Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Coroners, Pt. I

This is the first draft of an idea I've come up with for a transhuman sci-fi campaign. Being a first draft, it is largely off-the-cuff and not fully thought-out. As of such, I welcome any and all critiques, comments, and suggestions. Please let me know what you think!

In case it's not clear from the writing, I'm going for a very "gallows humor" tone in this setting. Like if Vince Gilligan were to direct a transhuman sci-fi TV show. You could also think Quentin Tarrantino, Chuck Palahuik, Alan Ball, maybe even a darker Joss Whedon. It's a serious, kinda-grim sci-fi setting, but there are consistently moments of absurd levity in it.

With that, here's my idea for The Coroners, a transhuman sci-fi campaign:

Hey. Wake. UP.

Damn, reload hit you hard this time, huh? I don't know what the hell out there popped your cell, but it sure did a friggin' number on you. don't remember anything, do you? Fuck. Alright, hang on....Mercy! We're gonna need some time before our next expedition. New guy's reload got all jacked up, we're gonna have to start from scratch with him.

You mean...everything?


Can't we just download to his cortex?

I don't think so, not right now, at least. I don't think his sanity could handle it. Let's just do it the old fashioned way. Couple hours...maybe a couple of days...he starts re-acclimating, we'll try a download then.

Very well. You want me to do it while you contact our client?

No. I better do this myself. I don't think a ghost is what this poor bastard needs right now.

Fair enough. You know where to find me.

Okay, buddy. Have a seat. That was Mercy, by the way. Mercy's a ghost. A ghost? A ghost is a disembodied human consciousness who lives in a computer. 

Yeesh. Judging by that look on your face, we're going to have to start slow.

I. Who We Are, What We Do

Okay, so here's the deal. You are you, right? Your soul, your mind, your memories, your personality...all that shit. But your body? Your body's a shell. You download your mind into it and drive it around, like a ship. You can upload it to a computer, then download it into another body (we call bodies cells. Don't ask me why.) Or, like Mercy, you can just upload yourself into a computer and hang out in there.

So, to borrow some ancient terminology, your mind is what they'd call software. And, like software in the olden days, your mind can be uploaded, downloaded, deleted...or copied. That's what happened with you. We keep a copy of everyone's mind here at the base, and if something should happen to you while you're downloaded into a cell, we can "reload" you into a new one. We don't know what happened to you that got your cell butchered...we lost contact right before it happened...but when it happened, your mind activated a "kill switch," a signal that let us know to bring a copy of you online, because, well, you just died.

Normally, a copy of your mind is as informed and up-to-date as it was the day you copied it. For whatever reason...corrupted memory banks in our computer, is my appear to have reloaded with no memories at all. That sucks, because, well, a lot of shit has happened to us that you apparently have no memory of. But that's cool. I could use a break from the job, anyway.

What's our job, you ask? Well, we are what people call coroners. I'll get into that in a second, but I need to tell you a little about society, first.

You see, once we learned how to convert our minds to software, and we mastered virtual environments, the world that we were once a part of splintered. Literally the entire planet just split into all these little cliques and "communities" and miniature little neighborhoods, living in their own realities. Once we started beaming signals out into space, we started establishing whole new societies on other planets.

So our entire race has turned into pockets and pockets of different societies. A million little social experiments, scattered across the solar system, all isolated from one another by the vastness of space.

Naturally, some of these social experiments fail. Some societies degenerate into anarchy and destroy each other. Others didn't put enough thought into little things like sustainability and ended up just dying out. Still others discovered things...alien things, mutated disease things...that spread out and destroyed the whole colony. There are millions of little social experiments in our solar system, and everyday, thousands of them fall victim to untold horror stories. 

Our job is to find those dead colonies and learn what happened. We discover the cause of death of a whole population. That's why they call us coroners. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

We creative folk have a tendency to drift towards the history of our culture as the inspiration for our mythology and fantasy. The single biggest aspect of culture is language. So if your primary language is English, that then means English culture is where you'll most-likely go. It doesn't matter if you're actually European or not: the cultural legacy you most closely identify with is English. This is why the swords-and-sorcery fantasy genre is so huge in gaming. Yes, you can say a little something about D&D's monumental influence, but the reason why it was even in a position to set that kind of precedent is because its audience can feel a sense of one-ness with the setting.

I have always struggled with that one-ness, that sense of belonging within the realms of traditional, medieval-inspired fantasy. I do speak English. I do identify as white. But all it takes is a quick glance in the mirror to realize that there's a whole other side to me. I'm half-Thai. And that whole other side of me doesn't get represented at all in the vast majority of games I play.

And so sometimes, I drift towards mythology/fantasy with a more Asian bend to it. And it doesn't take long for me to feel alone and disconnected from that fantasy, either. I'm half-white, afterall. Not only that, I'm a writer, a person with an actual academic and professional interest in the English language. And so embracing Asian legends also only represents half of my cultural legacy.

So where do I go when I want to feel completely comfortable with my cultural identity? Thankfully, there is one thing I that I am completely: I am an American. 

And finally, we come to my point: I am definitely not the only person out there with a tangled ancestry. So why does English/Anglo-Saxon fantasy continue to captivate our imaginations so much? Why don't we see more fantasy inspired by American history?

America may be considerably younger than many nations out there, but we have a deep...and, more importantly, dramatic...history. The War of Independence. The Civil War. The Wild West. The Roaring 20's. The World Wars. Vietnam. 

I realize there is a certain sex appeal to English fantasy. You've got your glistening armor, your elegant longswords, castles and stuff. But American history's got plenty of iconic stuff, too: The six-shooter. Boomtowns. The automobile. English fantasy has kings, queens, nobility; we have patriots, moguls, and politicians. They have knights; we have rangers. 

And don't even get me started on the thematic elements American culture can draw upon. Manifest Destiny. The American Dream. Independence from tyranny. The battle to make every person equal in the eyes of the law. Rich, powerful storytelling stuff. Yet we continue to confine ourselves to the same old pointy-eared elves and stocky, bearded dwarves, blandly fighting Good versus Evil.

I know one quick answer to this question: medieval drama tends to be more unapologetically black-and-white. That makes the stakes easier to understand, and thus allow us to skip to the action faster. There are monsters that are clearly evil, devil worshippers that are clearly trying to disrupt the natural order of things, and there are heroes who don't have a single drop of bad blood in their bodies to fight them off. America is much messier. Hell; we've been the monster, at points in our history. But that's true of English-inspired fantasy, too. 

