Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mystery Reading

I have been thinking about mystery gaming recently. I am not usually much of a mystery reader, I loved Sherlock Holmes as a kid, but I tend towards science fiction. Obviously, as a lawyer, I have read many real life mysteries. I am not a criminal lawyer, and have no interest in practicing criminal law, but you don't get through law school without reading an awful lot of criminal cases. 

Even though I do not have an interest in criminal law, the single best piece of advice I have ever read about being a lawyer came from a criminal law story. In Helter Skelter, Vince Bugliosi stresses the importance of a lawyer doing his/her own investigations. I try to follow this advice as much as possible in my professional life, and have yet to regret it. I consider Helter Skelter to be the best book about the legal profession ever written, it is a study in the application of rational thought and elbow grease. 

As I have been thinking about a mystery game, I realized that I am not well versed in mystery fiction at all. I am not familiar with the tropes and the short-hand. In fact, I don't even know where to turn for good mystery fiction (or even true crime outside of Bugliosi). 

So here is my request kind readers. What are your favorite mystery books? I don't want books that cheat, as that would not be helpful for writing a game. All of the evidence used to solve the crime has to be available to the reader. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Guest Post at The Geek Parent

I recently got to write a guest blog post for The Geek Parent about getting kids interested in science.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Gaming with Kids Again

This week I have had a chance to game with my nephew again. It has been a couple of years since the last time we played D&D and he is 10 now. Obviously, his ability to understand and play the game has improved greatly since the last time we played. In the past we have played a very loose game of D&D, the Lord of the Rings Introductory Adventure Moria Box Set, and a few games of Descent. This time I broke out the Mentzer Red Box and adapted the solo game in the Players' Book for his use. 

I added a little depth, I made the magic mouth be the spirit of a wizard trapped in the wall, the wizard's body was turned into the statue in the entry room. The statue's eyes had been made of diamonds, but the goblins living in the cave stole them.

In his first, solo, foray into the dungeon he had a brief encounter with some goblins where he got surrounded and badly wounded. He managed to kill all but one of them and made it back to town with a bit of gold. When he started flashing his loot around in the tavern, a young theif, hoping for fame and fortune, asked to join him.

My nephew and Randal the Theif made their way back to the dungeon for another fight with the goblins. They handily defeated the group and even let one goblin live and healed him. After some discussion, Rat Tail, a goblin shaman, decided to join the group. As they explored the dungeon, they came across the room with the magic mouth. The imprisoned wizard, Xander (possibly Fred), explained his plight in a booming voice. My nephew decided to help Xander and sought out the two missing diamond eyes. One was with a final group of goblins, and the other was hidden in a secret treasure room. After he located the diamond eyes, he pulled the statue to the room with the magic mouth and Xander got his body back.

My nephew was disappointed to learn that Xander's real voice was actually pretty nerdy, and that he had lost the ability to cast all of his spells but one sleep spell a day. Xander joined the group and the cleared the rest of the dungeon, including an expensive encounter with the rust monster.

Where we had played free form in the past, my nephew was interested in using miniatures after playing Descent and the LotR game, so I broke out the battlemat. He adapted well to using miniatures, and quickly figured out things like flanking to get the backstab bonuses. 

We still played a fairly loose version of the rules. The only character with full stats was hsi fighter, the other party members just had HP, AC, skills, and damage stats. This worked pretty well and kept it from getting overwhelming. He had no trouble managing a four character party. We also used a simplified I go/you go combat system with d6 for party initiative instead of the missile/melee/magic phase system in the Red Box. I find this works better with miniatures anyway.

I used two iPad apps for the first time during this game, Hex Map Pro, and the Old School DM app. OSDM was especially useful as I entered all the encounters ahead of time and used it to track hp, attacks and XP. I will continue to use this program in my old school games, especially at a convention. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Delay of Game

I am going to have to delay the AGE Star Wars playtest due to gaining a life level this week, along with it comes the level title of "Parent". Our daughter threw us all a curve ball by coming at the very beginning of her due date period. I am not cancelling the playtest session just moving it back a week, possibly two (I work a schedule that gives me every other Friday off). I will have more information over the next few days. Everyone is healthy and adjusting well.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Star Wars AGE Online Playtest

Quick update. I am still aiming for a game on Thursday the 26th using newbieDM's Star Wars AGE hack. The game will be set during the time period of Episode IV and will be a one shot. Players will not have to have knowledge of the rules, and pre-gen characters will be provided. I am planning an adventure that will be about two hours long to give us plenty of time to get the rules straight. I will be submitting my game proposal to ConstantCon either tomorrow or Wed.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

EA is Confusing

I don't understand EA. They have in their possession, one of the most  infuential RPG developers in history, Bioware. I would say that in the history of computer RPGs (actual RPGs not Diablo-likes) the timeline basically flows from Origins to SSI to Bioware. If I were to pick a fourth, it would be Bethesda. EA not only owns Bioware, but also the Ultima series, probably the most influential RPG series in history. But EA does not seem to know how to make this all add up for some reason.

