Friday, August 29, 2008

The artifacts of our hobby

I’d rather have a pile of lavishly illustrated books spread across my gaming table than a PDF any day.

Sure, electronic documents are supremely portable, and I’ve relied on them many times in the past for their utility and portability. Moreover, their minimal cost has enabled many newcomers to enter the gaming industry, which has been a great boon for our hobby. These days, my gaming table invariably sees three or four laptops humming at each game session, the players themselves half-hidden behind computing hardware. In truth, this shouldn't be a big deal; at 26, I'm part of the generation that grew up with personal computers (specifically notebooks), and they'll only become a more integral part of our game culture from here on out.

But my fondest RPG memories involve “classic” gaming: a kitchen table strewn with dice, pencils, miniatures and battered, much-loved RPG books. These mythic tomes — imbued with an aura not terribly far removed from the spellbooks of arcane wizards — served as the birthplace of adventure and the last resting place of heroes. Worlds lived and died between their pages. They were filled with rich lore and lavish illustrations, yes, but what they held more than anything was potential: the promise, if you will, of worlds unexplored and games yet to be played.

The books on my shelf bear the war wounds of all the games I played. I still remember accidentally sitting on my Star Wars d6 core book, leaving a lightning-shaped crease in the cover. Pages 38 and 39 of my Mutants & Masterminds book are gone forever, having been fused together when I dropped a slice of pizza and then absentmindedly closed the book. For reasons I can't explain, my D&D 3.5 book falls open to the Monk's page every time I set it on the table.

The act of cracking open a new RPG book or penciling in a new skill on a character sheet is a part of the tactile appeal of gaming. Given this, it’s easy to understand how roleplaying sprang from a small group of overly creative tabletop wargamers. Dice, tokens, markers, miniatures, charts, books — these are the physical artifacts of our shared hobby, and I derive a strong sense of inclusion by keeping the tradition alive.

(As an aside, the inspiration for this post came from Xeveninti, a new blog from an old-school gamer who's just now finding his way back into the hobby. It's been fascinating to read about how he discovered roleplaying in the first place; I highly recommend checking in with him.)

Pictured above is my own RPG shelf. It's a work in progress.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What to do with all these WWII minis?

I’ve got a big pile of WWII minis laying around from the year or two I spent actively playing Avalon Hill’s Axis & Allies Miniatures game. This isn’t the huge-ass board game that takes hours to set up and many more hours to play; I’m talking about the collectible tabletop wargame that came out in the fall of 2005 and (to my knowledge) remains a supported product to this day.

Alas, Axis & Allies Miniatures had a fairly short life for me. The rules were somewhat dumbed-down (Avalon Hill is just another Hasbro brand, just like Wizards of the Coast) and each new release added increasingly goofy mechanics to the game. Plus it was collectible, meaning there was always something new to buy.

I’m proud to say I was part of the Historic House Rules (HHR) initiative that helped inject a little realism back into the game. Together with four other players (whom I never actually met in person; we just corresponded via the web) we gutted AAM’s rules and built a new framework from the basic structure of the game. I had a blast during those hectic months, discussing revisions on the Avalon Hill forums, editing PDF proofs and answering questions from enthusiastic gamers. I daresay the HHR rules improved AAM for a lot of people. (You can download the latest version of the rules from the good folks at Historic Battlefronts.) In an ironic twist, I never actually got to play the game with my own house rules; the one guy in Chicago I knew who played regularly turned up his nose at the HHR rules.

So I haven’t played the game since last summer, but I’ve still got piles of cool miniatures sitting around, all in more or less the same scale. And I love WWII tabletop gaming, owing in large part to my ongoing passion with WWII, particularly the Eastern Front. So I’m determined to find a cool set of rules to use with my minis — hopefully one that does away with AAM’s horrid hex maps. I’ve found a few free games and a few for-sale rulesets that look promising, and I’m actively on the lookout for more candidates. For now, I’m not looking to spend much more money — Crossfire’s $20 rulebook is about the limit of my budget and interest. But I dearly want an excuse to dust off my T-34s and take to the battlefield once again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Play by Post vs. Real Life

As I briefly noted below, I've just gotten involved with a play by post AD&D2e Planescape game. You can read about it here. With only a little more than a day under our belt, I think it's shaping up nicely. The other players are enthusiastic, and the DM (noisms from the monsters and manuals blog) is setting a wonderfully old school tone.

