War of Ashes RPG: Game on!

GranthamHall-02

I just went through two playtest sessions of the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions: one tabletop game this weekend and one Skype-based session with a different group. So far, a few rough edges rules-wise but everyone is having a blast with ZombieSmith’s setting. I thought I’d share our set up at the end of our Skype game: using the whiteboard app Vyew.com, the grey boxes are zones, the yellow ones are aspects we created in play. The three little markers are our characters. (Click on the image to see bigger version.)

Credits:  Art for the markers © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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Playtesting War of Ashes RPG!

Iva the StubbornEdmund singed up for the beta playtest phase of the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions. It’s curious and interesting to see someone else use the material without any input on my part (I’m staying hands-off.) he ran one via Skype last Monday and I listened in on part of the game; it sounded hilarious. Afterwards, he recapped it thus:

TONIGHT ON “THE GODS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH” the protagonists (Boegert  an Elvorix rasta priest and Liekenen, a Kuld scholar) – both members of the Society of Stone, meet with their contact (“the old one”) at the Bigg Inn – an establishment soon to be overrun by rampaging Kuld and filled with desperate refugees, escaping soldiers, and naer-do-wells.  The Old One gives them a task – to travel north to a long abandoned estate known as Grantham House, there to recover an ancient book called “How Things Work” before it can be devoured by the Kuldish horde.

Before they can embark on their assigned task, however, they are ambushed by strange Elvorix wearing dark cloaks to hide their glowing eyes.  Neither of the protagonists are skilled fighters, but manage to escape on stolen Guldul.  Likenein even manages to slay one of the attacking Elvorix, only to discover that the body is filled not with blood, but with ash. (also, it doesn’t taste very good).

Riding (very, very slowly) North the pair come to the lands of Grantham, where they discover that there is no life whatsoever, even in those things which appear alive.  Boegert summons the power of his healing herb and goes on a vision quest, in which he sees a huge volcano explode and cover an island with ash, burying entire cities, from which rise creatures with glowing red eyes.

Tune in next week for installment 2 of THE GODS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH!

I get to join in a tabletop test this afternoon with a different group and different characters. Again, I didn’t get involved with game planning but I did create a sheet of paper minis I’m pleased with. I need to check with ZombieSmith whether I can share it publicly, though.

It’s interesting to hear the preliminary feedback and to notice things differently now that I am re-reading the draft. I’ve already made notes for a number of inconsistencies to fix, generated by our last-minutes system changes. A number of rules I’d been trying when I ran the alpha playtest were replaced, so this will likely feel quite different today.

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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Outfitting a gaming tablet

MiTraveler 97D16WFor Christmas some dear friends gave us a $100 Amazon gift certificate. We held on to it for a whole because we wanted to put it on a tablet we’d use for tabletop gaming. We wanted something large enough to comfortably read our many PDF games, so in the 10-in. (25cm) range and with enough memory; and we wanted to be able to play sound effects and soundtracks. We lurked on Amazon waiting for sales and also for enough free spending money in our budget.

Finally, a few weeks ago we decided on an Android tablet, the Tivax MiTraveler 97D16w, a 9.7-in. tablet with 16GB of Flash memory and 1GB of RAM, running on Android 4.2.2. We picked this one , and not the 10-in. model, because of its 0.744 aspect ratio (3:4), which is well suited to reading books while the 10-in. model had an elongated aspect ratio optimized for watching movies. Since I had an 8MB MicroSD card I wasn’t using in an old phone, I popped it in immediately to expand storage space.

While I use an iPhone for work, this was my first introduction to Android, and I still have much to learn. I’m currently collecting related manuals and resources, and I appreciate any good ones people can suggest.

I’ve also been adding apps related to tabletop gaming, but as usual it seems very hard to find ones that are not designed so tightly around D&D/Pathfinder as to become useless for other games. This post is intended to be a repository and mini-review for useful apps I find. Once again, feel free to post about your favourites! Here is what I have so far:

Gaming Tools Proper

Dice Roller RPG: Free, with small ads. It offers the classic 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided dice, plus two-sided (coin), 30-sided, percentile, and Fate dice. You can select the number of dice and the modifier to apply, and even roll combinations of different dice.

