Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Limits of Technology

Still haven't started packing yet, but I think we'll be okay. Mainly, we plan on packing empty suitcases in empty suitcases for the journey home...suitcases that will be full upon our return in June. That's the kind of logistics issue that is easy for a bone-head like me: stuff it so it fits.

What's the harder thing is getting my computer to do what I want it to do. Spent most of the morning (so far) surfing the internet and "help" sites and coming up empty on a variety of topics.

I woke up this morning (blearily) with the great idea of rewriting Cry Dark Future as a "smart document;" something that links weird, technical terms with the rules and definitions within the document; something having pop-up boxes for equipment items (like guns and whatnot), rather than forcing players to scroll by finger through their ebook (or comb through a thick print-book by hand). It seems to me that here would be a great use of fancy-shmancy technology and the young 'ins preference for hand-held devices. And CDF is small enough that this wouldn't be too burdensome, and complex enough that such an undertaking would be worthwhile for navigating the game.

Unfortunately, Mac Pages cannot create links to other sections of the document. Nor can it create pop-up text. Nor can it create a damn index. What a stupid, worthless waste of my time.

I will be purchasing Word (again) when I get back to the U.S. I should have got a frigging PC. Arrgh!

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's Five O'Clock Somewhere...

...here actually, in Paraguay.

I'm cracking a beer in part because I'm unemployed, in part because there ain't much more to do at the moment, and in part because I feel a mini-celebration is in order. Turns out the family will be heading home for Seattle on Wednesday after all. All of us.

Thank goodness.
: )

Not that it means "the hard times are over" or anything. Au contraire, mon frere. We're just (finally) starting to settle in to our Paraguayan house, which is anything but "hard times." Here I sit in my solarium, watching a gardener clean up the unsightly jungle that is my backyard, while I drink ice cold Stella and listen to the air conditioner hum. It is grey and overcast today...82 degrees...and the maid is taking a break, watching Mexican telenovellas on a giant 3D flatscreen in the other room...a TV that even I, marked TV watcher that I am, would be hesitant to include in my Seattle home for fear of it becoming more of an altar/shrine than it already is. Life is not hard here...especially not for me...and as frustrating as it has been (at times) to adapt to a different style of living, almost all of my complaints can be filed in the category of "bitchy-whiny-ness." Once you find two-three decent restaurants and the Paraguayan equivalent of Whole Foods, the only other things you need are the car and internet service to feel comfortable...and we've got all that. Everything else...really...is just frosting.

SO...our three month sojourn in Seattle (to have our second child) will be much more trying in many ways. The home stretch of my wife's pregnancy. The adjustments that come with having a second child. Not having daycare/school for our first child (that puts me in the nanny role again). The stress of figuring out what things we will absolutely need to take with us when we return to Asuncion for the rest of the 17 month contract (especially the extra things for the baby...D is almost completely potty-trained at this point but the diapers down here are pretty shitty). No, I doubt I'll be cracking many afternoon beers in the near future!

Yes it feels good to know we'll soon be back in cold and drizzly (it IS still March, right?) Seattle soon. But it's coming right as we're finally getting used to life here. And everything both here and in Seattle is scheduled for dramatic upheaval...inevitable, unstoppable upheaval. What's that ancient Chinese curse again? "May you live in interesting times." I'm looking forward to being home, but oh boy. At least if the beagles wake me up at 4am, that'll be 8am Asuncion time (and I usually get up at 7ish here).

Ah, well...inevitable is the operative word, really. I wonder if any of the old crew will be up for some Thursday night gaming this week. Might need to try organizing something via email.
; )

Legendary Might - Revisited

Mmm...Monday morning and for a change I had plenty of time. Well, not plenty, but more than usual. And as one might expect, I squandered most of it. Sheesh.

But I've had a lot on my mind. Today is March 10th and, originally, my family was slated to be on a plane back to Seattle Wednesday (arriving the 13th...it is a loooong trip, even by air). Now, it appears that will be pushed back a week or more, at least for my wife. Not sure if D and I are going to be delayed as well; it depends on how much the wife's client wants to spend on changing the tickets...close to four grand a pop (which is disgusting when you consider I haven't broken five figures in three plus years of selling books. Obviously, I picked the wrong hobby for a side job!).

Anyway, this just means that this week's posting will be lighter (especially on content) as we figure out what needs to be packed and what needs to be done (here) while we're in Seattle. Plus, I started working (again) on a new game. No, not a GM-less one...I'm returning to my little superhero opus, Legendary Might. Though I'm considering changing the title to something like "SuperGroup Omega;" I really want to make the game more team oriented.

Legendary Might was a good start...and playable...but it was missing some of the things I'm looking for in a game. For instance, remember me talking about how much fun I find chargen in Heroes Unlimited? There's a proper balance to strike between detail and speed/ease of character creation. The DMI system is cool because it's both specific and abstract; suggestive, yet doesn't pigeon-hole players. Plus, I like the minimalist classes (i.e. "power types") included and the minor tweaks they bring. But I'm not sure I totally dig DMI's normal hit point system for Legendary Might. And I found a way to get a little more specific with the chargen to better pour yourself into the character: the addition of attributes (I considered calling them "abilities" but they represent more than what a character is "able to do"). These don't require any extra dice rolling, by the way, but rather use the cards already dealt, provide narrative value, and act as a refresh/reward system. I statted up 30-40 comic book superheroes this way (278 entries on my spreadsheet), and am quite happy with how it's looking...when you can do Superman down to Robin, the Hulk and the Punisher...well, that's neat. It's a little more work than Marvel's FASERIP, but it has a lot more color and specificity...which to me is getting closer to that granularity I like.