While I was concerned about EA buying Bioware, since they have ruined so many great developers before, I was excited by the prospect that Bioware might bring us an Ultima game. It seems like the logical thing to do, Bioware is the clear heir to the style of gaming found in the Ultima series. Their games are about more than combat, and the choices you make really matter. But, of course, this is not what EA has done. Instead we got Dragon Age, now I realize that Dragon Age was in the works before EA bough Bioware, but it is hardly the most inspired game in history. The gameplay is good, and I enjoyed playing it, but the world and the story are almost painfully generic. This frustration was compounded by the release of Dragon Age 2, again this was a fun game, but set in the same bland world.

But of course we are getting this. Don't let the name fool you, Bioware is not making this game, Mythic is. The company that brought us the snooze-fest PVE in Dark Age of Camelot, and the flop Warhammer Online. They are now turning Ultima into a clickfest Diablo-clone.

Getting an actual Bioware Ultima would have been like getting a Peter Jackson directed Star Wars prequel for me. Sadly we are getting whatever the heck Mythic is cooking up, and probably another Dragon Age. 

I only hope they let Bioware off the leash at some point to pursue real original properties, not just D&D stand-ins. Jade Empire and Mass Effect have shown that when left to their own devices, Bioware can knock it out of the park. 

Online Space Opera Gaming Update

Based on my research and some comments I have received, I am going to use Google Hangout to run a game. I also found Roll20, a virtual tabletop that claims it integrates with Google Hangout that I would like to try. I am pretty sure that I am going to run a one-shot the first time, just to try things out. I am currently leaning towards using newbieDM's AGE Star Wars playtest for that game (but not necessarily for the ongoing game). I will provide pre-generated characters so we don't have to waste any time on character generation for a one shot. You will not have to know how to play AGE to play in the adventure. My current plan is to run the game on the evening of July 26th, Eastern Time. I plan to use ConstantCon to run and setup the game (thanks for the tip David). I will finalize my plan and make arrangements this weekend. The goals of this game will be to 1) have a good time, 2) meet some players, 3) test out the online gaming setup, 4) possibly test AGE Star Wars.

Thoughts on Mass Effect Part 2: Revelation Effect

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series and for the Revelation Space series of novels.

While the Mass Effect series and Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series may be very different on the surface, they both draw on similar influences. Wait, you haven't read the Revelation Space series yet? I'll wait here. 

Mass Effect presents a fairly shiny version of the future, the future looks like the future you would have been watching on TV in the late '70s and early '80s. The world has a style similar to the one seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers, and Battlestar Galactica. Heck, there is even a space disco in the world of Mass Effect (although it plays techno). Mass Effect also comes from the Star Wars/Star Trek funny forehead school of alien life. There are a number of alien species, most of which walk on two legs, some of which you can engage in sweet, consequence free lovin' with. People (and aliens) are getting it on like Carter is president. Heck, one of the only diseases that plays any role in the game is essentially birth control. 

The future of Mass Effect is also a future that is mostly free of the ichy subject of transhumanism and extreme genetic manipulation. Even humans that have been cybernetically enhanced (Shepard) tend to still look the same as regular humans. It appears that many of these kinds of things are actually banned or restricted in the Mass Effect universe, but we rarely see the corrupting influence ourselves.

Of course the future in Mass Effect is not a problem-free place, even before the Reapers show up. There is conflict, and humanity is struggling to find respect in its new galactic community. There are even bad parts of town, and even whole towns that are fairly seedy, but they are usually dealt with in the same way that the bad part of the space station tended to be addressed even up through Babylon 5. You occaisionally go there, and people tell you that it is the tough part of town, but it doesn't usually seem all that bad. But fairly consequence-free, easy FTL travel seems to have given us a future without many of the problems that tend to come along with being the member of a lower class.

