Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where's Erin?

I'm certain that many of you have been wondering why I haven't been posting or blogging about my adventures at NRACon. The short answer is that during the week I was gone, my mother's condition worsened and she's now effectively become an invalid, barely able to move and constantly in pain.

As such, I have had to take over all of her duties as well as my own, and also take care of her. This has consumed pretty much all of my free time and I'm only able to get online for short bursts while she naps in a chair in the living room.

This basically means that until such time as she finally receives care for her ailment -- the most recent diagnosis is loss of disks in her lower back, exactly what happened to her neck last year and probably requiring surgery -- my free time is going to drop to nearly zero with these increased responsibilities.

Until this situation resolves itself, I won't be able to do any serious blogging. I have no idea when that will be; I hope it will be soon, but I rather doubt it will change before summer.

I will keep you all posted. In return, please keep my family in your prayers.

Thank you.

[AFTHOTHWTTGS] The Bridge of Worlds

The Bridge Of Worlds

I've been a bit of a plum this week, folks.

Actual deadlines for things that have actual deadlines have snuck up on me, seething and roiling, and I need all the time I can scrape together in order to attend to those.

However, I don't want to go a week without offering a bone to the ravenous hounds of Erin's readership, so here's something I've been wanting to do something with ever since I found it.

My question: what would you do with this?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wolverine and the Avengers

This article may contain spoilers for the X-Men film franchise. You've been warned, filthy flatscans..

     Given the recent success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the hype around the upcoming X-Men: Daysof Future Past, I've gone back and watched the MCU and X-Men films, and have come to two conclusions I'd like to share.

     The important thing to note here is that, while I was very much into and up-to-date on comics in my younger years, I haven't really followed comics story-lines with any real dedication in some time. I've made sure to catch up on the major storylines here and there, but that's about it. I know there's a few characters that have suffered from some real over-exposure, and I know Wolverine's one of them, but we're not here to talk about Comics Wolverine.

     To date, there have allegedly been 4 X-Men films and two Wolverine films. Setting aside the circle-jerk for a moment about certain films never having existed (Highlander 2, Batman and Robin, X-Men 3, Origins: Wolverine), I would posit a different count. There has been one X-Men film, and five Wolverine films.

  • X-Men: Where Wolverine is hunted by Magneto and crew, meets up with Xavier and crew, calls Cyclops a dick, flirts with Jean Grey. PLOT TWIST: Mags is really after Rogue, but Wolverine still saves the day.
  • X-Men 2: X2: X-Men United (2?) Wolverine goes looking for his origins, finds the facility he was enhanced at, flirts with Jean Grey some more, and shares a bro-hug with Scott "You're a dick" Summers at Jean's heroic (and badass) sacrifice.
  • X-Men 3: The (not really) Last Stand: Wolverine stars in a story that's not even really about him but he still manages to steal every goddamn scene in the film. Cyclops written off in terribly dismissive fashion by butt-hurt writing team because he was in a Superman film (that managed to be more dull than this one) too, Wolverine flirts with Jean Grey some more then saves the day.
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine: A comedy of bad special effects and weak performances from everyone except Hugh Jackman (of course), Liev Schreiber (who manages to make Sabretooth a psychologically scary bad-guy like he's supposed to be), and Ryan Reynolds (who manages to portray both the perfect and dead-worst versions of Deadpool you could imagine). Does not flirt with Jean Grey.
  • X-Men: First Class: aka the one with only a tiny Wolverine cameo(no time to flirt with Jean Grey). This one is the only one that is truly an X-Men movie. Also the only one that gave Mystique a personality. Second best in the franchise, in my opinion, only topped by..
  • The Wolverine: aka Hugh Jackman wakes up in the middle of the night to eat an entire goddamn chicken, and bro does he ever lift. They finally stop holding back and let Wolverine slice up enough Yukuza and Ninjas to fill Rhode Island. Confusingly, still flirting with Jean Grey. Gets treated to a common Superman trope, where his powers are stripped from him to show that this is serious. Also, crossover bonus: Madame Hydra is one of the villains.
  • And coming soon: X-Men: Days of Future Past - Tyrion Lannister threatens to unleash killer robots after the X-Men, so Captain Picard and Gandalf send Future Wolverine into Past Wolverine to help Katniss Everdeen and the young, pretty Xavier and Magneto change the course of history. More Wolverine. Silly looking Quicksilver. Bishop's dumb cape. Blink looks awesome.

     Which leads me to my second conclusion: Wolverine should be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

     Hugh Jackman owns this role. Totally. When he's Wolverine, he is on. According to every interview I've seen, Jackman loves playing the role and takes this 100% seriously. Jackman's Wolverine is the Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark of the X-Men franchise, with one key difference.

     RDJ is surrounded by incredible performances. From Rhodey and Pepper and Happy in his own movies to Widow and Fury in SHIELD, to Banner and Captain America in the Avengers, RDJ's Tony Stark is a star that shines brightly even amongst other stars. Jackman's Wolverine, with the exception of Sir Patrick and Sir Ian's Xavier and Magneto, just doesn't have the same calibre of supporting cast.

     Yeah, as a fan, I've love to see Jackman's Wolverine standing shoulder to shoulder with the Avengers, and there's a precedent for it in the comics, but even deeper than that I feel that Jackman's love and dedication to that role deserves a stronger supporting cast, and that supporting cast is The Avengers. Rights and contracts be damned, I plead to both FOX and Marvel. Make up, play nice, and please bring Wolverine to Avengers 3.

hail hydra

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[AFHOTWTTGS] Playtest Review: Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game

In theory, I should hate the IKRPG.