I'm really trying to play a type of character that I'm not sure I've ever played in an rpg before - someone who's very precise and bound by harsh cultural customs (you know, like duty, honor, and hierarchy). In other words, someone who's lawful neutral. It's fun but definitely challenging. Especially because I don't want to piss off the other players who I don't even know with an overabundance of inaccessibility and arrogance. (It's all in character - I swear it's not me!)

It's hard to say whether this type of game has the staying power of in person games (though who am I kidding about the staying power of these). But I'm definitely enjoying the writing aspect. I'm trying to look at my character as I've heard great comic book writers talk about their characters: It's all about distilling the character down to the handful of core elements that make that character cool and make that character tick. So, I made a list of some elements, and I'm going to try to keep them on the screen next to my browser as I post.

At the very least, the writing saves me from embarrassing voice acting.

What I love about RPGs, or The Problem of Logistics

If there's one thing I love about rpgs, it's playing them. And if there's one thing I don't like about rpg's, it's trying but not finding time to play them. The latter happens all too often.

Our Wild Talents game got off to a really nice start, but weekends filled up fast, and football season (the real football, meaning NotSoccer) as about to begin. Through January, playing rpgs on Sundays is basically shot for me. Priorities, you know.

Anyway, we've been having trouble scheduling our game, and now we're batting around the possibility of splitting the group and running them in parallel for a little. In the meantime, we still haven't nailed down a time to play regularly, and this was what it was all supposed to be about: getting back into the groove of a regular, biweekly game. Something to depend on.

Now, this isn't the fault of anyone in particular, but it just stinks and is all too common with gaming groups. The hardest part about gaming isn't the johnny on the spot creativity, synthesizing a ruleset, or strategizing a character build - it's logistics.

I'm just thankful that I'm getting involved with a Play by Post game.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Photos from Gencon 2008

I forgot my actual camera, but it turns out that my new Sony Ericsson camera phone takes halfway decent photos. Here are a handful of scenes from Gencon 2008.

This was nifty -- Mayfair and Days of Wonder (and a few other companies I may have missed?) had set up a board game room where you could "check out" a game and play it on a nearby table, then return it and try a new one.

Here's the game room itself. Through the doors on the far wall was a much larger room, about the size of a gymnasium, with lots of game space.

Every table in this room was a different D&D game.

Scanthan and Ben on Saturday night playing Cuylas. A few minutes later we wrapped up our game and these two gents embarked on a night of hijinx in Indianapolis. They dropped in on the steampunk-themed Gencon dance and tried (unsuccessfully) to crash the uber-pretentious White Wolf party.

Tower of Gygax! The DM handed out two copies of each character, then proceeded to run a rotating cast of characters through a super old-school dungeon named for the iconic father of D&D. We used the first edition rules, and it was a blast. My gnome illusionist died after he looted the wrong body and a cascade of molten gold washed over him.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rock-Con 2008 is on my calendar

Gencon was fun — but huge. I only ended up playing one scheduled game, although in all fairness we were able to snag a few demos and sit-down board games.

I’m excited about Rock-Con, a medium-sized annual convention outside Rockford, IL. That’s about an hour from my place in Chicago, so this is an ideal convention for someone (like me) who wants to actually play games, rather than shop and watch others play games.

There’s very little content on the Rock-Con 2008 site right now, and I really hope that changes soon. I’m particularly excited about the historical minis representation at the con — it’s put on by the Noble Miniatures team, so you can bet they’ll have a bevy of historical wargames on hand. For a guy who’s been spending a lot of time with sci-fi and horror RPGs, there’s something really appealing about taking command of a Wehrmacht detachment in the ruins of Stalingrad. Count me in.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Scoring a Game

When I troll around rpg message boards (which is unsettlingly often), I'll see a thread on music pop up every so often. Folks will ask for music recommendations for certain kinds of games, and the response will often be something like, "Check out this site or this video game soundtrack, because it has great ambient tavern sounds. Clink clink. The voice of an old man in the back ground offering 5 strangers a bag of gold to save a princess. Etc." And then there are those who like movie soundtracks (but always shy away from known songs, like the Indiana Jones theme, because that would be gauche).

