January 29, 2010

The Pros of the New "D&D Encounters" from Wizards of the Coast

Perhaps the tiny grognard gremlin inside me has escaped, but the recent announcement of "D&D Encounters" from Wizards of the Coast left me feeling a bit sick for a few minutes. But then I thought about it, and what this new program represents, and realized that it's not such a bad thing. In fact, this might be exactly the type of thing the whole hobby needs to appeal to a whole new generation of gamers.

D&D Encounters is a new organized play format that WotC is rolling out nationwide starting in March, 2010. It takes the convention-style "Dungeon Delve" format, and extends it to a regular weekly game that takes place at your local hobby shop or gaming store. The announcement of D&D Encounters was made yesterday at the annual D&D Experience Convention (DDXP,[1]). Our friends over at Critical Hits published a nice synopsis about it as well (they are live covering the convention!). WotC has also launched an info page on D&D Encounters that outlines the nuts and bolts of D&D Encounters if you like.

Here's the thing though - there's been lots of talk in the last year or so about "D&D The Board Game": that 4E D&D is essentially an incredibly complex miniatures game where roll-playing has superseded -role- playing. True, WotC is trying to balance/counter that sentiment with books like the Dungeon Masters Guide 2 [2], but nonetheless at its root 4E D&D is just a complex miniatures game. Some naysayers will no doubt see D&D Encounters as the next step away from D&D The Role Playing Game and towards the direction of D&D The Board Game. I personally don't share that point of view - and here's why.

The Pros of D&D Encounters
  1. Familiar Format For New RPG Players. People who have never played an RPG can more easily connect with the hobby if it is presented as a miniatures game. D&D Encounters will no doubt be combat heavy, and therefore basically a skirmish style miniatures game. New players, looking to find out what D&D is all about, can jump right in and start rolling dice. It's a tangible experience - you can see the miniatures on the table top, your character's powers are defined, the rules of the game are clear cut and orderly. Whether this is how your in house 4E D&D game is played or not (mine are much more story driven), the D&D Encounters organized play format can introduce the game to novices in its most basic context: D&D is about killing bad guys and helping friends.
  2. Local Connections. D&D Encounters provides players with the opportunity to connect with gamers from their local area, on a face-to-face basis. This builds communities, and gaming groups will no doubt spring up as a result.
  3. Low Commitment. Players new to the game, or even curious about the game, can easily drop in and play through one or two encounters in an evening. If they like the game, they can come back for more the following week. Or skip it entirely.
  4. Support for your FLGS. Your local gaming hobby shop has had a tough time to survive in the last five years or so. I've written before about things you can do to help support your local shop, but D&D Experience now gives you and tons of other curious people reasons to head down to the local shop and participate in games. Getting people in the stores gets people to buy stuff in the stores and not on Amazon.com. This keeps the local FLGS happy and in business - which in turn keeps it alive as a center point for the local hobby gaming community. I applaud WotC for coming up with D&D Encounters for this reason alone.
  5. It Appeals to the Younger Generation. Grognards need not apply. If the D&D brand is going to survive they need to figure out a way to appeal to the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens who barely have time to sit still to eat breakfast let alone play a 4 hour game of D&D on a regular basis. If WotC fails to do this - the D&D game won't make it in 10 years, or it will be marketed to people at retirement homes (that would be awesome!). The D&D Encounters organized play format has all kinds of features that are aimed at appealing to younger teens and college age "young adults" (read:young whipper snappers!). Tangible trinkets, prizes, and rewards with in-game benefits for playing in D&D Encounters are all signs that WotC is trying to lure new players to the game table. Plus, you have the D&D team pushing D&D WizBook, Facebook connections, and actively Twittering - these just reinforce WotC's connection with a new, gadgeteering younger generation of gamers.
I never personally was interested in the RPGA or campaign spanning organized play - but for some reason the 'take it or leave it' approach to D&D Encounters has me intrigued. Sure, I won't get mind exploding story-lines that I'll be recalling 10 years from now out of it - but I'll still get to hang out with some old and new friends, roll some dice and have a fun time while I'm at it. It will be interesting who shows up on the launch day at my local store - I might just have to go check it out.

What do you think about D&D Experience? Last grasp at staying relevant? Or spot-on with what the D&D community needs to boost local gaming? Leave a comment and let us what you think!

[1] http://baldmangames.com/ddxp/index.htm
[2] The DMG2 offers lots of additional content, rules, and support for story driven campaigns, and for players who are looking for more role-playing in their games.

Bohnanza - To Bean or Not to Bean (Review)

I recently had the pleasure of playing Bohnanza with a group of friends who came over for dinner and drinks. Bohnanza is a trading card game designed by veteran game designer Uwe Rosenberg, and even though it's been around for a decade or so, it was completely new to me.

Here's the short of it: It's about beans. Trading them. Planting them. Selling them and making gold. And, dispite this silly theme - it's fun as hell to play.

