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August 31, 2006

Gone With the Blastwave

Found out about this webcomic via the RPGnet Roleplaying Open thread with the motivational posters (yep, it's still going). It's a grand epic of passion, romance and old-time civilisation swept away in the harsh light of a nuclear explosion, with -

Oh, who am I kidding? It's the closest you'll ever get to Red Vs. Blue, the Webcomic. Which means it's funny.

Go. Read. Better yet, start where I started.

August 26, 2006

The Spillane Way: Timeslot Juggling

Unfortunately, we've not been so lucky with The Spillane Way lately. The renovation work we're doing here is really taking its time, and in order to get it out of the way any time in, say, the next month (before my aunt Heather arrives from the UK), we're having to make it a priority on the weekends. Which means Vickie and I can't really spend three or four hours of Saturday afternoon on gaming, not when we could be sanding, painting, drilling and such. It also looks as though Saturdays aren't working out so well for Salidar, either.

Also, the first session didn't exactly fire as I was hoping it would. I think the main reason is, really, getting to know the game, not in terms of rules (ther really aren't that many) but in terms of me, the Producer, thinking on my feet and driving the events of the game towards meaty, engaging problems that'll interest the players. Still, I've been doing some work on that in the past couplle of weeks; Chris "Bankuei" Chinn posted an article on his Deep in the Game blog called Flag Framing that I've found really helpful. I've used it to create myself a cheat sheet with all my players' Connections and Nemeses on it, with notes on what they want from the protagonists (the players' characters). I think it'll be a whopping great help. In that first session, I was really stumped on how to put meaningful conflicts into the game. Looking back now, I realise there was a simple answer: Drop a Connection or Nemesis into the scene and make their reason for being there at cross purposes to the protagonists.

Still, we have to work on scheduling before I can try that idea out. We'll see how we go!

August 25, 2006

Shadowrun and Interesting Characters

Right. Slacking with the off lately. Back to the bloggage:

Firstly: Shadowrun (Third Edition, as it turns out) was pretty good, especially considering we were all feeling our way, both in terms of rules and each other. Well, Vickie and I were feeling our way with Tracey, and she was feeling her way with – wait, this is suddenly reading rather weird, so if you don’t mind I’ll drop that little metaphor. Okay.

So we’ve got Vickie, who has never played Shadowrun, was, I think, feeling a little uncertain about this whole Lord of the Rings meets Blade Runner business and is always complex-rules-ick, and me who’s on this whole Story Now, Player-Engaement-Yes-Easy-On-The-Rules kick right now. Then there’s Tracy, who’s keen on Shadowrun but hasn’t played or GMed it in a few years and has a “rules are a guideline” mindset; she’s also thankfully pretty cool and patient and went through character creation with Vickie. I think Vickie still came out of it like, “All those numbers – huh?”, but was pretty okay with playing. Meanwhile, I was in the computer room, mucking around with a Shadowrun character generator I downloaded and getting the odd bit of guidance from Tracey (I still managed to forget to buy a knife). We had a fairly short run – mainly because there was no violence and things were getting late, which meant I was getting tired and grouchy – but we got fairly familiar with the system. I think.

Anyway, I think Vickie managed to put something solid together in terms of background for Tracey to work with, where I didn’t have anything much more than “Sean Hendric, Irish Elf” to work with. Oh, and that he was a rigger/street samurai combo. That probably contributed to the averageness of Friday night’s game, and Tracey asked me to please give her something more before next time. Thankfully, she loaned us her Third Edition rulebook. I spent some of Saturday reading through the future history chapter and re-acquainting myself with the Shadowrun mythos.

I started reading with an idea I took from a bit of game mastering advice in Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads: Look for something that bothers you about the world of the game and use it. I found that bothersome pebble in the way people treat each other in the harsh world of 2054 (Tracy’s using the Second Edition setting), specifically, the way employers treat shadowrunners as a deniable asset; use ‘em ‘til you don’t need ‘em any more, then toss ‘em out. The double-crossing Mr. Johnson may be a schtick of the Shadowrun mythos, but I couldn’t help wondering, what sort of mindset would someone – a shadowrunner, say – have to adopt in order to cope with it? How do you survive in the Sixth World when who you are doesn't matter much to most?

