Rest in Peace, Gary

March 6, 2008 at 1:20 am (gaming, news, nonfiction)

so on the morning of March 4th, 2008 E. Gary Gygax died.
for those that are unaware, Gygax was the co-creator of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
if you don’t know what D&D and RPGs are, i can only express confusion about why you’re reading my blog.

anyone who knows me well knows that i don’t have any particular fondness for D&D, especially not in its current incarnations. however, like most gamers, especially those of my generation or older, it was one of the first RPGs i had serious contact with (or, in my case, since i’m fairly young for the gaming crowd, it was AD&D 1 and 2, but still, you get the point) so there’s a lot of nostalgia associated with it.

but the relative quality of D&D and its descendants really isn’t the point.

it was pretty much THE FIRST roleplaying game! it’s the grandpappy! it led to so many other games, and not all of them are played around the tabletop. while most of them have probably never even heard the man’s name, the millions of people out there spending tons of time and money playing World of Warcraft certainly owe some thanks to Gary.

so in the end, i can’t really think of Gygax as just helping to bring the world D&D. he birthed an entire hobby. a hobby that that has given me and a lot of other people a great deal of enjoyment and inspiration as well as leading us to new friends and making our existing friendships deeper.

Thanks, Gary.

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nonlinear storytelling

October 21, 2007 at 8:22 pm (fiction, gaming, meta, rant)

okay, so this is going to be a bit of a rambling rant of a post. feel free to skip it if you have no desire to hear my (rather unorganized) thoughts about nonlinear storytelling. well hell, i figure everyone can feel free to skip ANYTHING i post about. after all, the majority of it isn’t really earthshaking news.

but i’m getting off topic.

lately i’ve been thinking a lot about nonlinear storytelling.

i think this started because of a thread over on the story games community. it started as a discussion about whether or not advancement is necessary in a campaign-style role-playing game. it got me speculating about a game in which, instead of doing the tradition “zero-to-hero” or “farmboy-to-king” kind of storyline, you did the reverse. at first i was thinking about a game in which the character or characters started at the peak of their power and declined… but then i started thinking about a game that would be more in the style of the movie Memento.

for those who aren’t familiar with Memento (and if you aren’t, get out there and rent it! now!) the movie begins with the final scene. we witness the ending of the story, but we don’t know how the characters got into that situation. then, the movie goes backwards, scene by scene, until we’ve seen how things began.

i think this would be a really really cool thing to do in a role-playing game, if there was a good system to use for it.

then, i got to thinking about this supposed novel i’m working on. it wasn’t too long ago that i was meeting with my advisor and we were talking about it, and i said that i wanted to write the end to the story so that i knew where i was aiming. i said that i was concerned if i didn’t have a destination that the novel would just ramble without direction. he said that he’d heard some authors say that if they didn’t write the ending first (or early) they could never finish a book. he said he’d also heard authors say that if they wrote the ending early they would never bother to finish the book.

as always, writing is a pretty personal thing. everyone has their own way. but i did a little writing last night and started writing what is either the end of the book or at least a climax towards the end. and i started thinking more about this idea that if you know the ending, there is no reason to write the beginning. i think it seems pretty strange. i mean, i was making up all kinds of crazy stuff when i was working on the ending. i decided that a character i was writing about a week or so ago was dead (or at least that another character BELIEVED her to be dead) and that all kinds of horrible things were happening to the world.

BUT i hadn’t yet determined how things had come to that point! i mean, it would be as if i was going to read the last Harry Potter book (which i probably will do at some point… i’ve read the first 6 after all) and someone told me that Harry dies (i actually have no idea if he does or not, please note) at the end. i’d still read the damn book because i’d want to know HOW that comes to pass.

in other words, the journey is AT least as important as the destination. why do i care how things end if i have no idea where they started or what happened in between? without being able to see the entire thing, the ending would lack depth and meaning.

so. hmm. i’m not sure where to go with this now. :) except that nonlinear storytelling is nifty. structure is important, of course, and the way most people are used to understanding a story is linearly, but there’s no real reason this is truly required. knowing “the ending” early doesn’t have to ruin anything, not when true comprehension of the story requires experiencing every point along the way. does it really matter in what direction you travel the path as long as you see all the sights along the way?

