Fijit the Gnome Illusionist!

In my previous post I mentioned our time at Pacificon. There was one Pathfinder Society event that Edmund attended by himself, to his chagrin. To cheer him up, I commissioned the awesome Rae Wood to draw his poor Gnome illusionist, Fijit, and here is the result:

bored_illusionist_final

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A Little Better Every Day

Seelah by Wayne RenolydsOn Labour Day weekend I ended going to Pacificon. It was a last-minute decision at Edmund’s request; I had intended to stay home, do lots of  writing, keep the cats company, and straighten up the house a bit. On Thursday I agreed to go to the convention instead although I did set aside some time for writing.

To be honest, I’m not finding Pacificon as interesting as some other conventions; it’s great if you’re into historical board games and miniatures, but skinny on the fantasy and science fiction gaming sides, Euro board games, and especially role-playing other than Pathfinder and D&D. Nevertheless, I signed up for a number of games, some of which were cancelled at the last moment, alas. In the end, I played nothing but d20 variants, even though I don’t find the base system enjoyable at all: Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition, one game advertised as Spycraft 2.0 that seemed heavily home-brewed (we didn’t even have the right character sheets!) and three Pathfinder games, one where we played dragons and two where we played goblins. Except for the M&M game, which was a lot of fun (thank you to game-master Cyrus Harris and player Chris Angelini, Jon Robertson and Edmund Metheny!), the games were lacklustre; Edmund has told the story here and here already so I won’t repeat it.

But amidst this, I found a reason to be hopeful.

In the last few weeks we have had two new shining examples in geekdom of the rampant sexism that can be found in some quarters: the nastiness which Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have been subjected to. We’ve also witnessed some uncomfortable conversations on racism in the wake of the disgraceful events in Ferguson, Missouri, which have splashed everywhere including geekdom. Some days, it’s easy to think that the geek world is filled with assholes. At the convention, I was reminded that while there are assholes everywhere, things can get better, inch by inch.

First, I noticed that there was a bit more diversity than I remember seeing a decade ago: a variety of age groups were represented, families showed up together, there were a few more non-white participants, openly gay couples were not rare, and everybody I saw behaved courteously towards disabled gamers that had more visible challenges (e.g. with speech or fine motor control.) Historically that has been the norm at the conventions I’ve attended in the last quarter of a century, but visible diversity is increasing, which is good.

On the feminism front, I was pleased that all GMs, whatever their failings, offered a range of female and male characters among their pre-generated character sheets. Our M&M GM had male and female miniatures available for each character; the female characters in the Spycraft game were generally good action characters; and the dragons and goblins were not obviously gendered in terms of roles. In addition, the Pathfinder GMs that used canon material from the official story line used numerous prominent female non-player characters in positions of authority. Paizo Publishing has put in a good deal of effort to make its setting gender-balanced. While there is still progress to be made, I want to salute the effort and recognize its results.

Old stories of the role-playing game world: I remember how, a few years ago, Evil Hat Productions took some flak for insufficient attention to female and non-white characters. I mostly watched from the sidelines because I could at the same time recognize the validity of some of the criticism and see the effort that EHP had already made in being more inclusive; by the time I encountered the discussion, it had already turned flamey enough that I didn’t think I could add much value. I know it was hard and even hurtful for some of the EHP writers, but they did something great and amazing: they shut up after the initial defensiveness, mulled over the topic for a good long while, and learned from the experience. They’ve been trying hard to do better, and this act of recognizing imperfection and doing something about it has increased my respect for them.

Heck, a few years ago, the kind of treatment Quinn and Sarkeesian and many others have received from jackasses would not have received much notice; even most men and women of good will would have shrugged and said this was just the way things are. The fact that so many of my fellow nerds are furious about it tells me we have turned a corner. We’re not post-feminist or post-racial or anything like that, and may never be; but just like with marriage equality, we can see the day where the jackasses will be a festering minority and will be shunned when they use threats, violence, slurs, and general dickery.

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Mini-Review – The Admiral: Roaring Currents

The Admiral: Roaring CurrentsEdmund and I just saw the South Korean epic, The Admiral: Roaring Currents this afternoon. Right now it’s only playing in a few North American theatres (fewer than 50), despite having done incredibly well in South Korea — more than 15 million admissions and the first local film to gross more than US$100 million. If you have a chance to catch it, I highly recommend it.

I found this movie exciting, vivid,and easy to follow despite its large cast and Korean and Japanese dialogue. The visuals are impeccable and meticulous; there is so much to see, so many details to notice and enjoy. Every frame has a tactile quality to it, you feel it must be real — even the CGI parts.