No, really. It's a three-hundred-page rulebook with great slabs of abilities, skills, spells and complicated item construction systems; it starts with a Fantasy Humanities Textbook and doesn't hit the gameables until a third of the way in; and, while it insists that it can be played without miniatures, it reads like such a straight upgrade of Warmachine/Hordes into a single-figure action-RPG that you'd probably be a bit mad to try it.

Then again, in theory, I should love the IKRPG.

I play Warmachine and Hordes - have done for eight years - and can generally be counted on to give Privateer Press the benefit of the doubt (not always: see also character upgrade kits, Colossals, and the increasingly transparent attempts to make No Quarter a must-buy). I owned (though never quite found time to play) the D&D 3.0 sourcebooks for the Iron Kingdoms and generally liked them (although I've never forgiven them for The Longest Night, 'that adventure where you follow a DM PC around for a three-day murder-tour of Corvis).

Since I enjoyed it from the player side of the screen (an unusual seat for myself) and since I know the rules and setting fairly well and it's been suggested that my ongoing attempts to teach new players might be enabled by working with something that's known rather than something I'm making up as I go along, on balance, I thought it might be worth a pop with my usual Dark Ages Vampire / Star Wars d20 rabble.

To start with, I decided to pre-build a batch of characters. Character generation is fairly fluid once you've gotten into it, but could really benefit from a Call of Cthulhu style walk-round-the-character-sheet summary/quick version. There's some information - the formulae for determining derived stats like Defence, Initiative and Willpower - that's only available on the character sheet, and some - the exact means by which the life spirals that chart one's damage taken are populated - that I managed to miss the first time round, although that one's more on me because I didn't think to look for something important in a sidebar.

A certain amount of flip-flopping's also involved, with every playable species and a couple of dozen careers receiving a full-page spread each (archetypes don't get a full-page spread, oddly), while gear and abilities and spells are all tucked away in their own section. It makes for a more fluid reference during play but, again, a double-page spread walking you through and showing page references for each section of the sheet wouldn't have gone amiss. That said, I had two starting non-spellcaster Heroes ready to go within forty-five minutes, and subsequent efforts have taken about fifteen minutes a shot.

Our first playtest involved a combat encounter, with Squirrel (Trollkin Mighty Duellist/Investigator) and Hark (Human Skilled Aristocrat/Pistoleer) as P.I. and client, looking for the Aristocrat's kidnapped sister in the back streets of Clocker's Cove, and encountering a Cephalyx and its handful of Drudges.

In their first fight with five Drudges and their totally-not-a-steampunk-Mind-Flayer Cephalyx master, the players gave a credible account of themselves, but were ultimately bogged down and overcome as they ran out of what we've variously been calling 'fate points', 'feat points', 'hero points' or 'magic beans'. My fault, as it happens; I'd built the Drudges like little PCs, with crap offensive stats but with full quota of wounds and decent ARM, as tough as a player. Turns out you're meant to give little baddies a 'vitality' track - the conventional five to eight boxes recognisable to Warmachine players - and save the spirals for important people.

We opted to play on; our heroes awoke strapped to crude operating tables in a burned-out building, with one box in each spiral and one magic bean left. This time, with only two Drudges (one badly wounded) and the Cephalyx to worry about, and some quick thinking by the players (environment play from Squirrel and the deployment of Social skills by Hark) the fight went much more in their favour. With its dying hiss, the Cephalyx informed its interrogators that it feared its allies more than death... and that its allies were death itself.

In many ways, these two are the perfect playtesters for a new system; they both have issues with crunch and sums, and they both have a distinct preference in terms of play (Squirrel likes violence and challenging-but-fair encounters, Hark likes silly voices and using everything on the character sheet). Here's what Hark had to say about the IKRPG:
I quite liked it. I think the fact that it was one character, that you're controlling one thing rather than half a dozen things, and that it's a bit more directed (because you're roleplaying, you have your GM refereeing and saying "well THIS happens"), made it better for me than Warmachine. It does have all those cool monsters, too, thanks to being a wargame as well... 
It's quite simple - just a handful of d6s. I like the boxes system of taking damage - it's quite a fun little mechanic, rolling to see where the damage goes and what it does to you when you get rid of all your Intellect or Physique or whatever. 
As one of those RPGs where you wander around looking for a fight it was definitely good - you could have an abstract wander mechanic and then focus in on the fighting. I'm not sure what it would be like if you were doing a more... Vampire-esque game. I'd quite like to try it with that, because there's some really cool stuff in the Iron Kingdoms and it'd be interesting to see and play through stuff like the religions and species, being slightly more developed than is usual in that sort of fantasy world. 
I'm not sure I could rank it compared to other systems - I haven't played with too many other GMs, and there definitely tends to be a 'Von game'. The short fight that we did... it was what it was. You gave your Cephalyx a funny voice, which was appreciated, but I wonder how much more depth you could give it. You could play in a bad one of those but you'd have to really try to mess up a one-shot fight... and I'm not sure how you'd differentiate a good one from an excellent one. I think the Iron Kingdoms has that Pratchettian flavour that you put into Vampire, so I suspect it'd fit very well with your style of GMing.
Thus emboldened, I decided to go for something a little more grandiose in our next session. Putting two and two together, our heroes twigged that the missing aristo-sprog had probably been swapped with Cryx, and that it was high time they set sail for Blackwater Port. Our second session would be a bit more of a challenge. I'd have a variable number of players - between three and six depending on who turned up - and, obviously, a larger group, requiring both more stuff to interact with and more dynamic environments so that the game didn't just become one smackfest after another.