I know there's a lot of American-inspired gaming already out there. Deadlands. The Weird War settings. Lovecraft. It's not like it doesn't exist. But organize a meetup for a Western-themed RPG and a fantasy-themed RPG, and guess which one fills up faster? One of them will have a waitlist; the other will have open seats. Why is that?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The REAL truth about sloppy writing

The latest nerd-controversy (nerdtroversy?) invovles this article. Basically, the author writes about the declining profits and questionable returns of comic book conventions for comic book artists. As the curtain-puller to her assertions, she posits how "our selfie-obsessed culture" is ruining comic book conventions, and then kinda/sorta throws a little shade at the growing popularity of cosplay as one potential reason for the dimnishing returns of convention success.

This is one paragraph out of a several-paragraph long post. The rest of the post goes into greater detail on other potential factors. It was clear by the time I finished reading the post that the cosplay thing was a throwaway. Perhaps the author was trying to be funny, or maybe she was just having a bad day. But even a half-hearted read of the post reveals that this one little point was not at all the focus of her blog.

But guess which part of her blog is getting the most attention? Here's a clue.

Here's where I come in. This latest issue/discussion/flame war/-gate thingie is not about cosplayers. It's not about comic book conventions. It's not even about business. It's about poor writing.

I'm a professional writer-editor, as well as a mere three months away from a Masters Degree from Johns Hopkins on the subject, so I know the difference good writing can make. I see it everyday. Here's a story from grad school: a couple of semesters ago, this very talented writer with a jones for politics wrote an editorial for our opinion writing & review workshop. In his manuscript, he used several obscure, high-falutin' words. Of the 20-minute roundtable discussion of his work, we spent maybe five of them talking about the actual content of his piece, which was indeed excellent.

The remaining 15 or so minutes were all about the writer's choice of vocabularly. The whole class went back and forth about whether all of these $50 words should or should not be in the piece. The writer himself argued with his peers about it. He loves language, he said. He wanted to use those words because they're great words.

He finally relented when I spoke up. I told him, "If the point of this article is to teach us big words, then great; stick to your guns. But consider this: your piece is actually about this politically-charged subject, yet we've spent how many minutes talking about your choice of words?"

Being 140+ entries deep into this blog, I know firsthand how easy it is to put half-assed, unfiltered garbage out onto the internet. I do it almost every day! Even now, as I write this paragraph, I'm scanning the previous paragraphs and looking at how awful they are and how much shorter and to the point they should be for publication and how I'm now just rambling and wasting words....

Ahem. Thankfully for me, I don't have a high enough readership to ever cause these kinds of shitstorms. I'm actually kind of happy about that. I don't need to worry about the implications of, say, titling my piece "The REAL Truth about whatever," knowing full-well that an opinion backed by a few anecdotes is not fact and writing it in all caps just highlights how wrong it is.

But, hey, this is my blog. That's precisely what I'm supposed to do here: write about whatever, whenever. That's what the author of that blog post did. She didn't write a news article. She didn't even write an editorial or op-ed. She wrote her thoughts and feelings, as she was having them, and that's what came out. And the entire internet (or at least, the sliver of the internet that cares about this sort of thing), looked at that digital spitballing and mistook it for something that actually matters. I promise you, if I were editing that post before it went public, I would have slashed the shit out of that cosplay paragraph, or at the very least re-worded/changed its positioning in the piece to not make it so easy to take out of context.

Here's the bottom line: when it comes to your writing, you have the ability to control the conversation. You do it by the words you choose, the topic you choose, and the way you present your argument. Yes, you can't control everyone; there will always be pundits out there twisting whatever you said into whatever they want to hear. But don't make it easy for them. Watch what you write.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Only Exception

Yesterday, I wrote about "The Imaginary Ceiling:" The totally-created-by-me phenomenon wherein an RPG group realizes that nothing it does in a franchise-based campaign (Star Wars, Game of Thrones, etc.) will ever eclipse the original source material, because the source material only exists because of the stories from which it originated.

It was brought to my attention shortly after that there is one fantastic little exception: Marvel Superheroic Role-playing.

In Marvel, you are meant to take on the role of existing Marvel universe superheroes to play the game. At first, because of my belief in the Imaginary Ceiling, I chafed under this idea; I even blasted the book for it in a previous blog entry. But looking back, I see that there is a certain sense to the idea. You see, superheroes aren't just characters. They're icons. Spider-man isn't just Peter Parker, who got bit by a radioactive spider; he's the icon of a working-class, all-American, wise-cracking hero. Batman isn't just Bruce Wayne, trained by the League of Shadows who got his back broken once by Bane; he's the icon of vigilante justice, a person who's entire life is devoted to making crime pay. When it comes to superheroes, the faces behind the masks are only half the equation. Superman isn't just Superman because of the storylines he's been in; he's Superman because he represents something. Because of that, it is possible for a player to step into that role, make it his or her own, and not have it infringe on the source material.

Afterall, the comics themselves do it all the time, right? There are one-offs, non-canon stories, "reboots" that radically recast the characters; it's a tradition in comic books to periodically jump off the main storylines and explore radical tangents. Your table, your players, and your role-playing game can be one such tangent. Therefore, in theory at least, there is no Imaginary Ceiling in superhero role-playing. Every story is valid, because the medium itself is composed of multiple realities.

I'm a little more into DC than Marvel (Batman fanboy), so I can speak more specifically on how well DC comics does this. DC has comic book lines devoted not only to its main superheroes, but non-canonical tangents away from their main storylines. Batman, for example, has a separate comic book line for the Arkham videogames. The entire DC universe has a separate comic line for its MMO, DC Universe Online. So just with one single superhero (or group thereof), DC explores multiple realities simultaneously, all of which can be considered "for real" to one group or another. The same can be said of its tabletop role-playing game, made by Green Ronin Publishing: the stories players create in its game are just as valid as the stories told in its videogames, its TV shows, its movies.