I have to be honest, in todays market of slick, glossy game boxes where all that glitters is gold - the Bohnanza box had me a skeptical as soon as it was brought out I was like "Wait... there's a goofy 70's style illustration of a pissed-off bean on the box cover. What the hell is this?"

Needless to say, 45 minutes later I was not disappointed.

The game of Bohnanza plays out like a classic trading card game. Each player collects beans (cards) from a common deck, some are worth more than others, and you plant the beans (cards) onto one of two bean plots [1]. The more beans you plant, the more gold you make. The player with the most gold at the end of the game wins.

Simple, right? Well - sort of, until the strategy of the game hits you.

The fun with Bohnanza comes from a nuanced core mechanic: the value of each bean type is tied to the probability of finding that card in the common deck, yet each plot can only have one type of bean planted on it at any given time. It quickly creates a connundrum where players are trying to maximize the number of beans planted in their plots, while trading away cards they aren't have no need for from their hand.

To add to this - players must keep the cards in their hands in order. Whatever card is at the front of your hand must be played on your turn. This adds an additional layer to the game where your hand ends up being like a queue - you can see the cards coming down the pipe and are trying to either ditch or trade the cards you don't want before your turn comes up [2]. Why? The reason is that since you must plant the card at the front of your hand, even if you have two bean plots in play. Thus you can be forced to "harvest" a bean plot before it's fully maxed out and worth its top price by being forced to plant a new type of bean.

I know... it sounds silly.And it is - but its fun as hell.

At it's heart - Bohnanza is a game of economics and trading, of making deals and breaking them. The average game lasts about thirty minutes to an hour and can handle up to six players. Add some great food, heady drinks, and great company to the mix - and it makes for a friggen great evening.

Have you played Bohnanza? What's your take on this game?

[1] Each player starts out with two bean plots (fields for farming beans of the same type), but you can purchase an additional plot as the game progresses; but this is a trade off since the "winner" is decided by who has the most gold at the end of the game.
[2] Trading can pretty much happen at anytime, and there's no rules as to what's allowed save for that you can only trade with the player whose turn it is. Hence, you can basically give away cards from your hand that have no value to you before your turn comes up.

January 27, 2010

The Apple iPad: It will change how we play


It will.


OK - I'm not really sure why - but if so long as Xorns eat rocks - I'm betting it will. Just think about what's possible! I mean, the screen size alone opens up a whole set of new possibilities for table top games.

Here's my 10-minute brainstorming  list  (some are available already using other devices like laptops, Microsoft Surface, PDA's etc) -
  1. Multimedia character sheets. Why stop at "interactive" character sheets - those have been around for years. With iPad, you could embed movie clips of characters you modeled your PC after, sounds clips of your game session or other snippets, images from online galleries, etc.
  2. Adaptive multi-media adventures and encounters. Drop the "for levels 1 - 6" tag, and just write the adventure knowing that the DM can just slide a bar to the left or right to raise or lower the difficulty of an adventure on the fly. 
  3. Real time combat maps. Real time campaign maps. Ditch the dry erase board. Buy digital tile sets and make your own virtual combat board without the need for a laptop, or projection screen. Use the touch interface to drag your virtual miniature where you want, etc. Zoom in to personal combat scenes, zoom out to view the whole overland map. Tag locations with event notes. Plot your campaign's travel log.
  4. VoIP and WebCam video make the game table virtual. WHy bother meeting up at all? Perhaps you and I could meet up and the other players can join in the game via their iPads from home. Attach a web-cam using the iPad docking port, watch the game remotely and interact with a shared map.
  5. More than one touch pad can reach out, more than one campaign can connect. Extending #4 above... just consider for moment if everyone who logged in could all interact via their own iPad device with the same campaign map. You could run, in real time, multiple campaigns using the same shared interface. 
  6. Virtual dice rolling in 3D. This has been around for a while now on the iPhone.
  7. Board games - on the iPad - could be really cool. Purple Pawn called it first
  8. Non-linear adventures become real digital supplements to your game. Dave Chalker had a great post recently over at Critical Hits ("Changing the Way We Think About Published Adventures") - now drop an iPad into the thinking well while reading that post and... yeah.. your head explodes [1].
  9. 200 Rule books. 1 Character Sheet. 2 Campaign Maps. 5,000 NPC Cards. 10,000 Miniatures. 10 Model Dioramas. 15 Terrain / Encounter Maps.   All for 1.5 pounds. 
  10. New games. The platform itself becomes something that the Next Gen of "table top" RPGs can build on. New RPGs, that maximize the technology, are possible. Social Media RPGs become a reality that people with iPads, iPhones, Androids, or GizmoWhatHaveYou can play. And play they will.
Cheers. I'm frakin stoked for the brave new future the gaming industry has ahead of itself. It's going to be a fun ride.

    [1] that's a good thing.

    Interview with Obsidian Portal (Part 2)

    Note: This is the second part of my interview with Obsidian Portal's Co-Founder Micah Wedemeyer and Creative Director Dan Albright. We started off in the first half talking about OP's past and current state of affairs. In the second half, we jump right in talking about OP's biggest competitor around the corner: Wizards of the Coast's DDI.
    ... Continued from Part 1.

