Monday, December 31, 2012

Clashing Kings

It was  mistake to bring George R.R. Martin's Clash of Kings to Mexico with me. To enthralling to put down (his writing technique of multiple narratives keeps you page turning, even when one story arc begins to bore you) I've spent all my free moments reading, rather than writing, as I'd initially planned. Not that I've had much "free" time mind you (there's still been a lot of eating and drinking and celebrating and relatives and church-going and dancing and fiestas and whatnot), but fast as I read, it still takes me awhile to get through a thousand page book. And I have gotten through it (a bit before breakfast, while the house was sleeping)...which means I'll have nothing to read on the plane ride home.

[and I probably won't be writing much, either. The problem with flying with a nearly-two-year old is he's close enough to you, and knowledgeable enough, to hit the keys on your laptop...and really enjoys hitting that big, round power button. Besides which, the wife would appreciate a little help entertaining the child; pulling out a fat novel to read once they've both fallen asleep isn't too tough, but pulling out one's laptop and sheaf of notes is a whole 'nother deal]

And today's our last full day in sunny Orizaba. Tomorrow is New Year's Day and we'll be spending it getting to the D.F. to fly back to Seattle, perhaps with a meal or two along the way. Still, it's possible I might get a few pages done tonight after everyone's asleep...heck, I can sleep on planes, no problem...but as I'll be back at the day job come Wednesday I want to have at least some semblance of restfulness.

Or not, I guess...I'll probably be spending most of the time listening to the sports talk radio about the upcoming Seahawks play-off game while checking email. Ah, yes..our cushy 21st century lifestyle.

You know, it's one thing to fantasize or read about or role-play in a medieval-type world of kings and peasants and all that jazz, but the "simple life" sure sounds a lot harder than anything I'd like to experience. Even in Mexico (which still hasn't climbed into the "first world" tier) people have smart phones and iPods and DVDs and big screens and (spotty) internet access...all the comforts of our post-modern world, plus fresh produce and excellent platillos.

Then again, it may be I'm just a bit bummed by the depth and breadth of Mr. Martin's fantasy world. It's a very cool setting, richly textured, and mired in all sorts of drama, intrigue, and adventure, not to mention a fairly classy handling of the supernatural ("fantasy") elements. It's difficult to imagine ever coming up with a coherent "pseudo-medieval" fantasy setting...for fiction or role-playing...that wouldn't end up looking like a poor version of Martin. Or worse, a pastiche-y knock-off. At least if you're interested in, say, D&D with courts and lords (Companion-level stuff) and not just dungeon delving.

That's the thing that irks me, I guess. I could draw a lot of inspiration from Martin's books for use in a high level (or "non-traditional") D&D campaign, but it would all feel, well, like I was ripping off the master. Or doing something half-assed in comparison. A bit like trying to create a dungeon environment that didn't feel like, in some way, a rip-off of a Tolkien setting...whether we're talking the goblin caves or the Mines of Moria or the Misty Mountain or Shelob's lair or the Nazgul's tower or Morgoth's dungeon (from The Silmarilion), etc. So many great static environments plumbed by "adventurers" in the Tolkien books, it's hard not to draw at least somewhat from them (as much fantasy does) when designing adventure sites.

Anyhoo, I suppose I'm being silly...just because I can't think of anything better, doesn't mean someone else can't.  More on this later, perhaps...I've got more eating to do.

Happy New Year, folks!
: )

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End Is Nigh

For those who may not have heard, some of us have been counting down the days of the Mayan tzolkin calendar, waiting to see what tremendous Earth changes may or may not be wrought when we hit zero hour. Being a long-time studier of astrology (including mesoamerican astrology), Edgar Cayce, Graham Hancock, and other non-traditional historians (commonly called quacks, fakers, and whack-jobs), I am all about counting down our final hours. Fact is, I've had a timer counting down our final hours on the ol' Blackrzor blog (bottom o the page) since I first started this thing a couple-three years ago.

Welp, today is the final day of the Mayan "long count" epoch..."4 Flower" in the uinal that started with 11 Alligator some twenty days ago (why doesn't the final count down end in a 13 Flower? No idea, just one of those mysteries of the mesoamerican numbering system). Not that it matters too much...I mean any of it. I've blogged before about the possibility of great "Earth Changes" including what I feel is the main things with which to concern ourselves (hint: it has to do with being kind to each other as much as possible...even people with whom you don't necessarily agree).