I spent a couple of early mornings hunched over the core book, this time actually bothering to look up things like my Encounter Points budget. I quite like this mechanic: the GM can cross-reference the number of players with the amount of XP in the group and find the appropriate number of Encounter Points for a challenging punch-up; then, over the page, find the costs for Battle, Single-Career or Comprehensive NPCs with varying levels of experience under their belts.

There are also, as I discovered later, stats for many of the core models in the Privateer Press range, if not in the book then available for free download, with allotted EP costs for quick and easy setup. As a benchmark it's pretty neat, and the sliding scale means that a chap in my position can design tiers to an encounter by adding extra NPCs or minions who'll get involved if there are X number of players.

In our case, the Big Fight was with a Cryx warcaster (the signature spellcaster class of the Iron Kingdoms) - a top-end-of-Hero-level Comprehensive NPC with some military kit and a warjack (steam robot) of his own. He'd be sitting at 18 Encounter Points - challenging for a group of two, about right for three, relatively easy for four and a pushover for five or six.

I also statted up the Deathripper itself - if I had a six-player group to deal with the warjack would enter the fray alongside its owner - and the captive sister, who may or may not have gone willingly and may or may not step in on one side or the other, depending on how the final encounter went down. In the end, I made up a little spot system for tracking how she was likely to behave (blatantly stolen from the Fighting Fantasy book Night Dragon) and had that ticking over while the group - Ben's Dwarf Intellectual Explorer/Rifleman, Simon's Human Gifted Priest/Man-At-Arms and Squirrel piloting the Trollkin from before - explored Blackwater.

Mechanising all that took a while, so I ended up raiding the list of provided monsters for Thrall and Thrall Warrior stats, and bodging together a few Blighted Trollkin from their Warmachine profiles, plus a single-career Fell Caller NPC to lead them. What we'd be testing here was the system's ability to track and manage increasingly complex fights with a large group of players, without leaving anyone behind in a long, tedious turn sequence. Ben thought:
The system's simple. Once I understood what it could do, the interaction between DEF and ARM and how they differ, everything came down to one or two rolls. I like that everything uses a 2d6 roll - it makes for a very simple system where you're not going to need massive amounts of dice. The system doesn't hold things back, and it's generally very fluid, very streamlined. I can't really anticipate it grinding down into something like the AD&D "have you got the right feats, have you got this, have you got that, do we need the grapple rules, where are all the miscellaneous dice we need..." situations. 
Another thing I like: banter earns beans. Magic beans make the combat system tick, and as I belatedly realised shortly before Conry's death, a canny player spends them rapidly. Giving multiple ways to earn them back is a good idea and encourages their use - players don't get frugal or scared to spend them - but of the ways to earn them back I particularly like the 'make the GM laugh' option. It encourages people to have a fun time. 
As for the setting... when I start thinking of it as cartoony, things start fitting together a lot better. After long exposure to 40K, you show me any fantasy setting that isn't Tolkien and I reflexively go GRIMDARK - but that's just me as a player, not a criticism of the IKRPG. If I try to take Cryx seriously they're silly - they're trying too hard to be evil - but if you consider them as Saturday morning cartoon villains, they're still evil, they still have horrible plots and do nightmarish things, but the appearance of them doesn't make me shake my head sadly. 
I suspect that the final boss fight you gave us was possibly tougher than you anticipated - once Angus was down and I was badly injured, I was expecting a TPK any second. I also think the game's quite vulnerable to style clash - Simon and I are 'avoid combat' players, and Squirrel shuts down between his opportunities to hit something. That said, if I were about to restart my Star Wars game, I might look at the IKRPG and see if I can cannibalise bits of it for that - the warcaster rules would transfer quite nicely to Jedi, for instance, and it's really fluid. The mechanics of the game don't get in the way of the game, and I like that.
This session took a lot longer to get going, mostly because I insisted on roleplaying out the exploration of Blackwater, setting up possible fights that didn't turn into actual fights, and causing a few false starts. Once the violence actually got into the swing... well, we had fun, but it became clear that if I'm going to run the IKRPG I'm going to need some tighter encounter design than usual, and a very clear awareness of what rules are in play on both sides.

We ended up forgetting that Squirrel's character had Riposte, thus skipping a couple of crucial attacks on a bonejack that was able to zap Ben when it shouldn't have, and having to pull a couple of fiats (a very small cheat in my favour and a rather more significant OH LOOK A MIRACULOUS RESURRECTION in Simon's, which I felt much less bad about when I realised we'd also forgotten there was an incapacitation table) in order to see the fight through. I should also have designed the environments much more carefully, establishing how big they were and exactly where folks would be starting; I might even go so far as to flout the game's principles and use grid paper (yeah, so everyone gets to pre-measure, but life's more interesting when you don't have to guess).

Another major difference, in the cold light of dawn, was the approach I took to running the games. First time out, it was a railroad - "go here, fight this, wake up there, get out of this one somehow" - second time, I let the players investigate and poke their noses in and it all felt a little bit... directionless. The approach I might take to avoid this is something akin to Final Fantasy, or Diablo - something derived from computer gaming in much the same way as I've sometimes felt the parent wargame to be.

The Final Fantasies I've seen played have had that zoomed-out, slightly-abstract navigate-through-the-world interface for travel/exploration/lorehunting/social RP and then a zoom in and shift to much closer, arena-style turn-based combat, zooming out again when the fight is done. The Diablo I'm envisioning is III - continuous combat in a dynamic environment, with the occasional pause when a social NPC or a lore artifact is found, and the occasional longer break for plot and things.

