1 Nov

Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief Charity Bundle

UPDATED 11/16/12: Thank you to everyone who purchased this product bundle, to all of the contributing publishers, and DriveThruRPG.com. This  bundle earned $15,827.00 for the Red Cross! Well done all!

Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief Charity Bundle

The gaming community can always be counted on to react quickly to current events. Just look at the outpouring of… let’s call it, “emotion” at the revelation of the Darth Vader/Mickey Mouse merger. And that’s just responding to how we feel about imaginary catastrophes. When it comes to the “real world,” we immediately involve ourselves in a response and it is usually a great deal more positive. The folks at Roleplayers Chronicle, along with a number of publishers, have put together the Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief Charity Bundle and I’m happy to be a contributor to their efforts.

Continue reading

25 Aug

Kickstart the Weekend: The Fine Art of Making Me Smile

Kobold Jared von Hindman
Art by Jared von Hindman

Despite what you’ve heard, or what you’ve seen, or have been subjected to when I’m tired of explaining how an attack of opportunity works even after we’ve been playing the same game for ages now… I’m kind of a softy.

Yes, I have pretended to be asleep when my nieces wanted to go to the park. I have, on occasion, rolled my eyes so hard at someone that there was a danger of dislocating one. And sure, I mentally queue up Sarah McLachlan’s song from the SPCA commercial whenever I’m forced to listen to someone complain about #FirstWorldProblems. Oh, and I often say that I hate people. All of them. And mean it.

But, seriously… I have a compassionate streak. Somewhere. Continue reading

3 Aug

Kickstart the Weekend: Monte Cook’s A+

Monte Cook A+A few weeks ago, Monte Cook proposed an interesting effort for the month of August. Check it out. Because you might have noticed some negativity on the internet over, I don’t know, the past ALL TIME FOREVER. It’s part of the reason I never spent any time in forums, didn’t bother with the discussion threads that accompany most articles on the internet, and absolutely refused to ever look at another comment made on a YouTube video. Admittedly, I have a pretty grim view of humanity anyway but… come on, people. This is what we’re made of? Continue reading

19 Jun

Off-Topic Tuesday: Communities for Recluses (A Triptych of Rambling)

Two Reasons to Ask WHY?
“I just think certain things are meant to be done by yourself.”

I often advise people that writing is solitary business. That is, of course, based on my own personal experience. When I see a book written by two authors, I tend to be a bit baffled. In most cases, I can’t imagine the process that was used to produce the book in my hand. Nonfiction and scientific works seem plausible: a technical expert working alongside a wordsmith creating something that is both valid and readable. The same goes for autobiographies that receive the aid of a professional author. But once work strays into the fictional realm, I just scratch my head and wonder how it happens.

After all, it takes a lot of effort to simply remain focused (and remain kind) when I’m interrupted by another human being, even if it’s only for a minute, while I’m writing. Taking it to the (un)natural extreme, which is what I do, I just imagine two writers sitting side by side at a single keyboard, alternately pointing at the screen and tapping at the keys as they talk over one another. Not ideal. But apparently people make it work. And they probably accomplish it in some saner fashion than my “piano duet” method.

Although I’ve already expressed my opinion of writing-as-performance-art, a.k.a.: The Starbucks Method, I think there is a time for writers to gather, shamelessly, in public. After all, spending every day reminding yourself that you’re in this alone, results in the inevitable conclusion that, well, you’re all alone. Hearing from other lonely people can prove reassuring. There is hope in their success stories, and failures can finally become more comedy than tragedy with a sympathetic audience. Best of all, a gathering like that brings together a variety of perspectives as each writer has evolved in isolation, adapting in his or her own way to the demands of the business of writing.

Sci-fi SaturdayLast weekend at the York Emporium I had the opportunity to talk to several authors and artists, each with their own approach to their craft. Better yet, each had a well-conceived and deliberate approach to the operational aspects of their craft. Being a lowly, small-time freelancer, I couldn’t have been happier to get all these opinions in one place. Collecting anecdotes and great stories -also what I do- was just icing on the cake.

Thanks to Lawrence M. Schoen (who does a lot more than just talk and write about the Klingon language), the folks from Fortress Publishing (who are willing to do what it takes to get a cannoli), and cartoonist Dawn Griffin (who’s comic can be found here). Their insights, whether they knew they were imparting them or not, were valuable and their company highly entertaining. And special thanks to Jim of the York Emporium who puts on events like this, for a variety of genres, all year long!