Anyhoo, tomorrow will see the dawning of a new epoch (I figure to go by midnight, Yucatan time), and I will be celebrating by getting into Mexico City very early in the morning with my family (I'm typing this from a Dallas airport computer while awaiting my connecting flight) and heading east towards Veracruz. No, not because I plan on taking part in any New Age-y mesoamerican celebration, but simply the traditional Christmas-with-family-and-in-laws celebration. And for those of us who can (hard as it might be) get beyond the coming Seahawks-Forty-Niners showdown in Seattle on Sunday, I think the most important thing for us ALL to do on the edge of this great cosmic changeover is to remember the Real Meaning of the Christmas Holiday.

No, not Jesus's birthday. Jesus was a Pisces, dude. I'll post his horoscope sometime.

No, the real deal with regard for Christmas can be found in its "heathen" roots as a mid-winter celebration...the 21st (or thereabouts) generally being the proverbial "longest night off the year." What midwinter celebrates is (guess what?) the night's start getting shorter thereafter, as we start that slow upward climb out off darkness and back to the Spring. It is a time of renewal (and often Yule-time booze), and we'd do well to consider how, no matter how dark the darkness gets, there always comes a light evetually...hopefully, a light that brings great joy and love to everyone.

Here's to hoping. Feliz Navidad, folks. I'll try to write more from Mexico...assuming the holidays grant me a little free time for writing.
: )

[P.S. Go 'Hawks!]

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fucking Assholes

So, yes, I've been busy lately (duh). I won't bore you terribly with the details: traveling to Canada and back, sickness, traveling to D.C. (the "other Washington") and back, "single parent duty," working the job-type-job, Seahawks, beagles, etc. In all honesty, I went into work this morning thinking I'd write up a list of 10 or 20 space opera themed post topics for the next couple weeks, probably beginning with a book I picked up at The Newseum in our nation's capital, Darth Vader and Son. But I never quite got around to it. Mainly 'cause some fucking asshole decided to kill close to 30 fellow humans in Connecticut today, including a score of kindergartners.

2012 has been a "banner year" for this kind of bullshit, and frankly I'm sick of it. Back in April a young woman (age 21) who'd just moved to Seattle for culinary school was hit by a stray bullet in downtown Seattle and killed instantly. In May, a 43 year old software developer was killed by a random bullet while driving his family around town...a random bullet meant for someone else. Later that same month, a man from Ellensburg shot (and killed) four people in a Seattle cafe, before shooting (and killing) a random woman near Town Hall and taking her SUV. He later took his own life when police found and cornered him.

The shooting spree at the Batman movie over the summer actually prompted my wife to suggest that we not expose our child to "violent" superhero characters; as if anything about Batman would inspire a person to commit random acts of murder. A professional football player making piles of cash put nine bullets in the young mother of his own child before putting a bullet in his own head a couple weeks ago. Then, of course, there was the shooting last week in an Oregon shopping mall that claimed the lives of three people and injuring another. As with the football player, the cafe shooter in May, and the asshole from today, one of the lives claimed was his own.

And today...words cannot express how awful this tragedy is. I have nightmare thoughts sometimes about what it would be like to outlive my child...for anything to happen to him, sweet innocent that he is. And tonight, there are the parents of 20 young children who are going through their own personal hell because of something so horrific, I never even imagined it as a possibility. I mean, what kind of fucking asshole does that?

And yet he's dead. The killer is dead. All those Republicans out there who support capital punishment (i.e. the "death penalty") should be happy that justice was "self-served," right? Hell, the guy saved the tax payers a ton of money on trials and prosecution and prison housing and mental institutions, etc. I mean, that gives all those grieving family members the closure they need right?


Same with the asshole that offed himself in Seattle. Or the asshole that played for the Chiefs. Or the asshole that offed himself in the mall in Oregon. The asshole from the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre has been trying to off himself in jail, but probably won't manage to do so before the state does it for him (Colorado continues to carry the death penalty and performed it's last state execution in 1997...I'm guessing the asshole that killed 12 people who just wanted to watch a popcorn action flick...including a six-year old child...will get the lethal injection, too). They're all reaping their "justice" and the grieving families of the victims will continue to grieve in sorrow. Because they are still suffering from the loss of their loved ones and have no good answers to their main question: "Why?"

Why has this happened? Why has it happened to us? Why has it happened to our loved ones? What is the thing we this life or a past deserve this horror, this tragedy? Why was this murderer such an asshole? Why does our "great society" continue to produce these assholes? Why are they able to do what they do?

