Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Our Exciting World

When I was younger, I hated the real world. I resented it, thought of it as bland and boring. How could any real-life location match the sand dunes of Tatooine? How could any of our petty conflicts match the War of the Ring? I was young and I was naive.

Now I'm older, and amazingly I'm starting to go in the opposite direction. I'm currently reading Horror on the Orient Express, a massive campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It takes place in 1923, and has the players solving a mystery throughout Europe, starting in London and ending in Constantinople. Young Ed would have immediately written this whole adventure off as a snooze fest. But present-day Ed is enjoying the hell out of it. There is so much flavor, so much history, so much setting in this campaign! 

And then I think about the rest of the world. I think about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Wild West. I think of the Great Depression and feudal Japan. The history of the world is ripe for adventure. Now, I wonder why so much time and energy is spent on fantasy when real history has so much to offer!

When I think of resistance to playing a game set in history, my first thought is about historical accuracy. It's easy to make up a fancy little history for a bunch of pointy-eared elves that never actually existed, but it's harder to, say, get the details right on 1920's era French socialists. My plan for this whenever I get a historical game to the table is the same as for any fantasy setting; I'll do some research, give it my best shot, and bullshit my way through the stuff I don't know. When it comes to RPGs, it's the adventure that's the thing, not historical accuracy. As long as I keep the story moving and the dice rolling, I doubt anyone's going to care much if I properly pronounced some French landmark (and if they do, I probably don't want them at my table, anyway).

Branching off that point about historical accuracy, I think a lot of GMs may have this perception of a lack of freedom in designing an adventure in a historical time period. But to that I say the same thing I said at the end of the last paragraph: keep the story moving, keep the game flowing, and no one should care all that much. It's the same with movies, right? 

Another apprehension some may have is not knowing what a certain historical period looked or felt like. It's easy to look at some pictures of dwarves and castles and just have an idea of what life must be like in that particular fantasy world, but what was London in 1923 like? What does a street corner look like in Constantinople? To that, I offer the pragmatic answer: it looks just like it looks now. That's all. Unless you have evidence to support otherwise, just visualize the world you know, or at the very least, the world you conceive of. If I say your party is in a market in downtown Constantinople, just picture a market. It doesn't have to look or feel any different than any other place. It probably does, of course, but if you don't know and I don't know, then who cares? The point is, I don't think we should let our ignorance of a sense of place prevent us from exploring that place in our minds. 

And, in the rare instance when you have someone at the table who's been to Constantinople  (now known as Istanbul)? Use that person's knowledge! Put them on the spot, tell them to describe to the table what a market looks like. If they don't know, then you're no worse off.

Using history in today's games is especially fun now thanks to the Internet. As I read Horror on the Orient Express, I'm constantly Googling references made to all kinds of historical stuff. In game, if the players end up jumping off the page and exploring some part of Europe or Asia or whatever that you're not prepared for, call a quick ten minute break and whip out your smartphone. Jot down some notes, and keep going!

The last point I'll bring up is, to me, the hardest: cultural sensitivity. World history has not been kind to many an ethnicity. There are several options for dealing with this, but I think the important thing is to communicate very clearly with any players who may be affected by this and work together on what you're going to do. In my Cthulhu games, I've been lucky enough to have several female gamers. Rather than deal with the sexism that was inherent to the 20's, I tend to conveniently just ignore it. This doesn't really seem to affect anything, in game. In fact, the only time I've ever brought race into a game is when a player was being coerced by a cultist to kidnap people for a human sacrifice: the cultist suggested gathering black people, since they wouldn't be noticed as much if they went missing. I did this on purpose to tip the player off that who he was dealing with was a bad person, since he didn't seem to be getting it from some of the other clues I dropped earlier in the adventure. Nothing says "clearly evil" like a racist NPC!

Anyways, I'm not saying I've become a history buff now or anything. I'm just saying that I'm giving world history a chance, and I'm finding it rather interesting. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Going to War on Going to War

"War. War never changes." 