After my talk, I had the opportunity to chat with some interested readers and the conversation turned to gaming in its early days. A clear difference between now and when I was playing role-playing games nearly thirty years ago is the difference in the community. Technology has connected all of those tiny pockets of gamers, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and the various tangential subcultures. It’s now much easier to bring those people together as a community. (Yes, conventions did it in the past, but that’s a post for another day…) Not only does it cement the culture, but it promotes the expansion and inclusiveness of the culture. I think it’s a good thing that my in-laws watch The Big Bang Theory and my non-gamer friends post about “A Game of Thrones” in their Facebook feeds.

Cave Troll
“As long as we don’t meet in real life, I don’t have to act like a human being!”

But it’s easy to lose sight of positives of the interconnected nature and growing inclusiveness of the community now. The negative aspects of what the internet can do to a culture are often glaringly obvious. (Sadly, a bit of looking around just these past two weeks reveals some of the ugliest sides of that behavior.) I think personal connection goes a long way towards moving in that positive direction and face to face interactions, outside the technology, help to further the cause.

31 May

Minor Divination: Indecent Disclosure, Part 2

Wine pour
"Not sure what I think of it yet. Just keep pouring more glasses."

Upon reading the first iteration of the “Friends & Family” playtest set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons I was shocked. It reminded me of AD&D but also of Basic D&D, my old, familiar boxed set. At least, it did while I was reading it. When I was done reading it, there were still hints of 3E (and, yes, that’s means 3.5) and a subtle 4E finish. Having previously sampled those vintages as well, the interplay of flavors was unmistakable. And, sticking my nose back into it, I couldn’t help but feel drawn back to a time when I played 2E.

But it didn’t feel like flesh golem of parts stolen from a variety of graveyards. It felt whole. Granted it wasn’t complete, but it wasn’t presented that way. Pieces were clearly missing but the playtest was clearly concerned with focusing on the core of the rules, the fundamentals that most people claim are immutable components of D&D: the six attributes, hit points, the stock races and classes, and so on. Beyond that, it borrowed upon the best elements of later editions but it wasn’t outright theft. The rules didn’t take healing surges wholesale and drop them in but approached them as a good idea that needed to be reworked and integrated into a new set of rules. And reworking them might make them unrecognizable to a devout 4E player as much as their very presence might shock an “old-school” gamer.

D&D Expert Rulebook
"You're my boy, Blue!"

I don’t think the goal of the game is to give everyone what they want. That’s clearly not possible, not because of the limits of game designers but because of the limits of human nature. Instead, I think the goal is to give everyone a new game that they can all play.

The biggest treasure to me was the de-crunching of the rules. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that solid rules are crucial to a well-designed game. But as a DM I like generalizations that I can adjust based on the circumstances. My style of play doesn’t really require a page of rules for each corner case that can arise at the table. Just because I can commit a set of rules to memory doesn’t mean that I want to. Because while a player is arguing that he can climb a wall underwater using his climbing modifiers instead of his swimming modifiers, we could have been advancing the story after a quick die roll. To me, the “white space” around the rules is what lets them breathe.

The most contentious part of the early iteration of the rules at my table was the lack of a battlemat. I’ll point out that this was a conscious choice, not because the rules didn’t allow for it. In fact, I could easily see how the rules could allow for it. But I wanted to jump back to the days before I had a mat in front of me, not because I don’t like them but because I wanted to see if I enjoyed it as much as I remembered. 4E became so tactical that it verged on tedious at times. (Without going off in that direction I’ll just say that it had a habit of miring players in minute decisions causing them to overlook any actual adventure taking place.)

The two most vocal responses at the table were almost diametrically opposed. One player felt immediately more immersed in the game and felt his imagination was much more engaged than it had been in a long time. Another felt severed from the action and activity of combat and any situational awareness his character might have. I could see both sides and, as a DM, experienced both sides. I gained the time to discuss spaces and plot more descriptively as players engaged with their environments more (What do I see when I look here? What about there?). And I lost time when I frequently had to reiterate positions in combat.

AD&D PHB Weapon Versus Armor Table
D&D Edition Color Blindness Chart: does this image appear rose-colored?

When things came to a head with an argument over two PCs’ positions I did feel like the game had come full-circle. It had been a long time since I’d seen that. And it’s precisely things like that that keep the rosy hue off the lenses of my glasses. I don’t kid myself that the good old days were all good. I just feel its important to test the old notions from time to time to determine if they’re still a good or bad fit moving forward. I think that’s what the playtesting is all about: dispensing with assumptions and making sure that when you put all the parts together they work and represent the best possible effort.

I’ve already talked Vancian magic, several times in fact, and I remain a fan. But there’s still more to come regarding the early playtest before I dip into the public playtest. And I might start using the battlemat again… at least some of the time.

30 May

Minor Divination: Indecent Disclosure, Part 1

C130 Flame-retardant
As Henry David Thoreau famously said on the internet: "If you can't see the forest for the trees just go ahead and burn all that shit down."

