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.

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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.

Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 1

When I started writing role playing material circa 1999, it was on a lark. Really, I had already been compiling my own gaming notes for a lame web page that I had assembled hastily so that I could share my equally lame ideas with the internet.

The important part of the equation is that I was part of a community. I felt the need to share, just as I do today. As important as a release schedule is to the lifespan of a game line, so too must the collaboration among its actors work to infuse it with both new members and creative energy.

So as goofy as my attempts were, they were welcomed and lauded. I was heartily engrossed with the little known game of Systems Failure, and I had decided to detail the exploits of the game that I had been running. Those exploits were seen fit for publication in Rifter issue 12. I even own the original art prints from the article, graciously offered to me by the article’s artist.

While I still cringe a bit as I read the article with more than 15 years of wisdom as a filter, I can still appreciate my own diligence. Here was a complete portion of supplementary information, and perhaps a blueprint of what a post-apocalyptic bug fighting chronicle could be. In my idealism I had created an alternative to the default of gritty survival and abject conflict. It did not invalidate the default, but rather appended to its thematic in a way not unlike the suggestions near the back of the book for blending the setting with other genres.

And while the Systems Failure game line is sadly as dead as “Street Fighter: The Storyteller Game”*, it remains near and dear to my heart. If my work was appreciated in only small measures, I still pride myself in having been a part of it. It taught me that I could become a part of the gaming zeitgeist if I really tried, something that I’ve done on and off for the last 15 years.

Ultimately, it is my desire to internalize a game and its component parts, to really understand and appreciate the product as a whole that drives me to demonstrate that understanding. Systems Failure went from being a survival nut/millennial crisis pastiche of jokes to instead explore a deeper subtext of freedom and existential survival. This was what excited me, and this is what I wanted to be a part of.

So as I moved on from Palladium Books** in 2001, I hitched my wagon to the next most interesting thing, and became ensconced in the world of anime role playing. The sadly defunct Guardians of the Order was just starting to produce licensed anime products, precipitating a meteoric rise, and really espousing the then burgeoning world of blended nerdiness. It took two things that I loved and put them together, even if it didn’t come out exactly right***.

Somewhere along the way I ran into Seraphim Guard and their flagship book, Heart Quest,and was conscripted to write for said book. Seraphim guard was, at the time, looking to fulfill a still unrequited need for anime role playing that wasn’t just hi-jinks and explosions. Guardians of the Order themselves sort of beat them to the punch with their own book, though neither really got any attention. For a very long time, my most prominent writing credits were for Heart Quest. I wrote their “Magical Girl”, “Historical Romance” sections.

Sadly, they used an earlier draft that was still full of errors, but I was still proud of my work, by which I stand even today. Though I am not sure, I believe that the same bungled draft was reprinted in the 2nd edition (or a diceless edition, it’s hard to say) without any further input from me, which brings me to the next event. Seraphim Guard had sadly been some sort of weird ponzi scheme that was divided and sold into three separate entities. Seraphim Guard still exists, in a sense, but the rights to publish Heart Quest were then sold down a river to another company, and yet another game that was to be part of the line was sold to a third company.

At the time, I was in talks to develop an entire setting for Heart Quest, which I had been doing with aplomb until I came to understand that my new bosses (spread across three companies) were ambivalent and hard at work scattering the hard work of myself and other authors to the wind.

I had tried in vain to understand the new delineation, and to present the work I had done to that point. I had hoped to salvage some semblance of interest in my projects, but it was to no avail.**** Suffice to say, I had poured my heart into a whole lot of nothing, and it was a hard pill to swallow. Connections that I had built had nearly vanished overnight, and I was unsure of what to do. So I did what I do when a setback occurs; I ruminated. I may have been defeated, but I also learned from the experience.

Eventually, my attentions turned to a new source of interest. I had been introduced to Exalted. I will continue on with my musings as a middling freelancer next week for part 2 of my series.

*I always predicted that there could have been a Darkstalkers supplement that begged to be part of the World of Darkness. Alas…
** A long story.
*** Part of the problem for Guardians of the Order is that there was not enough role playing design experience to provide a solid foundation for the decidedly fun books they had published. This is likely to be a topic for a future blog post.
**** This was in the early days of self-publishing, at a time when I hadn’t conceived of doing it all myself. Had this event occurred today, I might have taken those lemons and turned them into lemonade as I am doing now.

Across the Screen #4: Communication

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Telegraph your GM today!

I have been around the role playing community long enough to know that one of the primary obstacles to a good cohesive campaign is a lack of communication. Time, of course, is the real death of countless campaigns, but I can’t change time, so we’ll focus on communication.

What problems can come from lack of communication? Plenty. Are you feeling left out as a player? Are you feeling overwhelmed as a GM? Is something about the campaign not meshing? Like in any group setting, small problems grow in the dark. Feeling slighted or stressed doesn’t always go away on its own, and a simple misunderstanding can be exacerbated substantially by time and silence.

Surely as role players, you have all had times where you have felt marginalized, unappreciated, or at the very least frustrated by the action of inaction of others; that feeling is completely natural. For many introverts that flock to the hobby (and perhaps some socially conscious extroverts), our instinctual reactions are also natural, though not especially helpful. We insulate ourselves, and stew on perceived slights.