Maybe the game needs a sandbox that's developed in advance, with the usual plot hooks and so on, or some sort of framework where people can be sent on missions and have information provided to them, or some very definite cause to operate under. I've been scoping out the rules for adventuring companies, and they definitely seem to have some promise in terms of getting the party together and on task. I'll test those out next time.

Bottom line: the IKRPG is what it is, and what it is is a combat engine which needs you to give it some purpose, and is probably more interesting for people who are already into the Kingdoms as a setting. It is, however, a damn good combat engine for a group that ain't too hot on maths and likes their fantasy to run on steam. I'll be running it again at some point.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday Gunday: My very own "Condition Derp" moment

Having made it through the TSA checkpoint without being molested (or detained...) I have an hour or so to kill before my flight leaves. This should give me just enough time to write up a quick post on what happened to me this morning.

In continuing my practice of "I admit it when I screw up so that I can be a useful example to others of what not to do," I have to confess that I derped so hard this morning that if someone had wanted to hurt me, there would have been little to nothing I could have done to stop him.

To begin with, I am not a morning person. I am so, so not a morning person that, as far as I'm concerned, life doesn't begin until at least 10 am, and truly civilized people wait until noon to conduct their affairs.

However, I have a 3:15 flight this afternoon, and the combination of 1)  driving to Orlando from Daytona, B) flying with a checked firearm in my luggage, and III ) getting through the TSA checkpoint  led me to believe that I needed to leave the house as soon as I was functional. So I left at approximately 9:30 am, just after walking the dogs, and at around 10 am I was gassing up my car.

Despite being at a gas station in a place that I wasn't familiar with, I was completely oblivious due to being up too early. I was leaning against the car, my attention on the gas gauge as the numbers spun, and my mental acuity was somewhere between "beige" and that low electrical hum you hear from transformers. In other words, I was completely and utterly in Condition White:
White is the lowest level on the escalator. In Condition White one is unaware, not alert, oblivious. This state can be characterized as "daydreaming" or "preoccupied". People in White tend to walk around with their heads down, as if watching their own feet. They do not notice the impending danger until it literally has them by the throat
So there I was, mindlessly pumping gas, when the first thing I became aware of was that there was a voice -- a male voice -- behind me and to my left, and it was talking to me.  Unfortunately, I still can't recall WHAT that voice was saying -- all I know is that  my brain made that skipping sound associated with vinyl records as it went "WHO WHAT HOLY SHIT MAN BEHIND ME SNEAKED UP OH GOD ROBBERY MURDER ALERT ALERT."

Condition Derp.  Also, she's holding it wrong. 

I suppose it's a good thing that I'm naturally jumpy, as those reflexes served me in good stead today. The first thing I did -- the only sensible thing I did in this situation -- was to whirl around while jumping backwards, putting the fender of my car between me and him. My hand clawed uselessly at my hip for the gun that wasn't there, because I had packed it for travel.

I suppose that maybe I could have pulled the hose out if I had needed to, but I'm not convinced it would have had enough pressure to douse an assailant anyway.

Fortunately for me (and thank God for looking out for fools, small children, and Erin Palette), the person behind me wasn't some random assailant but actually someone who knew me, had recognized my car, and was saying something like "Hey, what are you doing here?". Mind you, I only found this out after he had finished slapping his knee and laughing at me for jumping out of my skin.

This could have gone so much worse than it did. If this had been an actual assailant, he could have easily mugged me, or stolen my car if I put it between me and him. This was a dramatic wake-up call for me (both figuratively and literally in my case) and I'm telling you this now to help reinforce in me that I need to be aware of my surroundings every time I leave my house.

A gun is a good tool for self-defense, but it is not THE tool. That honor belongs to your brain -- but only if you use it!

Friday, April 18, 2014

SHTFriday: Steel Choices for a Bug-Out Blade

The first in a series of guest posts as I prepare for a week's vacation  (and oh god, do I ever need a vacation from my family) that begins on Monday and culminates at the NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.

I will try to write a post this weekend for Monday so that you, my dearest and faithful readers, will have three days of content until I get back.  However, I cannot make guarantees.

Until then, enjoy this fine hand-crafted post on "What steel should I choose if I can have only one knife in my doomsday kit?"

(PS: the answer is always "high-carbon steel kukri.")

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dr Wholmes - The Final Chapter: The Exile.

     And now we come to the final installment of comparisons, where I take my premise and stretch it truly past the breaking point. The other three have been pretty clear parallels, but this one even I'll admit pushes it. If you're a Doctor Who fan but haven't seen the 50th anniversary special, you might tune out for fear of spoilers. Likewise if you're a House fan and haven't seen the finale.

     After spending who knows how long avoiding the Time War, the 8th Doctor was mortally wounded attempting to rescue a brave pilot from a crashing starship. That would have been the end of the Doctor due to the severity of his injuries, but he was recovered and aided by associates of the Time Lords. His regenerative cycle was kick-started and, for once, he was given a choice of what his next regeneration would bring.

     A warrior was then born, in fire and pain and conflict. When next we see this warrior, the War Doctor, he's been fighting so long that even his unnaturally long-lived body has worn old and worn down. He's gotten old all over again, bitter and irascible and with very little patience for anyone else, including himself. He'd reached the end of his rope, and was ready to blow it all away to destroy the world he knew in order to make a better world for everyone else. His only connection, his one longest companion, the TARDIS, the only thing to survive.