Across the Internets, the truth is coming out. People are confessing that they were part of the deviously concealed “Friends & Family” playtest of the new iteration of D&D. By “deviously concealed,” I mean that most people seemed to abide by their Non-disclosure Agreements. And by “new iteration of D&D” I mean the game that is either the kindling to stoke the flames of the Edition Wars higher or the sort-of-orange chemical dumped out of the back of planes intended to shut people up fight forest fires.

For purposes of these early playtests, I was a Friend and/or Family. I’m not sure which, technically speaking, but I think freelancer roughly equates to relation by marriage rather than by blood. Or maybe it’s “friends with benefits.” Who knows?

Going into this whole thing, I set my expectations very low. I didn’t do so because I had no faith in the designers. That’s not the case. I did so because I knew what I was going to hold in my hands would not be a completed effort. I expected, and welcomed, a work in progress. To expect a fully completed and polished game from a playtest, particularly an early playtest, is the mark of an idiot. I say so without apology.

Famous Cabins in History, Volume 1
"That’s right, guy from Alaska with an internet connection: WotC is out to get you and moving to where you can see Russia from your house isn’t going to save you!"

My genuine expectations begin when I get hold of the finished product. A playtest is my means to influence the shape and direction of that finished product, even if it is only in the slightest of ways. Furthermore, I understand that if my personal suggestions go unheeded it could be for a variety of reasons none of which are “Ross wants this, let’s specifically leave it out just to slight him, one individual consumer.” To read some people’s reactions to the mere existence of a new edition you’d think Wizards of the Coast sent a letter, personally addressed to them, expressing their gleeful intention to specifically ruin the campaign taking place just off North Slope Haul Road in Deadhorse, AK (or whatever actual place they game at).

I have a pretty big problem with people who think their game is “OMG!!!Ruined!!!” when a new edition arrives. I really just can’t relate to that idea. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of editions come and go at my gaming table. And not just with D&D. Shadowrun is four or five editions deep now, isn’t it? Games Workshop seems to actively obfuscate which editions their supplements belong to but they sure don’t mind putting out more of them. But never once has a representative from a gaming company knocked on my door and demanded I surrender my previous edition. (And that isn’t just because of Pennsylvania’s “Castle Doctrine.”)

"I need you to give me your previous edition books. Also, can I use your bathroom because you really do live in the middle of nowhere and it's a long drive back to the Tower of Primus."

It’s true. When I opened my Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook a nonaton didn’t lead a pentadrone interdiction force to storm my library, seize my previous editions, and document my transgression with the regional septon. There wasn’t a modron in sight. In fact, nobody prevented me from playing any of my earlier editions. Well, technically, my junior high principal prevented me from playing but that had to do with that whole ridiculous “D&D is evil” hysteria several decades ago, an entirely different sort of idiocy. But, that aside, no ban on my books.

To me, a new edition is a new game. It often bears similarities to what has come before and might even carry the torch of an existing setting, but I neither want the exact same mechanics I had before or something entirely unrecognizable. And even if I get those things I’ll still decide if this new game is a game I want to play or not. Despite its radical departure at points from its predecessors, I can take a great deal of enjoyment from a Fourth Edition D&D game. That said, I have on more than one occasion, opened my D&D Basic set from the early 80’s and had a blast with it so many years after the fact.

What does all this have to do with the new edition of D&D? Nothing. And Everything.

I want to present the perspective I’m starting from before I wade in with my opinions. I want to expose my biases in that I am not a hardline defender of a particular edition. I want to make sure you know that I care about a game more than I care about a company, even if that company occasionally sends me a check in the mail. Finally, I want to point out that people are already building boxes to restrict themselves before they’ve even tried their hand at a game that’s only fundamental and unwavering rule throughout every edition has been “never limit yourself.”

19 Apr

Minor Divination: Brace for Impact

Spoiler Alert: The world is devoid of meaning.

I await publication dates with a certain amount of trepidation. Of course I’m always excited at the prospect of being in print (or “in pixels,” as is often the case nowadays). There’s a certain stamp of approval that accompanies a notice of acceptance. There’s also a certain amount of assuaged hunger that accompanies a cashed check. But a second round of judgment is waiting in the wings: there’s an audience lurking out there.

Being judged on the merits of my work is not particularly troublesome anymore. One of the most important lessons I took away from my college’s writing program was accepting, and learning to thrive on, criticism. Criticism can home in on mistakes such as jumps in the story that the writer never questioned because he or she already knows an answer (and mistakenly assumes the reader does, too). Criticism can spot plot holes, weak characters, and, of course, good old-fashioned grammar mistakes. Criticism is also the “view from the outside” that can be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate on your own.