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Stay out of the Pemberton woods! – The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach

September 30, 2007 at 10:15 pm (gaming, nonfiction) (, )

this is the first time i’ve attempted any kind of actual play report, so i’ll apologize in advance. i probably won’t do a very good job. but if anyone has any questions, feel free post to inquire and i’ll do my best to answer. Also, I invite any of the other players, if they read this to refresh my memory on things I’ve forgotten or gotten wrong.

finally, over a year after purchasing the game, i got to play The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, and it was a pretty good time. we did a four player game. participating were Ryan and Seth,my two standard gaming buddies, and Chris, someone I hadn’t ever gamed with before but I hope I will be able to do so again sometime. i think four was a pretty good number, though i’d be interested in possibly trying it with one or two more sometime.

anyway, we started out by making characters, of course. mine was Professor Church, an assistant professor of foreign and ancient languages, specializing in Sanskrit. while i never really brought it into play directly, i decided that he was concerned his education was completely impractical and pointless and that he was wasting his life. as a result he had turned to drugs to hide from his worries and fears and he had become a lying drug-addict. Ryan played Professor Ulster, who was apparently nobility from England as well as a full professor of physics. Seth was Professor Watkins, a full professor of mathematics. Chris was Professor Woolidge, an assistant professor of botany.

we then moved on to establishing starting relationships. i, unfortunately, only really remember those my character started with. i didn’t make much use of my positive relationship, unfortunately, but i decided that Church was an anglophile and like Ulster because of that, whereas Ulster hated Church because Church was always bothering him with questions about England. on the other hand, Church didn’t like Woolidge because he had attempted to get Woolidge to grow him opium and marijuana in the university greenhouse, and he’d refused. Woolidge, for his part, had decided that Church was really a good man underneath and he was trying to reform him.

then actual play began. we played through five of the six events, deciding to cut out the christmas ball for the sake of time. before the first event, Prof. Ulster became the first host of the Roach. during the convocation there was some maneuvering for power as Prof. Woolidge attempted to gain the honor of being the only new professor to be allowed to make a speech. however, due to Prof. Church’s lies about Woolidge to the chaplain (he claimed that Woolidge WAS growing drugs in the greenhouse) he was not allowed to make a speech. During his speech, Prof. Stoudenmeyer, the Faculty Senate Chair, had a sudden heart attack and died, falling over into the orchestra pit, and Prof. Watkins attempted to use this situation to make himself look good by trying to fill the leadership void and keeping the convocation underway. However, before much more could happen, the lights went out, and when they came back on, the young radical Professor Collins was hanging by his neck from the rafters, with strange words carved into his face. Before the crowd could see too much, Prof. Church lead the orchestra upstairs to remove the body and the chaplain helped to keep order in the crowd. After everyone left, Church went with the chaplain and broke into Woolidge’s greenhouse, where he planted some of his own drugs in an attempt to make the chaplain believe that Woolidge really was growing them. Woolidge caught them in the greenhouse, but the chaplain was still convinced.

but Woolidge was later vindicated! there was apparently not enough evidence to prove that he had grown the drugs, and Woolidge was granted tenure. before the founder’s day wine and cheese social, Prof. Ulster, sick of the manipulations of the Roach managed to remove it via some impromptu, self-administered surgery with a fondue fork. during the social, Prof. Church found new joy in gossip and began intentionally spreading lies about other members of the faculty, especially Prof. Woolidge. In addition to the lies about growing drugs in the greenhouse, Church began to claim that Woolidge was having an affair with Regina Sutton, the most popular co-ed (this was actually decided retroactively during event three when Chris drew the Public Scandal card). At some point during the social, Prof. Watkins got up to make a speech, then began to dance like a mad man (he had been infected by the Roach without himself or anyone realizing it – possibly the very same Roach Ulster had just managed to extract from himself). The Roach’s psychic command to dance was powerful enough to affect the wine-addled crowd as well, and the social turned into a wild party that lasted until dawn. after the party, wired on cocaine, Prof. Church rounded up a few of his grad students and attempted to convince them to help him dig up the body of Prof. Collins so that he could translate the strange writing carved into his face. however, Prof. Woolidge and some of the Pemberton Hunting Club stopped them. frankly, i think the students weren’t all that enthusiastic about the idea of digging up dead bodies at the insistence of their drug addicted professor anyway.

