Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics

This week I was watching a BBC documentary series called The Incredible Human Journey, it details the advance of Homo Sapiens out of Africa and all about the world, tracking what routes were taken and the corresponding dates through archeological and biological evidence. It's quite fascinating.

One thing that I found quite compelling from a Role-Player and Game Design perspective was the competition for dominance between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man in Europe. The first thing I noticed from the depictions of Neanderthals were how much they were like Ogres from fantasy literature. This is likely no accident as the first fantasy writers were quite learned and likely modeled Ogres off of Neanderthals.

We know that Neanderthal was bigger, stronger, and better adapted to the environment of Europe than Humans were, so in that sense they definitely have the advantage. So common wisdom lead to the belief that we had better tools and weapons that allowed us to overcome the larger size and strength... however the archeological evidence shows that when comparing Neanderthal tools with Human tools the Neanderthal ones were superior in nearly every measurable way.

Neanderthal Man had a larger head and created superior tools so therefore it should be reasonable to assume that by several criteria Neanderthal should have been on equal footing intellectually as Homo Sapiens, they were stronger, and tougher and DNA evidence leads us to believe that there was no racial mixing between the two species so it's not like they were simply assimilated into the dominant race either.

So why are there no more Neanderthals around anymore?

One of the noticeable differences the archeology uncovered was that Homo Sapiens had artifacts with artistic designs that remained consistent across various different archeological sites. Art even back in the stone ages was following trends and there was obvious communication of these trends unlike Neanderthal sites where little art was produced and none of these trends in artistic culture were seen at all.

So from this we can derive that shared art denotes a shared culture which denotes friendly communication over distance. Art was allowing people to find common ground with each other even though they shared no family or immediate ties. This seemingly insignificant fact allowed us to ultimately triumph over a greater competing race.

The thing I find most interesting about all this is that the evidence points to the conclusion that as a race, our appreciation of aesthetic contributed directly to our SURVIVAL. This isn't exactly common wisdom and art is something that in the great scheme of things is often taken for granted. What's more, it is a very human thing to appreciate art and though the appreciation of aesthetic is universal throughout our species, it isn't something many animals carry.

Our common appreciation of aesthetics allows us to relate to others even though we might have nothing immediately in-common. This cannot be overestimated, we are immediately more trusting of attractive people, but we also see god's hand in beauty. All sites of religious significance have artwork... why is this so?

In primitive societies as well as Role-Playing it is easy to get preoccupied in the more tangiable pursuits, war, survival, obtaining wealth... Yet we as a race still appreciate and desire to be surrounded by beauty, but this desire seems so trivial in comparison to the time we should be spending obtaining food, shelter and safety. I believe the solution to this in primitive society was to tie this desire to something that in an ethereal way does contribute to those things. God can provide food, shelter and safety if He (she, it...) so chooses, but we can't see God so it helps if there's something to focus on and that might as well be art.

Honestly this could be a Chicken/Egg argument, did God instill in us an appreciation of Art so that through it we could be closer to him, or did we correlate God to these depictions out of our desire to appreciate art? I've just pointed out that our appreciation of art played a factor in primitive man's survival, was that God's way of giving us the ability to overcome?

Aesthetics is a deciding factor in so much, yet we discount it's importance so often. Beauty is the cornerstone of our interactions and a major aspect of what drives us, yet typically in Role Playing games it is considered to have no mechanical significance. I think this is a mistake and perhaps game designers should look at the application of beauty and maybe it's significance in religion and spirituality.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Trendy Homelessness

Those who know me well have heard me ramble on about freedom and such'n'such from time to time. It's probably sounding like a broken record, but at one point - before I'd been totally mind-vamped into a constructive member of modern society by the woman I live with - I was far more extreme about it.

I was actually fascinated by the idea of having no ties to one place. The idea of being homeless and just drifting where ever I wanted had a great deal of appeal to me. I'm not talking about being a stinky bum wearing urine soaked rags and being in a perpetual state of pickled to stay warm... More of a techno drifter, having everything I needed in my truck and on my person where ever I was.

The idea was that I was my own mobile office. I would write from where ever I was at the time and that would sustain me and pay for gas. Sleep in hotels, or my truck or where ever I was invited to crash... carry all my tools for making money and interacting with the world on my person, laptop, bank cards, smartphone, pocket knife...

All this is obviously rooted in the RPG "adventurer" concept, the wandering person exploring the land while sustaining himself through his adventures. I'd have my truck steed, my iphone "bag of holding" a trusty pocket knife sword... then some gear to survive the wilderness or the cities as the case arises in the back of my truck.

The TV show Supernatural obviously carries a lot of these concepts in it's format, and I've contemplated the appeal of driving a muscle car all around the US, the fighting monsters would be just a bonus.

The idea though is hard to sustain. Traveling is expensive, traveling with all the amenities is even more expensive, I'd imagine it would ballpark around 3 to 4 times as much as living a normal life in a fixed location would cost. Adventuring in games sustains the characters by-way of monsters dropping "loot" or what-have-you, but in modern days cash isn't tangible. Supernatural's ubiquitous "credit-card scams" are a nice modern take on the looting one's fallen foes concept though there are differences. I know that for my part I would need an extensive readership to be able to sustain myself going where ever I want all the time... I do think it's possible, but I'm not there yet.

I still have hope for the trendy homelessness concept, though it's getting more challenging with rising gas prices and international security. A lot of those difficulties are a result of society and government working to hem the people into a set way of life that makes us easier to monitor and control, I used to hate that stuff, now I've come to accept it with an eye for ways to get around it... ultimately the answer is money, but I do lament that without regulations and the endless rules governing us (no loitering etc...) it makes it a lot harder to just go somewhere...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Vibrations

Most writers have thoughts kind-of assemble in their heads which they write down and this is some rambling along those lines, so bear with me.

A couple guys I know are big conspiracy theory nuts, and they talk a lot of nonsense, but occasionally they say the occasional rational thing so I listen with one ear if only because there might be some good fiction out of it. One thing they often preach is that emotions vibrate at a certain frequency. They say there are two opposing emotions in the vibrational spectrum, Love and Fear and that all emotions are somewhere between those two on that spectrum... then they go on about how transcendence and enlightenment are simply shifting to a different vibrational frequency... like I said, nonsense.

But I do think there is more to vibrations than meets the eye (or the ear as the case may be). A small vibration at the right resonance can create massive catastrophes in civil structures. This is such a concern that engineers are required to account for this in their designs.

All humans are extremely sensitive to vibrations and intuitively recognize dissonant tones in music. If I play a scale on a piano for anyone they'll instantly know if I'm using the correct flats and sharps for that key scale based on the sound, even on a minor scale the dissonant notes are offset so they sound right to our ears. This is intuitive, not a learned ability. Another point I will make is that ALL people gather some enjoyment from music. No one I know has ever said "I don't like music." They might not like a particular TYPE of music, but the very idea of disdaining all music would probably prompt many of us to evaluate the mental stability of the person making the claim. Why is this? Humans are nothing if not varied, so why do all people derive pleasure from music of some sort?

This leads me to wonder if my crazy friends might be on-to something...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alpha Omega Stub

Things have been in-flux in my world. My latest cushy work assignment has made it all but impossible to Role-Play Online for the past year, which is frustrating because I spent the last 4 years cultivating the contacts to do online play because I was unable to game at home. Now I've got the ability to play at home but it took me a while to understand this and develop a player base that was interested. It looks like I have that now so I'm going to attempt a real-world game very soon.

And it's going to be a new one. Alpha Omega.

Alpha Omega excites me. That's the highest praise I can probably give any RPG. Every time I look through the books I get ideas, and I want to unleash them. Not game them out - but blast them forth like gushing pornstar.

Yes. Dwell on that mental image for a second. My gift to you. You're welcome.

Early on I was quite critical of Alpha Omega's dice mechanic (to put it mildly), and I've yet to test it in play but my opinion has lightened somewhat. It's got good probability curves, a nice even scale of capability and the only point it really slows things down is in Character Creation where you're having to reference the dice to the trait rating and write it on the character sheet.

