we will offer!