i’m having a bit of difficult remember exactly how the third event, the pemberton follies of 1919 got started. However, it was during this scene that some of the older male members of the faculty, including the chaplain, did a barbershop quartet number, after which, as they were leaving, Prof. Watkins caught the chaplain backstage and killed him by roasting him alive against a leaking steam pipe and then proceeded to become a hero in the eyes of everyone making up a story about having found the man dead and fixing a dangerous steam leak. it was also during this event that Prof. Woolidge got revenge on Prof. Church. He sent some students, members of the hunting club again, I believe, to search Church’s office and found the man’s stash of drugs, which he held over him as blackmail in retaliation for starting rumors about Woolidge and Regina Sutton. this made Church (who was already upset at having received a letter of reprimand about soliciting students for the exhumation of Prof. Collins) even more angry. As he stormed off he encountered a huge cockroach and before he could crush it, it spoke to him, promising him power and revenge if he would swallow it and serve it. He did so. He then proceeded to send a note to Sutton, asking her to meet him in his office after the show. When she did so, he gave her poisoned wine and dragged her body to Woolidge’s office. However, while he wasn’t caught, despite the added power of the Roach, his machinations failed and it turned out that Sutton wasn’t dead, though the poison did cause her brain damage leaving her mute. I can’t recall what happened to Prof. Ulster in this event, except that he became possessed by the Roach once again.

the next even was the homecoming football game. Prof. Watkins attempted to take over as chaplain, but his ploy for power failed, despite the assistance of the Roach. Prof. Ulster had apparently become something of a gambler, possibly due the manipulations of the Roach, and he attempted to convince Bantam Whaley the star quarterback to the throw the game. when another member of the team decided he would help in exchange for a cut of the winnings, Whaley went along with it as well. during the game, Prof. Church went off to the graveyard and dug up Prof. Collins by himself, and he saw things that terrified him, driving him mad. then, driven by the Roach, the headed back toward the school and wandered onto the football field in the middle of the second half, covered in grave dirt and dragging a shovel. one of the members of the opposing team attempted to tackle him, but the knocked him down and proceeded to smash the young man’s head in with a shovel. however, before he could do much of anything else, he was stopped by other members of the faculty and sent off to an insane asylum.

our final event, the faculty senate meeting involved a lot of insanity. with Prof. Church still away on “personal leave” he wasn’t involved at the beginning as Prof. Watkins attempted to take over as Chair. honestly, at the moment i can’t recall whether he was successful at this latest bid for power or not. while the meeting was going on, Prof. Church was undergoing electro-shock therapy in the asylum. the Roach aided him, however, with a couple of his children crawling out of Church’s orifices and infesting a couple orderlies who helped him escape. he broke into the the faculty senate meeting and attacked Prof. Watkins as he was making a speech. with the help of the Roach controlled orderlies, he managed to give Watkins a severe beating before he was chased off, into the woods outside of pemberton. Prof. Woolidge (still the only non-Roached PC) rounded up the hunting club and the hounds and led everyone out into the woods to hunt down the mad Prof. Church. Prof. Ulster joined in the hunt as well, and even Watkins came along, though he was too battered to really take part. The dogs caught one of the orderlies and tore him apart, however, Church still managed to escape, along with the other orderly.

this concluded the final event of the game. in the Epilogue it was told that several days later the body of the second orderly was found, with chunks of flesh missing and human teeth marks surrounding his wounds. Church never turned up, though, and occasionally students would disappear from pemberton and it would be blamed on the Mad Professor of the Woods.

Prof. Woolidge (with the 2nd highest reputation overall, and the only one who wasn’t Roached at the end) was the only one who managed to maintain control of his own will throughout the course of the horrible events, but he became obsessed with Prof. Church and continued to make excursions into the woods to look for him, long after everyone else believed that it was just a story. in the end, Woolidge was thought to be a madman, chasing after a legend. congratulations, Chris! you won!

Prof. Ulster, apparently driven beyond his ability to cope after having been infected with the Roach against his will, then managing to extract it only to become infected once again, used his last remaining ouch of willpower to kill himself. with his final act as a free man, he broke the Roach’s hold the only way he knew. he tied a rope around his neck and the other end to his bedpost and strangled himself..

