Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Going On

I'm going to take a page from the Wine and Savages blog and write a bit about what I'm up to these days. It's been a bit quiet here, but all for good causes.

Like +Sean Bircher, I too find myself rather up to my eyeballs in gaming-related work. Which is quite wonderful in and of itself. The tricky part comes with working a full-time job as well, particularly at this time of year. (Can I get an "amen" from all my fellow readers who dread the turn of the fiscal year for all the extra work it brings?) Here's how things are shaking out at the moment:

  • Part of the reason for my more relaxed blogging pace through most of the summer was the fact that my writing energies were otherwise engaged after I connected with Pendragon author Greg Stafford, answering a call for help with proofreading and formatting the Guide to his long-awaited Pendragon Atlas. That proofreading (which I started doing back in the winter) gradually turned into actual outright editing, so you'll be seeing Yours Truly on the credits page of the Atlas when it eventually drops. I'm looking forward to working with Greg on future projects as well, but nothing's set down in stone just yet. Keep an eye on this space for announcements, whenever that might be. 
  • As Sean mentioned, he and I, along with my podcasting co-host +David Schimpff, are batting around ideas on how to expand Sean's Miyamoto Academy Combatters setting seed into a full-fledged Savage Worlds setting. Sean and Schimpff have been doing yeoman's work on that so far, but I'm getting ready to jump back in as well.
  • This bit of news is perhaps better suited for The Minis Corner, but I'm going to be contributing articles to the Warlord Games website, starting with a short piece on Operation Goodwood that should be popping up in the not-too-distant (and will get linked on my other blog when it does appear).
  • I'm also working on developing a series of online pick-a-path game books with fellow author, gamer, and good friend +Alex Christy. This past weekend, we finally nailed down the mechanics of the system and a rough outline of the first book. Alex is a wiz at Flash programming, so he'll be handling the programming end of things, and we'll both contribute to the writing. I'm hoping to have something presentable done and posted by this time next year, but I've never written something like this before, so we'll see how long it takes!
  • Later this week (most likely tomorrow) I'll be launching a Patreon campaign on this blog for my remaining Solo GPC posts. More details forthcoming on that, but I'm hoping that the campaign will both provide the needed boost to get the series finished off and raise enough money for me to bring in a collaborator and produce a really professional-looking (but still totally free) PDF omnibus of all the posts.
  • As if that weren't enough, I've got a couple other potential RPG-related book projects in the works that are too early in the development phase to really talk about, but still have me doing background reading and note-jotting when and where I can fit in the time.
Wow, looking back at that list, that's a lot of stuff going on! Oh yeah, I also have to make time to actually game, don't I...?

  • With my weekly face-to-face tabletop group, I'm currently in the midst of running The Great Pendragon campaign - no small undertaking, as you can see from the Obsidian Portal! Next up in the docket? Oh, just a little larf called Horror on the Orient Express, no biggie. Oh wait, yes it is.
  • I'm also carrying on with my weekly Hangout game with my old friends/gaming group in California. We're sort of in between things right now, but I have every intention of running a D&D 5e game come the fall, and in the meantime I'll be running a mini-campaign or two - TBD tonight, actually.
  • Much like Mr. Bircher, part of the way I make time to spend with my lovely wife in between all this other business is through "duet" gaming (like the Solo GPC!), and we're getting ready to start something up in that regard. It won't be weekly, nor will I be regularly chronicling it online (how could I with all this other crap going on?), but it does constitute yet another campaign to set up and run. But these are the kinds of problems you want to have, amirite?
And yes, maintaining some semblance of a marital relationship in general is also quite high on the ol' priority list, should that even need to be said. (I'm reminded of S. John Ross's sig: "Husband. Cook. Writer. In that order.")

With all this stuff on my plate, I've been forced to drop a few commitments here and there. Sadly, I'm going to have to bow out of podcast hosting for one thing. I had thought that cutting things back to a monthly appearance would work out, but even that's proven a bridge too far. Just too many things taking up my mental energy and focus. My co-eponymous co-host has found an excellent replacement in the form of Susan Steward, and I'll continue to contribute with managing the Google Plus community and helping out with managing the feed, but for now I must turn my attentions elsewhere. I'm hoping to return at some point, but I have no idea when that might be.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thoughts on D&D 5e (and the Starter Set) After Running a Session

I participated in a couple playtest sessions of "D&D Next" back when it first went public. The mechanics were intriguing, but then I realized I had neither the time nor inclination to actually put up with the playtesting process (not for D&D, at least). So I set the impending Fifth Edition aside and figured I'd check back when it actually came out. I wished it the best.

