War of Ashes RPG: In Layout!


Oh, how I want to show you the beautiful layout that Dale Horstman is creating for War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus! But I want to wait until I get the go-ahead—he deserves a chance to show his finished product, not just a draft. This book is going to look so good!

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2014, used with permission.

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Going Ape!

Golden GorillaEvil Hat Productions has instituted the Golden Gorilla awards, their “tongue-in-cheek way to recognize spectacular work above and beyond the call of duty.” Editor Karen Twelves and I get to split one for wrapping up the draft of the War of Ashes RPG and sending it to layout!

The Golden Gorilla for Grimsical Speed goes to…Sophie Lagace and Karen Twelves! Sophie and Karen have been under tight deadlines on the War of Ashes RPG, and they’re killing it. As in turning around drafts in a single day. Yeah. A DAY.

Recipients also included luminaries Amanda Valentine (for Editing like a Superhero) and Brian Engard (for Leading the Creative Charge), so it’s amazing company to be in.

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Book Review: The Astounding Antagonists

The Astounding Antagonists: coverRafael Chandler’s The Astounding Antagonists is a superhero-and-supervillain page-turner and, so far, the best novel I have read in the genre. It’s not easy to make a genre primarily associated with visual media come alive solely with words, but Chandler does a beautiful job.

The first thing that hooked me, from the very first few paragraphs, is the strong characterization, with interesting, likeable, believable, and diverse characters. Then we get to see a web of relationships established between them,  which will drive the plot throughout the book. It was lovely to see lots of different types of protagonists with different ways of seeing the world.

The rhythm and writing style are excellent, making it hard to put down the book (or rather the e-reader). I kept wanting to find out what happened next. I would be delighted if this was turned into a graphic novel or, let’s dream big, a movie. But I have to admit that losing direct access to the writing style in the process would be a down side.

I also loved the way Chandler addresses his readers as smart, well-read, and engaged. He drops references to the classics of superhero comics and of Greek literature with equal aplomb and makes apologies for neither, counting on the reader to follow along. He plays on stereotypes without ever becoming heavy-handed, just to keep you from making unwarranted assumptions while you read. As a result, I was far more frequently surprised by the plot twists than I had been by, say, Austin Grossman’s otherwise enjoyable Soon I Will Be Invincible.

If I must pick weaknesses in the writing, I’d have to say that a few more likeable superheroes would have made the tension more powerful. The other potential flaw is inherent to the genre: it’s very difficult to describe the kind of wide-spread, free-for-all battles that are its trademark. From time to time I had a little trouble visualizing this type of scene. However, those were “in passing” remarks, while the strengths of the book were ever-present.

If you loved Watchmen or Astro City, I expect you will greatly enjoy this book. In fact, I liked it so much that I immediately started reading Chandler’s other novel, Hexcommunicated.

Further reading: If you like novels based on superheroes and supervillains, check out this list on Goodreads.


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Our first encounter with Iron Legacy

“We regret to inform you that Iron Legacy will not be speaking at tonight’s League of Evil dinner. Legacy, Tempest, Chrono-Ranger and Nightmist will bring him flowers.”

We got two of the expansions for Sentinels of the Multiverse during the holidays, “Shattered Timelines” and “Wrath of the Cosmos.” We’ve faced, and eventually beaten, every villain until the only one left was Iron Legacy, so that’s who we faced for our dinnertime game.

He hits hard, but Nightmist got rid of all four of his ongoing cards at the end of the first round. After that, it was just a question of hitting as hard and as fast as we could; with (heroic) Legacy boosting our damage by two, Chrono-Ranger shot Iron Legacy to tiny ribbons.

We’re horribly pleased with ourselves, and we’ve decided that we can’t play again for a while. We’ll switch back to Mice & Mystics at dinnertime!

RIP Iron Legacy

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Today’s Ups and Downs in Gaming

I did a chunk of writing on the War of Ashes RPG today, which was good. I’m in the finicky portion, finalizing everything and tying the game together, making sure the examples of play reflect the final changes, etc. It’s harder for me to write a bunch of small inserts than one long section; I don’t know if it’s like that for everyone.