I love music when I'm playing and actively scoring a game, but I don't like either of these strategies. Some of my best game experiences have involved the kind of music I actively listened to at the time. In a Star Wars game, our seedy crew of a dilapidated starship flew through space and descended through the atmosphere to the sounds of Beck - funky, spacey, zany, with a drop of cowboy music. In a pulpy game built around kinetic action and fighting Nazis (of course), the drum and bass of the Propellerheads drove the action. If you like hip hop, I can attest that it fits in a huge range of scenes beyond the club.

The point is that many of my most fun game moments include the bobbing of the head. No matter how elegant the rules are or how robust the setting is, it's about being social with a bunch of friends imagining the same thing. Good music is one of the most underrated game aids in this respect.

And beer doesn't hurt either.

Setting unimportant for indie games?

Something struck me as I was browsing the indie games at Gencon. The most successful titles, the ones that stick with me for weeks after a quick 15-minute demo, aren’t the games with the epic, engrossing settings. Rather, they’re the games that hinge on one truly unique mechanic, something that’s so innovative that I smack myself on the forehead and say, “ Why didn’t I think of that?”

I think that’s where the future of RPGs might be. Not in voluminous settings that require small armies of writers and editors to produce (although there’s certainly something to be said for deeply engrossing titles like Dark Heresy or Blue Planet) but in stripped-down, minimalist games whose success rests on a single spiffy game mechanic. Web publishing makes these ventures exceedingly easy to create and distribute. Ben and I have been kicking around a game idea for a while, and it would certainly be an interesting exercise to restart the process through this paradigm.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review: 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

The only game I actually signed up for at Gencon was a demo of 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, Gregor Hutton’s take on Starship Troopers-style space marine roleplaying. It was entertaining, to say the least. So much of the game revolves around what can only be described as military porn: improving your gun, earning new campaign medals, advancing in rank. It’s almost (but not quite) to the level of a console RPG.

Still, there’s a bevy of quirky game elements that keep this title squarely within the “indie” category. Gameplay focuses on soldiering, usually a series of missions to unexplored planets. Upon encountering the enemy, players get to position their characters at various ranges for the encounter. These aren’t physical range brackets, mind you; rather, they’re a sort of nebulous combat metric that interacts with lots of other game elements. Certain guns work better at “Near,” for example, and other weapons can actually push characters into different ranges, thus affecting their performance.

Guns in this game are great. You roll to hit, then you roll to see how many aliens you freakin' kill. No rolling for damage — characters are expected to mow down dozens of aliens in a single mission, and it’s great fun to roll 1d100 and mark down dozens upon dozens of kills on your character sheet.

The flashback mechanic was also beautifully done. In a pinch, characters can choose to roleplay a brief, relevant flashback, thereby whisking the team to safety and, incidentally, revealing a little more about their character to their fellow marines. Flashbacks have positive and negative flavors, though, and lower-rank troopers can force higher-rank officers to relive a particularly embarrassing flashback as well.

A few things about this game struck me as confusing. It’s unclear whether the minimalist setting is meant to be played as campy or grim; I opted for campy (naming my character “Thick Neck Johnson”) but I guess you could go either way. Then there’s the title...3:16...what’s that about? In the game, that’s the name of your combat brigade (the 3:16th infantry). But for us Westerners, that number holds a weird spot in our cultural landscape. I sort of expected some weird religious overtone, a la Warhammer 40k, but it wasn’t there. I’m not entirely sure where the name comes from.

In addition, the art is barely there, which I guess gives GMs and players a lot of latitude in determining what their characters look like -- but I was hung up on more fundamental stuff, like what the standard-issue armor suit is supposed to look like. At first, that got in the way of my game, but by the end of the demo I was rolling d100s like a champ.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oh HELL no: McCain disparages D&D crowd

"It may be typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman's memory of war from the comfort of mom's basement, but most Americans have the humility and gratitude to respect and learn from the memories of men who suffered on behalf of others."

-- A McCain campaign blogger

McCain loses d8 electoral votes, no save allowed.


Update: An apology? Can't tell if it's a joke or for real...