Prof. Watkins (with the highest reputation, thus earning the right to narrate the epilogue for the university and the Roach as well as his own character) rose in power, with the Roach’s help. he eventually came to rule over the school like some kind of horrific emperor. slowly, the majority of the faculty where infected with the Roach’s offspring, and then the students as well. with the strength brought by the Roach, the football team became better and better, drawing more students to pemberton. the Roach infected students would go on, after their graduations out into business and politics where they could extend the foul influence of the evil insect even further.

and that’s it! once again, i apologize for the things i definitely left out. i realized in writing this that i should have tried to write it up more quickly after the game. as it is, the parts i remember most clearly are definitely those things that happened to my own character, so i know it might seem like other characters didn’t do as much as they really did. so i’m sorry about that. still, feel free to ask me any questions, if you like. and i recommend this game. it’s cool.

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summer summary

August 26, 2007 at 2:32 pm (gaming, nonfiction, personal)

well summer’s over already, and i’m not quite sure how i feel about that.
i don’t really feel like i had all that much of a break, even though i know many people that worked a whole lot harder than i did all summer long.
still, while i feel like it would be nice to have more time off, i’ve also been starting to get restless and unfocused, and being back in class usually helps me get my brain working again.

so anyway. summer.
this summer was . . . all right, i guess.
i found a pretty decent temp job, working for this company that converts documents into digital formats. not too bad a gig, some of the work required a little more thought than a lot of data entry, and some required less. they liked me there, which was cool. they definitely would have let me stay as long as i wanted, but frankly, despite it being the first job on which i was allowed to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks for pretty much the entire day, i was happy to get out of there. too much longer and i’m sure i would have been in danger of getting carpal tunnel or something.

beyond that job, most of the summer was fairly uneventful. at the beginning i took a summer class, american lit 2, and it was fast and intense, but went quite well. i now only have one required lit class left, american 1, which i’ll be taking this fall.

i made a small dent in my huge reading list and managed to resist buying any more fiction. not counting kurt vonnegut’s breakfast of champions, which i read for american 2, i read four other books, and got a good start on a fifth. i know, not very impressive. but it’s something.
during the summer i finished reading if on a winter’s night a traveler by italo calvino. i recommend it. especially to people interested in unusual ways to tell a story, or language in general. it’s a strange, very meta, but very interesting book.
i also read predator’s gold by philip reeve, the 2nd book of 4 in the hungry cities chronicles. it was pretty good, though i think i liked the first book better. still, if you’re tired of reading harry potter but want to read something written for about that kind of age group, reeve writes good stuff.
then i read the anubis gates by tim powers. a few people have recommended his book last call to me several times and (despite owning it) i still haven’t read it. but the anubis gates was great so i’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
finally, i read the latest book by haruki murakami, kafka on the shore and it was quite excellent. i had issues with the wind-up bird chronicle being a little too surreal, confusing, and convoluted. i mean, i love my surreality, but that book had no real, consistent plotline that i could follow, and so while i enjoyed parts of it, the book, as a whole, didn’t work for me. kafka on the shore on the other hand, was perfect. very surreal and strange and mysterious, but i could still follow the basic chain of events and plot. it’s a good ‘un. check it out.
then i began to read jonathan strange and mr norrell by susanna clarke. this is one big, fat book so i knew i’d better get a good start on it before classes began or i’d never have a hope of reading it in the near future. i’m about a third of the way through it now, and it’s pretty interesting, though it moves a little slowly. part of the whole 1800’s setting and feel the author was going for to a certain extent. still, there is enough magic and mystery and amusement to keep things interesting. hopefully i’ll manage to keep reading and finish it up at some point.

my writing schedule was less successful even than my pretty sad reading schedule. but anyone who ever looks at my blog and has noticed the lack of movement on my word count meter is already aware of that. i simple did not get done what i had planned and intended to get done over the summer. but as i said, being back in class usually helps my mental focus, even as it depletes my free time, so i’m hoping that i’ll be able to start making better use of the time i do have in the fall.

the final big thing that happened this summer was that i went to gen con for the 2nd time (and 2nd year in a row) and it was a pretty good time, as i expected. i won’t go into too much detail here, because some people might not care, and if i do want to go into detail, it should probably just get a post of its own . . . but as last year, i didn’t do quite as much as i wanted to do, and i spent more money than i really should have, but i also met some cool people and brought back some really neat things.
and, in terms of gaming, i’ve decided that i have WAY too many rpgs that i’ve never played. i’ve become something of a collector without ever really intending to do so and starting now i’m hoping to change that. i’m going to start trying to play more and shorter games. i’ll probably start trying to play or run games that last somewhere in the range of 1 to 5 sessions for the most part. some of the games i brought back from gen con (or ordered earlier in the year) are real cool, interesting things, and i’m tired of them just sitting on my shelf. if i manage to make this resolution stick, you can expect to hear more about what i’m playing on here in the future.

and thats about it. it was a fairly uneventful summer, but all things considered, it went pretty well. as long as the fall doesn’t bring too much misfortune with it, i’ll be pretty content.

