29 Oct

Weather in Your Roleplaying Game

Uruk-hai in the Rain
“Really? Not one of you brought an umbrella?”

In my roleplaying game campaigns, the weather is often an afterthought. That is, of course, if it isn’t the focus of the matter at hand. I usually don’t give consideration to the weather in my Dungeons & Dragons game until someone asks about it. In non-fantasy games, like Shadowrun, it’s almost entirely window dressing. Regardless of what roleplaying game I’m running, I’m trying to be more conscious of it now. And I think, in part, it’s because of my recent experiences with the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. Continue reading

18 Jun

Review – Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero

Foreshadows CoverI like clever ideas, but they can be difficult to execute. Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero caught my attention because it was a book with a soundtrack. The collection of short stories is accompanied by an album with tracks that coincide with each story. (I’m going to just assume people still use the word “album.”) Each story also leads off with a black and white illustration. That means that between authors, musicians, and illustrators there are quite a few names associated with this project and, collectively, they execute this clever idea well.

Some of those names will certainly be familiar to folks in various circles, gaming circles among them. Jeff LaSala, who edited the collection, wrote The Darkwood Mask, an Eberron novel for Wizards of the Coast, as well as a number of other short works (including a great many contributions to Dungeons & Dragons Insider). Keith Baker, creator of Eberron and a more than a few sourcebooks for the setting, contributes a story to the collection as does Ed Greenwood. If you play D&D and don’t know who Ed is, go Google him; it’s ok, I’ll wait…

Obviously, these are the names that immediately jumped out at me. But there are plenty more great writers among the nineteen stories, each bringing their own vision to the dystopian, near-future setting that is Foreshadows’ shared world. And while it is to be expected that some stories will resonate more with a reader, whether it is a particular author’s style or simply the plot chosen, that’s to be expected when you have a range of authors side by side. Put average writing next to exceptional writing and you can’t help but notice. That said, however, I was entertained throughout the entirety of the book.

The world of Foreshadows steadily becomes a character in its own right and, for readers like me who can embrace a setting as much as a protagonist (or antagonist), there’s a real pleasure in unearthing another piece of the place with each story. As a cyberpunk setting, it clearly has certain expectations to meet (cybernetic body modification, immersive VR technology, AI’s and robotic constructs) and Foreshadows meets them, at times in obvious ways, but sometimes it forges ahead in unanticipated directions and presents something new.

Thematically, it also ranges over a great deal of ground. The stories explore the impact of technology as it races ahead of our own humanity and what that means for morality, spirituality, and our shared experiences and very nature. In some ways, there is more Frankenstein than Neuromancer here. And, rather than the typical atheistic future we’ve grown accustomed to in the genre, the book draws on several theologies (and mythologies) as it unfolds. Remove (most of) the fantasy elements of the Shadowrun setting and the place becomes eerily familiar (but in a good way). Without a doubt, the setting certainly lends itself to further exploration.

Not being a music critic, other than knowing what I like, I can’t point to one thing or another in the music and offer much in the way of constructive input or know “what the kids are calling it.” It’s a futuristic-sounding collection of predominantly instrumental synthesizer tracks. (Yes, I said “future-sounding.” If you’ll notice, I just pointed out that I’m not remotely a music critic.) I will say they would make excellent background tracks to a gaming session, especially in the same cyberpunk future that the book itself offers. At times I found the music immersed me in the “feel” of a story faster than I read the words on the page. But, at other times, I would be so drawn into a particular story that I failed to even register the music.

Reading something tied to its own music was definitely a different experience and, overall, I would say it was a positive one. Of course, I’m the sort of person who enjoys background music while reading (and writing) rather than someone who finds it distracting. But the book provides no “listening guide” or “rules” for the accompanying music, other than to assign a track to each story. A reader is clearly intended to find his or her own way and I like that because then it doesn’t infringe on how you read your books.