Old-Style MicrophoneIn the afternoon we had an episode of a Skype-based role-playing game that runs on a biweekly basis (or nearly so). The GM and four players are at one end, Edmund and I at the other, so that a single connection. Unfortunately, the players tend to be constantly talking, so the microphone has trouble picking up our responses; there isn’t always enough of a pause in background noise. We’re used to it, plus Edmund chose to play a taciturn character, so we expect this to affect our input. On the flip side, I made the character most skilled at social interaction, so I actually often do a good deal of talking, so for me it evens out. Usually.

Today, though, was frustrating. About 60 to 90 minutes in, the other four players wanted to go on what I thought would be a short side-quest. It was clearly something they would enjoy, and just as clearly something my character would be dubious about, so they didn’t mention it in character, and as a player I didn’t express an interest in joining. I had just had an extended scene so I was happy to wait for my turn again. They did ask Edmund’s character along, since this PC is a gun-bunny, but he already had a plot thread in play so Edmund declined.

The side trip took three hours, including an extended shopping expedition. It was not rousing for us, but everyone has to have a chance to do something fun, so we let it ride. I do think the GM had not expected this to take so long, but at the end he offered to wrap up the plot thread that had brought us there in the first place, so we cheerfully agreed. Naturally, the secret meeting with our contacts turned out to have attracted an ambush by competitors. I opened my mouth to answer—I play the ship’s captain—and two of the players promptly acted without giving me a chance to even put a word in, ending the scene.

I instantly went from tired-but-agreeable to pissed-off-as-all-hell. I told them this was the opposite of fun to wait all afternoon, be invited to play in one last scene and then be completely written out of it. The GM, stung, suggested that maybe I didn’t like playing via Skype. This “excluded middle” argument only poured oil on the fire, and I hung up the call. I’ve since decided I will wait until I’ve had a day or two to cool off before getting in touch.

Then Edmund served dinner and we played Sentinels of the Multiverse, trying some of the decks from the expansions we recently got: Expatriette, The Scholar, Captain Cosmic, and Nightmist versus The Dreamer in The Enclave of the Endlings. Expatriette and Captain Cosmic were incapacitated soon after we got The Dreamer to flip, but The Scholar and Nightmist managed to hang on just enough to eke a victory.

It was a nail-biting finish: The Scholar managed to clear the last Projection card needed, but we had to make it through the Environment turn in order to win at the start of the Villain turn. Nightmist played the ongoing that lets her use a power to look at the top two cards of the environment deck (I think it’s Astral Premonition), sending a card that would have killed The Dreamer to the bottom! A hard-earned victory in our first encounter with The Dreamer.

That left me time to do some more writing, wrapping up the day the way it had started.

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DramaSystem/Hillfolk: A Brief Review

Blood On The Snow cover Hillfolk coverOver a year ago I posted a book review of the two-book set, Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press.) I loved both as source material, but I wanted more experience with the game mechanics in play before I could review the system itself. Since I gave a pretty lengthy description of the two volumes last year, I will concentrate here on the mechanics and the feel of the game.

I experienced the system in two modes: I hosted a game at Big Bad Con 2013 using the “Colony Wars” setting pitch by Emily Care Boss; and I played in a mini-series inspired by Kevin Allen Jr.’s series pitch “To End All Wars.” Both groups of players were just fantastic.

The system relies on shared narrative control between all participants, everyone taking turns at selecting theme and setting scenes, starting with the game-master. The focus of the game is the cast of player characters, which are created in the first session and are linked by a web of relationships established by the players. These relationships are deliberately held in balanced tension and constitute the dramatic underpinnings of the game.

The character creation process is also largely the setting creation, and with a group of people who enjoy shared narration, this turns into pure magic.

Two types of scenes are used: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something—an emotional reward—from another who presents some opposition; and procedural scenes, in which the characters confront and overcome external obstacles.