     Gregory House's life was one much of travel and study, much a background in medicine, physics, archaeology, and assorted other skills. His own personal war started with his father, an abusive military man who House never believed to be his real father. That personal war culminated in an infarction in his leg that left him crippled and in pain. When we meet him, he's very much the same bitter and irascible man, completely incapable of regular social interaction without biting sarcasm and nearly blatant attacks on anyone who engages him.

     By the time his end comes, his war has spiraled so out of control that he's alienated nearly everyone in his life, ruined his professional career, and ended up in jail, rehab, and worse. House's way out of his war, his way to make the world better for those around him, was to destroy himself, or at least fake it. Again, leaving his only connection, his one longest companion, Wilson, the only thing to survive with him.

     Because of his actions to end the Time War, the War Doctor was an exile in his own mind. Because of his actions leading up to faking his death, House was an exile to anyone in his life beyond Wilson. House was Sherlock Holmes on the day it was impossible to be Sherlock Holmes, much as the War Doctor was The Doctor on the day it was impossible to do the right thing, and perhaps they were both wearing a bit thin.

Now, I'd better leave off before I dig up another Doctor that I can connect to Batman, since I seem to be out of recent Sherlock Holmeses.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[AFTHOTWTTGS] Closure in Game Development

A couple of weeks ago, I was burbling on about an alternative socio-economic model for how roleplaying games are produced and sold. Now, to look at how we can move toward this alternative model by playing with the idea of ‘closure’...

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.  Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.  Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The system, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ system, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

Alternatively, the game can be an intermittent stream of income, if a different kind of game design emerges.  Game development is usually seen as a closed system – authorship, playtesting, release, done.  One of my very favourite miniature games had a public field test of its second edition, based on the idea that a player base will a) play many, many more games than the design team ever could and b) having not written the rules, will not ‘know what they mean’. This rather neatly dodges the classic self-proofreader’s problem: you read what you think you wrote and not what’s actually there. A public test means that errors, typos, confusions and poor structure can be pinpointed by people who aren't as likely to skim over them because they know that bit already.  It works very nicely for the 'dead game' market too, provided some sort of centralising force emerges to direct the house-ruling and re-drafting process; exactly like what's happened with Games Workshop's defunct Specialist Games range, and exactly like what hasn't happened with the OSR - of which more later.

The basic process I'd like to see in games-making goes something like this.

  1. Alpha testing by a limited number of playtesters, including a control group run by the developers, but also other groups with different styles and priorities, perhaps each including a developer (at this stage, testing is about whether the core principles and mechanics are functional, rather than catching oversights and errors, so the developer’s foreknowledge of how it’s supposed to work is a benefit rather than an adversary in the making).  
  2. Beta testing by anyone and everyone, public and free, with feedback on rules language, clarity, evidence of publicly stated core principles in the system as it’s read and played out-of-house.  
  3. Eventually, the formation of a rulebook – downloadable and printable on demand. We don't build up a stock of the damn things that we have to shift; we sell the damn things when someone wants to buy them, and we accept that a given gaming group might well only buy the damn things once between the four of them.

Of course, it has to stay small.  The more time and money you spend on the product, the more people you involve, the more costs you have to pay, the more hours of labour for which you need to be adequately recompensed (because it is important that you keep paying the bills while you’re working on this stuff) – the more reasons there are to release a product because you need the money, rather than because the game needs the addition.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with a viable game product, because such is not your only means of support.

Essentially, you’re looking at small groups producing games as one of multiple streams of income, rather than large ones producing them as the sole stream.  Sort of how Kickstarter and the OSR have shifted the RPG world away from the traditional publishing model... and we'll talk about a few effects that the emergence of fan development and crowdfunding have had in... the future.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An odd thought for an idle Monday

Isn't it weird/awesome that we, and in fact most of the world, use:
  • months named by Romans (Julian calendar) and then adjusted by another Roman (Pope Gregory XIII),
  • filled with days of the week named after Norse gods (but using the Germanic spelling); 
  • and then we count down those days filled with hours, minutes and seconds using a Base 60 numbering system for time that originated with the ancient Sumerians 
  • and which is written with Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Maybe you shrug your shoulders and say "So what?" but I think it's nifty that this deeply rooted stuff which we take for granted has come from all over the place.  Realizing that the way we measure time is an amalgamation of four seven different and ancient cultures and that it's all so invisible to us is like... well, the best approximation I can come up with would be if I discovered that my skin was made in Brazil, my brain came from Taiwan, and my organs were made by the Inuit, but they were all still me and still American.

When I posted this on Facebook  (and if you aren't following me there, why aren't you?  I'm delightfully weird and random there), I received a wonderfully fascinating reply by a gentleman by the name of Logan Darklighter:
What's the connection between the Space Shuttle and Roman Chariots?

The width of two horses' asses.

Wagons were more or less standardized on the width of tackle it took to harness two (and multiples of two) horses in front of a chariot.

Roads and the ruts worn into those roads more or less demanded carriages be built to the same scale.

Later when trains were invented, in many cases they followed old roads and kept the same standards.

Thus a standard gauge engine and rail cars are based on that width between the rails. Tunnels cut for those trains to go through mountains and hills are cut so that a standard sized railcar will go through.

Morton Thiokol had to design their SRB boosters so that they'd clear through those tunnels when they are being transported by rail to Cape Canaveral. They couldn't be any wider.

Wow! That just gets me. I'm not especially disposed to the whole "We are one" interconnectedness thing, but the concept that these ancient concepts have such an important and measurable, yet invisible, affect upon my life makes me wonder about all the other bits of awesomeness around me that I just can't see.

Inevitably, that leads me to thinking about how all the iron in my blood all comes from exploded stars and then I get really mellow and zen and usually end up looking at the night sky for a while.

