A Problem of Perception

The Pros from Dover

We’re the Pros from Dover.

Once upon a time when I was just starting out, a document came across my desk that I was asked to edit. I was the second set of eyes on the document, the first being the company’s “Head Editor”. I’m not gonna mince words here kids, it was a fucking disaster. It was still full of misspelled words and crimes against grammar. I brought this up to the boss, who immediately jumped to the Head Editor’s defense with the statement, “You have to remember, he’s not a professional editor.” Excuse me? This is a man who, for twenty years, worked as “Head Editor” for this company, a position he still holds today. His name is in countless gaming supplements as “editor”. He gets paid to do the job of an editor. That’s the fucking definition of a professional! So, what is this? I’ll tell you what it is, it’s a problem of perception, of ourselves and our industry, that absolutely pervades this business.

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Slow Burn

Welp, looks like my Saturdays are free again…

There is a very interesting conversation going on over at Penny-Arcade regarding the relationship between players and game masters. Specifically, how the vagaries of herding cats managing players while they run roughshod over your carefully crafted world can burn a GM out quicker than a dollar store light bulb. They pay too much time obsessing on red herrings, they don’t take things seriously enough, they take things too seriously, they ignore plot, they don’t respect the setting, they don’t get it man, they, as Tycho puts it, dick around and eat pizza, and eventually the whole gaming experience for the game master can be summed up with this wisdom. It’s true, players can shit up a game quicker than anything, and will do so at their earliest convenience. You know what though, that’s their job.

On the other hand, it gets wearing after a while. Every GM who has ever sat behind the screen knows the feeling Gabe is talking about there in the first comic. The sinking feeling that comes to every GM at some point where it’s like pulling teeth to get up the energy to run the game and you feel like everything that was good and bright and hopeful at the beginning of the campaign is gone and there’s nothing left but aggravation and the feeling that not only are you bad at this, but you were never any good at it. I’ve never actually quit in a huff, or sent a hilariously damning letter to my players, but I’ve put more campaigns on “indefinite hiatus” than I care to think about. Sometimes I even pretend like I’ll go back to them some day, but we all know that I never will.

I don’t know how Munin does it. We’ve been playing Harn for what feels like twenty years now with precious little in the way of interruptions or problems. My campaigns typically collapse under the weight of my own bullshit and general player malaise. I have had one or two gloriously self-destruct due to some ugly player-vs.-player action, but those have been thankfully rare. The sad fact of the matter is that, for the most part, more campaigns fail than succeed. No matter how promising and shiny a campaign is at the beginning, no matter how fired up people are, every one is subject to the same kinds of outside pressures that destroy everything from friendships to new businesses. 
Running a game is like a second (or third, or fourth) job that you pay for the privilege of having. Not to say that it’s not worth it, ’cause it is. When you’re on and the ideas are coming and the players are into it and everyone is having a good time there are few greater feelings. Those days when you’re slow and thick and everyone has had a bad day and you see more laptops than smiling faces, those are the days when you just want to throw up your hands, say fuck this, and take up stamp collecting or something. The best thing you can do is not let it get to you. Remember, it could be worse. You could have no group at all.
*PS: Since I know a few of my Rogue Trader players are regular readers, don’t worry. Nothing in this post has anything to do with you.

Snow Day!

The view from my office…

So, we’re just going to go ahead and pretend that I’ve been updating like normal and not been a slack-ass for the past month and a half. Let’s just dive right in, shall we? Winter has come at last to the Detroit Metro Area. It snowed like a bastard all day yesterday, this heavy slurry of rain and snow that was great for snowballing and clogging the shit out of my snowblower, but not so great for staying warm or dry or shoveling without having a heart attack. Like a fool, I did all my snow removal and de-icing the walks after only five hours of constant snow, and by the time it was dark it looked like I hadn’t done a thing. It was goddamned Sisyphean. Not that I have it that that bad honestly, seeing as how Ragnarok has apparently arrived for Ross and Sam up in Minneapolis where the Æsir have become manifest and the Metrodome collapsed under the weight of all the snow.

Anyway, I awoke to a blasted, frozen hellscape winter wonderland this morning with about five inches of snow under an inch of ice and a temperature of about a million below zero. Making my car drivable was more akin to getting this guy out of his glacier than civilized snow removal. So of course, as I’m standing there hacking my way through all the ice that entombed the Saturn while the dog and cat both watch me smugly from my office window, my thoughts obviously turn to using weather in role-playing games.

