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Friday, 27 October 2017

How rules shape the game world

Occasionally in comments on this blog I've mentioned the idea of myth levels as a way to represent a step-change in capability between characters in a role-playing game. As a fan of Sergio Leone movies it seems only natural to devise rules like that. In this 2001 discussion (from Annwn magazine, by the way) between Tim Harford, Paul Mason, Ralph Lovegrove and me, we touch on that and other disconnects between how the role-playing world ought to be and how the rules actually shape it to be. I've seen a fair few role-playing games where the designer tells us how the game should be played, and what the resulting game world ought to be like, but the system they give us (when gamed, as it will be) doesn't lead to anything of the kind. Designers, it's like being the Founding Fathers - you want the game to turn out a certain way, you have to do the work.

Tim: The trend throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s was towards more rational, logical, modular and universal systems. The idea was to provide a simple but realistic means of resolving the usual game questions about combat, success rolls, and so on. Some did fairly well at this task, others didn’t. Along the way, something was lost. Perhaps the problem was with the idea of “realism”. Different games have their own reality. A system like GURPS, for example, is necessarily atheistic. Characters are defined in modern terms, and GURPS handles fate, luck, magic and so on rather clunkily. It’s just a patch, and in a “universal” system it’s hard to see any other way of doing that. In DW, we need to capture the spirit of the time and the place and build it into the rules from the ground up. Heroes can wrestle with giants because they have great spirits. Hannibal could freeze a man into an ice statue [a reference to Knightmare 4: Fortress of Assassins], not because he was a sorcerer, but because he was Hannibal. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” should be in the rules from the start, not as a “Pure of Heart” advantage (gives x10 ST). The best example of this, for me, was the Judge Dredd system. It was simple, it was stripped down, it gave everybody a special angle or talent, and it captured perfectly the “reality” that an unarmed Judge can take out a dozen thugs with tommy guns any day of the week. That’s the advantage of a focused system done well.

Dave: Or another example from Robin of Sherwood... Little John is wrestling with a stranger. It’s an edgy situation, a “friendly” match but not very friendly, as they don’t know who the guy is and they may very well rob him later. Then, angered by something or other, the stranger suddenly lifts Little John clear of the ground and throws him down. A conclusive victory (and very effective visually, as I recall, because of the sun behind them as the stranger lifts Little John aloft). Everyone sees this and, stunned, they go down on their knees, now recognizing the stranger as Richard the Lionheart. At the time, we talked about this kind of thing being represented by “myth levels”. If I’m myth level 10 and you’re myth level 1, you will not beat me in a fight even if you do have a much higher weapon skill. It’s back again to the idea that characters must be able to affect the narrative directly.

Paul: What’s the “narrative”? I think it’s dangerous to refer to characters affecting the narrative, because it seems to get people thinking in terms of manipulating their characters to make a story, which is different from immersing yourself in the character in the setting, and trusting in natural human processes to sort a narrative out of what happens.

Dave: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Instead of “affect the narrative”, I should have said “characters affect reality” – sorcerers and notable or mythic types especially. In fact, one thing we could say is that there is no difference (as Tim pointed out with the Hannibal example) between a mythically important character and a wizard. They can achieve the same results, even if apparently by different means. So maybe all magic-using characters should start at myth level 2?

Paul: Might it not be best to start off by talking about the spirit of the time and place, using whatever metaphors and references we can, before even starting to consider mechanics? To build up some kind of corpus of things we want the game to do before thinking of how to design rules that encourage those things to happen?

Dave: Agreed. Design should always begin with a feature-based description of the end product you’d like to have. Then we can start thinking about the way to achieve it.