When the Starter Set went up for pre-order, I figured, "Why the hell not?" Fifteen bucks and I'd have a good idea of the core elements of 5e. Then Wizards announced the free Basic D&D PDF. Hmmm, intriguing.

My Starter Set arrived and I read through the contents. I got together with my Wednesday online group and they made characters using the Basic D&D rules. Scheduling conflicts prevented us from meeting again until last night, when I ran the introductory chapter of the "Lost Mines of Phandelver" module included in the Starter Set.

I've read that the designers took the classic "Night's Dark Terror" module as a point of inspiration for "Lost Mines", and I can definitely see that, especially after having just run "Terror" in my 2e campaign earlier this year. Like "Terror", the adventure's got a central plot spine, but lots of little mini-quests and side adventures as well. (There are even some echoes of locations and plot elements from "Terror" in "Lost Mines" - nothing overt, but recognizable.) It's a "semi-sandbox," which is really cool to have in a product intended for folks just coming into the hobby.

It's also a very, very vanilla adventure. This is not an objective criticism, of course. Vanilla's a perennially popular flavor because it's safe and it's classic. I would not hesitate to buy or recommend the Starter Set to a friend or associated rugrat interested in D&D.

It's actually a testament to 5e's mechanics that we all had a blast playing despite the relatively uninteresting setting/set-up. I think we're all a bit sick of vanilla D&D at this point after wrapping our classic Realms campaign, but the mechanics made for a really fun game nonetheless.

We were all a bit concerned going in about the amped-up healing rules, kewl powers, and whatnot, but then we nearly had a TPK during the initial encounter with four goblins. The fight was resolved when the dwarf fighter, down to 1 hit point and using his Inspiration to gain Advantage, scored a critical hit on the final goblin to great cheers from everyone. This was followed by a nail-biting sequence of "Death Saves" for the PC that had been knocked down to negative HP - two successes, then two failures, then a success!

We all found the system to flow very nicely. Having just wrapped a 2e campaign, I felt like combat compared favorably in terms of balance between speed and crunchiness. As we figured we would, we all loved the Advantage/Disadvantage system, and it made ruling on the fly quite easy. The use of attributes as a basis for ability checks, skill checks, and saving throws reminded me strongly of Castles & Crusades - definitely a good thing. We're also enjoying all the little touches of how the rules interact, which is always a positive sign when you're first getting to know a system.

Initially, the idea was that we were going to play through the whole of the "Lost Mines" adventure, but after last night we really don't feel the need to. We've gotten enough of a feel for the system to know that we're into it, but the vanilla setting's really doing nothing for us, so I'm going to wait until I have all the core books in hand (particularly the DMG, with its advice on rules-hacking and world-building) to put together a non-vanilla campaign. Maybe a mashup of the new edition of City State of the Invincible Overlord and noisms' forthcoming Yoon-Suin? Or maybe my perennial setting-in-search-of-a-satisfactory-system Uresia will finally find a home? Regardless, it'll be a 5e winter this year.

In the meantime, I'll be running a Savage Worlds campaign in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy...because how could I not?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Palladium Parable

When I was a teenager, I had a crazy uncle who gave me a stack of notebooks from his old D&D campaign. It was a gonzo mash-up of house-ruled First Edition AD&D, some Gamma World, and lots of stuff of his own invention, all set in this sort of crazy kitchen sink post-apocalyptic landscape peopled with cyberpunks, dragons, giant robots, and demons.

That uncle was Kevin Siembieda; those notebooks were collectively called Rifts.

Obviously, ol' Kev is not really my uncle, but he comes solidly out of the Stan Lee school of customer relations. Back during the height of my Palladium fandom, I felt like I had a somewhat personal relationship with the guy thanks to his personable writing style. And as for Rifts being a disorganized mess of a mash-up, so were most RPG products back in the early 90s. Hell, I remember one of the main selling points of games like GURPS or 2e AD&D was the fact that those rulebooks had indexes and clear chapter headings. No joke, kids.