Personally, I’ve never used weather much in games, but I love it when it’s well implemented in the rules and handled by a proficient GM. Think about it. In your standard “adventure” game like D&D or Rifts or Pathfinder or what have you, how much time do you spend outside? Quite a bit I’d wager. Hell, even in urban games like Shadowrun you’re still exposed to the elements, albeit for short amounts of time. Using weather as an obstacle, or to ratchet up the drama in a situation, is a great way to add extra depth to a game session. Especially, and you knew this was coming, if there are serious consequences.

Using weather in low-magic fantasy settings, or in any setting where the GM can separate the players from easy healing, can be just as deadly as a mob of Orcs. Exposure, boiling heat, bitter cold, limited visibility from snow, driving rain, or thick fog, all very dangerous to an unprepared adventuring party. With weather and environment, players have to adjust what they wear and carry. Wearing full plate in a burning desert is just asking for trouble, as is not wearing the right kind of gear in a howling, frozen wasteland. All of this takes players, all of whom sleep in their armor at all times no matter what they claim, out of their comfort zones and makes them take stock of what’s going on around them in the game and how it affects their characters.

In our Harn game for example, every day we get a little weather report from GM Munin. Just something like “Cold, and drizzling with a stiff wind”, and this little bit of info affects the way we play. Foggy tonight? Great weather for muggings and skulking about! Cold rain and gale-force wind? Fuck that noise, we’ll go the the Hook and Capstan for some gambling or the Halean Temple for some drunken debauchery quiet contemplation. See, since Harn is a low-fantasy middle-ages setting with little to no magic and even less conventional medicine, even normal weather can be deadly. Whenever we are out in the elements for an extended period of time, especially if we’re cold and wet, Munin has us make Body tests (we’re using Shadowrun 3 for our rules). Fail the test, catch a cold…or worse. Of course, when you’re sick there’s all kinds of penalties to important rolls (essentially you receive a number of boxes of stun depending on how bad it is). There’s a good possibility in our game, given bad luck and bad rolls, that one of our characters could die of exposure/illness/whatever due to the weather. I know some may balk at that, but I love it. It adds an extra level of immersion and, of course, of jeopardy.

Weather and environment are also a great way for GM’s to herd guide players without making it feel like they’re being railroaded. For example, if characters have booked passage aboard a ship (any ship will do, even spaceships, because there’s always some kind of weather in every environment) and a nasty storm whips up and blows them off course. Here then is an opportunity for side adventures, or breaking out that new sourcebook you picked up, without making it too obvious.

So, go ahead and spring some weather on your players sometime. Stretch a little, add a little depth, and enjoy the gnashing of teeth and tearing of character sheets as your players die of heat stroke in a suit of full plate in the middle of a desert.

Putting the Pro in Procrastination

If writers are, in the words of the inestimable Chuck Wendig, procrastinating shitheads, then I am their high-priest. Origins is six days away. Guess who has two thumbs and has only one of his four games ready for Origins. This guy. Right. Six days to port three games into new systems, build characters in those systems, and get familiar enough with those systems so that I don’t look like an idiot. But that’s not really what I came here to talk about today. Not really anyway. There’s something else I’ve been putting off. Something in regards to Origins, and something that I need some advice on.

Now, amongst my tens of avid readers, I wager there are a few who actually make a living in the trad-games industry in one fashion or another. So, like I said, I need some advice. One of the main reasons I’m going to Origins is to grow my brand as it were. I’m hoping to wander around the dealer hall, meet some people, make some contacts, and hand out cards, resumes, and writing samples. What I want to know is this, what’s the best way to go about it? What can I do to set myself apart from the thronging masses of neckbeards who want to parley their 9,000 page masterwork werewolf Star Wars slash-fic into a lucrative career in the games industry? Should I go clever? Should I play it straight? When is the appropriate time to start this conversation, right there at the booth or maybe an after hours meeting? Obviously I probably need a resume. Do I need to have a writing sample? My bibliography? What can I do to make an impression, and make sure my inquiries don’t get shuffled into the trash? What else should I do/know?

Since I’m at a loss, I turn to you Gentle Readers. Help me internets, you’re my only hope.

Anatomy of a Con Game

Okay, you guys are here, this door is open but it’s dark inside. Who’s going first?

Hot damn, two updates in as many days! I might just make it in the high-stakes game of RPG blogging after all. What I need now is a montage of me typing, staring into space, drinking coffee, changing diapers, and doing push-ups or jumping jacks or something backed up by the A-Team theme. Anyway, I woke up this morning in a cold sweat with a terrible realization. Origins is twenty days away! Twenty! Know how much of the prep I have done for my games? None. Well, hell. This is pretty typical, for me at least. I’m a terrible procrastinator, why put off ’til tomorrow what you can do next week? So, I’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot. But I figured I could procrastinate just a little longer and make a post about what goes into a good con game.

