Saturday, December 30, 2006

Let The Thievery Begin!

Some time ago I talked about chillin' out on the whole creativity thing and not expecting myself to create perfect ideas all the time; and, furthermore, to take help where it's given i.e. rip stuff off.

Rip stuff off from anywhere.

Ever hear of a movie called Star Odyssey? It's a horrid little turd from Italy, crapped out in the wake of Star Wars. It's awful. You can get the DVD from Target for a buck, so naturally my wife did just that and gave it to me for Christmas.

No, it's not 'cause she hates me, or is clueless. It's because she knows I can dig on craptacular cinematic mishaps like this one.

Anyway, I've been watching it bit-by-bit, mostly when no one else requires my attention or wants to watch something, you know, safe for your brain. I'm only about...I dunno, 20, 25 minutes into it, sure, but I can already tell that as bad as it is, it's got stuff worth stealing.

You can read a lengthy, amusing review of it right here, but the gist is as follows: Evil Alien Overlord comes to Earth to enslave the populace. His ship is made of Unobtainium (or whatever), so shooting him out of the sky is a no-go. Bald psychic scientist who's gone rogue and shady (or something) knows two chemists who can create anti-Unobtainium, but said chemists are in jail on the Moon (or something). Ergo, he enlists a hotshot Space Command (or whatever) guy to bust 'em out. First, though, the Spaceboy needs some help breaking into the pokey, so the scientist sends his busty niece to a casino (or something) to recruit her old flame: a career criminal with a sparkly spider on his velour shirt (nope, not joking).

Or...hell, I dunno. That's what I'm getting out of it and that's what I'm gonna steal from. Mercilessly.

So -- my Mom taught me that making a list is a great way of getting organized, and while I'm not Johnn Four, I've had success with that. So let's look at the utterly thievable elements present in the 25 minutes of trainwreck so far:
  1. Maverick scientist
  2. Lunar penal colony holding pair of human McGuffins
  3. Futuristic casino
  4. Busty niece
  5. Scruffy criminal with bad fashion sense
  6. Evil Overlord
  7. Impenetrable Hoozits
  8. Bartending robot (not important to the plot, but present and accounted for)
  9. Planned prison-break from said lunar penal colony

A peek ahead reveals there's a guy who boxes with robots, and a pair of robots in love. That's great, let's hold those guys until later and work with what we've got. Shake the crappy movie off of those elements, clean 'em up, and put on your Traveller cap. What've we got?

I'm already seeing a whole scenario in the above list of stuff; we've got interesting NPCs (what did that scientist do to get himself kicked out of The Egghead club?) including a criminal with horrible fashion sense (lots of roleplaying opportunities, potential for banter, gimmicks to make him memorable) and a busty niece. The space-casino is an interesting adventure location, and it can be spiced up with other elements as you see fit.

The prison break on the Moon, now -- that's what's really firing me up. A hell of a major Obstacle in a scenario.

The Evil Overlord is pretty standard and cliche, and might not fit into my Traveller game as a pulpy Ming knock-off. What to do with him? Here's where I'm learning to recycle: He can easily be reduced to his role in the story -- a bad guy presenting an unsurmountable obstacle. He can be anything that sets up the need for a Magic Bullet. His defeat is the goal. Scale him up and down to determine the scope of the adventure. Can he be a nasty corporation, like Tukera in the OTU? A local warlord or something?

I can have this stuff off to the side when I start putting this into a funnel; I might go with a different goal altogether and just use the NPCs and the locations. I might mix it up with stuff stripped out of Robot Monster, another One-Buck Wonder my wife got me for yuks.

Holy crap. This is what chopshops do! But I will do it for great justice.

Rip Off Every Zig!

A Brief Digression: I Have Some Weird Dreams.

I suppose that's not unusual; dreams are supposed to be weird. But sometimes, I am greatly amused with and surprised by my dreams, because...umn...I dig 'em.

Like this morning, for instance, when I dreamed that my 2-year-old daughter and I met George Pal.

I think we were on a trip to California, for some reason, and we found out that his home was open to visitors -- kind of a mini theme-park. While my wife was doing something else, Lily and I went to check the place out.

We were in the back yard (which had some interesting statues in it) when I saw the man himself in a basement workshop, down a flight of stairs. While Lily had a snack, I boldly asked the illustrious animator if there were a cost for his autograph. "None, none at all, my boy," he replied somewhat dramatically. "Here, why don't you come down here and see my workshop, too?"

Lily wasn't so sure at first, but together we talked her into coming down the steps. We saw some of his models, sketches, movie stills, puppets and other such stuff while the old man beamed and chatted like a proud grandfather. He got me chatting with him, pretending perhaps that he never got visitors, and talked of the wonder and joy of creating things. He ended up nudging me to get back to writing. Maybe that's what the dream was "about". I don't know.

The dream ended shortly thereafter as the alarm clock went off, so it's still pretty vivid. Besides getting a breakfast item, looking him up on Wikipedia and writing this post were the first things I did this morning.

I don't know that dreams are meant to be prophetic; I think they're just your brain sifting information and doing something with it. However it's always useful to think of them as propecy, especially when they give you a nudge or a hint or an idea.

but then again, they do dumb stuff: while showing Lily the puppets, I noticed Mr Pal's CD player had a Dr Demento compilation in it. Weird, huh?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

You Gave Me Everything, And Now I'm Breaking Your Heart

Dear Iron Gauntlets:

Surely by now you've noticed that I haven't been around as much as I used to. I don't talk about you to my friends these days. I know. I feel bad about it, too.

But there's a reason for everything, and I think it's time we admitted something to ourselves:

It wasn't working out.

I know, I know -- it sure seemed that way, didn't it? All the fun, all the laughs -- the .pdfs, the glowing praise. The campaign notes. We thought we were meant for each other.

So what happened?

After that night my wife and I played you a while, I -- well, do you remember how that went? It's like I was ready to dance but I couldn't get the steps right? You and I showed up to rock the house and blow some minds, and, baby, you've got the goods. But me, I couldn't swing it.

You did me good, though. You awakened stuff in me that I didn't know I'd forgotten; you helped me re-learn a paradigm of devil-may-care, it's-all-made-up-anyway gameplay. You fired up the FRPG furnace of my soul. But, damnit, IG, I just couldn't get along with you!

Goodness knows I tried. I cooked up those alternate rules, looked up those variants, talked to your Dad...things were getting better all the time. That was the trouble, though -- they needed to get better. At my heart, I still need my rules to go in certain ways.

I'm sorry. I feel that I've failed you.

You're still on my shelf. You're good people. You have that nice binder, with those nice separator tabs. We'll still see each other, just not the way we were.

Dr Rotwang!

P.S.: D6 says hi.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wherein It Dawns On Me, And I Barely Notice

Let me tell you - when D&D 3rd Edition came out, I was all over it.

A lot of things came together for me in that game - the mix of designers, the re-engineering of the system into a coherent whole, the roundedness of the rules. Finally, I felt like I could play D&D again. I played a good chunk of it, sold a lot of it (I worked at a games store), I shared it with friends.