That's just the start of what I like. It's also got a lot of little rules that I wrote myself for Hardkore (rolling multiple skills stands out) that I considered rather innovative when I did them. The fact that they're doing the same things means were on the same page in a lot of ways. I've made several characters as well and I'm really pleased with how each of the different species has a distinct feel but also a lot of diverse options and isn't shoehorned into any single approach. Not even Exalted has this degree of diversity available. For all of Exalted's infinite options most of the classes or castes or aspects have only one or 2 viable builds.

The difference between Exalted and Alpha Omega's diversity comes from it's power and capability structure. Exalted has effectively 4 traits that offer variance to the character. Attributes, Abilities, Backgrounds and Charms. In most cases Abilities (or Attributes) derive charms, and pretty much everyone gets those 4 things in roughly similar amounts across the board.

Alpha Omega on the other hand has Core Qualities, Abilities, Genetic Deviations (2 kinds), Skills, State Shifting, Weilding (3 kinds), and Augmentations (3 kinds). Not every species is able to take all the different options. In fact no species is able to take all of everything. It's these availabilities and inavailabilities that give each species class a unique feel while allowing tons and tons of customization. This allows me and my players to really go nuts on building a concept that we want to make with a lot of leeway to do so, but still enough guidelines that we're not feeling overwhelmed. Character Creation is still pretty daunting at first, and one issue I have is that there isn't much in the way of guidelines regarding what an amateur, professional and master would have for a rating in a given skill. However after playing under a few GM's who forced me to justify every faucet of my character's education regarding his knowledge base to my intense frustration; I think I'm just gonna go with this and simply not care. It's a game after-all.

As for the 2nd book, The Encountered, I find I'm having to stifle tittering like a schoolgirl every time I open it up. The Encountered does a fantastic job of taking existing Tropes from other sources, (Zombies that Shamble, Mutagenic Diseased folks from I AM LEGEND, Imps...) that immediately resonate but have a unique twist. Then there are the truly unique creatures that make me wonder if I can get some of the shit the developers were smoking at the time. They're often bizarre but not implausible and that's the holy grail of game monsters to me.

Anyhow, I'm still ongoing and haven't played anything yet. I'm sure there will be issues I'll have, but so far the impressions are quite positive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Modern Pop Culture Myths

As the 2000's is coming to a close I'm starting to think of what trends and myths were prevelant this decade. I spent my high school years in the 90's, and graduated in 2000 and the thought of 90's music being like the 60's and 70's music I'd hear in my childhood fills me with the kind of dread that you get when the hot-new coworker assesses your musical taste with the words; "I think my dad listens to that stuff.

So I'm starting to reflect on what popular modern myths were in the 90's and this decade (still not sure if it should be called the "00's"), and potentially what's coming up post-2010. In the 90's the big upcoming game publisher was White Wolf and they succeeded by having an almost-uncanny grasp of what crazy myths gamers wanted to explore. They got in with the Anne Rice crowd with Vampire the Masquerade and built a great line of games off of it. Werewolf succeeded because they made the focus on environmentalism and stemming corporate exploitation of the planet when that was big news (before "carbon" became evil, and climate change became the catch-word for environmental sensationalism).

But Mage was a truly special case. The 90's was home to the rise of new-age paganism and people began wondering if there really was something to all that. It had mystique and offered interesting alternatives to the comparatively stale religions the previous generations. Alongside that there was some speculation that "virtual reality" would be the next big thing. These two concepts combined with a bit of "Men in Black" conspiracy theory gave rise to the Mage mythos and then was amplified into a brilliant corona when The Matrix came out.

I think we all have certain Movies, shows or pop culture offerings that we identify with to the point that in a small way they define our preferences for years to come. The Matrix was one of those for me. But more than that it was proof that back then White Wolf had an almost uncanny understanding of what was the new thing was going to be culturally. I don't think they have that understanding to the same extent today, and it makes me wonder who does?

Certain games capture the undertones of what a culture is interested in. In the 80's I'd say it was Cyberpunk, in the 90's Vampire and Mage were in there, now what is it? War in the Middle East? In many ways I think that Call of Duty Modern Warfare is so successful right now because it offers a bit of narrative closure to the events of the last decade. After 9/11 a lot of us honestly expected another attack to occur at some point... but none really came, the world did not fall apart and the Iraq war seemed like directionless flailing in response to the 2001 attacks. CoD Modern Warfare and MW2 offered a look at the concept of terrorism and war in a scenario that felt more justified than it did in reality, at least it seems that way in retrospect.

Lately I think there is once again a surge of interest in ergonomics, competition between mobile computing platforms like the iphone have all but replaced the CPU processor wars of yesteryear. More and more people want new and innovative ways to interface with technology which I believe will renew interest in cybernetics. Where virtual reality was the interest of the last decade, the prevalence of MMO's have made that notion common and it's lost the mystique. Now the mythical question is as we improve interfacing with our mobile gadgets and enhance our ability to network and assimilate information what will happen?

A friend of mine once gave his take on the whole 2012 furor. He speculated that we're becoming so interconnected and gathering information so much faster than before that at some point there may be a shift in our collective consciousness. I know that we definitely live in exponential times. Networks that previously took over a decade to develop are now exploding to a billion users within only one or two years.

I'm sure the results of these changes will end up being far more mundane-seeming than the speculation is right now, but that's the point isn't it? Because the myth is always more compelling than the reality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Morality, Piracy and Sticking it to the Man

DISCLAIMER - This isn't a legal debate but a moral one. The laws are defined by people more powerful than me. When I'm in a position to do something about the laws I'll start making those debates.

Admittedly I have been known to pirate certain things, some of them I feel a small twinge of guilt in doing so, some I feel no guilt whatsoever, and in a few cases I feel my actions are not only warranted but I feel an obligation to encourage others to do the same. I wanted to touch on a bit of this to help work out my feelings on supply, demand and creation.

Music - Since the advent of itunes I have almost stopped pirating music altogether. I can buy songs I like on an individual basis, it's quick and easy for me to support artists I like, and I can download a song at work to listen to on my ipod on my way home. I've heard (but not verified) that artists get a bit better percentage for their works from apple which makes me more inclined to want to use that as well.

I generally hate the RIAA and how it was exploiting recording artists and generally diminishing music as an art form by favoring engineered beats that are designed to get stuck in your head. This arguement has it's flaws I realize but it's an opinion, not a fact. I also didn't care to pay $20.00 for a CD which I only liked 2 songs on. itunes has fixed that, so I no longer have the inclination or feel morally obligated to pirate music.

PDFs - The only PDF's I actively use are RPG PDF's, and admittedly when I pirate these I do feel a bit guilty for doing so. I do a few things to assuage this guilt though. Games that I actually want to play or end up playing will enevitably be bought in dead-tree form by me, and games that I'm enthusiastically involved in I'll usually buy the PDF on the day it's released and then order the dead tree from the bookstore when it becomes available. I don't complain about this, however companies that offer some way for me to get a PDF as a bonus for purchasing a book have my gratitude.
Most PDF's I do actually pirate are games that I just want to peruse, like leafing through one on a bookshelf. Not justification I know, but I feel that perhaps it's a bit better that the book got out there a bit because otherwise I'd have never taken that look.

Warhammer - This is a subset of RPG's that deserves special mention because I feel morally obligated to pirate the shit out of their miniatures. I have a friend who casts silicone molds and though some of the finer warhammer miniatures aren't castable, there's a lot of stuff that is. If he actually had the capability to mold an entire army-line of miniatures I would probably start playing Warhammer again just for the satisfaction of knowing that I was screwing them in my own small way. They over-priced their product long ago, and frankly I find their business model offensive. Given the lack of a viable way to pirate their stuff, I'm more than happy to boycott them, even while living within a block of probably one of the best venues for playing Warhammer in the northern hemisphere.

Movies - I go to the theatre, I buy movies on Blu Ray when they're available, and DVD if they're truly exceptional, and would support them more if more blu ray titles were available where I live, regrettably they're not. TV shows I feel should be legitimized on the torrents complete with advertising. They're easily trackable so ad revenue is simple to get. It's not my fault that the studios aren't capitalizing on this opportunity.