So how do we fix this? Is the GM being fair with combats? Why can’t the group go west when the GM wants them to go East? What is wrong with stealing that paladin’s magic sword if he is just a figure head?

These are all examples of issues that I can and will discuss in future editions of Across the Screen, but for now know that they don’t have to result in a ruined campaign or even a bad session. Make sure that you speak frankly with each other about issues or misconceptions that might arise during play.

Now, this isn’t always easy, but the more you can work on keeping an open discussion (especially after or between sessions), the more harmonious things can be. Remember, no one knows you have an issue until you bring it up. Finally, if you aren’t comfortable or even confident that discussion can solve your problem, it might be time to rethink the group dynamics. Sadly, this is a harder issue to solve, but sometimes it is necessary to address. More on that further down the road.

For now, I leave you with the following advice. The game is meant to be played and enjoyed. If you are a GM, you have a duty to be inclusive and fair. If you are a player, you have a less realized duty to bolster the GM with good character choices and participation. Both of these things are easier when you communicate with your GM. Talk between sessions, ask for information and advice, and make sure that all participants are having fun. It only takes a bit of discussion to dispel most misunderstandings.

Next week, we will discuss the very important decisions that are made at character creation, and why it is probably better to make your character at the same time as everyone else, if able.

The Ishim: Counterpoint to the Imp

 

The counterpoint to the imp; there are no monsters that are a good counterpoint to the imp in D&D and its ilk. There are lantern archons, and other such beings, but nothing really comes close to an iconic creature that would serve as the mirror to the imp the way that some angels have equals among the higher ranks of demon kind.

So here is the Ishim.glowing_halo_op_640x560

Ishim
Small Celestial, lawful good
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 11 (2d6 + 4)
Speed fly 40 ft. (hover)
Str 4 (-3), Dex 17 (+3), Con 14 (+2), Int 11 (+0), Wis 13 (+1), Cha 14 (+2)
Skills Intimidation +3, Insight +3, Persuasion +4, Stealth +5
Damage Resistances lightning; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities fire, radiant
Condition Immunities deafened, exhaustion, poisoned, prone, restrained
Senses blindsight 120 ft., passive Perception 11
Languages Celestial, Common
Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Messenger. The ishim is the messenger for the divine host, and projects its voice magically to all who can hear within 100 feet. The ishim has advantage on intimidate checks when it uses its booming voice.
Magic Resistance.
The ishim has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Tongue of Flame. The ishim can speak and understand any language. Additionally, it has an aura that grants this ability to any creature within 50 feet that can speak and understand a language.

Actions
Divine Flame.
Ranged Attack: +5 to hit, range 30 ft., one target.Hit: 13 (3d8) radiant damage.
Divine Speech (Recharge 6).
The ishim utters a holy phrase. Enemy creatures within 100 feet must make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw, becoming frightened for 1 round on a failure. Creatures that fail this saving throw by 5 or more are frightened for 1d4 rounds.
Invisibility.
The ishim magically turns invisible until it attacks or until its concentration ends (as if concentrating on a spell).

An Ishim appears as a small glowing halo, sometimes literally a golden shining hoop, at other times as a glimmering mandala of symbols and numbers, but always with a golden light. Though small, the light it sheds makes it appear larger or at least more imposting.

The ishim is an exalted celestial creature that occupies the third sphere. They are the divine messengers, and are either born into existence by divine will, or are the exalted souls of righteous men of piety. Ishim are just as likely to deliver a word of warning to a man about to commit a grievous sin as they are to warn a city of impending catastrophe. Their minds are mysterious, following the vaulted edict of the diving host, and rarely speak outside of their intended message.

In rare situations, a person is deemed to have a pious destiny may have an ishim granted to them, in which case the ishim becomes a doting mentor and guardian. Such cases are exceedingly rare, and recipients of this mentorship are usually cloistered by mortal agents seeking to protect the individual.

Limitless Adventures and Boundless Encounters

limitless-adventuresSo, Limitless Adventures has reached out to me and asked that I review their products. I want to refer you to my reviews page so that you can see the reviews that I’ve posted, but let me say in brief that the Limitless Adventure series of encounters is excellent! I’ve had the pleasure of looking over both the Storm King’s Thunder and the Sword Coast iterations of encounters, and they have some excellent and brief encounters that can replace those tedious random table encounters.

Please check them out, as they are excellent and brief encounters that can fill out a session or be themselves expanded to a thorough story. There are even “Further Adventure” notes that excellently suggest ways to expand each encounter into something more interesting.

In addition, I wanted to help announce that Limitless Adventure has a Kickstarter  that will be a collection of the first 15 encounter products from their line. Here are some highlights.

  • 150 fully detailed encounters set in 12 different environments
  • OGL stat blocks for all mosnters
  • Creative, CR appropriate treasure
  • 451 “further adventure ™” writing prompts

You will have your choice of PDF or softcoverprint copy (color and black and white options available).

Judging from the excellent nature of the encounters that I have already seen, I look forward to the compilation, as should you. If you want to see for yourself, have a look at the Limitless Adventure website and see the products that they have available, including a few free products.

Oh, and here is the link to the kickstarter!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/limitless-adventures/limitless-encounters-vol-1

 

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.