Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

I never understood dungeons. Why do they exist? Why are monsters just chilling out in them? What's all the treasure for? Why are there so many traps? Over the years, games and gamers alike have tried to give the dungeon relevance. In 13th Age, dungeons are sentient beings, giant creatures that wander the world. In Earthdawn, dungeons were a sort of fantasy fallout shelter from a magic/monster apocalypse. The most definitive (and all-purpose) answer for the significance of the dungeon of course comes from the OSR, gamers who hold the earliest versions of D&D close to their heart. They'll tell you a dungeon isn't literally a dank underground facility, but rather simple lingo for any enclosed area where one could encounter evil beasts and wondrous treasure.

But the even more definitive, meta-answer is this: dungeons, simply, are the field upon which the sport of tabletop roleplaying games are played. We can try and justify them narratively any way we wish, but ultimately the reason they exist is to be nothing more than a playground for our imaginations. They make no more sense outside of a roleplaying game than a football field does outside of a game of football.

This has always rankled me. I don't particularly like sports. Likewise, I don't particularly like the idea of this abstract place existing only for the sensibilities of a game. I need more context. I need a better narrative. This is probably why so few of my roleplaying games over the past several decades have ever prominently featured dungeons.

Still, though, I cannot deny the awesome allure of the dungeon. The thrill of the wandering monster. The promise of a chest full of gold and magic items. The perils of the trapped hallway. The excitement and wonder of the hidden door. I just wish I could find a better way to make it all make sense narratively.

And then I read The One Ring, and it was made clear to me: the journey. A trip through a fantastic land can have everything a dungeon has, and it can make sense narratively, as well.

Older gamers would scoff at this "revelation." The fantasy journey or "hex crawl" has been a part of old-school roleplaying almost as long as the dungeon itself has. Of course the journey is a fine alternative to a dungeon, they'd say. Of course a wander through the wilderness "works" as a suitable fantasy adventure.

However, like many other parts of older roleplaying, this idea tends to be forgotten as we progress onward. The journey isn't as fondly remembered as the dungeon, and so the journey often gets delegated to a preparatory step towards the bigger, sexier part of the adventure. How many modules begin with the arrival to the big, scary dungeon? How many RPGs have short, abstracted rules for travel across the land, and then whole chapters devoted to the various details of dungeon-delving?

Enough, I say! At my table, the journey is the destination, dammit! I am openly declaring that I love me a good travel tale, and I intend to develop this concept of the journey as the adventure in my future GMing efforts.

It starts with the very game I discovered this bit about myself in, The One Ring. TOR is one of the very few fantasy RPGs I've ever come across where the idea of travel is handled every bit as seriously as what's to be done once the traveling is over. The adventure I'm working on for my birthday weekend is going to make prominent use of these mechanics.

Looking further down the road (no pun intended) to my gaming in 2015, I am going to eventually run some Dungeons & Dragons. I intend for any adventure/campaign I DM for that game to be focused on travel, as well. I admit Journeys & Dragons doesn't quite have the alliterative ring to it that Dungeons & Dragons does, but I will not let a catchy title run my game!

I also want to play a lot more Edge of the Empire in 2015. That game lends itself particularly well to travel, what with all its crunchy details on vehicular travel and exotic planets and such. So I'm excited for that game, too.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I'd like to run games with a more American-inspired sensibility to them, rather than the European heritage embraced by contemporary fantasy gaming. Journeys and westerns go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and that, combined with a friend's generous Christmas gift of Deadlands Reloaded, adds up to inspiration to run that game in the coming new year, as well.

When I inevitably swing back to the lighter, story-gamier side of the hobby, I look forward to taking those games on the road as well. Fate Core, I think, would be particularly good at handling the journeys of heroes.

Looking back at my own gaming, I can see two common motifs: big problems to be solved, and roads to be traveled. I'll write some other day on the former, but know now that the latter is foremost on my mind.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Eddy's, 2014

With Christmas now behind me and New Years looming ahead, I look back at 2014. I am so happy and fortunate to have a great group of friends to go on tabletop adventures with this past year. We've had a lot of great moments together. 

So, what were some of my favorites? Following are my nominations for several categories. If my friends read this, I'd love to hear their nominations, as well. And if you, Dear Reader, are not one of my regular gaming friends, I'd love to hear your nominations within your own group!

1. Best Adventure: There have been a lot of great sessions this past year. My favorite overall, though, is probably the fourth adventure I ran in my Firefly campaign, Breakout. In this session, the players played two adventures simultaneously: an adventure in the present that involved breaking into a hidden research facility and rescuing one of their friends, and an adventure presented as flashbacks revolving around one of the player's pasts in which she escaped from that very facility. My friend Stephen ran the flashback adventure, and we played off of each other to inform each adventure as they unfolded. It was quite possibly the highlight of that entire campaign!

2. Best Character: This is a really hard one for me. My players have made a lot of really fascinating characters (and, I'll admit, I'm quite enamored with the few I've made for their games, as well). I think the one I keep coming back to, though, is Kit, my friend Leslie's character for that same Firefly campaign. Kit was tough but she had a soft side; cold but had her moments of warmth. She didn't have a fascinating backstory or any crazy gimmicks, but of all the characters I've had the pleasure of playing for (or alongside) this year, Kit seemed the most genuinely human.

3. Best Game (role-playing): I played quite a few RPGs this year, I am happy to report. Obviously, Firefly took up a huge amount of my year. But as much as I loved it, it wasn't my favorite game. My favorite game of the past year was actually a game I didn't play that much of, but I was crazy about it every time it hit the table. That game, and in my humble opinion a sorely underrated one, is tremulus. The little tweaks it makes to the Apocalypse World formula make it a tense, compelling feat of storygaming. 

4. Best Game (boardgame): I have also played more than a few boardgames this year. When I think back on all of them, though, one bizarre little game sticks in my mind: Panic on Wall Street! This is not at all the deepest, most compelling, or even that fun of a game; but what it is, is pure, undistilled chaos in a box. Once "the markets open," the game is a shouting match as players are wheeling and dealing over and on top of one another. My absolute favorite boardgaming moment this year is when those dice hit the table after the trading round is up, the absolute cacophony of cries of anguish and screams of joy when stocks soar to sky-high rates...or plummet right into investment hell.

5. Best Tabletop Moment: Of all the crazy memories and cool stories that came out of gaming in 2014, the one I remember the most vividly and the most fondly is the second-to-last adventure of my Firefly campaign, "The Fourth Wall." In this meta-adventure, the players did not play their regular crew members but instead the actors who played their crew members in the TV show of our Firefly campaign. This wasn't my favorite adventure because there were a lot of things I could have done better, but it was my absolute most-fun session because of the crazy antics we had as the session unfolded. From a game of celebrity charades with the original Firefly cast, to creative meetings with a Hollywood-corrupted Joss Whedon, to a drunken Paul Giamatti's confession that he took a dump in the Rhino costume on the set of The Amazing Spiderman 2, "The Fourth Wall" was not a good roleplaying session; it was a good hanging out with friends session.

So please, let me know what your favorite gaming moments of 2014 were! You can use my categories, or make up your own!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Bow Hunting Skills, Computer Hacking Skills, Numchuk Skills...

I know it's a wee bit early to talk about New Year's Resolutions right now, but this isn't so much a resolution as it is a weak-point in my GMing game that I want to strengthen up. Well, I guess that makes it a resolution, but whatever...

Anyways, I want to up my design skills. Not my game design skills...I'm a game player, not a designer...my layout and production design skills. 

I've said before that I like RPGs with high production value because they're an easier sell to new players. My line throughout the past has always been that I'd rather focus all my free time on refining my GMing techniques and really learning the few games that meet my standards than consuming all that energy producing/designing a game but not actually playing it. However, I think there's a little wiggle room here. I don't have to self-publish my own roleplaying game or anything; I just want to learn how to custom-build a character sheet for a Cortex Plus hack or something. Or maybe make my Apocalypse World Hack not look like it was written in Google Drive, because it was.

My friend, Boomer? You should see the shit he's done with his Dungeon World campaign. He wrote his own campaign book, with fine layout and pictures, all that good stuff. He drew a goddamn map! I don't necessarily want to go in that direction, but I'd love to have skills like that if I ever wanted to. 