This is an unusual movie for me to like so much, because it’s a war movie, and it only has one female character (mute, at that!) Yet it was so well paced and so gorgeous that I was swept along (ha-ha.) I’ll be honest, I usually get very confused when I watch war movies; after a while, I just can’t remember who is who and why they’re so angry (viz.: Saving Private Ryan.) But here, in part thanks to the distinctive uniforms and banners of the Korean and Japanese forces, I had no trouble at all despite the complexities of the naval battle. Speaking of which, I felt that Admiral Yi Sunshin’s plans and tactics unfolded at the perfect rate for my brain to catch up with: “Oh, yeah, so that’s what he’s trying to do!”, step by step.

A small detail that helped: the subtitles were very clean, crisp, and legible, and scrolled at the right rate for me to read. There were a few grammatical errors and typos, but nothing egregious. The sound quality was excellent, with a rich auditory landscape that added to the visual textures to complete the sense of reality, of being there. The music was epic and perfectly supported the mood. I felt that this was a momentous time, in a way that few would-be epic movies convey so thoroughly.

In short, I really enjoyed this movie. Good for: history buffs, fans of epic action sagas, those who love portrayals of great leaders tormented by doubt. Bad for: viewers who flinch at gore, people who hate subtitles.

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Zeppelin Attack! and other weekend fun

Zeppelin Attack!I confess, I did very little that was actually productive this weekend. I needed the R&R—it’s been hectic at work. The weekend went thus: Friday: play in Edmund’s playtest of my game, the War of Ashes RPG. It’s run via Skype and I have little effort to make since I’m merely a player, not the game master. Saturday: get a haircut, have pot-luck lunch and a game of our DramaSystem series, “To End All Wars,” then go out for teppan with a friend. Sunday: go see Guardians of the Galaxy for a second time on the big screen, and try a game of Zeppelin Attack! since we just got our copy this week along with the Doomsday Weapons expansion.

Zeppelin Attack! can be played with 2 to 4 players, but it was just Edmund and I. We picked our villains at random, I drew Jacqueline Frost and Edmund got Walking Mind. We did many things wrong which we corrected in play, but it’s clear that this is a game that will take a few tries to learn properly. We didn’t really start seeing the synergies between cards until the end. I say “end”, but really we just had to call it and stop because it was getting late. Nevertheless, it seems like there is a lot of tactical play possible. It’s more limited with just two players, I think it will be more fun with three or four because then you have to split your attack and defence strategies.

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Playtest Report: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week coverI’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.

Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week is meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.

The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead, which I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.

Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.

[SPOILERS BELOW.] Read the rest of this entry »

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DramaSystem: To End All Wars

German Advance

We recently started a DramaSystem campaign set in Kevin Allen Jr.’s “To End All Wars.” DramaSystem is system which Robin D. Laws created for his role-playing game Hillfolk last year, with a Kickstarter funding campaign that took off madly and generated dozens of alternate settings or “campaign pitches.” I wrote some thoughts on the books a while ago, but I excluded discussion of the system as such because I wanted more play experience with it first.

Everyone’s been so busy, it took a long time to set up a campaign, but we finally got one going. One of the first challenges was to pick a setting, with an embarrassment of riches to pick from. First we narrowed it down to history and alternate history, because several players were in that mood; thn we cut the short list down to five titles, and finally voted for “To End All Wars,” in which a small group of magically gifted individuals fight the secret battles of the Great War.

With five players and one Game Master, we had our character creation session a couple of weeks ago and tacked on one round of dramatic scenes for introduction; but Saturday was our first full episode and it went swimmingly. It’s very satisfying when a role-playing game has a great start, because it gives you the momentum to get over all the logistic hurdles that multiple busy schedules place in our path.

We set the game in the fall of 1916, at the end of the Somme Offensive, in a British unit currently recovering in Brittany. Character creation started with Janus Nygard (played by Bryant), a Finnish officer with Swedish ancestry now dedicated to freeing Finland from Russian dominion. With the poles (no pun intended) Freedom for Finland/Freedom for myself, he’s sacrificed his ability to sleep and his moral high ground to the Order for the promise of help against Russia. Janus controls sleep and dreams.

Next was Gordon Lake (played by Susan), a Canadian Anglican chaplain with healing powers and high ideals. His poles are Hope/Despair, hinging on the question “Have I received a Divine Gift or is this my own power?” He tries to be the moral conscience for the group.

Then came Alaina de Trevaigne (played by Maureen), a Breton witch whose mission is to protect the ancient standing stones; her poles are Benevolent protector/Vengeful guardian. She’s not attached to the unit nor officially part of the Order, but bargaining her help for the promise that the sacred sites will be left untouched.