So goes the famous line from Fallout. It's probably one of the most paradoxical lines I can think of. On the one hand, yes, war never does change. People die. Homes burn. Refugees flee for safer ground. Economies plunge as governments support the war effort. Weapons manufacturers, mercenaries, and smugglers make fortunes.

But, on the other side, war has changed. Three centuries ago, soldiers stood in formations across a field from each other and methodically fired muskets until one side broke ranks. Then, in World War II, we had paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines, snipers killing from hundreds and hundreds of yards away, and land mines that could kill people just for stepping in the wrong place. Then, in Vietnam, we had planes and helicopters dropping liquid fire on acres of jungle, sometimes without a clear idea of where the enemy was. Today, we have drones...unmanned aircraft...dropping bombs on targets thousands of miles away from anything even remotely resembling a "front line." People are still dying. Homes are still burning. That hasn't changed. It's just gotten easier.

War has gotten so easy to wage in our modern day that we don't even bother declaring it on people anymore. Got a drug problem? Declare a war on it! Got a terror problem? Declare a war on it! Upset that a Christmas tree isn't being planted in the town square? A war is being waged! Women not getting paid equally? They are at war!

I'm sick and tired of guns because they make war easy. I'm also sick and tired of war because it makes conflict easy. In hundreds of years, diplomacy is still hard as hell. Peace is still hard as hell. Maybe if all that hard work and innovation went into peace instead of war, there'd be less war. Some say it's human nature to destroy ourselves (specifically, Arnold said it in Terminator 2). Maybe we should show true dominance, true control over our fates, by ascending our destructive natures and working on peace instead of war.

I'm against guns and I'm against war, but notice I'm not against violence. I like boxing. I like MMA. I like professional wrestling. I played Witcher III last night and cut up some drowners with my enchanted silver sword. Violence is a painful part of life, but it is, indeed, a part of life. But violence isn't war. That's the difference. Violence can hurt someone, but it doesn't necessary kill anyone. Violence can shatter a home, but it doesn't burn it down. Violence is personal. Violence is intimate.

So I'm pro-violence but anti-war. I'm pro beating someone with fists but anti shooting someone with a gun. I'm pro lightsaber but anti-Star Wars. Yes, I know this is confusing. I barely understand it myself.

Monday, January 11, 2016


I turned 37 on Saturday. I'm definitely not a child anymore, but I'm still considered quite young, for adult standards. It doesn't hurt that I'm currently separated and childless, either. And I rent in apartment in Alexandria. So I'm single, childless, and I don't own a home. I also don't own a car. Or a pet.

I know, from a certain point of view it can look cold and lonely. But I'm actually really, really excited. Because this remarkable lack of responsibility I have in my life means I am able to do one thing really easily, and really well: travel.

I've never considered myself the traveling type. I'm a sedentary dude. You know, gaming and shit. I don't need to go anywhere to play Xbox, you know? But here's the thing I've discovered upon turning 37: the more shit you can tie together, the better EVERYTHING is. You can play, say, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, and have a great time with it...but imagine how that game must feel after spending a few weeks in London! I wouldn't know, as I haven't been..yet. But I imagine it's pretty bad-ass.

On the roleplaying side is where it really pays off. I just picked up Horror on the Orient Express, the sprawling, epic adventure for Call of Cthulhu (which, btw, won the Ennie this year for best adventure). As I was reading the intro, I thought "damn, this would be cool to actually just DO." And then I did a little Google, and guess what? The Orient Express STILL exists. I'm just a passport and and about a week of leave away from doing it damn near ANY time I want. And not only could I have the experience of a lifetime...I could get some awesome research in for running that adventure, too.

How 'bout Tokaido? Haven't played it yet, hear it's a great board game....and I also hear the 300-mile journey in Japan for which the game is inspired from is pretty epic, too. Then there's Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel...plenty of places on this planet to explore to get the most out of some of my favorite gaming experiences. How awesome is that?

