Monday, April 14, 2014

Sawed-Off Rifts

What month is it? April?

I won't bother going over everything that's been going on, save to say that preparing for a new baby (due sometime in the next week or so) takes up a lot of your time.

'Course, we've been enjoying ourselves, too. Being back in Seattle has been a wonderful and welcome change from Paraguay and we (the fam and I) have been soaking up as much of its delights as possible the last few weeks. We sure are going to miss it once we're back in lie. Yeah, best not to think of that right now...spoils the buzz.

Let's just jump in.

Sometimes, flawed execution means little to game design. If an idea is powerful enough to capture gamers' imagination in a particular way, shape, or form they'll cross hell-and-highwater to make it work...even if they can't (or won't) particularly put up a fight in defense of said system.

That's a very cool thing, by the way. A game like Rifts or Champions or Deadlands or Shadow Run or Vampire might be a turnoff to some snooty folks (like myself) due to a perceived lack or fault of design, but it doesn't stop people from buying and supporting those games. Heck, it often doesn't stop ME from purchasing these games...I picked up four new Palladium books lately (in the last couple weeks) even though I hate-hate-hate myself (at times) for doing so. I mean, I've got a bit of an Immortal Iron Fist fetish-thang going right now, and despite knowing how absolutely useless a book of "real world" martial arts would be for modeling the alien dimension fighting styles of IIF, I still picked up a copy of Ninjas & Superspies. And, yes, I was absolutely right: NSS is worthless for modeling Immortal Iron Fist (or even "real world" martial arts, if you want to get down to brass tacks).

But again, flawed execution doesn't necessarily matter when it comes to selling books. Just look at me: I picked up the two South America "world books" for Rifts (during Gary Games's retirement sale...the sadness of that transition deserves its own blog post), even though I have no intention of running a Rifts game in the near future and even though any Rifts game I might run is more likely to be in Russia or Wormwood rather than South America.

Today, I was down at The Dreaming comic book store in the University District (the 4th or 5th comic shop I've been in the last couple weeks, though for reasons other than Rifts) and I met a man who had driven a long way, girlfriend/wife in tow, looking for a copy of Rifts: Ultimate Edition specifically in order to update his upcoming campaign with the most recent cyber-knight rules. Dude was a large African-American man, about my age, who'd been playing Palladium since 1988 and made no bones about Palladium being his preferred system for gaming. That's the kind of dedication I just don't often see these days...outside D&D devotees, that is.

I spent a lot of time last week on the Palladium forums (mainly Heroes Unlimited) reading posts and threads and I just found the whole thing so terribly depressing. I mean, the type of posts were mainly how to reconcile the crazed or faulty mechanics, and most answers were just suggestions for patches and house rules that wouldn't even work except on a case-by-case just made me dizzy and a little nauseous. I'm not saying that to be funny or snarky...I mean, it made my head spin to read the same "how does one reconcile X or Y" type posts over what is so obviously a fucked-up game design. But it's one that has such a devoted following who loves it...why else would they keep coming back to a game that was so damn irritating? The guy at the comic book store was just one of the many hundreds loyal to a warty game, who are simply inspired by its ideas and want to adventure in its world...not because of but in spite of its warts.

Maybe my main problem as a designer is being unable to come up with an inspiring enough premise. Find the right button to push, and people will flock to your banner regardless.

Ugh...sorry, I actually have to cut this post short. Just got a call from my wife that one of the running beagles is on the run (again) and I need to go track her down. I'll try to come back to this subject later.

[just typing from Ye Old Baranoff]

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Limits of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's Five O'Clock Somewhere... actually, in Paraguay.

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

Thank goodness.
: )

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

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

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

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

Legendary Might - Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

Okay...more later.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Drowning and Falling

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

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

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


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

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

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

How derivative is too derivative?

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

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

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

Anyway, more later. Happy sabado folks!
: )

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hillfolk (Robin D. Laws)

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

But Hillfolk by Robin D. Laws is perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably with a Vikings setting, though.
; )

Thursday, March 6, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PVP Action? Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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