I daresay that perhaps one reason why superhero RPGs are so damn popular are because of their ability to shatter the Imaginary Ceiling. Even in a world where Superman, Batman, and the X-Men didn't exist, there would still be superheroes, and they would inevitably consist of superhuman(alien) protectors of earth; troubled vigilantes with an eternal thirst for serving justice; and mutants with superpowers who try and protect a world that fears and hates them. Comic books are considered modern mythology to some, and just like I wouldn't fear an Imaginary Ceiling in a mythology RPG, I fear no Imaginary Ceiling in a superhero RPG.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Imaginary Ceiling

Across the web, I see people converting Popular Science Fiction Movie, Popular Fantasy TV Show, or Popular Videogame into their favorite tabletop RPG. I have always had a difficult time playing in other people's sandboxes, especially when those sandboxes weren't made with tabletop RPGs in mind.

I know this is a common part of tabletop RPG culture. I know many RPGs even hype one of their selling points as "with this game, you can emulate anything...even that!" But me? I just can't get into it.

The big problem I run into is what I call "The Imaginary Ceiling." This is the implicit understanding that, in a game taking place in a licensed property like Star Wars or Harry Potter, no matter what you and your players do, all you will ever be are guest stars in someone else's world. Even if you establish in your own fiction that every main character of the show/movie/game was murdered or never existed, or your story happens thousands of years in the past or future, you cannot escape the notion that this world only exists because someone else created it, for different characters, in a different story. A lot of people probably don't think about that, or don't care. I kinda wish I was one of them, because I do, and as a result, I'm never going to run a Fallout tabletop game, a Skyrim RPG, or a Guardians of the Galaxy Fate Core hack, as much as I love the idea of it.

Even franchises that do have their own tabletop game suffer from the Imaginary Ceiling. If you're running a campaign of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, and an epic and brutal betrayal happens in that game, then it's going to get compared to the Red Wedding. Even if it's more epic, more brutal, and more surprising than the Red Wedding, it is doomed to always live in the shadow cast by an event the actual creator of the world did.

All that said, I am able (at least a little), to get over myself and just play, occasionally. Look at my Firefly RPG campaign, for example. I've also blogged before about what a formative experience playing the West End Star Wars RPG was for me, growing up. But those games were exceptions that proved the rule. With Firefly, I was barely familiar with the series, and quickly disavowed myself of most general similarities between the show and my game. With Star Wars, most of my games were disconnected one-shots that were so far removed from the movies, they might as well have been any sci-fi setting.

And that, of course, is a defense I've heard before (and used myself, obviously): "Well, we stray so far from the source material it's really our own thing." Well, then, why isn't it? Why did you play Star Wars and throw out the characters who made the movies what they are? You can use psychic powers and "energy swords" in any sci-fi setting, right? I understand what you mean...that you basically used the source material as inspiration, a jumping-off point for your own adventures...but to me, that just feels a little like bowling a perfect game with the bumpers on. Even if the ball never hits them, there will always be an asterisk by that score.

But, I do understand that some people don't give a shit about that asterisk; they just want to have a fun game. I get that, too. I guess this is just the frustrated writer in me. I'd rather build something from scratch and borrow/steal details from other settings before actively playing in those settings and pretending I did something original. That sounds a little harsh when I put it out there like that, but the bottom line is this: I just cannot relax in someone else's world.

Now, RPG settings, written and built with RPGs in mind, are a completely different thing altogether. Those settings are just that: settings. Character-less, story-less places, waiting for you and your group to pick up and run with. I'm cool with that. I can live with that. To me, the two most important parts...the characters, and the plot...are missing, so plugging those into another setting works for me. That is inspiration I can work with. But I can't just take a franchise like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings universe, pretend those heroes didn't exist, and pretend that this is all my idea and not in fact someone else's. Maybe it's just ego, but I think me and my players can do better than that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


This Sunday, I will be either running a one-shot of an RPG, or playing boardgames. I don't know which. Frankly, I'm not sure if I want to do either. My heart's not too into it, but I want to keep playing. I want to socialize and see my friends again.

It's only Wednesday, and the week's been a rough one for me. My motivation is down, and I can feel the urge to withdraw from everything, as is my usual pattern. All I really feel like doing is disappearing. I don't want to do that, though. Not this week. I know I'll feel better if I can make myself do things that make me happy, even if I don't feel like doing them.

Even my motivation to write in this blog has been down this week. Granted, part of it has been the extra work I've been doing with reviews on Geek Native, but I'm just feeling really vacant, life-wise.

Anyways, after a disappointing board gaming session last week, the urge is strong in me to run something complicated, something that'll make me think. However, I do love me some role-playing gaming, so maybe I'll pull out something heavy, like Shadowrun or 13th Age. 13th Age isn't all that heavy, really, but it's heavier than I'm used to, so that counts for something. Plus, in light of my recent column on 13th Age's viability with the release of D&D 5E, I'm curious how the game feels now.

On the boardgaming front, I've been wanting to dust off my copy of Terra Mystica for awhile now. When I picked up Archipelago last week, I was ready to say that it was going to usurp Terra Mystica as the best eurogame I've ever played. But after the bitter taste my first play of it left in my mouth, I feel like falling back to Terra Mystica and seeing if that game is in fact still king.

The hardest part about all of this, as it always is with me, is making up my mind. Indecision is an awful side effect of apathy, which is in itself a side effect of depression. Nobody can tell me what will make me happy; I've gotta figure it out myself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Matter What

I had a pretty bad weekend. The sole highlight of it was on a quiet Sunday morning, I finally completed The Last of Us. The short version of this blog entry is this: believe the hype. This is an unbelievable game, perhaps one of the best ever made.

The game didn't grab me, at first. I found the combat awkward and uncomfortable. Then I realized that's kind of the point. See, the protagonist, Joel, he's not some kung-fu spec ops assassin. He's just a normal guy, made bitter by a broken world, and absolutely determined to survive. The combat reflects that. After I got frustrated by the lack of auto-aim making me miss easy shots and the virus-infected "clickers" who could kill you instantly, I started sneaking around my opponents, setting up traps for them, and exploiting the environment to my advantage. You know; stuff that someone in a real post-apocalyptic scenario may do.

