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.