Running games at cons can be a tricky business. You want to do it right. You want to leave your players, who are all a bunch of strangers, feeling like they got their money’s worth when they leave the table. How, though? Is there some magic formula that you follow to ensure that a bunch of naturally nit-picky and pedantic strangers from all walks of life pass an enjoyable four hours under your fine GMing skills? Eh, not really. With the weirdo mix of people and personalities at every con, just as in real life, you’re not going to make everyone happy all the time. What you can do is make sure you’re ready, have a good idea where you’re going and a good idea of how you’re going to get the players there. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when you’re living life four hours at a time.
First you want to make sure you’ve got a strong concept. Most of my con games start from a single idea like, “demon possessed camera steals souls” or “CSAR team boards friendly derelict.” The concept should be short, to the point, and attention grabbing. Once you have a good idea you think you can run with, use the old journalism tool of the Five Ws and ask yourself a series of questions.
  • Who: Who is involved? In particular, who are the player characters, and who are their allies and adversaries? Using the CSAR team in the above example, in a team of eight (your typical number of seats at a con game), you’d have some medics, some comms guys, a scout, and some marines maybe. When you make characters for your con game, make sure they fit both the story and with each other. Make sure each has specific skills and/or talents that will have a direct impact on the game. No one wants to pay a couple bucks to play a game and then sit around picking their nose for four hours because you only made one hero and seven hangers-on for the game. As for NPCs, typically a name and a few stats will do. Don’t over-do the NPCs, you really don’t need to. My NPC enemies are typically a few lines on a 3×5 note card. The basest combat stats including any weapons or powers, useful attributes, and a couple notes about their personality.
  • What: This is where your story goes. Continuing with the CSAR example, say that a carrier battle group was in transit through hyperspace, and one of the ships developed a problem with its FTL drive. That ship drops out of transit, and the rest of the group carries on with promises that they’ll send a CSAR ship back for them. Okay, good. What happens then? What happens when the CSAR team (our players) finds their lost ship? Is she okay? Still intact? Crew alive? Since this is a con game the answer to all of those questions is probably no.
  • Where: This question deals with your setting. The where is typically dictated by your system/game of choice, and not specifically the con game itself. A good con game, one with a good enough premise, can be run in any setting. I have a con game whose premise is “Ambassador is murdered at gala opera opening” that was actually inspired by that time Chechens took a whole theater hostage and the Spetsnaz gassed the whole place to catch them. Since it doesn’t say anything about specific setting, that adventure could be run with any game from a hyper-modern near future game like Shadowrun to an old-west setting like Deadlands to even a higher-tech fantasy style world. In fact, I first ran that game as an Iron Kingdoms game set in the dwarven capital city.
  • When: Honestly, the when isn’t that important. The when is essentially now, with now being whenever you run the game. Check your events guide for run times.
  • Why: The why explains the story’s set up. In the above “ambassador killed” scenario, the why begs the question, “Why was the ambassador murdered?” Well, there could be any number of reasons, and it’s up to the players to find out. 

Once you’ve got those questions answered, you’re pretty much ready to go. Some other things a con game GM needs to keep in mind are:

  • Pacing: Let’s face it, con games are artfully designed railroad games wherein the GM leads the players around by the nose. To mitigate the players’ feelings of lack of control, the GM needs to walk a fine line between railroading and allowing free play. This makes sure that the players can affect the story through their actions, and that you can finish on time so you can get to the dealer hall before it closes. The way I do it is that I have a set opening, like the opening credits of a movie (Ambassador is killed, theater is locked down) and a set ending (players uncover identity of murderer) and everything else in between is the players’ responsibility. I make sure there are checkpoints along the way, goals I want them to achieve to move the game along, and players typically get to them no problem. If not, I’m there to give them a gentle push via clues or NPCs. Lead you players to the game’s conclusion, don’t push them, no one wants to have a GM just tell them a story for four hours and not get to do anything cool. Trust me, I paid money to be in a game like that once. 
  • Prep: Do your homework. Roll up strong characters, give each one a little bio to help introduce them to the players, have your NPCs ready, know where the story is going, and above all, be ready to think on your feet. Even though a con game is pretty linear, players can and will go off the reservation and you’ll need to be ready. Hell, at the end of one of my modern horror games, the players, who were all cops mind you, turned on one another like jackals and engaged in a firefight in the basement of an old hotel that was under construction. I certainly didn’t see that one coming, and neither will you when everything goes all sideways and the players start messing up your narrative. Be flexible and let them run. Encourage creativity at the table, but make sure you still get where you’re going at the end of the story. 
  • Presentation: I’m a sucker for props. Character dossiers, maps, photos, charts, you name it I’ve probably used it in a con game. Hell, I even have a specific Iron Kingdoms GM Kit I use when running an IK game. They help set the tone and immediately get the players in the proper headspace that usually takes weeks of sessions in a regular game. If you’d like to know more about using props, check this post out.

