Picking at the bloated carcass of geek culture...occasionally!!!

Archive for the ‘Roleplaying Games’ Category

Why We Play The Game

In Roleplaying Games on March 16, 2011 at 1:03 am

I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age II recently. In fact after some 20 hours of playing and not finishing it, I went back and restarted it with a new character. This is something I tend to do when playing computer roleplaying games. It should be clear that the choice to waste moments of my finite life pursuing virtual wealth, fame, and accolades with a computer generated avatar is a labor of love for me. There are experiences that a computer cannot replicate.

And no, I am not talking about true love, the feeling of building something with your hands, or helping someone in need. Yes, yes, that’s all great shit. But what I am talking about is the live, unpredictable, often ridiculous, potentially tedious, but occasionally transcendent pen-and-paper, tabletop roleplaying experience.

I play in bi-weekly Pathfinder (basically a new iteration of 3rd Edition D&D that stuck around when 4th Edition came out) game set in the basic, every fantasy trope in the kitchen sink setting of Forgotten Realms. Last week, while I was running a game something remarkable happened.

In a standard, no-big-deal scenario, the players disturbed a standing suit of exotic armor. Of course, out poured a swarm of flesh-eating cockroaches, intent on devouring the flesh of the living. The experienced dwarf Kasmar, knowing that these creatures could not be killed by mere squashing, threw a flask of oil at the insect pile and hoped to ignite them subsequently.

He missed…and hit Dibbit, the player character kobold, soaking him and oil. Dibbit, being right in front of the insect swarm, tried to drop a smokestick to pacify the roaches. As they started crawling up his extremities and feasting on his blood, he realized this ploy was unsuccessful.

Kasmar, still realizing that fire was a smart means of dealing with this adversary, threw another oil flask at the swarm.

He missed again…and hit Dibbit with even more highly flammable liquid.

At this point Dibbit decided, wisely, to run away from the slow moving roaches. What he could not count on were three things:

A) Botch, the gnome tinkerer, was about to cast Create Flame.
B) Botch was going to live up to his name by critically missing with the spell.
C) The fumble was going to cause Botch to hit his nearest ally with the spell.

So, of course, we now have a flaming Dibbit collapsing. And did I mention Dibbit was an alchemist.

An alchemist carrying several bombs, grenades, and a gunpowder-filled rocket.

This situation was completely unscripted and unplanned for. It unfolded based on a pair of rolled natural 3’s on attack rolls, a pair of 5’s rolled on the direction of a missed thrown weapon, a terrible natural 1, and some poor item saving throws. Only the combination of on-the-fly creativity coupled with the cruel bitch-goddess know as lady luck can create this type of scenario. That is why I never plan to stop playing old-school RPG’s. It’s the only way to experience this kind of absurdity.

Poor Dibbit. We hardly knew you.

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Massively Ineffectual

In Roleplaying Games, Video Games on July 1, 2010 at 1:09 am

I’m still playing Mass Effect and really enjoying it. Crappy inventory and slow elevator rides aside, this has to be one of my favorite modern video game RPGs around. Yet, it has a characteristic that appears in a great deal of RPGs, whether they be single-player computer, MMORPGs, or pen-and-paper. Namely, the slowdown of advancement as you reach higher levels. As I’m approaching the level max in ME, 60, the game decides to slow down the rate in which you gain levels to a crawl. Not a “I’m scrambling like a contestant on Double Dare looking for the flag” crawl, but more of a “I’m a recent quadruple amputee who just finished a bottle of cough syrup” crawl. And you know what I get at every level for my efforts? One single skill point. Not some game-breaking, godlike ability. A single teeny skill point that will have negligible effect on the game at this point. Why?

Well, I guess in Mass Effect, they want to reward the hard work of the loyal die-hards versus the people who are not me and have lives. Wait a second. I was about to go all self-deprecating about what a loser I am but I did other stuff tonight. I watched Top Chef: Washington and I…um…shit.

Let’s get back to my silly point. Leveling up or improving your character/party is one of the coolest part of RPGS. I mean, there are plenty of great things about the genre, including the gameplay, mastering the mechanics, and experiencing the narrative. Yet improvement is a constant carrot for RPGS. So what do many developers in response to the work you’ve done? Decrease the amount that you experience this extremely fun part of the game, that’s what.

Will it stop me from doing every side mission, no matter how tedious or painful for a mere dusting of experience points? Absolutely not.