Tim: If you look at the sources of inspiration for games like Dragon Warriors, you find that it doesn’t work the way it does in games. The effects are arbitrary, the limitations whimsical. Some great sorcerers never seem to cast a spell, while others never cast the same one twice. To a certain extent that’s inevitable: a storyteller can be creative and never needs to explain. A game designer is supposed to produce some kind of logic behind everything, for the sake of simplicity if nothing else. The lazy way out is to delegate all responsibility to the referee and players. That’s fine as far as it goes: they have far more responsibility for having a good time than any game designer. But professional (!) pride urges me to provide some framework to help this creativity, and to provide boundaries which are there to guide rather than constrain.

Dave:  RPG designers have been trying since 1975 or whenever to create a set of rules from which dramatically satisfying results will emerge. Obviously this isn’t working – for instance, applying D&D experience rules to an online RPG like Ultima has just meant the unbridled massacre of new player-characters for their experience value. Taking Legend: we know we would like a world that is very like the Middle Ages but with a delicate flavouring of magic. But Dragon Warriors played strictly by the books would not deliver that world. Possibly we could get better results from rules that dictate the end result, not the way it’s achieved, as in Maelstrom. The special effects are left to the player and referee to agree. Eg, a wizard can exert an effect limited by distance, duration, and area, the degree of deviation from reality, and the degree to which other people’s wills oppose the effect. The last factor means assigning points from each person’s will into what they care about. Say my will is directed 30% into preserving my own life, 35% into immediate family, 15% into my lord, 10% into my church, 10% into friends. So churches end up very well defended from magic because lots of people care about them, even if only marginally. Subtle use of magic is encouraged – I might wait until you are sleeping, and your will is weaker, or I might find ways to distort your senses so as to trick you into walking off a cliff instead of zapping you directly. Or I might undermine your reputation with illusions so that friends and family gradually turn against you, thus stripping you of your defences. (The way Mastermind manipulated Phoenix in the X-Men, for those comic fans among us.)

Paul:  There is another consideration: there’s little point in reinventing the wheel. It’s unlikely that Dragon Warriors 2 can be the same game Dragon Warriors 1 was, in the sense that it won’t be a mass market paperback converting gamebook readers into role-players. Rather, I would suggest, it might be best to approach it for what it really is: the game intelligent Dragon Warriors would want to be playing, 15 years down the line. Thus the magic system should be an attempt to do something that hasn’t been done before: create a magic system that actually feels like magic. Of the previously published magic systems, I still have a soft spot for Chivalry and Sorcery, simply because it managed to be genuinely arcane. But even if that approach had not already been bagged (and duplicated, by Ars Magica), it would still not quite fit the Legend that Dave described. As I understand it, DW magic should be more Mabinogion than Paracelsus. So it might be worth to start off by bouncing around general ideas about the nature of this framework. Does it involve “spells”, for example, or is it going to involve a more freeform set of magical “skills”? Is there going to be any effort spent on play-balance for magic, whether that be out-of-setting (mechanical) or in-setting (folkloric defences and so on).Another important issue: how homogeneous is it going to be, system-wise? Is there going to be the feeling that magic is pretty much the same however you learn, it, with only the decoration different? or will there be radically different systems to reflect a sense of diversity? That’s assuming there are any systems, of course.

Tim: (I like the idea as magic as a battle of collective wills. It seems to capture a great deal.) Homogeneity is to be avoided. I see a world containing magical creatures - fairies and sandestins, for example. They have their own ways of casting magic, which need not be transparent in the rules. Human magicians can bargain with them, or try simply to compel them to service. So that’s one way to command magic: by proxy. But I could also imagine a highly doctrinaire school which depends very much on ritual and on discovered spells. Here, the very rigidity of the spell system is an advantage: it emphasises rote learning. But such tricks as the “Imp-Spring Twinkle-Toe” seem another way to power; and the use of magical paraphernalia one more again. This doesn’t seem to be a problem. I wouldn’t want to see an attempt to break this down into “character classes”. I picture the “average” wizard in haphazard pursuit of magic in any form. We need to make the following concession to play balance: characters of equal myth level should be on a reasonably even footing. So a Myth 4 knight won’t be overly troubled by the enmity of a Myth 2 sorcerer - unless the knight is unwary, of course. Incidentally, I hate the nomenclature but love the concept of Myth Levels.

