Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hot Buttered Brandy

Some folks been sayin': "Now, why don't he write?"

Sorry, folks...just got the latest blog report and saw my total views for the week dipped down under 1000 for the first time in, like, ever. Now part of that is I haven't even been checking it lately (I'm sure I usually account for a couple hundred views myself), but even so, it's the holiday season, and I'm sure there are folks on breaks or vacation or staying home sick from work (like me) who'd like a little bit o their blog entertainment to be up and running.

My apologies.

It's about 9pm at the Baranof...I was over at the Naked City earlier, eating probably the worst meatball sandwich in Seattle. Yes, that's saying something...I mean how can you mess up a meatball sammy? Sure, soggy-bun is always a buzz-kill but that's a usual pitfall of the mbs...what makes it the worst? Some sort of goddamn whole wheat hoagie roll, that's just doesn't jibe with the marinara sauce (which is pretty bad, too). And, just by the way, I should mention that I am an f'ing connoisseur of meatball sandwiches. I can tell you, for instance, that the BEST can be found at Salumi's in downtown Seattle, and that Tat's is probably #2. Naked City's meatball? It's dogshit. Subway's is better.

And yet this is the second time I've eaten it. Why? 'Cause Thursday night I can watch a badass Fred Astaire film (in this case, Silk Stockings) on one screen while catching the Thursday night NFL game (Atlanta versus the Saints) on the other, all while drinking a tasty little IPA called Mjolnir which (need I say) kicks you in the head like the proverbial hammer of legend. They only serve it in schooners, and I had two.

Anyhoo, now I'm over at the Baranof with its Twinkie-decorated Christmas tree, and its life-sized Father Christmas doll. I was in here, what, three days ago? (Monday) and they had no X-mas decor and now it looks like the Baby Jesus exploded all over this place with Frosty and Santa and gingerbread-hung boughs of holly. Ho-ho-hell if I know how they can do such a quick turnaround AND keep the tireless drunks from dirtying the floor, but man they do a good job. AND their corn beef hash is pretty good.

I am drinking a hot-buttered brandy on the advice of my medical doctor (well, actually, he suggested a hot toddy, but that's just whiskey in water and my doc is an old geezer of a quack anyway). Seems I have bronchitis and an upper respiratory infection (again), and I figured I'd hit the bar rather than drink the codeine cough syrup I received for my visit ($ insurance company loves to come through on the prescription narcotics, but holistic medicine and massage? Bupkis).

Which is, by the way, exactly the number of people that showed for my play-test tonight: bupkis, i.e. zero.

Am I irritated by this? Eh...yes. But not for the usual reasons. I am irritated because I am going to be out-o-town most of the coming month (D.C. and Mexico) or out-o-commission (single parent duty), and the ONLY reason I bothered dragging my sick ass out to the bar is because I had this particular Thursday free AND I really wanted to do some play-testing.

Because I've got a new book.

I'll bet you folks didn't knot THAT now, did ya'? You probably thought I was off doing something exciting or family-oriented the last several weeks or that even (*shudder*) I'd reached a point of disenchantment with the whole blog-thang or OSR-thang or even RPG-thang. No, non, and nope.

[ooo-ooo...they just started karaoke-ing "Jingle Bell Rock!" It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas up in here!]

Round about my birthday (back on the 13th...I turned 39 years young and let me tell you I've got some blog-posts planned about that whole "gettin' old" o these days)...*AHEM*...back around my birthday I had a free day to myself and I started writing a new book. A compromise of a couple concepts both requested and (on my part) semi-promised. Rather than keep y'all in suspense...or guessing...I'll give you the skinny here and now: I'm writing a supplement for Dave Bezio's X-Plorers

Now, before folks start whining "another supplement, JB? When are you going to publish your own damn standalone game?!" allow me to first remind people that A) I DO have a standalone game ready for publishing save for the illustrations, but I'm hoping to publish it hardcover in collaboration with an actual publisher/distributor, and B) so fucking what? Here's the deal:

[and I'll elaborate on some of this in a later post, too]

If there's one thing I learned from the Indie-RPG movement, it was this: don't bother doing shit when it's already been done before. Now, yes, this doesn't apply to D&D (that's the part of the equation that requires elaboration on my part), BUT for other games, it's a good rule-of-thumb. For example:

Once upon a time, I was writing a game with a system that looked an awful lot like 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars. But then 3:16 got published. Now, what would be the point of publishing a second game...with a very similar theme and a very similar system...when one was already on the market? A point of pride? Trying to divide "market share?" Because my "fluff" was "better?"