Don't worry, this is about as hippie as I get. I'm not going to sit in a circle and hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Unless, of course, there are ponies involved, in which case, I am totally going to make you sing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

SHTFriday: Fire is, like, hard. And stuff.

Over at Blue Collar Prepping, I complain about how hard it is to keep a fire lit. Apparently it's, I dunno, work or something, which explains why other primates don't have charcoal grills going in the jungle.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Salem Watches a Movie: The Machine

Image courtesy IMDB
     The last time I reviewed a movie here, it didn't go so well. I had just watched World War Z, and was incredibly let down by a bloated, over-commercialized, uninspired waste of a good idea. I don't watch terribly many movies normally, and I think between then and now the only ones I've seen have been the Marvel films and Frozen. So I rolled the dice on an interesting premise and came out on top.

     The Machine a low-profile British film released in 2013, and can seen on most VOD services (Google Play, iTunes, etc) now. It has a few things going for it in my book, being a big fan of the theme of transhumanism. Cybernetic augmentation fascinates me. Cyberpunk is very much up my particular dimly-lit back alley. These themes are handled rather deftly, with a great deal of love and an almost palpable avoidance of the tired and all-too-common "dangers that science hath wrought" sentiment that plagues other works in the genre. This is definitely far more Deus Ex than The Terminator.

     And speaking of Terminators, the performance of the film's cybernetic protagonist, Caity Lotz, must be singled out here. We had a female Terminator way back when in Terminator 3, but Lotz's performance washes the bad taste of that entire film out of my mouth. Her character swings between naive and timid and cold efficiency from one scene to the next. Her facial expressions are nuanced and just inhuman enough that you buy into her as an artificial being inexperienced with emotion and awareness, and when the film's climax comes, you witness her earning her stripes as a bona-fide action star. And for everything she does for this film, the film pays her back. Her character is fleshed out with vulnerabilities, personality quirks, and - when the time comes - plenty of steel.

     Interestingly, this feels like a film that was made on a tight budget, but made efficiently. The sets are believable but not ambitious. The score evokes mid-90s John Carpenter-esque scifi films with unashamed synthesizer riffs that would be at home in such classics as Escape from New York and Terminator. The cast is chock full of slightly familiar faces from television (Hey it's Canary from Arrow! It's that guy from the Pirates show! It's the old government guy from Jekyll!) who mostly turn in excellent performances. A lot of smaller characters, like Suri the cyborg secretary and several patients in the facility don't *technically* have spoken lines, but the script finds a clever way around that, keeping them separate, but sympathetic.

     I feel it necessary to criticize just a few things. The pacing of the film is a little slow, making it seem longer than its 90 minute run-time. The male lead, Toby Stephens, seems to lack the ability to express a great deal of human emotion(at times, you'd think he was the titular Machine). Some lines stick out like a sore thumb, as if they should have been pruned in editing.

Bottom line: If you're aching for a good cyberpunk thriller or a transhumanist story that embraces the idea of mechanized evolution, you'll enjoy this.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

[AFTHOTWTTGS] Here Is Lucifer Bound And Chained/In The Dens Of Babylon

So, there's this art installation at a semi-disused church in Marleybone (pron. Mairburn), which is inexplicably being described as 'creepiest' and not 'best' by the writeup in which I discovered it. A man in my position looks at this and can't help but reach for his rulebooks, and the premise of the adventure on offer should be self-evident: that's no statue, but an actual fallen angel - living, and very much incarcerated.

This begs questions. Questions beg answers. Why is it there? What do you do with it now that it is there? Is it an adversary, or an ally, or something more ambiguous? A few notions congealed in my brain-meats, as follows:
  • The Prisoner. This angel has been here for a long time; the consecrated site of its prison gave rise to the church, and it is both caged and tortured here. Physically, it's suspended and bound, unable to rest on the ground or take to the air; spiritually, it's surrounded by symbols anathema to its nature. Once, it was inclined to plead, cajole, or threaten; now it is an embittered and reluctant lifer. Its power, and its ancient insights, are both exploited by an institution that holds it in avaricious contempt.
  • The Penitent. Having surrendered itself willingly to the care of mortals following its self-imposed exile from the netherworld, or perhaps been imprisoned and brought round by fair means or foul, the angel dispenses wisdom both divine and diabolical. Though it tries its utmost to be good again, it cannot help but spin its snares and delusions; its advice is generally sound, but seldom clear or accurate. It remains bound for its own protection, admitting - with a hint of glee - that an apologetic monster is a monster nonetheless.
  • The Power. As in 'behind the throne'. Successive pontiffs and potentates have sought the angel's blessing in their bids for temporal authority, and those who fail to win its favour seldom last long. The bindings are not there to imprison it, but to preserve it within the earthly realm, ensuring that it remains summoned indefinitely - it's happy here, in the heart of empire, not ruling openly but pulling strings with every movement, shaping destinies with every word. Though clearly vile, it sponsors adventurers to quest on its behalf; or perhaps its church are among the major adversaries they face, with a sprawling cathedral-crawl ahead of them, and the angel as an unorthodox final boss.
  • The Peer. One for the Demon or Scion players, I think. Such imprisonment might be how a Demon player character begins their career, and their first task to assemble a cult of sorts from among their captors and escape - brilliant for a solo chronicle, surely? In a more conventional game, rescuing a fellow member of the infernal hierarchy makes a worthy objective for a chronicle - perhaps a Screwtape scenario, where a senior demon dispatches them to retrieve a junior who's failed in its task.
  • The Prediction. This isn't an encounter so much as a manifestation; a dream sequence, an enigmatic message, a symbol - and for what? The compromise of a church? The downfall of a noble house? The consequences of heroic attempts? Maybe the angel is a literal oracle, available for consultation at a price; every question snaps another cord, and when none remain, it will be free to do its worst upon the world...
There's a lot you can do with an angel. I might conceivably use this in a Vampire game at some point, actually...