"If my comments caused any harm or hurt to the hard working Americans who play Dungeons & Dragons, I apologize. This campaign is committed to increasing the strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma scores of every American."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thought Bubbles from GenCon

Just got back from GenCon.  It was my second time attending, though it was my first time playing games (last year, we just hung out on the convention floor and headed back to Chicago after sensory overload).  Here're some quick thoughts:

I played a session of Wild Talents with one of the designers, and we're actually playing it "right."  It's always pretty strange to me when a bunch of people read a book chock full of rules and walk away with the same ideas.  Laws are always implemented differently across contexts.  I guess roleplaying is just pure.  Sometimes.

We demoed a few games at the Forge booth.  The Shab Al Hiri Roach was sick, as in good  full of debauchery.  As an academic, a game about an ancient and evil telepathic roach controlling academics is strangely familiar.  The funny thing is, the one guy who wasn't controlled by the roach acted exactly the same way as the ones who were controlled: petty, violent, and all about climbing the social ladder.  We also played this cute little game called Zombie Cinema.  The designer, a Finnish dude, was funny as hell with crazy deadpan humor.  But when we tried to play it ourselves after buying the game, we had a tough time making it hum.

I played female characters in 3 different games this weekend.  Is there something I'm not telling myself?

I unexpectedly played a few board games (Ticket to Ride and Caylus) and unexpectedly had a lot of fun.  I like board games, but they don't consume my creative juices when I'm not playing them.  My one buddy (my former GM from grad school) told me that he barely plays rpg's anymore because board games give him more consistently satisfying experiences.  I think he's on to something.  When rpgs are good, they're really good.  But sometimes, gaming just leaves me meh (even though I clearly keep coming back for more).  You know what you're getting every time with board games.  And Caylus makes my brain hurt.  I'd definitely play it again, but I only know a couple people who'd play it.

A weekend at GenCon is really expensive.  When old friends meet you there, it's also really drunken and bereft of sleep.  I had fun, but I don't think I'm going back.  If anything, I'll try to hit some of those cons that run indie games around Chicago (which I've never done before).  

It took me two days to recover.  I'm getting old.

The GenCon dance was maybe the most incredible thing I've ever seen.  Since middle school.  Arms length dancing to crappy classic rock songs.  We also succeeded in getting turned away from the White Wolf after party twice.  I guess we're not Ventrue.  I'll just have to soak that insult.

Defying vanilla: Tales of New Crobuzon

Irony is a funny thing. I was gearing up to write a gushy post about one of the most exciting Gencon announcements I came across: Adamant Entertainment’s forthcoming RPG line based on China Mieville’s Bas Lag universe. For the uninitiated, Mieville’s fiction (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council and a handful of short stories) blend elements of fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk and romance in the melting pot of New Crobuzon, a sprawling, gaslight-era urban fantasy city. You'll either love his prosaic writing style or hate it.

The city is very cool, but (critically) it’s an entirely new fantasy setting that completely discards common tropes — and brings in so many new, exciting ideas. It’s the complete opposite of Uncle Bear’s recent post bemoaning the lack of originality in D&D today — the idea that, once we strip away all the pop and sizzle, most D&D settings are basically the same. Vanilla through and through, to use his phrasing.

Mieville’s fiction defies this notion, and it will be interesting to watch the development of Adamant’s forthcoming Tales of New Crobuzon RPG. (Email tonc[at]adamantentertainment[dot]com to sign up as a playtester.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gencon shout-out

Props to my friends Tom and Garrett, who started playing a D&D 4e game on Thursday at Gencon and didn't stop until Saturday evening. They logged something like 55 hours between the two of them. I could never -- indeed, would never want to -- do that, but at some point the sheer endurance of these two geeks becomes admirable. Now that they've proven they can take a brand-new character through level 4 in a long weekend, there are just a few accomplishments left unconquered for them. Climbing Everest is one. Piloting the Space Shuttle is another.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bound for GenCon

Apparently there’s a bit of liveblogging going on from GenCon. Will I do this? Not if it means missing out on cool demos or shopping or meeting designers. So, most likely no.


Big news has already trickled out about one of my favorite game companies. Fantasy Flight Games, which secured the license to publish material for Warhammer 40k Roleplay and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay earlier this year, announced the first substantive release for the 40k RPG product line: Rogue Trader, set to debut at GenCon 2009.