For more about Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero you can check out the book’s website. You can pick up a digital copy at BAEN here. or you can get a print copy (and accompanying CD) from the Very Us Artists store here. For fans of the genre, and particularly gamer-readers within the genre, I recommend checking it out.

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.”

21 May

The Sandbox is Only Part of the Playground

Turtle Sandbox
Obviously it’s turtles the whole way down. And those turtles are filled with sand.
Meanwhile, if you arrived here while trying to buy an actual sandbox, click here.

I’m frequently staggered by the number of game-masters who insist that their game is entirely “sandbox.” They claim the world is there for the players to interact with in any way they see fit and decry the presence of any sort of railroad tracks that might push the characters towards accomplishing a particular quest or seeking out a particular adventure. I’m more than happy to acknowledge that this is one of the greatest advantages of a pen-and-paper gaming experience in comparison to a computer RPG or an online MMO. The notion that the world ceases to exist behind certain doors because they are purely cosmetic doesn’t just ruin a setting’s verisimilitude, it tastes of disappointment.

Bob Ross
“Now that’s not a mistake, that’s a happy, little accident. Let’s turn that smudge into an orc concealed in the treeline… now let’s paint a legion of friends for him.”

In a recent discussion with a fellow-GM he was telling me about how his players happened to latch onto a bottle of spirits presented at one of their characters’ meals. What began as some off-the-cuff “color text” sparked something in their imagination and soon touring the facility where the bottle came from became a necessary stop on their trip into the wilderness to pursue their original mission. These moments are the surprising, “happy little accidents” of a campaign. When players take a detail and run with it, the opportunity for new twists and further character development takes off.

That’s the nature of the sandbox I embrace. And it sees the most use “in town” during social encounters. In Dungeons & Dragons it occurs when the party returns to their base city to purchase supplies, seek out training or lore, and sell off their loot. In Shadowrun it’s often cultivating and maintaining contacts as well as performing some of the tasks required for carrying on a covert lifestyle. While they’re doing that they usually have the chance to play it out instead of just quickly making the necessary dice rolls.

More than 90% of the time, I leave it to the player to decide… Is it time to flesh out some detail of the character’s life or is he or she just eager to get back to the quest at hand? The Sandbox Overlord might claim at this point that I am wrong to not grant that option the other 10% of the time. But those moments are usually in response to an overall consensus among the players to advance the story and “get some combat” after too many quiet sessions. At a table of five players, if you devote twenty minutes of “shopping” to each character, you potentially leave the other players bored (or, at least, prone to distraction) for 80 minutes. Often, I’m happy to field this sort of thing away from the table. Other times, if I think the player who missed his chance to roleplay buying a new longsword feels slighted, I try to incorporate some extra roleplaying in combat for him or her.

All of that is the part of the sandbox I can comprehend. What throws me is the GM who claims to plan nothing. He doesn’t have a plot or even an adventure, things that he claims will railroad adventurers. Fair enough. But my question is: what happens when they do decide to explore a dungeon? Do you have a map ready just in case (but would have wasted all that effort if they chose instead to open a tavern on the outskirts of a dry settlement of gnomes)? Are there binders filled with encounters behind your screen “just in case” or is every encounter a tedious ordeal of flipping through books? (For the record, I always prefer my monsters stuck in with the text of adventure. I hate page-flipping.) I’m exaggerating the frustration level a bit here because I can see how it could work. But it seems like such a high level of preparation, or an entire night of improvising, with a solid chance of being somewhat mediocre.

Model Railyard
“I took Profession: Conductor, do I get a +2 bonus?”

I like story. When I begin a campaign, there is a story and the characters are expected to play a part in it, a pivotal part. How they play that part is up to them. Whether they succeed or not is up to them. I leave a set of train tracks visible when their journey begins but there is no train. The characters are on foot. They can follow the tracks, keep the tracks in sight, or move away from them into the wilderness to go play in the sand. The players know that playing in the sand isn’t the only game in town and, eventually, they follow the tracks, even for a little while, to find something new to play with.