Here's an example of something I'd like to be able to do. I wanted to do a Walking Dead hack of Cortex Plus Dramatic. I'd love it if I could actually use panels from the comic or stills from the TV show, gank all the text from the system reference document in the Hackers Guide, and put together a little corebook for my players. Then I'd like to be able to make character sheets that look like they belong in a game with a Walking Dead theme, perhaps using fonts and graphics taken from the comic. 

Here's another example. I am working on a seven-part Cthulhu adventure for Fate Core. I'd like to do it up in the style of those amazing "Fate Worlds" setting books that have been coming out recently. I'd like to include all my rules for the Lovecraftian horror Fate hack, as well as the entire adventure, in a font/style similar to the rest of Fate Core's products. Again, I'd like to combine this with a custom-made character sheet.

I'm not sure how feasible any of this is. For all I know, the "little projects" I outlined above could require weeks, months, years of layout/design training. I have no experience with this kind of thing. But it would be pretty damn cool if I could do something like that, wouldn't it? 

I originally wanted to post a page of my friend's campaign guide here so you could see how well-done it is, but I lack even the basic skills necessary to do that, so instead, here's a picture of a panda.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The List of Ten

A couple of months ago, I made a list called "The Big & Little Five." These were ten tabletop RPGs I was going to primarily focus all my concentration on. The idea was to narrow my extremely-wide interests on RPGs, but still give me enough room to be flexible and try out different things. 

I still believe this is a good idea, but now I would like to update the list. Yesterday, Geek Native published my latest review of The One Ring Roleplaying Game. As you can see from reading the review, I am quite enamored with the game. Looking ahead to the games I want to run in 2015, I definitely want The One Ring on that list. So now it's time to update the list. I'm also now just calling the list "The List of Ten" because I think Big Five and Little Five is silly and sounds confusing. 

Anyways, as of December 18, 2014, the ten roleplaying games I want to devote most of my time on are:

  1. Dungeons & Dragons (all editions, mainly 5th)
  2. World of Darkness (all sub-worlds, mainly The God Machine Chronicle)
  3. Shadowrun (5th edition)
  4. The One Ring
  5. Star Wars (Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion)
  6. Fate Core
  7. Eclipse Phase
  8. Numenera/The Strange
  9. Warhammer Fantasy role-playing (third edition)
  10. Call of Cthulhu (6th edition currently; 7th once it's in print)

So the big heartbreaker: Apocalypse Engine games are off the list. Does this mean I'll never play or run them again? Absolutely not! It just means that my focus is off of them for now. I feel like the real power of the Apocalypse Engine is not in its mechanics but in its design theory (structuring RPGs like a conversation, making moves, agendas and principles, etc.). That design theory, however, can easily be applied to any other game, and so I have taken the games themselves off the list, but know that the philosophies of those games very much guide my GMing technique.

Two notable genres are missing from the list. One of them is superheroes. That's not exactly surprising. I literally cannot remember the last supers game I've run. I've written before about my problems with the genre, and though I have a solution I'd love to explore, that's a full campaign commitment I'm not sure I'm ready to make on an experiment. As for superhero games, there is the all-mighty Marvel Superheroic, but the almost-unforgivable sin of not allowing character creation (except for a tacked-on appendix after the game's publication) is a hard pill for me to swallow. Hero System is a little bit too crunchy for me. Mutants & Masterminds looks like a lot of fun, so I might have to look into that. Anyways, the search for a decent supers game is on.

The other notably-absent genre is post-apocalyptic. Numenera can do in a pinch, but it's a little weirder than most conventional post-apocalyptic settings. Eclipse Phase is technically post-apocalyptic, too, but not earth-bound. There are a few interesting ones out there, but nothing that's really got me excited to play in a world like that. This is going to have to change soon...with the new Mad Max movie on the horizon, and the ever-present popularity of the Fallout videogames, and of course The Walking Dead, this is a big deficiency on my List!

Most of the games on my List are very thematic. For whatever reason, theme enhanced by gameplay (or vice versa) is a big Thing with me right now. The One Ring showed this clearly, but even before that game, I was ranting and raving about Edge of the Empire and how its mechanics complement the themes of its source material, as well. 

There are two exceptions to that currently on my List. One is Fate Core. Being a universal system (I hate the term "generic"), Fate Core is a game designed to be customized for whatever genre/setting one can imagine. The other exception, Eclipse Phase, is one of the greatest settings for a game I've ever read, but it's saddled with a fairly crunchy, detail-driven system that I'm not too big on. For that reason, both of these games may fall off the List very soon. In the case of the former, I'm not too keen on making my own setting when I have these other games that have fleshed-out, detailed settings for me, ready to run great games in. In the case of the latter, I have little desire to refine or hack a clunky system when I could just play something else, even if I loved the setting.

Another common theme on this List are high production values. Each one of the games on the List looks great, with professional layout and high-quality art. As I've said before, my focus as a GM is on bringing new players to the hobby, and that's much easier to do with pretty pictures and flashy production values over a scrappy indie game that looks like it was thrown together on MS Word. I have all the respect in the world for the indie scene, and I fully recognize that they play an important part in the hobby, but my mission as a GM unfortunately takes me away from the indie scene, not closer.

So as 2015 begins and I return to GMing a weekly game, look to this List for possibilities on what I will run!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hope in a Godless World

As I continue to read The One Ring, I am struck (as many tend to be) by the depth and detail of Tolkien's world. It seems like every facet of Middle Earth has been well thought out, except one: Gods. There does not appear to be any religion in Tolkien's world.

(Let me preface the rest of this blog by saying my knowledge of Middle Earth is pretty basic. I've seen the movies a few times, I read the Hobbit in fourth grade, and I read Fellowship about a month or two before the first movie came out. That is the extent of my knowledge, so I may be completely off-base here. If there are any Middle Earth scholars reading this and want to correct me on my notions of spirituality in Middle Earth, I am all ears.)

That's not too unusual, of course. I just wrote a blog entry a few days ago about the god-less religious system in my childhood homebrew world. I just find it interesting that Tolkien, a scholar who undoubtably understood the influence of religion in politics and conflict, would not include such an analog in his own world. Is it because he thought of Middle Earth as some kind of atheistic utopia? Considering how dark many parts of the story are, that seems doubtable. 

What then struck me as I read closely about the setting within the pages of The One Ring is that there is a sort of morality/spirituality in Middle Earth. The difference though, unlike our world, is that morality in Middle Earth has hard, established borders. The Shadow is everywhere in Middle Earth, and amoral things such as greed and murder can increase one's vulnerability to the Enemy's influence. So in Middle Earth, there's no need for a church to tell you stealing is wrong; you can see it yourself, right there in the world, the actual, literal corruption of those who steal (just ask Golum). Evil is not a subjective thing in Middle Earth; there really are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

Maybe this is also why love and lust play such muted roles in Middle Earth, as well. In real history, wars were fought over women. Rape and pillage and all that. Prostitution, the "world's oldest profession," seems nonexistent in Middle Earth. Again, I propose that this isn't necessarily because Middle Earth is some utopian world, or even because Tolkien was some prude who didn't want to deal with yucky sex stuff in his elfbooks; it's because on Middle Earth, rape and prostitution are undeniably evil, and to indulge in them is a one-way ticket to becoming a mindless puppet of the Shadow.

All of this "morality has a real effect on a person" stuff swings the other way, too. While fear and greed can corrupt a person, hope and courage can strengthen the soul, too. Tolkien's world is a world where not only doing the wrong thing can corrupt you; doing the right thing can strengthen you. This, after all, is how Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring. It wasn't with badass swordfighting skills or a pet panther or superpowers: it was with hope and courage, kindness and companionship.

In a world like this, where morality is as real as physics, the idea of a divine being guiding our behavior does seem a little unneccessary. Throw in some of the more fantastic elements like the Wizards and other magical stuff, and yes, I can see how Tolkien's Middle Earth has little need for a god. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Franchise Play

For my reviewing gig on Geek Native, I am currently reading through The One Ring. I haven't finished it yet, but so far, it is AWESOME. One of the most amazing marriages of theme and gameplay mechanics I've ever seen. I found myself thinking, "Wow, how great is it that a Lord of the Rings RPG turned out being this good?"

And then, I realized something: a whole ton of licensed tabletop RPGs have turned out fantastic. This was a little mindblowing to me. Videogames, you see, don't have that kind of distinction. Sure, there are some great licensed videogames, but there are some awful stinkers, too, enough to give most gamers a bit of apprehension whenever they see the next Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Harry Potter game coming down the pipe.