Fate Dice: Free, with small ads. Another dice roller. Offers a graphic roll of four Fate (a.k.a. Fudge) dice, that’s it. Displays well in portrait format, but shows only three of the dice in landscape mode.

FiascoMobileFiasco Mobile: $1.99. This is SO worth the two bucks! It puts all the basic official Fiasco playsets and a large number of fan-made ones at your fingertips.

RPG Initiative Manager: Free. This initiative tracker was built for Pathfinder, but it can be used fairly easily for a number of other games. It does not show in my list of open apps if I switch to another while gaming, but when I reopen it from the desktop icon, it’s still in the right place and has kept all my info. It lets you enter character names, initiative modifiers, and initiative dice rolls for each encounter; you can then click on “Next Turn” to update the dice rolls. It sorts the list in order of highest to lowest initiative every time, and saves sessions.

Sound & Multimedia

Sound Effects Soundboard: Free, with small ads, and a nag screen asking you to rate the app every once in a while. I believe there is a paid version that offers more choices of sounds. There are multiple categories such as “Animals,” “Weapons,” “Vehicles,” etc., each offering multiple sound effects. Most effects are very short, a few are surprising long. You can pick up to nine sound effects you want at your fingertips at any one time and assign them to shortcut buttons, which is probably enough for several scenes. Seems to display only in portrait format.

Syrinscape interfaceSyrinscape Tabletop RPG Sound: Free, with two or three free soundscapes; a paid version offers many more choices of soundscapes at $4 per soundscape or $20 for packs of six soundscapes. Each soundscape is an extended track, like in a video game, each comprising multiple segments or “moods” that offer different atmospheres, such as “Something’s Out There” or “The Battle Is Joined.” Moreover, each segment includes multiple sound sources like “Distant wildlife” or “Battle music,” with mixer sliders so you can adjust each component to suit. You can save your custom moods. Finally, I like that when you switch from one sound to another or just turn it off, the app transitions smoothly. If you like playing with sounds and having a custom soundtrack, this is really neat and the purchase of extra sets probably well worth it.

Skype: For virtual face-to-face gaming, though we have yet to use it on the tablet.

Reading & Writing

PDF readers: I tried a number of PDF readers; I’m not sure I’m settled on this, but I’m currently using Foxit. It seems faster and easier to use than many others, although it doesn’t give access to advanced features like the ones in Void Star Studios’ Nova Praxis RPG.

Google Drive, of course. It’s my most used collaboration tool.

Dropbox, also very useful to share documents and images.

 

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Mini-Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Poster: The Grand Budapest HotelThis review should be spoiler-free, but let me know if I slipped and gave away too much.

Edmund and I saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel on Saturday morning and we both enjoyed it greatly. The main charms of the movie were, for me, its one-of-a-kind quality and the fantastic casting. I thought the direction and soundtrack were also very good, and the visuals were simply luscious. I really enjoyed the way it was constructed of vignettes, seemingly haphazard details, and stories-within-stories.

Visually, the movie has pretty deliberate overtones of Terry Gilliam-ness; but it also reminded me of the very source of the “movie cameo” concept, Michael Anderson’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall.

The movie’s weakness was probably the dialogue; it wasn’t atrocious but it relied too much on the contrast of high-falutin’ floweriness with sudden jarring (or meant to be jarring) cursing; the talented cast carried it off out of sheer talent and skilled direction and editing, but the text itself was actually flatter than they let you notice.

It was also a bit weak in terms of female characters; there were two nice characters but with little visibility, agency, or dialogue lines.

If you are tired of watching movies which you can predict in their entirety after watching the trailer, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an excellent antidote.

