Reentry

Coming in for a soft landing

Hey, friends! Well, I’m back from spa…I mean…Orlando. It was a whirlwind trip wherein I brained a lot, drank a lot of coffee, pretended to be a ten year old aboard the ISS, wore funny hats, played with Lego, drove a small Italian car at very high speeds on the 408 around Orlando, and made some pretty great contacts. There was more to it, of course. Would you like to know more? Of course you would!

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In the Town that Walt Built…

Pretty as an airport.

Never in the history of mankind has anyone described something as “Pretty as an airport”, and with good reason.

(Note: I did, in fact, write this in the air. Sadly, I couldn’t actually figure out how to post it from there, so you get it from my comfy room in downtown Orlando. Enjoy.)

Well hey there, friends! So, here I am, somewhere around 25,000 feet over Ohio in a cramped, oversold 757 speeding south to Orlando. Now, truth be told, I don’t care much for Florida. In fact, my opinion on the whole state can pretty much be summed up by Bugs Bunny and his giant saw. Having said that, I’d suffer all kinds of indignities for this trip, including sitting behind an incredibly obese, red-faced, middle-aged meathead with his seat back aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall the way reclined, encroaching on what little space is available to me for work. But I digress. Anyway, here I am on my way to the Sunshine State to talk about space. Yep, tomorrow is the day join some of the greatest minds of our generation to talk about what to do with the International Space Station. Crazy, right? I mean, seriously, it’s like a reverse of the “not my job” segment on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. You know, where a bunch of radio dorks invite someone super important and accomplished onto their show to ask them ridiculous questions about the history of astrology or butts or whatever strikes their fancy. In Orlando, it’s going to be all this brain power, all these eminent scientists and engineers and rocket surgeons and thinkers….and me. A dude who writes about spaceships and giant robots for a living. I’m not going to complain, though. Because, seriously, I’m super stoked about it. Honestly, this is as close to being an astronaut as I’ll probably ever get, and being an astronaut was the end-game of my whole life plan when I was in fifth grade. That was a good plan too, man. Waaaaaaaaaaaaay better than the Cylon’s plan. Good grades, Air Force Academy, flight school, F-16 pilot (I’ve always had a soft spot for the Viper, but now I’d probably rather be an A-10 driver), major by the age of 36, then bam!, astronaut time. But then reality set it, it turned out I was terrible at maths, then what with the distractions from girls and RPGs and model airplanes and books about dragons and obsessively reading about aircraft and all I got kind of sidetracked and here I am. I guess I don’t have any complaints, though. Hell, in hindsight, I’d have made a terrible military man what with my low tolerance for bullshit and even lower tolerance for authority. Anyway, so, yeah. Gonna talk about Space. I’ll write more about it tomorrow night after the conference, give you guys a taste of what went on, then probably do a larger post about it next week sometime in between writing about Orks, SPEHS MARINES, and future-past wild west demon apocalypses. So, stay tuned. This should be pretty good. You know, if I don’t just break down and start babbling about space like the Space Core.

You Guys Will Never Believe What I Found…

Big ol' stack of nostalgia

Look. At. This.

Oh man, you guys. You’ll never believe what I found! Well, I didn’t find these, a friend of mine did. Anyway, that right there in the picture is a stack of Dragon Magazines! Twenty-five Dragon Magazines to be exact, from the years 1982 to 1985. Can you believe it? My buddy and bandmate Stephen scored the lot of them in a used bookstore in Nashville for the princely sum of twenty American dollars for the whole lot. He called me from Nashville and was like, “What’s Dragon Magazine?” and I was like, “Why do you ask?” and he was like, “Cause I’m looking at a box full of them, and they’re, like, a dollar a piece.” Then I blacked out a little because I think I had a joy-induced aneurysm. When I came around Stephen was still on the line, and I believe I said something like, “BUY THEM ALL FOR ME!” which he was kind enough to do. And now here they are, twenty little time capsules from the golden age of gaming. What does this mean for you? I’m glad you asked! Starting  Friday I’m going to begin a weekly review section called “One from the Vaults”, wherein I’m going to review old-school gaming literature. I’m going to start with these Dragons, then branch out into old games and modules and such, many from my own collection. So stay tuned, we’re gonna get our grognard on.

Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus

It rises from the ashes…

Welcome to Amalgamated Fiction – Detroit, Gentle Readers. What’s all this crap you ask? Well, let me lay it out for you. Motor City Gamewerks is gone. Like the grim, deadly foundries and factories from which I took my imagery for that site, it’s been torn down and replaced by a cleaner, more efficient, forward-looking site! Why did I do it? Well, read on.

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I Want to Play This Game and Never Stop

This eagle is stunned by all the awesome

Like them or not, Muse has an awesome song called Knights of Cydonia, with an equally awesome video that you need to go watch right now. Go. Okay, back with us? Awesome, right? Yes, I know this is old news, just humor me here. I first got hip to this song through Guitar Hero III, and then to this hysterically campy video through some casual YouTube surfing. I watched, mouth agape, and in the silence I looked around at Jacko and Munin and Riff and Shade and everybody else and said, “We need to play this game, right now!” I do that a lot. I’ll see some crazy thing like the Knights of Cydonia video or get really into a book (or series) and decide that I need to do some role-playing in that setting. So, let’s talk about great and/or hilarious settings we want to play in, shall we?
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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.