    TCM: Looking over the 10,000+ campaigns that are currently being hosted on Obsidian Portal, roughly 47% of them are for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with 3rd Edition D&D making up another 21%. OP also hosts campaigns for more than 100 additional game systems, albeit at far fewer numbers. Granted, 4E is the most popular table-top RPG around, but I'm wondering if this preference among your users may also represent a difference in how 4E players think in terms of the use of technology or an online service such as Obsidian Portal. I mean, Wizards of the Coast's D&D Insider service is basically betting on people's interest in mingling technology with their traditionally pen and paper games. Can you comment on that? How much of OP’s success, if any, do you think is a result of being at the right place, at the right time, with the Web 2.0 and the release of WotC’s DDI?
    ALBRIGHT: Well if this were any other place, or any other time, it would be a different story, obviously. I think that 4e is the most popular because WoTC is the biggest brand in the industry and they’re products are in every FLGS in the country, if not the world. And their products make it into book stores like Barnes & Nobles, whereas products for other companies don’t. I think if Namco/Bandai (the biggest competitor to WoTC owner, Hasbro) were to buy an rpg franchise like Savage Worlds, then we’d see some big competition in that realm.
         We love gaming. We love sitting around the table and building worlds. We’re not all about one setting or one set of rules. That’s too limiting. I feel that it’s my job as Content Director to remind people that there are other systems out there besides DnD 4e, but that’s not because I don’t like DnD 4e.
         I DM two 4e games that meet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My 9 year old step-son is cutting his table-top RPG teeth on 4e DnD. The reason why I feel we need to add new systems every Thursday and link to free systems every Friday is to help keep the industry in balance. I feel that competition is healthy, and when there’s no competition, the best get lax in their efforts. By promoting the underdogs, the best companies have to keep their teeth sharp, so-to-speak.
         As for the DDI, I have a subscription myself. It’s a great tool and we’d love to have some kind of API integration with it.
    WEDEMEYER: What you say about Web 2.0 is very true. My introduction to other Web 2.0 tools is what convinced me that something like OP could work. Plus, the programming platform we use (Ruby on Rails) was just appearing on the scene when I decided to start work on OP.
         I think very little of our success is related to the WotC DDI toolset. The tools that OP provides are very RPG-agnostic, and would have been just as useful back in the 70s playing first edition D&D.
         From what I’ve seen, many of the people that utilize OP to the fullest are not playing D&D. I don’t want to start a fight here, but suffice it to say that many story-oriented gamers move away from D&D. Sure, you can roleplay just fine in D&D, but if combat’s not your thing, or you don’t like the fantasy setting, or you want a system that heavily emphasizes role playing then it’s time to start looking around.
         For these people, they use OP to better tell the story and organize everything. So, I would disagree that 4E or D&D players are more open. Instead, my explanation for the majority of D&D campaigns is just that I think more people are playing D&D than other systems. I think that may change in the future, though.

    TCM: Looking down the road ahead, WotC’s DDI tool-set is expected to overlap with what OP currently offers. How do you expect OP will be able to effectively compete with WotC once (if) DDI reaches the full tool-set they say is coming?
    ALBRIGHT:We’ll stay competitive by offering support for non WoTC systems. 4th edition isn’t going to be their top dog forever. Eventually they will have a 5th edition. When that happens, all the people who put their effort into creating, managing, and maintaining their 4th edition campaigns will be up a creek without a vorpel paddle when DDI moves on to the new edition and rule set. Just like with D&D 3.5. However, when that day comes, everyone with an Obsidian Portal campaign won’t even blink as they keep on keepin’ on.
         We’ll stay competitive by being agile and on our toes. We’re a small group so we can respond to changes in the community’s interest much faster. We are building a community around us using the existing social media structure, and we’re not making a new Facebook or Twitter or what-have-you. We run Obsidian Portal as a labor of love, and our paychecks, our livelihood, our bills aren’t dependent on selling a new product that breaks or out dates our old product while alienating that product’s fan base. Now if WoTC was interested in a team up that’s another story all together…
    WEDEMEYER: I’m confident that WotC will be able to create a pretty impressive product. For one, their current DDI team seems to be executing very well, compared to the Gleemax days. Secondly, they have OP as an example of how to get started. I know they’re aware of us, and I imagine that they will “borrow” a lot of their ideas from us. I hesitate to say “steal” since I can’t claim that OP is doing anything really innovative. We are just trying to meet the needs of gamers, and I imagine WotC will do the same. But, they will have OP as a blueprint to start from, while we essentially had nothing.
         I also think that OP will be able to compete effectively for many reasons.
         First, one advantage is simplicity. We don’t have to deal with all kinds of rules errata and such. Instead, we focus on the core role playing experience and leave the 'rules-lawyering' to others. WotC has to make sure that all their tools handle all the rules they make. That sounds like a major headache to me.
         Second, looking to the future, I can only see more and more different game systems. We will continue to be as system-agnostic as possible and thereby support the growing constellation of systems. Have you tried Dark Heresy? Mouse Guard? Savage Worlds? These games are amazingly fun, and you can manage them natively on OP without fighting the system. I don’t see that happening with the WotC tools.
         Third, I’m not convinced that WotC can crush us. Assuming they stole all our D&D 4E users, we’d lose over half our user-base. But, we’d still have a big chunk. Plus, it’s unrealistic to think that 100% of D&D 4E users will prefer the WotC tools to ours, or that 100% of our users will switch en-masse. Instead, there will be a period where some people move over to WotC. So, even in the worst case we’ll lose a lot of people, but it won’t be a sky-is-falling moment.
         Finally, OP is free and the WotC tools are not. Sure, OP has a premium plan, and we really want people to subscribe to it, but it’s perfectly usable with a free account. We’ll have to wait and see how WotC approaches that.