3 May

Minor Divination: Reese’s Paradox

No Bulettes Allowed.
“Sci-fi only. Please take your fantasy and get out!” Artwork by Jeff Dee

I prefer science fiction. There, I’ve said it. I can provide no account of why, at least no more than I can explain my love of lobster. It would appear I’m just wired that way. I read far more science fiction than fantasy and I certainly prefer science fiction to fantasy in the few movies I go to see. I draw the line at television, however, where neither genre ever succeeds in engaging me enough to hold my attention for more than an episode or two.

On the heels of that confession, however, I should continue by saying that when it comes to roleplaying games I settle in most comfortably with fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons has remained my touchstone game since I first started playing RPG’s. When I think of gaming in general, I revert to a fantasy mindset. It might be rooted in the fact that D&D was my introduction to RPG’s and thus I’m a creature of habit. It could just as easily be as inexplicable as my love of science fiction stories.

Peanut butter in chocolate.
“Nice going! Now we both have to make Sanity checks!”

But my passion for the two genres in equal measure in separate directions would seem to lend itself to mashups of style. It doesn’t. A player in one of my groups is perpetually trying to sell me on bizarre settings. The exchange is a typically quick and brutal: 1) he accosts me with an absurd notion such as dragons in space or cowboys casting spells, 2) I roll my eyes and declare his words an abomination. (Despite the frequency of these exchanges, we remain friends.) I explain that when I was in the tiny, poorly stocked hobby shop in my old home town I saw the Spelljammer boxed set and grew physically ill at the very notion it conveyed. I want to scream with a certainty only my imagination can provide, “Magic is terrestrial!”

Of course, I am a complete and utter hypocrite. Second to D&D, Shadowrun is one of my favorite settings. And even it won me over after a glowing recommendation from someone else. Prior to that, I saw a troll carrying a gun, rolled my eyes and, per usual, declared “abomination.” Now two of my bookshelves actually bow under the weight of Shadowrun material. (In my defense, I will point out that magic remains terrestrial.)

Still, Dragonstar and Spelljammer hold no appeal for me (to my friend’s continued disappointment). And its nothing against the quality of the material. I’ve read it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it. I just don’t want to adventure there. And, finally, I think I can offer an explanation for this particular personal taste. It goes back to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Be warned: there are (30 year old) spoilers ahead.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
It’s a spaceship. Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

When I read S3 in preparation for running it, my mind was blown. I was young, relatively new to D&D, and had barely scratched the surface of what was possible. The idea that I could present the characters with something entirely unfamiliar to them, while simultaneously being tropes that are utterly familiar to the players, astounded me. It proved to be an incredible adventure. But the replay value suffered. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, know that you’re collecting keycards, and know you’re toting a laser gun the excitement fades a little. Still, we frequently played it, often as people decided it was time to forcibly retire a character.

More importantly, though, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks offered itself as the exception. Greyhawk wasn’t littered with spaceships (well, not too excessively anyway). I knew I could continue to explore a fantasy setting after that weird, (literally) experimental weekend in the Barrier Peaks. Eventually, the science fiction equipment would lose power and turn into curious metal junk and my character would go back to worrying about lost caverns and whatever the drow where up to hanging out with the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains…

My hypocrisy made landing my recent contribution to D&DI, Dungeon #201 on DTRPG that much more important to me. Nods to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were important to me, but I wanted the integration of the adventure to function as the exception that the old AD&D module was. I loved the old adventure but I didn’t want to deliberately “corrupt” a fantasy setting with space ships and blasters in my ode to it. Instead, I wanted it to be a bizarre backdrop for the continued machinations of the existing fantasy villains.

