Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 4: Education in Indi Games and Podcasts

Circa 2013

Empty_book

While I had taken a hiatus that lasted roughly one year off of gaming in general, I had a lot to consider. My life had changed, I had a new job, and I had a new group of friends. Ultimately, so much was fundamentally different about my life that gaming simply took a back seat.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t still like it or want to prioritize it, but I had always imagined that life would take precedent over anything gaming related; that I would stop being so obsessed with role playing if my life ever careened away from the bachelor path. That simple fact seemed to keep me sane through the wild abandon that I had shown in my youth.

Nevins_Library_First_Librarians
As wild as reading books can be, that is.

Ultimately, I had slowed down, and taken stock of my life. I had no uncontrolled urge to  pad my ego or revisit the spring of my youth; rather, it was a time for reflection and re-calibration. I was a new person, sloughing off many of my old ways like so much dead skin. While role playing was marginalized in this yearlong period, I had ultimately yearned to return to it.

While this had ultimately manifested in a fungus like growth that urged me to continue writing. Part of this apotheosis was manifested by my heavy reading of Pathfinder books due to my mistaken hope that the elven royalty campaign in which I had been playing might resume. My research of the Pathfinder setting had me fall in love with the way that Paizo produces material, and gave me inspiration to do the same.

At the same time, I had still been stinging from being done with Exalted, and sought to create a system that facilitated the telling of a story. That ongoing attempt is a pet project of mine that falls squarely into the indie gaming zone, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a lot to learn about the methodology behind such an undertaking.

What I had done was to start listening to podcasts.

download
The irony here is that I hate the words “blog” and “podcast”, as they are a blight on the English language, but that’s another topic altogether.

I have been happy to find a number of podcasts that continue to give me an insight into the industry. RPG Design Panel Cast is a very impressive podcast for those of you that are interested, but others such as Gamers Tavern or The Tome Show are great for presenting the voice of the industry in a relatively personal and digestible level.

The interesting element to all of this is that I had, until that point, been insulated from games that didn’t come to me from friends or that I liked on sight. These podcasts started to introduce me to such games as Fiasco, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World et al., and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I had always cast a critical eye to the very foundation of a game’s design. Why do orcs drop gold? Why should a failed skill check ruin the fun? What does epic even mean? But what I had now was a much needed dose of wisdom that came from people who were experts at what I was merely grasping. I had a framework that compelled me to stand on the shoulders of those giants to reach for something greater than myself.

Castlevania_Boss_Frankenstein
Like a literary 8-bit boss.

These instructional podcasts helped me adjust my thinking, especially as I enter a new phase in my life. I find myself introducing my children to role playing with some care and attention, thanks to what I’ve learned. I design games not as an acerbic bachelor that growls on message boards, but as a father and an educator that wants to see what games can do for the mind.

At the same time, I find myself finally receiving an education in game writing that isn’t insular. Best of all, they are being published legitimately. I am lucky to have a bevy of people and a community that is supportive that may actually help me see my hopes to fruition, but I will talk more about that in the weeks to come.

Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 2

Circa 2004- 

So, now I had learned about Exalted. It was a slow boiling love that would one day culminate  into a pitched fever, though it started out lukewarm. My favorite GM introduced out group to  it, and we were all reluctant. Our first game might have lasted about 3 sessions, not including  the tedious first time character creation. We were all new to it, and we hadn’t jelled to the thematic just yet, but all the same, it took us that first bit of stumbling to see what the  game could be, and to shake off the dust of standard fantasy gaming and realize the potential  of a gonzo mythical setting.

Much as with all things, I threw myself into Exalted headlong once I saw that it was more than  just a repainted fantasy setting. It was a dynamic, exciting and organic world that was still  growing out of the heads of people who had inherited it from the original authors. Those  initial authors had at first seen it as a prequel of sorts to the World of Darkness at large, and thought to treat it as a Hyborian Age style survival conflict epic; a more bare and honest treatment of their current lines. Similar to Systems Failure*, the premise  was changed for the better, and the result was phenomenal.

What could not be predicted was the way in which Exalted evolved from a primitive survival  drama into a fantastic animistic epic of mythic proportions. And neither could they have  controlled the colossal scope that sprung from a fertile concept that begged to grow into  absurd proportions. Every encouragement was there to simply cause the setting to burst into a  myriad of wonderful directions. This did not always happen**, but Exalted did its best to  self-correct towards its disastrously gonzo path.

gonzo
As gonzo is given to do.