I recently wrapped up a pretty epic 2e campaign (which I'll be writing about presently), run online with my "original" gaming group. We had such success revisiting a previously-maligned game of our youth that we figured we'd charge right on into another one in the form of Rifts.

I have to say that the core 2e experience holds up really well thanks in large part to that vaunted "organization," as well as the fact that, well, it's D&D, and even for one of the most maligned iterations of that game there are still a ton of great resources, both in-print and online, to tap.

Rifts (and Palladium games in general), on the other hand, feel like this sort of fossil trapped in amber, a call-back to another time. I'd argue against the common wisdom and say that the Palladium house system works, given a few caveats - although I've assembled the obligatory house rules document to fine-tune it to how I want to see it run. What I'm actually finding most difficult is extracting the actual usable material from the wall of two-column-formatted text. (I had to laugh when I recently saw someone call Palladium books "the Chilton Auto Repair Manuals of the RPG world" - so very true.)

Palladium games are almost universally packed to the gills with great ideas and settings, but when it comes time to actually stat things up, to generate NPCs and adventure locations and so forth, I'm finding myself hitting a bit of a snag. Once upon a time, sifting through ideas to find the "crunch" was de rigueur for the harried GM. I guess I have grown soft and weak in the years since, the years in which the RPG industry learned about a little something called "information architecture" and began applying it to their books.

I want to like Palladium games. I really do. But getting down to the nitty-gritty and actually trying to assemble something gameable is proving tougher than I thought. I'm reminded of how I got spun off on my own little "conversion project" some six years ago, the last time I tried to run Rifts. Who knows how this little venture will play out this time?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cotemplating Patreon

As I mentioned in passing at the top of my last post, I've been scribing this blog since 2008. Over six years now. I've never really been one for anniversaries or milestones, but I've been thinking about word count recently.

As far as I know, there's no easy way to get a word count out of Blogger, but my stats tell me I've posted 490 times since 2008. Some of those posts were no doubt mere trifles, but I do try and provide some kind of substantial content (at least to my own mind, if nothing else) every time I hit "New Post" - mine is not a blog merely for links to new product announcements. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) As the Great Blog Roll Call put it, "A lot of reasons to like this blog, not the least of which is that the author tends to think critically about everything he writes."

As far as my own word count goes, my meatiest posts, my Solo GPC updates, clock in at an average of about 7,000 words a piece. I just tallied that up on the old adding machine, and that comes out to a probable average of 420,000 words written just on the yearly updates alone. In case you're not familiar with word count benchmarks, that's somewhere between Middlemarch and War and Peace. (Which proves, at the very least, that word count alone is not a very good indicator of literary merit.) But regardless of value judgments, self-imposed or otherwise, it certainly represents a fair amount of work on my part.

I'll be honest: when I started this blog, it was with a completely solipsistic goal in mind. I had no plan or pretension towards connecting to any sort of community or providing any sort of focused content; I just wanted to have a place where I could ramble on about gaming and maybe have a handful of people read it and leave the occasional thoughtful comment. This had been about the extent of my prior online involvement and experiences on message boards, newsgroups, LiveJournal, etc.

Maybe it's because I started this blog right at the dawn of 4e's release and the rise of the OSR, but I rather quickly found myself pulled into an active, vibrant community and idea mill. This no doubt encouraged me to blog more, although I've certainly gone through times of much more frequent posting than others, influenced by available time and inclination. After all, this has always been something I've been willing to do with no recompense other than the occasional virtual high-five and a few shekels here and there via the RPGNow affiliate link in my sidebar.

Which sort of brings me around to the point of this post. See, I've recently become aware of a site called Patreon, and of the fact that some bloggers use that site to help make their blogs pay a bit. I certainly like the Patreon model much better than the idea of putting ads on the blog, something I've resisted from the start. Essentially, Patreon is an ongoing crowd-funding site; you pledge to pony up a certain amount of money every time I post, and you can set monthly limits and/or opt out at any time. If I have, say, five patrons giving 5 bucks a post, or 25 patrons giving one dollar, and I post once a week, well that's a cool 100 bucks in my pocket at the end of the month, which certainly makes the whole venture a bit more tangibly rewarding.