If the setting speaks to the players, they can continue to pursue that version of the world. The other Dungeon and Dragon articles of the month all support that idea of integrating and exploring that strange new world. And they present it piecemeal so the DM can approach it from a variety of directions and set hooks that the PCs either bite for or pass up. I recommend giving all of them a read, because whether they fit your setting or not, they are all incredibly well done:

For me, the gradual approach is also the best approach. I like exploration in my fantasy games, but I like charting my own course. If I don’t want to begin a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, I don’t have to. I can take the fight to the illithids in the Underdark (where they belong) but, after a few too many rounds in the tavern, maybe I’ll mention how I’m pretty sure I fought their ilk on the moon. Patrons will laugh nervously and excuse themselves. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start to wonder what else is out there…

27 Apr

Kickstart the Weekend: Supporting the Big Guys

Ogre Designers Edition
Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, yadda, yadda, yadda...

I’ve been paying attention to Kickstarter a lot lately. After all, it’s rapidly turning into the engine that drives “the little guys.” Projects and visions that could never have been realized before get that critical nudge they need. But I think it’s still important to bleed, sweat, and cry… the people willing to do those things are the people capable of producing something truly worthwhile. They are the ones passionate enough about their idea that will chase their dream while they live off a sack of rice, discount beans from the ethnic aisle, and a single precious bottle of sriracha… or some other thing that’s less specific than that random example that I totally just made up.

Having watched the rise and fall of gaming empires, from outside and within, the process is unmistakable. But the public’s reaction, even prior to the fall, is also unmistakable. Before the fall, the public is already crying foul and demanding blood. And they aren’t looking for the good blood that’s shed in the creative process mentioned above. With torches and pitchforks they are demanding “what we had before” while simultaneously decrying their once favored company for “not making something new.” It’s a double edged sword and now the rabble wants their single edged swords again. Meanwhile, the sword factory is struggling to remain solvent while trying to meet the contradictory demands they are faced with.

In a recent discussion thread about the Ogre/GEV Kickstarter, a critic was declaring that it was somehow unfair of Steve Jackson Games to use Kickstarter in attempting to deliver their product. Somehow, this was taking money away from the newcomers to the industry that Kickstarter was somehow “intended for.” I would argue that the idea is to bolster the efforts of any publisher or artist who needs to counterbalance the risk he or she would otherwise be assuming on their own, risks that potentially stand in the way of ever even starting the project. It’s a tool for the little guy to investigate the market and see if there is a reasonable amount of demand; it’s also a tool for the big guys to say, “you said you wanted this, so put your money where your mouth is.”

I support ideas that I like. And I can’t always do it financially, after all the cost of rice has actually gone up over the past decade and I’m going to need a new bottle of sriracha soon. Sometimes, as much support I can throw behind something is some “free advertising” here. But I’m cool with that because I’ve then had people tell me, “I’m glad I saw that, I’m backing that one thing.” To me, it’s not important how big or small the idea, or the company (or single figure) behind it is. I want the big guys to stay around and succeed because I like what they’ve done for me. Lots of people did, in fact. That’s how they got big.

No more ziggurats!

Shadowrun Returns has already hit their goal. They’ve crushed it, in fact. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they no longer deserve any attention. They deserve attention because I’m excited about it. I want to play this game. And Mitch apologized. Thanks, man. We’re cool now.


I also heard there's a goat eating a diabolic contract...

This caught my eye because of Jared Von Hindman’s art but I like it because it’s something out of the ordinary. In gaming, there are so many cultures to draw from but we keep resorting to the same handful again and again. I’m warning you, the next faux-Scottish dwarf I meet gets fed to a dragon. (Oh, and this isn’t Kickstarter, it’s indiegogo, but I think you’ll see that you’re dealing with essentially the same structure.)

Win at internetting.

And, finally, someone has made a game about the internet that truly reflects the noble characters that lurk reside there. The temptation to put what I want onto a card or two is currently endangering my hard-won good karma, but I tell myself it’s better than wading into the forums and attempting to make my points through reasoning and logic only to get dragged down by the undertow of ignorance. Or something like that.