But that's not the case with tabletop RPGs. As far as I can remember, most all of them have been good at the very least, innovative and award-winning at their best. Why is that? Why do licensed RPGs tend to end up so good when other kinds of licensed games do not?

The first theory that comes to mind is a simple one: economics. The RPG industry is not exactly a gold mine. So when a game developer manages to get a license for a game, that publisher probably has enough cash to give the licensed game some high-end treatment. That is certainly the case for Fantasy Flight Games' very successful Star Wars RPGs. Judging by the lavish production value seen in The One Ring, it looks like Cubicle 7's got some money to throw around, too. Unlike the videogame industry, where there are numerous nooks and crannies that money can disappear into, a tabletop RPG can almost always benefit from cash flow: more editors, more playtesters, more designers, more artists, a stronger product line, etc.

Another theory I have also has to do with economics, but not literal, money-economics: the economics of creative energy. A brand-new setting can require a lot of work and creative vision to bring to life, to the point where there might not be enough gas in the tank for a decent game system after the world's been made. That can go the other way, as well: a game can spend so much time having it's numbers crunched and mechanics tooled with that there's just nothing left for a campaign setting. Licensed games take out half of the equation, leaving the game developers to focus solely on the mechanical bits without sacrificing a quality setting. Sure, there are still consultants that need to work on making sure the right company gets credit for designing the X-Wing, or that the population of Laketown is consistent to how its presented in The Hobbit, but I imagine that kind of research is at least somewhat easier than completely making those details up! Those details don't necessarily help a videogame suck less, but those little touches can and do matter in a tabletop RPG.

Regardless of the reasons, it is a great luxury to us RPG enthusiasts that we do not need to look down disdainfully at licensed RPGs. To the contrary; a licensed RPG gives us gamers a great opportunity to bring non-roleplaying fans of those franchises into the hobby. There are so, so many great licensed RPGs out there. Now following are my top five. Be sure to let me know if you've got one you want to give some love too, as well!

1. The One Ring: Seeing as how this is the game that inspired this blog post, it seems only appropriate to list it here. I'm not going to go into the reasons this game is great (read my upcoming review for that!) but I can comfortably tell you this game is easily the best iteration of a Lord of the Rings RPG yet, better than the Last Unicorn Games one, and better than the Rolemaster one.

2. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion: I've already written repeatedly about how great this game is, but just so we're clear: the innovative, narrative-driven mechanics, combined with some of the best production value in the hobby, makes these roleplaying games incredibly fun and solid fan service, as well.

3. Marvel Superheroic/Firefly RPG: I'm going to lump these two properties together into one entry and also give a shoutout to Smallville and Leverage as well. The Cortex Plus engine is fast, fun, and flexible, and in all of these games the system is meticulously crafted to emulate the emotional core of each franchise.

4. The Dresden Files: I have only read this RPG; I've never played it. I've also not read more than a few dozen pages of the first novel. I can say, however, that this Fate-powered RPG is fantastic work. Flipping through it is an absolute delight (I loved the meta-touches throughout). The Dresden Files RPG represents the potential of the Fate RPG unleashed to its fullest. No lengthy design talks about technique or hacks here; just a solid, highly-playable, and very enjoyable role-playing game.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Another game I haven't actually played yet, but reading through it I've been thouroughly impressed with the production value and attention to detail given in Green Ronin Games' treatment of George R.R. Martin's work. Of all the games on this list, this is probably the most valuable game for a non-RPG fan to pick up, as the extensive history of Westeros included make this a handy guide to the books/TV show, even if you never play a single adventure.

Now that I've given my top five existing RPGs, let me give you my top five most wanted licensed RPGs:

1. Harry Potter: I'd venture to say this is at the top of almost any RPG fan's list of most-wanted games. A simple Google search will yield about a thousand or so hacks and homebrews of Harry Potter RPGs. But I would love to see one of the big boys like Fantasy Flight or Cubicle 7 get their hands on the license and see what they could do with it!

2. Fallout: The post-apocalyptic world of the Fallout series is so full of flavor and detail it's practically begging to have a nice, high-quality RPG corebook made out of it.

3. ANY Blizzard franchise: World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo...three of the coolest game worlds ever created, and I'd kill for a tabletop equivalent of any of them. I know there are D20 WoW and Diablo games, and a Starcraft campaign setting using the out-of-print Alternity system...but none of those games actually captured the feelings of either the world or the videogames, in my mind. I particularly think Fate or Cortex could handle any of these game worlds well.

4. Law & Order: A weird one, I know, but hear me out, here. Despite its runaway popularity on TV, the police procedural has had a hard time crossing over to gaming success. But I don't think that needs to be the case. I think a police procedural drama could do very well as a tabletop RPG. A slightly crunchier system, like GURPS, I think, could handle Law & Order well. The important thing is, like the TV show, the game must give equal footing to both the police who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. Duh-duh!

5. Terminator: Three movies, a fourth on the way, and a TV show (albeit short-lived) and NO game yet? Come on! Only a slight stretch of the imagination is needed to allow players to travel into the past and battle the machines to save the future. And imagine being able play as one of those machines! I think it'd be awesome.
In finding this picture, I discovered that the new movie is supposed to be the first of a three-part "reboot" trilogy. So, seriously, this NEEDS a tabletop game.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Returning to Darkwood

With my copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide arriving in the mail today, it may be time for me to dust off an old blast from the past...my campaign setting, Darkwood.

I invented Darkwood back in middle school. It started as a copycat work. As a young teenager, I was enthralled by the worldbooks of old-school RPGs, particularly the ones for Rifts, Shadowrun, the boxed campaign sets for AD&D, and, later on, Earthdawn. I read them voraciously, the way others probably read the Wheel of Time or Forgotten Realms books (though I read a reasonable amount of those, too). I wanted to create a worldbook just like Rifts: Vampire Kingdoms, or Earthdawn's Barsaive!

The original world of Darkwood was drawn shoddily on a single piece of graph paper. The document itself, written on WordPerfect, was over 60 pages of what basically amounted to Palladium Games fan fiction, minus the kick-ass art and all the typos (OHHH!!!!!). The book was written from the perspective of Woodrick Brownbeard, famous explorer. There were no gnomes in my world, because I thought gnomes were stupid. I did allow gnolls as a playable race, but in my world they were more like wolf-people than hyena-people. I had this massive stone wall that separated Darkwood from it's feral, untamed neighbor, Wildwood (of course I plan on suing George R.R. Martin for stealing this particular idea).

All of that, looking back, sounds completely awful, as most teenage ideas do. There were some keepers in there, though, that I'd love to come back to in an adult, 5E version of this world. The main concept I'd like to revisit was the religious system I made for Darkwood.

The people of Darkwood did not worship gods; they worshipped Passions. The system went through several iterations, but in its last form, there were eight "Prime" Passions: four "good" (Love, Honor, Hope, and Courage); four "evil" (Hate, Greed, Fear, and Lust). There were also numerous "Lesser" Passions, such as Happiness, Humor, Revenge, and Loyalty. Each Passion had its own church with its own doctrines, philosophies, and customs. Though Passions were primarily based on a single emotion, several Passions were not; they were just ideas powerful enough to inspire emotion, such as the aforementioned Honor, Greed, or Loyalty.

In Darkwood, anyone who felt these Passions strongly channeled mana, the raw power of creation and destruction. Mana, except in its most concentrated, powerful form, is invisible to mortal eyes, and the vast majority of Darkfolk couldn't manipulate or control it. Clerics of my world, however, were living conduits of their chosen Passion. They were able to fill their hearts with their "patron" Passion on a moment's notice, and use that energy to power their spells. High-level clerics, collectively known as "Embodiments" (their exact name varied per Passion) were considered some of the most powerful and influential people in my world.

Mages in Darkwood channeled mana, too, but they did it the opposite way: by purging themselves of all emotion. By keeping their hearts and minds a blank slate to the influence of the Passions, mages could manipulate the latent energies of mana found all around the world, using a complex language known as Draconic. High-level wizards, so used to not feeling emotion, were cold, emotionless machines, and were often treated with great suspicion in my world.

When D&D's third edition came out and the sorceror suddenly became a thing, I revisted Darkwood and added them to the world. Their philosophy was the polar opposite of the mages; they embraced all Passions simultaneously, reveling in the chaos of mana, and through an intuitive understanding of Draconic, they conjured their magic that way. High-level sorcerors (very rare) were emotionally unstable, borderline insane individuals who's mere presence could cause random magical effects to happen all around them.