    TCM: OK, I'm going to go out on a limb here: You said “OP is doing anything really innovative”; the fans of OP and myself might disagree. I could see a huge advantage of creating a FB App for Obsidian Portal that uses the Facebook Connect API to connect with OP’s existing database. From a game master’s point of view – updating campaign information and having it show up where my players already “live” (on FB) would be hugely beneficial. So, beyond marketing OP on Facebook and building a fan base there – do you have any plans to develop a version of OP that makes use of Facebook’s API?
    WEDEMEYER: See previous answer ;) The answer, as always, is “someday”. I really hope to do some of the Facebook stuff sooner, rather than later, though. I’m actually quite familiar with the Facebook API and Facebook Connect, thanks to my previous job. I’m confident that we could do some really cool stuff, like pushing your OP updates into your Facebook stream, for all your friends to see. Again, it’s just a matter of somehow finding a 25th and 26th hour in the day.

    TCM: Speaking of Facebook, I’ve noticed that OP has a very active presence there, much more so than many other RPG companies. How much of an impact has FB and other social media channels had on OP subscriber base?
    WEDEMEYER: That’s all Dan. I did a piss-poor job of managing that stuff before Dan arrived. He has turned up community engagement to 11. This level of interaction and customer support is one of the things that we think will help us grow and endure.
        I can’t quote any statistics about growth or conversion from social media (since we don’t really know), but what we do know is that thanks to Dan’s efforts, people are much more engaged with OP and we love it.
    ALBRIGHT: Honestly I just really like interacting with the people on the fan page. They’re a hoot, and the ideas they share make us all better gamers. I haven’t looked at the metrics lately, but I’m sure it’s not hurting us to be friendly and active.

    TCM: Any plans for Obsidian Portal Mobile? Having access to OP and all my campaign notes and resources through my iPhone (or other mobile device) – even if it’s a lite version – would be incredible. Any plans or comments about that? Is there a mobile.obsidianportal.com URL in the works for the future?
    ALBRIGHT: Personally I’d love to see a mobile.obsidianportal.com. I think we’d be crazy not to have it. Not everyone plays at the table with a laptop. But every group has at least one player with a smart phone.
    WEDEMEYER: Again, see my previous comment ;) Seriously though, here I'd have to say no. There’s a common conception amongst tech enthusiasts and "gadgeteers" that they’re part of the mainstream. This is very much not the case. Most people still do not have iPhones. The same is true with Twitter accounts. So, although these things seem commonplace to some of us, we’re still a minority.
         That’s not to say that we ignore technological minorities, just that we try and focus our time to get the most bang for the buck. I think a Facebook Connect tie-in would be useful to a lot of people, and would also be fairly quick to do. On the flip side, optimizing the entire site for the entire constellation of mobile devices would be very difficult, and the audience served would be quite small.
         Moreover, I don’t have an iPhone, and I try not to program features that I wouldn’t use. That may sound selfish, and it probably is, but it also means that the main programmer is constantly testing the features of the site and figuring out ways to improve them. Believe me, the features that have the most polish and work the best are the ones that I use every time I run my game. It’s called eating your own dog food, and it’s a very effective way of managing development.

    TCM: Alright, last question. Blue sky here. Where do you think the table top gaming industry will be in the next 5 years? What changes do you think would have to be made for table top roleplaying games to reenter the mainstream for social gaming?
    WEDEMEYER: I really don’t know the answer to this one. My gut feeling is that it will continue to shrink, but then again I’m a very cynical person. While I believe that tabletop gaming is the pinnacle of gaming, it’s getting harder and harder to compete with the ease of introduction to MMORPGs. Plus, the MMOs are getting quite good. So, even though I think they’ll never, never be as good as the tabletop experience, it will get progressively harder to convince younger gamers to turn off the computer and pick up the dice. It would be like telling someone, “Yeah, I know the ice cream cone you’re eating is delicious, but I swear that this other, more difficult to find ice cream is even better!”
         I really hope I’m wrong about this, as like I said, I think tabletop gaming is truly amazing. It’s like I told my wife the other day: “One day, when I’m dead, I won’t be able to play D&D anymore. That thought saddens me.”
    ALBRIGHT: The table top gaming industry needs more showboating big leaguers. It needs more advertising outside of FLGS and websites like Obsidian Portal. They need to take a page from Nintendo and Microsoft and try to expand the player base into new demographics. They need to sell their core products in the board game isle of stores like Walmart and Target, otherwise we’re going to see continued shrinkage. WoTC is owned by Hasbro. Why not make combat-centric RPGs that use Hasbro products like G.I.Joe or Transformers and sell those in the toy isles?