No, those are all retarded reasons. The point of game writing is (near as I can figure) to put out good, fun games for people to play. It's not to get rich or even make much (or any)'s about seeing an empty hole in the game arena and plugging something in. 

Why have I not bothered to design a western game? Because no one would buy or play such a thing? NO. Someone would buy and play it (I would, and I'm not a TOTAL weirdo). But I've already got Boot Hill...and while I have picked up and purchased a couple other western RPGs (and, no, NOT just "weird west" RPGs), none of 'em are as good as BH. I'd like to snag a copy of Dust Devils because it represents a different way to "play western" (one-off, high drama, narrative premise), but for long term campaign play (such as it is in a lead-slinging universe) Boot Hill's your huckleberry.

SO... Dave Bezio's little piece of solid gold. X-Plorers is a great "base chassis" for what I've long said I was going to do: write a B/X space opera game that allowed the modeling of Star Wars-like adventures. And why do I feel the need to make a Star Wars-ish game when there've been so many different versions of SW on the market? Because they've all sucked shit. Or rather, despite beautiful presentations, or adequately stated themes, or wonderfully balanced combat systems, they've failed to provide adequate game-play that I could wholly throw my weight of approval behind.

And let me tell you...I've got some weight. I was at the doctor today and I can attest I've got more than my required extra winter poundage.

So it's been a project I've been working on for a few years now, generally in the form of copious notes and spreadsheets attempting to adequately balance playability (lack of crunch) with a modeling of the space opera cinema and some good ol' fashion weirdness thrown in for good measure. BUT it had never reached a point of real playability...too many parts didn't jibe with others, too many things didn't fit or make sense from a design POV...and here's the thing about taking the arrogant attitude I've taken on the issue: if you're going to bitch about other peoples' game designs, then you better DAMN WELL do it right and not have any bitches or gripes about your own work.

I kept running up against that. It's why I moved away from B/X entirely for my space opera system.

SO...X-Plorers. As I wrote in my earlier post, this game reminds me of a (better) "light" version of Star Frontiers...minus the standard six-pack (five-pack?) of alien races from TSR's space opera opus. And much of it is remarkably similar to what I, myself, was trying to do when I was still working with B/X (B/X itself derived from OD&D which, along with S&W is the basis for Bezio's game). Accept Bezio did me two better:

1) He finished parts that I'd struggled with, including starship combat and advancement. He did this in a way that I find inadequate (especially regarding "XP for missions;" hey, how 'bout some guidelines? anything?), but he still DID something. 
2) He typed it all up.

So, since he was kind enough to include an OGL and give tacit approval for supplements based on his game, I took all those notes I've had from the last couple-three years and started typing them up as a setting-specific space opera supplement for X-Plorers. You want B/X Star Wars? I'm gonna' give you an add-on for your easy-to-use, streamlined X-Plorers game that will allow you to swing a laser sword and flourish your cape while waging galactic war against an evil star system-spanning empire.

Sound good? 

I sure hope it does, 'cause I'm nearly finished. X-Plorers is under 40 pages long and I'm trying to keep my supplement to the same length or so, if possible. Last page count was 38 pages (as I said, this is what I've been doing with my time since November 13th)...but that's unformatted and without illustrations. I'll be scaling down the font and adding columns and such to get the page count down. I'll let you know how that goes.

Okay. It's 10pm...time to head for home. I am sick, after all.

: )

Friday, November 9, 2012

Blowing Up Space Ships

Damn, poutine. Just…damn. I LOVE you poutine, my friend.