The future of Revelation Space is the exact opposite. It is not a shiny place at all. The Revelation Space universe is one that is between cyberpunk and gritty transhumanism. There was a shiny future, but that is over now. Things have broken down, and it was all caused by disease and corruuption. A horrible mutating virus that effects anyone and anything that has powerful cybernetic enhancements has destroyed the glorious utopian future. It has literally twisted the buildings, ships and some of the people of the future with horrible cancerous growths. 

The only non-human life humanity encounters in Revelation Space is life they have created themselves. There are genetically uplifted "pigs" and "apes" but there does not seem to be a whole lot of hot mammal on mammal action going on. The humans are even alien to each other. Humanity has divided itself into different factions, each with their own idea of how to handle genetic modification and cybernetic enhancement. Many of these alterations are extreme enough that they almost qualify as a different species, a new kind of human. Humanity is further divided by time, because Revelation Space has no faster-than-light travel. It takes decades to get to the closest inhabited planet, decades you spend frozen, drifting through space. People have to interact with people who were born centuries after them, with very different worldviews. 

The only aliens that humanity knows about are extinct, and do not seem to have progressed even as far as humanity has before they died out. There are some bizarre, possibly intellegent life-forms in the Shrouders and the Pattern Jugglers, but nothing that the humans can interact with on a normal basis. This is because the universe of Revelation Space is one where the Fermi Paradox rules, in fact the story is an attempt to provide a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. 

The future of Revelation Space has more than its fair share of seedy parts of town and totalitarian regimes. In fact there are whole seedy planets and orbital communities in Revelation Space. The reader spends more time in the bad parts of town than he does in the upscale places (which are also corrupted in some way), and there is not a space disco to be found in the whole galaxy. 

So Mass Effect and Revelation Space take place in two completely different visions of the future. One is the hopeful, shiny future found in the science fiction movies of decades past, the other is a gime, post-cyberpunk, borderline dystopia. For all there differences in setting, Mass Effect and Revelation Space tell almost exactly the same story. In many ways it is the most prototypical story to space opera, and it is fantastic both times.

Next time: It is time for the cycle to reset.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Online Space Opera Gaming

Since finishing Mass Effect I have had a desire to do some space opera gaming, specifically Star Wars. My WEG Star Wars game was the longest running campaign of my DMing career (4 years), and I look back on it fondly. The problem is, I live in the middle of nowhere in Southern Maryland. SMD is not a fun place to live to start with, and the lack of gamers my age (34) makes it far, far worse. So I am looking to start an online space opera game, preferably Star Wars. 

This is still in the R&D phase, I have not even decided which system I want to use. I also need to figure out what online gaming tool I want to use. I know there are many available, and I have fooled around with Fantasy Grounds in the past. I am not sure that I want to go full tactical combat with a simulated tabletop though, so I may use something like Google Hangout. 

I do know what era I want to play in, Episode IV. For the purposes of the game, only Episode IV will exist; I will ignore all sequels, prequels, cartoons, novels, modules, sourcebooks, video games, Christmas Specials, and calanders. I may draw some things from them, but players should not come in with any previous conceptions from outside the first movie. I don't want to eliminate the possibility of PC Jedi, but I may depending on the system used.

While I am partial to the old WEG Star Wars rules, I realize that they are not readily available anymore. I own, but have no experience with, the Saga edition from WotC. I assume that it is mini-centric, so it may not be the best choice for the kind of online game I am looking to run. I recently downloaded newbiedm's Dragon AGE Star Wars hack, and it looks promising. I love Savage Worlds, and have used it to run Star Wars in the past, but it is a bit mini-centric. GURPS is a possibility, it is my all time favorite sci-fi system, but I worry that it might be hard to teach over the internet.

I am not 100% settled on Star Wars yet. Shatterzone would also scratch the itch, although it is probably hard to find and I am not sure how I would handle the cards online. I could also see using Stars Without Number, Eclipse Phase, or Rogue Trader. While I love Traveller, I don't think that is the style of game I am looking for this time.  

I also need to research what websites are good to look for players.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Questlord

Questlord, an old school, first-person dungeon crawler, looks promising. Some of the more appealing aspects to me are the '90s styling and the fact that it can be played with one hand in portrait mode on your phone. There have been a number of good old school RPGs on mobile devices, Guardian Quest and Gurk stand out in my mind. 

Thoughts on Mass Effect Part 1: The End

I recently completed the Mass Effect series, and I have a lot to say about it. Actually I have a massive amount to say about it (sorry). I am going to start at the ending, because with Mass Effect that is the best place to start. This means that if you have yet to beat Mass Effect you should stop reading now. You have been warned.