I never went back to Darkwood after third edition. Now, with fifth edition upon us (and it's being awesome and all), maybe I'll consider dusting off the old world and modernizing it for a new audience.

Earthdawn was a huge influence on Darkwood.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Getting to the Apollo, Pt. II

RPGs, from a pure reading perspective, are funny things. They can read one way but play out another. The theory that you read on the page and the practice as the game plays out can sometimes be wildly different experiences.

This struck me when I read someone's post on G+ about how complicated they thought Star Wars: Edge of the Empire looked. I'll admit: it looked that way to me, at first, too. But my stubborn refusal to hack stuff (I really hate monkeying with mechanics; I'd rather throw away a good campaign setting attached to a bad system than convert to a different system), plus the fact I had already thrown down a big chunk of money on the corebook, meant I was bound and determined to try it. Although the first session was a little clunky, by the second session, it all just clicked perfectly. Now I couldn't imagine playing a Star Wars RPG with any system other than the "narrative dice" system of Edge of the Empire. I think that G+ poster would be doing himself a disservice by hacking the game before he even tried it out.

As is inevitably the case these days when someone asks "what could I use to hack this game?", the first two suggestions thrown to him by the community were Fate and the Apocalypse Engine. Both systems are great, but in my mind both systems are just as complex. Fate, I'd argue, may even be moreso. First of all, hacking every bit of Star Wars...every iconic alien species, stats for all the iconic technology, and of course rules for the Force...is going to be a bit of work, at least as much work as simply learning the system you're leaving behind. This is especially the case with the Apocalypse Engine, which essentially is nothing but a vast collection of micro-games, every move needing to be individually crafted for a situation. Yes, you could go the World of Dungeons route, but you could also just flip a damn coin whenever a player wants to do something. You start spinning out of the realms of gaming and into the existential areas of "what is a game?" Whenever I find myself going that far out, it's usually time to go do something else, because I'm way overthinking this.

Once you get passed the actual hacking process, then you have play itself. This is where I'd argue Fate Core gets even more complicated than Edge of the Empire. When are you creating an advantage, or just overcoming an obstacle? What is an aspect, or a boost, and when do you compel it? Where are your campaign's milestones? What are the established "ground rules" of the table? What is the reality of the fiction? All of this stuff, for me at least, can be serious headache material. And God help you if you try and go to the community about any of those questions...you'll get about ten responses, each of them completely different from one another. Several of them will ask you to go out and read other books, watch other sessions, read other community threads, and consult blogs on how to do whatever you're doing. Even once you've got the theory nailed down, the practice will be a constant point of contention.

You could, then, use any of the many available hacks out there already done by members of those respective communities. Sure, that's an option...but now you've switched from a lavishly-produced, meticulousy play-tested and widely supported game system to something some random dude on the Internet slapped together on a rainy afternoon. Is that really better?

Listen...I love Fate Core, and I of course love the Apocalypse Engine. But I'm getting a little tired of those games getting thrown around as the default, do-anything RPGs. If you're a big fan of either of those systems and you're deeply emotionally/intellectually entangled with them, great. I can certainly understand the desire to stick to what you know. But I do openly question the efficiency of hacking an existing game to those systems. I once even saw someone converting Numenera to the Apocalypse Engine. Numenera? Really?

The bottom line, as I've written before, is that tabletop RPGs are a labor of love. You can try and hack and sleaze and sidestep your way to a great game, but the best, most direct, most effective way to have the gaming experience you're craving is to get out there and practice. Don't be afraid of learning something new. Don't be afraid of sucking. Don't be afraid of not getting it. Crack open that book, study those rules, prep for the game, and run that sumbitch! After you've put the game through the paces, gotten it to the table a couple of times, collected some experiences and feedback from your players, then you can decide if a game isn't right for your needs. Before then, you're just speculating, and you could end up speculating yourself out of a fantastic game.

It's easy to stick with what you know. But the payoff for trying something new can be immense. Don't let a roleplaying game turn you off by merely thumbing through the pages. Get out there and play it!
It's not that hard, seriously.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lunchtime D&D: 12/2/14

This afternoon, I got together three of my coworkers and continued our lunchtime Dungeons & Dragons game. We continued playing through "The Lost Mines of Phandelver," the adventure that forms the backbone of the D&D Starter Set. This was our second session. The halfling thief from the last session couldn't make it, but the two warriors returned, and a new player, taking control as the dwarven cleric, joined us.

Progress has been, understandably, pretty slow these two sessions. An hour is not a whole lot of time to work with, and when you chop off minutes for getting food, using the bathroom, and various other sundry office work things before you're ready to sit and play, you've got even less than that. Then there's the issue of timing to consider. I don't want to stop the game right in the middle of a combat or an interesting situation and kill the tempo, so I pretty much need to end the game at the first slow moment we come across. We made it through two more encounters before I called it for this week.

Luckily, the competition for these coworkers' time is not much of an issue. Most of these guys would just sit at their desks and look up shit on the internet anyway, so I've got a pretty low bar to meet each week. The bigger problem for me is my own boredom level. "The Lost Mines of Phandelver," much like many other RPG starter sets out there, can be pretty boring for veteran players to play through (or run, in my case). The early parts of this adventure are basically one fight after another. The new rules play fast and smooth, so this isn't quite as horrific as it sounds, but it still devolves into several rounds of "I swing my sword at the goblin," followed by the clatter of a 20-sided across the conference room table.

I beef it up where I can, of course, but as we push through the adventure, I've begun to think about my own diversions from the Starter Set into more interesting territory. Once I get the Dungeon Master's Guide next week, I look forward to mining it for ideas and stringing together a starter adventure of my own to unleash on a group of gamers when I return to regular GMing next month.

That is, of course, assuming I even stick with D&D. I've been thinking a lot about the great game of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire I ran a couple of weeks ago, and how much I'd love to go back to that...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Recap/Review of Jewel of Yavin

This is a spoiler-free recap and analysis of yesterday's Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game.

Yesterday, I hosted The Star Wars: Edge of the Empire module "The Jewel of Yavin" for five players. One player was completely new to roleplaying games. Of the five players, two of them had experiences (250 Xp) characters; the rest were starting characters (though I fudged obligation rules a little and gave them 10 extra, as the adventure appeared to be designed for more experienced characters, anyway.)

Overall, the session went extremely well. It felt so good to be behind the GM's screen again! I don't know why I get such joy out of running games as opposed to playing in them, but the difference is real, and its profound. And the confidence I have and the quality of the game also get heavily influenced by my prep, and I did quite a bit of prep for this game. I didn't know everything, of course, but structually I was very comfortable with the pace and flow of the adventure. It did lack the bombastic thrills and kitchy mechanics of my Firefly campaign, but the solid, fundamental qualities of this adventure more than made up for it, I felt. Overall, I'd say this was one of my favorite sessions this year.

First, let's start with the players. I had five people; originally six, but there was a no-show. I expected this; in a venue of strangers, there's always some one who can't make it. I'm not mad at all, I just wasn't surprised. I'd actually call the one no-show a net gain for the game, though, as this put our player count at five, which I think is just about perfect for most RPGs (four ain't bad, either). Six isn't bad of course, but depending on the game, six can really stretch the mechanics and compromise the quality of the session. I was afraid that would be the case with EotE, but I'm glad I didn't have to test that theory yesterday.

Of the five that showed, I was very happy to have a great, motivated, smart group of individuals. Two of them were retuning regulars from my Firefly game and one of them had been a part of a few of my one-shot sessions over the year. So they were known quanitities, and they were just as awesome as I had hoped they'd be. Of the two other players, one of them (as mentioned) was brand new to role-playing games. He did indeed have that deer-in-the-headlights look a few times throughout the session, but by the end of the evening he seemed to be throwing dice and RPing it up with the best of them. He did great, and I'm glad he joined us.

The other player was an EotE vet. Vets pose a special challenge to me; they are a window into other playing groups, and thus other playing styles. I'm always curious as to how I match up with his other RPGing experiences. That is to say, I always hope to be better. I'm not competitive about a lot of things (almost nothing, really), but I thrive on the tireless pursuit of being a great GM. He definitely had a good time, but I'm not sure if I quite blew his socks off. Hmm. I'll have to work on that in the future...