Gary’s was closed for the evening, so we were back at Ye Old Baranof…they of the stiff drinks and the free seafood stew. However, after a (fairly successful!) play-test session we were off to our new debrief location, The Angry Beaver, for some of their fantastic poutine.

“The Beave” (as I’m going to refer to it for the foreseeable future) is also a Greenwood establishment, having moved into the old Pig & Whistle location. A “traditional Canadian bar” (I assume that means they’ll be broadcasting the NHL all season) their food is a damn sight better than the old P&W (from whom my wife received mild bouts of food poisoning on multiple occasions). And they’re poutine has got to be the tastiest I’ve ever sampled.

I’ve been to the Beave three times since it opened. The poutine has been on my plate every time.

Why am I talking about poutine? Well, probably because I’m hungry this morning. But also because the flavor memory (only a few hours ago) is still in my mind…DAMN that was a good plate! With Beecher’s flagship cheese curds? Come on!

But maybe my experience was colored by the game session (and/or the whiskey sours)…I was extremely pleased with how the game session, picking up a lot of valuable feedback (my own notes and those of the players) on one of the trickiest mothers of the space opera RPG genre:

Starship combat.

Ship-to-ship space combat is a hoary staple of the space opera genre (duh) and it poses multiple design challenges to the dude writing a starfaring RPG. These challenges include:

-          Modeling the genre (like Star Trek and Star Wars) in a genre where the definition of space combat can vary across series…and even across episodes within a series. If you want to model “realism” (accounting for “real world” physics, etc…see the BSG re-boot) that poses additional modeling (and research) challenges.
-          Balancing the “realism” or modeling against ease and facility of game play; the more “crunchy” you add to your rule system, the slower and clunkier and uglier it tends to become.
-          Adapting the abilities of a player character(s) to a system that involves driving a big of metal through space (and I don’t ONLY mean “ability scores,” but whatever passes for mechanical effectiveness in your RPG: abilities, skills, class, level, whatever).
-          Accounting (at least somewhat) for player skill or choice. What I mean is: it’s not just enough to say “roll 2D6 and add your ‘spaceship’ adjustment;” for a role-playing game there has to be some operative, non-mechanical room for player error and/or success. This can be the player’s choice of ship type or armament (how do you configure for success?), or how the party wants to assign gunners or engine room mechanics, or actual choices of maneuver and tactic when engaged in a spaceship battle.
-          Finally, the designer has the challenge of accounting for the general RPG premise of a group or “party” of characters and giving them all “something to do” (or not). How do you involve ALL the PCs…and, in addition, how do your rules adapt to LARGE groups of players versus SMALL (1 or 2) groups of players.

These are all the issues a designer will generally be grappling with…or at least considering…when writing a space opera RPG.

I mean in general…the designers can always just punt as did the Star Frontiers writers (sorry, but making me buy the Knight Hawks “expansion” in order to have rules for starship combat is deferring an essential part of the genre…either out of laziness or a blatant grab at more cash, IMO). But this, I hope you agree, is less than desirable. Tempting, given the enormity of the challenge, but less than desirable.

At least, I think it’s a pretty rough haul, tackled in various ways by various games/designers. I’ll give you a couple examples:

X-Plorers divides space combat into several phases (in addition to “roll for initiative”): Navigation, Engineering, Piloting, and Gunnery. Each phase requires a player to occupy the named role (involving players), requires a skill roll depending on action (related to character’s class and level), and offers several CHOICE of action (accounting for player skill)…for example, the pilot can choose to escape, evade, or move to attack position. All that is a nice, tidy way of involving both the players and their characters; though if there aren’t enough PCs to fill the required roles…or too many PCs for the ship’s crew/gunners… the system is less than optimal.

On the other hand, combat is reduced to “deplete hull points and inflict critical damage” which, like D&D combat itself, is fairly simplistic (and, I should note, is similar to my own “first pass” at a B/X space opera game based on the Expert set naval combat rules). “Simplistic” isn’t a bad thing, but when combat is mainly about attrition with each ship having scores of HPs and only using D6s for damage (and with the normal chances of hitting/missing) there’s the potential for the engagement to be long, drawn out, and boring…especially when you have few tactical options.