The ending for Mass Effect 3 generated a small amount of internet controversy. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I feel that most of the controversy was due to a lack of perspective. Many people were upset that the choices they made throughout the series did not impact the final 10 minutes of the game. In fact, the choice you made right before the final 10 minutes did not really impact the final 10 minutes of the game pre-revision. Players protest that in a series built around choice, this was treasonous on the part of Bioware. They say that Bioware abandoned their commitment to player choice at the very end.

I willingly concede that the final 10 minutes of Mass Effect 3 are pretty weak. The whole creepy space kid who created the Reapers angle is... lame. It feels tacked on, and frankly it isn't really justified by the story leading up to it. But that is all I am willing to concede, because the ending of Mass Effect is awesome. 

I spent about 40 hours on each Mass Effect game for a combined total of about 120 hours. I think that it is silly to single out the final 10 minutes as the end of Mass Effect. In a way the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is the ending of the Mass Effect saga. You spend 40 hours reconnecting with the characters you have me throughout the series, and each and every one is in a state that you put them in through the choices you made throughout the series. Bioware did exactly what it promised, the final game incorporates all of the choices you made throughout the series. It ties up the ongoing storylines in spectacular and moving fashion. Your choices really mattered, in a way Mass Effect 3 was only about the choices you made in previous games. I think that if I had not played the whole series, especially Mass Effect 2, that Mass Effect 3 would have felt like a very strange game. I am not sure how well that game would work as a stand alone entry. 

The ending of Mass Effect didn't make me mad, it made me want to put Mass Effect 1 in my XBox 360 and start all over with different choices. Let's face it, after the jump in quality to Mass Effect 2, it took a lot to make me want to put Mass Effect 1 back in the system. There are characters that were central to my friends' playthrough that were not even alive in my version of Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 3 is a very personal game, based on everything that came before. 

So I loved the ending of the Mass Effect series, because the ending of Mass Effect was about Legion offerning himself up for the future of his people. The ending of Mass Effect wasn't just some all powerful space cadet, it was the bitter argument with Liara when I left her for Traynor. It wasn't all the mass relays being destroyed (pre-revision), it was Miranda getting revenge on her father. It wasn't Joker and two random crew members looking at a space jungle, it was Mordin Solus wishing he had a chance to run tests on seashells (greatest videogame exit ever). The ending to Mass Effect was fantastic and personalized, but the final 10 minutes were pretty darn lame.  

Kingdom the Final Frontier

My favorite podcast, The Podge Cast, is ending in a few weeks. In fact, they are recording their final episode this weekend. I have been a fan of Adam,/David, Luke, and Matt since their days on Fear the Boot. The Podge Cast alone will total 200 episodes (plus some extra stuff) and they each have a number of episodes as cast members of Fear the Boot. Without a doubt the community that has formed around the show is my favorite internet community. 

The argument could be made that The Podge Cast is not the greatest RPG podcast in the game. Other shows are more focused, have hosts with more game design experience, or actually talk about gaming. As a counter example I would put forward their series of actual play episodes, "Kingdom the Next Generation". They are not actually actual play I guess, they are more like recaps after the fact, which is a much less annoying way to get actual play information. For my money, this is still the best example of actual play in podcasting, and I say this as someone who enjoys the fantastic Walking Eye show. The series was about their Burning Wheel campaign, and it was not until I listened to this that I actually understood how Burning Wheel was supposed to work. I had read the Burning Wheel books, but it hadn't really clicked and just seemed really cumbersome. There are also valuable lessons for sandbox GMs of any system in Luke's comments.

And Luke tends to be where the real GMing advice is on the show, and he often presents it in a way that might slip by unnoticed if you are not looking for it. He gives some of the best advice on how to run a sandbox game out there, but it is usually presented in anecdotal form, so you have to pay attention. While Paul and Eric probably spend the most time talking about RPGs, the things they say tend to be more of academic interest than practical roleplaying advice. Fun to listen to and think about, but not something I am going to use at the table next week. 

GMs should also listen closely to what Adam has to say, specifically what he complains about. Adam very rarely phrases his complaints as roleplaying advice, but have no doubt that they are exaggerated versions of what your players are probably thinking. 

But The Podge Cast isn't actually about roleplaying advice for me, it is about the community that has its web centered on it. The show has led me to other blogs and shows, and to three great GenCons. I listen to the show for entertainment purposes. But at some point my reason shifted from the fact that it sounded like my friends sitting around talking about gaming, to actually being my friends sitting around talking about gaming. I hope that the community will survive and continue to grow around whatever they do next.