Gilding the Lily

You have got to be shitting me…

So, I’ve got this thing where I see wonder in relatively ordinary things. When you look around, you can find a lot to be amazed at in your surroundings. Little things like the fact that this computer I’m working on has more computing power than was used to put a man on the moon or build this beautiful thing, and big things like, well, the fact that we put a man on the goddamn moon. I’ve said it before, but if you look at something hard enough you can always find something about it that’s fascinating. I find more beauty in the gaunt symmetry of a turbofan engine, and more terror in the simple thoughtless, workaday evils that we perpetrate on one another, than in a million horror movies or sci-fi epics. What drives me crazy is the tendency some writers and game designers have of embellishing something that is already perfectly awesome and, well, ruining it frankly.
You know what’s awesome? Dinosaurs. I can’t even begin to put words to how much I love dinosaurs. Seriously. It’s like I’m eight years old whenever the subject of dinosaurs come up. Carnivore or Herbivore? Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus? Allosaurus or Tyrannosaurus Rex? Doesn’t matter. I have my favorites sure, but in my eyes a dinosaur is a dinosaur and all are welcome in my house. So it goes without saying that I fucking love dinosaurs in my games and in my fiction. Especially in my games. I’ve mentioned it a few times here, but Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is my favorite game I’ve never played. It’s got that mash-up thing going for it that I like so much, dinosaurs in a quasi-modern setting, and just look at that cover! It’s got dinosaurs right there in the name! 
GDW, and the original creators of the Xenozoic Tales comics, got it right. They popped the dinosaurs into their setting as is, and let their intrinsic awesomeness do the heavy lifting. They’re big, violent animals with short tempers who can take thirty or forty rounds from a .50 cal and keep coming. Only the brave or stupid will tangle with the big carnivores. You know why? Think about it, can you imagine the kind of carnage a hunting pair of Allosauri could wreak, say, among infantrymen mounted in light vehicles? How about a pack of small raptors run rampant in a town? See, dinosaurs don’t need embellishing. Even in their grade-school banality they’re fearsome, implacable, and nearly un-killable eating machines. They’re totally awesome as they are.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. Back in the day when I still played Rifts, I was stoked for Dinosaur Swamp, a world book written by my good friend Todd Yoho. Written by a Southern paleonerd, DS was chockablock with awesome hooks, dense Mid-Atlantic jungles, haunted playgrounds, sunken cities, and lost spaceports. Oh, and dinosaurs. Tons of dinosaurs. See, dinosaurs had been members of the Rifts charismatic megafauna club since day one, along with allusions to Dinosaur Swamp. There was always a chance if you were traipsing around the eastern seaboard or out west that you’d run into some hard-charging thunder lizard from Earth’s past. And it was awesome. 
Sadly, thanks to Rifts over reliance on the badly designed and poorly implemented MDC mechanic, every living thing (save humans) had to be a MD creature so that they could pose a threat to the characters, including dinosaurs. I didn’t care at all seeing as how it gave me the opportunity to do things like stampede a panicked herd of Stegosauri through my players’ encampment one night, wrecking their shit and then leaving them to deal with the hungry raptor pack that was chasing the herbivores. So when Dinosaur Swamp dropped, giving me even more big-assed lizards with which to hassle my characters, I was stoked. Until, that is, until I saw the magic.
Oh yeah, didn’t I mention? Dinosaurs in Rifts can use magic! This is, in technical terms used by Rifts designers, ZOMFG AWESOME! Yes. In dinosaur swamp our ancient friends could do shit like turn invisible and throw fireballs or breathe cones of ice. Like dragons. Which were already in the IP. Right. See, like I said earlier, dinosaurs don’t need embellishment. They can already do things like have mouthfuls of foot-long, razor sharp teeth, and weigh sixty tons, and have two brains, and generally be dangerous and beautiful and awesome right out of the box. They don’t need to spit fire or turn invisible. Being alone in a dark forest being stalked by a smartish, stealthy, very fast carnivore the size of a horse while you’re armed with a rifle that has more of a chance of pissing the thing off than killing it is already terrifying. Giving it the ability to use magic on top of that doesn’t make it better, it makes it a farce. The whole Palladium “Just add magic and TA-DA instant awesome” design philosophy does more harm than good here. It doesn’t make the dinosaur any more dangerous or frightening, it makes it a joke. A clown in a dinosaur suit with a pocketful of squibs and sparklers. 
This is what I mean by gilding the lily. A lily by itself is breathtakingly beautiful. Dipping it in gold kills it, cheapens it, makes it a gaudy parody of itself. Magic using dinosaurs are in the same boat. It’s a trap that writers and game designers fall into easily as imaginations run rampant and we all sit there and ask, “What if?” Don’t do it. Don’t gild the lily, you’ll just ruin it. I’ve been accused more than once of “not getting it” or “limiting my imagination.” You know what? If thinking something is beautiful despite its lack of gewgaws and trinkets and magic bullshit is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

What the hell is this? Awesome, that’s what.
So, today’s post isn’t going to be very long or insightful, ’cause I’ve got Rogues and Traders to write about. I’ve got something on my mind though, and that’s the time-honored tradition of the mash-up.