But the gameplay is only half the package in The Last of Us. The story is so well-done it easily rivals anything I've seen on the TV or big screen this year. At its core, the story is pretty simple, clearly and repeatedly asking only one question: what are you willing to do, for yourself and the ones you love, to survive? And it keeps asking, and asking, and ramping up the stakes, and ratcheting up the tension. This all leads to an ending that, quite frankly, is one of the best I've ever seen in a videogame. It left me moved, and conflicted, and has stuck with me ever since I saw it unfold in front of me.

Anyways, that's it. This is a short entry because I've begun writing more reviews for Geek Native, so that's taking up some of my writing time, so I thought I'd just touch base.

Edit: 3:48 P.M., 9/16: I've done some more thinking about The Last of Us, and have a couple of more thoughts to share about the game.

One thing that the very best videogames can do is strike an emotional chord. BioShock did it. Dark Souls did it (haven't played 2 yet, but by all accounts it's even better). Mass Effect did it. And now, The Last of Us has done it. What's different about how The Last of Us does it, however, is in how consistently it does it, and how it does it not just through story but through gameplay, as well.

The emotional chord The Last of Us hits is desperation. Everything in this game is a desperate struggle. That is the part that didn't initially click with me with the combat. When a bandit or an infected runner bear down on you, you're not going to just hit him with some combo of moves and walk away unscathed. Chances are, your opponent's going to take a chunk of you down with him. Even when you do walk away unscathed, you've spent scarce resources to do so; ammunition from your various guns, or durability from your melee weapon. Every little aspect of The Last of Us is a calculated risk, and danger always feels just a hair's breath away.

This also flows into the stealth elements of the game. Stealth isn't just an alternative to straight-up fighting in The Last of Us; it's a vital tool for survival. I normally am not a big fan of stealth in videogames. I get downright resentful when games force me to do it. The Last of Us never forces you to do it, but despite my dislike of stealth elements, I eagerly tried to sneak my way through every encounter. Stealth doesn't exist in this game for its own sake, because it's a "stealth game" or this is "the stealth level;" it exists because it is a very tantalizing offer. Be quiet, careful, and patient, and you'll get the ultimate reward; a defeated opponent who didn't cost you a single thing.

The last thing I'll talk about in The Last of Us is how it takes the player on an emotional journey. That sounds a little fruity, but bear with me, here. You know how in Breaking Bad, you see Walter White getting increasing horrible, until he's basically a monster by the end of the series? And that, even though he is undeniably a monster, you still feel for him, because over the course of the series, you've seen those crucial turning points and how he handled them, and can understand where he's coming from? The Last of Us does that, too. Joel is just an average dude at the beginning of the game. But by the end of the game, Joel (and, by disturbing extension, you) have done some truly awful things. And because you were there with him, you'll understand why. You don't have to like it. But you'll get it. I honestly don't know if a game has ever done that to me before.

So you absolutely owe it to yourself, Dear Reader, to pick up The Last of Us, on either the PS3 or PS4. It is a truly stunning game, from beginning to end.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Too Fast Too Hard II

Last year, I wrote a tragic tale about my botched attempt to bring Thunderstone Advance to the table. Basically, I wanted to play it so bad I all but forced everyone into it. Then, when the signs were clear that the game wasn't going over, I, consumed by my determination that Thundestone was an awesome game, continued to push. One by one, every other player lost interest. A few of them even got frustrated and just bailed. I knew shortly after that evening that it would be a long, long time before I ever got Thunderstone to the table again, if ever. Sure enough, I haven't played a full game of it since.

And tonight, to my great sorrow, history has repeated itself, with Archipelago.

Like previously with Thunderstone Advance, I take full responsibility for tonight's failure. I've always known the Landing's great weakness; it's too loud, too big, and too late in the evening to be a good venue for a heavy game. It's not impossible...I've successfully brought Terra Mystica and Mansions of Madness to the Landing with great success...but I believe those were exceptions that proved the rule. I, once again consumed by my own hubris, thought I could make it work. I was wrong. Again. As I packed up Archipelago and heard everyone's half-assed "that was interesting," I knew I might as well have tossed this beautiful, $60 game into the trash on my way out the door. It's not that the players didn't like the game...they did...but they weren't hooked. None of them had the gleam in their eye that they did the first time I brought Arctic Scavengers, or even Terra Mystica to the table. Board games, like people, only get a single chance to make a first impression. If Archipelago ever gets to the table again, it won't be at anyone else's request; it'll be me, pimping it again.

So, to be specific, here's what happened: I set up the game. Set up took a long time as I bumbled around with all the pieces, got them organized, and prepared the play area. That was the first problem, right there; the players who were mildly skeptical to begin with had nothing else to do but stare in horror at the ever-escalating boards, tokens, and hexagons filling both of the tables we pressed together for the game. By the time I was even ready to explain anything, half the players were deep in conversation with each other.

Another bad sign was my sacrifice to emcee/referee the game. Though this sounds like a good, even noble, thing to do, it is almost never a good idea in practice. The person teaching the game, especially one as complex as Archipelago, has to be the most motivated, interested person at the table. Without any vested interest in the game, I'm automatically crippled in that area. Combine that with the noisy venue, the distracted players...and I was ready to quit after round one. And I wasn't even playing. 

Interestingly, the shenanigans were actually quite low, and most of them were even correctable without compromising the game. Everything was starting to click with the group just as one of the objective cards popped, and the game ended. That right there was the kiss of death; the moment I knew that if I ever want to play Archipelago again, I'm probably going to have to move across the country. How many board games made no sense to you at first? Then you played it, you got used to it, and then began to have fun? For me, that's about 70% of all the games I've ever played. Well, with Archipelago, these players saw the game make no sense, they played, they got used to it...and it ended, just before the "we began to have fun" step.

I blame this on the poor decision to play the short game. Now having watched it unfold, it's clear to me that the long game is the "default" mode of play. Had we been playing the long mode, players would have been "Getting it" after we were only a third of the way through the game, and then they'd have plenty of time to adjust their strategies and actually enjoy themselves. Contrary to what one would think, the short and medium games don't appear to be for newcomers; they seem to be for seasoned Archipelago professionals who want to get a complete game in quickly.

So, yeah....this was a rough night for me. After that awful game, I walked into the nearby bar, took two shots of Patron, and stumbled back into a game of Panic On Wall Street. At least that game never fails to be a spectacle.