This having been said, I was at the margins of the community for quite a while. I had done some  time at the first iteration of the Exalted Compendium, which did a good job of attracting some  of the more corrosive personalities attached to Exalted at large. There were also side projects  and contests in which I participated, but a lump sum of my involvement saw fruit in the official White Wolf forums. From here I made friends and enemies through the naturally socio-anthropological discussions that were (and likely still are) inseparable from the zeitgeist of  the Exalted community.

That having been said, I was a fairly polarizing individual within the community, as I had been  in the Palladium Books forums as well. However, while I held a position of infamy within the  Palladium forums, the actual creative minds behind the books were less involved with the fan  base. Through the development of Exalted into its current iteration, the fan base and the creative teams were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.

And perhaps I am wrong, but I will state my opinion without hesitation; I believe that the  creative team behind Exalted suffered for being so close to its fan base. I was too close to  see it then, but I can look back clearly to several events that intensified the metamorphosis  of Exalted. The game switched subtly from being a very vibrant setting about greatness and  tragedy, to being an abstracted thought exercise about trans-humanist philosophy and moral  relativism.

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I’m not going to name names, but…

Where once you could expect to play an analogue of Alexander the Great or Hercules, the  expectation shifted into a navel gazing exercise that favored ambiguity over excitement. This  is not at all a bad space to explore in role-playing games, but the fundamental alteration had  forced the game to surrender its identity.

Worse still, there was a surging and eminently vocal portion of the fan-base that espoused the  need for the rules to be “realistic”, a term that I maintain was not understood at all by this  subset. I’ll humor the concept for sake of fairness.

In brief: if there was a way to win the game through a combination of abilities and powers, it  was unrealistic for anyone NOT to immediately secure these combinations, even if that skewed  the balance of the game towards a resource-grubbing tedium.

It was perhaps one of the most  baffling instances of meta-gaming I had ever seen, at once favoring the realism over meta-game,  but also wielding the meta-game unfairly against the game itself.

This poisonous perspective wrought much havoc throughout the community. On the one hand, some  aspects of the realism stance were valid. For instance, characters could accrue so much  experience that optimization was inevitable. Higher level play tended towards insurmountable  defenses that could last until one side was exhausted of energy points. This was not ok, but it  represented only a segment of play. What this “faction” accomplished was to take the problems  on the back-end, and convinced people to apply them universally.

Chairman_Dies_of_House_Committee_investigating_Un-American_activities
Here a committee is hard at work to ruin it for everyone.

In short, a game that was at least functional 70% of the time now became non-functioning 100%  of the time. There was a great call for the game to be fixed, but each successive fix was  informed by the same group that cleaved to some twisted sense of realism in a game about  glowing godlings. For that reason, the fixes were flawed in the extreme, as the collective  community fragmented further.

The game’s philosophy and underlying mechanics were so warped that it undermined the very  experience of playing the game. The change came late for the poor majority that was not plugged  in to the strange commune-like atmosphere that decided what was best for those who didn’t speak  or know to be informed, in an almost eerie Orwellian way. And while I might have been initially  fooled by some of these changes, I soon began to do what I could to counter the worst of the  assertions, only to be challenged or ignored by the actual staff in charge of the game line. I  quickly realized that the fight was neither winnable, nor legitimately mine. The game that I  loved was lost in a procession of egos.

I could still play MY Exalted, even if it was considered “wrong” (a concept that rankles me to  this day). No one could take from me the vision of the game to which I held. Conversely, the  true tragedy was that organic nature that initially propelled Exalted was now its undoing. Some  could blame the merger between White Wolf and CCP, but the writing on the wall was evident that  Exalted was being upended by its fanbase.

Henrik_Ibsen_by_Gustav_Borgen_NFB-19778_restored
I shall appropriate Ibsen for my indignation.

Even though I had written for Exalted in an extremely limited capacity***, nothing came of it. As a freelance writer, this would be a time of dearth and unrealized potential. Though I  painfully learned many valuable lessons, my writing was stunted. I had written campaign notes, but I  wrote very little that I could consider professional or polished. Crushed as I was by my prior  freelancing experience, Exalted was at once the balm and bane to my creativity.

I’m aware that there is a new edition. I’m not interested in the slightest. The  new architects are the very people who had, in some way or another, sent Exalted careening into a direction from which it can hardly be recovered.