That’s about it. Honestly, while it seems daunting, prepping and running con games is a breeze. Intellectually taxing sure, and hard on the voice, but fun and rewarding too. Just think of it like directing a long movie with a lot of improvised dialog. Also, I’d recommend having a stock of con games available. I’ve got a big ol’ binder full of pregen characters and plot notes that I can whip out at a moments notice if needs be. So, go for it. Get yourself a good idea, gin up some characters and have a blast.

Mr. Mom

This isn’t fiction, it’s a goddamned documentary

So, last September when I got laid the hell off from Palladium, I’ll admit I felt a little bleak. I hadn’t lost a job since before The Wife and I were married way back in ’02, when I got fired from selling Harleys because I liked motorcycles too much. Anyway, as I stood there in my hallway staring at my phone trying to process what had just happened, my brain shifted on down into survival gear. Well, to be honest, first it shifted into “crawl into a bottle of Wild Turkey and listen to a lot of Hank Williams” mode. Then, as I struggled through the five stages of grief and helped an Austin Nichols exec make a boat payment, and after I dealt with, “Fuck, I’m a freelancer again!”, I had a little epiphany. I had a baby on the way, I was a writer, I work from home, I’m good at multi-tasking and staying work focused, I keep long hours, I’m not necessarily opposed to bodily functions…I was going to be Mr. Mom!

See, what you should know about me gentle readers is that I’m already pretty domesticated. I do the lion’s share of the cooking since I love food and I may as well use that degree for something. As for housekeeping, well, when I can be arsed I scrub a mean counter and polish a mean floor Hell, I’m not sure The Wife even knows where the laundry room is, and our house is all of 1,400 squares, so you know it’s not hard to find. So yeah, I figured that since I’m good at keeping writing and housework balanced, along with keeping the cars and bikes running and maintaining a seventy-year-old house, that I’d be able to just slot babby in there no problem with just a little re-arranging and keep on truckin’.

Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up parents. No, go ahead, get it out, catch your breath. I’ll wait….better? Right, I know. I know now, that it’s easier said than done. In my short, two-month tenure as Nervous McNewdad, I’ve had my eyes opened to just how time consuming and labor intensive new babbies can be. I mean, I knew, right? I’ve got a bunch of nieces and nephews that I’ve watched grow up so I know that they take a lot of work, but I didn’t understand. It’s hard to keep up a steady workflow when you need to feed/change/burp/bounce/sing to/entertain a little, mostly helpless person every three or so hours. Hard to keep that continuity, you know? Combined with other stresses, like work piling up and the constant, steady creep of deadlines, other things that need doing going by the wayside, no sleep (’cause I’m writing at 03:00 instead of sleeping), dealing with the emotional fallout of being new parents, well, lets just say that it makes the atmosphere a little charged at The Ranch.

I will say however, that The Wife and I are handling it better than most. My unique position as professionally unemployed a freelancer/journeyman cum stay-at-home dad allows me to take a more active role in the parenting, which helps take the load off The Wife. Between the two of us, we make up one good parent. My biggest problem right now is trying to balance everything out. I’ve got something like three concurrently running contracts with Fantasy Flight right now for both Rogue Trader and Deathwatch. I’ve got to bone up on Savage Worlds and my old flame Deadlands so I can do a writing sample for Pinnacle. I need to get back into my quickie know-it-all essays for Demand Studios cause that’s easy money right there, and Lord knows with a new babby and a bunch of ancient cars and bikes and a house that was built in the victory garden and commodity rationing era there’s never enough money, easy or otherwise. All of that, combined with trying to, well, grow my brand for lack of a better term by writing and shmoozing and emailing and blogging and tweeting and linking-in and all that other stuff that pretty much equates to me standing on my little corner of the internets holding my poorly written “Will write about spaceships for food” sign, well, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Now, I’m not complaining. Well, I’m sort of complaining, I admit. I’ll tell you what, though. Being a dad suits me. I like it, I like it a lot. Even when she’s being a huge pain in the ass, which thankfully isn’t that often, the kid is still great to have around. I couldn’t be happier with her. Well, maybe if she’d come already potty trained that would have been extra sweet. Anyway, I know it’s only been two months that I’ve been a dad, but I’d like to share some advice with any freelancers or prospective stay-at-home dads out there with babby on the way.