    I would personally like to thank Micah Wedemeyer and Dan Albright for the opportunity to interview them and get the skinny on Obsidian Portal and how it's going to fit in the future landscape of our hobby. It was a real pleasure interviewing them!

    If you have any questions for them; please feel free to leave them below in the comments. I'm sure they'll be taking a look and will no doubt be interested what TCM readers have to say!

    January 25, 2010

    Interview with Obsidian Portal (Part 1)

    I've recently been doing a fair amount of writing about the future of role playing games and the industry behind it. Last month, I kicked off this series off with an article [1] that covered some ground by looking at what other bloggers (and and a few industry pundits) had to say about the genre of "role playing games" and where it was headed. A few weeks later, the technology aspects of involved in the future of table top RPGs was explored more by both myself and MadBrewLabs [2, 3, 4, 5]. Altogether, you could say I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the future of RPGs and how technology will continue to influence the way we game.

    Then it hit me: I needed to talk to someone who was actually DOING IT.

    Which leads us here: an interview with Obsidian Portal (OP) founder Micah Wedemeyer and their Content Director Dan Albright.
    Just to cover my bases: Obsidian Portal is an online RPG campaign management web portal. They aims to provide tools for organizing the myriad of information that gets created during a campaign. For more information, please visit the Obsidian Portal homesite. They also, by the way, have a new blog which is quite excellent.
    In this multi-part interview, I talked with Wedemeyer and Albright about how Obsidian Portal got started, what major hurdles OP faced at its start, what obstacles it still faces now, and where OP is headed into the future.

    TCM: First things first, how did Obsidian Portal get started?
    ALBRIGHT: In the beginning there was light, and the light spread over the world. It was good, for a time. However, all good things must come to an end, and in some distant corner of space (no one living knows when the exact moment was) an event occurred that we refer to as the Cromlepsion. During the Cromlepsion, a war broke out in the heavens. With each blow the universe trembled. One of those terrible blows sent a strange device and two angels hurtling towards the earth. The angels, Micah and Ryan, set to work trying to repair their sky machine, but they lacked some of the necessary component, and human technology would not catch up for several millennia.
         As Micah and Ryan wait for humanity to catch up, they bide their time by playing games of fate and chance. Games that we humans clumsily categorize as ‘table-top RPGs’. Seeing that humanity was a brutish and warlike lot, these angels set about using their tremendous power and intellect to guide humanity toward a better path. They harvested a fraction of the tremendous power of their magic space box, they opened a black portal to the human ‘internet’ so that others may learn of these ‘table-top RPGs’ and play them among their own kind.
    WEDEMEYER: To be brutally honest, I started OP in September 2006 in order to get rich. I thought I’d make the “MySpace of D&D” and I’d be rich in a heartbeat. Well, that didn’t really work out, but it turned into something that I really love, and while I’ll never get rich, I enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t matter.

    TCM: OK... that sounds like a really cool campaign setting! But... what role do each of you currently play in keeping it an active and growing service?
    ALBRIGHT: I started working for them around August of 2009 in a sort of gopher/mouth-of-god role.
    WEDEMEYER: As for roles, Ryan and I are the developers. We keep the thing running. For 2 years, I was also the public face and marketer, charged with engaging the community and getting people to sign up. Luckily, we were recently able to recruit Dan for that task. But, he’s come on and done much more than that. He has become part of the core team, responsible for directing our progress just as much as Ryan and I [6].

    TCM: Before the "Cromlepsion" and the founding of OP, did you work on any other projects in the table top gaming industry? What sort of background or experience did you bring to OP?
    ALBRIGHT: Before working at OP, I was Technical Writer and a Software Engineer before that. My only prior experience in the game industry comes from a six month stint working for Sci-Fi City, a FLGS in Orlando FL. I’ve always been a people person, and complete strangers will walk up and talk to me for no reason what so ever. I’ve been able to hone this into a super power of sorts that lets me influence the actions of others through pheromone secretions.
    TCM: Sounds disgusting. I'll make sure to wear plastic wrap the next time we see each other.
    WEDEMEYER: OP was my first foray into both the tabletop industry as well as the website industry. I know it’s a cliche to say, “I just stumbled into it…” but in this case it’s true. I was a programmer for a couple years, and had a computer science MS, but OP was my first leap onto the web and anything even resembling a business.

