Sunday, December 4, 2016

That Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 Trailer Though . . .

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer released a few years ago I found myself stupidly excited for the movie. Here was an opportunity for me to finally see one of the great, weird comics that I grew up loving and that I always had trouble finding on a regular basis. I hoped that the movie would be a fun ride, and I wasn't disappointed.

Now the second trailer has released and I'm so damned excited that I can't wait for the movie to finally release!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Should We Be Describing Areas in Role-Playing Games

Last night I was reading reddit when ran across a novice Game Master (GM) asking for help in describing their game world. This particular GM had been running an adventure with lots of boxed text descriptions of each room which they had faithfully read as their players had explored. With experience, however, this GM had begun wondering if this was right or if they should be a bit more imaginative with the descriptions. The answers to this question left me feeling rather unfulfilled so I thought that I would explore the question more fully here.

When I first began running Dungeons and Dragons twelve years ago I ran games that came exclusively from my own imagination. I didn't pick up an official adventure from TSR or Wizards of the Coast for two years; and by that point I had already established my own style of describing the worlds my players were exploring which was heavily influenced by the pulp authors that I frequently read. As a result the boxed text felt heavy and unwieldy so I wouldn't run a published adventure because I arrogantly felt like running one would be akin to putting the training wheels back on my bike. 

The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth cover, by Erol Otus, 1981

It wasn't until I really started getting into the Greyhawk setting that my view on published adventures changed. I can remember reading The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth and it suddenly occurred to me that by ignoring the published adventures, and their ubiquitous boxed texts, that I was missing out on all of this really exciting stuff that other Dungeons and Dragons players had experienced. So I began to attempt running published modules. 

The first module that I attempted to run as it was written was David Cook's Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It was a challenging adventure for my players but as a GM I found it just as challenging to keep it interesting for them when it came time to read the boxed text. The problem was solidly my fault as instead of using the text as a starting point from which I would build the description I stubbornly stuck to reading it as it was written. 

Dwellers of the Forbidden City cover by Erol Otus, 1981

That was a mistake. 

One of my strengths as a GM has always been my ability to describe the locations that my players explore with a brevity that leaned heavy on mood and the big details. Without question my style is influenced by the Robert E. Howard novels I read and loved. A good example would be this passage from Son of the White Wolf:
". . . THE SUN WAS not long risen over the saw-edged mountains to the east, but already the heat was glazing the cloudless sky to the hue of white-hot steel. Along the dim road that split the immensity of the desert a single shape moved. The shape grew out of the heat-hazes of the south and resolved itself into a man on a camel . . ." (Howard)
In that short extract everything about the location is told in three sentences and as a GM, and storyteller, I'm always looking to emulate his style. I love the quickness of it and how a mood for the reader is so easily established. 

After my failure with Dwellers of the Forbidden City I decided to take a different approach with all future published modules I would run and try to bring a bit of Howard's style into the descriptions. Now I could do it on the fly but often it meant that I would end up missing things. The tone might get slightly off because I hadn't read far enough to know the location wasn't all that important or that the current non-player character (NPC) would be a pivotal character in the adventure. So I found myself doing a lot of prep work in order to make the published adventures work in a way that satisfied me. 

I would begin by making a copy of the adventure that I could write notes in without feeling guilty. I would then read the entire adventure before I began making notes I would need. I had to know what was happening; who the villains, throwaway characters, and heroes were. Then I would go back through a second time and make my notes. I would jot down a few quick thoughts on how I wanted this NPC to sound or the mood that this location needed to give the players. I highlighted things that I wanted them to discover and that I wanted to find quickly (like the villains' characteristics, weapons, and spells). And the night before I would read out loud the parts I thought we would touch in the session to my wife (when she wasn't playing), attempting to use all of my notes, to see what was working and failing.