The Perils of World Creation

In Books, Comics, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Video Games on April 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Little know fact. The world is a large, complicated place with a lot going on in it. I contains many different cultures interacting in countless ways over vast amounts of time. Beyond the historical, sociological, or anthropological repercussions, there are tons of scientific and technological matters to think about. To even marginally understand our actual Earth, the one we actually live in, requires an ass-ton of research and years of disciplined learning. Right? So, imagine the problems that one runs into when he (or she…or it, I guess) tries to make up their own world. Whether it’s for a roleplaying game, a video game, a sci-fi story, a comic book, or a fantasy people, people are constantly trying to cobble whole worlds from nothing.

The problem with many creators is they do not understand how crazy hard this is. This is the one extreme. They know they like sword fights or dragons or robots or whatever so they make a simple little setting where these things can take place. The problem, however, is that these worlds feel artificial, so they people living in them also feel phonier than they should. They’re created as cheap backdrops and that is what they feel like.

On the other side, there is what I consider my problem. I become kind of obsessed with the details. Maybe it’s because of my love of history. I love history but I’m hardly an expert…at all. Because history is vast and complicated. But even worse is science. If you don’t understand geography, you can’t make a realistic map. If you don’t know weapons are used or battles are fought, you can’t portray war with any semblance of believability. How can you speculate on future technology if you don’t understand technology today? This is what ties me up. I could be making a simple superhero roleplaying campaign or a lighthearted comic, but I need to understand how the world fits together. So I get lost in tying up the infinite loose ends instead of creating the world I need.

So…is there a happy medium. I know some very creative types read this blog so I’m curious on how you people deal with this. How do you avoid the pitfalls of creating worlds.

The Most Precious Commodity

In Roleplaying Games on April 9, 2010 at 12:17 am

I love playing roleplaying games. It’s easily one of my favorite hobbies. Most games fall somewhere between creating original genre narrative fiction and playing a tactical combat simulation. Some games fall more to the story, others to the combat. I’m having a good time anywhere on that spectrum. Yet, compared to movies, video games, or TV, I don’t play a ton. Usually a night every other week, which compared to many other gamers and ex-gamers, this is pretty good. But I don’t play as much as I’d like and most gamers I know are in a similar situation. Why?

Well, one major reason is that gaming is a collaborative process. You need a group of like-minded individuals to make a good game happen. This means finding a time when a group of adults can find a significant chunk of time to sit down. This was a piece of cake when you’re in middle school. But even by high school, when guys are getting girlfriends or perhaps finding the charms of going out or just outgrowing the activity, it gets trickier. By adulthood, it can be near impossible. Why? Because one needs to find the time.

And this is the problem. A friend…okay it was Noah, said the other day that no one has spare time. No just sits staring at a wall. When not working or sleeping, we have specific things we choose to do with our precious time. And gaming takes time. Not just finding time, but deciding to spend many hours playing. RPG’s, for those whom haven’t played in a while, kill time like nothing else. Several hours can pass in what feels like a moment. Who has the time?

Besides the actual game session, the person running the game has to create a narrative, structure it into a game session, break it down into game statistics, and organize the gaming aids necessary to run it. This is an extra burden and often a thankless job for one player, requiring even more time.

So, while I wish we all had more time to play, I feel thankful that I get to play as much as I do. You need to make time for the good things in life.

Larry Elmore revisited

In Books, Roleplaying Games on September 2, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I’ve been lightly re-reading the Dragonlance: Legends series recently.  I’ve been on a fantasy kick recently and just finished Joe Abercrombie’s excellent yet somber First Rule series.  I’m in need of some light, junk-food reading while I’m student teaching.  Something familiar and pleasant but not something that will suck me in.  I haven’t read the Legend series in quite a while so…why not?  Okay, I feel like I am apologizing a bit for such a adolescent pick, but whatever.  I find the prose has suffered a bit and I’m not exactly digging the character interaction as much as Chronicles, but it’s doing its job of entertaining me just fine.  Looking at the books, however, has made me re-examine the work of Larry Elmore, the artist of the original Dragonlance novels and all-around TSR company man.

Elmore was my first favorite fantasy artist.  When I was younger than ten, I remember looking at my older cousin’s Dragon Magazine.  It has a weird color comic by David Trampier called Wormy about a cigar-smoking Dragon and his efforts to play wargames in peace away from the annoying adventures always messing with him.  It was awesome but I was more drawn to a black-and-white serialized comic called Snarf’s Quest, a comedic adventure about a long-eared, snouted warrior-in-exile, his robot sidekick, a hot warrior love interest, and a surprisingly relatable brain leech.  It was by Larry Elmore and I loved the hell out of it.

My brother had this collected edition years ago.  I wonder if it holds up.

My brother had this collected edition years ago. I wonder if it holds up.