[the gripe here is two-fold: 1) you don’t want to spend extended amounts of time on a single system that is not the main portion of the role-playing game, 2) you don’t want a (traditionally exciting) part of a fast-paced space opera game to resemble the word “boring” in the slightest]

Ashen Stars (a game whose review I’m still putting together….sorry, I’m easily distracted!) is quite different in the way it incorporates similar elements. First, each player takes on a different ship-board role from the following choices: pilot, gunner, communications, “stratco” (think Captain Kirk’s job), medic, or “wrench” (engineer). At the outset of an engagement, each ship decides what they want as the goal or outcome of the engagement, things like escape, or scan, or disable and board, or utterly destroy. The goal that is chosen sets the number of successes that must be accumulated over a series of rounds (like your traditional RPG “extended skill test”) in order to accomplish the objective; for example, escape requires six successes while disable & board requires 18 and total destruction requires 21 or thereabouts.

Throughout an engagement the ship is presumed to be doing all sorts of things all the time: maneuvering, shooting, jamming transmissions, etc. However, each round the crew chooses one of four tactics to focus: shooting, maneuvering, comm, or “trickbag.” The choice of tactic determines which player gets to roll to accumulate successes towards the crew’s objective/goal. Since skills in the GUMSHOE system are a degrading resource (and since ship’s take a penalty from simply performing the same tactic over-and-over) the system ensures that the action will pass around the table, giving each PC their “spotlight time.” Meanwhile, the medic runs around patching up the injured while the wrench patches up combat damage that might occur (every time one side gets 3+ successes in a round from a single tactic, the defending ship is “rocked,” degrading the ship’s stat line and having a chance of injuring crew members).

Ashen Stars takes a different approach to meeting the challenge and isn’t especially complex in execution…except that it IS skill based, and so opponent PCs have their own degrading skill pools that need to be tracked and yadda-yadda-yadda. Not to mention, PCs need to nurse their degrading skill resources somewhat for later (unless this is the last big battle of the game session), while the NPCs can simply “go for broke.” I mean, while the PCs are generally more competent than the opposition, it still requires at least some careful handling by the GM not to accidentally over-whelm the players…but maybe that’s just my “gamist” bias.

Oh, yeah…and from reading the example ship combat (in the appendix) it sure seems like even a simple small combat is fairly looooong (13 pages?) to resolve. Like the number of successes to achieve objectives might be set a little too high…although this seems to be the trade-off to balance “everyone gets a chance in the spotlight.”

So anyway…designing starship combat is tricky (and that’s even without worrying about different classes of ship and armament and whatnot). For me, it’s probably the second biggest hurdle in designing a space opera game (the biggest hurdle, of course, is creating an advancement system that does not revolve around counting stormtrooper helmets or spiraling “skill use” or participation ribbons). Add to this challenge the fact that I’ve recently (well, in the last year) changed over my “BX-based” system to the DMI system and I found myself wondering how the hell can I do this without being completely disconnected from the card counting part of the game?

And after wracking my brain a bit, I found some ideas to test and they worked well!

Last night’s session revolved around Will (“space prince”) and Josh (“wealthy space Sinbad”) wanted fugitives of the Imperial Family of the Golden Empire (said Empire being founded centuries ago when the Chinese achieved space travel and left the nuked Earth behind, establishing a new Galactic Dynasty in the stars). Their small craft picked up a distress signal from a damaged and drifting colony ship and executed a boarding action to pick up survivors. Turned out they’d been ravaged by Lathiter, lizardman-like humanoids with multi-faceted eyes and a penchant for slavery for fun and profit (they’re also meat-eaters but I decided not to include cannibalism in the space opera game at this time).