But for now, I've gotta start small. I live in the capitol city of the United States, and I've seen barely a tenth of the stuff travelers pay thousands to see every year. So I'm going to hit up some landmarks here in D.C. Then, I'm going to take my first train ride...the AMTRAK from Union Station in New York City. At some point, I'll hit Boston and Philadelphia, too. Those are all inexpensive destinations for me that don't even require a passport. Then, by the end of this year, I've got a passport, I've got my debt paid down, and I've got some leave at work accrued. THAT's when the real travels begin...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Thing with the Apocalypse

Zombies or no, I loves me a good post apocalypse story. Why? Let me count the ways:

1. Post apocalypse stories are often about second chances. I think the ultimate prize for any human being, the real Holy Grail, is a second chance at life. A lot of post apocalypse stories, whether intentional or not, are about just that. What would YOU do if you woke up tomorrow and everything you knew was gone, your life was a total tabula rasa, and you were constrained only by your imagination and what you are physically capable of doing? You ask me that question ten times, and I'd probably give you ten different answers. That's the power of a post-apoc story. They explore those different answers.

2. Post apoc stories are, by their very nature, politically correct. Blacks, Latinos, women, Asians, gays...they all have certain periods of time that aren't so hot for them, historically. But the apocalypse isn't the past; it's the future. A dire, bleak future where survival is the most anyone can hope for. And when the main goal is survival, who the FUCK cares what color your skin is? Yes, of course, there are still issues like that in post-apoc stories. But those issues are more clear-cut because of the whole "survival is what matters" thing. This is, really, a trait of all science fiction stories, but the apocalypse just makes it darker...and thus, in some ways, clearer.

3. There's a blend of the weird and the normal. Real wonder...the stuff that really captures hearts and minds...masterfully blends the normal with the not-normal. This is why Harry Potter is huge. This is why urban fantasy is huge. This is why superheroes are huge. Star Wars, as it often is, is the exception that proves the rule. But the apocalypse, however, is no exception, and thus apocalypses that blend what we know with what we don't know tend to be easier to digest, and thus easier to enjoy as a story. Look at the love Fallout 4's been getting. And how huge Mad Max: Fury Road was last year. The apocalypse is a harder sell because it's dirtier, darker, nastier...but that's kinda why I like it. Because life, for many, is dirty, dark, and nasty. And a story that parallels life has a higher chance of connecting with its audience.

4. The apocalypse makes normal life more interesting. This is the other side of the coin to point number three, and it's also where zombie apocalypses really intersect with me. A supermarket in Fallout 4 feels like a dungeon in D&D. Both are mazes full of treasure and danger. A baseball bat can be a weapon of justice, just as assuredly as a sword in a fantasy setting or a ray gun in a pulp sci-fi setting. A can of beans can be just as life-giving as a healing potion or a nano-bot loaded medkit. I don't need to describe what some fancy sci-fi flying car looks an apocalypse, the vehicles are the same vehicles you can see out the window. Just in worse shape.

5. The apocalypse teaches us compassion and humanity. Typically one of the first themes to emerge out of any apocalyptic/survival scenario is "live together, or die alone." No one human being is an island. Everyone knows this, but some (such as myself) take it for granted. And a story about survival in an apocalypse helps reinforce this vital lesson about being human. For all of my sound and fury, I fundamentally care about people and I try to harvest as much compassion for my fellow human being as I can. Sometimes, to appreciate the light, you gotta go real dark.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I'm Back, Apparently

I think, after this long hiatus, I'm finally ready to resume the frequent navel-gazing that is this blog.

Several months ago, I wrote about my (then) new prescription for adderall. It was supposed to refine my ability to focus and somehow transform me from a game whore, fluttering about from game to game, to a highly-specialized, campaign driven, long-game playing gamer.

That did not happen. At least, not in the way I thought it would. I did end up running my D&D campaign longer than my Firefly one, but I let it fizzle, like all the rest. I'm not saying it's over, mind you, but the ideal I held before of weekly games with recurring characters and solid groups has fallen by the wayside. The adderall does most certainly help, but it hasn't changed who I am, fundamentally.

So now I've come to realize that it is not the drugs or the brain chemicals or the whatever that I want to change, but rather, my own attitude. I no longer think of my game-fluttering as a weakness. Rather; I think of it as a strength I don't fully yet understand.