I can't believe this actually happened

(Trigger Warning:  Captain America: The Winter Soldier spoilers to follow)

This weekend, something remarkable happened: Hollywood grew a spine.

I don't know it happened. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come; perhaps it is just temporary cartilage that will buckle as soon as any real weight is placed upon it.  But still, for 2 hrs and 30 minutes, something glorious occurred.

In a big-budget blockbuster that is, incidentally, only one of two Marvel Studios movies this year, and the only one with any real "name-brand" recognition, I heard and saw the following:
  • The bad guys, who have a direct moral and historical link to the Nazis, said that people were too stupid to be allowed to have freedom, but if you try to take that freedom away they will fight; therefore, the trick is to scare the people enough into giving up their freedom voluntarily. 
  • The bad guys also said that to serve the "greater good", millions would have to be killed (troublemakers, free thinkers, and those who would oppose the new order) in order to save billions. Ah, the moral "justification" of genocide. 
  • And finally, these bad guys, these Nazi inheritors, said that they needed to do this through Big Brother tactics and the surveillance state... which they acquired through step 1, "scare the people into giving up their liberty."
  • And then -- AND THEN -- no less a symbol than Captain America* his own bad self stated that no, this is wrong, that it goes against everything he believes in, everything he stands for, and everything he and his generation fought for in World War 2. Then they try to murder him, of course. 

I'll say that again:  the proponents of the surveillance state try to murder the living symbol of liberty.

  • And then this living symbol, allied with other trouble-making, free-thinking, liberty-loving "undesirables", goes and beats the snot out of the bad guys. They get the mobile death camps to destroy each other, they expose the spy network by leaking all their secrets onto the Internet**, and they dismantle the surveillance organization so that citizens are no longer spied upon by their own government -- all while the audience is going "Go Cap!  Kick their butts!"

I can't believe I just watched Hollywood make a movie where they
  1. Equated the modern surveillance state with Nazi Germany;
  2. Stated we were but one step away from genocide;
  3. Had a figurehead for American Ideals say "No, that's wrong";
  4. Endorsed the destruction of said surveillance state in the name of freedom. 
I feel like I dimension-shifted while I was sleeping and awoke in a glorious new world. 

Pray tell me, good sirs and ladies, what color is the Emperor Norton bridge in this reality?

* Fuck Yeah!
**  This was done by Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanova. Who is Russian. The Snowden parallel is obvious.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A general lack of pony-related activity lately

I've fallen behind on my "Sunday, Pony Sunday" series.  This is due partly to the fact that I can't see the episode until Sunday night at the very latest (and by then, the internet has already analyzed the episode to a fare-thee-well and turned it into memes), and partly because I'm very disappointed that the promised season-long arc of "We have to figure out how to unlock the McGuffin from the 2-part opener" hasn't been delivered on in even the slightest manner.

However, some fun pony-related April Foolery occurred last week, and I figured I'd share this.  I was going to write it up yesterday -- again, for Pony Sunday -- but I went to go see "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" instead.

So first of all, there's this gem:

While this is cute and all, I feel they missed a hilarious opportunity to make a Soul Coughing reference, what with the Biggest Pony being a super Bon Bon and all. ;)

Move aside, and let the mare go through... let the mare go through!

As a point of curiosity: Every time I look up this song, I am always surprised that it wasn't written by Cypress Hill.

The next video is another April Fool's joke, but it's less silly and more "Oh yeah, that would be cool!"

Did anyone else get a "Firefly" vibe from that?  I think it's the music more than anything else that makes me think that.

Speaking of both ponies and Firefly.... my job as "Patient Zero" in the continuing Brony-fication of the gunblogs has claimed another victim  (well, sorta-kinda, but he's wearing the shirt, so I count it as a win even if he hasn't watched the show):

Go read his post on the matter.  He says he's going to wear it to at least one carmeet, and I plant to hold him to that.

Friday, April 4, 2014

STHFriday: Pistols and Pistol-Caliber Carbines

Lo, and Erin did sayeth, "Behold, see that it is Friday; look upon my words, ye gunnies, and despair at the rustling of thy jimmies."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Doctor Wholmes Part the Third: The Alien

     You reach a certain point in your life where you find that you just can't relate to people anymore. At least, you do if your mind works like the subjects we've been taking a look at over the past weeks. This manifests in the most alien of incarnations that we've looked at so far: The Eleventh Doctor and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock. On the surface, these two are nothing alike, but deep down, the similarities are striking.

     The Eleventh Doctor is a wild-man. From his manic first moments of crashing into the garden of a seven year old and demanding wide and varied foodstuff to standing down an array of assorted alien warships with a (questionably silly) shouty speech, he's non-stop movement. All gangly limbs running and jumping and licking things like a gazelle on meth marking its territory against things much bigger and meaner than him.

     Cumberlock, on the other hand, is quiet and reserved, unless he's giving a (sometimes deserved) withering tongue-lashing. He's dignified and poised (except when he's a homeless junkie). He's sane and rational (except when he's throwing a man out of a window four times for threatening a friend). He's calm and collected (except when she's concerned). Maybe those differences weren't so broad after all.