And of course, when these questions cannot be answered the next ones asked are "What could we have done to prevent this?" "What could we have done to protect ourselves?" "What can we do in the future to ensure this never, ever happens again?"

Get rid of the guns.

I hate guns. I fucking loathe guns. I, quite literally, cannot stand the touch or feel of guns...when I've held handguns before (a .45; a Glock), I dropped 'em like a live grenade.  Like a poisonous snake. Like something violently designed to do kill...which is exactly what guns are designed to do. They are not designed to be a "neutral tool." They are not manufactured to open stubborn locks or drill holes in a wall for your cable wire. They are created with the purpose of ending life. And they are very, very good at it. Our centuries of technological development have seen vast improvements in this area.

Now, I too have heard that old chestnut about how "guns don't kill people, people kill people," and that's certainly true for the most part...usually, a gun only kills a human when it is pointed at someone and the trigger is pulled by another human. The common argument I hear is that a person with a "will to kill" will find a way to do it, even if he lacks access to a firearm.

And to that I say this: If the asshole in Connecticut had not had access to automatic weapons and large capacity firearms that were purchased legally...if he had instead, say, been forced to use a hunting knife or a ball-peen hammer to do his dirty many people do you think he would have actually managed to kill before he was stopped? How many of the six adults at the elementary school would he have bludgeoned to death before being dragged down and pummeled unconscious? How many children would he have been able to chase down and effectively stab to death before someone clocked him or the police showed up?

The thing that allowed this asshole to inflict the death and suffering on such a horrific scale was his access to guns. That's it...we don't know how many bullets were fired, how many magazines were expended, how many misses were chalked up before his bullets found their victims. But the ability to shoot and shoot and shoot with deadly speed and range and traumatic impact is what allows an asshole to go from "disgruntled crazy guy" to a mass slayer of innocence. It's what turned simple murder into massacre.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
So carry a goddamned sword.

I'm serious; I'm sick of it. The idea that prohibiting the citizenry from owning firearms is going to somehow keep a reign on our country becoming a tyranny or military dictatorship is just loony-tunes. If the U.S. military ever decides to stage a coup and take over, we as a people are royally screwed, regardless of whether or not Joe Citizen has an assault rifle in his gun locker. Back in the 18th century, the British soldiers and the American colonists were armed with the same gear: muskets, sabers, cannon. Have you seen what our military is packing these days? Smart bombs and drones fighters, RPGs and mortars, armored fighting vehicles and stealth bombers and .50 caliber machine guns and nuclear attack subs. Having an assault rifle or hand gun in your possession isn't going to allow you to wage revolution, should all hell break loose. Didn't you folks see the armed "insurrection" in Iraq? You know, back when we invaded their country? Their militia (or freedom fighters or guerillas or whatever you want to call them) didn't stand a chance...we just bombed cities flat to quell resistance. And the same would happen here if there was a citizen uprising in the face of martial law backed up by our U.S. war machine.

The 2nd Amendment is something the NRA hides behind because they don't want anyone telling 'em what they can and can't do. And I can understand that...I don't like being told what to do either. If I'm a smoker, how dare my state pass a law that prohibits smoking inside any public building...what if I own the building and want it to be a smoking establishment? How dare the government tell me what I can and can't do with my own property and my own business? What the heck gives them the right to say I have to stand 25 feet away from a bus shelter (in the rain) to light up a smoke?

I'll tell you what gives them the right: the invested authority of the government by the people to protect its own citizens. Smoking causes great harm. If you want to smoke cigarettes (and slowly kill yourself in the process) that's your business, but you'll not be allowed to inflict cancer on others...even inadvertently...with your second hand smoke. Even if you're always careful to blow your smoke the opposite direction. Your "personal rights" are being "infringed" so that others' rights (to life, in this case) isn't being infringed.

You may have the right to "pursue happiness" but not if exercising that right means stealing someone else's car stereo to buy your crank.

So infringe our goddamned personal rights already: get rid of the guns. They're existence in the hands of ordinary (i.e. non-military, non-law enforcement) folks only causes harm.