The PCs had already decided to track the pirates to see if they could rescue the colonists when the Lathiters showed up themselves, trying to cripple the heroes’ craft. Fortunately, some deft maneuvering and active card play allowed the PCs to come out on top in a most satisfying fashion (the lizards surrendered and were disarmed, the colonists were all rescued and towed back to civilization in their damaged ship, and the PCs didn’t take any critical damage to their own vessel). They also were awarded with 5 “victory bennies” (I have yet to rename or reinterpret the reward mechanic for the game…all I know is that this was a pretty good success!).

[remember me saying how reward mechanics were tough for a space opera game? Duh]

So a good evening of play, with lots of good stuff to work on and tighten down (screw-wise). I really did have a good time, especially with my own card playing part of the DMI equation. The combat felt a bit more fast and furious (and I suspect it will become moreso as I tweek it) and the expenditure of cards tied well both to the in-game action and the feeling of being diminished through effort (both visually and tactilely more me...than keeping track of diminished hull points or "degraded stat lines").
Anyhoo, looking forward to next week's session, when I hope to do some more dog-fighting type stuff. And poutine...gotta' get my fix of that particular num-num.
; )

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day in America

[*ahem*...that is to say, "in the United States of America"]

Just a quick reminder that everyone of legal age in this country should be making sure they take the time and effort to VOTE.

And I really do mean everyone...even those of you who can't seem to figure out that voting for Republicans is detrimental to the health and well-being of ALL of us (including yourselves). Regardless of your political inclination you should be getting out there and exercising you sovereign right to have your voice heard in our political process.

Some folks I know are disenchanted with the choices and options available. Some folks would prefer to obstain from the process or feel that it's against their principles to simply "vote for the lesser of two evils." To which I say: bullshit. If you're a citizen of this country, you have a responsibility to be involved. If you can't stomach what's going on, then work to change it: educate yourself on the process, get involved locally, run for office yourself, or find someone who you DO want to vote for and talk them into seeking office. Don't sit and whine and bitch and then fail to take part...being a citizen means having both rights AND responsibilities. You don't get one without the other...and if you neglect your duty, well, I don't suppose I can really stop you from doing so, but I certainly hold you in less regard.

Don't you want me to respect you?

All right, that's enough of a public service announcement...hopefully I'll be writing more about space RPGs later (mainly having to do with my thoughts on Robin Laws's Ashen Stars, my latest game acquisition). Though that may not go up till tomorrow...I'll be drinking all evening at a local election night celebration tonight.

[and just by the way and speaking of patriotism, I cannot believe their fcking remaking the cold war classic Red Dawn. Holy it just impossible for Hollywood to come up with an original idea for a movie these days? Well, actually, I did just see Argo, which was excellent and original, but based on a TRUE story...where's the new and original fiction being written? Jeez!]

Friday, November 2, 2012

Space Opera = Capes

My wife has a fairly awful flu bug at the moment, which caused me to be a bit late to my play-test last night (it also had me up till 1:30am with the boy, and then missing the first half of today’s work day in an “emergency child care” capacity…Friday is usually Mom’s day to watch the hijo). Fortunately (unfortunately), I only had one player show up for the evening session, so the total number of people I disappointed was minimal.

Of course, when it’s just Josh and me at the table, we often end up bullshitting for most of the session anyway. Don’t get me wrong...I love digressing off into tangential meanderings in person as much as I do on a blog post. But my normal disposition leads me to drunken rambling in buddy-buddy situations, and fun as that is, I do have some objectives regarding game design and whatnot.

Still, it WAS productive...Josh made a psychic (think “Jedi”) character at my request and just talking through the class abilities was useful, helping me articulate what and how the powers functioned. I was also able to bounce ideas off him regarding jettisoning the fringer/survivalist class which always seems to pop up during game sessions and which just doesn’t work for me in a non-one-off session. Oh, yeah…and we decided Beast Handler is just a stupid, stupid “special ability” (think “feat”) to have in a space game. Not sure what I’ll replace it with, but it’s just dumb for a game set (mostly) in space rather than planet-side. After all, beasts only really come in two shades in the space opera genre: trusty riding mounts and hungry antagonists. The idea behind the feat was the ability to turn the latter into the former…but that kind of defeats the point of the GM including them in a game session, doesn’t it?