Though the game had really consumed nearly 8 years of my attention, it was not the only game  that I read or played. In the between times, I played an ample amount of Rifts, Heavy Gear  (Dream Pod 9), Dungeons and Dragons, and even Pathfinder. And from the otherwise badly apportioned time taken by Exalted, a number of events would change my perspective for the better.

I was starting to fall in love with Pathfinder, and more importantly, I met and married the  love of my life. Both of these events would spur my muse to consider two important decisions.  First, I needed to write, and be published, even if it was primarily to sharpen my skill.  In the next post, I will discuss the details of these endeavors.

* See part 1

** see Exalted: the Lunars, first edition

*** I never got credited, and I probably can’t give details as such, but I did.

Return of the King, or Better Living Through Cooperative Play

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Pictured: A ruthless marketing ploy by me

Hahaha, that’s a pretty good blog title. So ok, I believe that I need to get back into the blog racket.

I have been doing rather extensive writing for various companies, including some successful kickstarters, and I have filled my time with doing just that, but I feel like I have so much more to say that cannot be encompassed with a “for pay” product, or at least not until I can stand on my own two feet as a publisher… as I someday hope to achieve.

I have a lot of ideas, and I think  I can share them with people better through this platform. Things that amuse me and probably cannot be neatly monetized*. Things that strike my fancy and require more time and attention to refine into something that should be sold for money.

I also hope to bridge a crucial gap with my blog, and one that I think I had attempted to tackle when I started; I wish to help those gaming groups that are in conflict. I have witnessed, both first hand and through numerous broad gaming topics and forums, the continual ebb and flow of game table politics.

Player A doesn’t get along with player B. Game Master X has a problem with power gamer Y. A character dies, and arguments ensue over how it was handled… etc, etc, etc.

These are the issues that I feel should be tackled, and it warrants more attention. Do you have a gaming issue at your table? Feel free to leave a comment. I may even dedicate a blog post to it. Will I take your side and demonize the other party? No, I intend to be impartial and seek harmony over vilification**.

So I will attempt to start a new segment entitled “Across the Screen” in which I give advice, both targeted and general, aimed at helping the harmony of game play. After all, life is too short to have a bad role playing session.

* Such as conversions of intellectual property, done as FREE loving tributes, of course.
** It is entirely too common for advice threads that relate to game table quarrels to devolve into immediate name calling and side taking without any form of resolution. The intention here is for all sides to be considered, and an equitable resolution to be achieved.

Fiendish Friday: Katsuhiko Jinnai

Jinnai

This might seem weird, but I’m going to dip back into my anime roots to discuss what makes a good villain. And let us not get confused; a good villain is not necessarily a successful villain or a powerful one. Rather, a good villain (by my reckoning) is one that evokes villainy, feels fully (or at least mostly) defined, and is dynamic.

But I won’t beat you with buzzwords. Rather, let me show you by example.

El Hazard was a relatively underrated show that didn’t get much traction outside of being the cousin to a much more popular Tenchi Muyo. What El Hazard had going for it was far more action and excitement*, a better setting**, and arguably a better protagonist***. What is not up for debate is that El Hazard had numerous antagonists that stole the show compared to most other anime, to say nothing of Tenchi Muyo and its relative lack of quality antagonists****.

But I digress. Katsuhiko Jinnai is basically a high school student rival to the high school student protagonist. Outside of the ability to communicate with bugs (depending on the El Hazard variant universe), Jinnai doesn’t necessarily have any special innate abilities. In a world where people can bend elements (before it was cool), control ancient and potent technology, or just be big and/or strong, Jinnai was merely smart, and ambitious.

It’s quite clear that Jinnai is a megalomaniac with a napoleon complex. There is nothing especially ground-breaking about his motivations or demeanor, but his methods are impressive. He whips an army of bugmen into shape, convinces their queen to make him a general, and takes great sweeping risks for big payoffs; all for the sake of rubbing his success in the face of the protagonist.

His carman-esque level of dedication to his villainous craft is admirable. He smacks of some kind of character from Edgar Rice Burroughs or even Robert E. Howard; larger than life, commanding, outrageously bombastic, but somehow fun and enjoyable. His trademark cackle and sneer make him almost more cartoon than cartoon, but somewhere along the line you accept him as ridiculous but necessary to the otherwise somber presentation of the fantastical fantasy setting.