The official leader of the group is Captain Christopher Sinclair (played by Steve), an officer in the British Army from Scotland. He is the one with the most training in sorcery; what everybody else refers to as “the Order” he thinks of as “my family.” His poles are Dutiful son/Individual identity, and joined the army along with his entire graduating class from boarding school. He is saddled with a dark burden: he is magically protected by the deaths of his classmates.

Then came my turn to make a character. With five players, our relationship map de facto looked like a pentagram, and we had talked about some correspondences with the Arthurian myth. But when adding the last character I realized that we had one from the center, one from the north, one from the west and one from the (north)east, so I had to be from the south. Then Susan pointed out that Gordon was linked with water, Alaina with earth, Janus with air. Steve declared that Christopher was aether; so I made a character linked with fire:

The ambulance driver Marie-Isis Dérigny (played by Sophie), from a Breton family settled in the Algerian colonial holding. Before the war she had been an explorer (I modelled her in part on Isabelle Eberhardt) but with the conflict, had come back to the home she had never known to do her part and reconnect with her roots (she is Alaina’s cousin). However, Marie-Isis actually died in Algeria and was possessed by a fire ifrit, the only reason she still lives.

After character creation we had a few dramatic scenes pitting Christopher and Gordon in conflict over lives to be sacrificed, Alaina and Marie-Isis studying one another, and Janus, Alaina, and Christopher trying to establish a balance of influence.We learned the terrible secret: the Order was actually trying to keep the war going longer because although it wanted the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers, it had been prophesied that unless France fell after terrible suffering before the final victory, another even greater evil would follow… This was the mission Christopher had been given and to which he was trying to rally the others.

DramaSystem uses two types of scenes: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something from another (this works best if there is tension and disagreement), and procedural scenes, in which characters try to resolve an external, practical matter. Each player, including the GM, takes a turn at setting scenes.

Through play, participants earn drama tokens and bennies which let them influence the outcome of conflicts. In addition to this token economy, procedural scenes use playing cards as a resolution mechanic. Because the token economy and the dramatic issues both take a while to fully establish, the game takes a few episodes to come into its own.

In our second meeting and first full episode, we went around the table twice for a total of twelve scenes, ten dramatic ones and two procedural ones. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that I will come to like the resolution system as a mechanical rules set; however, so far it seems to produce excellent results.

Yesterday’s episode, “The Cost of Power,” produced delicious drama. The high point was a confrontation between Gordon and Christopher. Earlier, Gordon had saved the life of one of Christopher’s former classmates, to Christopher’s displeasure. Christopher had gone to Alaina and obtained a foxglove brew from her, but was told to use it himself for she didn’t want to be blamed for an “accident.” While Gordon was officiating at the service on All Hallows’ Eve, Christopher had come into the infirmary with a flask of poisoned brandy. Alas, Marie-Isis had insistently wanted to talk to him moments earlier and had delayed him just long enough that Gordon arrived in time to see Christopher, wiping tears from his eyes, about to give his old friend a drink. Gordon confronted Christopher who, against  his better judgement, poured out the brandy onto the floor. It was a really great dramatic scene!

Later that night on the other side of midnight we also had dream-walking to Scotland, bodies missing from graves, the ifrit suddenly leaving Marie-Isis to die, and Gordon using up his strength to keep her alive. We also received news that the unit was being sent to the front. The procedural scenes were the two castings, one to allow Christopher to dream-walk to Scotland to meet with “the family” and one to summon the ifrit back and save Marie-Isis. Christopher negotiated everyone’s cooperation to the dire plan, though not without reservations.

We ended with so many hanging plot threads: what had caused the dead to rise, and where were they? Where had the ifrit gone for a time? Whose attention had the summoning of the ifrit caught? Could Christopher steal the ifrit to prolong the life of his dying mother? Was there anything of Divine Grace in Gordon’s healing powers, or was he just a sorcerer? What did the ifrit want?

And who would betray whom first?

Edit: Edmund’s GM notes on the game.

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War of Ashes RPG: So Close!

War-of-Ashes-Pageheader

So the reason I have not had time to write for this blog is I’ve been addressing alpha playtest feedback on the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions. We’ve had a few incredibly productive dev meetings, and we’re quite happy with the way the game is coming together. Addressing playtest comments has made it better, more consistent, clearer. I’ve been writing frantically, with the help of editor Karen Twelves, rules maven Mike Olson, and project manager Sean Nittner. And with all the great ideas generated, we have lots of material left over for Web extras when the game comes out.

We’re going to have a beta playtest, and the application form is open on the Evil Hat site: http://www.evilhat.com/home/war-of-ashes/ —Squee! you can also see the cover mock-up and read the official status details!

Playtest applications are open until July 6. Try the new, improved version and tell us if we got it right or need more improvement!

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2014, used with permission.

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