I'm contemplating setting up a Patreon for, at the very least, my Solo GPC posts. I know there's a hardcore cadre of folks out there who are itching for me to push on and finish off the series, and I'm not going to lie: adding a monetary incentive would kick my writing of those posts up the old priority ladder by more than a few rungs. In fact, if I raise enough money, I might be able to bring in a layout person/artist to help put together a swanky PDF collection of the posts once everything's in the bag.

But I'm sort of further contemplating just making Patreon a general option for all blog posts. As with the Solo GPC project, a fiduciary reward would definitely result in a somewhat more frequent posting schedule.

There's a certain tendency among writers and other creative types to devalue our work (especially when you're writing about elfgames), but goddamn if I haven't written somewhere between and half-million and one million words on this blog over the past six years. That strikes me as something that should probably start providing a return at some point, right? And so I wanted to float this idea out to the general readership, see what you guys thought:

If I provided a Patreon option for the blog, what would you like to see that would give you the incentive to shell out a few bucks a month? Would you only want to fund the Solo GPC posts, or would a more general model be of any interest? Is there something else you'd want to get back out of your patronage other than seeing more posts from this blog? Any other thoughts? Do tell.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on far

Just about six years and a month ago, I wrote my first substantive(?) post for this blog, talking about my thoughts on the just-released D&D Fourth Edition Player's Handbook. I struck a tentatively optimistic note at the time, but with some pretty big caveats and reservations. Looking back on that post, I can see the seeds of my rapid abandonment of that edition and long winter out in the cold from D&D fandom were already in place.

Zachary Houghton at RPG Blog II posted today about looking forward to potentially returning to the mainstream fold as well, and I have to admit that that's a big part of 5e's potential attraction for me personally. But I've also been more-or-less pleased with the various meta-decisions that have been going on. I like the "living ruleset" idea, the Starter Set, the free PDF of D&D Basic. I'm not really planning on diving into 5e with any great vigor until the autumn, when all (or nearly all) of the core books are out, but I did (along with about every other gamer with any inkling of interest) download said free document today and took a look.

I was surprised by how much I remembered from playtest drafts - both that the memory had stuck with me, and that a lot of that material made it through, considering my experiences were with the earliest of the drafts. I'm looking forward to giving the rules a more detailed look in coming weeks. One thing I did want to share, though, has to do not with the mechanics so much as some interesting semiotics.

My original (or at least my most lasting) D&D point of reference, in many ways, is the Second Edition Player's Handbook, and I very much remember the little blue-shaded call-outs at the beginning of each class write-up. These call-outs discussed the folkloric and mythological origins of each class; "Here are some famous examples of paladins you might have heard of: Roland, Ogier, Lancelot, Galehad..." That sort of thing.

The formatting in the D&D Basic PDF takes a similar approach, but with quotes drawn not from mythology but from classic D&D novels. Likewise, the example of character creation has the would-be player rolling up a dwarf named Bruenor, and later we see other familiar names from Dragonlance and the Realms cited in rules examples or sidebars discussing differences in culture or alignment. Based on those precedents, I would imagine that more such incidences will be found throughout the doc upon closer reading.

It's no big secret that D&D long ago stopped referencing literature and mythology and instead became a self-referential genre unto itself. Some people are okay with this, others aren't. I find it interesting from a cultural point of view, but it doesn't bother me too much. Things that happen in D&D sessions and media derived from the game don't really happen in any other medium, and in fact I believe that RPGs are at their best when they're not trying to explicitly recreate the experience of reading a book or watching a movie or TV show.

Still, it was somewhat surprising to see such an open representation (admission?) of this fact. It's not a bad thing, per se. In fact, I would guess that, in addition to making an appeal to tradition - this is the 40th-anniversary year of D&D, after all - we see these familiar names throughout the rules because they're intended as a gateway for people who are coming into the game via books and computer games based on the brand.

As jarring as it was to see this melding of IPs, I'm thinking it's a good thing, if only for the reasons I just mentioned. Even as someone who has only read, collectively, maybe 1.5 novels' worth of D&D lit and whose CRPG experience extends to playing Baldur's Gate over TCP/IP, even I recognized the names; I have to admit, they carry a lot more weight and resonance than the so-called "iconics" of Third Edition.

At any rate, I've got a Rifts campaign to prep. More on Fifth Edition...soon? Probably.
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