All of that prep work I do has often paid off in ways that have taken my running of the adventures from cumbersome affairs into things that my players still talk about today - but it also made me incredibly hesitant to run the larger adventures. As you can imagine, published adventures end up being a lot more work for me and when I look at an adventure that's 250 pages long or more I have a hard time justifying spending that much time on it when my only reward may be my players looking at the start and saying, "Well, this is fucked. We're going the other direction away from the dragon and towards the bar." But Greyhawk has a way of rewarding my efforts. I consistently find myself enjoying the villains that I discover in these modules more than I did previously when I only knew their names and had read through their wiki descriptions. The locations I prepare for never go to waste as I can always find the time to let my players discover a crashed space ship or a hidden shrine to some foul demon princes looking to destroy the multiverse. 

In Greyhawk, there's always a hungry dragon.

Works Cited

Howard, Robert E. "Son of the White Wolf." Project Gutenberg Australia Accessed December 1, 2016.

Friday, November 18, 2016

It's One O'Clock and I'm Fairly Certain the Rocket Won't Wait.

This evening I was reading a RPG book where the authors spent seven pages detailing how time passes in their game world. The days and months of the year were given these silly names. The phases of the moon were described, with each given a special name. Worst of all the hours were called out in a quasi-Latin style. It was clear that the intent was to create a sense of verisimilitude for the world that they were describing but instead it all came off a bit contrived and silly. This setting isn't unique in this foolishness. Just a quick pass through my game library and it seems like in practically every amateur and professional setting I've been presented with the latest 'unique' calendar and denotation of time. Over and over again it seems that the authors can't wait to tell me all about how special their world's understanding of time is. 

Why, it's not Monday here; it's First-Day. 

January? No, no. You're saying it wrong. It's Fireseek. 

What time is it? Why it's half past Qui'Tar Jut! 

Now maybe you're players are really into learning the minutia of your world and are all about calling the various months by these setting specific names and using the tongue-twisting variations for the hours - but I've yet to play in a group that was willing to expend the effort. Instead the days always revert back to Monday, Tuesday while the hours go back to One O'Clock, Two O'Clock, and so forth. 

For a while it bothered me that my players couldn't keep to the imaginary calendars I had brought to them and that they didn't care enough about the days of the week to use their 'proper' names. Then one day I had an epiphany: they don't have time to fool with this stuff because all they want to do is play the damned game. To my players calling Monday, First-Day was useless. It didn't improve their immersion into the game world because it produced a jarring, mental disconnect that pulled them out of it. They had to think to call it First-Day instead of just knowing that it was Monday. Calling January, Fireseek didn't tell them anything useful because they had to remember that Fireseek was a cold, snowy month. All I was accomplishing by forcing such contrivances on them was making my games worse. 

As I'm getting older I'm finding that the best policy as a Dungeon Master isn't to get cute and come up with special names for the things I'm doing - after all, my orc isn't any less an orc if I call him a Thute - but rather to build on the cultural and societal touchstones that my players can identify with and readily assimilate into their play. My games use regular names for the hours, days, and months of the year, but major events become the names of the years within the game. When they destroyed the city of Kimber by triggering a massive earthquake that swallowed it whole, the year became known within the game's world as "The Year Kimber was Swallowed." My non-player characters (NPCs) could mention it as a touchstone within a conversation and the players immediately knew when it took place in relation to where they existed in the game now. It gave the world a greater depth than telling them that the year was 447 CY. To them 447 CY might as well be 1779 BC. It was a meaningless number that they weren't all that interested in remembering, but those major events stuck with them and gave them a grounding in the world. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Be Still My Wayward Cowboy. Marty Robbins Comes!

When I was growing up we used to watch a lot of the "Singing Cowboys" that were popular back in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike most modern movies the Singing Cowboy movies were simple affairs. The good guys fought the bad guys and along the way they always found a way to overcome those dastardly bastards of the imaginary West. Now days those movies are called "simple," "naive," affairs that gloss over the imperial expansion of America and its destruction of Native civilizations.