Time went by and things, as always, changed. I was no longer down with this game.
I was not down with Attacks of Opportunity.
I was not down with class/level progression.
I was not down with micro-managing my character's progress.
I was not down with Spot and Search being separate skills.
I was not down with Feat bloat.
I was not down with having to tally up skill points, feat slots etcetera for NPCs.
I was not down with 'dungeonpunk' at all (as we've seen), and frankly I never had been.

My wife and I both drifted away from it, and started goofing with Fantasy HERO instead. Incidentally, she digs HERO. Bunches. So that was good.

Recently I became aware of Microlite20, a seriously stripped-down version of the d20 rules. They're simple and they're compact; you can even print them out in Pocketmod format and fold them up into little booklets which fit into your pocket. I was fooling with it the other day at work, running a little solo boardgame-style combat scenario involving a PC and three lizardfolk warriors.*

Memories started to kick in.

Hey, I thought, If this lizard guy gets on the other side of Kerlynn, he and the one that's coming at her can flank her out! Tactics! However, I continued, if he moves out of this space, she gets a free whack at him - that's the price of his tactical decision. Hmmm...

None of this flanking stuff, attacks of opportunity or what-have-you were in Microlite20. They weren't supposed to be. But...umn...

...I kinda missed them.

That night, I made a straight-up 3.5 character while my wife and I watched "Bones". I used a racial paragon class and everything. I also hauled out a copy of Dork20, just to see what cards I'd get with my new character. My wife, who loves random surprises, drew 4 cards of her own to see what she'd get.

The cards were kinda cool and kinda goofy-- in my case, they granted (among other effects) the chance to make one character charm another with a Diplomacy roll, as well as a sundry bonuses to specific skill rolls and so on.

"This is about the only reason I'd play this game," she said.

"What?" I asked. "The cards?"

"Yeah. Listen to this..." and she described a card which, when played would allow its possessor to subtract a random amount from any one given roll.

And that, my friends, is when the giant bucket of fish was upturned over my head and I spoke these words of revelation:

"You know, honey, if we tried playing this game not as, you know, the fantasy game we really want it to be but as the wild, crazy Wahooo! that it really is...we might actually enjoy it."

I waved my hands over my head and everything.

She gave me a sidelong glance, held it for a moment, and then said, "Hmm."

There's a lesson to be learned here: Don't expect a zebra to win a horse race just because it has stripes.

*...on a Post-It note, with a grid and trees sketched in in pencil. Kerlynn ended up getting captured, by the way, and now someone needs to go rescue soon as I find out who she is and what she was up to, fighting lizardfolk out in the woods.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I drew a picture today.

It was inspired by a post I'm still composing; you'll see it tomorrow.

Monday, December 18, 2006

And, Yes, There Was A Flying Ferrari

Ever set up a scenario, hook and all, and actually encourage your players not to take it if they don't want to?

I did.

Last night my wife and I found ourselves free for the evening, so we called up our buddy Phil to see if he wanted to come over for pizza and gaming. He did, and I offered up a Traveller scenario. Phil's been itchy to try it out, and my wife is Trav-ready 95% of the time, so all systems were go. Phil rolled up an Army captain; she whipped up a Navy Lt. Commander in no time. I had the two of 'em muster out on Marden, a world in my Traveller universe (IMTU).

Marden, in a nutshell: Beach Resort Planet (B669669-7 Ri 212 Im if you're hardcore). It's a vacation spot run by a multi-corporate consortium. Hotels, casinos, open-air restaurants...swankitude.

There's an illegal drug making the rounds, and the corps want the suppliers gone. They offer the PCs a job: go to the planetoid belt, find the source of the drug, and neutralize 'em bastids. There's a mining outpost out there, owned by a separate corp; maybe they know something.

My players turned it down. They couldn't justify being part of the Corp's actions, being in the fuzzy gray area between what the Corp can do and what the Imperium should do.

Phil pointed out that if they didn't take the job, there'd be no scenario...and of course he was right. But for the first time in my GMing life, I decided to say, "Dude...I've got 76 Patrons, I've got BITS' 101 Plots. This is a game; you guys CAN say 'no', we can do something else."

Phil told the corp to shove it, and left; Amber said "I'm on vacation!" and left with him. It was 11:30pm, so we called it a night. No worries; there's plenty more to do on Miami World.

It was very different for me...not only to have players not take the hook, but also to allow them to slip. Especially interesting was that I decided, consciously, that they could do something else for which I had not prepared. My game felt like a world, not just a story. It was all up to them and their choices.

So help me, I felt like a brand-new GM.

[Oh, by the way – the illegal drug is called Huetlatonin-Beta, whatever that means. I made it up on the spot after my wife suggested calling the tabs "Hueys" as in "Lewis" as in "I Want A New Drug". RAWK!]

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Digression: Our Universe Does Not Make Sense.

The moment I heard it was coming out, I decided that I wanted it.

It was a big deal to me because I don't want many things anymore. There's not much I want to buy for myself, like maybe your wife buys a pair of shoes or you'd buy a fun gadget or toy. And anyway, the things that I do want to buy are usually rare, out-of-print, special-order items or at least stuff that's a little tricky to fit into our budget. (I'm not talking about a PS3 or a Lamborghini here, I'm talking about stuff like some old Traveller books or a nice pen.)

So knowing that the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series would be on DVD, and possibly even affordable to me, was very enticing indeed.

Recently I got a Christmas bonus from work*. Suddenly I had the money to go out and buy this dumb little thing that I wanted to own -- I could have the satisfaction and the tiny joy of going to a store, finding something that I knew I wanted, and purchasing it.

These days, I crave experiences more than things.

We went shopping yesterday and hit up Borders first; while my wife and daughter went to the craft store, I went looking for the DVD set. C'mon, it was Borders. They'd be likely to have it. Right?

No dice. The clerk who helped me look it up in their inventory (a gamer himself) found out that their warehouse doesn't even have it; he could order it, but he couldn't guarantee they'd get it. I thanked him, talked about his upcoming wedding, and left the store.

Barnes & Noble told me the exact same thing -- not in stock, not in warehouse, can try to order it but no guarantees.

Best Buy. Best Buy carries DVDs by the truckload. They were right next door. Bingo! I checked Best Buy.

No D&D cartoon. Oh, it was in inventory -- but the clerk couldn't find it, not on the shelves and not in the storage area. I could order it, though.

"I'm in customer service too, man," I said to him, "andI totally get that you're trying to help. I appreciate it. I just -- I don't want this to be a quest. I don't want it to be work. I want to walk out to a store, just like everybody else, and buy something that makes me happy and which I can share with my family. I guess if I liked Seinfeld**, I could be happy."

Empty-handed, I went back out to the car.

My wife convinced me that I could just order the damned thing when we got home. At least that way we'd get it. Still, I couldn't help but think -- I am seemingly starved for the little things in life. Tiny experiences, things that other people take for granted. I'm not just talking about something so shallow as buying a DVD -- I'm talking about taking a short trip to someplace pleasant, about going to a movie that I actually want to see, about --

Well, that one's personal. Just little things. Making memories, having a spot of fun. Doing something that I want to do.

These aren't huge demands.

A friend of mine suggests that maybe I'm suffering from depression, because some of the little things that should make me happy do not. When my wife told me she was pregnant, all I could say was, "Oh. Okay. Good!" It's not like I didn't like the fact, or that I wasn't proud, or happy. It's like I couldn't be excited about it, because excitement was a moot point or something I'd given up as useless, something I just don't have so why bother. I may as well do what I do with everything else: accept it and move on.