I love a good mash-up. I love the juxtaposition of disparate settings or technologies or ideas to make something new. That’s why I made AEGIS vs. SPIDER. It’s why I like the idea of robbing a train with a goddamned spaceship and why I will always love Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. I mean, it’s Cadillacs! And Dinosaurs! That’s an awesome story that writes itself. A well done mash-up, like Firefly, can make you look at some careworn ideas, say space opera and western serials, in a new light. Getting your flavors mixed, as it were, stretches the creative muscles and presents previously unknown questions and answers to game masters and writers alike. So tell me, Gentle Readers, what are your favorite mash-ups? What do you like in a good one, and which ones do you think have failed miserably?

PS: I’ll probably expand on this at a later date, but right now, seriously, I’ve got deadlines to keep.

Let’s Go To Work!

Meet our new art director…

Journeyman
jour·ney·man   
[jur-nee-muhn]
–noun, plural -men.
In modern apprenticeship systems, a journeyman is a man who has a tradesman certificate that required completion of an apprenticeship. This is the highest formal rank, that of master having been eliminated; it allows them to perform all the tasks of the trade within the area where they are certified, to supervise apprentices and to become self-employed.

As the descendant of hard-working and hard-drinking Eastern European immigrants, the iconography and symbology of the “working man” resonates in me like a genetic memory. For over a hundred years the men of my family have been creators. The first generation came to America from countries that don’t evenexist anymore. They tilled the land, built towns, forged lives in a strange country, and toiled endlessly in the hellish steel mills of Eastern Ohio, Western PA, and Northern West Virginia. Their sweat, and much of their blood, tempered the steel that forms the bones of our great cities. Their sons were masons, carpenters, bricklayers, farmers, ironworkers, and steelworkers. They worked ceaselessly building this country, and in what they had of leisure time they built their own homes, made music and musical instruments, made art, brewed and distilled, and even found the time to win a war. Their sons, my father among them, were creators, too. Engineers, mechanics, contractors, welders, ironworkers, and entrepreneurs. Like their fathers, they created for work and they created for play. They built lasting things, great things, and took pride in a job well done. Now here I am, not a bricklayer or a carpenter, but a creator nonetheless. This is my inheritance, the creative impulse, an I’m here to tell you about a new creative endeavor that I’m about to embark upon.

Okay, so that may have been kind of a florid and overwrought over-serious way of pitching you my latest hare-brained scheme, but them’s the breaks. What is this new hare-brained scheme you ask? Why, it’s Journeyman Games! Journeyman. No, Journeyman. No it doesn’t have anything to do with Steve Perry, why? Anyway, Journeyman Games is this crazy idea I have that was largely inspired by both Jason Richards and my new friend Jess Hartley. What Journeyman Games is not is a full-on game company. I’m not ginning up my own rule set, I’m not hiring artists, I’m not renting a warehouse or printing books. What it is is basically a name I can work under to publish some gaming PDFs. These will be products like the original HarnMaster: fully fleshed out settings that are easily adaptable for use with any rule set. Here’s what I have so far:

A.E.G.I.S vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.
AvS is set in the early sixties during the Cold War (ask your parents, kids), and revolves around different national super-secret espionage organisations made up of men and women with minor super powers trying to keep each other in check. AEGIS, the American agency, is tasked specifically with neutralizing SPIDER, the Soviet agency (again, ask your parents.) It’s a little serious and a little pulpy, much like Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels. Some of you may have heard me talk about AvS before, and may have even played in one of my AvS games like Vladivostok Sea Monster or Prodigal Son,so you kind of get the idea.

Precinct 13
Set in a much reduced, crumbling city that was once a proud industrial powerhouse, this is a modern horror setting about specially trained police officers trying to stem the rising tide of supernatural phenomena that threatens to swallow their city whole. The cops are either possessors of paranormal talents, or have had a frightening brush with the paranormal that has marked them for life. Along with fighting monsters and investigating hauntings and exorcising abandoned churches, they also walk beats, drive scout cars and deal with regular workaday crime.

Unnamed Space Setting
This one is probably the least developed of the three. It takes place a few hundred years in the future, and is the story of the human diaspora as we leave our planet and develop our solar system. It’s largely a hard science setting, no FTL and no aliens for example. People have left Earth because there simply wasn’t enough room or resources, not due to any horrible cataclysm. The story basically revolves around the conflict between a United Earth Navy which is underfunded and undermanned, and the well fed and well equipped private military fleets that protect the numerous corporate and industrial interests in the system. Sort of an exploration of the conflicts between actual serving members of our military and private contractors like Haliburton and Blackwater.

So there you go. I want to develop these settings further, really make them breathe, then probably sell them on DriveThruRPG as PDFs for a few bucks a shot. I’m under the impression that people do this sort of thing, so I figured I’d give it a whack. Stay tuned.