It’s important to put that criticism to good use but to know when too much of it is compromising what you intended to create. A good critic tries to make the author’s effort sound more like the author’s effort, not his or her own. A lot of people can overlook this simple truth. By the time some people finish their this-is-what-you-should’ve-done list I’m often asking, “Well then why didn’t you come up with the idea and write it?” But these are the exceptions.

Writing for games, particularly shared settings, invites another level of criticism though. A precise analysis of canon and the much more nebulous “authenticity” generates its own form of criticism. Jared von Hindman and Shawn Merwin wrote some great articles (here and here) on the topic with regards to Dungeons & Dragons canon. And both articles came along at just the right time as I was bound for where angels fear to tread, straight into potential canon-fire, when I had the opportunity to read them.

Shared worlds are dangerous places. People have an affection and attachment to them because they have tethered so many of their gaming memories to their gnarled, nuanced surfaces. When I have the opportunity to carve something into the surface of that world I implicitly believe that the tools I’m using came with a note reading: “Handle with care.” But I’m still going to use those tools to create something I find pleasing and hope that at least some others will as well. The conventional wisdom insists you can’t make all the people happy all the time and the internet has finally proven that wisdom beyond the shadow of a doubt.

In the interest of full disclosure, Drelnza is dead; I destroyed her when I was twelve years old. Please adjust your campaign accordingly.

I’ve never played in any of the “living” settings although I’ll admit to being fascinated by them to a degree. For me, canon is delivered in a boxed set, supplement, or PDF and its previous “shared” state of matter degrades as I put it on the table for consumption by my players. A different set of people are sharing it now. (There’s a Google+ analogy in here somewhere…) The world only remains shared if everyone else who bought the product emails me to let me know what major figure got murdered in their world. I don’t want that. My inbox doesn’t want that.

I’ve always been a fan of Shadowrun’s extremely well-developed canon and its method of exploring an ongoing history. Everything you read might be a lie. Or it might not. Who knows? Well, maybe the developers have some ideas but that doesn’t help the GM and the player’s day-to-day as they game. Instead, the GM is deciding what’s true, which is a fundamental aspect of roleplaying games in my opinion. And, beyond deciding what’s true, the GM or DM can decide what there is and isn’t a place for in his world, even if his world is Greyhawk, the Realms, Krynn, or Eberron.

When it comes to “less forgiving” histories, I try to hold close to canon whenever possible but I’ll never let it stand in the way of telling a good story. I certainly won’t use alterations in canon to blindside a player. After all, what he thinks is true is player knowledge while what his character knows to be true is character knowledge. His character won’t be shocked to learn that Pelor is dead if that’s a change I’ve made in my campaign world, but more than likely, the player will be! (Also in the interest of full disclosure: Pelor is still alive and well.)

That’s me at my own table, though. My input into the larger scheme of things, writing down ideas that receive some kind of official-looking wax seal in some far away office, takes into consideration the idea that I have to share. And I want to do right by the other people who have a vested interest in what I’m doing even as I’m trying to tell a good story. I’m never out to ruin anyone’s game, just to offer an option or two to make it different. It might look suspiciously like canon, but it’s all just possibilities.

Failing that, I can create an NPC villain for your campaign. His name can be Ross. You can apply the Scapegoat template/keyword to his stat block and have your players pursue him to the exceptionally well-defined ends of your canonical world to punish for his efforts to damage all creation…

3 Apr

Off-Topic Tuesday: Is That Really What You Think?

"Satire is serious business."

This post is a preemptive strike, an effort to stop anything before it starts. Or, since this is the internet, we can probably agree that it’s most likely a waste of time. That’s OK, at least we’re agreeing on something.

Off-Topic Tuesday is my sometimes-soapbox and I reserve the right to stand on it and shout absurdities into the digital ether. It isn’t even intended to do any real good in the world. But, saying that, I also feel compelled to point out that it isn’t meant to do any evil either. Most importantly, I feel that it’s important that people only take me as seriously as I take myself… which is to say, not at all.

If you can’t do that, you probably shouldn’t show up here on a Tuesday. And I’m totally cool with that. Come back later in the week when the fare is more on-topic, less controversial, or less downright ridiculous. But if you still find things not to your liking, I’m cool with you moving on and remaining respectful enough not to slam the door behind you. Seriously, you have better things to do with your time than read something by some jackass you don’t like. I do the same thing all the time.

Just because I’ve written something, doesn’t mean I believe it or endorse it. Writing is a means of exploration, and that goes as much for me as it does my readers. Take what you will from the fact that I usually like to explore the worst of human nature; but what I want to remain noteworthy here is that attempting to understand something is completely different from excusing or encouraging it. Or, put another way, writing about monsters is different than cheering for them.

Read A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. I think it’s a great essay. That should tell you a great deal. And it should set your expectations… because I’m as serious about eating babies as Swift.