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Do: Fate of the Flying Temple — Playtest notes

Do-Fate-BannerI’ve been remiss in publishing my playtest notes for Do: Fate of the Flying Temple. My two feeble excuses are (1) how busy I’ve been, and (2) the vain hope I had of cramming in more play sessions.

I ran Do:Fate of the Flying Temple for my husband Edmund, our friend Paul, and Paul’s ten-year-old son Kaito. We had all played the other game it’s based on, Daniel Solis’s Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. In fact, this is how we got the memorable quote from Kaito, trying to remind his father that they own that book: “It’s the brown book with the kid with the really spongy hair and the very green dragon!”

The adventure begins when the pilgrims return to the Flying Temple after answering a letter, only to discover that the Temple has disappeared. Left behind is a single dragon egg (cue the Targaryen jokes), which of course will soon hatch—and spit out a letter petitioning the Flying Temple for help. As part of the playtest setup, we were assigned the adventure “The Worlds Collide” by Colin Fredericks (found on p. 34 in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.)

The pilgrims’ players get to give the dragon some aspects, and more will be created in play as the pilgrims answer more letters. The dragon is supposed to learn and grow from the pilgrims’ actions and reflect their choices for better and for worse. It’s a built-in way to show the players what their characters have accomplished and where they are headed.

Our three pilgrims were Hard Flame (Kaito), who helped people with his mastery of fire and got in trouble by trying too hard; Marked Ghost (Paul), who helped people with his powers as a medium who spoke to the dead, and got in trouble by being Chosen of the Flying Temple; and Unseen Slug (Edmund), who helped people by being hard to notice and got in trouble by being slow of mind and body (he flipped banner and avatar, but I never noticed at the time; he just liked the name and was trying to pick aspects that would go with it.) I had made the character sheet forms to help with the character creation process.

Even with the background from Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, it was a little hard to get the game concepts across to Kaito, who is at the age of munchkinery and was trying very hard to game the system to have only advantages and no real trouble, or at least export his trouble onto others. He thinks in terms of computer games—bonuses, attacks, and powers—so he had an easier time grasping stunts than the more abstract aspects and approaches. He had a hard time committing to a choice, clearly worried that he was not optimizing as much as he could (which is funny, because even in this more power-based sort of game he’s not very good yet at optimizing, but hey, he’s ten.)

Things went a little long when it was time to pick dragon aspects, but they ended up creating Marmalade the orange dragon, with the aspects Elemental Earth Dragon, Inherited Wisdom of the Ages, and Guardian of the Diamond. I had also assigned the aspect Colliding Worlds to the adventure and made it visible for all to use, and of course the overarching The Flying Temple is Missing! aspect was in play.

Unfortunately, the game kept being interrupted by phone calls, text messages, and even a guest who arrived much earlier than expected. With each distraction, Kaito’s mind wandered a little more as well, so it was increasingly difficult to return to the game. This was compounded by the letter we had received, which was not one I would have recommended for this group. The problem was not immediate enough to hold the group’s attention, the language too flowery for Kaito, and no one could keep the faction, planet, and character names straight.

While the final interruption (the guest) put an end to the adventure and prevented us from finishing, we did have A number of aspects created in play, including Big Chunks of Eggshell (a boost), Friendly Ghosts in the Area, We Must Destroy Ishita, and another boost, It’s Bright and Clear, Now! which referred to the weather. I was getting the sense that the resolution was moving towards picking a side in the collision, not avoiding it.

We did not get a chance to try the Elegant Defense manoeuvre, an innovation of the game, nor to see the results of the lessons on Marmalade the dragon. Nevertheless, I want to try the game again because I think it’s very simple and elegant, but my gaming time has been severely rationed.

Image by Liz Radtke, first created for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.

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War of Ashes RPG: OPEN PLAYTEST!