Besides “lion taming” is better handled with the heart suit (think “charisma/Reaction”) anyway.

We also talked quite a bit about Star Wars in general, prompted by the recent news of Lucas-Disney and my recent reading of The Secret History of Star Wars. One of the (few) virtues Josh was willing to extol on the original films/Lucas productions was the art direction that (aside from haircuts) give the films an extremely timeless-classic visual quality. Although, he admits, the films might only appear timeless due them having such a dramatic impact on our psyches at a young age (in effect coloring “the look of Sci-Fi” for years to come thereafter), he can’t help but feel a lot of other sci-fi films over the years have appeared “dated” or poorly age compared to the old Star Wars trilogy. It doesn’t have the gaudy outfits and crazy headgear found in the old Flash Gordon space opera-types, for instance. To which I replied:

“What the hell is more Flash Gordon than dudes wearing capes in space?”

Capes abound throughout the Star Wars universe. With the exception (perhaps) of The Phantom Menace, there is a new caped individual to be found in each film of the series…whether you’re talking Vader or Lando or Luke (in Return of the Jedi) or Dooku or Grievous, I would say the presence of capes is a defining (if nonsensical) part of the art and visual style of Star Wars.

I mean, really…why does Grievous need a cape? Does his cyborg body get cold? His fleshy parts consist of a couple internal organs in a metal torso…all he needs is a hot plate or heating coil! Don’t tell me it’s to better carry his lightsabers: it’s called “wear a weapon harness,” dude. The cape is total show and visual space opera. It’s flourish.

Same with Count Dooku. All this crap I read in the D20 games or the wookiepedia about him wearing some sort of “armor-weave” cape…like it’s body armor? For what…back protection? It doesn’t cover his head or any of his 6’5” torso from the front. Is it supposed to guard against back-shooting? Isn’t Dooku a Jedi Master and thus presumably aware of such threats to his person?

Let’s just face facts…people wear capes in Star Wars because it’s space opera and opera of any stripe is fond of the cape. In Star Wars (and it’s equivalent) the cape signifies a badass, pure and simple.

What? You think Lando was chopped liver next to Han Solo? Need I remind you that he was the ruler of his own mining colony, not to mention the original owner of the Falcon, tough enough to fly it after years of “rust” and blow up the 2nd Death Star? Did you forget he had the balls to talk his way onto Jabba’s payroll with little more than a snaggletooth mask and a force pike? Not to mention all Lando’s natural charm and swagger…there’s a guy who earns a cape.

Frankly, I’ve decided that capes are as deep a part of space opera (and Star Wars, and SW-knock-offs) as weird-ass headgear is to Old School D&D. After our (tipsy) conversation last night I’ve been spending the day considering ways to work capes (and the earning thereof) into my DMI space opera game…though only for the serious ass-kickers, of course.

[by the way…happy Dia de los Muertos!]

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween Jawas

Just in case anyone doubted that my child would share his father's geekiness, here's my 21 month old in the jawa costume his mother made for him (what is not pictured in the black mesh fabric "face" with attached glowing eyes/tea lights; it's pushed back into the hood to expose my son's smiling mug...I told you my wife is a lot more creative than myself). Jawas are pretty much his favorite thing of all time at the moment, though Star Wars in general is a big deal for him: the boy was very excited at all the Darth Vaders we saw walking the streets last night.

I had a brief moment of sorrow/depression this morning, when I realized that next year he'd require far less carrying by "papa"...would probably be running ahead to knock on doors and ring bells himself while I lagged behind. Ah, he's growing up so fast...I'm just trying to enjoy as much of his life as possible.

Tonight, I'll be play-testing my space opera game again, assuming I've got players showing up. If not, I think I'll start writing up my B/X space opera notes as an X-Plorers supplement...I don't really see anything scheduled on the horizon from Brave Halfling Press besides dungeon delving modules so I'm hopeful this won't be too much over-lap. My play-testing tonight is going to try some new "pacing" techniques, that should be cross-system adaptable...but who knows if they're going to work. I'll keep y'all in the loop.