[jeez...forgot about that 16 year old kid shot dead by the "citizen watch" asshole in Florida]

Sure, that's going to seem unfair to folks who are well-adjusted, trained in the use of firearms, and capable of keeping their guns under lock-and-key when not on the target range. But it's for the greater good, people. I can drive my car just fine after drinking enough to put me over the "legal limit," but that law (and limit) exists for very good reason. This whole "right to the gun" thing IS the main issue here. It is the presence, and prevalence, of guns in our society that makes it one where "death by gun" has the highest rate of any first world country.
If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
Apparently law enforcement doesn't count? Look, at this point, I'm willing to have that line be the case...especially if it makes it more difficult for the assholes of the world (these "quiet, shy" types who have no problems passing their screenings and then go batshit crazy) to acquire the means of inflicting such terrible, terrible tragedy. These perpetrators of massacre aren't knocking over convenience stores and robbing banks...they are simply going into public places and pulling the trigger as fast as they can.

This is awful, awful shit...truly, truly terrible and my heart is bleeding for the families and friends of ALL these gun victims that continue to accrue. You may think it strange that a guy who plays and writes violent role-playing games (especially ones that involve firearms) would be so "anti-gun," but I have long held the opinion and stance that the ONLY place an ordinary person should be able to "play with guns" should be in fiction: books, movies, video games, RPGs. I've always enjoyed violent fiction, and it hasn't turned me into any type of serial killer. These fucking assholes that are killing people are profoundly disturbed individuals looking for an outlet of violence (perhaps they don't have enough fiction in their lives) and would be doing so regardless of exposure to violent media images.

The best thing we can do is take the guns out of hands...limit the harm they can perpetrate.

Tonight, my prayers are with the families of today's victims. I really do wish I could offer more to them. Hopefully, they will find the strength in their hearts to persevere through this time of trial. For them, their "end of days" must truly feel like it's upon them. I hope sane heads in our government will see this issue and problem for what it is and work to ensure a tragedy like this can never again occur.


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.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dave Bezio's X-Plorers


A couple weeks back I managed to pick up a copy of Dave Bezio’s X-Plorers down at Gary’s Games in Greenwood. A lot of people over the last couple years have suggested I pick this one up due to my A) dissatisfaction with most space opera RPGs on the market and B) my love of things “old school” and somewhat “rules light.” However, until recently the thing wasn’t available in a print form that I could pick up and hold and flip-through and read…at least not that I’d seen down at my FLGS.

See, I’m a weird dude. I read email and comments (here and on certain forums) fairly regularly from folks complaining that I don’t offer my books in an electronic or PDF format (though, yes, I do offer my B/XCompanion in such a format these days)…but for me, it is extremely rare that I will EVER fork out hard-earned cash for anything less than a solid, tangible product. I can’t be sure, but I think the only time I’ve made such a purchase (at least in recent memory) was Raggi’s Death Frost Doom, and I was terribly disappointed (not because it was a bad adventure, but because I ended up blowing a bunch of ink and paper to print the damn thing…I just don’t like reading books off a screen!).

[oh, wait…I also purchased a copy of 3:16 in electronic format, too]

So anyhoo…I’m an anachronistic kind of guy and unless something is readily available for me to buy in a physical format I generally won’t…such was the case with X-Plorers. I had previously browsed the free version on-line, but truth-be-told I didn’t pay all that much attention to it, being put off by the large swatches of blank space (compared to, say, the downloadable Terminal Space)…it gave the whole text a feeling of…well, a fairly amateur effort I guess.

[to understand my bias, you have to grok that I’ll write up 30 pages of game rules and charts myself that, save for the nifty spaceship diagrams, look about as good and yet are nothing I’d consider publishing…]

So fast forward to me shelling out hard currency and holding the glossy soft-cover in my hands…Bezio’s book is great, and I was VERY impressed when I saw the printed book. Previously, I’ve written a brief piece on my thoughts of Terminal Space and a rather lengthy bit on my feelings for SWN but I’ve got to say that between these three Old School offerings of space opera fantasy, X-Plorers has got to be my favorite of the bunch…something I was not ready to say prior to holding the solid work in my grubby grasp. Here’s why:

X-Plorers isn’t “dungeon-delving in space.” It’s not “space opera on a B/X chassis.” Heck, I wouldn’t even call it a “what if RPG that examines an alternate reality where the designers of D&D instead chose to focus their efforts on pulp Sci-Fi” (which is, pretty much, the objective laid out by the author).

Nope, what we have here is a mash-up of Star Frontiers and Swords & Wizardry (the OD&D retroclone) with a tiny bit of D20 sensibility thrown in to boot. And Star Frontiers (which I’ve lambasted system-wise on more than one occasion) has never looked so good.