Programs - I don't pirate computer games anymore. Steam makes them quite accessible. Certain microsoft products like older versions of Office seem justified for piracy (older versions of lots of things really). There is still a small black pit of hatred in my heart for antivirus software that I would pirate if I could... but that's an excercise in futility. If you own a PC you have to pay for antivirus, anything less and you're asking to be screwed.
Adobe is another one of those special exceptions. While their creative suite software is extremely expensive, I can't say if it's overpriced or not, I know that I can't afford it, but I like to use it. A slight moral justification is that the pirated versions are teaching me how to use their products which may eventually lead to me buying a legitimate copy. Acrobat however I feel very strongly that EVERYONE should pirate! I really like interactive PDF's for character sheets, but without Acrobat Pro, interactive sheets can't be saved with their changes which is a deliberate withold of functionality that I just cannot forgive. If Adobe included the ability to save interactive PDFs in their reader, my stance would change.

Most of my opinions are independent of quality of product or my opinion of the business ethics of the company. They're strictly based on if I think the product is available easily and for a fair price. Apple I know has some very harsh mandates on it's employees and it's ipod app approval process is bordering on despicable but I will continue to give them my money because they offer a product that meets my expectations for a reasonable price and make it accessible easily.

Lastly, from a moral standpoint copyright infringement is not theft. Theft is taking something from someone so that they don't have it anymore. Copyright infringement takes nothing from anyone and in 90% of the scenarios where the product was pirated, I would have never have payed for that product anyways and of that remaining 10% probably 5% was simply me demoing the product before buying, so it is a very rare case where I've actually deprived any creator of cash they would have otherwise gotten.

I'm interested in hearing what other people's personal stances are on the whole issue. Some of my friends are content creators out there and are trying to make a living doing so, they're people I wouldn't want to hurt by depriving them of cash or creating holes in their business model. There are also questions of availability. If pirated content is easier to obtain than legitimate, isn't that a case of poor market availability?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Systems

This weekend I finished up working on Hardkore, I'm a bit sad by this because it's entirely without fanfare and I'm not sure my work will ever see the light of day. Despite this I'm moving on with new ideas. I want to create my own game and the prospects of doing so on my own terms excites me.

So I've been working on a system that's very different from Hardkore's principles of simulationism. This one is about accessibility and is designed to use familiar tenants and systems to attract new gamers. This is my first attempt which you may critique.

The foundation of the system is 3d6 and a Texas Holdem-style poker Mechanic.

I'll explain.
Characters have
Stats (standard faire Strength Dex Intelligence etc... ) ranging from 0 to +3
Skills (Also standard, Melee, Archery, Stealth...) ranging from 0 to +5
Equipment (That provides mods) ranging from 0 (no equipment) to +3 (awesome magical stuff)

Basic Action
A basic action is resolved by a 3d6 + Stat + Skill + Equipment Die Roll.

A Resisted Action
A resisted action adds in a Poker-Style Mechanic, here's how it works.

A Turn is a segment of time in which a single rolled action is conducted.
A Round is 4 turns in which a game of holdem poker determines a result in addition to the die roll results of the Basic Actions.
The Action Pool is the modifier number of the basic action the character is doing (Stat+Skill+Equipment) represented as individual points, players draw points from the pool to place bets each action.
The round consists of:
1. The Deal. - 2 Cards are delt to every player involved. The Ante is announced. The ante is the situational difficulty of the conflicts in question and is chosen by the GM. For example, a duel on a slippery rooftop in the rain will have a higher Ante then a duel in an open field. Players pull points from their action pool to place their bets and then the die roll for the action is rolled with the remaining modifiers from the Action Pool.
2. The Flop - 3 community cards are layed down by the GM. The players can again bet a portion of their action pool (minimum of the Ante, but not a multiple of) before rolling their 2nd Action.
3. The Turn - The 4th community card is laid down and another round of betting commences before the players roll their actions.
4. The River - The final community card is laid down and players that have not folded have a showdown, the winner recieves the pot of bets.

Folding means that the PC goes on the defensive for the rest of the round, they get +5 to their Defensive Pool, but cannot take any offensive actions until the Round is over.

During the round any players can choose to flip one of their pocket cards to add the value of that card to their die roll. (Aces = 1, Jacks =11 Queens = 12, Kings = 13). The card remains flipped and in-play assuming the player doesn't fold.

If one player bets more than another player's action pool and the underdog wishes to remain playing the round, she can go All-In (using all her Action Pool and rolling her unmodified Die Roll for her actions), but must go All-In for the remaining actions in the round unless her opponent who forced the All-In folds.

The winner of the round gets the pot. Each subsequent action that PC spends the pot to add a bonus to her die rolls. The number of points spent, (and thus the bonus) is dependent on the winning hand.
High Card = +1
Pair = +2
2 Pair = +2
3 Of a kind = +3
Straight = +3
Flush = +3
Full House = +3
Four of a Kind = +4
Straight Flush = +4.

Health levels at this point will start at 18. If a PC is brought to 12, then she loses a die to all actions. If brought to 6 she goes down to using one die on all actions. At zero she's incapacitated and at the mercy of the GM/other players. Damage is equal to the remaining modifier from an attack after defense is subtracted.

Defense. Weapons will have an offensive and defensive modifier. Defensive actions are unrolled and are 10 + Defensive Pool. If the player folds a round that goes up to 15 + Defensive Pool.

There's the rudiments of my system idea. Comments questions and ideas are always welcome.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bad Games

Lately I've been playing only bad games. (except DIRT for the PS3, which was well worth the $11 I payed for it at EB games) By bad I mean really BAD, especially on the RPG front. Today I want to talk about 2 games specifically because I think they're bad for opposite reasons, Vampire Wars and (all) the RPG games my best friend runs.

To those of you who aren't familiar with Facebook and it's plethora of "apps" which simultaneously ammuse and irritate the majority of it's users, Vampire Wars is a facebook App Game where you "play" (very loose term there) a Vampire. By play I mean that you create a unique vampire character by giving it a name, and then dressing it up in the very tiny handful of clothing options they give you. Then you get a handful of actions to do with this vampire you've just created. You can do "missions" which is basically click on a link and get a reward in exchange for spending a pool of various stat-points that automatically replenish over time. There's no risk in the missions, and nothing fancy or entertaining about them, simply click the link, get the feedback/reward. The missions even have these imagination-inspiring names that make you wish you could actually have your vampire do them a little, like "Defeat a rival vampire." or "Infiltrate the Spider Queen's lair" but after the first 15 seconds you stop looking at their token attempt to dress up which is essentially a slot-machine mechanic without any chance or potential for meaningful reward.

The other main action is "combat" which is more link clicking, but this involves some chance. The factors to win are how many people you've sucked into playing this stupid game with you, and how many little graphically illustrated "abilities" you've managed to accumulate through gameplay. The more of both the better. You fight other players to steal some of their stuff and get bragging rights that's represented by a numerical value.

That's basically all there is to Vampire Wars, they have a revenue generating mechanic that lets you buy a certain kind of rare currency to purchase some of the cooler stuff, but it doesn't change the core gameplay which is so sparse and pointless that I'd laugh if I hadn't been playing this stupid game for 2 weeks now.

The thing is, Vampire wars does one thing for me that keeps me logging on a couple times a day, it inspires my imagination. The game makes me remember the old LARPing days of Vampire the Masquerade when me and my fellow players were trying to plan and execute our schemes to hurt other vampires, influence and feed on mortals and protect our sleeping havens. We had to describe and role-play our actions before our arbitrating GM who would sometimes oppose our attempts and thus we went away unsuccessful as often as not. But it was fun. Vampire Wars reminds me of those fun escapades where we'd screw around and try to pull off things without getting our precious characters killed.

On the other end of the spectrum are the RPG games my friend tries to run, which I've all but sworn off of, despite the fact that he's my best friend, and I really really want to play more games right now. His games are steeped in complexity but for all his efforts they don't inspire anything in me but frustration. Where Vampire Wars is simply an advancement of an avatar that's conceptually so flimsy to barely even be there, his games are entirely concept with hardly any mechanical structure to gain purchase to. His games are all story, but the story is meant to be made by the players, but he doesn't like to give the players the means or inspiration to strive for anything, because those would be things that we could exploit, and exploiting things is the death of all RPG's it seems. I'm sure he'd say that I'm way off base, but I've spent the last 5 years trying to understand his games and that's the best I've figured.