Am I being dramatic? Maybe. Maybe I will get another chance to play Archipelago (or, I should say, a first chance). Maybe some of those players will wake up tomorrow morning thinking about it, curious to give it another try. That proved to be the case with Conquest of Nerath. Granted, I haven't played Conquest since...

It didn't help that some Stuff happened at one point during the game, too, pulling me away from the table with a phone call. I don't really want to talk about that, though. But even without that, the game was a massive letdown, and I'm left wondering if I'm even going to bother going back next Friday. Or the Friday after that. I'm so done with the silly party shit. Panic On Wall Street and Avalon are about as low as I go, these days. Don't get me wrong; I love a good round of 20-Minute Card Game That Fits in a Tin as much as the next guy, but dammit I need something I can sink my fucking teeth into, son! Something that I play all evening and obsess about the next day. Where the hell did all those people go? Why are people suddenly so goddamn allergic to games lasting longer than an hour? I know part of it is my chosen venue, so maybe it's time for a new one...

 Oh, well. Back to X-Com on my iPad. I'll just pretend I'm playing it with other people. Man am I pumped for the X-Com Boardgame! As long as it plays under 60 minutes, of course. And doesn't have too many pieces.

The Pitch: Archipelago

This evening at the Landing, I am bringing the latest addition to my Much-Bigger-Than-It-Should-Be-Given-The-Available-Space board game collection, Archipelago. Following is a pitch concerning what the game is about and how its played. Tonight will be my first night playing the game, so this pitch is based on what I already know of the game after a cover-to-cover reading of the rules and watching a few video reviews of the game. If you, Dear Reader, are familiar with Archipelago, and you see any omissions, inaccuracies, or clarifications you'd like to make, please let me know!

Archipelago, at first glance, is a pretty typical eurogame: it's a victory-point based game of worker placement and resource management. What differentiates Archipelago from those other games, however (and, in my opinion, what gives Archipelago an edge that could very well make it the best eurogame I've ever played, if it plays in practice like how it reads in theory), is that it has three small but very significant differences in how its played:

1. Resources are hidden, and can be traded on a player's turn. The game comes with these adorable little player screens that you hide your shit behind. This may not sound like a big deal right now, but keep reading...

2. Archipelago is semi-cooperative. There is only one winner; however, throughout the game, there are moments where all players must work together, or everyone will lose. So watching what everyone else does is a profound and important part of Archipelago, especially because...

3. Each player has a secret objective card. The objective card is broken into two halves; the top half shows one of the game's end conditions; the bottom half shows one of the scoring methods. Any time any player triggers any other player's end condition, the entire game ends. After that, every player scores themselves according to the criteria listed on every player's card. So, for example, if you notice one player seems to be hoarding stone and trading for it from everyone, maybe his card awards points for the most stone. So maybe you should start gathering stone, too! Or if another player seems like he's in the lead, but is randomly exploring more tiles...maybe his end condition is to deplete the supply of explorer tokens. So you know the end might be coming faster than everyone else thinks! So in Archipelago, you will only ever have a partial picture of the entire scope of the game. You get the rest by watching the other players, taking note of what they trade for, what actions they take, and how cooperative they are when crisis comes. That last one in particular is important, because:

4. (Bonus!) There's also the Separatist objective card, whose objective is to make everyone lose the game. If that happens, the Separatist wins, no victory points necessary! Archipelago can play up to five players, and there are 10 objective cards. So with a full table, there's a 50/50 chance that someone at the table is trying to ruin the game for everyone else. Who is it? How are they doing it? Do they really not have enough money to contribute to this round's crisis card, or do they not want to help because they want the rebellion level to rise, causing us all to lose? WAIT! It's you, isn't it! Why don't you have any money, I know you took a tax action last round...

...and so on. I thus describe the game as such: "If Terra Mystica and Settlers of Catan had a baby, but they gave the baby up for adoption and it was raised by Battlestar Galactica and A Game of Thrones: the Boardgame, THIS would be the game."

So, if you live in the D.C. area and want to see this trainwreck in action, swing on by the Landing at Crystal City tonight around 6pm!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Movin' on Up

Field trip for today's blog entry: I've begun freelancing RPG reviews to red-hot hobby site Geek Native! Here's the link for my first review:

Tomorrow my next review will be posted. You astute readers out there (I count about zero of you) may point out that I've previously said RPGs are unreviewable. However, I do point out in that very entry that, although I do believe that no review can honestly tell you if you'll enjoy an RPG product or not (because it's always going to depend on the particulars of your gaming group), I did say that RPG reviews can have value as an assessment of a product's quality outside of actual play. That is precisely what I've done on the two published reviews so far, and it's what I shall continue to do for however long I've got this gig for.

And since I've been busy writing those reviews, I'm going to end this blog post right here. I hope you find the review(s) useful, and if you have any questions, comments, or critiques, please let me know!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It's not the NFL. It's HBO.

And now, a super-duper rarity here in the Failing Forward Blog...a sports entry.

This whole thing with the NFL and domestic abuse is, to me, pathetic. Only a multi-billion dollar industry, dominated by men and unopposed on the entertainment landscape, could get away with the kinds of shit that has been going on in the news lately. And what are decent people supposed to do? Boycott the NFL, the one and only source of professional-grade football (not counting college, hence the professional word there)? Doesn't that just punish the fans more than anyone else?

So here's my uneducated, ignorant, football-hating solution...why doesn't a cable network like FOX, or HBO or something, start their own football league?

Here are some of the benefits I can think of, right off the top of my head:

-They can provide all of their own coverage, so no having to worry about deals with other networks.

-They could directly handle the contracts and everything for the players and staff, giving the network the ability to trade, draft, and adjust lineups for maximum excitement and fair play, rather than the current model that allows dynasties of great players all going to the same handful of teams.

-A network league could establish its own modifications to the rules, fixing loopholes in the existing NFL regulations (I don't know what exact rules could be changed, as I do not watch football myself, but hearing people argue about the minutiae of it makes me think a clean slate could do at least some good).

-Ad and merchanidsing revenue would have one less pair of hands in the pot. Cynically, this could make less people richer. Optimistically, this could allow for a better product, as less people need to be paid to produce it.