The fact it can do this in under 40 pages is truly remarkable.

Now my own “B/X space opera” game (on-hold lo these many moons as I’ve pursued the development of my DMI-based system) shares a number of similarities with X-Plorers, which probably goes a long way towards endearing it to me, especially as Bezio has managed to articulate some things better than I ever did. His spaceship combat system is very close to my own, but better done, and his classes and level structure…and especially his class-related skill checks…are very similar to my original ideas and I especially like the particular archetypes he’s chosen, and their corresponding overlap of skills. Interesting that I can see the integration of Star Frontiers skills into the classes in a very logical and intuitive way…as someone who played a lot of SF back-in-the-day I find this ingenious, even if it is a no-brainer in retrospect.

Allow me a moment to gush over some of the additional highlights (*ahem*):

-          Compacted Star Frontiers equipment list; keeping the flavor without going over-board (to we really need rules for a recoilless rifle? No…and Bezio leaves it out, while still including sonic swords and lasers and SEUs). Kudos especially to adequately adapting the system to its OD&D base.
-          Very workable starship combat.
-          Good rules for crafting alien monsters…better than Star Frontiers ever did, IMO.
-          Nice, workable psychic rules.
-          Good ability scores/modifiers (doesn’t overwhelm the game).
-          Good, adapted personal combat system (hard to tell without running a few rounds, but seems just fine).
-          Nice, tight, streamlined package allowing plenty of space for imagination and hours of adventure possibility with little extra effort.

Now it’s not a perfect game. Some of the “low lights” are pretty critical ones. Without getting TOO nitpicky I’ll say the multi-classing doesn’t work, or else doesn’t make much sense…I understand what his objective was, but it just doesn’t translate in execution (quick! Your character starts as a level one warrior and advances five levels in scientist…how many XPs does it take you to achieve 7th level?). It’s just not quite as slick as it could have been…but I understand that it’s tough to make the “warrior-botanist,” etc. without it, since most specific procedures (i.e. “skills”) are tied directly to class.

The other main issue is the lack of guidance on how much XP to award for successful “missions.” Well, the guidelines for mission creation in general is pretty sparse, but especially with regard to reward/advancement there’s little guidance aside from “whatever feels right” (I guess). Which, to me, is a fairly big cop-out of game design, though I suppose it beats the alternative of trying to make sense of a nonsensical advancement system (which is something I’ve struggled with for years now in attempting to write an intelligent space opera game).

Those are the main gripes, though of course X-Plorers isn’t really built to do Star Wars (which is kind of the point…for me…of writing/playing a space opera game). If I wanted to do Star Frontiers with players working for the PGC against the evil Sathar and space pirates, etc. this would be the system to use…I don’t think it would be too hard to come up with rules for dralasites and vrusk and yazirians (either making them their own classes or else having an XP up-tick in exchange for a few species related bennies).

Actually, X-Plorers is slick enough (and sleek enough) that it should be a real piece o easy to adapt a LOT of classic space opera ideas to it…including Star Wars. Hell, like I said it’s already pretty similar to the B/X Star Wars I was working on prior to DMI. I am sorely tempted to create a compatible supplement using the terms of their X-Plorers Trademark License using the rules and notes I’ve already got archived on the old zip drive.

Sorely tempted.

; )

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lucas Sells Star Disney!

I don't post a lot of news on my blog, but as I was considering yet another Star Wars-type post today anyway (actually, I was going to discuss Bezio's X-Plorers), I might as preempt my normal musings with this bit of topical whatnot.

George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. (including, presumably, all rights to the Star Wars franchise) to Disney, for more than $4 billion dollars in cash and stock. Wow.

Not only that, they've announced they're doing a seventh movie. Double-wow-holy-shit.

You folks have to consider that for most of the weekend I spent every free moment reading Kaminski's Secret History of Star Wars to get an idea of the loop-de-loop my brain is doing at the moment. But I'll get into that more later (hopefully).

Right now, I need to get back to work. And mental decompression.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

All About the Benjamins (Part 2)

[sorry this has taken so long to get back to this post…you can read part 1 here. I started writing the follow-up post about five weeks ago. I’m finishing it up today]

Fall in Seattle…definitely my favorite time of year. Still sunny, but the air is getting cool and crisp…long sleeves and jeans (my preferred mode of dress) but jackets not yet required. Flannel shirt weather. Lumberjack weather. Football weather.