Some people just can't have any fun without being shit heads about what everyone else loves. Anyway, I'm off to watch an old Tex Ritter film, Hittin' the Trail, with my son so I thought that I'd leave you cats with a great little playlist in the singing cowboy spirit.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Prelacy of Almor, Part 1: Where It All Begins

The campaign that I've been thinking about running for the last few months will be based in the Prelacy of Almor; a small state formerly situated between the Kingdom of Nyrond and the Great Kingdom of Ahlissa. Now if you're like me then it's likely that the only thing you knew about the Prelacy of Almor is that it was utterly destroyed by the Great Kingdom during Ivid the Undying's expansion and what wasn't conquered by him was absorbed by Nyrond. Or you could be like my lovely bride and just laugh every time I try to say Almor with my southern drawl bastardizing it into a terrible mess of false consonants and invented vowels. Regardless of where your knowledge about the Prelacy of Almor begins I'd like to discuss how I'm using the little state and where I'm envisioning the campaign going as it progresses.

Prior to the Greyhawk Wars the Prelacy of Almor really didn't have a lot of attention paid to it in the published materials for the setting. In truth the only real information that I could find on the state was found in the 1983 Boxed Set where it's description is fairly short and uninspiring:
. . . Originally a clerical fief of Aerdy, Almor grew in power and independence as the Great Kingdom became weak and decadent. The various petty nobles and the Lord Mayor of the town of Innspa swear allegiance to the reigning prelate - usually a high priest. The state is only loosely organized, but it has a strong spirit of freedom and justice based upon religious precepts. The peoples are mainly farmers and herdsmen and fisherfolk. In the far north there are some foresters. Militia contingents bear crossbow, spear, or polearm (fauchard or glaive most commonly). Standing forces number around 5,000 total horse and foot, plus the nobility and gentry. The Prelacy is strongly supported by Nyrond as a buffer between that realm and that of the Overking, and pay a stipend to help support the standing army of Almor . . . (Gygax)
The only enlargement on the state's description that I could find prior to the Greyhawk Wars came from a Rob Kuntz article in Dragon Magazine #65, Greyhawk's World: News, Notes, and Views of the Greyhawk Campaign (pg. 11 - 12)which discusses the efforts of Almor and Nyrond to block the Great Kingdom's expansion of its boarders. This paucity of information on the Prelacy of Almor is a blessing as it allows me to build the state in a way that not only suits my purposes but provides me with a loose enough framework that I can let my players really push the story in any way that appeals to them without the Canon Nazi in my head screaming out, "THEY CAN'T DO THAT!"

Now after the Great Kingdom expands the Prelacy of Almor recieves more attention but I have no interest in exploring that era at this time. For my purposes it becomes far less interesting when you already know the outcome of the war; when you know that your only hope is to salvage through the ruins of hamlets and towns looking for the bits and pieces that you can sale to ruthless traders. No, it's far more exciting when you can explore the intrigue of states waging a cold war and steadily bringing up the temperature. That side of things makes my mind race with excitement and has gotten me to begin working on a new campaign for the first time in months - and that means I need to chase and nurture it once I've caught it.

More later.

Works Cited
Gygax, Gary. A Guide to the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, A Catalogue of the Land of Flanaess Being the Easter POrtion of the Continetn Oerik, of Oerth. Random House. United States of America. 1983. Print.

Prelacy of Almor Series
The Prelacy of Almor, Part 1: Where It All Begins

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Great RPG Transition

At Gen Con this year Critical Role, a web-show that features a talented group of voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, filled a 1,500 capacity auditorium. The enthusiastic crowd prompted Morrus over at EN World to discuss the effect celebrity players have on the role-playing game industry as a whole.