  • Work: If you’re gonna work from home, you need to straighten some things out first. Sit down with your wife/babby-momma/significant other/platonic life partner/co-parent/whatever and have a chat about distribution of responsibilities. Make it clear that your work is every bit as important as theirs is, even though you do it from home in your jammies and they go away to an office. Set down some guidelines about standing watches, as The Wife and I call it. Guidelines that say who gets the babby when, and when one or the other simply needs to be alone in a locked room to get any work done. If this involves making child-care arrangements, so be it. You’re not a bad parent just because you have to clear the decks and get a little peace and quite so that you can get work done.
  • Communicate: Seriously, this should be obvious but you’d be surprised. No matter how strong a marriage/life-commitment is, there is a shit load of emotional fallout that comes with having a babby. Make sure y’all aren’t holding wants, needs, desires, frustration, or any other emotions inside because I guarantee it will completely wreck you. 
  • Get. The Hell. Out: Seriously. This goes for freelancers who don’t have kids and it’s doubly important for journeyman dads. Have a place away from the house where you can go and relax or get a little work done sans kids/partner. I’ve got a couple comfy-ass coffee houses that I go to. They’re staffed by handsome young women, feature excellent coffee, hot and cold running internet, and, if I’m not working too hard, make for some excellent people watching/chatting up the regulars. This is super important for home-bound workers. Remember what happened to Jack Torrance? The last thing you need is to be chasing your partner and kid around the house with a fire ax because you’ve been staring at the same words/monitors/walls for a month straight. The cops frown on that shit. 
  • Communicate: Just sayin’…
  • Nail Down a Schedule/Work Regimen: You’re never going to get anything done if you have to do everything. Prioritize your work. Make sure you’re getting regular meals, regular showers, regular walks, and regular you time. Don’t work all the time, all it does is hurt the quality of your work as you get more and more burned out.
  • Get Thee to a Therapist!: Now, I don’t want to make this into a very special episode of Motor City Gamewerks or anything, but seriously. Know how I mentioned that emotional fallout? Post-partum depression isn’t just for moms anymore! Journeyman parents, depression is no joke. Trust me, I know. Having a babby stirs up all kinds of shit, shit you didn’t even know was in there. If you feel like you need help, get help! My therapist has been an enormous help and comfort during the past two months. I don’t like to be evangelical about getting your head shrunk, but I’d recommend it to anyone. If you’re not into therapy or can’t invest the time or money just remember, you’re not alone. With a little legwork I’m sure you could find some stay-at-home working dad support groups in your metro area. Whether in meatspace or on the internets, just being able to piss and moan about new-dadding over a few beers or a round of Left 4 Dead will do you worlds of good.
  • Stay Gold, Ponyboy: On a related-to-psychological-health topic, journeyman dads, make sure you don’t stop being you! If you gamed or mountain biked or did metal work or baked artisan bread before babby, make damn sure you keep doing so after babby. Hobbies are there for a reason, they keep you sane and act as a pressure valve. Don’t think for a minute that you need to drop everything and seal yourself off from the world just because you drafted a new member on to the team. I’m not saying that your schedule isn’t going to tighten up a little. What I am saying is that it’s important for you to keep involved with your friends and activities after you have the kid. It’s related to getting the hell out. You know what throwing your old life away, not calling your friends, and staying at the side of the bassinet 24/7 leads to? Resentment. Resentment leads to anger, anger leads…well…you know where this is going. Finally…
  • Communicate: Y’all saw this one coming a mile off, didn’t you?

So, there. *gets off soapbox* This is what works for me, and things that I think are important. As with any advice, your mileage may vary. If you want to be there for your kid and your partner, you have to be there for yourself. Don’t feel guilty about working, do stuff you like, make your needs and feelings known, get out in the sunshine now and again, and enjoy being a dad.

PS: Any other journeyman parents out there? I realize that this is a pretty dad-centric point of view and my experiences are, well, unique to me and my worldview. I’d love to hear from other freelance moms and dads here. Leave a comment, tell us a story, let us know how you’re holding up.

In Defense of Dwarves

Pretty much every dwarf ever is this guy.

Confession time. Dwarves are far and away my favorite demi-human race. Their industriousness, their pragmatism, their vitality, their sturdiness, and their acceptance of technology in fantasy settings appeals to me on a visceral level. Given the choice, I’ll always play a dwarf character in any setting, save for maybe Shadowrun. Shadowrun’s about the only game where I simply can’t abide demi-humans, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we are talking about is A: how much I love dwarves, B: why they’re awesome, and C: why so many gamers seem to miss the point.