I wish I could combine the strengths of both of these bad games and get to play a good game, but my magic lamp and genie is taking it's time arriving. Maybe I'll figure something out in the interim.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Understanding Power

Power. A lot of people don't understand what is real power or how to attain it. If you ask most people what makes you powerful, they'll tell you "money".

"Money is Power" we've probably all heard that mantra at one time or another, but it's not true.
Not true power. Money is an illusion created by the truly powerful to control people, it's a goal for regular people to strive to so they don't actually see what causes others to have true power over them. Money is only a bi-product of power, and it is in the best interests of those who actually have power to keep people striving to attain it.

There are actually 7 paths to true power. These paths are rooted in the basic needs of humanity, control any one of these paths, even a small bit of one and you control people. Control all of one whole path and you effectively have control over all people. A being that controls all 7 paths can only be a god.

1. Information
2. Food
3. Sex
4. Land
5. Water
6. Energy
7. Death

You won't find that list in any manual for global domination, but nonetheless it's the truth and it's been that way for thousands of years. There are a few points to consider about each of these keys.
- Controlling information controls how people think, but also grants a form of omniscience as well as omnipotence.
- Controlling food allows someone to eventually control life and how it evolves and if it survives. There is far more genetic modification happening in the food we eat then most people realize.
- Absolute control of sex has proven difficult it generally controls us more than we can control it. Control of reproduction is possible and done so in many alarming ways, but controlling the drive for sex without catastrophic consequence has proved much more elusive.
- By and large, governments control Land they use this control to have power over the citizens.
- Water is far easier to control than most people would believe. It's necessary and disturbingly easy to withhold from people but also easy to add drugs and chemicals to as well. It is increasingly difficult to find water without fluoride in it.
- Energy comes in many forms starting with gravity and the sun. The types that people can control grant massive amounts of power to those who do.
- Death is far more of a necessity than most believe. It is both essential and inevitable, and every spiritual organization ever conceived of has existed to control it.

Those of you who want power best study these 7 paths and work to master them, but also guard against those who would master too much of any path. More on these paths, and those who follow and abuse them in future posts.

For Those Who Hate Twitter But Haven't Tried It...

I was there with you, didn't see the point, hating the idea of a digital leash, a bunch of online stalkers stalking each other... I thought, "Nah! I like blogging, I enjoy conversing with people online but Twitter... that's too much, that shit's for crazy folks."

Here's the thing, contrary to first impressions, Twitter isn't a peep hole into everyone's private lives. No one I follow Tweets "Eating now" or "Bored at work", if they did I wouldn't follow them. They tweet interesting things, or if they're not interesting, they make them interesting by adding personal insight or humorous quip, or something else that makes the post dynamic and interesting enough to waste the 2 seconds it takes to read it. If the tweet strikes a chord with someone, they might @reply you and a conversation is started.

Pretty creepy huh. Fuckin stalkers.

A couple of my old Vox peeps amuse me with their adamant avoidance of Twitter, it's amusing because they're exactly the sorts of people that enjoy Twitter the most. They carry on huge threads of conversations in the comment space below their blogs, engaging nearly everyone and making them feel like they're interesting and contributing something too. These are the great social butterflies of the internet that I will strive to be like, making people feel good to be in their presence, happy to call them friend. These people always seem to be able to make time for even the geekiest introvert, and for that they deserve the praise they inevitably receive.

Twitter embraces these sorts of people, they're the best contributers to the network and take the most from it, it's not a one-way relationship, if it were no one would use it.

I don't criticize people who don't use twitter, not everyone is meant to, just like not everyone is meant to blog, or write, or draw, or be a public speaker. Some people would get a lot out of it but simply don't have the time, or can't afford yet another distraction, I can't fault anyone for that either. But for those who see it as a senseless waste of time they'll get bored with, when they write the best blogs and interact heavily in comments; they I can only educate, and after being shown what they're missing they're only missing out on a way to reach and interact with more people. If you want to keep things small and intimate, then yeah, don't use Twitter, but if you want to reach a wider audience, meet more people, get more information about the stuff you're interested in and have a better network of contacts and friends... then you owe it to yourself to give it a try for at least a few months.

...and if and when you do, follow me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Making Things More General

Hi folks. I'm writing this directly onto the internet text field, hence the ugly font.

I'm starting to get frustrated that I'm not writing as much as I once was so I'm going to eliminate the self-imposed restriction of "just RPG" content here so that I write more stuff that just comes to mind. My Vox blog was originally for this purpose but Vox is sliding into the same pit that Geocities was lost into and I have no desire to ride it down.

So hopefully this marks a new surge in content here.

Now something really cool from G, who is a fucking fantastic dude and also a Martian, and if you don't have his blog on your RSS reader right now then fix that shit.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Helmsman's RPG Preferences

In response to a neat little rundown by Stuart at Robinson Games about preferences in playstyle. His focus was on the various versions of D&D but I believe they're relevant in most any RPG, so like many others I've decided to post my preferences.

Comprehensive Rules(1) vs. Minimal Rules(10)


I want solid fundamentals that make sense. That means comprehensive, but a good game system maintains simplicity through good fundaments. An example of this would be having a good system for weapons rules with a bit of mechanical leeway included. A system like this a player can pick up a fence-post and swing it around and the GM simply rules that it's roughly the same stats as a quarterstaff only with less accuracy and slightly more damage. The rules didn't have to include "fence post" in the weapons listing which would have just been pointless bloat but allowed for that scenario simply by way of solid fundamentals.

High Power Fantasy vs. Low Power Fantasy

Depends on the game.

There are some games that I've absolutely loved the idea of finding a dungeon and literally approaching it like some medieval archeologist/grave-robber hybrid.

"Shiny runes on the walls you say? Well let's get out the ol' chisel and remove this section of the wall. I know lots of rich folks who'll pay big money for this kind-of wall treatment." This requires an exceptionally low-power design but can still be fun if the game allows for tricky solutions like creating cave-ins on monster's heads and that sort-of thing.

The other side of the road is Exalted, which is one of my favorite games, and you don't get any more high-powered than Exalted. However, there's a caveat to that. Exalted incorporates setting assumptions and responses to that power level which most fantasy games don't. The setting doesn't disassociate that power-level, so the lowly NPC's that are obviously less powerful than the PC's are OBVIOUSLY less powerful. This means social structures assume this rather than some elderly inkeep treating level 25 adventurers like he would treat any other armed mercenary that walked in. No. If you're a guy that can beat-up gods literally then you are treated as such, and that makes for interesting gameplay and moral relativism. I like that too.

Narrative Mechanics(1) vs. Simulation Mechanics(10)


I almost always prefer simulation mechanics because simulation mechanics arbitrate conflicts more effectively. However Narrative mechanics have a place as well, mechanics like character backgrounds which grant the character a monetary source even though he might not role-play gathering that money every game. Or saying the character has a friend who can help, even though there might not have been any prior in-game interaction with that friend. These are narrative mechanics that have meaning and value in any game.

Strategic Chargen(1) vs. Simple Chargen(10)


I'm generally a fan of more options and toys to play with to tweak and fiddle with a concept.

Tactical Encounter(1) vs. Strategic Adventure(10)


This is just personal preference on the way I run things rather than a statement on the validity of either approach which I consider both quite valid. I run games with story and dramatic feeling first and the actual cut-and-thrust of combat second and I find too much reliance on tactics in combat bogs down the game. Plus I don't prescribe to some arbitrary notion that all the critters in the world are automatically an appropriate challenge for the PC's. Some of the best games I've ever run and played in are games where the PC's took on a vastly more powerful adversary and won the day through cunning, be that by enlisting allies, cleverly evading or luring the adversary elsewhere to achieve the objective. My players have indicated that they enjoy this as well.