    TCM: There’s been a surge in recent years of DIY small press game companies. I myself am a casualty of that trend – so naturally, I’m curious what you do full time and how much time you spend working on OP each week. Can you comment on that?
    ALBRIGHT: I spend too much time working on Obsidian Portal each week! Haha, I kid. I probably spend 10 to 20 hours a week reaching out to the community and making sure that Obsidian Portal is a part of their daily routine. The rest of the time I spend working at my day job, writing up fun and interesting things for our users, thinking up new ways to give away T-shirts and other swag, or meeting with Micah and Ryan about what to tackle next on our famous ‘to do’ list.
    MICAH: I just recently quit my full-time job in order to focus more on OP and another side business I run. I also do part time consulting in order to pay the bills. Just so it’s clear, we’re not rich by any means. OP is growing, and one day may support us full-time, but we’re not buying our yachts just yet.

    I gained a new sympathy for spammers, actually. It’s all a matter of perspective.
    TCM: At its start, what was the biggest hurdle that OP faced and how did you overcome that challenge?
    WEDEMEYER: The biggest challenge was, and still is, getting the word out. When I started, I had a “If you build it, they will come” mentality. Boy was that wrong. I would go to forums and post “Hey come see my new site!” only to get responses like, “Get out, spammer!” I gained a new sympathy for spammers, actually. It’s all a matter of perspective. I knew that OP was the solution to the problems of most GMs and I had to tell them about it. I’ll bet Cialis salesmen feel pretty much the same way.
         Anyways, once Dan came on board, this has become much easier, at least for me. I can concentrate on the programming, while Dan gets the word out. I’m sure he can tell you that it’s not an easy task. Community outreach is at least a full time job. It nearly overwhelmed me before Dan joined.

    TCM: OP is basically an information technology company that is supporting a decidedly low-tech game. Can you comment on how your services have been received by the community?
    WEDEMEYER: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. When I started, I built the tool that I wanted, and I took a guess that other GMs would see it the same way. Turns out that I was right.
         I’ll admit that the site isn’t perfectly laid out or easy to navigate. But, once someone figures it out a bit, there’s usually an “Aha!” moment where it all clicks. Then, they go nuts and start adding characters, wiki pages, and all kinds of stuff. We hear echoes from these people on their blogs and twitter feeds. Stuff like, “Hey, now I finally understand this Obsidian Portal thing! It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
    ALBRIGHT: A lot of our users say things like ‘Wow, this makes it so much easier!’ or ‘hey thanks!’ followed by ‘by the way, can you add this, this, and this feature?’ People love the site and what we offer. They want to be part of a community of players and see what those players are up too. They want to tell the world their story, and they want to have a place for keeping their notes organized and online. I know that people love it, because they tell me they love it, and because people want to see it get better. They want to see progress and change and new features. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t tell us. But they do tell us, and they do care.

    TCM: Given the enthusiasm for OP in the community, it suggests that there could kind of a halo effect. Gamers who use OP have an influence on gamers who don't. So, what impact do you think OP has had on how gamers in general think about running and managing the information in our games?
    WEDEMEYER: My hope is that OP will fundamentally change how people organize their game content. We want to make the GM’s notebook essentially obsolete. A notebook is great for when you want to get a thought down, but it’s terrible for when you need to reference anything. We’ve all wasted valuable game time trying to look something up in our notebooks. This waste of time can totally sidetrack a game and kill any sense of excitement. I want OP to make it super easy to organize and find anything so you never have to make your players wait.
    ALBRIGHT: I hope that Obsidian Portal makes people think about how they manage their campaigns. I want people to realize that they don’t need anything but their imaginations and people to bounce ideas off of to come up with some fantastic worlds, items, villains, heros, quests, and more. Table-top RPGs are all about sharing a story with friends and it’s a uniquely social event. One of my goals is for Obsidian Portal to take the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ out of this event, and add more ‘yes, and then this happens!’ to it. We hope to do that through organization and open communication with the community.
    WEDEMEYER: Now, I want to contrast that thought with my opinions on how OP has changed the playing of our games. I most definitely don’t want to fundamentally change how RPGs are played. I think the core concept of friends meeting around a table to tell a story is perfect. I just want to make it easier and offload some of the onerous bookkeeping, organization, and logistics.

    TCM: Looking ahead, what new features is OP actively working on for release in the near future? My understanding is that you have an active feature request forum, so can you say anything about the next big feature for OP?
    ALBRIGHT: We’re working on implementing a unique storefront that will let people buy gear, items, minis, and more related specifically to their campaign. No more generic stuff, no more minis that don’t look like your character, it’s all specifically for you, your world, and your campaign. No more DM screens that have information you never use and none of the stuff you need. It’s the feature I’m the most excited about.