Dave: Again, I fully agree. I’m using this nomenclature just as a “developer interface”. And yes, a Myth 4 knight is of course on a par with a Myth 4 sorc. That is tautological - it’s the very thing that Myth levels define - eg, can this jumped-up little git really beat Captain Kirk? Of course not.

Ralph: Magic that feels “like magic” is quite a subjective term, but to me it suggests a slightly more spiritual or academic approach than the exoteric “press this button for fireball” spell system like AD&D. In order for magic to be truly mystical, it needs a cosmology behind it. This doesn’t have to be a defined “spirit world” as in White Wolf’s Mage... it’s more of a system of approach. The best model for magic are the real spiritual systems of the Kabbalah and other esoteric doctrines. The human body is the lowest, most base entity in the hierarchy of the human existence, and married to it is the soul, which (very) roughly equates to the personality and individual consciousness of the body. The soul is then a vehicle for the spirit, which is the “higher man”, the divine spark within a human. (To the more learned scholars out there: please forgive my bumbling through the halls of the arcanum, I’m still learning).Okay, metaphysics aside, what you have is this: the Spirit of a mortal is their true nature on the higher Spiritual plane of existence. Magicians are able to work their magic through their awareness of their higher selves. This is a concept prevalent in all sorts of spiritual teaching, from Hindu Akasha to Hermetic lore and Shamanism (in its broadest sense, encompassing systems such as Wicca and Scandinavian myth). In order to make it useful as a conceptual tool in the game, the “higher self” should have a set of statistics that are analogous to the “mortal self” on Earth - for example (picking a much used stat template) the higher self’s Fire, Earth, Air and Water translate to the mortal man’s Social, Physical, Mental and Magical skills respectively. The upshot is this: as the mortal man’s Myth status increases, it increases one or more of the higher man’s stats. Those Higher abilities might then be interpreted on the Earthly plane as incredible fighting prowess (Earth), the ability to sway enormous bodies of men and reduce a man to a quivering wreck with a glance (Fire), etc. This is not a particularly new idea: Runequest included the shaman’s fetch in its rules for Spirit Magic; Mage has the Avatar; Nephilim made use of elemental “Ka”. I don’t think that any of these games used the concept in quite the same way, however. The whole “Mythical Warrior” game is in many ways about both player and character ego, and the “higher man” literally is the Ego.

Paul:  This also matches some of the early thoughts on the I Ching. Some writers argued that the oracle directly connected with a higher, simplified plane, and because the higher plane was simpler than our own, interactions between cause and effect were more amenable to comprehension and control. Thus, although the I Ching tends to be regarded as a means of fortune telling, to early Chinese theorists it was far more than that: more like poking around with the motherboard of existence. An adept was supposed to be able to use the I Ching to effect changes in reality. All of which suggests that this higher (Platonic?) plane may be a useful concept, if only by analogy, for the working of magic. How, if at all, does it relate to Faerie? It would be nice if not handled directly. In other words, a high ‘Earth’ score doesn’t just represent ludicrous brute strength, but the capacity to affect ‘Earth’ on the higher plane... which will in turn end up affecting the lower plane, in the same way that the ‘myth levels’ that have been discussed before do. Thus, a very strong enemy will be able to beat a weaker (but higher myth level) character if the contest is narrow down to the purely physical. The latter’s advantage would be, however, that their higher myth level enables them to find other ways of winning. This can be rationalised (within the game) in metaphysical terms as being the exercise of a higher, Platonic, potential. It also seems to represent the ‘genre’.

Dave:  I just watched A Chinese Ghost Story 2 and was reminded that it was one of the inspirational sources for the myth level concept. The sword-wielding general in it is no sorcerer, but he is able to hold his own (briefly) against an invisible demon by dint of sheer skill. One idea might be that myth level lets you use the wrong skill for the job and still somehow get an effect.