Combat Balance(1) vs. Adventure Balance(10)


I advocate simulationist sandboxes which I use story and various lures to manipulate my PC's into doing fun stuff, but for the most part I let them choose what to wade into. If a PC get's fixated in the princess at the top of a tower around which a known psychotic baron utilizes an infamous and deadly army, I'm not going to suddenly decrease the army's capabilities to match the PC group's. The player knows what he's going up against and should plan accordingly or do something else. The same goes for fighting a powerful dragon, I don't just inexplicably put a dragon somewhere to stumble across, I leave clues in the narrative that THERE'S A DRAGON here. If the land for 30 miles around the dragon's lair is charred and uninhabited then the Players know what they're getting into, if they choose to continue fine, but I'm not balancing the encounter to counter their expectations.

On the flip side, I believe it is the responsibility of the GM to be trustworthy. Throwing a vastly overpowered ambush at a party with no chance of escape better have narrative justification that promises greater reward in the future as the PC's are captured and taken before some evil dickhead. Otherwise the GM is simply being an asshole and deserves to have his game abandoned.

Balanced Encounter vs. Balanced Adventure

Neither. See above-two reasons.

Wargame Combat(1) vs. Abstract Combat(10)


Combat is fun and abstractions often create inconsistencies which to me are unfun. I want my players to feel they have the opportunity to attempt most anything and the system should be able to tell them if they pull it off rather than some arbitrary ruling of the GM who might not know anything about guns or swords, or armor or anything to do with the game setting. Abstractions of course have to exist to a certain degree in all RPG's, but having to justify why or why-not something works because of my personal beliefs to my players is something I generally try to avoid.

GM as player(1) vs. GM as referee(10)


I prefer the GM to be the guy telling the story and the system it's self to be the referee. Doing things in this way I believe empowers the players to use the system to find their own solutions to the obstacles the GM places in their way using the system.

Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters

Again depends on the game. I like fun. Sometimes a common game with a compelling story is fun, and sometimes riding on the bow of an airship while juggling vorpal swords is also fun.

Established Setting(1) vs. DIY Setting(10)


I do write my own settings... but I don't really prefer to run them which is messed up.

Resource Optimization(1) vs. Creative Problem Solving(10)


I really don't find resource tracking fun at all, but find creative problem solving to be hugely rewarding as both a player and a GM. However you do need resources to solve things creatively, and those resources have to be effective, but I like enough versatility that the resources I have access too can fit a concept long before I examine it's overall effectiveness within the game.

So those are my current preferences which for the most part are subject to change at my whim. Maybe someday they will be something official and be taught in RPG schools as would be befitting of my future greatness. As it is now, I hope they're legible and not too terribly boring a read.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Projects and Hobbies

From Project Waldo

"Jiyoung told me that one of the things she's noticed in talking to Americans is that we all have "personal projects." I hadn't realized this tendency defined us until she pointed it out. Everybody is writing a screenplay, working on an album, putting together a portfolio. I don't know what this says about us.

In Korea, people don't have personal projects, they have hobbies. I was really confused about this at first. Right after they ask you how old you are, they ask, "what's your hobby?" What does it mean, that they have hobbies and we have projects? I feel like there must be some revelation there. I should mention that when Koreans pursue a hobby, they go all-in. If they say "Salsa dancing," assume they are better than anyone you know. If they say "yoga," they mean they can touch their nose to their tailbone. And if they say "Starcraft," well..."
I really think this is really interesting on a cultural level. In Canada and America we're taught that to be successful we have to be "doing what we love" for money to a degree. I don't know if that's healthy.

As a guy who has "a project" in gaming, I'm very much part of the American side of things in the project/hobby spectrum. Personally I don't care if I don't make any money with this project, but there are other people that have a stake in this project that I can't disregard, which is why i can't just release it to the world without some due diligence... it's too bad, because I'd really rather be treating it like a hobby.

Friday, August 7, 2009

On Tone

A friend of mine mentioned the game Heavy Gear a while back. He wasn't too complementary about it actually. His words were somewhat to the effect of: Gorgeous Book - Terrible System.

He went on to wonder out-loud how a game could create such an "embarrassment" of a set of mechanics and still do well? Which is a pointless question really because we all know that production values sell a game first and foremost. Compelling system and setting just keeps people coming back. So I ended up picking up a used copy of the 2nd Edition mostly because I wanted to see what he considered to be a really good layout. Since I've been reading I've found the book is nice looking and the layout is sharp, and though I haven't playtested the system I don't think it's as bad as my friend describes it, but those things aren't what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about the tone of Heavy Gear because I find it to be a good lesson to RPG writers out there.

Heavy Gear keeps their text reasonably tight and minimal which I think is nice, however the game constantly makes references to how GM's should be "dealing" with problem players that play wrong. Which is about as insulting as it is pointless. The whole book is written like it's talking to the GM saying: "We know, your players are idiots. But don't fret, we'll fix them for you."

The "Hooks and Tips" sections of each chapter are just plain insulting and always start with the assumption that up til reading this book everything has been done all wrong and then offer patronizing advice on how to get it right. I believe this is probably the textbook example of what RPG Pundit describes as Swine.

As RPG designers we have to have some conceit. I know that I wouldn't keep working on Hardkore if I didn't honestly believe that it's the bees knees and that the world will be better off having it. But I won't portray a 'better than thou' attitude in my writing because I'm not making a bible with which I'm preaching from on-high. I'm writing a game book for people that want to play a fun game just like I do. That means even though I'm some hotshot game designer that got my book published I can't carry through in my writing because the people that will make or break my game are ultimately the fans.

I'm not sure if I ever noticed this undertone of conceit in any previous games, but if any of you know any others please give a shout out.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Nevermet Press Banner! Put Your Mouse-Cursor Over it and Make-It Go *click*

I have been writing for Nevermet Press for over a month and have been a lazy douche about not plugging some of the pro-stellar work that gets done over there. Well no longer I say! I command my ENTIRE readership (yes both of you) to click on the banner in the sidebar and go there right away.

There. I expect that Karmic reward to come any second now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Easiest and Toughest on Making Contemporary Work

There are many game designers out there who have said that the modern world makes the best setting because there are no shortage of splatbooks for it. This is true, but it's both a blessing and a curse. When a player is more savvy than a GM on certain things (inevitable in usually one or two things) the GM can feel like his game isn't authentic when the player challenges him with questions like: "Why are these cops following [X] procedure?" or "I just go to [website X], they have all that information as a matter of public record."

If you're a GM that doesn't know the details of how a particular aspect of the modern world operates (say you've never been to prison, so the procedures of prison guards aren't familiar to you), you have a few options available to you.

1. The first one should always be EDUCATE YOURSELF. There are a lot of TV shows with pertinent subject matter out there, especially on the internet. Discovery channel is every gamer's friend, shows like THE SHIELD can show you plausible loopholes in the police system and Burn Notice is a veritable instruction manual on doing sneaky things.

2. The second one is going abstract when you don't know the specifics. You may not know exactly how a police officer interrogates a PC, but you can always gloss over some of it and get right to the pertinent part of the interrogation to see what the cop learns.

I know the hardest thing for me in running a contemporary RPG is how to keep the world sane. Players want to do crazy stuff, but society functions by not tolerating the disruptions created by doing crazy stuff. Whenever you make a scene there needs to be repercussions, but sometimes you as the GM need to let that scene be made to make the game fun, finding that balance has been a trial for me as both a player and a GM, and I'd be interested in knowing how any of your game groups manage it?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Contemporary RPG Settings

've not given this blog any love lately for a number of reasons. Mostly because I've been working on several projects that aren't blog-related, and the style of writing is so different than when I start to try and write anything for here it falls apart.

However I've been reading and commenting where ever I feel my mark needs to be made, and I have been paying attention to the other Role-Playing Bloggers that are around. One thing I've noticed in my window-shopping on other Blogs is that there is a bit of a lack of contemporary setting love. Obviously fantasy RPG's are covered to death, science fiction gets some love too, though not nearly as much, from there things get even more sparse.

So I've decided that I want to do a series on contemporary RPG settings. Part of the reason for this is my first Hardkore setting will be a contemporary one. I'm going to try and explore a few of the games that are out there in that genre, and explain some of the pitfalls to contemporary games and discuss some of the potential solutions.