The answer I came up with was looking at yourself as an investment; you’re less likely to be betrayed if you’re worth more to your employer alive and able to do more jobs. Fine and fair enough, you might say, nothing really new there. My take, the bit that really interests me, is this: What if that person viewed everybody, not just the Johnsons, the same way, because he thinks that’s how everyone deals with each other – keeping people around while they’re useful, then ditching them when they're not any more?

Having that immediately clarified some background stuff that had been hazy beforehand. I knew that Sean came from Tír na nÓg (Ireland) and had a low lifestyle, but I didn’t know why he left or what he was doing in the Seattle Sprawl. Suddenly, I realised that Sean’s parents had split up badly and that he probably had a more successful brother somewhere, and that he’d basically been raised in the Sprawl. The Shadowrun Timeline on Wikipedia told me that Sean’s Catholic parents probably saw Sean as an abomination after Pope John Paul IV’s 2011 proclamation that metahumans were soulless, which was also why they got out of Ireland after it started becoming elf heaven. Some more reading of the background told me that Sean’s parents were big in the IT biz, and that the loss of their careers in the Crash of ‘29 was a big part of why they split up. One or the other of them – whichever got “stuck” with Sean – probably ditched him in the Barrens, and after that, he likely would have been raised by whatever gang he made his way into (by proving his worth somehow, further confirming his “you scratch my back” attitude).

I e-mailed some basic notes through to Tracy, and I’m working my way through the Shadowrun Twenty PC Questions at the moment; I’ve realised his cyberarm was due to another big split up in his life; the fracturing of his gang, allowing a bigger, tougher one to run it into the ground. I’m partway worried that I’m over defining this guy’s background at the start, but I’m looking at it as giving the GM ways (read: NPCs) to put the screws to Sean so I can find out if and/or when he’ll ever change. At the very least, I’ve got a character I’m interested in playing – sure, he’s a bastard, but he’s an interesting bastard.

Anyway, Tracy is keen on an every Friday fortnight game, which suits Vickie and I as well. I’m getting seriously keen on seeing how this game shapes out. Mainly because I’ve got a character who’s personally interesting beyond the balance of his stats, skills and gear.

August 19, 2006

The Mountain Comes to Mohammed

Just read about this in the Perrenland mailing list.

GenCon Oz.

Holy Fuck.

August 16, 2006

Holding up a Mirror to Nerdicultural Society

So I was watching Scrubs at 11.30 on Monday evening (yes, I get Mondayitis on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays). When I first saw bits of the show, I really didn't think I'd like it - it looked as though it was more of that "Trying Hard to be as Surreal as Monty Python and Failing" comedy that those American-type peoples produce now and again. Then I caught a little of it one day after an episode of Boston Legal - and found myself liking it (I think it was something to do with JD imagining a black Leprechaun). It's zany - but in that silly, not-willing-to-grow-up way I wish life could be like now and again - or, more accurately, it's as silly as I'd like to get away with being.

Oh, and Dr. Perry Cox is House's evil twin brother. Vickie and I love him.

Anyway, last episode, Carla's pregnant, and her husband Turk and his best friend JD are working on the nursery, including mural for the main wall. Carla walks in and asks what the hell they're doing. They turn with big grins and present the wall:

Megatron must be stopped at any cost!
With thanks to TFormers.com

I broke up immediately. It wasn't that it was a kids' nursery wall with Optimus Prime and Megatron - okay, maybe it was, but it was also the sheer nerditude of JD and Turk. I mean, I know these guys, these theoretically adult people who just can't let go. They're me. I was laughing at myself. And I'm pretty sure Vickie was laughing at me though them too, but that was cool!