Like Dark Heresy, which digs into the furtive schemings of the Imperial Inquisition, Rogue Trader promises to be an in-depth look at another fan-favorite part of the 40k universe: the raffish captains who pilot ancient starships deep into unexplored space. These rogue traders, as they’re known in the game’s lore, operate at the very fringes of civilization, often encountering never-before-seen cultures and creatures. If Dark Heresy was the 40k conspiracy game, Rogue Trader promises to be the 40k exploration game (though as always, count on a hefty dose of gothic, Cthulhu-inspired horror).

From a purely nostalgic point of view, Rogue Trader is the spiritual successor to 1987's Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the seminal work that laid the groundwork for the rich, detail-drenched 40k universe we know today.

I’m hoping to chat up the FFG developers either today or tomorrow about their plans for the 40k RPG line.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Just a bunch of guys, hangin' out and playin' some games

My comrade Sam has been pushing the idea of a weekly board game night recently. In my mind, this is a good thing, because it really tempts our large, nebulous group of gamers to coalesce around an informal weekly engagement.

There are at least 10 of us floating around out there, some of whom have never met one another, who would really benefit from a weekly meetup. Whether or not this becomes a regular thing I cannot say. All I know is that we all could do with a dose of regular, casual gaming outside the trappings of our various ongoing RPGs (which are legion).

The shape of things to come

Back in 1995, I really didn’t have much of an idea what roleplaying actually was. I was 13 and had recently purchased my first Magic: The Gathering deck; I was utterly smitten by the brightly colored illustrations and the sparse, detail-soaked lines of flavor text on each card. Magic was a smashing success for me and my friends, but D&D was a nebulous concept — I knew older players enjoyed this game, and that (like Magic) it drew on Tolkien-inspired fantasy tropes. But as far as the mechanics and rules went, I knew only that it involved creating a character with stats describing how well he would perform in a given scenario, then rolling dice when those scenarios came up in the game (this, I hazarded, was the province of the gamemaster, a term that quickly joined my lexicon as I endeavored to learn more about RPGs).

Still, I was bound and determined to venture further down the path. This was pre-Internet, mind you, but I was lucky enough to have a subscription to InQuest, which at the time was a rock-solid gaming mag that fanned the flames of Magic’s explosive popularity. I had no RPGs of my own, so I decided to create one based on Deathlands, a a post-apocalyptic pulp series I’d been reading voraciously. In retrospect, my bumbling attempt at creating a game was comical. Lacking solid knowledge of what RPGs actually were, I went ahead and crafted a hybrid roleplaying board game, where the players explored an intricately detailed map of the post-nuke United States, trading merchandise (Food, Ammo, Generators, etc) and dealing with roving bands of raiders. Most of the mechanics involved moving your little miniature down a road, entering a city and then rolling on a table to see what happened. I’m not sure exactly where a character’s stats factored in — again, I was operating with very little hard knowledge of RPG mechanics.

But it was fun, especially because I put a lot of effort into solitaire play so I could tool around in my trading caravan even when my friends weren’t visiting. Again, a lot of that was just me rolling dice and consulting random tables, but still — in my mind, I was roleplaying. It was cool!

I wish I still had that game, even just the crude map I sketched out, but it’s all lost to the sands of time. No matter: six months after my Deathlands foray, I stumbled across West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, 2nd Edition, Revised & Expanded. And the rest, as they say, is history.

EDITED Oct 27, 2010 to add a photo dump from my recent post-apocalyptic miniatures painting. Recognize anybody?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dice as art?

Via comes this street ad...made entirely out of dice, six-siders by the look. Seems you can use them for something other than failing fear checks!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Blogroll up and running

Did ya see the new blogroll to the right of this page? It's something I've meant to pull together for quite a while, and until this morning I didn't realize just how easily Google makes it. With just a few mouse clicks, I was able to import all of the gaming blogs in my Google Reader. Didn't have to retype a thing. Most of these blog deal primarily with D&D, and I hope to add a few more focusing on other cool games.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Great Old Ones

While we're all talking about our favorite games other than D&D, don't forget Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is the shit!  