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the shab-al-hiri roach

April 6, 2007 at 12:04 pm (gaming, nonfiction)

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar is another game that doesn’t use a GM but that is about the only thing it has in common with Polaris. The Roach is an interesting, competitive, GM-less, Lovecraft inspired, replayable one-shot. i think the designer describes it best with his blurb on the back of the book:

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a dark comedy of manners, lampooning academia and asking players to answer a difficult question–are you willing to swallow a soul-eating telepathic insect bent on destroying human civilization? No? Even if it will get you tenure?”

each of the players in the game takes on the role of a professor at the fictional New England private school Pemberton University in the year 1919. just prior to the start of the game, another professor returned from an expedition to mesopotamia bringing back with him a sample of a new roach species. the creature had been in hibernation for thousands of years and is actually a powerful, mind-controlling creature whose kin once ruled over ancient Sumeria as gods. this creature and its new children add a few complications to the already difficult atmosphere of academic politicking, boot-licking, and backstabbing.

unlike most rpgs this one is kind of competitive. it uses tokens to represent Reputation, and the object of the game is to have the most Reputation at the end, but not be a slave to the Roach. the game is very structured with 6 specific events that occur. during each of them, each player has a chance to frame a scene, if he or she desires. before the events begin, players all draw a random card. each has a different effect depending on whether or not your character is currently a slave to the Roach. being a slave to the Roach brings power, but also difficulties, and while it is easy to voluntarily let the Roach crawl into your mouth and live in your sinus cavity, it is very difficult to get rid of it once it is there. players are essentially free to describe anything they like when they frame a scene, at least as far as their own characters and NPCs go. each scene will center around a conflict though, the stakes of which are determined by the players involved. other players can join either side, and Reputation is always on the line. once the narration is all done, each side rolls dice based on their character’s standing in the university, their department, their personal interests, whether they are doing the bidding of the Roach, etc. and whichever side rolls the single highest die wins both the Reputation and the previously established stakes.

this is another game i am really excited to try out sometime. it interests me because it’s meant to be a one shot game, played in a single session, and it is gm-less and competitive. i’m not really sure how well it works with people who have never played an rpg before, but i think it might be a good one to try with people new to the hobby since it is meant to play fast, with no future commitment, and the somewhat competitive aspect would be more familiar than the “there are no winners or losers” way most role-playing games work.

i had a minor problem with the game when i bought it because the person at the booth at GenCon didn’t give me the cards and I didn’t even know cards existed until I read the book after the con. fortunately Jason and whoever else makes up Bully Pulpit Games are kick-ass people and all i had to do was email them and they got some cards to me in the mail right away, along with an awesome rubber roach.

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April 6, 2007 at 12:04 pm (gaming, nonfiction)

Polaris by Ben Lehman is really damn cool. as someone described it (Paul Tevis of HGWT, i think, but i might be wrong) it’s a “fairy tale apocalypse at the north pole” and as the author himself describes it it’s “Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North.”

the entire book has a very mythic, legendary quality to it. reading the setting and background information it is difficult to tell what is supposed to be taken literally and what is supposed to be metaphorical, allegorical, symbolic, or legendary. or if there is even supposed to be any difference. to put it as simply as i can manage, it is about a civilization of fairy-like creatures who lived at the north pole before the rise of mankind. but also, apparently, before the sun (like i said, it gets kind of weird). at the time the game takes place, their civilization is crumbling, demons are attacking, the people are succumbing to corruption and demonic influence, and everything is basically going to hell. the game is, as the author makes quite clear, a tragedy. things will not end well for the characters and their world, and everyone knows that from the beginning.