I'm also pretty sure she's glad that kids are out of the question for us.

Still, young Seth has a room of his own...

A week of ups and downs...

... and we're only halfway through.

Or more, maybe. I think.

On Saturday, Vickie and I took a bit of time out from the ongoing renovations to meet with Tracey, the dissatisfied gamer I met at Reefcon. We had a nice lunch at the Buckin' Mex Restaurant, during which we talked about games, Cairns, study, Canberra and a shared acquaintance (I'm looking at you, Sim). She'll be coming over our place on Friday to GM us some Shadowrun (which edition, I'm not sure). Yes, you read right, I'm going to shut up and play for once!

And of course, the day after is the next session - hopefully the concluding half of the pilot episode - of The Spillane Way. Got a few things to do to prep for that. Still: Lotsa gaming! Tracey's not so keen on the setting for The Shadow of Yesterday, unfortunately, so I might see if I can organise something with Simon and Cristel once the chaos from the renovations has settled down some.

For those of you keeping track at home, Monday the 14th of August was our second wedding anniversary! Vickie and I celebrated with a relaxed dinner at Perotta's, the restaurant we've always liked since Vickie took me there on my first evening in Cairns. The service was uncharacteristically wonky, unfortunately; our main course came out a tad too early, my chicken Caesar salad had somehow become a fish and chips and Vickie's warm chicken salad was absent the pumpkin listed on the menu. Despite horrid flashbacks to Toscani's in Hornsby, though, we still enjoyed our meals and celebrated our marriage in happiness. Vickie says it a lot better than I here.

Mixed up orders were nothing compared to yesterday's drama, though. Remember Ziggy, the red cattle dog staying with us at the moment? I got a phone call from Vickie yesterday at ten AM, saying the little blighter had escaped from the backyard and she had no idea where he was. She realised he'd escaped after Zelda barked at her from outside the gate on the other side of the house and walked all the way up Riverstone Road in the hope of finding him. With no luck there, she realised that if he'd gotten a fright, he'd probably head straight back to our place, and when she arrived back, there he was at the gate.

the drama didn't stop there, however; the blood and bites he was covered in were clear evidence that he'd got into some kind of scrap while he was out. Vickie cleaned him up and took him to the vet's with Rhys' help; nearly $400 worth of examination and stitches later Ziggy was back home doped up to the eyeballs. A bite under his armpit that Vickie hadn't seen had apparently come very close to a major artery. We made sure he got plenty of rest; we put him in the laundry (which is now its own room complete with sliding door; thanks, Karl!) to separate him from Zelda overnight. He was much perkier this morning, thankfully, and Vickie called me this morning to let me know that he's wearing a brand new Elizabethan collar. I'll be taking the bus in on Monday so that Vickie can take Ziggy back to the vets to have his stitches out.

"I really didn't need today," Vickie told me last night whilst having a much-deserved ciggie break on the front verandah. A quite understandable sentiment, I think.

August 02, 2006

Lt. Farquhar, You Are Go For Drop!

Hey, everybody: I just got published! The latest issue of Mongoose Publishing's Signs & Portents PDF magazine is avalable, and my article on drops and drop capsules for Starship Troopers: The Roleplaying Game is in it, starting on page twenty! Woohoo, I say!

Reefcon 06: The Magic Number

I forgot to mention one other thing I took away from Reefcon: There is such a thing as too many players. The fact that there were seven of us for the Friday night session contributed to the general sense of chaos, especially when one player got a bit of spotlight time (the rest started feeling either left out or that the module had become stuck), and although the Saturday session was okay, I have the feeling that managing six players was one of the factors that contributed to the session going a little longer than it should have.

In terms of what I'm looking for out of gaming, I have the strong feeling that the "sweet spot" group is three to four players. If you want to give a decent amount of spotlight time to each player in the group and you have five or more players, then you need to be an expert at aggressive scene framing and keeping the pace moving (which I'm definitely not yet) or else you'll wind up with one of two situations: A player or two hogging the spotlight, or The Classic Party Mentality, where individual characters are just extensions of the overall party, character-based decisions are subject to a half-hour of argument over whether they endanger team safety and nobody gets any spotlight time.