-A TV network-run football league could fully embrace the idea of football as a spectator sport and accordingly adjust its presentation, style, and layout. For example, a network-created football league could record live games and edit them for time and content before airing on national TV. You know how in sports movies, the football sequences are always so much more exciting than real-life, because the film cuts to the good parts? Imagine an entire season of football like that.
-The networks could solve their own "shifting landscape" problem by providing a product that you could ONLY get through your cable service, instead of using Hulu, Netflix, etc.. Yes, of course those services could also start their own leagues, but that kind of leads into what I think is the best part of this idea...

-The only thing that will change the NFL is competition, because it hits them directly in the only place they feel pain: their bank accounts. As said above, a boycott is impractical and virtually impossible to even conceive, let alone execute. But if football fans have another place they could go to, suddenly the NFL is going to pay attention.

Okay, so yes, I am aware of a little thing called the XFL that happened years and years ago that turned out to be an egregious disaster. But one failed case study doesn't mean the whole hypothesis is flawed, right? I think enough years have gone by that we could try this shit again, right?'re welcome, sports fans, for me fixing all of your problems. Now, onto world hunger...

UPDATE: I did a little research on the XFL yesterday, to see what it did wrong. Indeed, it did look like the XFL did a lot of stupid things that resulted in its failure, and if another network were to try it, it wouldn't necessarily end the same way. Here are a couple of the mistakes the XFL apparently made:

-Sexist and crude: A lot of hullabaloo was made around the sexy cheerleaders and their ridiculous outfits. Seeing the increasing amount of females interested in football and our culture's increasing strive towards inclusiveness, the XFL seemed very unclassy with this decision, sort of like the Hooters of football. That seemed destined to fail.

-Barbaric: Again, like the point above, the XFL's lax policy on player aggressiveness, symbolized by its ridiculous two-man scrum instead of a coin toss for first possession, was a step backwards, not forwards for organized sports. A network-led football league that kept the excitement of football without allowing the players to basically kill each other is possible (or, at least I think it is....)

-Wrestling stigma: I, for one, like professional wrestling, at least the idea of it, if not the execution. But even I can see the poor association professional wrestling would have with other professional sports. Pro wrestling is as much theater as it is a sport, and many sports fans didn't like the idea of those two things mixing (even if in fact they didn't; the XFL was not scripted, contrary to what many believed). If a new league was made and backed by actual football/sports icons, I think it would have a much better chance than a league made by the guy who brought us The Iron Shiek and Hulk Hogan. Again: no personal problems with that, but I can understand the general issue that could...and did...come up.

-Lack of conviction: This one, to me, seemed the biggest killer for the XFL. It was never designed to compete with the NFL; the intention was only ever to make it an off-season alternative. Who is going to respect a league that doesn't even believe it's worthy of elbowing the NFL out of the limelight? I understand minor leagues do that, but that's just it: that's a minor league move. The XFL's telecast time for the entire season was cut by half an hour because one game ran late and delayed the start of Saturday Night Live. Once. If your own friggin' network is apologizing to itself, of course no one else is going to take it seriously.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Social Currency

One thing I've discovered about my gaming preferences as I get older is that I prefer games where interaction is a vital part of the gameplay. The more social a game is, the more I like it. I really like good strategy and planning and stuff, too, but I need a smooth layer of socialization to glue it all together.

I think this is part of why roleplaying games have been such an enduring (and endearing) part of my life. The combination of creativity and social interaction makes RPGs, for me, the perfect hobby. When it comes to boardgames, I have diverse tastes, but the games I always come back to...the ones I'm excited to play, the ones that I want to see on my bookshelf...are the games that force you to actually say something to someone else! The whole "multiplayer solitaire" thing, characteristic of many Euro-style games, is totally not my thing. That's not to say I don't like them...I do...I just don't find myself fondly remembering them as much. I'm all about moments, and memories. Games that create those moments and memories are the games I pursue aggressively, and try and bring to the table constantly.

It's probably for that reason that I'm so strongly drawn to cooperative games. I don't have a problem with competition, but I believe that competition inherently drives a wedge between players. You may be best friends away from the table, but on the table, your relationship is only as deep as you need it to be to interact with your competitor! Cooperation lifts that wedge, and challenges you to succeed by working with your fellow players instead of against them. When I am in the mood for competitive games, I usually crave the ones where social interaction is a necessary part of winning. 

All that being said, here is a list of my favorite boardgames that I have played where social interaction is an essential part of the gameplay. No roleplaying games are on this list; roleplaying games are in a league of their own, above every game listed here:

1. Panic on Wall Street! Currently my favorite "social-heavy" boardgame. In this game, half the table are stock managers trying to get the other half of the table (the investors) to invest in a number of companies they have for sale. All the negotiations happen in real time, over two minutes. When the timer is up, you roll the dice to determine the value of the companies that were purchased. The investors make (or lose!) money based on the adjusted wealth of the companies, and the managers make (or lose!) money based on the deals they made with the investors. This game is a social tour de force; there is nothing more satisfying in my gaming these days for me than the pure two minutes of chaos as everyone at the table is wheeling and dealing with each other, all culminating in the hilarious (and sometimes tragic) moment when the dice hit the table and the prices of the stocks skyrocket...or plummet.

2. Settlers of Catain: The old stalwart, the "gateway game" for designer boardgaming. Though I don't own this game, I've played it so many times I could easily teach it. I've grown a little tired of its gameplay over the years, but for a casual evening, Settlers is undeniably hard to beat.

3. Battlestar Galactica: This was the second boardgame I purchased when I got into boardgaming (the first was Pandemic), and it is very symbolic of everything I love about boardgames. BSG is what I call an "asymettrical team game," also known as "semi-cooperative." Most of the players are humans, working together to overcome various crises and get the fleet to Earth. One or more of the players are secretly Cylons, however, and they are trying to sabotage the humans and force them to lose. The paranoia and politics of this game are simply delicious. I've played it dozens of times now, and unlike many other games I've played that many times, it hasn't gotten old yet. I haven't even torn into the game's three expansions yet; I've just had a blast playing the core game!

4. Pandemic: Speaking of which, Pandemic is, as mentioned earlier, the first "designer board game" I ever purchased, back in 2009. Since then, I have played it hundreds of times. I've brought it with me on almost every business trip and vacation. I've played it in Filipino. I've played it in classrooms, in restaurants, in hotel rooms. I've played it with non-boardgaming friends and family. I play it regularly with my co-workers at lunch. I've even written and published an article in a magazine about it. So, yeah, I kinda like this game. In terms of mental and emotional impact, one could even call this game the Dungeons & Dragons of boardgames for me.