And school’s back in session…which for me means having access to the internet once again. At least during the day, as my normal workload permits. Wouldn’t want to get in hot water with the regular job, job-type job.

‘Cause that’s what it’s all about, right? Keeping that gig, earning that paycheck, making that mortgage payment, and keeping the running beagles in kibble. If you can’t do that (and can’t keep the fridge stocked with beer) then it’s hard to enjoy your evening narcotic of television. Hard to care about the woes of the local sports team when you’re having a tough time putting food on the table.

It’s all about the Benjamins.

That’s the epiphany I had the other day with regard to game design…or rather, with regard to fantasy adventure game design. It’s the state of affairs that really drives the Old School style of role-playing; the thing that makes D&D (at least as originally conceived) so damn successful. MONEY…it’s the ultimate carrot, the thing that makes the world go ‘round.

At least from a GAME perspective, it’s the ultimate motivator. But, here…let me back up the train for a moment and give everyone a chance to get on-board with my usual meandering thought process:

[and just before I begin, please realize I know and understand that REAL LIFE humans are motivated by far more things than simply money. Love, family, work, art, nation, God, etc. all can and do drive people in real life at least as much, if not more so, than simple piles of cash]

A few weeks ago I asked folks to submit to me their desire as to which project they’d like me to work on. I, in my normal whimsical fashion, completely disregarded these suggestions and started writing a brand new freaking game (actually, “completely disregard” is a little too strong…I feel very guilty and have the list of suggestions…with tally marks…still logged into my phone. One day…). The idea for the game came (as they sometimes do) pretty much fully formed into my brain after an afternoon nap with the beagles. I woke up with an idea and started scribbling furiously until I had something with some semblance of playability, semi-ready for testing.

Well, as I mentioned in my earlier post I DID have a chance to test it and there was a lot of good stuff and fun things to take away from it, but there were also issues regarding the motivation of the characters and the game mechanics associated with them. See, I’ve gotten more and more into this idea of “no useless mechanics” over the years (who doesn’t like that idea?) and yet to this end I’ve repurposed some traditionally useless mechanics (like “alignment”) to make it useful…by incorporating it into a reward system that encourages a particular play-style and behavior in game. To put it more simply, I want to encourage role-playing mechanically though in more real, concrete, specific ways.

Why? Because it’s fun and it’s one of the main, cool advantages a tabletop RPG has over a computer RPG.

[now this post isn’t about role-playing, so if you need to grok my particular philosophy on role-playing, what it is and isn’t, etc., you’ll probably want to check out SOME OF THESE OTHER POSTS, because I’m not going to bother to explain it here]

Anyway, in creating this new fantasy adventure game (or “FAG;” let’s just get that unfortunate acronym out in the open, shall we?) I tried to incorporate some of my thoughts, reflections, and theories into the design, particularly with regard to:

a)      Personality mechanics that had tangible in-game effects,

b)      Reward mechanics that ran based of behavior,

c)       All working together within the logic of the game and its setting.

This is something I’ve done to a lesser extent with CDF and my B/X space opera projects, but I really wanted to get it wired in and refined for this new Lost World game. And the end result (in testing) was mixed at best: it worked…and it didn’t.

What I TRIED to do was think of all the possible motivations an adventurer in the setting would have for going out on an adventure in the first place…

[this ends the section I was writing in September…here’s the completion of the thought]

The MECHANICS of the Lost World game worked fairly good…we ended up creating surprisingly rich and interesting characters, with motivations and backgrounds “built-in” in a very short amount of time, simply based on the chargen process (i.e. the rules do not require a huge amount of player input in the same way as, say, a White Wolf RPG). But then, we got to the adventure (a re-purposed X1: Isle of Dread…hey, the game has a B/X base and it’s about dinosaur lost worlds!) and everything fizzled.

That is to say, the PLAYER motivation fizzled. Or, rather, the player SELF-motivation fizzled. 

How many GMs have experienced this before: players show up, interested and raring to go, but with absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to do? Their characters are like race cars stuck in neutral…they look great, they can rev their engines by stepping on the gas, but they don’t actually GO anywhere. And if they (individually) step on the gas too hard, they blow their engine.

Ugh…maybe that’s a poor analogy; let’s try something different. I guess I’m going to have to start a totally new post after all!

[part 3 of this post will go up after I manage to offend some sensibilities with my segue post...sorry for the delay...]