But as I’m almost at 500 words, counting footnotes, I’ll let you just go and watch El Hazard. The original OVA is short (7 episodes), but the episodes are a full 30-45 minutes. It’s a fun watch if you get the chance. Just… avoid El Hazard 2. It’s just not a good sequel.*****

Warning: Extreme Anime Nerdiness Ahead!
*Seriously, more fight scenes per capita than Tenchi Muyo.
** A somewhat pulpy “transported to fantasy arabia” setting rocks compared to the “Japan and sometimes empty space” settings initially explored in Tenchi Muyo.
*** Makoto beats Tenchi hands down. He’s smarter, has more of a personality, and just DOES more things. He even seems to have will and motivation. Ack, that’s another post altogether though.
****Outside of Kagato Tenchi had very few good villains. Dr Clay? Give me Dr Clayton Forester any day! But even outside of Jinnai, there was the Bugrom Queen (who probably should have seen more play), the weird blue skinned people with an axe to grind, and the spectre of ancient and dangerous technology that made things interesting.
***** El Hazard: The Wanderers is fine. I keep meaning to watch El Hazard: Alternative World, and thus have no opinion on it.

Topical Tuesday: Who Do You Write For?

When it comes to role playing (and other games, presumably), every piece of writing is aimed at a particular audience. However, we don’t really consider who those audiences are. Writers have largely internalized the precepts of gaming to such a degree that they give nary a thought to who and why.

When you stop to consider the nature of the game at large, it is clear that there is a strata that delineates the distinct audiences of gaming. Most role playing manuals cater to two; the player and the game master*. The secret third category is for the game designer is a third that has always been a tricky target. This often folds into game master, for what is a game master but a co-designer of a very specific game?

But the interesting aspect of this dichotomy (trichotomy?) is the stratification of the categories. There are players who will never game master. All game masters are players, whether they care to admit it or not. I’m not sure that I’ve met a game developer that wasn’t also a game master, but I’d be inclined to say that it is rare. Typically, you don’t simply go from one category to the other, but rather they are cumulative.

So how do you write for each, or any combination? This has been the conundrum of the industry for awhile. What sourcebook will reach the largest audience? What gaps need to be filled? Do you want to lay out the tools for your system so that others can tweak them, or are you more interested in writing adventures that make the work easy? There are no wrong answers, since the field is so wide, but attempting to target any or all of the categories (player, GM, designer) is the more difficult task.

And while I can offer no definitive advice, I can only tell you that it is important to understand that the distinction exists, for various reasons. Players will enjoy things differently than game masters will. This is especially critical when designing monsters. A game master may enjoy a nasty baddie, while players may not necessarily like the thing that sucks levels and leaves no treasure. Again, it’s a fine line to tow.

So why have I said all of this? It’s an idle musing perhaps, until I can figure out something more definitive, but I invite you to chew on the ideas with me.

P.S. Finally! A post under 500 words! Stat blocks are wordy…

*… storyteller, referee, or what have you.

Fiendish Friday: How to Make a Villain Stand Out

Starship Troopers

So, Fridays will likely be for big bads. That is to say, rather than some monster that you might run into in droves, this segment focuses on villains, boss monsters, and motivations for said forces of evil.

Today it is about the creation of a memorable villain. No matter what, we as GM ALWAYS struggle with making a cool villain that is worthy of the party; for what defines a group’s awesomeness and heroic nature better than a villain of commensurate dastardliness?

Take for example a villain that I employed in a Rifts campaign. I was running a game that paralleled the then big plot push that went with Siege on Tolkeen.* I was running two games in tandem for both sides of the war. Today I will focus on one side, being the military based campaign of Coalition States soldiers** fighting against a wizard city-state.

But the villain here wasn’t a wizard war band nor a marauding elemental. It was racism.

The Coalition States modus operandi was largely predicated on the superiority of humans, despite a lot of contradictions***. But the players weren’t fighting racism in the traditional sense. Rather, they faced it through tough choices made in the field as they decided how to act on their orders; Orders given by a commanding officer by the name of Captain Mauler.

Mauler was the embodiment of their struggle with racism. Did they give in and follow orders to the letter, or let their decency shine through and break ranks? It made for an interesting campaign, with a lot of poignant moments and choices.

And rather than posting stats for Mauler****, I’d rather talk about how I made him stand out. He had stark white hair, and wore a chiseled scowl. He was calm in a way that was unnerving, like a stalking jungle cat. Everything about him was severe, embodying his inability to yield to a point of view, with echoes of Captain Beaty from Farenheit 451*****.