The next step is working on the actual play structure, especially involving plotting (and subplots) and scene construction. I've got a lot of different games to look at for inspiration, including Marvel, With Great Power, and Capes; I'll probably looking at a lot of these collaborative RPGs for ideas as well. Most supers RPGs harken back to a D&D-esque play structure, minus the dungeon (i.e. "no structure other than what the GM uses") which is, ultimately, too much work for Yours Truly, so I need to come up with something a little more mechanical.

Okay...more later.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Drowning and Falling

It's just after 9am, Paraguay time (that's 4am in Seattle...at least until Daylight Savings Time tightens its damnable screws again) which means my family should be "rising and shining" pretty soon. In other words, I ain't got much time to post at the moment.

I was reading back through my old blog posts this morning (I've been up for a couple hours) with the intention of writing something at least semi-B/X related (and not wanting to be redundant again), when I got distracted...what else is new? As such, that post will have to wait for the nonce. I will say, I am really missing my B/X books and am wishing I'd brought them along with me. Yes, yes...I know the PDFs are available for purchase at the moment (and at a very reasonable cost), but it's not the same as having the printed book open for reference next to you when you're trying to do something computer-related. At least it's not for me.

[by the way, the superhero stuff will be coming back, too. I've still got to talk about Aquaman and Black Manta! and yes, my son has finally imprinted Rhodey in his brain...I've been Rhodey for at least two days now. On the other hand, D is giving himself even more license with his character...yesterday, walking around barefoot in blue jeans and a wife-beater tank, he insisted he was wearing his "Tony Stark" clothes. I'm not sure which universe's Tony Stark he is referencing]


The distraction was I just spent the last hour or so reading the text version of Drowning and Falling, another indie, GM-less RPG by Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games. This is Mr. Morningstar's version of D&D Mine (i.e. his closest thing to a retroclone/OSR/D&D-knockoff offering) though it is satirical in nature and pretty damn funny. It also looks like it has a completely workable game system that would be highly entertaining to play...I might pull this out one night when I'm back in Seattle.

The title says it all...
You can check out the free text version here, at their download page but you might consider purchasing the full version as A) it's supposed to have a lot of good artwork and B) all proceeds go to ORBIS, a worthy charitable organization.

Okay, that's as much of a shill for another dude's game company as I'm going to get today. However, what I wanted to say is that, despite the satire (not that there's anything wrong with humor...I like that, too, sometimes) there's the underpinnings of what could be a pretty neat little game here. I really like the way he's approached the classes of the characters, his "two alignment" system, and the spells that are tied to both...plus the GM'less method of creating a "dungeon" using a pack of playing cards. There's a lot here that I wouldn't mind adapting to a "more serious" D&D-ish game, one that involves challenges unrelated to drowning and falling.

How derivative is too derivative?

I am, probably, missing the entire point of Morningstar's game. He is clearly lampooning certain stereotypes, though not with malice (see his designer notes at the end...but even if he was, so what?) and for me to steal bits for a knockoff of a knockoff would be an absurdity of epic proportions, right? Yeah, probably.

Still, I've yet to make an RPG with dwarves and elves as a default class/race (they're included in 5AK only as an "optional" thing in the DM's book). And no, Cry Dark Future doesn't count, since it ain't published yet...and may be being reworked anyway.

[I wonder how much it costs to do a print-run of books in Paraguay?]

Anyway, more later. Happy sabado folks!
: )

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hillfolk (Robin D. Laws)

With the second season of Vikings starting, my mind turns to axe-wielding maniacs in longships pillaging the English coastline. Briefly, I considered the idea of creating a B/X setting based in large part on the show (adding fantasy elements, of course), but however interesting exploration/exploitation is, that's not really the focus of the show. Rather, what's important is the relationship between the characters and how those relationships intersect (and often conflict) with the characters' desires and ambitions. B/X is not a great vehicle for that type of role-playing.

But Hillfolk by Robin D. Laws is perfect.

I picked up Hillfolk in January (I think)...shortly before things started getting really hectic around the home front. I own several games written (or co-written) by Laws, including Over The Edge, Pantheon, Feng Shui, Hero Wars, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues, and the Dying Earth RPG. Most fall into the category of "games-owned-but-never-played;" the only ones I have played are Over The Edge and Pantheon, and only OTE more than once...mainly because no one I know is interested in them. Sure, I may not do a great job selling 'em to people...but whatever. Point is, I like Laws's games, I have a lot of respect for his work and his designs, and I have put more money into his pockets than I have with any other designer, save Gygax, Siembieda, and Mark Rein-Hagen.

[ooo...that's kind o sad when you think about it!]

Spear-chucking with purpose!
Hillfolk uses a new system (the DramaSystem) to cut right to the chase of where long-term RPGs eventually end up: a soap opera of clashing personalities. That may sound less-than-complimentary, but I don't know a more succinct (and yet positive) way to describe it. The point of the system is to play the emotional exchanges that occur between people in tightly-knit (clan) relationships. The default setting is a small group of Iron Age villagers (hunter-warrior types) just on the borders of the "civilized" clashing empires. Consider perhaps a pre-Conan look at Cimmerian life, and how the people of the village get along in the face of internal politics, familial ties, and external threats.

Like Fiasco, PCs are created together and are defined (in part) by their relationships with each other: specifically what they want emotionally (and what they're unlikely to get) from each other. Unlike Fiasco, the characters also have some practical stats (for doing things like fighting and whatnot) and inner drives that color the ways they go about seeking their emotional "payoffs;" also, Hillfolk uses a GM, unlike Fiasco...though with a little thought, I don't think it would have been too tough to push it into the realm of collaborative role-playing.