The answers to the first two questions are easy, so we’ll deal with them first. A: A lot and B: Totally awesome. There, with that out of the way, we’ll tackle the third and, frankly, trickier question. Okay gamers and gentle readers, lets talk. Seems there’s a lot of powerful stereotypes about dwarves that we simply cannot dispel. Unfortunately, since there’s no NAADP (National Association for the Advancement of Dwarven People), it’s up to us to dispel these gross misconceptions. Now, this is a pretty tall order. Why? Well, because a lot of gamers, and game designers/publishers, are lazy and unimaginative. 

There, I said it. We are, on the whole, content to just accept the tropes set down for us by the first generation of elder-gamers and by the authors who inspired them. Now, there are strong exceptions to this. Iron Kingdoms has a great twist on dwarves, and, well…Did you know that Iron Kingdoms has a great twist on dwarves? It’s true! Aside from them, well, I’m drawing a blank. Any other settings out there not feature dwarves who have retreated to their mountain fastnessees after an apocalyptic war with Elves tens-of-millions of years in the dim past? Please, enlighten me. “But, but…that’s what dwarves do!” Do they? Do they really? That kind of thinking leads to our first stereotype, which is:

Every Dwarf is Gimli: Oh, noes! I can hear it now, “Gasp! How dare he say I miss the point! I’ve cosplayed Gimli over one-hundred times! I have eaten (more) Ramen (than usual) to afford the genuine replica Gimli movie axes from the back of the U.S. Cavalry catalogs to hang over my DVD collection! I’ve contributed numerous critiques and corrections to the Dwarf Wiki! I’ve even written love letters to (Jewel Saite/Summer Glau/Gerry Ryan/Scarlet Johansson/Milla Jovovich/et al) in ancient Khuzdul! I most certainly do get it!” Neckbeards will quiver in indignation, and a thousand thousand cheeto stained fingers will bend to their keyboards in righteous fury.

We have been stuck with Tolkien dwarves in every goddamned RPG and derivative, nine-thousand page, masturbatory fantasy novel by Roger McMaster Hickman-Weis for over sixty years now. All respect to Professor Tolkien and all, but It’s getting old. Really old. Seriously, kids. Lord of the Rings is sixty years old now! Can’t we have some sort of evolution away from the axe-swinging, beer-swilling, beard-wearing, mine-living, northern-European ruffian? Of course, none of this was helped in the slightest by Jonathan Rhys-Davies’ simpering, boorish, comic-relief portrayal of Gimli in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies which, in all fairness, wasn’t entirely his fault. Those movies came out and every gamer worth his Crown Royal dice bag, me included, said fuck yes! That’s how a dwarf should be played. You know what? We were wrong. Dead wrong. Gimli is a good start, sort of the ur-dwarf that all fantasy dwarves seem to have descended from. We need more though. More variety and some forward thinking when it comes to who and what dwarves are. If that happened, maybe we could get rid of:

Every Dwarf a Scotsman: Every dwarf that isn’t Gimli, and many that are, are apparently just very short Scotsmen with drinking problems and anger management issues. Seriously? What the hell is with us, and when I say us I mean gamers and fantasy nerds in general, and the Scots? You know what, gamers? I’m going to drop some knowledge on you right here. Despite what Mel Gibson would have us believe, Scotsmen weren’t the only hard-charging badasses to ever swing a sword. You know who else kicked a lot of ass back in the day? The Germans. And the Poles. And the Russians and the Turks and the Prussians and the French and probably a whole bunch of other people I’m forgetting. Hell, the old, old origins of dwarves before the likes of Tolkien and company got hold of them come from North Germanic Paganism, i.e. the bloody Vikings! I’m sick and tired of seeing dwarves portrayed as the fantasy analog of football hooligans who wear chainmail instead of Falkirk jerseys and throw axes instead of cups full of Boddingtons. So, do yourselves a favor gamers. Put away your utilikilt and your blu-ray of Braveheart and maybe, you know, come up with something other than a short dude in a kilt with a long beard for a character concept.
I Mine In My Mine and What’s Mine is Mine: Okay, this one I get. It plays into what I love about dwarves, you know, being the best craftsmen and miners and stonemasons in the world. I guess I don’t really have beef with this, it’s just a little pat. You know, there are dwarf farmers and shepherds and scholars and priests and all manner of other dwarves who work their short little asses off to support the aforementioned beer swilling, axe-throwing churls. You know what I want to hear for once? A story about, say, a bunch of dwarven civil engineers rebuilding an ancient dwarven city. Or, well, anything except another rehashing of Gimli son of Gloin.
Dwarven Women Have Beards: They don’t. Get over it.
Dwarves can’t (ride horses/swim/use magic/stand elves/go a day without starting a bar fight, etc.): Oh really? Why not? Who says, your old red box D&D? Think about it. Dwarves can’t be a single social and cultural unit in the same way that all Russians or Englishmen can’t. Sure, they have certain cultural touchstones and racial memories, along with their long traditions, but surely not every dwarf thinks the same way on every given subject. Dragon Lance did a decent job with this, especially in the Dwarven Nations Trilogy (which you all should either have read already or need to immediately read. They’re the best DL books hands down) where they showed all sorts of cultural differences between kinds of dwarves. These differences can be brought about by migration, isolation, or simply living in a different valley. Whatever the case, never assume that one dwarf is much the same as another. 
Whew, glad that’s over. I guess I’ve gone on about this long enough. I’m sure I’ve missed a whole bunch of things to talk about regarding dwarves and their portrayal, but thems the breaks. Honestly it all comes down to personal preference. I prefer level-headed, pragmatic, mildly sardonic, law-abiding dwarves who are clannish, enjoy the comforts of home and hearth, are professionals at whatever they turn their hands to, and are as varied as any other race of people. If you want a dwarven society made up of drunken Gimli clones who sound like an enraged Sean Connery all. the damn. time. knock yourself out. Just, I don’t know, have a look outside of your narrow fantasy worldview sometime and get a little perspective. You very well may like what you see. 