War of Ashes miniatures

For anyone who has aked when we’d see the open playtest phase of the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions: it’s here NOW! The application form is open on the Evil Hat site: http://www.evilhat.com/home/war-of-ashes-playtest-open-now/

As we’re moving very quickly on this, please spread the word.
Vorix skirmisher

Credits:  Photo © Edmund Metheny 2013 and art © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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Ethics and Morality: Two Classes Compared

When I can squeeze the time, I still take some free online classes from the buffet of offerings currently available from sources like Coursera, Open2Study, iVersity, and MIT OpenCourseWare. Sometimes I merely audit the classes, sometimes I actually submit the homework and take the exams so I can get a certificate.

I recently undertook two that make an easy comparison, on a topic that is of no interest for career advancement but of great personal interest to me: Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life,” and Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics,” both offered through Coursera. The first finished just before the second started, and that second is currently in progress.

Moralities_of_Everyday_LifeMoralities of Everyday Life

Yale University. Instructor: Paul Bloom; assistant instructor: Christina Starmans; guest lecturer: Laurie Santos. Course info.

This introductory class extended over six weeks and required listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, and taking weekly quizzes. In addition, students were encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. Weekly topics were divided thus:

  1. The Big Questions: What is morality, anyway? What are the big debates in the field of moral psychology?
  2. Compassion: Where does concern for others come from? How is it related to empathy—and is more empathy necessarily a good thing? And what can we learn from the study of those who seemingly lack normal moral feelings, such as violent psychopaths?
  3. Origins of morality: Here, we ask about which aspects of morality are universal. We discuss evolution, cross-cultural research, and the fascinating new science of the moral life of babies.
  4. Differences: How does culture influence our moral thought and moral action? What role does religion play? Why are some of us conservative and others liberal, and how do political differences influence our sense of right and wrong?
  5. Family, friends and strangers: Our moral feelings are usually most powerful towards our kin (such as our parents and our children) and our friends and allies. We will discuss these special bonds, and then turn to the morality of racial and ethnic bias. Then we use the tools of behavioral economics to explore the controversial question of whether we are ever truly altruistic to strangers.
  6. The Big Answers: We’ll discuss some clever studies that show how our moral behavior is powerfully influenced—often at the unconscious level—by the situations that we find ourselves in. Such findings raise some hard problems about determinism, free will, and moral responsibility. Most of all, if our actions are determined by our brains, our genes, and our situations, in what sense can we be said to be moral agents? The course will end by trying to address this question.

I found this class greatly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. The studio-filmed lectures, tailored for this online class, combined succinct overviews of the history of each topic with case studies and experimental results that test the assumptions and hypotheses discussed. At the end of each week, the instructors selected some of the most interesting questions and discussions found on the forum and answered them in a supplemental video called “Office Hours.”

Dr. Paul Bloom is is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He has published over a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, and is the author or editor of six books, including Descartes’ Baby, How Pleasure Works, and Just Babies.

Christina Starmans is a fifth year graduate student in Developmental Psychology at Yale University.  She studies the development of common sense ideas about bodies, minds, and selves, including what sort of a thing a self is, how we think about selves persisting through time, and why we sometimes feel like we have multiple selves.

Dr. Laurie Santos is Associate Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of humans and non-human animals, including primates and canines. She is the Director of the Canine Cognition Lab at Yale. She has been a featured TED speaker, and has been listed in Popular Science Magazine as one of their “Brilliant 10” young minds in 2007, and in Time Magazine as a “Leading Campus Celebrity” in 2013.

I had read some articles by Bloom, but not his books.

The course material was well organised and despite the short schedule, provided a solid introduction to the material and even some intriguing supplemental nuggets for those of us who already had read on the topic. While it was not possible to go in-depth into any aspect in such a short course, it whetted my appetite to do more readings, rather than leaving me feeling abandoned after the appetizer course (ha-ha).

The required readings were substantive but approachable and provided useful insight into the topics covered. In addition, suggested further readings provided an excellent starter list for a bibliography of the subject matter. The guest lectures were also excellent, and I absolutely loved guest lecturer Laurie Santos for her no-nonsense attitude and sense of humour.