Also, like Fiasco, the default setting is only a jumping off point...the game mechanics easily translate into other close-knit, tribal (or tribe-like) structures. Only one-third of Hillfolk's 230 pages is devoted to the system and its basic, Iron Age setting. The rest of the book is additional settings in which to use the DramaSystem, including a rural moonshining family, the Aztec empire during the coming of the Spanish, a support group for recovering "mad scientists," Spanish patriots fighting the Franco's fascists, a colony of humans on Mars, and the henchmen of a low-powered super villain. In all, there are thirty additional settings with players taking the form of everything from robots to pirates to irks to faeries at war with Victorian England. It's easy enough to come up with new settings: the key ingredients are simply small group facing external odds/adversity, while dealing with the normal group dynamic of clan. Hillfolk does the kind of thing OrkWorld wanted to do, but doesn't pussyfoot around with it, cutting right to the heart of the matter with its system.

I assume, anyway...I haven't actually played Hillfolk.

Back when I was a kid/pre-teen, I played in a looooong-running AD&D campaign, one that lasted several years. It eventually got to the point that "actual adventures" weren't as interesting to our high level characters as our own agendas, schemings, intrigues, and romances; if we killed some trolls in a session, it was usually a very minor part of whatever else was going on (internally) with our "characters." I've written before that I've never managed to reproduce this kind of D&D experience (a very fun one), because such an experience only developed organically after years of play, bushing the boundaries of the system, exploring the end game of high level play, and developing trust and intimacy within our gaming group. Hillfolk produces this kind of play without the need to sit around the gaming table for years. If this is the kind of gaming experience you long for, you might want to check it out.

One more interesting thing about Hillfolk: back before I started experiencing the burnout that led me to look at GM-less RPGs, I was working on an even simpler fantasy adventure game, that more emulated a literary/folktale type genre over the D&D mold of "treasure-seeking delvers" and one of the things I was looking at was mechanics regarding character motivation/desire, internal obstacles to that desire, and player created statements of who the PC is...like a ritualized, "this is the story of (blank) who seeks to do X, Y, and Z." Hillfolk does all this, mimicking in many ways the very structures I was implementing. The difference is Laws does this to get to the emotional exchange between players in a system devoted to emotional exchange...while I was still trying to figure out how to mechanically impact an "adventure game." The end result: his works and mine was struggling mightily (to the point where I mostly ignored the systems in actual play-testing, instead simply allowing such signs to stand as guidelines for "how to play your character;" lame!). Seeing the system in print (and the way it works) really took the wind out of my sails!

Anyhoo, Hillfolk...like most of Laws's games...is quite innovative and interesting, and may be the best offering I've yet seen from Pelgrane Press (I like GUMSHOE and Dying Earth, but they are still a little too clunky for my taste...damn skill systems!). It's not something I'd want to play all the time, but it's certainly something I'd like to play.

Probably with a Vikings setting, though.
; )

Thursday, March 6, 2014


A quick side note: I received a new laptop from my wife for Christmas, due to my old one being fairly out-o-date (I think I got it back in 2007 or 2008), the expected emphasis on my “writing career” (ha!) while unemployed, and the difficulty with finding quality hardware (for reasonable price…even American-brand toys manufactured in China are two or three times as expensive as they are in the USA, and I don’t even shop at WalMart!).

On my old Mac, I had copies of MSOffice for Mac so that I could use programs like Word and Excel. The reason for this was two-fold:

MS programs like Word and Excel are the ones I’m familiar and proficient in, due to using them for years on my (prior) job’s PC computer.
As a person who sometimes found time (or made time) to work on personal projects ar my (prior) job, I needed the ability to work in the same software both at home and office.

Mac’s equivalent programs (Pages and Numbers) can “translate” Word and Excel documents, but the process is only really one-way, and I learned early on during the book writing thang what a pain in the ass it was to try working in two different systems…plus my lack of familiarity with the Mac software made me uncomfortable (that’s putting it mildly). Sure, “Mac Word” isn’t an exact duplicate of MS Word (there were issues with missing fonts and margin limitations), but the differences were small enough that I could work with them with only minor frustration.

However, when we got the new laptop, I decided NOT to get the corresponding MS programs loaded on my computer. My thought was that I needed to learn how to use Pages, etc. and I would never do that with the MS programs…plus, since I’m not actually working anywhere besides my personal computer, there’s no reason or requirement for me to have PC compatibility. I figured by the time I got back to the USA, I’d be fully proficient (or at least competent) in my Mac programs and all my writing/publishing/whatever would be handled in the Mac programs.

Of course, I completely forgot that ALL my documents (including all my books, published and non-) are still in MS Word format. Trying to edit them for typos, or get them ready for upload (I was planning on making The Complete B/X Adventurer available for sale as a PDF), has turned into a giant clusterf**k. Crap on a stick.

But that’s not the “fiasco” to which the title of this post refers. That refers to Jason Morningstar’s excellent and award winning game, of which I’d never heard…up until December.

Bully Pulpit Games first released Fiasco back in January 2010…back around the time I was trying to figure out how to make a cardboard box for my B/X Companion book. Gosh, only four years ago? Comparing Mr. Morningstar’s work to my over over the last few years is an exercise in envy (on my part)…not only has he won multiple awards and sold thousands and thousands of books, the guy seems to design nothing but GM-less RPGs, of the kind I’m only now starting to really explore.  It’s really enough to make you feel like an antiquated schlub.

PVP Action? Yes!

I was introduced to Fiasco through a friend of one of my semi-infrequent, drop-in gamers. I mentioned (back in November or early December) of my interest in checking out a collaborative RPG or two (I’d previous had some experience, as mentioned with games like Capes and Pantheon) and Jon (Redbeard) suggested Fiasco. His buddy and his buddy’s wife (really don’t remember their names at the moment…sorry!) showed up to the Baranof one Thursday night, and we ran Fiasco with my brother, AB.