It's like I've stopped expecting life to be joyous. Yesterday was just a big reminder of why.

This, however, is not the end of the story. Because my search for the D&D cartoon DVD finally came to an abrupt, shocking end.

I found it at Wal-Mart.

You know,that's...that's kind of like being sad and long in the mouth, and getting a puppy from OCP.

*On top of all the other things they did for us.
** Which I don't. At all.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Cavemen and Coat-Hangers

Consider, if you will, the humble coat hanger.

Simple; elegant. Not much to it. But then again it doesn't need much, does it? Any effort at improving or altering its design might result, at best, in a fancier thing of more precious or cunning materials -- or, at worst, an overcomplicated monstrosity which, in its zeal to improve (or perhaps impress), forgets its basic, defining function:

To hang up your coat.

Coat hanger.

Over on The RPG Site, forum regular Abyssal Maw presented recently a little thing he calls "The Abyssal Guide: Create A Bog-Standard Dungeony Fantasy Campaign With Dungeons". Due to the fundamental nature of his campaign design advice, he refers to it as "real caveman stuff"; in a sense, he's right, but it's a hell of a reminder of how basic and essential foundations can encourage sophistication and, more importantly, get the job done.

Elegance is at its best, after all, when it does something well.

Click on the link and go tidy up your closets.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I Lost A Pal Today.

Today at work, they pulled us aside in little groups to tell us the bad news -- my friend and co-worker Ben White died last night. He was 25.

We still don't know how. He wasn't ailing; there was no accident; aside from smoking he was in relatively good health. He just went to the bathroom and didn't come back.

Ben was a fellow geek; here at the office, he was One Of Us. He played Magic, used to play Dark Sun and had just gotten himself hooked on "Firefly". He was always a stand-up guy, mild-mannered and smart and great for sharing a laugh or a conversation about politics or just talking about stupid crap. He was fair and kind.

He was One Of Us.

I've known him for quite a while, as he used to buy his cards at my FLGS, when I worked there. I just had breakfast with him at the quarterly meeting on Tuesday -- all of us office nerds sat together and ate those awful instant scrambled eggs.

A damn shame. It was out of nowhere, man, just -- gone.

Ben, Manaboy...I'll miss you, me heartie.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pulp Mexico

NOTE: I'm sick today, so this post may be a little rambling and indirect. Sorry.

If you watch The Zahi Hawass Cha-- uh, The History Channel, you're likely to forget that there was ever an ancient pyramid-building civilization anywhere besides Egypt.

Look, no offense to Egypt and its rich culture, but...okay, okay, we get it. Nice pyramids. Mummies, gold artifacts, kings, tribute, engineering, advances.

All of these things happened in Central America, and they, too, are ripe fodder for adventure gaming.

A while back, Steve Jackson Games published GURPS Aztecs. It was written by Aurelio Locsin III, a gamer and Aztec culture buff. It's very well-researched and has a neat tool for simulating the Aztec calendar, which is the only time-keeping device I've ever heard of which has a blood-thirsty sun god on it. It's a neat book, but it's out of print -- you can buy a .pdf, though.

It reveals Aztec culture, civilization, beliefs, science, religion, magic and even food, talks about the Spanish conquest, and covers a lot of essential ground.

But we're gamers, and here's what we want to hear about: Weird-ass deities, lost temples, cannibals and gold. Aztecs? Check, check, check and checkcheckcheck. (Let me add in the words "Jaguar Warriors", and if you stop reading here because you've suddenly got an adventure to write, I'll totally understand.) But definitely, they had a lot of gold.

In fact...let me tell you a cool story about Aztec gold. It's an adventure seed, too!

Back in 1986 or 1987, a friend of my Dad's invited us to his house in the state of Puebla. Nice guy, and though I forget his name, I remember that he was very welcoming, fed us a lot, had a lot of kids and let me look at all his old Duda ("Doubt") Magazines -- think Mexican Fortean Times. He was into that kind of thing, and he had a motorcycle. (He also had a daughter whom, I think, he and my Dad were trying to steer my attention towards, but I'm not sure.)

Anyway, he took us for a picnic atop a volcano, the name of which I naturally forget (twenty years ago, man!). The volcano's long since dead, and the caldera's full of cold water. We went up there anyway, because we were crazy. I took this picture, so it's blurry, sorry.

While we were up there, our host related to us a cool anecdote. You see, every Mexican schoolchild knows that the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc had a team of runners -- literally, guys who ran all over the empire, delivering messages or sometimes just getting him fresh fish for dinner, from the coast (it's good to be the huey tlatoani!). They also know that when the Spanish came into the city of Tenochtitlan (we call it Mexico City now), they were itchin' for some of the sweet, sweet Aztec gold that was lying around. Also well known is that the Spanish captured and tortured Cuauhtemoc, burning his feet, demanding to know where his treasury was. Famously, The Big C kept mum and the Spanish...well...took everything anyway. (Thank goodness for pirates! Yarrr!)

Anyway. What most people don't know, said our host, was that Cuauhtemoc figured the Spanish were going to want just that as they marched on Tenochtitlan, and so he gathered up his runners and instructed them to get as much gold as they could out of the treasury, run it up the very volcano upon which we then stood, and dump it in the lake. Sploosh! Ice-cold and dangerous, it'd guard the gold forever.

The topper? Supposedly, a small expedition followed up on that story in the 20th century, and divers went into the lake. It was too deep, cold, and dangerous to plumb safely, so they abandoned the search...

...but not before finding a piece or two of Aztec gold.

Truth? Rumor? Outright lie? I'm not sure I care. All I see is an opportunity for adventure.

How 'bout you?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mexico: The Cyberpunk City

Okay, so I used to live in Mexico City. Some of you knew, some of you just found out. Interesting story, but long. Maybe later.

Now, here's the thing. I lived there between 1981 and 1987, and visited again in 1995. This does not make me an expert on the place, by far, but I know enough and remember enough and have experienced enough to say this, with confidence, beyond doubt:

Nuts to Night City. This is your cyberpunk town.

The place is a pressure cooker, a powder keg, a freaking study of culture- and technoshock full of darkness and beauty. My stepmom, who is Mexican and visits regularly, puts it this way: "I am awed that a city with so many people and so many problems functions from day to day".

So why cyberpunk? Well, if this Wikipedia entry on the infamous marketplace of Tepito doesn't get your cylinders firing, let me tell you my favorite story about Mexico City, which occurred in August of 1995.

Relax, it has pictures.

I was on my own that day, in downtown Mexico City, and had just had lunch at the famous House of the Tiles. It's an historical building, left over from the colonial era, when Spain conquered and occupied the city (which, itself, was a marvel of engineering and city planning even then, in the 1500s, when it was built on top of a freaking lake).

Today, it houses a restaurant and store which caters to international travellers. That's right -- you can sit inside of history, eat tacos, and read a copy of today's New York Times. Oh, and buy an AC/DC converter for your shaver, if you're from Europe.

Are you keeping track of the cultural influences?


Well, having finished lunch, I went for a walk (after checking out copies of Der Spiegel and TIME Magazine). Just a few blocks down, I got to the Palace of the Fine Arts -- a neoclaccisist building of such ridiculous hugeness that it is sinking, measurably, into the ground. It hosts both traditional and modern music, dance, folk art, and everything in between.

