|V8: A Skeptic's Journey
I had intended to write this article much sooner than now, but as happens with many things, life and other priorities got in the way. However, I recounted a portion of the story below at the V8 discussion circle at Clan this year, and was asked to bring this to the wider Amtgard populace, as the individuals who came to the meeting found it extremely illuminating regarding the entire V8 process.
As a bit of background, my name is Kord, and I am an 18-year veteran of Amtgard. I began in the Empire of the Iron Mountains in 1995, and have spent most of my time in Amtgard here, with brief stints in Dragonspine (2 years under the now defunct Ardent Sands) and Neverwinter (4 months in Falling Fire). I also have traveled extensively, ranging from coast to coast and the many Kingdoms in between. In 2005, I began taking a much more active role in Amtgard leadership, and received knighthood in the order of the crown in 2009.
While magic is really what initially drew me to Amtgard, being in the Iron Mountains during the 90s, it was really fighting that was front and center to my Amtgard experience. Even then, I have memories of ditch battles and tournaments being much more prevalent than battlegames, which it appeared were played only begrudgingly by the veteran players of the time. I don’t remember playing battlegames all that often, and when we did, there was a significant amount of sitting around waiting for things to happen (or waiting for the game to end because I’d been shattered out early) rather than actually playing the game.
I took a break from Amtgard for a while in 2004, and came back in early 2005 to find that the game had finally moved on from V6 (which I was told many times was only going to be a temporary rule set) and had adopted V7. I was looking forward to playing a more streamlined rule set. However, even though I felt it was an improvement over V6 in many aspects, I found that I was quickly disillusioned with the standard battlegame style under V7, as the aspect of V6 that I found most frustrating hadn't gone away: there was still a set number of lives, there was still "speed counts" to actually get the game going, and there was still extreme imbalances between the character classes. Despite being a master druid and really enjoying hamming it up while role-playing, I eventually began to focus on fighting because it was the one aspect of Amtgard that didn't seem truly broken.
When Brennon approached me in 2010 about being a member of the V8 Committee, I had absolutely no idea how massive the changes that we would be implementing would be. We initially got together and put together a wish list of items that we wanted to see changed about the game. My biggest item on the list was obviously the life mechanic that was in place. I definitely felt that it was making the game stagnant and not fun, especially for newer players who hadn't figured out the tricks necessary to stay alive for the entire game. I had seen many newbies at my park elated at the idea of getting to play a barbarian, archer, or wizard, only to be frustrated by the extreme complexity of the rules and the seemingly unnecessarily long downtime, never to be seen again.
There were also a large amount of other issues that we as a group felt needed to be corrected. If you ve never seen it, I suggest taking a look at the V8 roadmap (located at http://www.electricsamurai.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=23780), which was a document we issued in January of 2011 to the CoM to inform the Amtgard populace as a whole what concepts we were using as our guiding principles during the writing process. With some slight variation, it also shows the intended flow of how we would provide releases on the rules for play testing purposes.
The first job that we attempted to tackle was the revamp to the armor system. This was by far the most contentious aspect of the entire rules set, and one on which a number of the committee members butted heads considerably. Brennon and I went rounds about different aspects of the system, how ratings should be determined, how damage should be calculated, what materials should be allowed/excluded, etc.. I don’t believe there is a single aspect of the armor system that was not up for debate during the process. There are so many potential ways to rate armor (e.g. appearance, protective quality, encumbrance/weight, historical accuracy, etc.), and each option had its own vocal proponents (as you can clearly see if you read the Amtgard V8 Facebook group for more than five minutes). Our goal was to come up with a system that took as many of these as possible into consideration, so as to provide a compromise position that would hopefully be acceptable to all the various armor proponent camps. We also wanted to implement a system that would decrease the subjectivity of armor ratings, and that would decrease the difficulty of interacting with armor on the field. I had my reservations about the system that we finally released, but those reservations were quickly erased once I got to see how it played on the field, and how easy it was for new people to pick up when explained properly. The difficult part was letting go of my pre-existing understanding of how armor worked, but once I was able to do that, the flow of combat was much easier to handle without having to worry about how many points that arrow was, or whether the polearm that was being swung at me was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 points.
After we had started working on the classes, real life got in the way, and I was unable to participate as thoroughly as I would have liked for a couple months. When I was finally able to begin participating again, I was absolutely dumbfounded at how much had been accomplished, and how radically different it was than I had originally envisioned. The classes seemed to me at first to be virtually unrecognizable, the power scale seemed utterly warped, and most everything that I had known from V7 had been jettisoned. I had thought we were just going to clean up some of the problem spells, remove a few here, replace a few there; what I came back to was, or at least seemed to me to be, an entirely different game. I had no idea where to even begin providing input, and grew extremely frustrated with the entire process. When we were getting ready to release the Wizard rules, I was done, and ended up posting about my frustrations. I had more or less decided to resign my position on the committee, as I couldn't in good conscience add my name to something that seemed to me to be nowhere near the Amtgard I had been playing for the past 16+ years.
We discussed my concerns, and everyone agreed to step back a moment and consider whether the level of change that was being made was absolutely necessary. Brennon specifically asked me to go back through V7, and go line by line through the entire document, reviewing every class power and ability to see how we could incorporate it into the new balancing framework that we had designed prior to my absence (e.g. not utilizing number of lives as a balancing factor). I agreed, and sat down to do just that, expecting to be able to resurrect a significant portion of V7 in the process. Through this process, I had an epiphany. The entire rulebook for V7, including all the magic and abilities, were balanced assuming a certain game style and number of lives. When we implemented such radical changes as the free-form game design, the Armor Breaking mechanic, states, and the more balanced and focused class roles, huge parts of the V7 rulebook just became irreconcilable.