[my brother has recently returned to Seattle in October and has since been attempting to reenter “normal society” after a couple years of homeless wanderings and mental illness in the Hawaiian Islands. He’s not what one would call an “indie gamer” by any stretch of the imagination. In a conversation about game design, he once espoused that a game could not be a “real” role-playing game without a combat system and some method of character advancement. He is (or rather was) also a big fan of World of Warcraft]

Fiasco is a great game. Very fun, very interesting and a real collaborative challenge to craft a good story. We all enjoyed ourselves…even my brother, who was extremely hesitant to try such a game. Usually, AB is the type of gamer who will poke fun at/derail games that he doesn’t understand or doesn’t appreciate or that I am taking “too seriously.” He doesn’t do this to be malicious…it’s just how he is, that “little brother” annoying prerogative. However, he actually had a good time and was able to get into the spirit of the game quite nicely, making for a satisfying, Story Now gaming experience.

For people who aren’t familiar with Fiasco, the idea is for 3-5 players (though I’ve been assured four is the optimal number) create characters from a number of random narrative elements (rolled on tables) that define what they have in common with each other. It’s quite simple in practice, and negotiating how the distributed elements interact (i.e. what they signify) both creates the characters at the table and creates an idea of the story at hand. Game play consists of players taking turns to create scenes with negotiation and dice rolls helping determine how those scenes play out. The game session is divided into acts with twists (or “tilts”) that help the story slide in unforeseen ways until you have some climactic resolution (that’s “climax” in the narrative sense…it’s not necessarily a big, blow ‘em up kind of event).

The original game setting is built on the “crime caper gone horribly wrong” premise…the film Fargo is the often cited sample inspiration (not to mention all those British films by Madonna’s ex-husband). However, what makes Fiasco so playable (and commercially viable) is the ability to change and customize the setting to all sorts of different “plans-gone-wrong” ideas; Bully Pulpit Games was issuing a “playset” of the month (with new random element tables and “tilts” specific to each new setting) and many fans of the game have contributed their own playsets. For our game, we used a “high fantasy” setting…D&D-esque…based on my brother’s request, though we could have done Renaissance or Elizabethan England or Old West or whatever. The folks who ran the game (why am I blanking on his name? Kevin? Phil?) has a whole folder full of  possible playlets he’d printed.

The fantasy setting was a concession to my brother, but the story was nothing like a dungeon crawl. “Phil” played a the daughter of the local thieves guild master, who masqueraded as a man, my character was an elven princess who was his betrothed (the guild master’s plot being to move up into “high (elven) society” or possibly blackmail the elven nobility by the scandal), my brother was the princess’s bodyguard/master-of-arms/champion (who also happened to be female AND a werewolf), and “Sarah” (“Phil’s” wife) was the wolf that AB’s character sometimes turned into…she was kind of like the Dark Side of the PC’s consciousness (or her “kill ‘em all” id) while AB was the honorable, duty-bound warrior-woman.

[why did all the guys end up with female characters? It just worked out that way based on the elements that came up and what would make for a good and coherent story…I don’t remember anything requiring that any of us had to be specifically female and (at least between my brother and I) we aren’t ones to play “gender-bended” characters in RPGs. We all remarked it was a little weird, but as said, it made for a better story/adventure/session and we all did our best to play our characters in serious fashion]

Anyhoo, it made for a good night’s play, though I can’t recall exactly what happened (this was back in early December and, as usual, there was a lot of drinking involved). At one point, my princess led a big battle charge against an orc village, and there was a lot of discussion about the “wolf fighting style” that she needed to learn to be a true leader of her people. I think the characters did actually end up getting married and being “unhappy ever after,” but I don’t really remember. Like I said, it was an enjoyable and satisfying, story creating experience, and another good foray (for me) into the world of collaborative role-playing.

That being said, Fiasco felt much more like a parlor game to me (albeit a very fun parlor game that did involve role-playing and characterization). It’s not really designed for long-term or serial play, and thus lacks the development over time (and subsequent character identification and attachment) that I enjoy. There were also some difficulties with the “choose to set the scene or choose to resolve the scene” mechanic that is inherent in the game. Either Phil and Sarah didn’t explain this succinctly enough, or I was too drunk to understand, or it’s as murky in the rules as it was at our gaming table (having never read the rules, I can’t say). Whatever it was, at some points it felt like we were just negotiating what happened and kind of “winging it” depending on A) the needs of the story, and B) the dice rolls. And in that regard, Fiasco was was a little loosey-goosey for my taste.

I tried to get hold of a (print) copy of the game before I came down to Paraguay to study up on it, but was unable to do so. Fiasco’s a good one to have on-hand if you’ve got enough players and nothing else planned for the evening.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Giving Up Power

No, not another superhero post.

This post has been a long time coming. Last Autumn, probably round about October I started to feel something akin to burnout. At the table. Frustration with gaming…with gaming itself. Feelings that I’d rather not be doing what I was doing on Thursday nights.

This is somewhat reflected in my lack of blog posts stemming from this period, though mainly my lack of output the last few months have been caused by my busy schedule and the overall stress of my daily life. My writing suffered from a lack of focus, not a lack of desire (and now that I finally have some time to write, I find I’m a little rusty/out-o-practice). But my gaming itself…yeah, it was getting harder to drag myself to the table, even when I had the evening free to do so.

Kayce down at Gary’s Games actually helped me figure out what was going on in my brain…I was tired of running games. I was tired of play-testing. I was tired of being in the puppet-master position…I wanted to game, I wanted to participate, but I needed to stop approaching the thing like a 2nd job…especially when I already had a 2nd or 3rd job (depending on how you count the work nannying my own child and trying to get the writing biz off the ground). 

Kayce suggested I let someone else run a game…unfortunately she wasn’t available to do so, and the games that were available to me (I’m on a couple regular mailing lists of Thursday meet-ups) were not playing anything that piqued my interest.