Paul: I like that idea: presumably myth level is also useful in carrying on after one’s limbs have been hacked off? The danger here is of ending up with something that appears very similar to Feng Shui’s genre convention of “mooks” (whatever the hell that means) and “named characters”. On a very trivial level of course, myth level was something that original DnD level was supposed to represent. I also incorporate the “use any skill to defend against magic” in Outlaws, but without tying it to myth level (which doesn’t exist in Outlaws, except insofar as heroes tend to have higher skills).

32 comments:

  1. I love this idea. I love the idea that peoples' magic is as a result of their personality amplified. It also links in to the idea from most of history that sorcerers are messing with things that they shouldn't be - they are trying to get the rewards of a great hero but without all the trials and tribulations. I guess that "magic" would simply be the effects of a superhuman ability such as strength, intelligence or charisma. In the most mundane terms, someone with a science degree would be hailed as a god or goddess if they wound up in Medieval times for reasons we take for granted such as knowing to wash your hands to spread germs or for using the number 0. I too came to the conclusion ages ago that for magic to feel integrated into a world, it has to feel part of hte natural law of the world. My Wayfarer rules seem to have got some grasp of this. Quite simply, spirits and consciousness can live anywhere from some animals and plants to rocks to beings from beyond the stars. Some of the spirits are the ghosts of the dead, but some have never been human. "Magic" consists of being able to link your consciousness to theirs and "convince" them to do something for you. In this sense, magic is simply being able to talk to a large group of NPCs. However, they will have completely different priorities to you. A bird might want you to feed it seeds every day for a week to send a message. A tree might want you to get rid of some woodsmen. And don't expect any special knowledge from these beings. Dead people know what they did in life and what they saw and heard as ghosts and nothing more. Trees know nothing more than who or what walked near them and what the weather was like. Maybe you could talk to the "stars" and get a birds eye view of the land, but not much more. Over time, maybe you could build up a relationship with one of these creatures as if it was their own faction of NPCs. It might sound weak compared to being able to fling fireballs around, but I'm sure an imaginative player could do a lot with being friends with trees or birds (it was good enough for Gandalf, after all).

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    1. And also, in a world where almost everyone has no powers, having only one power will make you a god or goddess amongst them. And I just noticed that you don't need a science degree to know why you wash your hands or use the number 0. An 11 year old who was listening at school could do those things.

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    2. It's a pity that the word "mana" has been devalued by many games as just meaning "spell points", when it expresses a subtler idea common to many animistic belief-systems like the one you're describing there, Stuart, (ie the belief that everything has a spirit) namely that every spirit and person fits into a hierarchy of power. In animism, magic is simply one expression of that mana, not conceptually different from commanding a subordinate by means of status or coercing a foe through main force.

      It's certainly worth working out the rules by which things like ghosts and spirits operate. In Greek myth, as we see in The Odyssey, the dead care nothing for the living world and have no useful information to impart. But the necromancers of the 16th century believed that death revealed many secrets, and by raising a ghost and speaking to it you could learn things no living being could tell you.

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    3. Incidentally, when I say you need to work out the mechanism of magic, I don't mean it necessarily has to be scientific. A scientific system would be one in which spells that changed temperature were grouped together, so that spells that froze things probably bear some resemblance to those that create fire.

      Alternatively you might design a magic system where spells are grouped according to how people feel about them, not how the laws of nature work. We could call that poetic or anthropic magic.

      A good example of poetic thinking from another genre is the comic book character Storm. Her mutant power is the ability to control weather, but as Stan Lee pointed out that makes no sense. Weather types are grouped together because of the way we experience them, not because they all have a single cause. Can Storm control temperature or air pressure or moisture levels - which? And if all the above, she ought to be able to learn how to apply her powers to do other things than change the weather.

      And btw if Stan were ever to drop by here, I'm sure he'd point out that Storm's case is very different from Thor's. Thor can create wind, rain and lightning because he's a storm god. That's magic, so why shouldn't it follow poetic principles? His objection to Storm's powers is that they are mutant-derived, so in the Marvel Universe should logically be scientific.