Without a doubt we are seeing the rise of celebrity players. For several years now we've been seeing people slowly becoming known for how they play role-playing games through podcasts, web shows, and the like; but in doing so we've also missed a critical aspect of what such things have been doing for us as a whole. Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, put it a little bit of an interesting spin on the whole thing:
". . . It’s interesting seeing reactions at GenCon to Critical Role’s show in Indy. Illustrates a big divide in how designers grok TRPGs these days (source). It’ll be great to see a higher level of awareness of how RPGs have transformed and what that means for their future (source
I believe that the rise of 3/3.5e and online discussion forums created a massive, fundamental shift in how RPGs were viewed and used (source). 3e, and then into 4e, D&D was very dense, rules heavy, complicated, and filled with character building options. That was the game (source). That spread to other RPGs, placing the baseline complexity of the typical RPG at the extreme upper end of what we saw in 80s/90s (source). At the same time, online discussion veered heavily towards character optimization and rules details. It was a culture of read and dissect (source).  
Both the indie and old school design movements rose in counter to this, focusing much more heavily on actual play at the table (source). However, the prevailing, forum-based online culture made it very hard to communicate meaningfully about actual play (source). That changed when streaming and actual play vids became accessible to the average DM. The culture of actual play had a platform (source).  
We can now meaningfully interact based on what we’re doing when we play, rather than talk about the stuff we do when we don’t play (source). This is HUGE because it shifts the design . . . [conversation] away from “How do we design for forum discussions?” to “How do we design for play?” (source
As game designers, we can actually watch how RPGs play and what rules and concepts facilitate the effects we’re looking to create (source).  
The tension between theoretical discussion vs actual play has always been a big part of RPG design (source). I believe at the table ruled for a very long time, swung hard to theory, and now back to table-driven design (source). Theory is useful, but it has to be used in service to actual, repeatable results in play. And I say this as someone who veered to theory (source).  
So in a series of 14 tweets, that’s why I see Critical Role at GenCon something that can be very good for the hobby and designers (source).  
Addendum: This ties into the huge success of 5e and the growth of RPGs – people can now learn by watching. The rulebook is not a barrier (source). We don’t learn sports like baseball or soccer by reading the rules – we watch and quickly learn how to play (source). The rulebook is a reference, like the NBA’s rulebook. Comes out only when absolutely needed. Barriers are now gone. Design accordingly . . . (source)"
By and large Mike knocks this one out of the park. D&D 3e and D&D 4e were both cumbersome in the sheer volume of rules, and rule variants, they presented - and that's spoken as someone who loves Third Edition - to the point where it became a challenge just to learn enough of the rules to begin play. Fifth Edition, and to a large extent most modern role-playing games, have moved in the opposite direction going towards a play centered focus where rules not only can be hand-waved when they get in the way of actual play but where it's actually encouraged by the designers to do so. After drowning in the sea of rules Third Edition dropped on us it's like a breath of fresh air.

More later.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

WTF is a Canon Nazi?

A Canon Nazi is an individual who not only loves the official story of a setting, but who places that story beyond the enjoyment of others in exploring different aspects of the story. Any deviation is a moment for the Canon Nazi to lose their minds and tell others how wrong they are for stepping away from the official script.

Edited 4:01 PM, August 7, 2016
Originally this post appeared as Canon Whore but after a rather excellent series of comments from +Nate McD and +Jesse Morgan it became clear to me that Canon Nazi was a better combination by far. - Charlie

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Let's Play a Game . . .

Here's the game. In the map above that I'm going to be using for my next adventure there are quite a few things different about it from the traditional maps of the region but if you're familiar with the area at all you should be able to tell where it is and roughly when it takes place. So the question is: In what nation is the adventure being set? Bonus points if you can tell me why it's set there.