     But the main crux of my argument here is that despite all their differences, these two are the most similar of the comparisons we've looked at so far because they are so different from baseline normality. They come across as different and alien. Their minds work in a way that is utterly unfathomable to most, and they express themselves in such a way that they would stand out in nearly any crowd. They say inappropriate things not to get a rise out of people but because that seems like the logical thing to say at that particular point.

     And, while the Doctor has let people think he was dead before, Eleven is the first to fake his death on such a scale that the Universe forgot who he was (resulting in that incredibly cheesy Dalek chant of "DOCTOR WHO? DOCTOR WHO?"). Considering the Sherlocks we've looked at before, Cumberlock definitely has the more spectacular death scene, especially considering I barely remembered RDJ's at the tail end of A Game of Shadows. And finally, the Doctor gets a proper mystery in Clara Oswald. The type of mystery that Holmes would tear his hair out at.

Next time..?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

WNW: Refusal

With Kapitan Von taking the Wednesday slot, I haven't done as many Wednesday Night Wackiness posts as I used to.  However, I saw this one today and I just HAD to post it, as it is both timely (note the date) and humorous.

[A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Game Store] - You Ruined It So You Could Keep Selling It

"...there will be no riches at the end of the rainbow for the creation of content in any medium. Deciding to self publish rpg material is no road to riches... In fact the very issue of work for money is in flux - with movies and music being available free online (leagally, hulu, pandora, anyone?) how will anyone support themselves with creative effort? It is very likely they will not be able to."
C- of Hack and Slash, 'On Fracture'
A former gaming acquaintance of mine - we'll call him Mike, for 'twas his name, although I believe he should also have answered to 'Fun Murderer' - argued, eloquently and at length, that the very concept of a 'games industry' leads to bad design in the cause of creating and maintaining a functional business in order for developers to support themselves.

A business has financial responsibilities; bills, wages, costs, overheads. To satisfy those responsibilities, it must continue to produce and sell product, either by creating new games, or adding either supplements or splatbooks to existing ones. Extension of existing games is easier, in terms of development, than creation of new ones, and so this is frequently the preferred option. On top of that, there's the oft-noted issue in selling an RPG, the proverbial elephant in the room: you don't actually need everyone at the table to own everything in the line. One or two copies of the essential rules and that's it. RPGs, as products, innately limit their own sales volume - turning them into a going concern involves creating the illusion that everyone at the table needs STUFF, or that the game itself needs more STUFF to function. So far, so business-sensible; but is it actually good for the games?

Supplements tend to be okay, in my book (arf arf). They're the ones which add new settings in which a system can be used, and/or provide a substantial increase in replayability through additional mechanics. Dark Ages: Vampire was one of my favourites; new morality mechanics, new (or rather old) clans, quite a few differences in Disciplines, and a new context for characters, as lords of the night rather than skulking predators hiding behind a Masquerade. Victorian Age: Vampire was a less well-done product; although it remains an enjoyable enough experience to read, and does a credible job of showing us what the World of Darkness was like in the 1880s, it's all style and no substance, all fluff and no crunch - there's no practical difference between it and the parent game.

Splatbooks, meanwhile, I have more of an issue with. People who've bought a splatbook will want to use it, and fie on anyone who's convinced that there is aeons of potential play in the core materials alone (which there is, in most halfway-decent RPGs). They introduce padding to both mechanics and backstory, stuff which is 'in the rules' and which people will frequently feel bad about ignoring. This can then be 'stripped out' by the bright, clean, new edition, which will promptly generate splatbooks of its own the second sales start to dip, creating the need for a new clean slate. All very salutary business practice, but deliberately poor design: you're cluttering your game so you can fix it so you can declutter it again...

If you want to make games for a living, though, this is the path which you will sooner or later end up going down. The problem with the RPG industry isn't that games are a product for which money is charged, it's that a lot of people are trying to make their living off them, and when you have a living to make you need to keep making the things that make you a living. At least, that's what Mike told me.

While I agree with his analysis of the nature of game development as a business, I'm not sure that it's impossible to make a game and make some money off it. C-'s answer to the question he posed was that development should be done for the love of the game, and while I agree in spirit, developing a good game takes time, time is money, and too much time spent not making money means I'm having the pay the rent with Bullshit Integrity Dollars, which no nation on the world accepts as viable currency. Putting it simply, if I'm going to sink my time into making a game, I want that time to provide a viable stream of income. This doesn't, however, have to mean that I make my living as a game developer.

I spend a lot of time thinking about (and relentlessly attacking) the idea that we need one job, one stream of income, one vocation by which we can tidily identify ourselves and go about the means of living, and relegate everything else to 'hobby', stream-of-outgoing status. Personally, I am capable of doing quite a few things; I teach, I research and write, and I play, think about and occasionally even design games and game materials. Each of these things can become a stream of income, and I can identify as myself, rather than being 'a teacher' by vocation whose 'hobbies' are literary criticism and gaming.

This piece is now about three years old. Despite that, it's getting a repost - I would like to use it as a foundation for some further discussion about roleplaying games and how they're made and sold in the age of Kickstarter. Take this as "the way things were" - we'll talk about "the way things could be" and "the way things should be" and possibly even "the way things are" in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

There's your ninepence

Let us all take a moment to remember Salem MacGourley, who died on this day six years ago. He would have approved of the way he died: in a drunken stupor, pantsless, t-boned by the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile and then hit head-on by a Wonder Bread truck.

[Looking back, I'm quietly amazed at 1) everyone took it at face value and, yet, 2) no one seemed to blink an eye at my declaration that I was a pre-op transsexual waiting for an experimental uterine transplant. Either no one found it funny (which I refuse to accept, because I am fucking hilarious), or it was too subtle.]

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