It turns out the third time was indeed the charm when it came to this latest edition of Star Wars roleplaying. My first EotE game was a mess of conflicted interests; my second game was a lackluster starter game thrown at a crowd of vets; but this third game hit the mark perfectly. It was challenging without being frustrating, interesting without being confusing, and fun without being ridiculous. There were several fantastic moments throughout the game. I'm not going to to go into details because of spoilers and such, but nevertheless, I was very happy with the adventure itself. After playing it once, "Jewel of Yavin" is making a strong case for being the best published adventure I've ever read/run.

As for the system itself...that was perhaps my favorite part of the entire game. Long stretches of the adventure simply entailed the players describing their characters' actions, and then rolling dice. In any other game, this would be maddening, boring, tedious to the point of sheer frustration. In Edge of the Empire, though, every dice roll was fun. Coming up with clever ideas to add boost dice; watching the meticulous balance of Light and Dark side tokens to upgrade or downgrade dice, and coming up with various levels of good and bad news dependent on the rolls was devilishly fun for myself, and I daresay the group as a whole. There was almost never a "you pass/you fail" moment from the dice; the dice actively pushed the story in various directions through play. The dice didn't hinder the story; the dice were helping me tell the story. Backed with a well-structured adventure to contextualize all that planning and rolling, and this game came as close to running itself as I'd ever seen.

The only downside to the helpful system is the inertia left me scrambling for the few things it didn't cover. NPCs, for example. I was so caught up in planning and handling dice rolls that I found myself un-motivated to roleplay the various NPCs who showed up throughout the adventure. I think I did an adequate job, but compared to how smoothly everything else went, the gap there felt pretty noticeable to me. In future adventures, I'll have to be sure to either minimize the amount of NPCs, or give them some easy-to-follow personality quirks that makes a basic level of roleplaying at least feasible.

The other one issue with the game was the atrocious running length. I committed to running "Jewel of Yavin" before finishing my reading of the book. As a result, I did not realize I had just committed to running a three-session epic adventure as a single-session game! If/when I do it again, I have some big thoughts on how to whittle "The Jewel of Yavin" down into a single session game. On the other hand, it is very easy to see "The Jewel of Yavin" expanded into an entire multi-adventure campaign. My players and I persevered, but unfortunately we ran out of time before we could fully complete the adventure. Something to work on for next time!

Overall, as said before though, I loved yesterday's game. I am so happy and grateful it went down as well as it did. I absolutely cannot wait for the next chance to do something like that again!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The EDpire Strikes Back!

After a three-month break, I am back behind the ol' GM screen this weekend. Sunday, I'll be playing the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire adventure "The Jewel of Yavin." My regular group has splintered for the holidays, so for the first time in ages, I went public with this game. As expected (being Star Wars and all), it filled within barely 8 hours of posting.

I'm not completely back yet, though. I am going to wrap up my involvement as a player in two of my friends' excellent campaigns through December. I will return proper in January.

As is typical for a game about to happen, I have a mix of excitement and nervousness. There's a lot of prep to be done, and I have a lot of other things competing for my time...silly things like my job, and my Masters thesis. But worry not, Dear Reader: I will properly prioritize my time and have the adventure ready for Sunday!

I hate doing the "random thoughts loosely organized by bullet points" posts, but that's where I'm at right now and I'd like to keep my blogging momentum up. So here are some random thoughts going on in my head right now:

-This will be only my second session running Edge of the Empire. My first ended in disaster. I was in the throes of obsession with the Apocalypse Engine, and did a mid-game system switch after I got frustrated trying to remember all the rules to the game. It was less about the rules being many or complex and more about me being lazy and unprepared (not to mention being enamored with a completely different game). I ran EotE simply because it was new at the time and I knew it would pack the room. This time, however, I'm better versed in the ways of the system (not to mention I have a few players who are accomplished at the rules, as well), and I actively want to play this game, with no other games I'd rather play floating around in the back of my head. (Well, maybe The One Ring, but I'm not even close to finishing that book so I wouldn't be able to switch to it, even if I wanted to).

-I intend on playing all the way through "Jewel of Yavin," as this is a one-shot with no ability to go beyond a single session, even if I wanted it to. Though I'm still reading the adventure, it seems pretty sandboxy, so with a little direction I bet I could nudge the players towards completion while still giving them freedom enough to do their own thing.

-Pacing, a facet of GMing that I typically tend to obsess over, is going to be extraordinarily important this session. I estimate even a group laser-focused on finishing the main plotline will be pushing the 5-hour mark, and I am drawing a hard line at 8 hours. Even that best-case scenario is a little bit outside of my comfort zone (3-4 hours). So I'm going to have to pace myself and my players, taking breaks as needed, keep encounters moving along, and not letting meta-things like table talk, rules referencing, or lunch arrangements take up too much time, or break momentum.

-I've got two new players coming to my game this Sunday. Both are RPG vets, though, and one of them is familiar with EotE, so I don't anticipate any problems there.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The D20 Effect

When I read Dungeon World in the winter of 2012, it blew my mind. Here was a roleplaying game that was speaking exactly my mind when it came to running games. This little gem of an RPG had put, in writing, ideas about roleplaying games I had been doing instinctively for years, stuff like being a fan of the players, keeping the action focused on them, and building the world off of their actions rather than having anything set in stone. Dungeon World was a game that was written and designed to be played the way I'd been playing Dungeons & Dragons for over 20 years. I was in love. I thought I'd found the only RPG I'd ever want to play, ever again.

Then, something weird happened. As I began hosting sessions and running games, I found myself craving more. I wanted to have ideas I could fall back on, rather than making everything up in the spur of the moment. I wanted a framework, a structure for games to be built on, a launching pad for my players' imaginations. I wanted to give my players options and ideas they hadn't thought of before. 

In other words, I wanted the very things Dungeon World eschewed. I already had the things Dungeon World brought to the table; I wanted the things it specifically went out of its way to avoid bringing to the table.

When I started to talk to the community about this, the responses ranged from "you're doing it wrong" to "you don't really need that stuff," to "there's nothing stopping you from doing that in DW," to...well, more antagonistic responses. The very idea that I'd find DW lacking in any way seemed to verge on blasphemy within its community. 

What I find odd about this is it seems like every other post regarding Dungeon World appears to be some suggestions or ideas on hacks. More classes. Custom rules. Even whole adventures, a concept DW seems to be completely against, were appearing out there for the masses. Gamers wanted to make DW more complicated. Yet when I suggested to simply play a more complex game, the response was shock, if not flat-out disgust.

Personally, I blame something I'll call the D20 Effect. The D20 Effect is this phenomenon I've observed both online and in person where gamers feel constrained and powerless to influence the rules of a game. As if there really was a Rules Police that would kick in the door if they didn't use all the flanking rules in combat. 

I attribute this effect to the D20 System because that's when I think it really became a thing. When that game came out, it had rules for everything. As the new books came out and more and more rules came forward, the idea of "winging it" or (gasp!) playing your game without those books seemed wrong. The books themselves certainly didn't advocate their unnecessariness. It became the unwritten rule, this notion that you had to follow every rule in d20. The little DM section where it's written "if you don't like it, don't use it" had been buried under an avalanche of splatbooks, sourcebooks, and campaign settings with their own custom rules. That advice somehow ended up in the "fluff" section, skipped over as DM's were looking for the difficulty classes on various kinds of traps. So to gamers who's first experience with RPGs was the D20 system, I feel for them. I think any RPG gamer who cut their teeth on the 3rd, 3.5, or even 4th edition games probably feel like it's not okay to ignore rules because that will somehow break the game. So for those gamers to discover a game like Dungeon World, that purposefully and intentionally keeps the rules to a minimum, I understand how that must be a revelation to them.

It also doesn't surprise me that there are so many of the old guard who don't get it. Those folks, who had cut their teeth on older editions of D&D, were used to doing the things described by Dungeon World. 1st and 2nd edition did not have rules to cover everything; hell, even the rules they did have were oftentimes inconsistent and counter-intuitive. Those gamers didn't really have many other choices, so they just gutted the games they did have in order to play the one they really wanted to play. 

But even those older gamers aren't necessarily immune to the D20 Effect. Many of those older gamers got crushed under the weight of that system's meticulousness, as well. And now they think they're "too old" to enjoy heavier RPGs. They're not. They just forgot the most important rule: the rules only matter if you want them to. Many older gamers have forgotten this, while many younger gamers were never taught it. I was one of the former, till Dungeon World reminded me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Digital Divide

Over the past several months, I have grown increasingly distant from videogaming. Although it overtook tabletop gaming as my top hobby throughout my 20's, as I've gotten older, busier, and surrounded by new friends, I have found myself caring far more about tabletop gaming than its digital equivalent.