I'll leave you with this. There is an episode (no you have to find it yourself) where Matt discusses an odd diorama hobby. I can still remember exactly where I was walking when I realized what was going on, I can still picture the car that almost killed me because I wasn't paying attention too. Find this episode, it's my favorite

Test

This is just a test

Friday, February 24, 2012

AD&D Reprints

Recently WotC revealed that they will be republishing the three core rule books for AD&D. This probably serves as a way to keep D&D books on shelves during the period between editions, and possibly to gauge interest in re-releases. This will no doubt result in some players encountering the classic game for the first time, a whole new generation of people experiencing it. It will be interesting to see what those players may come up with based on their experience. They will be coming at the game from a totally different direction. It is impossible to say how many younger players will pick it up. Will they play it in large numbers, or will it be almost totally older players buying it?

I plan on picking up copies, but mostly just for collector purposes. At this point I hardly ever use the original rule books anyway. OSRIC works so much better at the tale, due to its better organization. At this point only a a rerelease that had substantial reorganization would replace OSRIC at my table. I even suggest OSRIC for people trying to start the game for the first time over the originals. While the DMG is great to read through, it is fairly difficult to figure the game out from the original books, especially combat initiative.

Tropes in RPGs

One of the most valuable sites on the internet for adventure writing, actually almost any writing, is tvtropes.org . While tropes are often something to be avoided, or at least subverted, in fiction writing, they can be very valuable in adventure writing. The value of tropes is even higher in a convention setting. They are a shared vocabulary and shorthand that you can leverage to get your players on board with the setting. 

Getting players on board with the setting can be one of the most challenging parts of preparing and running an adventure, especially at a convention. Setting presents problems for gamemasters that writers do not have. A writer has the luxury of exploring his setting, revealing the rules of his universe as he goes. A writer knows what parts of the setting his characters, and thus the readers, are going to interact with and can provide the reader with the necessary rules and background. Furthermore, readers never do anything unexpected, they either keep reading or put your book down. Players can, and do, almost anything at any time. A gamemaster has to establish the basic feel and rules (other than mechanical game rules) of his world quickly and clearly or risk confusion. Many RPGs are set in a fantasy or science fiction world, this means that players cannot rely on their knowledge of the real world to tell them what is possible. This can be an even bigger problem if you have a player that is "genre deaf".

We have all had the genre deaf player at one point. He is the guy who does not have a very broad knowledge of the style of world you are running. He may not realize that just because there was a Genesis Device in Star Trek II, such a device may not make sense in your Traveller game. He may want a lightsaber in every science fiction setting, or he may want to play a blond, elf archer in every fantasy game. You need to be sure that you send him clear signals about what is, and is not, possible in your world. A good knowledge of the genre tropes can help you with this.

If you spend a bit of time researching the tropes that are common in your genre on tvtropes, you can develop an appreciation of what expectations they set for your audience. The site usually has a list of what tropes are commonly found in connection with each other. There is a good chance that if you put lightsabers in your game, your players will be expecting some kind of Force-like power to go along with it. This connection is obvious, but many are not. A little bit of research will help you determine what kinds of signals about your setting you are sending your players without even realizing it. This gives you a chance to clearly rule out certain tropes that you will not be using, but your players may be expecting. You can also work backwards. 

The site also has a list of places that each trope is found. Spend some time with this list and, especially for a convention game, figure out where your players are likely to have been exposed. Exposure from a film is probably more likely than from literature. If a trope you are using is present in a popular movie, check and see what other tropes were present in that movie, and decide if you need to head any of them off at the pass. You can also select a movie or book with a feel you want to emulate and see what tropes were used in that story.

Obviously you do not want to become a slave to the tropes. But, especially with a new group, you should probably limit your deviations from them. You have a limited amount of time to explain your setting before you have to let your players act (for me 5 minutes is too long). You want to be able to communicate to them what kinds of actions will be appropriate, and give them the tools necessary to fill in your descriptive blanks. Are short, mining, dwarves horribly cliched? Yes, but if you sit down for a D&D game, it is something you do not need to explain to your players. You should have unexpected things in your games, and you should subvert tropes in ways that are interesting and memorable, but you need to have enough grounding in the expected that players feel confident in acting.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Test 2

Looks like none of the blogs I tried to post have actually been posting after the first one. Let's try this again.