So to start I'm going to list off the various sub-jenres of contemporary settings that I can think of:


Being a Monster

Modern Myth

Spy vs Spy

Cthonic Horror

I'm sure I missed some, if anyone can think of more, please let me know.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Endless Frustrations of Writing a Game

I am writing a game book, I've been plugging away at it for almost 2 years now and before that it's concepts sat shelved for 3 years by the original creator. I took these concepts from him to write the book because it was either I'd do it, or it would never be done. I firmly believe that this will be the best system out there in terms of quick play and realism, it does everything I want a game to do and I believe the gaming community and the world at large deserves to have access to something like that.

I now have the writings to a point where the game is actually playable, the system usable and the rules for the most part are consistent. I have a real game here, but having the writings is a far cry from having a book that's publishable. I might have a game but I don't have a product, and until I have a product I'm bound by a non-disclosure agreement so I can't share the details of the thing I've slaved away on for so long. I hate non-disclosure agreements.

I'm allowed to send the game out to others who I might bring under the magical NDA umbrella, but it's hard finding people. The people I find who might be interested and whom I think could offer valuable feedback are the same people who are busy as frak.

What I need is one other person who's as invested in seeing this game come out as I am, one person who feels the way I do, that this game is awesome and would honestly tell me if every single new section I write is worthy of this game or not.

Unfortunately, no such luck yet.

You may all ridicule me for being an emo bitch now. (Both of you.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

RPG Projects I'm Working On

My operating system is cluttered with windows this morning of the various projects I have on the go. Which means it's a good day so far, I love having too much to do, especially when it's to do with role-playing.

I recently took up some guest blogging for the Core Mechanic which is starting to make me enthusiastic. Johnathan the blog owner is a very bright guy and is managing the blog really well. This is great for me because I'm the sort who (obviously) doesn't care to do much blog management, so this lets me just concentrate on the writing and networking aspects which is what I enjoy. I can see my writing relationship with TCM being very fruitful.

This weekend I also decided that I needed to start moving ahead with playtesting Hardkore, so I took some time to work out a rough campaign outline in a setting I'm developing specifically for the Hardkore system and started reaching out to a few players to join and help me playtest. As usual everyone is quite busy, but I'm tenacious and won't take no for an answer. I'm currently putting together a playtest package for the players so that they have an updated copy of the rules in addition to any setting specific information I feel they need. It's a pretty big package, out of curiosity I opened it into MS Word so I could do a word count. Without any formatting the material is over 25,000 words and 75 pages. Wow, I've been busy.

Currently I'm working on inputting all that into an Adobe Indesign book so that the playtest document is a bit more readable. I'll hopefully have most of that done by the end of the day, right now I'm transferring over all the gun stats.

One of the things I really love about Hardkore is the attention to detail Dixon had when working on the firearms. Currently we have over 40 different firearms with comprehensive stats, our stats are so comprehensive that we actually include different stat lines for different types of ammunition that can be loaded in the gun. Not just slug rounds vs buckshot either, like the difference between a full metal jacket round and a jacketed hollow point round. All this matters because our damage system is the most realistic of any game out there. Thats where I think our niche will be actually. In gamers who want to customize and play out scenarios of war in a tabletop RP environment rather than a first-person shooter video game.

Anyhow that's a bit of an update, so I'll get back to work.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rifts and Exalted

Rifts was the very first game I ever played, and as we all know there exists a soft spot in a gamer's heart for that first game. It's that soft spot that lets us look back with fondness at even the most contrived, frustrating and poorly arbitrated scenarios with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Now unlike some, I hold very few illusions to the ultimate suckage of the Palladium Rule set. That system needs more then house rules to make it function. It actually lacks the basic mechanics to do a spot check (or awareness roll) which in my mind says the designers are as oblivious as the characters that are made in the games. Rifts mechanics are so outdated and so full of inconsistencies, imbalances and oversights that I consider it completely unplayable these days. Having said that the books are a blast from the past full of inspiration and imagery that still makes me want to play it. I want to play that Juicer, even though all those cords sticking out of him are just begging to be yanked out and shoved up his ass. I want to shoot those CS soldiers in their fancy armour that has varied soak-ability in different areas even though the combat system doesn't have a hit-location mechanic. I want to play that great Coalition Wars story that they published... if only their system actually worked.

I see hope for Rifts as the last few books for the Exalted 2nd Edition system are released. I've actually had friend's criticize Exalted in that when the Warstriders, and Powered Armour starts to come out it feels like Rifts, which might not be their thing but to me it says that it would be an easy conversion. Exalted already has a nice tidy ruleset for cybernetics they call clockwork limbs. They have rules for walking war machines, power armour, and enough powers and critters to accommodate the rifts setting. There are a few holes that I had to plug with some rules of my own, Juicer conversion has been a small pet-project of mine for one, and rules for Automatic weapons is a wholly original creation that I think is way more realistic than anything White Wolf has ever managed to work out.

Unfortunately I don't think I could ever throw anything I ever created out for the world to consume. White Wolf and Palladium would probably throw a party just to BBQ my ass, especially now that I've actually admitted that this is a project I'm working on. I'm currently waiting to see if the Autochothonian book offers any final bits of technology to finish up any conversions yet to do and then I'll probably throw together a book that looks like Rifts but has the Exalted system in it and just keep it around for game sessions with friends, then maybe I could play some Rifts again.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Coming Back to Alpha Omega

In the "before-time" or about a month ago before I started this blog I'd found out about Alpha Omega through one of the RPG Bloggers. I liked what I heard so I bought the PDF. I read through it and while being immediately impressed by the books lovely artwork and fantastic setting the dice mechanic turned me off and I reviewed it on an old blog stating that the dice mechanic was the equivalent to something both stinky and off-putting. But a part of me liked the game too much, I wanted to play this game no matter how bad the dice mechanic was so I passed the book around to a few close friends to see if they could find some redeeming qualities that would make it worth a second look. One of my friends found that quality, or more accurately he pointed out that the dice mechanic wasn't as bad as I'd made it out to be.

So currently I'm adding a bit of pepper to a crow stew that I'm preparing as I work on a try-out character. I'm determined to give this game a fair shake, it deserves that much.

A few observations currently: The navigation layout is great and I am a fan, but this book desperately needs some interactive PDF links. I don't know why they weren't included, it would make navigating through this game so much easier and I could operate entirely in Full-Screen PDF mode without having to zoom out to make use of the (admittedly very good) bookmarks. With a game this complex this would make things a lot easier. I'd put them in myself but the PDF is secure so I'm not able to.

Anyhow, back to this character, I'm thinking a Seraph Nephalim will be fun to try out. More on this later.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

An Intervention

I need to talk to you, yes you, the tabletop gaming bloggers. You're my friends, my mentors, my inspiration but I right now I need you to listen. The relationship you have with Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons and Dragons, it's not healthy, and it's not right, they're abusing you and you need to realize it.

Dungeons and Dragons is successful I won't deny that, it's dashing and still looks good even now, I know it's got lots of fans and lots of players, but you the blogging community it treats like crap. Ever since 4th edition came out I've heard about Wizards sending out legal notices to it's most adamant fans as they post material just trying to drum up some enthusiasm. They've brought out a sub standard product that even the most enthusiastic of you is starting to question the wisdom of, and now they've yanked all the PDF's away from you, even the old editions which are out of print now, and they do this while one of the original founders a man that started this great hobby lies in a hospital bed!

I've been hearing about your frustration, your dissatisfaction, your reminiscence about the "old days" when DnD loved it's fans, you're obviously not happy but still you return to them whenever they make a paltry attempt at reconciliation with another sub-standard supplement. Wizards doesn't deserve fans like you, and it's becoming more and more apparent that they don't want your loyalty and your encouragement.

Look at how Paizo and White Wolf are treating their fans, and their fans aren't half as loyal as you are to DnD. Those companies would bend over backwards to have fans as loyal as you.

And don't give me that crap about how they're just misunderstood, that pulling PDF's is just a sly marketing move. That's BS and you know it, if they actually gave a crap about you guys then they would have announced an alternative source for digital material AS THEY PULLED THEM. They didn't.

So please, take a good long look at the relationship you have with DnD and decide where you stand because frankly I'm sick of seeing this cycle of abuse played over and over again across the internet. Dungeons and Dragons is not the only Role Playing product out there and the sooner you and Wizards of the Coast realize this the better it will be for us all.