  • First correct answer receives 50 meaningless Dyvers points and an imaginary pony named Carl that never gets tired.
  • Second correct answer receives 25 meaningless Dyvers points and an imaginary pony named Bill. Careful, he bites.
  • The third correct answer gets an imaginary sandwich made of sand, liverwurst, and hate on Pumpernickel - the bread that hates you as much as you hate it.
Good luck!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Picking Books was Never All that Complicated

Lately I've been seeing a lot of articles and proselytizing in my social media about how I should read. To date I've been told:

I should read only:

  • people of color
  • people who have the same social mores
  • people with my political beliefs
  • minorities
  • books that challenge my preconceived social norms
  • books by trans-gendered individuals

I should not read books:

  • by straight, white men
  • by racists
  • by imperialists
  • by colonialists
  • by people with different political / social beliefs
  • by people with the same political / social beliefs
  • written before 1999 / 1980 / 1970 / 1950 / 1900 . . .
  • where the protagonists is good and the antagonist is bad.  
  • where morality is simple
  • by Christians
  • by religious people
  • by anti-religious people
  • by atheists
  • that are liked by the wrong sorts of people

So here's my response to all of that self-important gate-keeping that people have been doing lately. 

Dear Friends and Strangers,

I realize that you think that by telling me to not read people unless they meet an approved standard that you're making the world better, but you're not. Your approved reading lists are the sort of group thinking that stifled creativity and intellectual freedom throughout our history and I will have no part of it. Instead I'm going to do like good readers have been taught to do for generations: I'm going to read the summary on the back of the book and decide if it sounds like something I might like to read. Then, if it does, I'm going to buy it and read it. And if the author is really good and the book is fun I'm going to find more books by that author and read them too. 

That means that there are going to be times when I'm reading books that were written by imperialists, racists, or people who have the same social mores as me because if a book is good that's all I really care about. I'm not going to stop reading authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, W. Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Robert E. Howard, Peter F. Hamilton, Samuel R. Delany, r.a. lafferty, Allen Ginsburg, Abbie Hoffman, and Charles Bukowski because they might not fit into the current standard you're espousing. 

I know, I know, some of you are disappointed that I'm going to read racists like Howard and Lovecraft but I don't care. They wrote good books and they're stuff is still excellent nearly a hundred years after they wrote it. They'll survive your disappointment too, and so will I.

Now if you don't mind I'm going to go back to reading the Plutonium Bombshell by John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem because it's been a blast so far. Later,


Monday, April 11, 2016

Your Not That Deep, Kid; No Matter What Your Momma Told You.

Last night I was reading Twitter, as one does, when I ran across one of the role-players in my feed talking about the game he was running. Apparently he was under the impression that the game he was running was actually an expression of radical truth philosophy and that in imposing that philosophy onto his players and world he was teaching them something profound. Unsurprisingly the game imploded a short while later and he was mystified. I started to talk to him about it but his feed was filled with messages from the faithful who were being supportive of him. "You just have to push it harder." "The seeds are planted and you'll see them come to fruition soon." "Your players will get the message soon." It was like looking into an abyss filled with pseudo-philosophers each manipulating the others genitals while moaning, "You're brilliant!"

It's clear that this particular Dungeon Master knew just enough to be dangerous and then fooled himself into believing that he had mastery over not only the session, but the philosophy and his players. I'm not saying that if you're players want a game with a deeper philosophical underpinning that you shouldn't go out and give it to them but when you force it on them things are often going to go off the rails and you shouldn't pretend like you didn't expect them to - Hell, you can't even keep them on the adventure's path what makes you think that you can make them take up a philosophy? Especially one like radical truth! What bothered me so much about that thread was that it was clear that the Dungeon Master hadn't considered the ramifications for not only his campaign but for his friends playing the game. Radical truth isn't a joke. It will fuck up your relationships and if you're not prepared for that consequence than you shouldn't even attempt to bring it into your role-playing games. 

That's not saying that there aren't philosophies that you can go half-cocked with and come out the better for using. Communism and Utilitarianism are two political philosophies that you could easily bring along with just a loose understanding and be just fine implementing. Hell, they may even fall in love with Utilitarianism in your fantasy world since that's the only place that it can actually work.