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.

Risk Assessment

I’ll take min/maxing for fifty, Trebek!

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, I love it when bad shit happens to characters. Your character, my character, it doesn’t matter. When a cunning plan doesn’t survive first contact, when a die roll goes bad, when you role-play yourself into a corner, whenever something unfortunate happens in game it warms the cockles of my stainless-steel heart. Why? Because that threat, that jeopardy, it makes me tingle all over. In my opinion, a game that doesn’t punish as much as entertain, and doesn’t have an element of risk, isn’t much of a game at all.

Pretty bold statement, eh? See, now, your mileage may vary, but I like a game that’s hard. I like a game that, well, punishes bad or stupid behavior on the part of players and encourages them to think around corners either through setting (Iron Kingdoms) or rules (L5R), or both (Rogue Trader). It’s why I played EVE Online for so long, there were definite, expensive, often devastating  consequences for failure, and the risk entailed in throwing my multi-billion Isk ship into combat was exhilarating for just that reason. Now, I’m not talking about a system that’s hard for hard’s sake *coughRoleMastercough*, but a game that has built-in consequences. I like a game that makes a player stop and say, “You know what? Maybe we should talk/think our way out of this, ’cause shooting our way out isn’t going to go as well as we’d like.”

For example, combat in Shadowrun 3rd edition, at least the way we play it, is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. This is especially true in our Harn game, the middle-ages crime drama, where something as simple as a broken leg could have disastrous consequences for a character. See, with no magic and no really real medicine to speak of, a deep cut or a broken limb can kill a man in Harn. Granted, this is more a result of the setting than the rules, but my point stands. Brawling is perfectly acceptable, but if blades come out something has definitely gone wrong. Iron Kingdoms is the same way, right? Need a clerical healing? You better have a lot of money or a lot of luck because that cure light wounds spell will fill your body with ravenous maggots just as soon as it’ll heal you, and that’s awesome.

It’s why I don’t go for cinematic games. I like a game where damage goes through your armor, where you can’t dodge bullets, where you run out of ammo, and where a wrong step or a misplaced comment can ruin your night. My friends and I call this hilarity ensuing. I play games like this, I run my games like this, and I write my games like this. When I was writing Robotech, I kept trying to increase the lethality of the game, which of course was every bit as constructive as, well, something not very constructive. I wanted more damage output from my weapons, less damage capacity in my mechs and armor, more reason to use different kinds of munitions, and more threat. I realize that this runs counter to what a lot of people consider the spirit of Robotech, and honestly I didn’t care. I still don’t. Of course increasing jeopardy and forcing critical thinking was never going to fly in a system that was designed, essentially, to let a player win at RPGs. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?

I’ll finish with a story. When I was working on my first assignment for Rogue Trader, which was largely rules and game design, I had a long conversation with Sam about just this very thing. One rule I was writing hinged on the GM making a roll that directly affected the players and keeping the result secret from said players. Sam pitched me an alternate idea, which was easier on the players, then asked me, “So, from a game design point of view, which do you think is better?” I replied, “Mine. Things should always be hard for the players, and if they’re going to do X (where X is the rule that I still can’t talk about) they don’t get to know if something goes wrong until the wheels come off.” Sam laughed and said, “Awesome, do it.” and that rule ended up in the book largely untouched. That’s just the kind of bastard I am, I guess. When I’m a player, I ask for little mercy, and when I’m running or writing a game, I offer even less. So, you know, caveat ludius.

Vitrual Gaming: Wherein Jason Phones It In Again.

 “Fatherhood, I’m doin’ it right!”

Hey look! It’s a whole new week, and you know what that means gentle readers. It means back to the salt mines for yours truly. Well, maybe not salt mines exactly, but it does mean that I need to get back to work after taking a week off to help care for my new daughter, who you see up there with dad. So now, with roughly seven hours of sleep under my belt since last Sunday, I’m back in the saddle. Speaking of babby, I’d like to tell you a little story about how I phoned it in to my regular Thursday game last week.

Okay, I don’t know how many of you are parents, but if you are you know what the first week of parenting is like. Those of you who aren’t parents, and I highly recommend it, let me tell you something. It’s a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Since babbies are essentially massive, incontinent time sinks, I felt it was prudent to not drive the 50 miles to Ann Arbor on Thursday for our weekly game. For a while now, our group has been discussing virtual gaming due to one of our guys getting his jaw wired shut and the fact that both Wayne and I live over 50 miles away and, frankly, a simple wish to play in our underwear from the comfort of our own mancaves. So, since Thursday was upon us and I was going to have to miss Harn, Jacko, Riff, and I set about ginning up a solution to the problem.

First thing we needed was a way for me to talk and listen. We looked at both Teamspeak and Ventrillo, and eventually settled on Vent. Riff picked up a decent, temporary microphone and ordered a very nice one, and both he and Jacko provided the on-site hardware and software solutions in Shade’s basement with some speakers, the mic, and Riff’s laptop. Once everything was set up, they configured Vent for voice activation and set it to stay active for 30 seconds or so. In theory, that would keep the mic on their side on the whole time as long as someone was making noise. We did some troubleshooting with the setup and found it good and they fiddled around with mic placement and input/output levels, and got it pretty well nailed down before the rest of the group showed up. On my end, I prepared by getting into my jammies, pouring a cocktail, settling in with babby, putting on my headset, and setting Vent to “push to talk”. Push to talk is, of course, the best setting when you plan on both gaming and making googoo noises and babby talk at your kid.