Fact is, I was still interested in many aspects of the GM chair, enjoyed them even…but I wanted to be a player participant in the game as well. I wanted a chance to play the hero for a change…whatever the genre. But who was going to run 5AK (or Cry Dark Future or Boot Hill or Star Wars or DMI) for me? I was writing and creating games that I wanted to play…as a player!…and I was the only one not getting a chance to play.

It was about that time I started thinking seriously about GM-less games. Giving up the power of the game "master" for an (equal) place at the table.

Collaborative role-playing games (I believe this is the P.C. term) have been around for a while, but they are certainly a small, small part of the RPG market. Many of them feel more like storyteller type system (the card game, Once Upon A Time comes to mind), lacking a true feeling of characterization, character identification, or (God forbid!) role-playing at all…at least in the “traditional” manner of speaking.

But I knew it was at least possible to bridge the gap…previously, I’d had the chance to play Capes, an indie superhero game that works without a GM and yet still has strong character construction/identification (one of the coolest takes on chargen I’ve ever seen in an RPG, actually). The game itself shares the narration and normal GM duties between players (like challenging PCs), by setting them up in a competitive environment with a system of bids and points for control of narration. The competition level is certainly on the “light” scale…little is risked/lost when chargen is as throwaway-easy as Capes (still cool, though). Part of the reason Capes doesn’t work for me is that “little risk” factor, but mainly the system (how the game plays) is a little clunky and slow for a genre I think should be slam-bam fast. Competitive, nuanced bidding structure for narrative rights? This isn’t a bull session in the Marvel editor’s office!


Anyhoo, back in October when I was in the throes of this “burnout” thing, I stumbled across Western City, another GM-less game with a much less complicated bidding system of narrative control and stronger “character attachment” (players each have a main character/protagonist and then get to bid for control of minor characters and antagonists) then what is found in Capes. Western City’s method of bidding and splitting chips is an easy way for a group to determine narration rights and ensures that this control will be shared between all participants  by the nature of the spend. It still holds a few problems for me (a slow setup time, an overly complex skill system, a weird way of scheduling the day’s conflicts) that make me hesitant to actually try the thing…but just reading it got me thinking (back in November), and thinking started getting me out of my funk.

Unfortunately, my life conspired to prevent me from really sitting down and hammering out my own thoughts and concepts in the way I wanted…or writing about my blossoming ideas as they started growing in my brain. Knowing that I would be moving to Paraguay, the holidays, and tying up the loose ends at the job I was leaving (not to mention my wife’s continued travels to South America)…left me struggling for air, let alone writing time. I started and abandoned more than half a dozen blog posts during the time.

But I kept reading and researching…stuffing info into my brain in hopes it would become a digested, useable thing. I borrowed a copy of Polaris off of Tim, a game I’d been meaning to look at for a long time anyway due to my interest in the subject matter (it has a real “Fall of Ancient Atlantis” type feel…doomed tragedy is a favorite fantasy concept of mine. Well, so long as there’s some rebirth/hope that arises from the destruction). Polaris is also a GM-less…um, “collaborative” RPG that incorporates ritual beautifully, in a way that is highly reminiscent of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, another game that straddles the border of RPG and collaborative storytelling.

[as a side note, any book that incorporates the purchase and consumption of alcohol into its gameplay is a must have for this gamer’s library!]

Polaris is the basic model for a game I tentatively started designing ‘round about Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, that design has had a stunted growth, being mainly composed of half a page of notes and a headful of prosaic “color” text. Part of the problem is I haven’t actually had a chance to figure out the tone…part of me wants it very, very dark (though it is not a doom & gloom game) and the other part of me wants something much more light-hearted (albeit snarky). And, no, that one has nothing to do with superheroes, either. More on this later (probably).

To continue my story: at the same time I was really starting to groove on the idea of creating a GM-less game, one of the gaming newsletters to which I subscribe sent me a list of articles on “collaborative role-playing.” These are old articles, and the list was unsolicited…it was simply that serendipitous kind o thang that sometimes happens when you’re mind is aligned in a particular direction.

Ian Millington is the one responsible for most of these articles, which were penned more than decade ago. I’ll post the links below for folks who are interested…as I write more on the subject, I will be referencing back to some of thoughts, concepts, and ideas Mr. Millington was developing:

Shifting the Paradigm of gaming (with pictures).

Ten Principles for Mr. Millington’s concept of collaborative role-playing (not sure I’m on board with all these, but they aid in understanding his work).

An essay on “Avatarism” and a new way of looking at “why we should play role-playing games.” This one is sure to raise some hackles, though I found it quite mind-blowing.

An interview with Mr. Millington (interesting...and mentions some of the limits to collaborative role-playing he sees).

Four actual games by Mr. Millington incorporating his principles of collaborative role-playing.

Okay, that’s enough to chew on for now...more on the subject later. I hope to write individual posts about two very specific collaborative games as a follow-up to this post: Fiasco and Blood Red Sands, perhaps later this week.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Old Heroes Never Die (No, Really)

Yes, "Superhero Week" continues here at the ol' blog.

I spent a few minute again this morning watching the trailers for the new Captain America movie on the YouTube. Boy, do they get me revved up!

I've written before that Cap is one of my favorite superheroes...maybe my favorite of all time from the Marvel comics universe. Well, Daredevil's up there, too (even the Ben Affleck version).

[*sigh* I thought of writing a Top Ten List of Superheroes this morning, but then realized how utterly ridiculous that would be...there are so many, old and new, that there's no guarantee mine would even be "set in stone." And what would I be basing it on? Writing and artwork? That varies across the length of a series. How the hero is portrayed in film? Varies by actor and director. Based on which powers I'd like to possess? No way! THAT list would include characters like Wolverine, Silver Surfer, and Green Lantern...none of whom would fall into my list of "favorite" superheroes. At least not these days]

Even though Cap is one of my faves, I've owned very few of his comics over the years...like maybe one or two. Not that I haven't owned comics that included Captain America...Avengers, of course, Marvel Team-Ups, Secret Wars (the first series anyway), etc. Cap is a character who really stands out when working with others...not because he isn't badass in his own way, but because he gets to demonstrate more of his intangibles: his leadership, his idealism, his ability to inspire and mentor.