There was a long stretch when I didn't play rpgs at all.  We're talking from the end of middle school through my first year of grad school.  On our way back from Mardi Gras (which was toward the end of our first year), my buddies and I bashfully started talking about rpgs.  We decided to give it a whirl again, and my buddy ran a couple sessions of Cthulhu.  

I remember the end of the game so vividly: We stood by as some weird bird creature stole this poor lady's baby.  It was all our fault.  Madness and tragedy.  We were all so scared that we had to go immediately to the bar afterwards.  At that point, my friend from Minnesota started talking about the benefits of allowing concealed weapons under law.  Because, you know, someone on the Minnesota subway could pull out a gun and pop you at any time, and you need to be able to defend yourself.  

Anyway, Cthulhu officially got me back into rpgs.  I haven't played it in years, but I fucking love it.

I used to really like Car Wars too.

There's no room in my schedule for D&D

Unlike most of the gaming bloggers I follow, I don’t actually play much D&D. It wasn’t the game I started with, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to find players willing to try out a myriad of different (and better) fantasy RPGs. So while I’m eager to share my own list of games enjoyed (piling onto the ongoing meme that’s swept the RPG blogosphere over the last couple weeks), this list isn’t so much an aberration as it is a simple illustration of my gaming tastes. I’ve probably played 10 sessions of D&D, all told, in my life so far.

Star Wars d6 – My first RPG experience; hugely fun if only because of the insane scaling rolls required to model the differences between the Death Star and, say, an X-Wing. The Death Star rolls 30d6 to kill the X-Wing...nice... Alas, it's out of print.

Blue Planet – Easily one of the most detailed, immersive sci-fi settings ever published. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Jeff Barber (the game’s creator) over the years, and his pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for the game proved absolutely infectious. Jeff is a gamer’s gamer, and Blue Planet exudes quality from every page. In the last couple months, it was announced that RedBrick Limited (an Australian game publisher) had acquired the rights to re-publish the line and, possibly, put out entirely new products.

Savage Worlds – It is what it says on the cover: “Fast! Furious! Fun!” With all the attention that OD&D retro-clones have received lately, it’s important to remember that newer games can pull of the same stripped-down style as well. Savage Worlds is a generic ruleset that I’ve used for Star Wars, post-apocalyptic and superhero games.

Everway – Want a rules-lite game? Try Everway — it uses a funky Tarot-inspired deck of cards to resolve encounters. This, in turn, puts a lot of responsibility on the players and GM to avoid abusing the system, but it’s a great game for a relaxed, mature crowd. I’ve used variations of the Everway system for dark fantasy, Star Wars, superheroes, Little Fears and my friend’s DIY steampunk setting.

Dark Heresy – The much anticipated game set in the grim, dark Warhammer 40,000 universe has the highest production value of any game I’ve ever played. The main rulebook (400+ pages of full-color gothic goodness) is pricey, but a reprint was just released by Fantasy Flight Games, which as plans to continue publishing the game line.

Fading Suns – It’s sort of like Dark Heresy, but with more of a Dune-inspired slant. The future is still dark, the spaceships are still ancient and cumbersome, but the overall setting is a tad brighter and (more importantly) populated with alien races that aren’t automatically classified as enemies. Ironically, the game line is currently supported by RedBrick, the same group of Aussies keeping Blue Planet alive.

These are just a few standouts from the many RPGs I’ve known over the years.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Steampunk: The humor hammer falls

Here's the bookend to last week's gushy post about the cool new steampunk newsletter:. In a blisteringly funny essay, McSweeney's has taken the genre apart and reduced it to its most embarassing elements:

This looks like a late-18th-century organette, correct? Look again. It hides the Dell laptop you got me when I went to college. This bronze hand crank turns it on, and I've hidden a miniature photo printer where the tune sheet is supposed to go. I even installed Linux. I've put a lot of time into this since I quit my job at Anthropologie, which is something else I wanted to tell you about. Don't get up and go to Lowe's yet. But when you're there can you get me a two-speed fan capacitor?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More on Failure

Pat has been posting a lot.  I have not been been posting at all.  This is because he succeeds, while I fail.