August 01, 2006

About Frakkin' Time!

Boy, am I going to be grouchy on Thursday mornings for the next twenty weeks!

Of course, season three starts in the US in October. Hope we don't have to wait long for that!

Reefcon 06: Dissecting Experience, Defining Tastes

So what can I learn from my experiences at Reefcon 2006?

Overall, the Reefcon experience reminded me personally of a suggestion that circulates through RPG forums every now and again, that RPGs are often “twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours” (that the original quote was regarding D&D makes it doubly applicable here). Do they have to be? No, but a fair few factors work against the "traditional" RPG on that score.

My personal opinion of the Version 3.x incarnations of the Dungeons & Dragons rules is that they work best when "roleplaying", as it were, takes a back-seat to tactical chalenge. It's at its most fun when all of those feats, spells and pieces of equipment Swing Into Action – will holding until he moves closer and then Cleaving equal oh my God, did you see how much damage I just dealt? Now, don't get me wrong; character and what's traditionally considered roleplay are and should be still present; they make imagining the world of the game and the characters in it easier and more interesting. But that tactical crunch is and should be front and centre, because that's where you find D&D's maximum fun. If D&D is the game, then skills, feats, spells, equipment and hit points are the toys.

The problem is that a lot of roleplaying texts (including the Dungeon Master's Guide) try to make you feel guilty for playing with the toys, even as they shove the dice, the character sheets, the classes, the feats, the spells, the miniatures, the battlemaps, the 5-foot steps and attacks of opportunity down your throat. The result is often this odd mish-mash of tactical elements, pre-scripted event plotting and restrained, uncertain play, a shining example of that twenty minutes per four hours ratio of fun.

Looking back at that second session on Saturday, everyone else at the table (except the half-orc player) was a little more used to this type of play than myself. Still, while they didn’t seem quite as bored at times, I never got the impression that any of them was having any particular fun (that could simply have been a bad module as Wes was claiming). I recollect a tendency to discuss the D&D rules in general – not so much rules arguments as comments on classes, feats, spells and rules. For example, I distinctly remember Wes ending a brief discussion of the Bard class with a comment that the Bard class sucked at lower levels but rocked at high ones. It still could’ve been saved until an after-session post-mortem.

Also, I think that I had perhaps set my expectations a bit too high for the second module. The while “abandoned ancient civilisations in the midst of the jungle” vibe I get from the continent of Xen’drik coupled with the whole post-war, magitech pulp feel of the Eberron setting as a whole had me thinking, “The Dashing Love-Child of D&D And Indiana Jones.” Heck, if I were ever to run a D&D game, I'd probably set it in Xen'drik. I couldn't help but be disappointed with the generic find-and-fetch, "could be set anywhere" nature of that module.

But shifting the blame back to D&D itself for a bit: a problem with the Reefcon games, and with D&D in general, is that playing level 1 characters sucks. Although it might still look as though you have some tactical variety (sling? bow? magic missile?) they all tend to be rather samey (sling? bow? magic missile?). It's only when your character gets to later levels and you have a spread of options before you that a session can start to cook; in the meantime the DM has to design adventures with kid gloves, just so the PCs don't get put out of the game within the first round of combat.

So what does that mean for what I want to do in the next game I run? Well, it's reinforced my interest in becoimg a "bassist" game master, who mainly makes sure the pace of the game cooks along and throws well-designed bangs at the players when things slow down, instead of a game master who plots each adventure out beforehand and does his best to move the players to where he thinks the good spots ought to be. It's also given me a better appreciation for what D&D can do, and a willingness to maybe try it out sometime.

But I still want to give The Shadow of Yesterday a good whirl first. Right the way through that torturous Friday night session, I was wishing we'd been playing TSoY instead...