Still, I stopped buying comic books with any regularity back around 1990, and those were mainly Silver Surfer or Dark Horse imprints, not the Marvels that would feature Captain America. The last Cap-featured comic I purchased was probably around 1985 or '86. Maybe even earlier than that.

However, I've had the chance to visit some of the later comics, thanks to my old high school/college buddy who is (possibly) a bigger nerd than I am. No, he doesn't play role-playing games (or even computer games), but he has the largest collection of comics, Legos, and toy paraphernalia of any adult I personally know. He's loaned me a few of his trade paperbacks for Captain America, allowing me to follow some of the story arcs of the last 10 years (give or take), and that's why the trailers for the new film getting me so stoked: without a doubt the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are (other than The Ultimates reboot) the two best things to have happened to Captain America since I was a kid.

[yes, I realize that Cap and the Falcon were a team back in the 1970s, but this was before I was reading anything other than Golden Key comics...during the 80s, I just didn't see Falcon that much, and it was only after he got thrown back into the comic that I saw what a nice pairing they made]

Please O Please keep the name "Snap"
I'm not a huge fan of Snap's re-conception as "Bird Master;" sometimes less is more with superheroes, and I was plenty satisfied with his low-powered heroics. Why must you get your Cosmic Cube in my peanut butter? But I am totally on-board with him as a super-secret agent-of-SHIELD dude that appears to be the situation in the new film.

[for folks who haven't seen the latest trailer, here's a link]

And Winter Soldier? Other than being just about the coolest Marvel villain since before Apocalypse (who ruined O-So-Much for me)...well, folks should know by now how much I love tales of heroes falling to the Dark Side and then getting a shot at redemption, right? Add that to my passion for cyborgs (which I've blogged about on numerous occasions) and you can see why WS is in the top two or three Marvel baddies of all time...for me, anyway.

[there will probably be some spoilers in the following paragraphs, so consider yourself warned]

Winter Soldier does something that few plots in the comic book do...he emphasizes the age (or rather agelessness) of the comic book character. When the writers of Captain America decided to bring Bucky Barnes back (Cap's original WW2 sidekick) they had to figure out why he would still be spry and kicking ass after so many decades. Cap, of course, has the Super Soldier Serum running through his veins that makes him (apparently) as ageless as any mutant, but Bucky was just a young, highly competent "masked man;" how would he have survived decades to come back and haunt his former mentor?

Thank goodness for the comic trope of periodic cryo-freeze!

Thing is, I like the idea of the aging (or increasingly decrepit) superhero. We watched Pixar's The Incredibles the other evening, and I was once again struck by how entertaining it is to see costumed crusaders transition into "normalcy" (domestic life and the subsequent challenges it brings). Sure, this may be in part because I can identify with it (as I gradually take on more aspects of "middle age" myself)...but the reason we can ALL identify with it is because it does happen to all of us...all of us outside the four-colored world of comic books, that is.

And I think it's interesting to see people who were super heroic...who are still super heroic, actually...deal with those challenges.

The subject of the aging or "past their prime" hero is not a new subject for exploration. Miller did it in his Dark Knight graphic novel, it was explored at length in Moore's The Watchmen, and you can see traces of it in film: the aforementioned Daredevil with Ben Affleck and the most recent Batman film of with Christian Bale show the effects of crime-fighting taking their toll (non-stop Advil consumption and lost cartilage leading to knee braces). But usually, it's perpetually glossed over (or outright ignored) in the genre...Batman being as effective as ever despite a lack of supernatural or superhuman ability.

My recent games...both published and "not-yet-"...have all tried to take into account decrepitude and the toll taken by the adventuring lifestyle. I know that when you're a teen or 20-something gamer, you don't care all that much for these kinds of rules...in fact, when I was a teen playing AD&D or Traveller the penalties for advanced aging always annoyed the hell out of me! I wanted to play a perpetually young/prime of life character in the same stripe as a comic book super or cinematic action hero! But nowadays, that's a lot less interesting to me. I'd rather play a guy fighting his own slowing inertia than a young buck with a randomly required weakness or limitation.

The problem with such rules is the tendency to make them too crunchy or granular, necessitating more record keeping than I (or my usual players) want to track. For something semi-abstract like Marvel Superheroes, you could do something easy like:

Middle Age =  minus one column shift on all actions (-1 CS)
Old Age = minus two column shift on all actions (-2 CS)

[yes, that includes mental-based actions like inventing stuff...why do you think all those battle suits are scratch-built by YOUNG inventors? You lose focus and drive as you age, too]

Of course, experience and wisdom (i.e. the Karma mechanic) can still be used to offset this.

But for crunchier hero games, like Heroes Unlimited or Mutants & Masterminds, age mechanics can be a real pain to incorporate. And it's nigh impossible with more abstract, narrative-driven games like Capes and With Great Power...unless the players themselves want to account for this in their story-telling.

Mmm-mm-mm...I know there are some readers out there, who consider this whole line of thought to be of little-to-zero worth, and not just the youngsters. I can hear one particular person I know, ringing in my ears with "People don't play RPGs to emulate the sucky-ness of real life! They want to escape from these things for the length of a game session!" Ugh...you ARE escaping from the suck, dude! I'm just trying to incorporate a different and (I think) interesting new wrinkle/challenge. Ah, well...it's time for me to go pick up D from daycare. Maybe I'll write about this more later. Maybe.

I might just have to settle back into the writing of my own supers game.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Of Dice And Men

Some folks might be wondering, "hey...when JB moves to Paraguay, what sort of books and gaming equipment does he take along for the ride?"