Keep counting.

I was across the street from the place; just to my left, on my side of the street, was one of the only American-style bookstores in town -- The Ghandi Bookstore. Just down the street was a VIPS -- clearly, it is Mexican Denny's. It caters to middle-class families, young adults, the like. Nice place.

But the real draw was the little old woman.

Iron-grey hair. Hand-made shawl. When I say the words "little old Mexican Woman", the image you get is what she looked like.

She was on the sidewalk, on her haunches, and she had a tarp in front of her -- bright blue plastic, like a Summer sky.

She had merchandise for sale. Carefully arranged, in little rows.

Guess what she was selling?

That, my friends, is why Mexico City is The Cyberpunk Setting That Gamers Forgot.

TOMORROW: Pulp Mexico!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

You Have One, Right...?

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you know what book this is, even if you don't own one now.

The question is – if you don't own one now, why don't you own one now?

I myself never owned the 1st Ed. DMG until about 2001, when my girlfriend (whom I married, for reasons which will soon become glaringly obvious) dug up her old one and gave it to me (see?). I was playing 3.0 at the time, but as soon as I met Gary Gygax's nigh-overwrought gamemaster's wonderland, it was love at first sight.

Sure, I got by without for the first 13 years of my gaming life, but
having had ample time to examine and explore this tome since I acquired it, I am confident in making this statement:

Dude, you gotta get you one of these.

Look, it was state of the art in 1978, back when Leo Sayer roamed the Earth. But it's also a gem of the Dawn of Role-Playing, a veritable engine of creation which, like it or not, helped to shape the hobby as we know it. After all, it was the first real how-to manual for Dungeon Masters.

So is the book's value purely historical? Is it just a curio, an antique, an anthropological record?

No my friends. It's chock full of charts and tables, yo.

As I have mentioned before, I am increasingly enchanted by the suggestive powers of random charts. The 1st Ed. DMG turns 'em out to make the money, and you can use its resources to generate castles, people's personalities (hell, even their interests), piles of treasure, NPC goes on.

In case you're wondering what good this all is to the FRPG gamemaster of 2006, let me tell you about Lord Obregon, the increasingly-cranky paladin lord of Castle Foxmoor, whose obsessive interest in legends, coupled with his increasing fanaticism and intolerance, is getting him all itchy to unleash any manner of crusade or pogrom any minute now. Obregon, by the way, holds a small territory and oversees a pair of vassals – a fighter and a rogue, probably former adventuring partners or maybe just chosen underlings, who will doubtless be bent to his whim. Say, which one of them might choose to betray the old man, and hook up with some adventurers and warn them -or enlist them- against the crazy paladin's overzealous schemes?

All the makings of a memorable fantasy villain, spawned of my imagination...spurred on by the DMG's castle generation and charcater Trait tables.

[Okay, I used the extended castle tables from Dragon #145, too, but Obregon himself came out of rolls on the DMG's own tables.]

Perhaps more importantly, it's a great textbook. The 1st Ed. DMG, being the first text of its kind, is an excellent primer for the established GM. It's a look at how to do it with no preconceptions, no history, no experience; it's a kick in the pants to shake out the dust.

No, no, my brutha – you got to get your own.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Look, Ma! No Brakes!

The other day my wife, my daughter and I went shopping. I try to take some reading material for those moments when The Bumples (that's my kid) takes a nap and I stay in the car with her, or for when my wife hits up the fabric store and I most decidedly do not*.

Upon this day I elected to take with me a binder of game notes.

Within it, I found part of a D&D 3.0 adventure of my own devise, titled "The Lake Of Woe". It had Nelwyns in it, 'cause I was totally in a Willow mood.

It also detailed the NPC council members of a little town, the sole purpose of which was to lead the PCs to the secretive Nelwyn village. Seriously. It was just a stop on the road, good for two or three encounters meant for exposition and exposition alone. And yet I had written down names, classes and levels for NPCs that I'd use, like, once. Tops.

And I started to remember the giddy pleasure I took in the act of creating all this minute, ridiculous detail. Man, was that ever fun. Useless, ultimately (especially since I never actually ran the damned thing) but defnitely fun. Looking back on it, however, I can recall that I started doing it...and didn't seem to know when to stop.

That's a struggle of mine; getting carried away with my creations. There are times when I want to, say, explore the minute, mundane details about a place, or a person, or a device; it makes for interesting backstory but rarely good drama. Micromanaging is fascinating but ultimately only fun for one person, and that's why The Sims sold so well, I guess.

The good thing, though, is that I can now look at "The Lake Of Woe" (unfinished as it is) and see it as something wholly different:

A scrapyard.

Dude, I've got two towns, several NPCs, a couple of plot hooks and at least two interesting encounters sitting there, ready to be yoinked and re-used. Next time I need a boisterous, ill-mannered gnome who hates Nelwyns (or anybody else for that matter), the hard work is done and it's called Butterhock Stickertoes.

And he has a pageboy haircut. Because, yes, I wrote that in my notes.

[Quick Aside: I must be a Willow fan or something because I keep mentioning it in this blog. What's up with that? That said, Allen Varney's Willow Sourcebook (Tor Books, 1988, ISBN 0312930836) rocks, and if you can land a copy, do so. Well-written, full of interesting plot hooks and NPCs, and it has ersatz AD&D 1st Ed. stats to boot.]

*Frankly, our local Jo-Ann Fabrics wouldn't be so bad if it had art supplies, too, but it doesn't. Ergo, it loses.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Brief Digression: She's Not So Good At "Jeopardy!"

-- but Bebe Neuwirth is a full-on, hot jets babe.


A Big Fat Apology


I don't know what I'm doing.

Look, I...I was trying to set the Comments section of the blog to such a status that I could delete comments after they were made, because I had some spam and crap.


If someone would be so kind as to illuminate me as to how to set it up so that comments go up ASAP BUT I can retroactively kack the ones that go "I was looking at your blog and I think you should buy this singing dildo", please -- please do so.

Sorry, to all of you. And here I was, like, "Ummm...why no one make comment on my blog? *sniff sniff* It stinky blog?"

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Who'd'a Thunk It? Mike Pondsmith, Apparently

Not long ago, the subject of TSR's old Buck Rogers in the 25th Century RPG (1990) came up on TheRPGSite. As it happens, I have the game and never did much with it, so I decided to haul it out of its crate and have a look at it.

I immediately remembered why I never did anything with it, but that's a topic for a forthcoming review on the aforementioned site. That said, the game's not bad at all, really. In fact, it's written pretty well, and by Mike "Cyberpunk" Pondsmith, too.

Well, Mike's got a pretty handy (albeit brief) section on GM advice, including a shockingly good technique for adventure generation.

You might know it as my own Adventure Funnel.

Well, it's pretty close, anyway; he suggests that you start out by defining a goal, then list all the obstacles in the PCs' path, then brainstorm ways to weave those obstacles together into a narrative, providing propulsion and momentum for the adventure as you do so.



I took my process from Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, but Pondsmith came up with it in 1990 at the latest. I've had the Buck Rogers game since about 1994 or so. As I said, I never read too much of it.