A Question of Scale: Size Matters

Those AT-AT pilots have a hell of a penalty to hit, but if they do connect…

So, I’m taking a break from writing about eight kilometer long spacegoing cathedrals to pound out a blog post today because, well, I need a break from the aforementioned spacegoing cathedrals. I believe I’ve made it perfectly clear throughout our time together that I have some very specific ideas about game design, especially when it comes to realism or the illusion thereof. Since I play a lot of sci-fi games, and those mostly dealing with giant robots, powered suits, and other powerful vehicles of war, something I’ve always been concerned with is the question of scale. No, I’m not talking about weights and measures or a C minor or something. I’m talking about the fact that some things are bigger than you, and bigger things are invariably harder to kill and more deadly than things that are your size. Would you like to know more?

It has always been my firmly held belief that scale matters in an RPG. It’s one of those things that, when done right, immerses you in the action and makes you think your way through an encounter. When done badly however, which is the way it’s usually done, it sucks you right out of the moment and destroys your suspension of disbelief. The idea is a simple one. If it’s bigger than you it does more damage and is harder to kill. If it’s smaller, it does less damage and is easier to kill. Not that small things can’t be deadly, a venomous spider is every bit as deadly as a bloody great bear, but you get the idea. The problem is that most games either can’t or won’t deal with the idea of scale as a game mechanic, and when they do it’s often hilariously atrocious. I’m going to give you examples of what I believe are the two ends of the spectrum, good and bad ways of handling, or ignoring, scale.

Rifts: Right, you all know where this is going. Rifts has no mechanic for scale. Everything is Mega-Damage and the 4d6 damage a laser rifle does is the same 4d6 as that from a 5″ naval gun. It’s is the kind of game where an infantryman with an energy rifle roughly analogous to an M-16 can go toe to toe with a thirty foot tall robot vehicle and expect to come out victorious. The game rules support tackling something heavily armed and armored and weighing roughly thirty tons with small arms and surviving without a scratch. Where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the challenge? Where’s the fun? There isn’t any, because Rifts is a game about winning all the time with no threat or consequences. It’s playing RPGs on easy with the god mode cheat active.

D6 Star Wars: If Rifts is the example of bad scaling, and it surely is, West End Games Star Wars is an example of great scaling. The designers who designed the d6 system, which is an elegant little system that you should all be playing, knew they had a problem with scale. Making a game based on a movie in which, essentially, an F-15 blows up a man-made planet with a well placed missile has certain inherent challenges. The WEG designers handled it brilliantly though, and with one chart and about a thousand words came up with a scale system that should be required reading for every game designer. It does the lion’s share of the work for you, and generally simulates vast differences in scale very well by altering to hit, dodge, and damage roles depending on what scale you and your opponent. Bigger things are easier to hit but harder to damage (going at a Imperial II class star-destroyer with a B-wing for example) and little things are harder to hit but much, much easier to kill (blasting a human with the blaster cannon of an AT-AT). It makes killing a starship with a fighter near impossible, forcing some quick and creative thinking (X-Wing/Death Star/Thermal Exhaust Port/etc.), and adds a certain level of lethality to approaching an AT-ST with a satchel charge.