5. Robinson Crusoe: Tales on the Cursed Island: I've called this "the new Pandemic" for me, and though that might be overselling its appeal, its impact has been about right. Quite easily the best marraige of theme and mechanics I've ever seen in a game, Crusoe is powerful, clever, and requires a whole bunch of cool, collected, collaborative brains to survive. It, too, has received the professional writing treatment from me, though in a much more personal way. It will be published later this year in Penn Union, the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program's literary journal, and is the centerpiece of my master's thesis. 

This weekend, I'm going to play my first game of Archipelago. I have high hopes that it will be on this list soon, as well!

Monday, September 8, 2014

With Great Power...

Increasingly more modern RPGs are curtailing the "omnipotent power" of the Game Master (GM). More and more games seem to be appearing these days with specific rules telling the GM what he or she can/cannot do. Many games have a resource that GM's have to actively earn and spend to do whatever. 

For the most part, I think this is a good thing. Not because it dispels the whole "the GM is a god" thing...which I think is patently ridiculous...but because boundaries can actually create ideas. Sometimes, the blank canvas of the human imagination is so full of possibility it can be easy to become paralyzed (in boardgames, this is called "analysis paralysis"). Having some limits on what you can do and when you can do it filters the number of options a GM has to consider down to a manageable number. 

My concern with this new school of game design thought, however, is that its not looking at gamers who are new to the hobby, gamers who may approach an RPG the same way they would any other game. With everyone having checks and balances on each others' power, I'm afraid some games (especially games full of new players) could devolve into who-gets-to-do-what, where even the most altruistic player is struggling to put some kind of order to the general chaos of play, but lacks any real tools/authority to do so. 

Old-school GMs get it. They know the truest goal of a role-playing game: everybody should be having fun. Other players care about that, too, but the GM is in a unique position to achieve that goal, by being simultanouesly outside of and around the game. By necessity, this requires the GM to have a certain authority to direct the flow of action, so that everyone is getting a piece of it, and its existence never becomes too stale. This is an unspoken responsibility of a GM, one that they willingly assume the moment they purchase the book, take time out of their days to read the rules, and organize/host the game.  The players who don't do any of those things don't have that agreement so upfront in their minds, and so when it comes time to play, they're only thinking of themselves. Not because they're selfish, but because that's what a person does: they sit down to a game, they play it, they have fun.

I think this situation has developed over a thing that's unique in the current tabletop RPG landscape: the hobby is now old enough to have a real divide between generations. The newer generations...let's put the line at the original D20 system, in 2000...don't have the instincts of "make sure everyone's having a good time" hard-wired into themselves, and thus appreciate a game where the GM has the power to make that happen. The older generation, who have been doing this kind of thing for decades now, don't need another RPG where one person is (from their point of view) arbitrarily placed on a pedastal while the others grovel at his or her feet. 

So to sum it all up..."power" in a role-playing game is, strictly and exclusively, the power to instill fun in others. Understood and used responsibly, this power not only works flawlessly; it seeps into the very psyche of the wielder. It gets to the point that they don't need to have that power bestowed on them anymore; it's just always there. And so they don't even need the trappings of those games with the older mindsets anymore; in fact, they appreciate the uniqueness and fresh perspective of a game that understands that as well as they do, and thus tries something different, like restricting or disseminating the GM's power. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Survival Dilemma, Pt. I

Yet another World Gone Mad (WGM) post. I'm not sure why I'm so into my own brand right now. But anything that keeps me writing, right?

So I've been mulling over the whole "Survival Dilemma" with WGM. The dilemma is this: how do I make the struggle to survive both mechanically satisfying and conducive to fun, narrative-based play? At first glance, both of these elements seem mutually exclusive. I could easily fill my game with stats and sub-systems and procedures to cover every basic aspect of survival, but I know me; I'd ignore them as soon as they hit the table, in favor of "staying in the moment" and telling a story, because personally I find that shit boring. On the other hand, simply hand-waving my way through mundane things that could become real problems in a post-apocalypse setting...things like light, waste disposal, a solid roof...that's taking the "survival" out of "survival horror." The glory and tragedy of a post-apocalypse world, filled with zombies or otherwise, is that these day-to-day things we take for granted can become the basis for captivating...even epic...roleplaying.

How I've handled it thus far is with what I informally call "the Supply system." Riffing off of the barter system in Apocalypse World, all items in WGM have an arbitrary "Supply" value. Survivors (PCs), collect Supply in the abstract, then "barter" with the Zombie Master for what a particular item would cost. So, for example, a survivor has "12 Supply" on their character sheet. They would like to have a rope to climb a steep wall. The player would ask me "how much supply do I need to spend for a rope?" Based on what kind of character the player is (a rugged survivalist is far more likely to carry a rope than a schoolgirl) and how that character acquired that Supply (12 Supply that came from a raided house is less likely to have a rope than 12 Supply from a hardware store), I'd assign a cost. Let's say I tell the player "A rope is going to cost you 4 Supply." So the player subtracts 4 from the survivor's Supply, then writes "rope" in the survivor's inventory. The player now has 8 Supply left to barter with the ZM for other survival items later on, and the rope is a regular inventory item "purchased" with Supply.

Up until now, this is how I've handled everything that isn't a gun in World Gone Mad. You need bandages for your wounds? 2 Supply. You need to eat? 1 Supply per meal. Gas for that car? 6 Supply. The reason I like this system is that it allows the survival elements of play to stay in the background until I (or the players) want to make an issue of them. Rather than having to think carefully about every individual item in an apartment, I can simply throw out a number and move on. Later, when the Provider has a gunshot wound, the Innocent has a flu, and the Outcast needs to climb to the roof of a building, we can start talking about the exact pieces of gear the group is going to need, Supply can be pooled and spent and obsessed over, and play continues.