I guess I should have!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

That Scrambled Word Game!

US readers are likely familiar with "Jumble", a long-running newspaper puzzle feature. In "Jumble", you are given a set of 5 ordinary words whose letters have been scrambled; then, you unscramble them. They rarely make legible anagrams, as one might expect.

But sometimes, you get some interesting things that look like words. Or maybe...

...maybe they look like SF and fantasy character names.

It's a neat trick; try it sometime. First time I did it was kind of by accident, and not very drastic; I named a D&D NPC "Drogan" because I mispelled "dragon" while making notes. Recently, though, I used it actively, turning someone's long-ago Star Wars character's name ("Greyson") into an NPC for the aforemenioned Free Company game ("Roygens").

An easy way to generate content, eh? Eh? Eh?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Brief Digression: I Question My Race's Judgement...

...when VH-1 says, "Hey, guys! Rank the top 100 songs of the 1980s!"

And Humanity, my race, my people, my kin, put Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer" at number one and "Don't You Want Me?", the best song EVER FREAKING RECORDED BY SOMETHING WITH A BRAIN, is stranded at...what? Fifty-something?

That's it. I'm turning robot.

The Unmistakable Taste Of The Bullet I noted before, I just don't get to game much. My wife and I agree on this, and since we both love this stupid hobby to death, we've decided to do something about it.

Actually we're doing something about a few things, but this is a blog about games and not my personal life, and that's why you're here. One of those things is going to be a game run at my Local.

The idea is for me to get out of the house now and then, and run a game with folks outside of my usual group. Here's the thing, though: the most popular games at the FLGS are called "D" and "D".

I'm not interested in playing D&D, at least not with the current rules, because I'm not really a fan. They bug me. No harm, no foul, but no spooning on a cold winter night, either.

Luckily the manager is one of my best friends, and he clued me in to the local gamers' tastes: they'd like a SF game, but they want to bust heads and make broken characters, so I should be ready for that. A nice game of Traveller might appeal to them -- eventually.

They need to grow up a bit, these guys. Need to learn to play roles, not just stats.

Obviously running something that the store actually sells, but their non-d20 selection is slender.

Fine, fine. Okay. I'll play ball.

I have the D20 Mondern and D20 Future SRDs, and since I like D20M a little more than I like 3.x...and it's closer to what the yoots dig... D20 Future it is.

And I'm applying some of the new flava I've talked about here -- hell, I'm stealing names, locations and even situations with the shamelessness of a horny monkey. Thus the inception of Free Company, a D20 Future campaign based nigh-plagiraistically on Iain M. Banks' novel "Consider Phlebas" as well as the original anime Sol Bianca and with a little dash of R. E. Howard's Conan stories. Interstellar mercenary mayhem, lasers, starships, GFS and desert moons inhabited by reclusive monks with supercomputers. They'll get to bust asses hither and yon, get into and back out of big trouble, and generally tear it up.

The catch?

Every player must present his character to me, first, in the form of a one-line character concept.

Hmn. Lead doesn't taste so bad...

My Kid Is Cuter Than My Blog

In an effort to re-distribute my time allocations, I Waste The Buddha With My Crossbow became a temporary victim of, uh, I was away for a while.

And now, back to the game chatter.

My kid is absolutely adorable, by the way.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cartography? Stellar!

Man, I loves me some campaign maps. I love to make them, to draw them, to do all kinds of nifty art techniques and to plop cultures down on some imaginary real estate and determine borders, climates, terrain, and so on.

In other words, I do lots of prep work for a game I never run.


I'm pretty sure there's an old adage, as well as a Rule of Dungeoncraft (the first one, in fact), that goes like this:

"Never force yourself to create more than you must."

It is very sound advice, and as such, it naturally went in my one ear and out the other. Oh, no, I've paid attention to it. I've thought, "Hey, I can just sketch out a map of the adventure area, maybe the town nearby, and another feature or two for improv later on." But I've never actually done it that way, instead defaulting to my old habit of obsessively drawing coastlines and ridges and nifty-looking little icons that represent castles and towns.

A few weeks ago I started an Iron Gauntlets scenario with my wife and Kyle (whom I've mentioned before). I didn't have a campaign setting in mind; just a kind of bog-standard pseudo-medieval FRPG setting. (Incidentally, the scenario itself is one I ran in high school, when I didn't worry about this crap.) I decided I needed a setting.

Out of all the ones I've created, that my wife has created, that I've bought or that I could appropriate, I couldn't think of a one that made me feel free to do whatever I wanted to. In other words, I couldn't relax and just pick one and stick with it. I'll look at a map and say, "Okay, my scenario is set here, but the the geography requires that I do this and this, and the politics are such that blah, and the climate doesn't match what I envision and so it doesn't make sense and I don't want to shoehorn myself into..." Etcetera. Jeff Rients has been talking about this, too; I'm worse.

To the point of self-paralysis.

So here's my decision. This Iron Gauntlets game I'm doing now will be set in a new setting, entirely. I will steal inspiration from other settings (most notably Amherth), but I will make things up as I go along. I won't plan anything I don't have to, and I won't paint myself into a corner with anything.

And as I need maps, maps I shall make. Small ones. Just the stuff that I need, and a feature or two if I'm inspired to add such -- but only in general terms. Like, "This is the river Basiltry. It smells funny."

I will, however, give the place a name, which I thought of this morning in the shower: Caldeasmore, because my favorite FRPG art is the stuff by Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore. Plus, if Larry Elmore can name a setting "Loerem" (and a man who paints such nice boobs cannot be denied), I can mix his name in with some other dudes'.

I like Parkinson, Otus and Willigham, too. But "Parkotuham" sounds kinda stupid.

Wait -- "kinda"...?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Inertia In Action

Lately, I've decided that I'm less interested in exploring themes and shaping meaningful stories than I am in larger-than-life adventures and simple, direct action.

I wonder -- is it some sort of mid-life crisis (as some have posited), or is it just that I rarely get to game?

Seriously, I've probably logged little more than a dozen hours of gaming time this year, if at all. It's frustrating as hell and I'm tired of it.

I want to game, dammit!

Getting better organized with my group would probably help, especially if the plans would, you know, happen.

But I've gotta do something, and soon. We've got our annual Halloween One-Shot coming up (Entitled Sci Fi Pictures presents - A Sci Fi Pictures Original Role-Playing Game: MANDINGO), but after that, I'm gonna have to get some Steampunk Musha off the ground and run a few solid sessions that my players can (and do) actually show up for.

Remember that session I talked about a while back, with the Madmartigan-inspired NPC in it?

Still hasn't happened.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Into The Blue Again

Well -- How did I get here?

I mentioned in a previous post that lots of little things came together to shake me out of my gaming doldrums, things that came 'round in bits and intervals to re-energize me. The things that inspired me to


I think they deserve mention. And mention them I will, but in no discernible order, cause I'm freeformin' to-nite!

  • PIG GAMES. If you're not familiar with the wondermousness that is Politically Incorrect Games, I encourage you to click upon that link you just looked at and see for yourself. Brett Bernstein's game designs are so devilishly and entrancingly simple that it's hard not to love them. His systems get down to the heart of play -- they provide a nudge or two of structure and encouurage you go go nuts and add stuff at whim. I started looking at this stuff and thinking, "So...I can just make stuff up, right? I don't hafta worry about points 'n' stuff?" It made me want to come up with crazy stuff again...and I did.

