Hahahahahahahaha, Welp….

The best laid plans...

All ideas are good ideas at first…

As my tens of readers know, I’m the king of harebrained schemes. My latest involves all those Dragon Magazines I was talking about yesterday. Know how I said I was going to start reviewing them Tomorrow? Well, funny thing about that, I don’t know shit about reviewing product. So, before I get started and make an ass out of myself (or a bigger ass than normal) and make a bunch of crappy posts that don’t really get to the meat of the thing, in this case how awesome and hilariously bad Dragon and the golden age of gaming are/were, we’re going to shelve this for now. I’m going to talk so some friends of mine who are actual journalists and do product reviews for a living, get some pointers, and make it look like I know what I’m doing. Instead, you guys are going to get a rather personal post tomorrow about me and writing and telling things about a writer by what he writes. Exciting, neh?

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.

Let’s Go To Work!

Meet our new art director…

–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.

The Devil is in the Details

Well, yeah. In this case it is.
Confession time. I’m a huge bibliophile, and I’ve got a pretty obsessive personality. This means that every so often I get into an author, really into an author, and then must devour all of their works as fast as I can until my eyes fall out. This happened a couple of years ago when I finally got around to reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book about gay, Jewish comic book artists by Michael Chabon. It was a very good read, so I immediately glommed on to Chabon. This guy is awesome! I must have MORE! So I dug around and found a book called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh which is a book about gay…Jewish…college kids…wait a minute… Anyway, a book about Pittsburgh? A book about a city that may, in fact, be my very favorite city East of the Mississippi ever? Sign me the hell up! So off I went to the library and got big ol’ stack of Chabon’s books and took them eagerly home. The next day I trooped back to the library and, bitterly disappointed, dumped all those books back into the book drop? Why? Well, the reason lies at the heart of today’s post.

I took them all back because I had jumped to the, admittedly unfair, conclusion that Chabon was the most horrible thing I could imagine, a lazy writer. As I was poring through Mysteries, which I enjoyed at first but grew increasingly uncomfortable with as I went along and came to think that the characters here seemed like reskinned characters from Kavalier and Clay dropped into a different setting, I got to a point where I literally yelled out loud and tossed the book across the room. Why? Well, there’s a character in there named Cleveland who rides an old BMW motorcycle. The bike is kind of a big deal with that character, and is his major identifying mark. Cleveland rides the Beemer. Here comes an old Beemer, must be Cleveland. He had me at Beemers because I like bikes and I love Beemers from the 70′s. At some point Chabon makes an off-hand reference to Cleveland’s bike as, and I’m paraphrasing here ’cause it’s been probably six years, the big, 1600 BMW. Then there was a shattering glass noise and the part where the camera zoomed in, I shook my fist, screamed KHAAAAAAAN! and was immediately quit with him as a writer. For those of you not in the know, let me break it down for you. The 1600 in that sentence refers to the displacement of the bike’s engine in cubic centimeters. What’s the big deal you ask? Well, at the time the story took place, BMW had never made a street bike with an engine that big. Never, ever. In fact, it’s been only recently that they’ve started making 1200s. Lazy! Bad! Bad writer! What, I thought in my yammering disgust, he couldn’t be arsed to look it up? He couldn’t have an intern with a phone book and a notepad call around to some Beemer dealers and do a little research? Khan, indeed.
Now, I know that you all are rolling your eyes at me right now, and with good reason. I realize that it’s not a big deal in general. I admit that I’m being reactionary and dramatic. Here’s the thing, though. My reaction, while over the top, isn’t that different from anyone else who sees something they know about misrepresented in media. Most computer guys I know can’t watch wherein computer technology plays a large role. Same thing for gun guys or history guys or military guys and war movies. See, there’s creative license, and then there’s just laziness. Screwing up details, even little ones like the displacement of a motorcycle’s engine (a motorcycle that may as well have been a character, mind you) can break suspension of disbelief. It can absolutely destroy verisimilitude. It also begs the question, for me at least, if this guy can’t be arsed to get a little detail like this right, what else can’t be be bothered to do? It makes me see the writer’s work as, well, a lie. While not as bad as Alice Sebold’s magical sock hat that sat out in a field in November in 1972 and was still able to offer up damning DNA evidence (In ’72? Come on lady), or a dog recovering an “elbow bone” (whatever that is), the fact of the screwed up engine made me doubt everything else Chabon had to say in that book.
What I’m saying here is this: Writers, do you fucking homework. While verisimilitude is more important than hard fact in a work of fiction, those facts and details are still very important. You can get away with fudging details and blurring lines easier in a sci-fi or fantasy story where verisimilitude matters more than full truth. In a modern/historical/real-world story with no fantastical elements though, your shit better be tight. Those little details, while seemingly not important individually, make for an extremely engrossing and engaging story for a reader. If you want a really good example of this, read Master and Commander. If you want a really good example of egregious writer laziness and shoddy research, read The Lovely Bones, which I alluded to earlier. Seriously, writers. If you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be something more than a low-to-middling vanity press writer who sells his books out of his mom’s basement, do your research, be vigilant, tell the truth, hit hard, and you will be greatly rewarded.
PS: Recently, after being an asshole about Chabon’s writing for years, on a lark I picked up his very true Manhood for Amateurs, which is a collection of non-fiction essays about modern life, and discovered a few things. First thing is I’m a reactionary idiot, but we knew that. Then I learned that Chabon is insightful, great with words, and that Pittsburgh was his first novel, written as a 22 year old grad-student. This explains, if not forgives, its multitude of sins. Then I read his wonderful Gentlemen of the Road, and am now reading his work again with new appreciation. I should have done so years ago, but eh, live and learn.
PPS: Hilarious old-school advertisement perversion courtesy of the always awesome Anne Taintor.

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.

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?