So everyone showed up, we tested the room with everyone in it to make sure that the mic would pick up all the players, and set to playing. The verdict? Well, it was a mixed bag. I was able to play from home so I could be available to help with the kid, I didn’t have to drive an hour each way, and I saved money on gas and take-out food. On the other hand, we quickly ran up against the technical limits of Ventrillo, the lag eventually got pretty bad as the buffer tried to keep up with all the chatter, and I missed out on the face to face socializing and the after session debrief at Denny’s. I felt kind of disconnected and distracted, which is probably attributable to the kid more than anything.

In all, it was a very successful experiment and, while not optimal, a good short-term solution we can use to play when a player would otherwise be absent. Since then, Jacko and I have worked with Skype and have decided to go with that instead of Vent. It doesn’t seem to have the problems with lag and handling multiple speakers at once that Vent has. The better microphone arrived to replace the cheapie stop-gap mic used for the first session, which should improve sound quality and range. We’re also looking at a virtual desktop program for mapping and die rolls and such, probably MapTools. Oh, and a webcam probably so I can see what’s going on.

So that’s it. My first experiment with virtual gaming with my friends was by and large a success, and even with some technical glitches I was able to take part in the session and still have fun while being able to stay home and be a dad. I’ll be doing it again Thursday, so we’ll see how it goes with Skype and the new mic. I’ll keep you posted.

Well, Would You Look at That! The Fine Art of the Random Encounter.


Okay, looks like this week has turned into advice week here at the Gamewerks. Today, I’m going to discuss yet another tool that every GM should have in their toolbox, the random encounter table. Gamemasters, has this happened to you? Your players have to travel from point A to point B, where A and B could be different sides of town or different continents, and you think to yourself, “You know, something should happen here to spice things up and keep these guys on their toes but I don’t have anything prepared!” Don’t you fret, ’cause I’ve got the answer to all your problems…

Either much caressed or much maligned depending on who you talk to, the random encounter table is one of the staples of the gamemaster’s tool kit. Typically they consist of a bunch of one or two line story hooks like “City Guard Investigating a Crime” or “Sea Monster” arranged to that a simple roll, usually a 2d10/d100 roll, allows a gamemaster to gin up a quick encounter for his players with a simple roll of the dice and some creative thinking. These encounters could be good or bad for the players, an arduous task or a surprise windfall, something that’s over in an instant or even something that could have far reaching consequences for the players and the setting. Random encounter tables can be found for just about every game ever made out there on the internets, whether from official sources like WotC’s Dungeons and Dragons portal or from obsessive and hardworking fans like the guys at Dark Reign, if you look hard enough there’s a wealth of great tables out there.
Like all good things however, these tables should be used in moderation. Gamemasters should beware of using them too often, or leaning on them as a replacement for plot or story arc. Honestly, how many times can a character get his purse stolen or be mistaken for someone else? Surely not every time they leave the safehouse/inn/pub/etc. Use them sparingly, and make sure that they make sense in relation to your game. A group of knights errant escorting a bunch of priests aren’t going to come across a passel of marauding aliens burning down hamlets with their death-rays and stealing their cattle and women. Well, probably not in any case. To give you an example of how a simple random encounter can be used to great effect in a campaign, let me tell you a story about Graenath of Malthane.
In our Harn game, a lethal cross between the Sopranos and HBO’s Rome run by ace GM Munin, we essentially play a bunch of made men in an autonomous crew that’s part of a bigger crime family. Graenath, a young apprentice thief and hedge mage run by HugeC, regularly has to leave the big city of Coranan where we live and wander into the wilderness to commune with nature or hug trees and eat bark or whatever the hell it is that he gets up to out there. Anyway, off he went one session to get his nature on and Munin made a roll on his fabulous random encounter table from the old Harnview book to see if the young man ran into any excitement out on the road. His result, hilariously enough, was “Slavers traveling on the road”.
Munin says to HugeC, “You hear the sound of horses walking down the road behind you. You turn and see two men on horseback riding down the road in the direction you’re going.” Now, let me put this into perspective for you before we get to the punchline. HugeC had no idea they were anything but a couple of travelers. Even if he’d known they were slavers, that’s no big deal because slavery in Harn is much the same as it was in ancient Rome. It’s not like these guys can just knock anyone on the head and sell them into slavery, that’s illegal. All he needed to do was let them overtake him and pass or step aside, wish them a good day, maybe exchange some pleasantries about the weather and road conditions, and that’s it. So what does he do? “I run into the field next to the road and try to hide in a haystack!” Blank looks all around. “Seriously?” asks Munin? “Oh, yeah. I don’t know who these guys are!”
So, off he goes into the field like a hare and the slavers immediately think, “Hah! Runaway serf!” and give chase. Of course they catch him, and he’s unable to convince him that he’s not actually a runaway serf, and so off he’s sold into a life of slavery. This encounter, which should have been nothing, turned into a long and ugly and violent string of events which eventually led us, over the course of probably a year and a half of convoluted sessions, to overthrowing our crime boss, taking his job and waging a city-wide gang war with rival criminal factions. It changed our fortunes and changed the face of the game and setting forever. All from one small roll of the dice. That’s how you use the random encounter table right there, a simple, spur of the moment choice with an outcome that could mean nothing, or could mean everything in the world.