  • ENCOUNTER CRITICAL. You want a game with rich subtext? Game design and presentation as art? Faux-pretentiousness as a statement of gaming history? Cybernetic Wookiee hookers? Check, check, check, check and a fifth check for whatever you think of next, because I bet it's in there. Transcendentally ridiculous, Encounter Critical points straight into the heart of seat-of-your-pants gaming: crazy misadventures at varying degrees of sophistication and seriousness, all fuelled by the love of the crazy stuff itself. Why does this game feature Vulkins, Planetary Apes, Hoblings and Robodroids on a planet where magic works and sexy bee girls can kill you? Because that's what gamer dreams are made of. Anything goes in EC, and it only makes as much sense as it needs to. No more.

  • WUSHU. Dan Bayn's wonderful game could've been called Roll Dice And Kick Ass. Its mechanics not only encourage visualization and creativity but really demand them, and gives you free-wheeling action and description at the expense of point-based game balance and bean-counting. Look...I love games like HERO and GURPS, but those became kind of a honeyed trap for me; I'd fall to the obsession to Do It Right, to figure out the Advantages and the Powers and the Points and the Effects and the -- the everything. In Wushu, you succeed by being interesting. I felt so refreshed...

  • "GO PLAY". Ya know, I caught some flak from bits of the online community for not being murderously opposed to this internet meme, but that episode helped me get to this blog, so nyaaahhh. If you're not familiar, "Go Play" is...umn...well, everyone has a different explanation, and frankly I don't care what it is or whose avatar is the nicest, but suffice to say that it's intended as a gamer slogan. I took the whole thing to mean, Dude, gaming is fun. Get off your butt and go do it. Cut loose, man, get down and do what you love because you love it, not because you must excel at it .It's kind of what my wife had been telling me for years, but of course it wasn't getting through my skull.

  • DRAGON MAGAZINE #145. It was the article on random castles that did it -- th the one that expanded upon the charts given in the 1st Ed. DMG. One day while my daughter was napping and my wife was at work, I was paging through this issue and hit that article. I wanna mess with this, I said to myself; 30 minutes later, I was getting some hex paper to map out the campaign area I'd suddenly begun to develop. Coupled with the NPC tables in the DMG, I had 5 strongholds with their lords, a political situation, and lots of ideas on how they interacted and how to bring players into it. It was a real creative rush, man, all this stuff just coming to me, falling out of the dice, a kind of half-randomized creative storm.

  • WATCHING MY DAUGHTER PLAY IN A PUDDLE. Her very first puddle, in the parking lot in front of our house. Little pink rainboots, purple raincoat, hood up. She didn't care about anything but that puddle. It was fascinating to her, just something to splash in with abandon. With no cares. No rules. Her first one, and full of wonder. She just went up to it and figured out what you were supposed to do: mess with it. That moment was truly once in a lifetime, and I knew I'd never again feel what she was feeling -- that pure, unabashed joy, that wonder, that lack of concern. But if I could only allow myself that lack of daughter was teaching me. For once, I listened.

  • 'Cause time isnt holding us; time isn't after us.

    Friday, October 13, 2006

    "Forget All You Know, Or THINK You Know"

    You see, it's that I'm a perfectionist. That's why.

    I am talking, of course, about my tendency to overthink stuff; in my head, I make things harder than they need to be. I know better, but I don't act like it.

    I forget that stuff can be simple.

    The other day I was looking through Treasure Tables, a neato GMing site, when I came upon this link: "The One-Sentence Character Concept Maker". Being that I always feel overwrought with angst because I can't seem to think up an original character EVER (oh, the weltzschmerz is crushing!), I was, like, "I'm'a click that link!"

    So I tried it out, the one-sentence thing. It's simple, and it's sweet. It's open. I began to create.

    • A proud knight is determined to set something right before he dies.
    • A lonely sorceress seeks a companion.
    • A ruthless merchant is on the run from equally-ruthless competitors who want him dead.
    • An exiled elf is avoiding responsibility.
    • A malicious cleric is seeking revenge against someone who embarassed him.
    • A naive adventurer seeks fame and fortune.
    • A tortured, overdramatic bard seeks attention.
    • A soft-spoken master swordsman is looking for a challenge.
    ...well, paint me blue and call me Leroy. Five, ten minutes and I had 8 interesting PC concepts, each of which suggests all kinds of possibilities; the hard part over with, all I'd need is to flesh'em out, stat 'em up and play 'em.

    Eight characters, where before I'd struggle to craft one super-complex, unique, innovative, different one. Eight. In 5 minutes. And that's with a toddler in the room.

    A long time ago, I worked at a grocery store, bagging groceries. One day, I went out to get some carts from the parking lot; I was struggling with them when a guy I knew from high school came up, real cool, like James Dean (he was one of the cool guys that all the girls loved, too), and he said, "Here, man. You're thinking too hard." He showed me an easier way to do it -- and it worked.

    So help me, that was 1992 and I still have not fully learned the lesson.

    Folks, I'm a long-time GM who is, surprisingly, re-discovering how simple and fun this hobby can be. You're watching it happen; I'm catching up to where I used to be, before I went and decided I had to know everything.

    I have their game stats. Did you know there was a sourcebook? Allen Varney, with Greg Costikyan. It's aces.

    Thursday, October 12, 2006

    A-103400-F Ni A, lately, I've turned into a fan of generating content via random means.

    For a while I was kind of against it. Well, maybe not against it, but afraid of using it as a substitute for creativity.

    Then, I met Traveller.

    Actually, my friend Kyle gave me a copy of the LBBs as a graduation present, after high school; it took me about ten years to figure out what to do with it (long story for another post). So suddenly I'm all into Traveller and rolling crap up left and right.

    I really latched on to the world-creation charts, for some reason. I think it was when I rolled this UPP (Universal Planetary Profile):


    Any other Trav refs out there can probably decipher this weird little code right away: a smallish world, half-covered with water, with a thin atmosphere and no population. There's a place to land your ship, but it's more like a flat spot with a marker on it; if you find any manufactured goods there, it'll be, like, a stone dagger or an abacus, tops.

    I looked at my results, and thought, "Great. Now what?"

    But then I got to thinking about it. Sounds like an OK place...nothing says that it's not habitable, just that there's no one there. So I asked myself -- why isn't anyone there?

    And the answer came at once.

    Giant, angry bugs.

    It could've been any other reason -- maybe the Scouts just found it; maybe there used to be a population, but they died a long time ago from disease. Maybe sentient life just never developed. Or maybe no one could settle the place on account of giant, angry bugs.

    So here's where things got awesome: I realized that randomly-generated stuff needn't be a substitute for my creativity; it could merely be a platform for it. A starting point. It could do the hard work of coming up with raw, unpolished facts and then, as in this case, I could take over and turn the scraps of information into a living, breathing thing. Or character, or location, or what-have-you.

    In this case, E-555000-1 became Quinta, a world under interdiction by the Imperium on account of totally deadly giant bugs (GFS?), and which furthermore had some Ancient ruins on it because nothing in the above UPP said there wasn't. All I needed was a reason for the PCs to go there (paid by some scientists to sneak them past the Scouts, so they could get their research on), and some suckers to fall for it.