How I Role: Gaming Online

I have another life, a life that isn't filled with magic, but has lots of adventure. A life where I venture out into the wild unknowns and work with my allies to bring forth a great energy from the bowels of the earth. It's kinda weird explaining that I have "another" life to role-players, usually the explanations like that are the other way around. (Not that I'd EVER explain Role-Playing as "another life" that's just creepy.)

In plainer terms I work out in the Canadian oilfields most of the time and as you can imagine, being out in the mountains 200 miles from nowhere for a month at a time makes it pretty hard to keep a regular game scheduled. But I've been at this for nearly a decade and I'm proud to say that my gaming has hardly missed a stride.

The wonders of technology - my beloved macbook, a cellular modem, and a cell booster - have allowed me to take my gaming to a new medium and I've been at it long enough that I can honestly say; when it comes to gaming on the internet my shit is tight!

It must have been a bit surreal when I contacted one of the RPG Bloggers over the internet and asked him if he wanted to play in one of my games out of the blue. Even to the most net-savvy gaming vets, the idea of gaming online doesn't hold up to the traditional method and the idea of gaming over the net still strikes most as decidedly "experimental". Something few long-time acquaintances in the blogosphere might take a stab-at to see if it might work, rather than something a relatively new online acquaintance would just offer out of the blue. Regrettably I think schepticsim won-out and he graciously declined my offer, but I'm a persistent stalker so I won't give up. He will be mine oh-yes!

Creepy internet stalking aside, to me online gaming is the norm, not the exception. The tools of my trade are honed to a fine edge, the method of choice: text-based chat over Skype, using a web-page die roller that has a running log of the rolls it makes for everyone to see so to keep us honest. Many might think that text-based IM chatting would be slow, and it is, but that's the only drawback. The benefits of IM chatting over skype are numerous and easily make up for the ponderous speed:

• Skype lets you make rooms with any number of players and allows you to make as many as you want so side rooms are simple, allowing an out-of character room, private discussions, a main room for everyone and a side room for just a few to all be going on at once.

•Skype keeps your history forever!!! Even if you're not online. Game rooms don't vanish at the end of the game either so one game room can span multiple games. If a player misses a session the history will refresh it's self for that player the next time another member of that room is online at the same time as him. Search functions will let you look back at any point in a game as far back as it ever existed. Can't remember the name of that elven innkeeper you encountered 3 years ago? Looking back through the history will find it.

•Skype doesn't limit post size. You can post huge pre-written descriptions of the new kingdom the players entered and the client doesn't balk at all. Got a pesky rules lawyer that won't shut up? Copy the rule out of the book and post it in an out of character room to shut him up. (Rules-lawyers: attempt this on your GM's at your own risk.)

•Skype has FANTASTIC file transfer capabilities. It rarely ever drops a transfer, even if one party has a crappy dialup connection that cuts out often. Skype will simply wait until the connection comes up again and continue transferring the file. Great for sharing game data or passing character sheets.

•I generally use the IM client because out in the mountains my connection can be sketchy and some of my players have similar problems, but if you have a good connection and a microphone on your computer there's no reason why you can't supplement your IM role-playing with some VoIP when the situation requires.

These features allow for a much more fluid gaming environment then most are likely used-to. The history saving and asides, and the fact that the rooms don't go away allow players to casually role-play outside of set game sessions, and the fact that the GM can look over the history later can keep him in the loop. This allows players to get further into character than would be comfortable in a more traditional game because they don't have to use up valuable quest time chatting about how they prefer their steak done. They can carry out in-game romances in private, allowing the GM to capitalize on the dramatic tension by having villains threaten the ones they love. And most of all it keeps the player clearly separate from the character he's playing allowing for much greater immersion.

My games over Skype are supplemented with excel character sheets, online group drawing for tactical maps, I edit blueprints with photoshop, and have been known to put together little setting booklets on PDF for when my players enter a new city. I'm available off hours if a player has a question or wants to do the occasional side quest, and quite honestly I type more eloquently than I speak. So when I say; "my shit is tight" I mean for you to be impressed because somewhere between the massive modern MMO's and the archaic PBEM's of yesteryear is what I do, and it is a sublime place indeed.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Issues I Have With Exalted and Their Fixes: Martial Arts

As I've explained previously, my current favorite tabletop RPG is Exalted. I started playing exalted back just before I graduated and fell in love with the epic setting and Wuxian feel. I've often gravitated to more restrictive rule-sets and settings where characters have to survive by their wits rather than any particular edge they might have, but Exalted is the exception to that, while you still need to survive by your wits, the main characters are often vastly more powerful than the average person in the game world, this new perspective was refreshing to me because it allowed me to escape into a power fantasy without feeling guilty for breaking the game. Over time I abandoned playing in Exalted games because those that I did play in felt like they were arbitrarily limiting what the characters were supposed to be doing with all that power, and I started running games that were as epic as I thought they should be.

One of the major Wuxian aspects of the game are the powerful martial arts available. Martial Arts meld mysticism and combat to create combat like Dragonball Z mixed with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Mechanically the different Martial Art Styles are available to a wider array of character types and offer exceptional versatility in combat while allowing for you to customize the style your character fights in with a particular weapon. The down-side is that the power trees are quite large and often to gain full effectiveness of a given martial art you need to spend more Experience Points to yield the same capabilities that would be gained from a more focused combat ability much cheaper.

Martial Arts are a pivotal part of the game and they add a lot of flavor, however Second Edition has a few anachronisms carried over from first edition that I think should have been addressed. One of them is the fact that a lot of Martial Arts effects step on other Ability's toes. There's a Martial Art that is based entirely on Singing, and some of the higher-level Martial Arts do Occult-Based abilities like countering magic far cheaper and more effectively than even the Occult charms can. The fact that Martial Arts also allows you to use particular "form" weapons with the Martial Arts ability means that it makes other combat abilities such as Melee, Thrown and even Archery and Dodge somewhat redundant allowing for min-maxing to an extent. There are also certain weapons that are deemed solely "Martial Arts" weapons for no reason other than common association rather than any particular ergonomic reasoning.

These issues though they might seem like they would require a vast overhaul of the Martial Arts rules are actually easily remedied with a few simple tweaks. One of the things I constantly preach is that game design needs to be based on solid fundamentals, and for the most part, Exalted's fundamentals are solid which means minor changes are often all that's needed. The first thing to do is change the Martial Arts ability to Unarmed and detach all the Martial Arts charms from any one particular ability. Martial Arts are depicted as versatile power sets that defy boundaries so we don't need to tie them to any one ability. With no Martial Arts ability anymore I have to reassign the Martial Arts weapons to other Abilities. I choose to make my choices based on ergonomics, any weapon that requires swinging like a staff or hook sword is now under Melee, weapons that are an extension of a fist or kick attack such as iron boots or tiger claws are still governed under unarmed, (knives too are part of this). And any rope or chain weapon are governed under the Thrown ability. Clinching attacks from rope weapons are rolled as unarmed attacks.

After those two solutions are implemented all that's left is to change the Ability prerequisites for the Martial Arts charms to whatever abilities are most applicable. If the charm supplements an unarmed attack then it's prerequisite is the Unarmed Ability, if it Supplements a Unarmed Attack and has an Occult-based effect as well then the prerequisites are Unarmed and Occult and so-on. The designations are pretty clear cut and don't require much interpretation, so they're quite easy to implement on the fly. Lastly while Melee, Archery or Thrown might not be part of the prerequisites, if the style has a "form weapon" that is governed under one of those abilities, to use the charms with that weapon the character must still roll the appropriate skill. This cuts down on min-maxing and allows for the ability charms melee, archery and thrown to be less obsolete and actually supplement the Martial Arts charms allowing to supplement the often more esoteric MA charms with the effective straightforwardness of the Ability specific charms, something the game designers always intended but has been a bit of a grey area within the rules.

These changes allow the Martial Arts to retain their significance and great Wuxian feel without making other abilities irrelevant but are by no means necessary to make the game fun. They do help though.