    TCM: Custom DM screens and other products sounds really cool and useful. When can the OP user community expect to see such items made available?\
    ALBRIGHT: When will they be available? Hopefully sooner than later. I’m hoping by the end of the year that will become a reality, but there are a lot of external factors involved that I just don’t have any control over.
    WEDEMEYER: We’ve got a lot of features right now, but many of them are very basic and we want to change that. So, instead of introducing big new flashy features, we’re currently focusing on making the ones we have much better. Most importantly, we’re focusing on the experience for a brand new user. Right now it’s pretty confusing for someone who just signed up. I imagine a lot of people quit very quickly because they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. So, we’re trying to make the learning curve a little less brutal.

    How can we make our players care as much about the game as we do?
    TCM: Honestly, I was one of those customers who signed up and dropped out because I couldn’t figure out what to do or how to get the rest of my group to stick with using OP. People can become very set in their ways. Will there be any specific changes you are making to the interface of OP to make the experience better?
    WEDEMEYER: The new features we’re working will be familiar to many people from other sites. For example, instead of being dropped in without a lifeline, we’d like to add tutorial videos and text to each section that appear when you first log in. Once you’re happy with things, you click a box to remove the video and it goes away. That kind of thing. Nothing real complicated, since complication is part of the problem.
         As for increasing engagement across the entire group, we’re at a loss there. It’s a big problem and we really don’t know what to do about it. We’d love to hear ideas from the community. How can we make our players care as much about the game as we (the GMs) do?

    TCM: What about campaign maps: event markers, place name markers, etc using the Google map API are definitely possible. Are their any plans to introduce an interface to make individual campaign maps more interactive?
    WEDEMEYER: We’d love to do it, and it’s been kicking around the back of my head for a while. But it’s another feature on a seemingly endless list. Our main enemy is time, not lack of ideas. Even if I worked 24/7 on OP, I think the list of TODOs would still grow faster than we could manage. It’s actually a very depressing part of the development process, knowing that we’re never done. With all the feature requests we receive, we constantly have the impression that people are unhappy with the site. I have to remind myself that it’s a matter of perception. It’s not that people are unhappy, more that they’re very happy and just want more of a good thing.


    [1] "The Future of RPG Industry" from The Core Mechanic
    [2] "Role Playing Games, Social Media Games, and the Shared Fence" from The Core Mechanic
    [3] "Social Media RPG Platform" from MadBrewLabs
    [4] "Bridging the Gap: RPGs and Social Media" from MadBrewLabs
    [5] "Social Media Role Playing Minigames" from The Core Mechanic, which was also in part inspired by a previous comment on minigames in general in "Mini-Games in RPGs".
    [6] Ryan Felton, who was not part of this interview, co-founded OP with Wedemeyer in 2006.

    January 24, 2010

    Kobold Quarterly is FREE

    That's right. You can get Kobold Quarterly for Free!!!

    No strings attached! No complicated contracts or licensing agreements! No prenuptuals! No saving throws! You won't even need to use any healing surges! [1]

    All you need to do is go to a super secret page at Kobold Quarterly's website, and purchase the PDF version of KQ #10. At check out use the code "KQ10Free", and POOF! You instantly make your save vs. charm roll and KQ10 (in PDF form) is completely free of charge.

    Act now because those crafty Kobolds will start charging you after January 31st! Oh.. it's the issue that includes my own work too: a collection of skill challenges for 4E I collaborated on with MadBrewLabs and At-Will. So - check it out!

    And if you like what you see - consider subscribing to this fine magazine!

    Here's the email I got from them - just in case you think I've made my bluff check:
    Hi Jonathan:

    Just wanted to let you know that we're launching a special offer today at Kobold Quarterly that your readers might be interested in taking advantage of. From now through January 31, they can go to the KQ Store and use the coupon code KQ10Free to download a free PDF copy of Kobold Quarterly #10.

    Issue #10 features an interview with Paizo's Jason Bulmahn, Ed Greenwood's Dwarven Goddess, Ecology of the Hill Giant, John Wick's unique (and slightly disturbing) take on Halflings, Secrets of the Halberd, Monte Cook's Game Theories, Rampant Elf Lust, and more. We think it's one of the best issues we've ever done, and if you're inclined to share the coupon code on your blog, we hope it gives your readers some useful and entertaining content.

    If you have any questions about Kobold Quarterly, this offer, or whether Wolfgang really does have a magical workshop in the basement full of clockwork monstrosities, please don't hesitate to contact me.

    Shelly Baur
    Kobold Minion #1

    [1] You might actually use a few healing surges if you're a kobold yourself. Quartering up a kobold might not really sit well with you, and you might end up getting the hebejeebees... 

    January 21, 2010

    CALL to RPG Bloggers - Let's Give The Publishers Some Love

    Yesterday the gaming community raised over $50,000 through individual $20 donations from thousands of gamers and fans of role playing games. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, then click on that big graphic in the corner. Basically, One Book Shelf has done a great service by matching the donations and giving 100% of the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders for their efforts in Haiti. In addition, they included a MEGABUNDLE of over 100+ PDFs from publishers who were willing to donate to the cause. Hats off to OBS for taking the initiative and rallying the whole community. It's really been amazing to see the out pouring of donations.