If you have a villain, sometimes it is best to have him be inaccessible but prominent. It could be a magistrate that interacts with the players early only to seek revenge for a perceived crime spree that they didn’t really commit. It could be a dragon that masquerades as a human, spurned by some social interaction and driven to follow the group closely before a fateful encounter.

But above all, the presentation needs to be definitive. A good villain needs style, motivation, and purpose. Without any one of those things, the villain falls flat as just another obstacle. But with all three of those elements, you face a villain that not only challenges your players, but the themes of the story as well.

What convictions drive a man to excel at brutality against non-humans? Can he be convinced to see a different way? If not, what do you as a soldier do to reconcile his egregious nature with your desperate grip on morality? Alternately, what might you do if you fall in line with his sensibilities?

A good villain begs questions like this.******

*If you care.
**Basically, the “federation” from the Starship Troopers, including the psychic elements.
***Such as “employing” mutant dogs and psychic mutants.
**** It would be kind of pointless.
***** Though I had yet read it.
****** On a somewhat related note: Kekfa > Sephiroth.

Monday Mayhem: Extreme Weather

Real World Extreme Weather

Weather tends to be an afterthought for most games. Usually, it is showcased as some feature of the terrain, such as a desert that has frequent sandstorms, or a polar region so cold that you have to be equipped for it. If these things are not in themselves self-evident, then weather is largely ignored.

And I’m not suddenly advocating that you become a meteorologist as part of your session prep, but rather that you SHOULD focus on the extremes. More extreme than polar cold, more dangerous than being caught in a sandstorm.

I recall Final Fantasy 10 having a segment in it in which you had to cross a region so beset with lightning that you could potentially get struck dozens of times while crossing it. While this may seem a bit odd, that is the kind of adventure design that sticks in the head of the player. Though I admit, the even stranger “dodge 100 lightning strikes in a row” mini game might also have contributed to its remarkability.

But I digress. Fantasy games have a special leeway in presenting extraordinary weather that may seem outlandish. If the link above is any indication, Earth has its own extraordinary weather patterns. Shoot for the moon with your weird weather!

Let’s try this…

Sentient Tornado-
On the eastern plains of Selna there exist a great number of oddities that dot the map, pronounced all the more against the otherwise featureless plains. Among those oddities is the Walking Wind, a legend of a sentient tornado that stalks the plains with some bizarre agenda. Though many dismiss the stories as superstitious nonsense, and cite the tornado seasons seen on other continents, many claim to have seen the tornado at all times of the year, moving to and fro as if by determination.

The legends claim that it chases after treasure hunters, and that it guards the opening to ancient crypts and vaults. The only definitive text on the matter is the journal of Andrew Hunt, an explorer and researcher that set out to verify the nature of the tornado. His accounts detail a strange and careful study of the alleged tornado, having observed it carefully for over two weeks. Hunt was never able to present his findings; his tattered journal was all that remains of him.

The Jhorrund, perhaps the only people that can speak of the tornado with any authority claim that it is an ancient nature spirit that has become angry, and would see its territory scoured of all humanoid life. Whatever the truth may be, the tornado (or tornadoes) continue to claim the lives of those foolish enough to enter the area.

Rules:
The Walking Wind is a tornado, and an extreme weather effect that targets any biped traveling along a stretch of territory approximately 200 square miles. The tornado travels at roughly 50 miles per hour, or 250 ft per round. Anyone caught within 200 ft of the tornado is pulled up in the air, and thrown a great distance in a random direction. Assume 15d6 falling damage whenever they land.

The tornado will always throw its victims away from its territory, at times whipping victims as far as 10 miles away. Anyone that has the ability to fly, hover, glide, or slowfall is not subject to this damage, but is still thrown for the entire distance as determined by the game master. The Walking Wind is known to try and scare people from its territory, moving slowly to warn intruders before advancing menacingly.

The Walking Wind is considered to have a strength score of 50 for the purposes of pushing and moving creatures. Although it is a sentient weather hazard, it does not have hit points, and can only be temporarily dispelled by powerful weather control magics. A wish or miracle may dispel it permanently, but the tornado exists as a powerful runic curse, and as such may be subject to a specific condition that will finally quell the Walking Wind for good. Obscure legends tell that it’s rune is carved somewhere along the plains, and that dispelling that rune may be the key to quelling the strange tornado.

(Ok, that’s over 600 words, so sue me)