this game is especially interesting to me because it has no GM. it is meant to be played with exactly 4 players. each one is in charge of one protagonist and a variety of secondary characters. essentially play rotates around the group, with each protagonist being in the spotlight for a scene at a time. while one protagonist is in the spotlight, the other players take on duties based on seating position. the person across from the one in charge of the current protagonist takes on the role of the Mistaken (the game’s term for demons, essentially) and it is his or her job to cause problems for the protagonist. the players to either side of the protagonist and Mistaken essentially serve to help arbitrate disputes and to take on the rolls of other characters connected to the protagonist.

as with The Mountain Witch, this game is seldom concerned with what a character is capable of and is more concerned with what player gets narration rights. in this game that is primarily determined through an interesting set of rules involving ritual phrases. this allows the protagonist and antagonist to both argue and push for what they would like to see happen in a scene but in a structured format. sometimes such negotiations for narrative power will end with the verbal consent of one of the parties, sometimes they come down to a simple die roll compared to one of the protagonists traits.

one of the things i think is really cool about this game is the way that it spreads the normal duties of a GM out among the players and the really cool way it deals with determining narrative power. i really, really want to try this game out sometime, and the only reason i haven’t pushed my friends to play it with me before now is because it is really meant to be done with exactly 4 players, and i only have 2 friends that i normally game with. the game can be done with three without too much trouble, but i’m hoping sometime to find a 4th. plus, i think i might want to try some other things with my friends first, before we try something as completely different from traditional games as this is.

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the mountain witch

April 6, 2007 at 12:03 pm (gaming, nonfiction)

The Mountain Witch by Timothy Kleinert is probably the closest thing to a “traditional” game out of these three, which really says something, because this is not your daddy’s rpg. i only say it is closer to being traditional because it actually has a GM, which both Polaris and the Roach lack. rather unfortunately, at the moment i feel the Mountain Witch is the indie game i own which i am least likely to play, simply because it seems that it probably needs more players than i am likely to be able to round up, though hopefully that will change someday.

the basic concept behind The Mountain Witch is kind of a film noir samurai story. it is about a group of ronin samurai who have banded together to climb mt. fuji to kill O-Yanma, the titular Mountain Witch.
the game has almost ludicrously simple mechanics, at least at its base. each side of a conflict rolls a single six-sided die, whichever side rolls higher wins. the difference between the rolls determines degree of success. what makes things interesting however, is that for one thing, the conflicts are as much about who gets to narrate what happens as they are about who wins. in most traditional rpgs, even when a player character succeeds on some kind of roll to do something (hit an enemy with his sword, pick a lock, hack a computer, whatever) the GM is still the one who narrates how it actually works out in the game world. in the Mountain Witch, narration is shared between players and the GM. also, the game has some highly fascinating mechanics to deal with issues of trust between the PCs. each of the ronin has a different reason for wanting to find and kill the mountain witch, and they don’t necessarily have good reasons to trust each other. the game is built to create tension between the PCs and create reasons for them to help each other sometimes and betray each other at other times. as the book describes it, O-Yanma is meant to be more of a plot device than a true adversary. the real adversary is meant to be the other PCs and their trust (or lack thereof) for each other.

so that’s the Mountain Witch. it’s a damn cool read with some really interesting ideas. the mechanics are possibly a bit too simplistic for me (though i really dig the trust system) but i still really want to try it out someday.

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indie rpgs – three games

April 6, 2007 at 11:57 am (gaming, nonfiction)

so prior to GenCon ’06 (my very FIRST GenCon!) the closest thing I had to an indie game was probably Unknown Armies by Greg Stolze and John Tynes and Over the Edge by Jonathon Tweet, both published by Atlas Games. now, on further consideration, these games both have a lot of qualities that make them really similar to a lot of the indie games i’ve been checking out lately. they’re certainly both a damn sight different from D&D or any of White Wolf’s offerings. still, technically i don’t suppose they qualify as “indie” but whatever, if i continue along this line of thought i’ll start getting all metaphysical about it, and that’s not the point right now.

anyway, having heard a lot of about some these games on the Have Games, Will Travel gaming podcast i decided i might consider picking up a couple at the con. and i did. i bought three:
The Mountain Witch by Timothy Kleinert
Polaris by Ben Lehman
and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar

i should point out that i haven’t actually played any of these games yet, though it’s been nearly a year now since i purchased them. in fact, since that time i’ve acquired 7 other indie games (which i’ll talk more about in a later post) and haven’t played any of THOSE either. i feel moderately foolish about this, but they have all been such thought-provoking and fascinating reads that i really don’t mind, though i do hope to try out each and every one of them eventually.

anyway, i will talk a little bit about these first three, based on my readings.