This success to failure ratio has been reflected in our Wild Talents game, as Pat noted.  I'm the GM, and Pat's right: these high level characters succeed a lot, like 95% of the time.  I've generally found this to be pretty satisfying so far.  This dynamic allows the players to drive the story forward where they want it to go by choosing what types of rolls they want to make then, and then having the story travel down the avenue opened up by their success.  This also is fun for me, because I get to make fun stuff up about exactly how they succeed and thereby steer the story within the frame I've come up with.  (I particularly like it when the scientist succeeds on any of his multiple different types of knowledge skills, because I get to make up wonky sci-fi explanations about why the world works the way it does.)

But we are missing the element of uncertainty that flows from the clattering of the dice.  One of my friends who I used to play with (in law school, of course) is a bit of a gambler, and the only reason he played was to throw those bones and hope to catch lightning in a bottle.  Without the uncertainty, the electricity's all gone.

Here's our theorized solution (with a prelude): We're using the one roll engine mechanics, which not only tells you in a single roll if you succeed, but also how precisely or efficiently you succeed.  Moving forward, I'm going to focus on the narrative consequences that flow from inefficient or imprecise success.  If pc's don't succeed precisely, consequences will flow.  For example, if the diplomat manages to gather facts for an upcoming trial, but does so imprecisely, I'll say that he pissed off some other diplomats...and that'll be something the players will have to deal with.

From all this discussion, you may be able to tell that this game has really been challenging for me as a GM.  I'm very sensitive to the railroading issues Pat discusses below, and I try to avoid them at all costs.  I'm also trying to let the pc's shine because it's a high level game, but I want to put them in some tough situations (which I haven't yet, but trust me, it's coming soon - third session is coming up.)  And there's other usual GMing stuff, like keeping everyone involved, giving each character a chance to shine, being fair, keeping up pace, etc.  It's a fine balance, and it's become clear to me that context really matters.  I think the system we're using is really cool, but it's definitely making me think about GMing from new angles.   

Failure's never been so much fun.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ultra-high-level roleplaying, and the perils thereof

A few quick hits from the weekend...


We played our second session of Wild Talents on Sunday, and a few things became clear. We are — by choice — playing a very high-powered game, with each character being the head of some guild or private army or merchant union. This means, by extension, that our story involves very high-level, world-threatening themes. Again, this is cool. What we realized in our Sunday session, however, was that our very powerful characters were going to succeed in most die rolls put before them, so we had to figure out a way to keep the game challenging while we mobilized starfleets, influenced planetary law and rerouted energy shipments (all high-level stuff that went off without a hitch due to our insanely high stats). But failure — or the threat thereof — is a good thing, and we’ve made some changes to ensure that the dice still serve a purpose in our Wild Talents game.


Black Sun Games’ official Web site is up and running, though most of the links don’t work. I’m continually impressed by these guys: By all accounts, they’re doing everything right as far as opening a successful, long-term game store in Chicago. Check out their banner...looks like some Flames of War minis in the background? I’ll have to check that game out.


I joined Dark Reign, the Warhammer 40k RPG fan site, and was simply bowled over by the volume of fan-generated content on there. They’ve got GM aids, full-fledged sourcebooks, adventure hooks, random encounter tables and alternate rules. The best part is that (it appears) any member can contribute articles, which really has my creative gears turning. Shouldn’t be tough to find inspiration — I’m about 200 pages away from finishing up the massive Eisenhorn omnibus by Dan Abnett, which means I’ve been totally immersed in 40k for the last month or two.

Friday, August 1, 2008

From the shadows of a Cold City, a Hot War

Cold City is a lean, keen game about monster hunting in the ruins of postwar Berlin. The players are American, German and Russian agents motivated as much by their mutual distrust of each other than by the actual task at hand. It’s a fun premise, and the game system itself includes a robust trust mechanic to model those complex interpersonal relationships.

To me, Cold City seemed like a great one-off game, something that couldn’t really support campaign play. And although that hypothesis is still untested (I own the game but haven’t yet played it) the mythos got a little richer this summer with the release of Hot War.

Billed as the spiritual sequel to Cold City, Hot War imagines London 1960s as a tense, apocalyptic powderkeg of a city, strewn with scheming politicians, twisted science, demonic creatures and a healthy dose of paranoia. The review is on; I don’t know much more, but I’m thoroughly interested in trying out this game.