In most role-playing games, we are used to paying attention mostly to procedural resolution: opening the door, killing the monster, escaping the larger monster, and so forth. However, in most dramatic fiction, there is a lot of time spent on dramatic scenes: will President Roslin get Commander Adama’s support? Will G’Kar agree to help Lando Molari? Will Detective Marty Hart trust his creepy partner Rust Cohle?

A majority of the scenes in DramaSystem are expected to be, well, dramatic, with characters pushing and pulling on each others’ motivations. Each scene is set by a player in turn, with their character trying to get something from another. If the petition is granted, the player whose character yielded gets a Drama token; if the petition is refused, the one who was turned down gets the Drama token. In other words, you either get what you want or get a Drama token as consolation prize. Drama tokens can be used to force concessions later, to crash a scene where your character was not invited or, on the contrary, to avoid a scene you are called to, and so forth.

External challenges are resolved using procedural scenes, using three types of Procedural tokens (red, yellow and green) and ordinary playing cards. The Procedural tokens grant a certain number of card draws, and do not replenish until all three have been used (i.e., you won’t get another red token until you’ve used both your yellow and green ones; when you’re out, all three replenish.) Procedural scenes are normally resolved with two sides, either GM against one lead PC, or two lead PCs squaring off, and all other PCs either supporting one of the two sides or abstaining.

In addition, there are seven very broad skills (e.g., Talking, Fighting, etc.) and using one of your strong skills versus someone else’s middling skill grants an additional redraw, while using a strong skill versus a weak one means automatic success. In practice, of course, creative players always find a way to use their strong skills.

There is some back and forth between the two sides, taking turns describing the results of each action, and a stronger position can allow one side to knock high cards out. However, the truth is that the whole system, with its multiple tokens, unclear descriptions of card draws, and high luck factor just doesn’t feel very exciting. It’s not horrible, it’s certainly workable, and sometimes the cards even cooperate. But most of the time, procedural resolution ends up being rather anticlimactic. This was particularly highlighted for my husband and I recently by the contrast with another card-based resolution system that provided high suspense and interesting tactical options: the Motobushido RPG.

On the other hand, Hillfolk and especially Blood on the Snow provide a number of alternate rules options that we have not had a chance to try. I did use the advice for single-session play contained in these books when I ran “Colony Wars” at a convention, and found it very helpful. But reading the Advanced Procedural Rules presented in appendix in Blood on the Snow got our group somewhat confused.

In short, the tension and pacing supported by the DramaSystem structure, and the drama that resulted, were highly satisfying. However, the mechanical resolution of procedural scenes was lacklustre; in the future, I am likely to either tinker with the mechanics—perhaps using some of the plentiful ideas provided in the two books—or use the structure with a different system altogether. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the games, I would certainly play this again with a suitable group, and I am glad I bought the books.

This is a great game for people who like to think about how a story is constructed and what makes dramatic characters tick, and who enjoy creating a lot of the setting material in-game. You may enjoy this game if you like Primetime Adventures, Fiasco, Universalis, or In A Wicked Age, or if you read Robin D. Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points and found yourself nodding in agreement. It’s probably not a good choice for people who prefer richly detailed sourcebooks, procedural action, lots of mechanical options, or dice rolling.

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Stretching Our Minds: Je suis Charlie Coulibaly

imageThere is no need to embrace everything about the victim of a crime in order to denounce that crime.

I can support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech and even agree with some of the things they publish while disagreeing with other parts of their content and recognizing that they can also be racist and misogynist.

I can support Charlie Hebdo and oppose racism.

I can oppose both Dieudonné’s ideas or jokes and their censorship.

I can deplore Islam’s tenets and defend the right to practice it.

I can support rationalism atheism while disagreeing with prominent atheists.

I can condemn colonialism and  terrorism.

And yes, I realize that I can hold these opinions and voice them because I am one of the lucky people who not only was raised in a democracy (Canada) and now arguably lives in another (the US), but also had the benefits of fantastic parents, education, middle class, being white, etcetera.

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