      Tekumel is in a pocket universe with its own rules, and it's possible that some of its magic derives from the laws of physics in that universe. So that would definitely be a case of a scientific magic system - the same reason that Tekumel doesn't privilege some people as heroes, because in that universe (like ours) there's no such thing as fate or destiny.

      Even within a poetic magic system there are different ways it could work. Even in a scientific universe you could have poetic magic if the agency of magic was achieved by invoking entities (like the sandestins in Jack Vance's Dying Earth) who may be inclined to see the world in a poetic way. So you could have a sandestin who specialized in weather, say, even though the Dying Earth universe is our universe and the physics of weather effects covers multiple fields.

      A truly poetic universe is high fantasy. Here there's no such thing as physics, and the universe acts as if aware of human existence. Prophecies are real. Virtue may be rewarded. Some people are fated to be heroes. Events conform to the shape of stories. Magic may be organized according to how we feel about it rather than because of any underlying natural principles.

      This latter model is a highly anthropic universe. It's the only universe in which narrativist RPG systems make sense. Such a universe is not impartial to how humans behave within it. My objection, like Paul Mason's, to the narrativist assumption per se is that it gets applied to universes where it doesn't fit. Tekumel, for example, or Cthulhu mythos adventures, both of which take place in universes where the laws of physics unfold without knowing or caring about the existence of humanity.

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  2. I really liked how this idea of 'living myths' was incorporated into the Blood Sword books, and particularly The Demon's Claw. To paraphrase: Hunguk the Pirate King, like the True Magi, is undead – not in the sense adventurers tend to use the term, to describe shambling skeletons. Rather, he is too grand for simple life or death. He is a myth made real. Or reality made myth, maybe.

    The players in the book will never beat him, anyway. Even when it's mentioned that a grievous wounding has reduced him to about a tenth of his normal potency.

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    1. Yes indeed, and that's similar to the incident that impelled Professor Barket to write Empire of the Petal Throne. He sat in on a D&D game in which the players faced an archangel - and killed him.

      "And how many hit dice would Jesus have?" asked Barker.

      "If you don't like it, why don't you design your own game?" retorted the referee.

      And so he did. And players of the original EPT (like me) were inspired by tales of mythic characters like Kra the Mighty, Hrugga, Subadim, and so on.

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  3. ...but isn't the transgression of myth levels one of the greatest and most satisfying of dramatic tropes, from David and Goliath to Merry and the Witch-King.

    and coincidently I'm here feeling my way through a magic system for a D&D type game, that's more in the shamanistic / animist vein. The comment about needing both a feature-description rings true. Very timely.

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    1. David had a pretty high myth-level himself later on. Cunning or an unexpected strategem is obviously worth at least one myth-level's difference in a fight!

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  4. Btw I realize that the idea that player-characters should not by default be privileged above NPCs, which was common enough when we had the discussion, has been superseded in recent years by game systems that specifically set out to make the PCs the heroes of the story. So if you're used to playing in such a game, you might seem surprised that we would even talk about rising through myth-levels, given that those rules effectively start out the PCs at a higher myth-level from the beginning. This podcast gives some context and argues for why the NPCs should get the same breaks:

    http://www.tekumelpodcast.com/podcast/episode-17-no-npcs-tekumel/

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  5. Off topic, Dave (if you'll allow me). I read Roz's new book last night. It was mustard. :)

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    1. Oh no -- I'm allergic to mustard!

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  6. French mustard especially I would imagine. ;)

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    1. Actually, no, worst luck. I'm not that keen on French mustard, which I can have, but the English mustard that is essential to enjoyment of a good steak is now denied me. Sigh. Still, Roz will be delighted you enjoyed the book, Andy. As for me and my culinary woes -- at least I can still have horseradish.

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    2. Hello! I adore mustard and thank you very gratefully for the comparison! Andy, could I be really cheeky and ask for a review on Amazon?