Truthfully, not much. The plan was to to be down here a couple months (from mid-January to mid-March), then return to the USA for the birth of our child before making the more serious move in May intended to last for twelve months. This initial two month "trial period" was to supposed to give us a chance to settle in and see the things we'd really be missing, so as to better prepare when we come back in early June.

For me...a guy who's personal office space is practically over-flowing with books and games...I had to make some serious editing of what was important and what wasn't. I figured I probably wouldn't be doing much gaming down here, if any (so far, that's proven pretty accurate), but I hoped to at least do some reading and writing, and that would necessitate some source books.

Here are the games I packed (alphabetically):

Five Ancient Kingdoms (print copy, including dice...you never know!)
Hillfolk (Robin D. Laws)
Kingdom of Nothing (Jeff Himmelman)
Polaris (Ben Lehman)
Western City (Jorg Dunne)
With Great Power (Michael S. Miller)

While it's not actually a full game, I also brought my copy of WH40K's supplement Codex: Space Wolves (3rd edition), mainly because I was thinking of creating a game that riffs on the Space Wolves' "fluff." Haven't quite gotten to that, yet!

Other than 5AK, there are probably a lot of titles here that are unfamiliar to my usual readers (since I've kind of made a name in the "old school D&D" biz and these are anything but!). I'll probably do a write-up of each over the next few days, just to explain why I brought them and what value each holds for me. None of them were brought for "nostalgia" purposes...in fact, other than 5AK, I've never played ANY of these games. They all hold interest for me as a designer.

[okay, okay, I have used the Space Wolves codex before, but mainly for house guests interested in using my few Space Wolf models...when I travel with minis, the only thing I pack is my Khorne Worldeaters]

As far as books go (non-gaming), I managed to sneak a handful into the suitcase as well. Besides the children's books we brought for Diego, my reading material includes the following:

  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (SciFi novel given to me by Steve-O...haven't yet cracked this open).
  • Alien Legion Omnibus #2 (a trade paperback...i.e. "graphic novel"...of the comic book series. I was intending to use this as research inspiration for a game idea also, but I got bored after the first couple chapters and haven't finished it).
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (this is a book I was reading to Diego back in Seattle)
  • Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt (mom gave this to me before I left...finished it a few days ago)
  • Win Forever by Pete Carroll (was reading it, but am taking a hiatus from football at the moment)

And that's it. I've got the internet (now) and a few things downloaded to my computer (mainly RPGs) but I really haven't had much time for reading. Heck, I haven't even had a chance to watch the last week's Downton Abbey, and you should know by now that the watching of quality television is a priority in my family (being one of the few things my wife and I both fully enjoy).

[ooo-ooo...quick sidenote: the second season of Vikings just started up on the History Channel, and damn am I sorry to be missing it! Yes, it is available for download on iTunes for a hefty sum, but I hope to catch-up via On Demand when I'm back in Seattle in two weeks. But, boy o boy is it hard to wait! I've decided that the series was definitely my favorite of last year, and quite possibly in the running for favorite television series of all time. You can read my thoughts on the show in this prior blog post]

But even with so little time, I did manage to knock out David Ewalt's book in a couple-three days. Of Dice and Men is an easy read, and an interesting one for any gamer interested in the underpinnings of D&D and its corporate history. It doesn't bother me that Mr. Ewalt plays a different edition (3.5) than myself, and even though he covered a lot of ground that was old news for me, it was fun to read about his personal journey of discovery (and rediscovery). It helped remind me of things I know but sometimes forget: like how we're all kind of in this hobby together and we should bitch-slap each other too much. Even Mike Mearls.
; )

The Underappreciated D12
It was especially nice to see into the heads and gaming minds of those oldest of old schoolers with whom he had a chance to game (Frank Mentzer and Ernie Gygax); the anecdotes he relates about them and others (including the contrasting styles of Arneson and Gary) just gave me a lot of food for thought and a deeper appreciation of the different ways one can approach the game of D&D...in any edition. Heck, even hearing about Ewalt's own gamer group's different style of play (call it the New York Groove) was interesting. Hopefully I'll have some more to say about that stuff later.

I still need to get a copy of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World (it's been recommended to me by more than a couple people), but Ewalt's book wasn't half bad. I'm glad I made space in my luggage for it. I'm sure glad my mom had a chance to read it (she's the one who gave it to me)...she said she finally has an understanding of this whole D&D hobby thing of mine.

Sheesh, mom...it only took you  32 years!
: )

Forging Heroes

Back to the blog list.

I was thinking of penning my thoughts on David M. Ewalt's book, Of Dice and Men (one of the few non-game tomes I packed for the journey and the only one I've found the chance to finish), but I'll save it for another day. I will say the book was a good, quick read and it gave me a newfound appreciation (or at least cooled any leftover ire still harbored) for WotC and recent D&D issues, including the whole D&D Next thing (I've really lost track of that, by the way...how is 5E coming along these days?). I've even got a little soft spot for Mike Mearls (who I've badmouthed before on this blog)...at least as a human being and fellow gamer. But the last week or so I've not been thinking (much) about Dungeons & Dragons, or sword and magic style adventure games.

I miss Heroes Unlimited.

Which is absolutely silly, of course. Hard to miss a game you've hardly played.

[we'll get to that in a moment]

My son is very much into superheroes at the moment; can't really get enough of them. This is what comes from being exposed to such at too tender an age by a terribly nerdy father. Not that he wouldn't be exposed anyway...ever since I was a child, the images of Spiderman and Superman and Batman have saturated toy stores and graced everything from t-shirts to backpacks to coffee mugs. Heck, I remember (as a child) there being a cheapo yellow air mattress in our house with an illustration of "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman" on it, circa 1979. Comic book characters (or their marketing, at least) have only seen to have grown more popular with the years...especially with the advent of the successful live-action films.