See? It can be done gamers and game designers. It doesn’t have to be complicated, you don’t have to have an advanced degree in maths (I’m looking at you Hero System), and it adds a little, say it with me, verisimilitude to the game. Adding challenge and risk and jeopardy to a game can never be a bad thing. It fosters problem solving, quick and creative thinking, and forces players to make tough choices they otherwise wouldn’t make while in easy mode.

More Human Than Human: Body Modification in RPGs

Only .001 essence left? No sweat, I’ve got a Willpower of 6…

I tend to play mainly sci-fi or modern style games. I rarely play fantasy, as it holds little interest for me unless it’s a setting like Iron Kingdoms where there’s a fair amount of technology. Aside from my fetishistic love for technology and machines, one of the things I find most compelling about these games is the theme of human modification that runs through them. Think about it. Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Rifts, and a dozen other games like them all allow the player to make a Faustian bargain wherein they trade greater or lesser degrees of their humanity for some amount of power. Why? What would drive a person to graft machine parts to their body or submit to dehumanizing brain implants or accept a swift and painful death by narcotic overdose? That’s the question I’m curious about, and what I want to talk about today.

I think one of the best examples of this question is found in Palladium Books’ Rifts. Back in the day, before it became the bloated train wreck it is today, Rifts was a great game with a very, very ugly premise. That premise was that, essentially, you needed to become a monster to fight one. That the best way to protect your family, friends and neighbors was to become something other, to completely trade away your humanity for super-human powers that would eventually melt your bones or burst your heart or drive you mad. Tough call, eh? How much do you care? How deep is your love? How much do you desire fame or infamy or revenge? Enough to trade away the ability to feel the touch of the wife or child you’re defending? Enough to sign your own death sentence? Compelling stuff, and it’s still there in Rifts buried under all the magic using dinosaurs and giant robots with crotch cannons.

Sad thing is, this isn’t really discussed much in favor of the aforementioned dinosaurs and dick-guns. There’s no real down side to playing these characters, not in a rules sense. Sure, Juicers die young because the drugs they use consume their bodies at an alarming rate. To your typical Rifts player however, the five to seven year life-span of a Juicer isn’t much of a downside. Think about it, how long does your average campaign run? Not long enough for Last Call. Same goes for Crazies, super soldiers who accept brain implants which improve their natural abilities and make them psychic at the cost of their sanity. Of course, in typical RPG style, the mental illnesses that Crazies can accumulate are treated in a flip, offhand manner and all crazies end up being wacky, unreliable sociopaths who spout non-sequiturs all the time ’cause they’re sooooooo crazy. Then of course there are the Rifts Cyborgs who have no drawbacks, at least none as written in the rules, and are free to become walking tanks without so much as a twinge of conscience.

Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, two of my favorite games, are the opposite side of this coin. Each has a specific attribute, Essence in Shadowrun, Humanity in Cyberpunk, that is essentially a reflection of the character’s soul. The more metal you graft on to your body in the form of cyberware and bioware, the more of your soul is whittled away. Every time you get a new implant you die a little more inside, and it is reflected in your stats and in social interaction difficulty modifiers, among other things. For example, my SR character Yuri started with the standard six points of essence. During character creation as part of his backstory, I bought a shitload of cyberware for him. Essentially he was blown up and had to be reconstructed. His essence as it stands now is .64. Yes, you read that right, he has less than one point of essence. This causes all manner of trouble for him in social situations, gives him some serious psychological problems and makes him a hoot to play. The essence loss rules are there to give me as a player a framework to work within. They encourage me to play Yuri’s illnesses, and reward me when I do. It’s stuff like this that brings the idea of becoming a monster to better fight one closer to home when you see it have a concrete effect in game.

I know what you’re going to say. But, Jason. You don’t need rules for that, that can all be handled through role-playing! I agree, but role-playing needs a solid foundation of rules to rest on or there will be total chaos. If there’s no incentive in the rules for a player to make hard choices and to role-play out the consequences of those choices, why should they? Why should they buy the whole cow when the get the milk for free? Gamers are, on the whole, lazy and won’t go out of their way to hamstring a character unless they get something out of it like extra build points or XP. Rules like these also force the characters to actually make the hard choices. Is this new implant really worth yet another piece of my soul? Is the cost/benefit ratio beneficial enough? It better be, because once that piece of you is gone it’s gone, and there are precious few ways to get it back. That right there, that choice, is a good motivator right there. So, next time you’re at the cyberstore looking at this season’s hot new eyes, ask yourself, are they worth it?