    And they did.

    A-103400-F: a tiny planet with a swanky starport, no air, mind-boggling technology and, like, 10,000 people with no damn laws. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Well! Obviously it's the home of a transhumanist clan, people who've mysteriously been able to transcend their human bodies and engineer sun-powered bioshells for themselves. They exiled themselves for some peace and quiet, and the Imperium had to put a starport there so they said 'Whatever, just stay on your side" and went off to meditate on the nature of existence and stuff.

    C-2068AC-A: Vaccum world owned and operated by Scientologists.

    Wow. I once described Traveller as "a speedboat for the lake of your imagination", and I meant it.

    You know what? I'll probably never, ever run Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But if you try to take away my Dungeon Masters Guide, with all its delicious charts for randomly determining castles and NPC personalities and other such stuff -- I cutchoo, mang!

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006

    I Like The Way Martin Thinks.

    If you haven't read this post on Treasure Tables, I encourage you to do so. This is good, neat, USEFUL advice. It's a process, but a simple one; it serves more as a framework for creativity than anything else. Rad!

    For My Next Trick...

    Once Upon A Time, I dabbled with gaming as art. I had a lot of fun writing these articles, and thinking about these concepts while failing Phys Ed in college. (Well, I didn't fail, but I didn't swim very fast, either. Screw it, I was there to study video production, not the dog-paddle.) I was into it.

    Somewhere along the line, I decided to share all of my gamemastering wisdom (ha!) with the world. To this end, I started to design a Gamemaster's Seminar -- a class for beginning and veteran GMs alike, where we'd discuss the basics as well as some advanced techniques, including The Adventure Funnel* and some of the above hoity-toity ideas about mood-setting with color palettes and crap.

    I think that...uh...let's see. About 9 people have attended in the 3 times I've presented it. They all had a good time, though, and I hear that this latest time, one of the participants went back to the FLGS (Avalon in Bloomington, IN), ran a bitchin' game, and told people he'd taken my seminar.


    But that's not my point today.

    My point is this: obviously, all that crazy-ass thought and research into employing art techniques and crap like that did me some good. I did it, and I'm the better for it.

    Here's the trick.

    How much of it do I actually need? That's what I need to figure out. I need to figure out the balance between High Gaming and all-out GFS Theory that'll suit me. It has to be useful. It makes too much sense.

    I think it'd help if I could actually game more...

    *Which wasn't called anything until I posted it on this blog. You are witnesses to history!

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006

    A Brief Digression: Blame S. John Ross

    Over at Jeff Rients' jawsome Gameblog, S. John Ross recently lamented the lack of artwork combining Erol Otus' classic D&D art and Nickelodeon's Rugrats.

    Seeing as how I owe S. John Ross for watching my 6 at that brothel in Bangkok, I think it's time I gave back a little.

    That one's for you, ya two-gun dog, ya.

    Monday, October 09, 2006

    The Adventure Funnel

    Hey! There was no game last night, on account of my wife got home from work feeling tired and cranky. It's time for a new job, you ask me...

    Anyway. In my quest to be The Perfect GM, I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for Processes -- formulae, techniques, step-by-step guides to being awesome. Frankly, I love that stuff, and I learned a lot of useful things in my search. I especially looked for adventure-creation tools, mostly because I kept feeling uncreative and stymied. If only I could find something that would tke away the pressure of being creative...the perfect, easy process that would fulfill my requirements! I quested for it. It was my Holy Grail. My Shangri-La. My Xanadu (the one with Olivia Newton-John).

    Naturally, I came up with it on my own.

    One night my wife wanted to play a game. I had no ideas for a scenario, but suddenly inspiration struck: having just read Robin Laws' damn excellent book, Robin's Laws Of Good Gamemastering, I came up with a plan.

    And it worked.

    I hereby christen it


    because it helps you focus your creativity. When it's time to whip up an adventure that I'm probably not going to run because nobody shows up or something else goes wrong, The Adventure Funnel lends a hand.

    It's concise, it's free-form and it's interactive, so go get a piece of paper and a pencil. No, I'm serious. Get up and do it. Okay, open up Notepad, whatever. C'mon, I'll do one along withyou. It'll be fun.

    A caveat: this process is not a subsitute for creativity, just a funnel for ideas. You've been warned.

    STEP 1: GOAL
    Write down a one-sentence objective for your players to accomplish. Resist the temptation to overcomplicate it -- you'll have plenty of time for crazy in a minute. (Plus, you can count on players for one thing: to bork everything up for you.) Make danged sure that your sentence begins with a verb! For example, here's a goal for a Traveller scenario:

    GOAL: Deliver and sell 200 tons of books, music and magazines to a buyer on Arduun.

    Scientific studies have proven time and again that when PCs just waltz in and win, it's not that much fun. Conflict = drama, baby! So jot down some things, ANY things, that could get between the players and the goal. Write down stupid stuff, too, as you think of it. Brainstorm! Starring you instead of Christopher Walken. You are following along, right...?

    1. Pirates
    2. Customs
    3. The merchandise is contraband
    4. No buyer, ha ha
    5. Conan shows up looking for a fight
    Yes, I know Conan isn't the first guy you think of when you say Ex-Navy 4 Terms 797A86. That doesn't matter right now. Sticking ideas on paper matters now.

    Here's where the real work begins. It's brainstormng on a finer scale. Look over your previous work and start sketching in the finer points, as you think of them. Anything that fleshes out the goal, the obstacles or just the world (the mise-en-scene, if you're toity) goes here. You'll be surprised at how quickly these details will start to resolve...let them. When something starts to click (and it will), go with it. Live!

    1. The media content is all pop culture stuff from Capital. The far-future equivalents of Tiger Beat, synth music, Cosmo, Carrot Top movies, etc.
    2. The head of Starport Authority on Arduun is a guy named Frampton Roosh, 64, near retirement.
    3. The government of Arduun just flipped over from an oligarchy to a charismatic dictatorship, focussed on "cultural purity". Hence, Tiger Beat is illegal.
    4. RE: Conan -- A brawny barbarian from the Sword Worlds gets drunk at the same bar as the PCs, and starts a fight. Inconsequential but fun. maybe an interesting, recurring NPC?
    5. The pirates are Vargr, raiding not for profit but for survival.
    6. The customs office is short-staffed on account of a flu epidemic.
    7. The new government came into power following a short but bloody civil war. Fascists, the lot of 'em.
    8. Cargo is contraband, and when word gets out that it's in the starport, TWO buyers present themselves: organized crime and freedm-fighters. PCs must choose with whom to do business!
    9. The freedom fighter representative is an attractive lass named Cami ....
    You get the point. Obviously the whole "Contraband" angle appealed to me; it started clicking and I ran with it. I could've kept going, and so could you.

    If you start getting a big ball of wax rolling, simply take an idea out of your list and put it into its own Funnel, setting the minor goal, putting up minor obstacles and detaling fiddly bits that relate to it. It needn't become the main focus of the scenario, but if you think it'll help to have the stuff handy (or if the players Go There), you'll have some notes to guide you when the crap hits the fan.