The Reefcon Report: 2006

Now that Reefcon’s over and done with, I want to review my experiences there, filter them through the lens of my tastes and learn as much as I can. I’ll break this up into two posts, a straight up report with my initial impressions and some general conclusions.

I wound up playing in two sessions. The first, on Friday night, was a Living Greyhawk module. I was one of seven players, most of whom were hormone fuelled teens (early to late) still in that phase where you’re always trying to verbally one-up everyone else (I know how that feels; I can think of several instances in my youth when I was right there). As an example, my character, the first-level half-elf sorcerer Horst Buholt (the Perrenland region has a distinct Northern European flavour, so I went with a Germanic name), likes travelling on foot (you have to pick a deity for Living Greyhawk characters, and of what I read from the two-hundred-plus page deity document for LG, the god Fharlanghn seemed the most interesting choice) and owns a pack donkey. Of course, once the other players found out, a good chunk of session time was occupied by tittering threats to the donkey’s life. Most of the session was pretty much occupied by that kind of sugar-buzz smack-talking. I took it with a smile and did my best to ignore it, but the session was slow and boring as a result. At the end, the DM said, “I hope everyone had fun; I did.” I couldn’t help thinking, “What - really? You seriously had fun? When?”

The second session was better; the table was six players and they were all adult (and mature, thankfully) players. Our DM was no less than “Unca” Wes Nicholson, a well known name in the national RPGA con scene. Unfortunately he was saddled with a ho-hum Xen’drik Expeditions module, the quality of which he vented his frustration over at the table on several occasions. Most of us used pre-generated neutral-to-evil level 1 PCs (mine was a human sorcerer), and we were given a fairly clear objective in low “fetch this item for your sinister patron” style. Apparently there were opportunities for side-quests and extra brownie-points with our patron faction, but the game had a fairly slow pace and we didn’t really notice any hints toward “Extra goodies here!”, not that I really thought Wes was giving any.

Things really started to drag when we finally got to the first big fight scene, where our PCs were captured, stripped of their belongings and forced into an arena bloodsport rigged firmly against them. My PC spent the fight unconscious after the first turn of combat, and at least two others were also knocked down to zero hit points halfway through. Apparently there was only one real winning tactic for that fight, which only people who passed a Spot check (two of our six, as the dice fell) had a hope in hell of figuring out - except when it wasn’t the winning tactic (e-mail me if you really, desperately want the details).

Once that was out of the way and we were all healed to varying percentages of our maximum hit point totals, we went to the house where the MacGuffin was being kept and raided it. There, I was quite a bit more effectual; I actually found the room where the MacGuffin was kept and kicked the fighting off: 2001 Monolith, four acolytes, almost out of session time – bugger roleplaying it out, use Magic Missile. Unfortunately that’s pretty much all I wound up doing, using my four Level 1 spell slots on Magic Missiles and a Mage Armour. Still, we all had decent opportunities to contribute to the ass-kicking, which was good.

The only real stand-out moments where I felt really engaged by what we were doing were the tense moments before combat started, especially when we were searching a house at the end of the module. At least in the latter fight, there was something of a payoff, instead of being smacked out after trying to be useful. There were other moments of engagement, - my character being held out the side of a ship by another player’s half-orc (by the ankles, I think) while my character heaved his brekky – and the last combat was interesting, but the wole session was still very “meh”.

So I decided that, rather than trek out to Manunda again on Sunday for another session that would likely be all right but not particularly good at best, I’d stay home and help get some more renovation out of the way. That's right; I chose lifting, drilling, cutting and grinding over more gaming.

Still, every cloud ahs a silver lining; I found out that the player of the half-orc who held my PC over the side of the ship while he vomited is looking for a new regular gaming group (she moved up here a year ago), and we exchanged numbers. Of the second group, she the most similar sense of fun to mine, I think, and I'm pretty sure she was about as bored. We both agreed that Living Greyhawk wasn't our style!