Last night, I had an hour to myself. Normally, an hour free meant an hour on a video game. Instead? I watched Gotham, then an episode of The Colbert Report after that.

Every afternoon, around 11am, I think about what I'd like to do at lunch. I inevitably think "I should play some more Persona 4 on my Playstation Vita. Or Super Smash Brothers on my 3DS. Or X-Com on my iPad. Every day for the past several weeks, I've chosen instead to read a pdf of a roleplaying game.

A month ago, I went on a mini-shopping spree and spent about $100 in videogames. After not opening several of them for weeks, I finally just took them back to Best Buy, returning about $60 of it.

And, perhaps most damning of all, I decided yesterday that, for Christmas, I would rather upgrade my smartphone (an iPhone 5S) to the latest model, the 6 or 6 Plus (haven't decided which, yet), instead of getting the Xbox One, as I had originally intended.

Videogaming is continuing to lose the battle for both my free time and my expendable income. If I were to look back at the hours I've spent playing, reading, and studying RPGs over the time spent playing or reading about videogames, it's no contest. Videogames in my life are getting increasingly marginalized to a quick time-wasting activity when I'm in an environment where reading is too difficult (like on a crowded bus, or in line at the grocery store). Right now, I consider my Vita my most-used gaming console, and even that isn't saying much.

It's not unusual for me to have rapid shifts in interests. When I was into videogaming, I was almost pendulum-like in the way I'd swing from home consoles to PCs, back and forth. Now that I'm into tabletop gaming, I frequently lean one way or the other between boardgames and roleplaying games. But this somehow feels different. This feels like I'm changing. 

Or maybe I'm not changing. Maybe I'm just finally in an environment where I can be myself. In my 20's, I played so many videogames simply because I had few friends. Now I have several good friends, and meeting new ones is as simple as joining or hosting a meetup group.

Do I have any particular problem with videogames? Absolutely not, although I will say the whole GamerGate thing has strained the already-disdainful attitude I tend to have on many of my fellow gamers. I think, if I had to attribute this seismic shift in interests to anything, it would be two factors: an increasingly strong urge to create, and bonding with friends.

Creation, true acts of creativity and player-driven storytelling, is a concept videogames have yet to compete with. They may never be able to. Yes, there are several games out there that allow you to be very creative. Minecraft immediately jumps to mind. The meta-stories players can tell themselves in epic games like Civilization or X-Com also come up. But there are few, if any, videogames out there that can truly capture the fluid nature of creativity the way a roleplaying game can. Even the most basic adventure I've run or played in within the last year couldn't possibly hope to be emulated in any meaningful way in any of today's existing videogame genres or technology. Even if they could, I wonder how successful they would even be. Many people play videogames to relax and ease their mind, not to continually tax it with creating new things. Minecraft again sprouts up, but the elegant brilliance of that game makes it an exception that proves the rule.

As for community...well, I've written before about the bond a gaming group can forge, and how, from my experience, anything similar in a videogame seems almost pathetic by comparison.

I guess what I'm finding interesting about this is I sit here, and I scan IGN and GameSpot, and I look at where videogames are and where they're going to be further down the road...and I go "meh." Meanwhile, I go to the Fantasy Flight Games website, or the D&D website, and I see what's available now, and the stuff coming down the pipe, and I'm absolutely bouncing in my chair in anticipation. The divide between my videogaming and my tabletop gaming is widening.

Back in the day, I literally could not have imagined a world where I wouldn't be all that interested in videogames. Today, I'm finding it harder to believe I ever liked videogames that much.

I wonder if the bow this elven ranger is using is a +2 Goblinslayer or just a +1 Returning...

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The internet age hasn't been all good. Ask anyone who knows what gamergate is. Is it more good than bad? Probably. But there have been some ugly spots.

One ugly spot that I notice in my own hobby is the amount of soapboxing going on over one's gaming decisions. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call it editionism. Yes, I am talking about D&D mostly, but it can (and does) apply to other RPGs, too.

Editionism is the deep-seeded need for a gamer to proclaim that the edition he's playing is the best edition of the roleplaying game in question...or, alternately, that the edition he's not playing is the worst edition. It's backed with numerous status updates, blog posts, forum posts, the whole nine. It comes from our new social media-driven instincts to have to proclaim our beliefs, as if there is some silent majority out there that's wondering "What does <insert name of random person> think about this?" It can come in the form of mild, passive-aggressive dismissal ("I don't play X edition because I just don't care," a proclamation which begs the quesiton "If you don't care, then why are you writing about it?"), or rampant, unbridled hatred. 

It's unfortunate that the world has gotten itself into the mindset that everyone cares about everyone else's opinion. They don't. Nor should they. And don't tell me that you don't care, because if you took the time out of your day to write something, then you do care. At least a little. It's really unfortunate that all this energy is being spent on proclamations of beliefs, on editionism, instead of on actually playing the game.

Because, as Robert McKee famously said, "Action is character. You are what you do." So if you really think X edition is better than Y edition, don't waste your time and mine posting about why X edition is better than Y edition. Show me a recap of your great X edition game. Write me an analysis of the strengths of the X edition book. Post a podcast about your X edition campaign. Live your life. That says more loudly, more clearly, and more concisely what you believe, moreso than any rant.

I'll end this with one clarification: although editionism is sad and irritating to me, I have no issues with hypocrisy. That shit's just funny.

There's no particular reason I'm using the Dark Sun Campaign Setting for D&D 4E as an image. I'm just tired of seeing my face in all these blog posts!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Spectrum

The Spectrum is how I help visualize/contextualize the complexity of a role-playing game. It's on a -5 to +5 scale. On the -5 end are the "storygames", RPGs that are extremely rules-light and narratively-focused. At the -5 level are GM-less collaborative storytelling games like Fiasco. Most of the big storygames today like Apocalypse World and the like would be a -4, in my mind.

At the +5 end are the "simulationist" games. These are RPGs that try and emulate reality with their rules, games with procedures and stats in place for every little thing imaginable. Right at the top of the spectrum would be actual wargames. The heaviest RPGs, like GURPS, HERO system, d20's heavier iterations, would all be about a +4.

It's easy to get caught up in the process of rating games along this scale, but a very important factor to keep in mind are the tastes of the people playing the games, players and GM. Where your personal tastes fall on this scale can be a rough, early estimation of how much you'll enjoy a given game. If you find yourself consistently loving games in the +3 or +4 range, but you're about to join a game in the -4 range, you might struggle to adapt. Or vice versa.

So, now that I've laid all that shit out, let's start arbitrarily assigning some ratings, shall we?

-I would say myself, as both GM and player, I rate right at 0 (at least, that's where I strive to be). I like RPGs that are both "RP" and "G." I get bored quickly with games too heavily in the minus range; I get frustrated quickly with games too high on the plus range.

-I'd say my group averages out at about a -1. All of our recurring campaigns have been built around games in the minus range, although several in the group have said they have no problems with "crunchier" games.

-The latest edition of D&D, in my opinion, weighs in at a +1. The rules are far more streamlined and light than previous editions, but there's still plenty of number-crunching that can be done, for those so inclined.

-Previous editions of D&D are as follows:
         -4th gets a +3.
         -3rd and 3.5 get a +4.
         -2nd gets a +2.
         -I didn't play enough of 1st to rate it.
         -Regular, "red box" D&D gets between +2 and +3, depending on the set.

-Here are the ratings for my Big & Little Five:

  1. D&D: +1.
  2. Shadowrun: +3 or +4, dependent on optional rules and used sourcebooks.
  3. Numenera/The Strange: 0.
  4. Star Wars (Fantasy Flight edition): +1.
  5. World of Darkness: +1.
  6. Cortex Plus: Action: 0, Superheroic: 0, Drama: -1.
  7. Fate Core: 0/-1, dependent on hacks used. (Fate Accelerated: -2)
  8. Apocalypse Engine: -2, -3, or -4, dependent on particular game
  9. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: +2.
  10. Call of Cthulhu: +1.

So, how would you rate your RPG interests on The Spectrum? How would you rate your favorite RPGs? How would you rate your gaming group?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Letter of Resignation

This week, instead of doing my homework for class or refining my thesis that's due next month, I worked on my novel for NaNoWriMo. Instead of further pursuing a Master's Degree that will have long-reaching and immediate benefits to my career and professional life, I worked on a novel with the goal of nothing more than writing words for the sake of writing words. Instead of reaching out to my friends or working on adventures for them to go on someday, I wrote about a character and his friends doing just that. 