But having a father who knows the characters and the stories...and can relate them in depth...means that my kid has a walking font of knowledge on tap for any of the images he sees. The last couple days, for instance, our waking hours have been filled with playing "Iron Man" (or more often "Tony Stark"), with D as the perpetual hero and papa as "Tony's Amigo" (Rhodey).

[my son actually has a steel trap memory, especially for proper names of characters and places. It was a source of amusement to my wife over the weekend that he just couldn't seem to remember Rhodey and would most refer to me (whether in the 3rd person or directly) as "Tony's Amigo." 'Hey, Tony's Amigo, should we go fight some bad guys?' This from the kid who has no problem remembering other supporting cast people (my wife was "Pepper") plus secret identities like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Peter Parker, etc. as well as all numbers and manners of super-villains and super-powers]

So we've been playing superheroes a lot (and building a lot of secret HQs with Legos...when not building taco trucks, anyway), and blowing time watching old cartoons on YouTube, and it has of course put superheroes on my brain. Plus I've had the chance to watch the trailers for the upcoming Captain America and Spiderman films, which really gets me juiced. Well, the Captain America one anyway.

[that's a blog post for another time...maybe later this morning if I have a moment. I like the new J.J. Abrams style/old school look of The Amazing Spider-Man, but I'm a little burned out on the web-head at the moment. Plus Electro was never high in my rogues gallery of villains]

Anyway, getting back into a "gaming state-o-mind" combined with superhero overload is having the usual effect of getting me to comb the internet for the latest-greatest superhero RPG and also turning my brain to what I'm starting to feel must be my absolute favorite in the form of Heroes Unlimited. The fact that I have such a soft spot for a game I've hardly played...especially when it's rules/system are (IMO) an absolute heaping, steaming pile should tell you a couple-few things: 1) HU does something (for me) that other, better written games do NOT do, 2) I've found something tremendously dissatisfying in a lot of RPGs (since I've owned or read or played so many of the genre), and 3) nostalgia is at least partially in play.

But isn't the superhero genre (comics and film) always a bit about nostalgia? Certainly the movies that are making millions these days are doing so (for the most part) by telling stories already tremendously familiar to longtime fans. Sure, there are younger folks going to these movies to be wowed by special FX, or perhaps wanting to learn about a little-know hero, but for a geezer like me I'm at least as interested in how they intend to tell the stories I already know: what will be the "modern twists," what will they mash together and adapt, what will be recognizable, how "faithful" will they be to their subject matter. For a fan, these things are at least as important judgments/critiques as things like acting and editing and plot and pacing...it's what sets the superhero genre of film apart from most other genres (save perhaps from the adaptation of a previous long-running serial...whether we're talking TV or book series).

*ahem* Back to the subject: I perhaps misspoke a moment ago when I said I've "hardly played" HU over the years. It really depends on what you define as "play." Certainly, I've spent less time gaming with others around a table compared to other games, even compared to other Palladium games, like Rifts. But I've spent many hours poring over the HU books and making characters and running mock battles with the HU system, both of which can be considered forms of play. I would certainly consider the time spent as "playing" (as opposed to "working")!

Adventure included for solo play!
I also miss the aspect of play where I tried to model comic book characters in the HU system.  I've written before about how I love the granularity of a game that does everything from Misty Knight and  Colleen Wing up to something a little less than Thor, without the points-buy modeling nightmare of something like Champions or GURPS. With Heroes Unlimited, it's perfectly possible for one dude to randomly roll up Iron Fist while another to end up with the Juggernaut or some other uber-mutant; I really like and appreciate what others might consider a total lack of "game balance." Yes, you can create a wide discrepancy in chargen (via random roll) using Marvel Superheroes also but A) the end result is likely to be less cohesive than the power types of HU, and B) low-powered heroes in MSH really lack the granularity to distinguish themselves and the ability to be hugely effective (except using the limited metagame mechanic of karma).

Character creation is hugely important to a superhero RPG, much more than other genres of RPG in my opinion. Avatarism (something I'll be discussing in a later post) is a strong part of the genre...not just considering the question of 'how the existence of superheroes change the fantasy world,' but how (specifically) your character's unique set of superpowers change/affect your character's life. As I've also written before, the superhero genre is often the place of wish fulfillment: What would my life be like if I could teleport to work instead of having to take the stupid bus every morning? How would my crime-fighting/world-saving second life impact my own family/friends/relationships?

Heroes Unlimited, of course, doesn't delve (much) into these latter questions (unlike, say, Aberrant or With Great Power). What it DOES do, is give a very specific manner of easily creating very specific and enormously detailed characters...right down to origin, possible oppositions (for heroes on-the-run from the corporations that created them), education levels, and gadget budget. What HU does do is it gives you a chance to become really anchored in the avatar of character with very little input needed from the player in question. I get to make choices but I don't have to come up with much straight out of my head.

For some folks this may feel pretty darn constricting...but as with B/X D&D, sometimes a constraint of choice can help you free your imagination for other things much more important to actual play, like your character's motivation and behavior in-game.

ANYway, I dig on it. And I miss it. Certainly I don't miss my frustration with the game system, both as a GM and a player (I think I've described my one miserable time attempting to play...if not, I won't relate the story here. Suffice is to say the GM was a real prick), nor the mainly useless skill list, nor the length of time it takes to calculate all the damn stats and bonuses characters have. But I find myself wishing it would have been good to at least bring the book down here (to Paraguay)...perhaps to tinker with, perhaps to simply blow some free time modeling various comic book characters.

Lately (and by that I mean "back to November") I have been thinking a LOT about a different type of game design...something even more radical than indie, story-now type games. But the superhero genre is still one that benefits (I think) from a more old school approach to gaming...at least in the aspect of character creation. At least for long term (think "comic serial") play.