One technique I'd like to tinker with to try and address the Survival Dilemma is to have a more rigid idea of what Supply in the abstract means. Right now, all I have established is that 1 Supply roughly equals one meal for a single person. That has been "the gold standard" upon which I make my snap judgements on the Supply value of things. I'm thinking, if I more fully flesh-out what various items cost, Supply-wise, the effect could be two-fold: one, I could use less abstractions in play (instead of saying "you find 4 Supply" in an apartment, I could look over my charts and say " find two meals, a pair of pants, and a flashlight," specific stuff equaling 4 Supply); and two, this could fit the "fun and functional" criteria for the Survival Dilemma by having survivors keep meticulous inventories of the exact survival items they have.

Now, Dear Reader, here is one of those posts where I'd love to hear thoughts. What do you think of the Supply system? Does it sound like it achieves my goal of being mechanically sound yet playably fun? Do you think I should do more with it? Do you have ideas on what certain survival gear should cost? Obviously what I'd love to hear most is opinions shaped by actual play, followed by game designers who have actually tackled this dilemma. For this particular idea, though, rampant speculation from people who have never played (or never intend to play) my game would at least be worth a read. So let me know what you think. Please comment right here in the blog entry, if you would, so I can track the discussion across the various shares (and, Lord willing, re-shares) of this entry. If you don't want to do this for whatever reason, commenting on the G+ share, or messaging me on G+ would be just fine.

I'll end this entry with a rough draft of Supply costs, just basic ideas of what items cost what number of Supply. Remember as you go over this and offer your thoughts that a Supply value is an abstraction of usefulness, rarity, and quality:

1 Supply:
-A single can of food (enough for one meal for one person)
-Enough bandages to wrap up a small wound, like a knife stab
-One article of clothing (shirt, pants, scarf, etc.)
-One tool of fair quality (hammer, screwdriver, etc.)
-A crude weapon (doing 1D6 Weakened damage)
-One personal-scaled piece of camping gear (flashlight, canteen, etc.)

2 Supply: 
-A fair quality melee weapon (baseball bat, combat knife) dealing 1D6 or 1D6 Improved damage
-A multi-tool/Swiss army knife
-A small first aid kit, including bandages and anti-septic gel
-Over the counter drugs, such as aspirin, flu medication, etc.
-A small caliber handgun or hunting rifle (no ammo)
-A bow or crossbow with up to 2 Ammo
-Sleeping bag
-Approximately 40 feet of rope, cable, or wire

3 Supply:
-A small caliber handgun or hunting rifle with up to 2 Ammo
-Prescription drugs, such as penicilin/antibiotics, anti-depressants, heart/blood pressure medication
-A full-on medical kit, including a tourniquet and adrenaline shot
-A high-quality/exotic melee weapon (katana, polearm, chainsaw)
-Heavy-duty clothing, all-weather sleeping bag, or protective gear equaling up to 2 Armor
-High caliber or assault rifle (no ammo)
-A stocked, standard issue toolbox
-Military-grade meal, ready-to-eat (MRE)
-A personal, manually-powered vehicle (bicycle, skateboard, canoe, etc.)

4 Supply:
-High caliber or assault rifle with up to 2 Ammo
-Small caliber handgun or hunting rifle with up to 5 Ammo
-A single explosive, like a grenade or dynamite
-Enough hard crafting material (wood, brick, stone, etc.) to build a small shed/shack
-Enough soft crafting material (silk, cotton, linen, etc.) to tailor an entire outfit
-Rare/expensive drugs, such as AIDS or cancer medication, or illegal drugs
-Full body armor/riot gear, up to 4 Armor
-A tent that can fit up to 4 people

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Meet Modan

For my blog entry today, I'm going to post the background of my dwarven monk for my friend's upcoming D&D game.

I actually had a hard time coming up with this. I wanted to be a real moral, super-good guy. The problem with those kinds of characters, though, is that they tend to be boorish to role-play. Who wants to be the nanny in a group of bloodthirsty, greedy killers? So I had to think of a way to be a beacon of goodness, but also not have to role-play a boy scout. So here's what I came up with:

Modan, 44 years old, is a nomadic dwarf, and a monk of the Drink. Most people laugh when Modan, almost always present with a mug of ale in his hand, says that he follows "the Way of the Drink." To the few people who know about the Way of the Drink, however, they will immediately feel blessed, for they know they are in the presence of one of Da'Loiya's oldest...and most heroic...monastic orders.

The Drink is a sect of the clerical order of Violda, a small but fanatical following spread across the realm. They practice a martial art known as Zui' Chen, a form of drunken kung fu. Modan is, more or less, constantly drunk (and when he's not drunk, he's acting drunk), as are most other monks of the Drink.

Beneath all the drinking and carousing, however, Modan, like many monks of the Drink, is deeply spritual, moral, and giving. The drunkeness is a guise; the central belief of the Drink is that each monk is to be a serendipitous source of good across the land. Much like how Zui'Chen hides its deadly grace beneath drunken swaggering and stumbling, Modan and the monks of the Drink hide acts of generosity and kindness beneath a veneer of drunken revelry. Modan will "accidentially" give all of his money to an innkeeper who's fallen on hard times. He'll stumble into a group of muggers and dispatch them all with a wild swing of his bo staff, then stumble down the street before the would-be victim can even say "thank you." Monks of the Drink do not believe in personal glory, wealth, or even gratitude. They do good things for people simply because they believe it's the right thing to do.

As is typical for any who know the ways of Violda, monks of the Way of the Drink are willing to lie, cheat, collect secrets, and spill those secrets...accidentially, of those who could use the information. Monks of the Drink have little respect for concepts like "truth" or "honesty." To a monk of the Drink, those concepts are mortal inventions, social currency, another way for one to exert their corrupt power on another. Modan wouldn't think twice about lying to someone, then clarifying that it was just "drunken babble" later on.

Little is known about Modan's family. The existence, occupation, homeland, and presence of siblings changes every time one asks Modan about his past. Even his age has been known to flucuate several years older or younger.

Modan typically wears loose-fitting brown robes, often stained and reeking of booze. The robes...and the stink...keep people from noticing his body, rippling with muscles and barely an ounce of fat, despite his horrifying dietary habits. Modan will often keep spare clothes in a bundle stored above his stomach, giving the appearance of having a beer belly. He's completely bald, but has a long, braided beard.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Checking in

I haven't blogged in several days because I've been on vacation from work. Idle time at work is when I do the majority of my blogging, therefore no work=no blog. I return to work tomorrow, so I'll be blogging then (assuming I'm not busy, you know, actually working).

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....