[edit – this is more of a monster post than i realized. i think i’ll split my thoughts on the three games into three additional posts]

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indie rpgs – a rambling bunch of thoughts

April 6, 2007 at 10:42 am (gaming, nonfiction, rant)

hmmm. so anyone who knows me, or is big, geeky kind of gamer is probably aware of a growing trend in the role-playing game world these days. independently designed and published games.
whether i like it or not it seems pretty damn clear that the hobby gaming “industry” in general is on a downward slope right now, and i can’t help but think that the role-playing game publishing business especially is slowly but inevitably dying off.
don’t get me wrong: i don’t think gaming will ever die. board games and card games will probably continue to be a fairly viable business, and i’m sure there will always be people that play rpgs, but i think the days of rpg publishing being a realistic business for a company are limited.
but this could actually be a good thing, in some ways.
i’m sure a lot of fans of the hobby might be confused by a statement like this.
“How could the collapse of the companies that produce role-playing games – my favorite hobby – possibly be a good thing!?”

well, my thinking ties into what happened with text adventures.
anyone remember those? text adventures were actually pretty damn popular in the 80s. that’s right, kids! people actually paid good money to play video games that had NO GRAPHICS WHATSOEVER! they were ALL TEXT! Infocom was one of the biggest of these companies, giving us the classic Zork series, among others. i loved some of these games, and i still play them every now and then. but the problem with them was that they were always constrained by the necessity of trying to make games that would make a lot of money. don’t get me wrong, they still made some pretty interesting, inovative games – A Mind Forever Voyaging and Suspended particularly come to mind – but for the most part they were shooting for financial success, as all companies do. the text adventure as a viable commercial product died off, of course, as people (shockingly!) began to expect pretty pictures and sounds with their video games. but, and some of you may be surprised by this, the text adventure never went away completely.
these days the fans tend to call them IF, or interactive fiction. there are quite a lot of them being created even now, by fans, for fans. the people that write them do so because they love the games and they want to share a story that perhaps can only be properly told this way. and freed from the constraints of needing to try to produce games for a company and a paying consumer base, IF authors have been able to create some truly amazing games and stories, the best of which blow the old commercial classics out of the water. games like Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin, Floatpoint by Emily Short, and Slouching Toward Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster are some of the coolest stories I have ever experienced in any medium.

some of this is what i see happening now in the rpg community.
i’ll preface my next statement by pointing out that i have a pretty strong negative bias towards Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons and Dragons so fans of that game and company may very well disagree with me. it doesn’t really seem like WotC is doing anything particularly interesting, exciting, or innovative with D&D. it’s still basically the same game that it always was. it might do what it did better than it used to, but it does pretty much the same thing.
i think White Wolf is slightly better, but not much. i think they did some interesting things with their reboot of their World of Darkness line, and i think what they’re doing with Promethean and Changeling is pretty cool (a planned limited release schedule – allowing them to put something out that might not have the staying power and popularity of Vampire), but other than that, things are still pretty much the same.

fortunately, the indie rpg community didn’t require the full and complete death of the rpg publishing companies to start to grow.
for those who might not know what i’m talking about, when i talk about indie rpgs i just mean games that are designed and published by their creator without needing to go through a bigger publishing company.
i only really started learning about indie games last year, primarily through listening to the excellent gaming podcast Have Games, Will Travel by Paul Tevis. consequently, i know very well there are a lot of games out there i’m not familiar with. mostly what i tend to talk about when i mention indie rpgs are those that tend to be discussed around places like The Forge and the Story Games Community, and get sold on places like Indie Press Revolution.

one of the big reasons these games have begun to spring up so much in recent years all boils down to technology, of course. i have no doubt that people have been creating their own rpgs for a long, long time, sometimes writing down the rules, sometimes not. some of these games certainly went on to become the well known commercially produced games of today. but publishing books and games used to be difficult. not so much anymore. these days it’s pretty damn cheap and easy to write up a set of rules and share it over the internet, for example. the range of options for production quality and sales are wide just for electronic formats alone, and now there are print-on-demand companies like Lulu to make selling physical copies cheap and easy as well. so if you’ve got an idea for a game that you think people would enjoy and/or pay for, there is almost no reason whatsoever NOT to publish it.