I went through every single item, and I think I only argued for a total of five spells to be brought back in (a couple of which have been removed in subsequent editions due to play testing feedback and options for abuse). If you’re playing a straightforward, vanilla V7 shatter battle, the game balance was acceptable (not great, mind you, but passable), but what if you decided to do something such as life pools, or objective based games, or even instant res games? Per a technical reading of the rules, you can't. As soon as you change this mechanic, you are no longer playing the game as it was intended to be played. Not only that, but making these changes throws the whole balance of the game completely out of whack. Let's take an example I've heard a decent number of people express concern about: Berserk. In an infinite res scenario, how do you handle this effect? Most places just recycled lives after you hit your normal life cap, so after five lives, the barbarian was back up and running with two new berserks he could pop at any time. Since you can take a death at any time, it is feasible for a barbarian to utilize berserk twice in a row, die, and just quickly cycle through his non-Berserk lives just to get to his new round of berserk ones. This means that, in some variations of V7, it is feasible to be berserk with FAD an unlimited number of lives. I don't think anyone, even the barbarian enthusiasts out there, could argue in good conscience that this is balanced.
This epiphany was a turning point for me in the whole process. It wasn't until this point that I finally bought fully into what V8 had transformed into. I came back from that review much more involved, much more enthusiastic, and much more willing to consider changes that represent what we believe is best for the game. However, I am probably still the most conservative member of the committee. Every idea that is brought to the table goes through a thorough calculation to review what the potential problem areas are, where things can be abused, how difficult the idea will be for current Amtgarders to assimilate, whether or not the change is appropriately thematic or balanced, etc., but I went into the process more willing to consider those changes for what benefit they bring to the table, rather than what aspect of the prior version of the rules they were replacing. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the other committee members roll their eyes at me when I post every little nit-picky concern.
While it took me a little while to realize it, my earlier concerns about this not being the Amtgard I grew up in were completely unfounded. I realized that my problem was an issue of perception, not of reality. I was focusing too much on the changes to the individual tree rather than realizing that it's the same forest, just much lusher than it had been previously. I was interpreting Amtgard in a rather dismal light, as nothing more than a set of rules. When I expanded my view and realized all of the additional things about Amtgard I was ignoring, I saw that what had initially seemed like drastic changes really hadn't done anything to the core of the Amtgard experience.
Another real test for V8 for me was when we finally got to the point of beginning to play test at my own park. It was a bit of a challenge trying to figure out how to get everyone on board for the process, as no one had any interest in reading anything about the system. However, after a full month of trying it out, everyone at our park was hooked. Whereas we previously only did battlegames when the one lone newbie we were able to retain really wanted to do one, now our hardcore stick-jocks were the ones trying to get games going. We went from one battlegame a month to multiple battlegames per day. Some of those games are awesome, and others could use some tweaks, but overall, it's a vast improvement over what happened with V7. I am currently the IM Champion, and I am having more fun running games and coming up with new ways to test the system out than I have had any time in the 18 years I've been in Amtgard. Our attendance and newbie retention has increased dramatically, our social atmosphere has gotten better because V8 has fostered more teamwork and cooperation, and overall, we're in a much better place than we were just one year ago when we started play testing.
I think one of the best parts about this process is the fact that we really are taking people's feedback into consideration with regard to changes to the rules. While we may not comment regularly (this is intentional, which I know is a point of consternation for some people), we do lurk, and read almost all of the comments that occur on Facebook or on E-Sam. I also manage the Amtgard V8 Mailbox and tabulate every idea so that it can be discussed by the committee. We have held multiple V8 dial-in sessions to do live discussion about the rules (and yes, we do plan to do more of them, time permitting). A substantial amount of change has occurred due to feedback provided through these channels, and we are extremely grateful to all of those people who have been willing to step up and, even if they are not completely satisfied with the product, have at least put in the effort to test it thoroughly and provide their feedback. This truly is the first time this has occurred in Amtgard, and I think it is resulting in a far superior game than what we have had for the past 30 years.
As a side note, there is a specific reason why we have chosen not to engage many of the conversations that occur on Facebook and e-Sam early in the process. That reason is that, when an issue is raised, we want to understand how those issues are being interpreted, and if there is really something that needs to be clarified. If we were to step in and clarify it early in the conversation, we wouldn't be able to understand where the ambiguity lies. Seeing the community come together and provide alternative interpretations helps us immensely in figuring out where we need to make tweaks to language, content, power, etc.. I know many people want to have us weigh in on a topic and settle it once and for all, but ultimately, that should happen through what is included in the rules, not through how we steer people during play testing.
I realize that V8 may not necessarily be for everyone. For the longest time, V8 wasn't even for me, and I've been heavily involved in the process of writing it. However, I think if people step back a moment, and reflect critically, they may come to realize that this is not an attempt to destroy our game. Sure, certain aspects of the system may not be the way you or I want them. There's not a single person on the committee (Brennon included) who is completely satisfied with every aspect of it. But if you get involved, if you provide your feedback, you can directly influence this process and make Amtgard a better game for it. We have no desire to ram a new set of rules down your throats. We want to get you all involved now so we can ensure these rules are the best they can be if they are implemented in 2014 as having our voices heard now will be a lot easier than going through the rules revision process.
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