    Hats off to the publishers who donated their creations to the $1400+ bundle of eBooks and PDFs too. As a publisher myself, I wanted to check out the "sales count" of the PDF bundle promotion (since it's a product that, even at $0 in price, is tracked just like any other product). Last I checked there where 2,714 bundles 'sold' - representing $54,280 in donations. OBS is matching that for a total well over $100,000 of good will for Doctors without Borders.

    But take a moment to step back and think about that... each bundle would have retailed for $1,481.20 as it includes over 120 products. Those sales numbers would have generated $4,019,976 in retail sales revenue!

    Now granted, that number assumes that OBS would have eventually sold 2500+ of each of the 1400+ products included in the bundle - which simply would have never happened. Nonetheless, it represents a HUGE loss of potential revenue for OBS and the indy publishers who participated in the charity drive.
    Many of these publishers have other products for sale. By reviewing, or even just pointing out to the community which PDFs you particularily love or find useful you can help all these publishers by getting people interested in their other products as well. So, the least we can do, as a blogging community, is highlight the PDFs gems that are included and hopefully direct our readers to support some of these small press companies.

    So, consider this an OPEN CALL to the RPG Blogging community. If you are a blogger, and you have donated to the Gamers for Haiti program - then please take some time to go through the list of PDFs to find the gems included. Write one, two or a dozen posts about your favorite PDFs, and highlight what else these publishers have to offer gamers. It's the least we can do to help promote the indy RPG gaming market - and they deserve the additional coverage.

    If you do so and decide to link back to this post at The Core Mechanic - I'll also post a linked list for everyone to copy/use as a jumping off point.
    DISCLAIMER: Being that I am technically a publisher, I want to begin this post with a disclaimer that I'm not trying to generate any free press or blogging for the two projects I'm involved in. This post was inspired by the charity of the independent publishers involved with the Gamers for Haiti promotion from OneBookShelf, and nothing more.

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    January 20, 2010

    Gamers Help Haiti - Donate Today & Get Over $1300 Worth of Gaming Loot Too!

    Donate $20 to Doctors Without Borders, and One Book Shelf will match it and give you over $1300 worth of RPG gaming eBooks and PDFs. I've attached the official press release from OBS at the bottom of this post.

    That's right... One Book Shelf, Inc., the company behind RPGNow.com and RPGDriveThru.com is promoting a matching donation program that over 100 publishers have participating in (including me). It works like this:
    1. You Donate $20 using the link below.
    2. One Book Shelf, Inc. matches your donation and donates a total of $40 to Doctors Without Borders on your behalf.
    3. You download a eBook/PDF bundle that includes over 100 RPG PDFs from over 100 RPG game companies that would have a retail value of over $1300!!!
    Yeah. Crazy isn't it? And it's all for a good cause too!

    Not only am I participating by including the PDF version of Open Game Table, Vol. 1, but Nevermet Press is also participating with their recent 4E eBook Portraits of a Villain - The Desire. You'll also find great products from Kobold Quarterly, Third Eye Games, Adamant Entertainment, Arc Dream Publishing, Encompass, Fat Dragon Games, Highmoon Games, and many many more.

    I mean.. just LOOK at all the PDFs you'll get just for donating your cash to help the efforts in Haiti!

    There's more... but I got tired of linking the images... here's the press release I received:

    Gamers Help Haiti! DriveThruRPG Offers a Mega-Bundle to Spur Donations 
    Wednesday, January 20, 2010
    DriveThruRPG announced a major incentive to the roleplaying gamer community today to incite donations to aid in rescue and recovery in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Called the “Gamers Helping Haiti Bundle,” the product includes over a hundred products totaling over $1000.00 in retail value. For a simple donation of $20 – all of which goes to Doctors Without Borders to support their post-earthquake Haiti relief efforts – RPG fans can have this once-in-a-lifetime collection of gaming products.
    DriveThruRPG already had opportunities to donate up and running within a day of the disaster. When publishers began asking how they could support the cause, the bundle was created to be an all-inclusive shared effort. Those who donated at the lesser levels won't be left out, however; gamers who have already donated $5 or $10 will be receiving a special coupon code that lets them pay the difference from their initial donation to get the bundle.
    “We are humbled by the generosity of both our customers and our publishers,” said Sean Patrick Fannon, Marketing and Communications Manager for DriveThruRPG, “all of whom have stepped up at this time of terrible tragedy to offer aid to a desperate people. We are also very proud to facilitate these collective efforts, providing the necessary tools and technology to bring it all together.”
    More than tools and tech, though, DriveThruRPG is really putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak. “We have always believed in the power of giving and sharing to make the world a better place,” said Steve Wieck, President and co-owner of the site. “To that end, we are matching funds with everyone who's making a straight donation at the $5 and $10 level.”
    There is no set date for terminating the donation efforts, though the bundle will only be available until the end of January.
    Anyone wishing more information about this effort, or about DriveThruRPG overall, should contact Sean Patrick Fannon at sean@onebookshelf.com or his mobile, 614-946-9371.