What the hell was I thinking?

Well, what I was thinking about was simple: I want to do this thing because I said I would. Because I'm a habitual half-asser and I was done with saying one thing and doing another. I figured if I jump in deep, on a project I know I can do, I'll have no choice but to succeed. 

I still believe that, but what I failed to do while thinking about this was to choose my battles. If I'm going to stretch myself thin, let it be for some epic shit, not just to heal a wound in my ego. 

This is all a roundabout way of saying "I've got more important things to do with my time right now." And so, six days in, I'm officially saying "screw this" to NaNoWriMo this year. I wish the best of luck to my friends who continue to fight the good fight. Maybe I'll even try again next year, if I'm not, you know, pursuing a graduate degree while working full time, writing freelance reviews for a great website, working on any of the projects I already wrote about a few days ago in my blog post about The Kitchen, or trying to reconcile my marriage with my wife. 

Are these all excuses? Maybe. Do I give a shit? Nope. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Kitchen

The Kitchen is what I call my works in progress when it comes to tabletop RPGs. These are either adventures I'm working on, published adventures I'm assimilating (studying, re-studying, and re-writing published adventures so completely that they feel like as if I had written them), or RPGs I'm reading.

This post goes hand in hand with a post I made earlier about my Big & Little 5. The overall idea is to refine all of my diverse RPG gaming tastes down into something manageable, so that I'm not spinning my wheels studying RPGs I'll never play, writing adventures I'll never run, or otherwise inefficiently spending my nerd time. I'm publishing this to simultaneously create accountability, and to formalize my thought process in hopes of it creating a lasting infrastructure in my brain.

So without further ado, the current projects are cooking in the kitchen:

-Assimilate D&D Starter Set: My Boardgames at Work event has now changed into an RPG at Work event, beginning next Thursday. I want to have the Starter Set's beginning adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, down cold, and broken into hour-long chunks for the long haul.

-Assimilate Masks of Nyarlathotep: Easily the biggest, most ambitious adventure I've ever seen, Masks is a Call of Cthulhu adventure that is a campaign in and of itself. For those of you unaware, Masks of Nyarlathotep is, essentially, a tabletop RPG version of a game of Eldritch Horror. PCs travel the globe unraveling an epic mystery. Finances are tracked, a calendar is used to keep track of time, and numerous red herrings and side quests open up throughout the course of the game. As if all of that weren't enough, the adventure has an open structure; PCs could go literally anywhere in the world, right from the opening hours of play, if they wanted. Assimilating this game into my brain could be the project of a lifetime...and if I pull it off, being able to have something this epic on tap could last me years.

-Assimilate the Dark Spiral: This is a big adventure/mini-campaign for The Strange. It, too, follows an open structure, and can be a great starting point for people new to the game.

-Assimilate the Devil's Spine: See above, but for Numenera instead of The Strange.

-Assimilate the Gathering Storm: This Warhammer adventure is every bit as premium/deluxe an experience as the game itself, complete with customized cards for new abilities, encounters, and magic items! It's an interesting adventure from what I've read so far. Getting it down cold in my head will allow me to run Warhammer on a moment's notice, something I'd greatly love to be able to do.

-Assimilate Splintered State: The first major adventure released for the fifth edition of Shadowrun is an awesome showcase of what's great about the system, plus a great segue into the bigger "plotline" of the game. It also has a great, logical progression to it. I've already read it twice, so assimilation of this beast is almost complete.

-Continue work on “The Right to Know” Campaign: My own idea for a modern Cthulhu epic is approximately one-fourth of the way done. The first chapter, "The Digital Tome," is an adventure I've run several times and am happy with how it turned out. The second chapter, "The Sudden Knife," is complete and ready for play but hasn't gotten to the table yet. The third through eigth chapters have yet to be written.

-Re-tool, rewrite “The Longest Game”: My crazy God Machine Chronicle adventure landed with a dull thud when I brought it out a few months ago, proving that GMing while stoned on pain medication following a tooth extraction is about as bad an idea as it sounds. However, in the months since, I've re-read The God Machine Chronicle, and with my new love of Demon: the Descent, I'm ready to rework this adventure into something truly bizarre and amazing.

-Read Mindjammer: This huge transhuman sci-fi game runs on Fate Core. I want to read it in the hopes of finding something a little heftier than Nova Praxis, but not quite as hefty as Eclipse Phase.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lookin' Back

This afternoon, I've begun reading Things Don't Go Smooth, the first major sourcebook for the Firefly RPG. As a result, I've been reminiscing a lot on my summer Firefly campaign.

Our campaign wrapped on August 18th. So it's been about two and a half months since the last episode. Whoa, it feels like it's been longer! But here are some of my thoughts on the campaign, looking back:

Things I Liked About the Campaign:

1. First and foremost, it was a great opportunity to bond with my friends. Again, it's only been two and a half months, but I feel like we really got to know each other and work with each other over the span of that campaign. Away from the table, I feel much closer to everyone in my group, and I think a lot of that had to do with the great chemistry we found at the table, while playing this game.

2. I've said this before, but I relished the opportunity to experiment with different adventure structures and storytelling techniques, stuff I never would have dared to try in a more conventional RPG. The experience of running those avant-garde style adventures is something I'll carry with me moving forward, ideas and methods that I can use to run better games in the future. The campaign was a tremendous learning experience for me.

3. I set out to run a campaign, from beginning to end, and I did it. Granted, there were distractions along the way, and sure enough, I wanted to quit at certain points, but with my friends egging me on, I embraced the momentum and followed through to the end. Many may scoff at a mere seven sessions as a "campaign," but for me, it was a pretty major achievement! That experience with running games consistently is definitely something I'll carry with me moving on. I'm really looking forward to my next opportunity to run a complete campaign. Who knows...the next one might even be eight adventures long!

Things I Would Have Done Differently:

1. Though I managed to break from my normal form and run a complete, persistent campaign, I failed to break from another habit I have: ignoring rules. Of course, I'm all about throwing out the rules when they get in the way of play, but if we're being honest here, I didn't throw out all of the rules because they were getting in the way. I was throwing out rules because I was lazy, didn't want to study them, and didn't do enough prep before the game. Again, I am not advocating having to follow every rule as written in the corebook to the letter/number, but I do believe you need to at least attempt to understand and use the rules before you make that judgement call. While reading Things Don't Go Smooth, there have been many moments...too many moments, in my opinion...where the book addresses a rule and I thought "Oh! THAT'S how I was supposed to do that!"

2. I don't mind running games from the seat of my pants. I do it all the time. But for a campaign where I had two weeks between most sessions, I wish I had done more prep. Good prep, in my experience, helps improv, it doesn't hurt it. You see, if you do your homework, then you're doing less scrambling in-game, which frees up your mind to come up with even better ideas on the spur of the moment. I had an opportunity, between the flexible nature of Cortex Plus, and the weeks of downtime between games, to craft some great adventures. I blew that opportunity. I hope I don't do that again, for the next campaign.

3. I discovered, somewhere around the fifth or sixth episode of watching Firefly, that I just don't care much for the show. I understand why people love it so much. I can objectively see the quality of the show. And I absolutely believe FOX cut it down before it's time. But I was not a fan of the show. It's hard to run a game when you don't care about the source material. My friend Boomer recently talked to me about how his fantasy campaign, which was originally supposed to be Dungeon World, got switched to D&D because he got caught up in the hype. I can certainly relate, because that's exactly what happened with me and Firefly. I was all set to run the Call of Cthulhu epic, Masks of Nyarlathotep, but then Firefly and all the extreme hype around both it and the Cortex Plus system showed up, and I got caught up in it. The previous two items are issues I've struggled with throughout my GMing "career." But this particular issue was a rookie mistake that I normally don't make. It definitely won't happen again.

Monday, November 3, 2014

NaNoWriMo: A pep-talk (or, um, pep-write)

I'm three days into NaNoWriMo and I'm about to cross 5,000 words. I'm more or less on schedule to hit 50,000 words by November 30th. The question I find myself wondering now, however is "at what cost?"