Issues I Have With Exalted and Their Fixes: Linguistics

As you might have guessed by now, I have a slightly inappropriate man-love for White Wolf's Exalted game which borders on the mildly obsessive. It's not the only game on my shelf, but it's the one I have the most experience with and feel most comfortable running. That's a big thing for a lot of GM's I know, comfort, it's why D&D is so popular, because people are comfortable with it, it's familiar and safe, and being that I've ran my longest running games in Exalted that's what it is for me.

However I do have some issues with the game, and some of those issues can be resolved with a few house rules. I don't usually house rule the games I run, my opinion is that if a game is so bad that I need to overhaul it, I should just run a different game. There are plenty of great games out there and I have money so why not spend it on a product that doesn't suck I say. So in-general my house rules aren't implemented because something doesn't work, but more about personal preference or that I believe my way might capture the feel of the game more effectively.

The first house rule I ever implemented in Exalted was to do with Languages. As written, the game makes it impossible to learn every language in the game. The number of Languages a character speaks is tied to the Linguistics skill which ranges from 1 to 5. You get 1 native language off the bat and 1 additional language per dot in Linguistics, meaning at Linguistics 5 (a legendary level) you know exactly 6 languages. Languages in Exalted are organized according to the overall geographical area they encompass while individual territories have their own dialects of these languages, it's assumed that once you know the main directional language of a region you can understand all the individual dialects. The main available languages are High-Realm and Low Realm (basically noble and peasant languages of the central continent), Skytongue, Seatongue, Forestspeak, Firetongue, Riverspeak, Guildcant, (a secret language of a worldwide merchant organization) and Old Realm (the ancient tongue of lost civilizations). Which means there are 9 languages that can be known in the game, not counting any of the barbarian languages or the secret claw runes of the beast people (not common but it does suck up a Linguistics dot).

So my solution was this, it makes sense that nobles and peasants in the realm would speak differently, but Exalted was a game about exceptional folks so for the High Realm and Low Realm languages I decided that if you had a dot in linguistics and spoke either High or Low then you spoke both. If a character had no linguistics training at all but was native to the Realm he would only speak one. To me this made sense. After that I decided that the 4th and 5th dots in Linguistics would be worth 2 additional languages respectively. That would mean that a character with linguistics 4 would know 6 languages, or 7 if one of them was a Realm Tongue, and a character with Linguistics 5 would know 8 or 9, which would effectively allow him to know every language in the game, which I think is appropriate for someone with an epic level of ability.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Either You Die the Villain or You Live Long Enough to Become the Hero

I don't see morality in black and white. To me everyone has a reason for what they do often to them that reason is justified. This worldview permeates everything I do, my politics, my writing, my sense of justice, and my gaming. Some players struggle with the games I run because the villains are not clear cut bad-guys, especially the ones at the top, and often the challenge in killing them isn't the formidable power that they have, but the moral quandary that's presented once the scope of their plans are laid out before the PC's.

Along with Burn Notice, Farscape is a show that I find continual gaming inspiration from and one of the reasons for this is that I love how they do villains. Every major villain in Farscape that survives inevitably helps the protagonists at some point later. Even the minor adversaries have been known to be useful from time to time. I've always enjoyed the standoffs during grudging alliances and I've even let my heart strings become tugged at as a former villain redeems himself in an act of martyrdom. To me it seems like a more complete victory than a simple bullet to the cranium for the heroes to actually convert the villains to seek redemption.

On the flip side often allies can be duplicitous and self serving even as they aide people. Good people have been known to do bad things for good reasons, and often a person who becomes too good becomes so egotistical that they ignore the small sufferings in their pursuit of the higher good.

I've found these grey moralities fascinate me. My favorite character to play was an egotistical drug addict with enough chips on his shoulder to file diamonds, but his redeeming quality was loyalty and that he stood up for the little guy. My favorite villain NPC was a Scorpius clone from Farscape. A corrupted god who had two forms, one a mass of writhing maggots and the other a sleezy man in a white suit. He was a corruptor and a manipulator, exalting his adversaries as heroes as he undermined their goodness and slowly steered them towards his own ends. The players hated him because he messed with their heads, and I loved him because as much as they hated him they often did what he wanted anyways.

It would be my hope that my best villains inevitably come to redeem themselves. Or at the very least if they're killed by the protagonists that the do-gooders eventually come to continue their old adversary's "good" works out of necessity.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Start of a Design Manifesto for Social Rules

Social mechanics in Role Playing games is a touchy subject. The idea of having a system of numbers and dice to dictate how effectively your character talks while the player himself is in-fact already doing the speaking comes across as arbitrary and in the worst cases could force players to role-play their characters in ways they do not wish to. There is also the instance where the Player might give a very flimsy argument but the dice roll indicates that it was very effective.

Many long-time tabletop role-players believe that social mechanics actually impede roleplay, some even go so far as to rebuke and ridicule those who might believe otherwise. I've been on dozens of blogs where a Dungeons and Dragons advocate has attacked a commenter who laments Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition's lack of definitive social rules as "not a real role-player". I disagree with the sentiment, logic, and lack of respect for a fellow hobbiest that those attacks bear. I've been known to be somewhat inflammatory in my time but I won't attack a peer's personal opinion, though I may attempt to sway it. Nonetheless I do take heed of these role playing purists' arguments when I look at Hardkore's social mechanics and how I want to implement them.

The first thing I started to look at is how do people play out a social interaction and when does the result of that come into contest?

Some games, especially those conducted over a Play By E-Mail or online Chat thrive on long-drawn out conversations and debates where every nuance of the Character's actions are described in graphic detail. Other times the cut-and-thrust of a social debate is bundled into a quick, abstract summary and subsequently resolved by a die roll. Both of these approaches are completely valid and both have their place in all games, and of course there are degrees between the two that exist as well. Ultimately the emphasis of one technique over another depends on the type of game it is. A game of political intrigue would likely contain more of the first technique, while a series of dungeon crawls punctuated by short trips into town to negotiate the sale of the group's spoils would certainly do fine using mostly the second one.

From that logic there comes a design choice; should a designer create two sets of social mechanics to resolve either kind of play or will one encompass them all? I lean to the trend that one mechanic to resolve both techniques is best but that mechanic needs to be of solid fundamentals and versatile.

So we'll start with the fundamentals, and the first question we need to ask ourselves are what are the mechanics going to effect? If they make a character behave a certain way how is this going to be enforced? And lastly what are the mechanics for resisting?

To me the things that social mechanics need to effect are; deception, manipulation of both emotions and rationalizations, leadership and guidance, and ingratiating people to you (or etiquette). Or in simpler terms; lying to them, convincing them to do things or react the way you want, leading, teaching, and making people like you. All of these can be influenced by variables beyond simply describing what a character is doing or conducting a dialog. I can't think of anymore but any suggestions to what I might have missed are welcome.

Next comes enforcement. Enforcement of a deception is easy, you simply tell the player or determine what it is that the NPC believes to be the case. Manipulating people socially is harder, many players don't like the GM telling them how their character thinks so there has to be a way of bypassing social influence at a cost. The cost can be a penalty to dice rolls due to the internal conflict of the character, or a loss of a temporary expendable trait. The question is how severe this penalty is and how long should it last and/or how precious is this expendable trait really and does it have other purposes? If the game incorporates personality mechanics and/or morality mechanics there can be additional modifiers due to those. The penalty idea is one that we'll likely use, though I'm open to ideas for other methods of enforcement if anyone's seen ones they like.

The last is resistance, which is trickier than you would think because it often depends on play-style. Often times it's hard to distinguish who is attacking and who is defending in a debate, which makes it tricky to resolve ties. Social play isn't like combat where the attacks can be the result of the die-roll, instead the die roll has to supplement the role-playing rather than become it. Timing becomes important if you do a "social health level" system such as Exalted's but if enforcement comes from a penalty system then timing doesn't mean as much as simply determining the modifiers that are applied to the role-playing and then seeing if the character's social agenda is carried out successfully or not. To that end I believe the "attacker" is the person rolling to carry out his agenda while the defender is the character rolling (or using static values) to maintain his current social orientation.

This of course needs refining but I think here is the groundwork for a good system to implement for Hardkore, it's going to be more complicated than I originally expected so I'll have to streamline it once I get the basics down.