And that brings me to this week. This Saturday, I have a few friends coming over for some gaming. I've already changed the planned game once (from D&D to board games) but now I'm thinking about going back to an RPG. Truth be told, I want to run an RPG, but I don't know what, and with every hour I procrastinate, the options narrow. The only thing I know for sure about any RPG I run is that I want it to STRICTLY be a one-shot, with a beginning, middle, and end that ties up that Saturday afternoon. No follow-up sessions, no cliffhangers, no stretching it into two-or-three and DONE. To that end, the game shall inevitably need either swift character generation or a wide variety of pre-gens to choose from.

I also know I want off the whole "fiction simulator" bandwagon. I cringe now whenever I open an RPG and its big hook is "your characters are heroes in an amazing story that you all tell around the fucking table!" (I added the F-bomb, it felt right). I'm not looking for a hardcore simulation of reality, but I want a game that recognizes and accepts the idea that it's a GAME, and not just grown-up make believe. Yes, almost all RPGs have a story in their center, and yes, that story is almost entirely-driven by the characters, but I guess I'm old school because I look at the story as a byproduct of a good game, and not necessarily the whole reason for the season. We did some pretty epic storytelling in both my previous campaigns, but neither game was about the story; story is just what happened while the players were rolling dice and trying to solve problems.

Anyways, I've rifled through about a dozen games so far (including a few I just bought this morning, taking advantage of DriveThru's "New Year, New RPG" sale), and I've found some very interesting candidates, but nothing that's really gotten me excited, yet.

Still, though, I've got a few other avenues to explore, and if all else fails, I do have some kick-ass board games so I wouldn't consider the day a loss, in any event. We'll just see where the dice fall...

Of all the games I've rifled through so far, I'm most excited about this one. But am I excited enough???

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Little Less Conversation

How about, instead of posting another move or playbook, we actually just start a game on G+?
Play by post gaming. Play by email. Play by forum. They're not as good as the real thing. Few deny this. I get it.

But you know what those formats are better than? Talking about RPGs.

Over the past few months, I've grown disillusioned with the massive amount of shit-talking that goes on when it comes to the hobby. The internet is fucking clogged with "Here are some untested hacks/rules I wrote while I was bored;" "Here is an adventure idea. Not an actual adventure, mind you, just an idea;" "Here's my opinion on Some Game;" "Here's my opinion on another game; "Here's a link to another discussion about another game."

Why are we doing this? If we love RPGs so much, why are we talking about them so much when we could be actually playing them? The advantage to having a sedentary hobby is you can do it almost anywhere you can just sit. And you sit in front of a computer, right? If you can type enough lines to tell the internet what you think of something, don't you have all the tools you need to just play something?

Again, I totally understand that play-by-post is a different animal. Again, I understand that people who like RPGs face-to-face may have no interest in playing them electronically.  I'm not talking to those people. I'm talking to the people who spend more time and effort and emotional investment writing G+ posts, forum posts, or (fuck it) blog posts than they do playing these games they supposedly love.

Yeah, that's right. Blog posts. I'll go ahead and put myself on blast, here. Though, in my defense, part of the reason the post frequency in this blog has gone down so sharply is because I've been funneling my passion for gaming more into actual gaming than just writing about it.

And given that, I know, it's hard work. It's not easy. It's much easier to just bullshit about RPGs than to play them. That's always been our problem, hasn't it? So much work, and sometimes there's so little payoff. But that payoff, when it's there? It's the stuff of life, ain't it? It makes friendships. Sometimes it even makes families. And that's why we put up with it.

What I'm asking now, Dear Reader, is to take it a step further. Bring the fight to the enemy (the enemy, in this metaphor, is "not playing a role-playing game right this moment.") I'm going to try and do the same. I may start up a play-by-post thing soon. Way, way back in 2013, I briefly began a play-by-tweet Dungeon World game. I had a lot of fun with it, but it eventually collapsed under the weight of Life. That happens. It's okay. I'm going to try it again. I encourage you to do the same.

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....