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    3. Hello, Roz. No need to ask actually, as I wrote one on the night. Your book got me out of my writing reviews malaise (almost put mayonnaise there, but it didn't quite work). I'll get around to leaving a review of Lifeform Three at some point, although maybe the horse has bolted on that one.

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    4. Andy, I just saw it! Thanks so much. As for reviewing Lifeform Three, it's never too late for a review to make a difference. Though if your memory is anything like mine, you might not be able to remember anything beyond 'that was nice...'
      Mustard, mayonnaise ... both of them fine substances.

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    5. Just nobody mention wasabi.

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    6. You're welcome, Roz. I struggle with review titles on Amazon as much as anything else, so 'that was nice' will serve perfectly for Lifeform Three. Maybe 'that was nice wasabi' for your next novel, which I'm very much looking forward to by the way.

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    7. On the subject of Amazon, idea for new gameshow, 'how eclectic was your last order?!'

      The Port Of Peril (Book) To complete collection
      Black Death (DVD) Dave recommendation
      Ninja Trilogy (DVD) Nostalgic internet browse
      Essential Clannad (CD) John mentioned them
      The Very Best of Enya (CD) Guilty pleasure
      Ash Vs Evil Dead 2 (DVD) Another guilty pleasure
      Not Quite Lost (Book) As per blog above

      Roz, you're in some fantastic company there!


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    8. I can see it becoming a Facebook game, Andy -- though I've sworn off social media for a month, so I'll post mine here:

      Avalon card game - recommended by my godson
      Veep season 6
      Elementary season 5
      Nobody's Perfect: Writings From the New Yorker - I must have liked one of his recent movie reviews
      Deadwood by Pete Dexter - ordered after watching the movie of God's Pocket
      The High Crusade - prep for an uncoming game
      The Prodigal Son - a martial arts movie starring Andy "Mr Vampire" Lam.

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    9. Yeah, that's fairly diverse. I think you trumped me overall due to the card game. Must get around to watching Veep at some point. I watched Black Death this evening by the way. Very good, although Lord Percy was a bit distracting in it.

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    10. Hi Dave. I've looked at your list in a bit more detail. Was going to ask you to expand on The Prodigal Son. I found the film easily enough but had never heard of Andy Lam and struggled to find any reference to him. I've got there eventually. Complete co-incidence I'm treating myself to the Bruce Lee Master Collection when it gets released. Other than Enter The Dragon (possibly my guiltiest pleasure!), I've not seen the other films for 30 odd years!

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    11. Same here, Andy, but if you want to make it a movie night I'll bring the beers.

      My bad re Andy Lam - nobody uses those old Western-style names these days, but (as you no doubt found) he's Lam Ching-Ying. Check out Mr Vampire and Magic Cop.

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  7. Hey, have you heard about this new attempt at a Fabled Lands-y sort of system from the major board game house Fantasy Flight Games? https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2017/10/30/new-friends-and-stranger-companies/

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    1. Bit naughty of them to call it a "unique play experience", unless they really are genuinely unaware of Fabled Lands are just happened to come up with the same concept 23 years on :-) Still, good luck to 'em -- though personally if I wanted to play the kind of adventure described there I'd just get The Witcher. Or Skyrim. Or Drakensang. Or...

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    2. Yeah, there seems to be a big market recently for taking things that work best as video games and making them into board games because of the "board game boom". Dark Souls is literally a board game now! It's a thing, I guess, but it makes no sense to me.

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    3. Baffles me too. I like boardgames and I like videogames, but each is good at different things. I don't want one that simulates the other.

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  8. I specifically created an account to let them know in the forum about Fabled Lands.

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    1. Thanks, John. I wonder if they were already aware of FL? Surely they must have been.

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    2. You'd think so. I will state that the only reason I became aware of Fabled Lands was through re-purchasing the Way of the Tiger series.

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    3. I keep forgetting that FL was much less well-known in the States back in the '90s -- and of course was called Quest there.

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