    GOAL: Sell the cargo to Cami

    1. She's being watched by the Secret Police
    2. Nowhere to make an easy delivery
    3. Have to forge the cargo's papers
    4. She's constantly on the move
    1. Secret Police travel in packs of 4, well-armed
    2. Cami knows of a warehouse at the old creamery, 2 mi. from starport
    3. Etc...

    Again, resist the temptation to provide too much detail; give yourself wiggle room. Use this stuff as a basis for winging it, not a script for railroading.

    Anything that might be in the PCs favor can, but needn't be, listed. Hell, you may have already written it down in Step 3 for all I know. Same for what they stand to gain; I probably would've listed Cami's offer for the cargo in my details. I rarely, if ever, do anything for a Step 4; I'm usually done by them.

    You may not use everything you just wrote down. That's okay. Scratch off what you did use and stick the notes in a folder. Next time you're stuck for something...

    Possibilities abound. Scale the scope up and down, and you can do anything from a single encounter to a multi-part epic campaign, wherein each obstacle is a a few sessions long.

    This Funnel has served me well. It is yours now.

    Go forth and rock.

    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    "Creativity Is Hiding Your Sources"

    Now there's something I learned from White Wolf and which I will continue to apply. However, I'm not so sure how much I feel like hiding these days: A memory from my gaming youth encourages me to steal inspiration rather than to expect myself to pluck it, unaided, from the very ether.

    One of the best GMs I ever played with is Erik "Erko" Mayes. He's my best friend's older brother, and he used to run AD&D for us now and then, back in the day, when he was first in college. I think I only played an Erko game two or three times, but damned if they don't stand out in my memory.

    One particular game featured a particular villain we were all familar with from other sources: Darkness, the horned bad guy from Legend. He didn't come over from that Ridley Scott flick alone, oh no no -- he brought his goblin henchmen Blix and Blunder along with him, not to mention some unicorns and a plot involving the theft of their horns.

    I'm pretty sure that Erko made no attempt to disguise these characters and situations from us; I think that either he was epically unconcerned that we'd recognize them (i.e. he was lazy), or maybe he didn't think it would matter. Whichever his impetus, the game got on despite the fact that we recognized the characters, and we still had fun.

    As I got older, I never forgot that episode (obviously), but I did start to see it in a different light. I thought, "Why steal something that boldly and plop it in your game? Where's the creativity? The uniqueness? The Craft?!" I vowed that I'd never stoop like that, that I would be The Very Creative GM Who Always Did Everything Brand New From Whole Cloth.

    Trouble is, that way lies frustration. Trying to be innovative all the damned time is very consuming, very demanding. It's noble, sure; it's a suitable challenge for everyone. Flip that coin around and you'll find frustration, disappointment and anguish (esecially if you're a perfectionist like I am). It's that attitude that has made my gaming so difficult for so long.

    In this day, I find myself revisiting that opinion, and that memory of the Legend-flavored game, from a different angle. I'm looking now at the facts, and these are they:

    Erko stole an idea from another source and we all had fun anyway.

    I'm finding it hard to argue with that. The dude was probably watching the movie, thought, "Cool, I oughtta have some players fight these guys", and ran with it. He went straight for the fun.

    And why not? Sure, he could've changed the names a bit and twisted some new plot threads in, but in the end, we knew exactly who we were dealing with, what was going on, and what needed to be done. Furthermore, we had that villain and that situation all to ourselves, to handle in our way. It was a perfect example of "What If...?"

    And correct me if I'm wrong, but "What If...?" is one of the reasons we play.

    I still want to have my own ideas, sure. Good lord! Who doesn't? But all the same, what's the harm in taking inspiration rather than crafting it yourself? What's the real harm in nicking an idea, changing a few details, and letting it live in your game?

    Thomas Edison* didn't invent the lightbulb. He just made one that worked.

    I am no longer afraid to pluck something from elsewhere and use it for my own. It's not a lack of creatvity, it's just a shortcut to my own ideas. A starting point. Plus, it's not like my players are really gonna look down on me for it.

    To that end, I have a new NPC for tonight's Iron Gauntlets game: Sir Mayhew of the Redmarsh, Knight of the Ring Argent.

    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

    This oughtta be fun.

    *Don't think for a moment I'm giving the guy props. Ever read up on him and Nikola Tesla? More people should.
    guy was a class-1 USDA certified dick.

    Saturday, October 07, 2006

    Together Again for the Very First Time

    ...and here's how it got this way.

    I got into gaming on December 31st, 1987. There's a reason I remember so specifically, but I'll leave that for later. I was in middle school, and that's about average, right? I took the last semester of 8th grade to ingest, digest and expand upon my gaming library, my idea of the hobby, my interests within it. High school came and brought me other gamers, and I was off like a rocket.

    Something drew me to gamemastering right away; it may've been my interest in storytelling, or just that I wanted to be a filmmaker and saw this hobby as a ready substitute for the time being. I just kind of fell into the role, and I dug it; man, did I ever. My Mom even bought me a copy of Gary Gygax's Master of the Game, "Because it seems you're always the gamemaster". Now how cool is that?

    I stumbled a lot on the way, like you do with anything, but before long a couple of things were becoming screamingly evident, even to me:
    1. I was getting good at it; and
    2. I wanted to get better.
    The 80's faded out like a cold Hypercolor t-shirt and in their stead came the 1990s, which apart from being inescapable I also pretty much hated because there was too much grunge and no New Wave, but I digress. My gaming library was ballooning, and I was getting more experience, more knowledge, more ideas.

    I also got Mage.

    Look, I loved Mage. I still have a warm little spot for it in my heart, by a side-table with some bon-bons on it. It was my fault, really, that I took all of White Wolf's ideas about storytelling, mood, theme, etc. pretty danged seriously.

    Wait, no. I meant to say too seriously. Next thing I knew, I was approaching the hobby not as a pastme but as a craft. My head became like a freaking Jo-Ann Fabrics, full of gew-gaws and gizmos and reference materials, and it was all whipped into a frenzy by that single idea that I'd had for the last, oh, 5 or so years:

    I MUST IMPROVE. And "improvement", at that time, seemed to require ever greater sophistication.

    [Remember -- this isn't Mage's fault, or even Changeling's. I did this to myself. Theatrix helped, though.]

    Mood. Theme. Setting. Three-Act Structure. Foreshadowing. Story Arcs. These things could be done in a game, and the nuclear-powered OCD engine in my brain demanded that they should be done. By me. Because to do less would be to cheat myself.

    I must forge myself into an enlightened, nigh-omnipotent god of gamemastering excellence!


    I have determined that this is not much fun.

    Little things, many of them, have crept up in my life (as it relates to gaming, and as it doesn't) to make me aware of a simple fact -- a fact so obvious, I ignored it: I've been thinking too hard about gaming, making it feel less like play and more like work. Lest it lose its luster, something must be done.

    There's an old Buddhist proverb: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha". Hell if I know what it means, but one reasonable interpretation is this: don't do something just because someone who ought to know tells you that you should; take the teachings, get rid of the teacher, and explore the world on your own.

    I don't need gaming to be an art. I can make it that; I know how. but I don't need to.

    In this weblog, I come face-to-face with my gaming Buddha. He and I shall do battle.

    I have a vorpal sword, and I'm rolling intitiative.

    Let's go, Buddha.

    PS: Today is my Birthday. Hmn. Symbolism...?