My story, so far, sucks. Not the humble-brag "oh it sucks, but I expect you to tell me it's actually good" sucks; an actual, flat-out, I'm-embarrassed-to-say-I-wrote-this kind of sucks. That's okay. It's a rough draft of words coming out of my brain at an almost free-association level of depth and speed. I expect it to suck. I'm not worried about it sucking. I'm confident I can turn "sucks" into "rocks" (or, maybe more realistically, "sucks less") during revision.

What I hadn't counted on when I laid out my plan was how fucking boring my little novel was going to be. In writing these first almost-5,000 words, I have seen the seams, the infrastructure lurking beneath the illusion. I do a fairly decent job of hiding those seams in my blog, but in my novel, there is absolutely no safeguard there: someone reading my draft is, very clearly, reading the work of a nerd obsessing over his nerd-hobby. I can't imagine anyone wanting to read more than a few pages of this before putting it down. I don't even want to read more than a few pages of this without putting it down.

This is a unique problem for me. My tolerance for boredom is quite low, typically. But writing about role-playing games creates an odd little paradox within me. I can see that my novel is objectively boring, yet I can still write all goddam day about it. There is literally nothing else in the world I can do that about. Crazy.

I set out with a simple goal: write a 50,000 word novel, as quickly and consistently as I can. Now I find myself under the effects of "Careful What You Wish For" syndrome. There's little doubt in my mind I can do this. I'm just not sure I'm going to be proud of the product. The answer to that, of course, is "Being proud of the product isn't the goal, is it, Ed? FINISHING the product is the goal."

Because that's the one thing I keep coming back to. In all my professional, personal, and academic experience as a writer, I've discovered this: successful writers and talented writers are not the same thing. There are literally millions of people on this planet with ideas for The Great American Novel in their heads. Ideas, like talk, are cheap. Work is valuable. That, to me, is what NaNoWriMo is all about. It's about getting away from the "I need to have it just perfect" cliche of the amateur writer and actually putting something down on paper (or typed on screen, I suppose). You want to know why so much crap sells? Because crap is real. You can't publish a good idea; only the book that comes from it.

So if you, Dear Reader, like me, are struggling right now with just how horrible your writing is, remember this: anybody can write well. It takes a real writer to write shitty.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Month of Austerity

These are my following goals for November:

1. Complete NaNoWriMo.
2. Complete my MA Thesis.
3. Complete all homework and reading for my other class.
4. Lose 10-20 pounds, by a combination of strict diet and exercise.

This is all in addition to working my regular job. I will also see my friends every weekend or so, and I have Thanksgiving plans with my family at the end of the month.

If everything goes according to plan, this may be one of the busiest months I've had in a long time. I'm scared. I'm worried I'm setting myself up for failure. I am so sick and fucking tired of being a guy who doesn't do what he says he's going to do. I want to change that. I want to become a man of my word.

I think it's important to challenge yourself, every once and awhile. I haven't challenged myself in a really long time...years, perhaps. Yes, there have been things going on in my marriage. Yes, I'm taking on school and work. Those are hardships. But they're not challenges. I haven't set a preposterous goal for myself and achieved it in a very long time. To quote Bane, "Success has made me weak." It's time to build myself back up, starting this month.

I don't think that's going to change in one month. But I am putting it all on the line, this month. This month, I'm saying "I'm going to get these things done, and I'm not going to even allow myself to think about not getting these things done." The world won't end if I fail to complete my novel...but I'm not going to allow myself to believe that. I want the pressure. I want to believe the world will end. 

So apologies in advance if I'm a little more severe than usual, this month. I do not want success to come at a cost of being an asshole, but I am pragmatic enough to realize these goals will put stress on me. It's just for the month of November. Come December, I'll re-evaluate in light of my success on these goals, and decide how austere that month will be.

Until then? Rabbit rabbit, bitches.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Steve Johnson and the Ninth World

Yesterday, I pondered on whether I should do NaNoWriMo. Now I'm officially in, and my novel is giong to be called Steve Johnson and the Ninth World. (I know, I know; the title's a work in progress. Suggestions are welcome!)

The novel is about Steve, a normal guy who just moved to Virginia. Looking to make some friends, he joins a pickup game of Numenera at the local public library. The novel then follows the life of Steve and his new friends over the course of the year. The novel covers both the "real-life" lives of Steve and his friends as well as the "in-game" life of the characters they portray through the ongoing Numenera campaign.

So how did I come up with this story? Well, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I thought about the goal. The goal (for me, anyway), is to write a novel, which, for the purposes of NaNoWriMo, at least, is 50,000 words. That's approximately 1700 words per day, or around seven pages, for the 30 days of November. That's a LOT of writing! To pull it off, I decided I'm going to have to write about something I know a lot about. It can't be something that requires too much extensive research, and it has to cater to my strengths as a writer. NaNoWriMo isn't an opportunity to grow as a writer; it's a chance to get some shit done, son! So I gotta play to my strengths. And my strengths are in tabletop gaming. I know role-playing games better than anything else I know of in my life. So I knew my NaNoWriMo novel would be about RPGs. Not the world of an RPG, no sci-fi/fantasy stuff here, but a novel about the actual experience of playing a role-playing game.

I then did up basic outlines of six major characters that will be in the novel. Why six? Again, the goal: finish the novel! With six characters, I have an ability to jump around a lot, if necessary. I know me, and I know I'll get bored quickly with one particular character or plotline. So giving myself six characters gives me a vast canvas on which to work. If I'm tired of the "main" story with Steve, I jump over to one of the other characters. And, of course, the relationships between these six characters to each other will run the gamut from passionate love to seething hatred. That's not only fun to write, it's interesting to read about.

On top of all that, I have plenty of material to pull from. There's a reason this novel takes place in northern Virginia. That's where I live! I have every intention of pulling from my real life to complicate, illustrate, and/or elaborate on these characters as the story unfolds. None of these six characters are going to be replicas of real people I know, but they will have collections of characteristics, quirks, and experiences that may be familiar to some friends of mine.

In addition to the six characters and their storylines, I have an entire Numenera campaign to write about. Again: more options on things I can write about so that when I sit down to hit my daily 1700 word goal, I can go off in any direction I want. If I'm tired of writing contemporary fiction about adults dealing with adult life shit, I can start writing about their adventures in the Ninth World.

Why Numenera? Why not something more recognizable, like Dungeons & Dragons? Well, three reasons. First, D&D has been done before. Movies like The Gamers, books like Of Dice and Men...the whole "nerds are people too!" storyline has been beaten to death. I want to do something different, and changing the game illustrates that. The second reason is more logistical: copyrights. Although I'm no where near the publishing stage yet, I would hate to have my knees cut from under me if/when I complete my novel and publish it, only to have Wizards of the Coast slap me with a Cease & Desist. Numenera has a clear Fair Use Policy, so I know exactly where I stand with them.

The third reason is thematic. Boredom and banality, and our efforts to deal with it in our day-to-day lives, will be a major theme of the novel. Numenera, with its wildly imaginative setting, provides a stark contrast to the bland, mundane world the characters of my novel live in. This contrast will not only help punctuate what makes roleplaying games great; it also allows the reader a respite from the more mundane themes of the novel, and stretch out into something a little crazier.

So yes: I am going to write 1700 words a day, at a breakneck pace, about six different characters and two different branching storylines, almost to the point of free association. I'm going to get it all down, and then rearrange it, cut it, paste it, and slowly coax it into something resembling a coherent narrative.

Some of you are probably thinking "I can't do that! I can't just jump around from scene to scene, plotline to plotline!" My response is "why the hell not?" Isn't it all coming from the same brain? You play to your strengths, you write what you want to write. If you come up with the climactic fight scene while you're sitting at work, but you haven't written the stuff leading up to the fight, don't wait till you write up to it: write that goddam fight scene right now! Too many writers, from my experience, try to write a novel the way they read one. It gets to the point where some writers tell me they simply love it when the story "jumps off the page," and the characters "take a life of their own." That's all well and good, and if you're just looking to amuse yourself, then go to town. But if the goal is to write a complete novel, then you've got to do anything and everything necessary to get that sumbitch written. Getting it down comes first. Getting it right comes later. The amount of pushback I get from people about this is astonishing.

Steve Johnson and the Ninth World is going to add to, at the least in the beginning, be an extremely chaotic mess. A barely-readable mish-mash of genres, plotlines, and ideas. A colossal disaster on the page. But you know what? As long as that disaster pans out to 1700 words a day, I call it a win!

My Own Loser Path

"If you're a Sym main, please exit the stream," was the description yesterday of one of the Overwatch Twitch streams I follow....