When this class runs again (you can subscribe to Coursera’s notification system), I strongly recommend catching it if you have an interest in this topic, even though it is introductory. If I see other classes by these instructors, I will likely attend them.

practicalethics-logoPractical Ethics

Princeton University.  Instructor: Peter Singer; guests: Charles Camosy, April Dworetz, Holden Karnofsky, William MacAskill, Matt Wage, Zell Kravisnky, Julia Wise, Alexander Berger, Dale Jamieson, Anthony Appiah, Russel Nieli. Course info.

This class, also at the introductory level, spreads over twelve weeks with a break in the middle, i.e., a full term. It requires listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, submitting four papers, and peer reviewing the papers of four other students for each of the four assignments (total of at least 16 papers peer-reviewed). Like in Dr. Bloom’s class, students are encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. The weekly topics are:

  1. The nature of ethics
  2. Normative ethical theories
  3. Brain death and persistent vegetative state; Abortion (Part 1): Women’s rights
  4. Abortion (Part 2): The moral status of embryos and fetuses; Drawing distinctions in end of life decisions
  5. Making life and death decisions for infants; Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  6. Effective altruism (Part 1): Poverty and affluence; (Part 2): What is the best cause?
  7. Effective altruism (Part 3): Choosing an effective career; (Part 3): Choosing an effective career
  8. Effective altruism (Part 5): Are we violating the rights of the poor?; Climate change (Part 1): How should we allocate greenhouse gas emissions?
  9. Climate change (Part 2): Is geoengineering an ethical option?; Animals (Part 1): How ought we to treat animals?
  10. Animals (Part 2): Experimenting on animals; (Part 3): An ethical Thanksgiving dinner
  11. Environmental values (Part 1): Is anything other than sentient life of intrinsic value?; (Part 2): Intervening in nature
  12. Equality and affirmative action; Why act ethically?

The lectures are filmed live as Dr. Singer gives his freshman class at Princeton the same week. Thus, they do not have the polish of a studio-filmed lecture, there is background noise, Dr. Singer hems and haws and sometimes rambles the way professors do in any live lecture. While his diction and voice are very clear, making him easy to understand, he is not riveting — this is no Richard Feynman. Moreover, the class is clearly aimed at young Princeton students, making some of the questions it tackles less vibrant for the Internet audience.

Dr. Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective. He is known in particular for his book, Animal Liberation (1975), a canonical text in animal rights/liberation theory.

I had read several articles and extensive excerpts from Singer’s books, but I don’t think I’d read any of them in its entirety.

Probably because of the live format and the young audience, I don’t find the lectures nearly as well organised or persuasive as the ones in Moralities of Everyday Life.I also find he does not submit all arguments presented to the same scrutiny, giving short shrift to arguments that he doesn’t like and giving a pass to ones he favours. I come out of the lectures feeling that he assumed he could just tell students the “right answer” as if this was a physics class because it is so basic from his perspective.

I’ll be honest: I have limited patience for pure philosophy. I like learning about the ideas, but we always rapidly get to a point where I want some ground-truthing before I follow the thinker out on a limb. In Moralities of Everyday Life, the philosophical background was presented but then the instructors rapidly delved into practical cases and laboratory experiments that supported or contradicted the philosophy. With Practical Ethics, however, we are in the domain of pure philosophy even though the questions approached are practical, or at least have practical implications.

Where Bloom presented support for pretty much all assertions he made and amply played devil’s advocate against his own position, Singer throws a lot of assertions that he may have demonstrated to his own satisfaction somewhere else, but are just free-floating in the context of this class. As a result, I feel argumentative and cantankerous in Singer’s class, even though I agree with so much of his opinions; while I felt pleasantly mentally stimulated in Bloom’s class even when I disagreed with him.

If you’re going to take Practical Ethics, then Moralities of Everyday Life makes a superlative introduction—but maybe a little bit too good; you may find yourself, like me, wishing Dr. Bloom taught both classes. I admit it’s unfair of me to not wait until Singer’s class is complete to compare the two, but I will update this post later if the rest of the class changes my impression 25% of the way in.

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