still, the market is small. so like the modern-day interactive fiction community, the people who make indie rpgs are doing so because they love the games and they love the hobby, not because they want or expect to get rich from it. to a certain extent this is unfortunate – some of these games are really tremendous (and i speak just from the experience of reading the books) and i think their authors deserve financial rewards for such quality work – but i think i am also glad. i really like the fact that i know each and every one of these games was a true labor of love. no one is writing these things just to try to make a buck.

so i’m excited. these new games i’ve checked out are really interesting. they are a very, very different animal from Dungeons and Dragons or any of White Wolf’s games. people who think they know what role-playing games are all about would be shocked by some of these things, and i think that’s fantastic. D&D is great for those who like what it does, but it shouldn’t be the end all and be all. after all, sometimes you need more tools than just a hammer. sometimes you want to go on a dungeon crawl and shoot magic missiles at knolls, and sometimes you want to do something else.

anyway. this turned into much more of a rambling rant than i intended. i was going to talk about the specific indie games i’ve acquired this far, but since this post is getting so damn long, think i’ll put those thoughts into separate posts of their own.

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February 23, 2007 at 9:53 pm (gaming, nonfiction, rant)

so anyone who’s known me more than a day probably knows i’m a gamer.
i frequently end up running the games that i play with my two best friends, but i discovered last year that running games while in school doesn’t really work out.
this saddens me greatly at the moment as i’ve really been wanting to get a game of weapons of the gods going. WotG is a game of overpowered wuxia style action in a fantasy version of ancient china. it’s pretty slick, cool stuff. but nonetheless, running a game just isn’t in the cards right now.fortunately for me and my friends, we have battlestations.battlestations is an excellent, independently designed and published boardgame/rpg hybrid. it has a lighthearted sci-fi theme (think futurama crossed with star wars or star trek) and incredibly nifty mechanics.
while you’ve got the standard starmap with ship counters that you see in games like star fleet battles, or what have you, you’ve also got a modular layout of your players ship, with little standups or minis to represent each crew member. need to turn the ship to avoid crashing into a star? well, get someone to the helm module to do it. need to launch a missile at an enemy ship? someone’s got to be in the missile bay to do it. think an lone asteroid is suspicious and want to scan it? someone has to be in the science bay to run the computer.
in and of itself this might all sound tedious, but it is anything but. in the middle of a starship battle there is always more to do than crew to do it, and when you add to it the fact that with teleporters and boarding missiles (yes, crew can load themselves into a missile and launch themselves at an enemy ship) you might have some of your crew on the enemy ship and enemy crew trying to take over your ship . . . well you have a lot of highly enjoyable chaos.
and this is where the rpg part of the game comes in. by default, one person will referee the game, handling the mission obstacles, doing the rules arbiter thing, and controlling enemy ships, and the other players will each control one crew member a piece, with their own special abilities, alien powers, equipment, skill ratings, etc. characters and their ships will change, grow, and advance as the game goes on.
another nice thing about the game is it’s fairly easy to adjust on the rpg/boardgame spectrum. maybe you’re not into the rpg side – you can easily down play that part and let players control multiple crew members each (in our game the two players both control 2 crew and a couple bots). on the other hand, if you love to ham it up, you can cram all the play acting into the game you want.

of course, i don’t work for gorilla games. i’m not being paid to rant about how awesome the game is. it does have a few problems. for one thing, the books aren’t particularly well laid out. it can sometimes be difficult to find particular rules. they also lack a consistent method for denoting modifiers for die rolls. sometimes penalties are described as adding to the difficulty, sometimes they are described as subtracting from the roll. similarly, bonuses are sometimes described as reducing the difficulty, sometimes as adding to the roll. this is irritated. it would be nice if i could see a minus sign and immediate know – penalty. also, as an independently produced game, the components are somewhat lacking in quality when compared to the price, but this is understandable.
still, these cons are FAR outweighed by the good things about the game. in is an incredibly fun and flexible gaming experience, there is tons of support material out on the web, the designers themselves are readily and quickly reachable via email or the fantastic yahoo group forum.

so if you’re interested in a really cool, different kind of boardgame or rpg experience, buy this game. or come play with me and my friends. we could use a few more players. don’t be scared. we’re nice. :)

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