But Elmore continued to impress me as I got into Dragonlance.  I found that his work blew away anything Jeff Easley or Keith Parkinson did for the world.  His portrayal of the characters was what I thought they looked like at the time.  The faces of his figures were unique and were instantly recognizable for me.  Though I question some of his design choices, such as the scantily clad Caramon and Tika on the Dragons of Spring Dawining, I still have a very soft spot in my heart for that fantasy art, cheesy as it may be.  Elmore changed his style through the 90s and into the new century.  I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe I’m older and more critical of new stuff, while still looking at the old stuff through the eyes of an eleven-year-old.

I guess pants were not in-style in Krynn during the War of the Lance.  But I suppose bedazzling leather, collarbone armor was.

I guess pants were not in-style in Krynn during the War of the Lance. But I suppose bedazzling leather, collarbone armor was.

I’m trying to look at his work (and not just these amusing examples) with the harder, sarcastic sensibility that I have developed in the last twenty years.  It’s not really working.  I have no desire to undo those positive feelings.  I wonder do any of you have cheesy shit from your early adolescence that you are unable to tear down.   I’m tired so that will be all for now.

Dark Sun

In Roleplaying Games on August 18, 2009 at 9:37 pm

This post is for true nerds only.  Proceed with caution.

Okay, anyone still there?  Here’s the deal.  It has come to my attention that Wizards of the Coast, makers of the popular Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, are planning on unveiling a new campaign world at next year’s GenCon.  Now, I would use the term “new” with a deer-lick of salt.  Why?  Because the company is reintroducing the Dark Sun campaign setting for 2010.  This news immediately made me excited, as I love all things Dark Sun.  Yet, the reality of the situation dawned on me very slowly.  A new Dark Sun for new D&D.  But…I don’t play new D&D.  Uh-oh.

Well, the aesthetics of the book cover look familiar, but will the game inside?

Well, the aesthetics of the book cover look familiar, but will the game inside?

Let me break this down for those of you whom are not exactly sure what I’m talking about.  In 1991, TSR, the company that created and used to own Dungeons & Dragons, published the Dark Sun campaign setting for the 2nd Edition version of the game.  As I have mentioned briefly in this post, Dark Sun was a post apocalyptic fantasy setting where life is harsh, magic is scare, and everything is awesome.  It was saddled by the 2nd Edition D&D rules, which I found pretty cumbersome, but the flavor of the setting was inspiring to say the least.  It was the first setting I got into independent of my brother as dungeon master and I honestly loved the hell out of it.

After Wizards of the Coast acquired the rights to Dungeons Dragons around the turn of the new century and released the 3rd Edition, Dark Sun was officially done.  Like some of my other favorite 2nd Edition settings, WotC ceased the publication of the Dark Sun setting, concentrating on Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and eventually Eberron.  There were efforts made my loyal fans, such as the people at Athas.org , to keep Dark Sun alive for 3rd Edition players.  I appreciated it, as I played several solid Dark Sun games with 3rd Edition rules and enjoyed them.  Yet, without the official love of D&D, it was hard to attract new people to the setting.

Now, almost two decades after the release of the original setting, WotC is making this new Dark Sun.  At this point I know next to nothing about it except that it is on its way and it is following the newest 4th Edition rules.  I am not really a fan of the new rules, as I feel they break the game down into a tactical, MMO-like strategy combat game lacking some of the flavor I always appreciated in D&D.  I’ve been sticking, along with my gaming group, with the 3rd Edition rules.  But, with this pending Dark Sun release, I feel the urge to enter the 4th Edition era.  The ramifications of this are a little troubling.  Am I re-entering a phase of my gaming past, where my gaming addiction becomes a serious problem.  I’m excited about the prospect of new excitement for my favorite setting, but I am worried what will become of it.

I told you, nerds only.

RPG Addiction

In Roleplaying Games on August 5, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Have you ever encountered the phenomenon of this stereotypical woman obsessed with shoes or fashion?  You know, the Sex and the City, Confessions of a Shopaholic idea that many otherwise intelligent and successful women become irresponsible and childishly impulsive when faced with some cute strappy sandals in their sizes.  I have encountered this stereotype and thought: “Man, what a waste of money for something you have such a limited need for?”  Then, I remember some of my old spending habits and realize I can relate.  I used to have a kind of problem with roleplaying games.

What do I mean?  Well, when I was a teenager and well into my twenties, I spent a decent amount of money on roleplaying games and supplements.  Thousands over the years.  A new game?  I had to have it.  Every supplement for a beloved setting?  They must be mine.  The problem with RPGs are that they take time and people to actually use them.  You would need to get a group of people interested in the game.  Then you would need to familiarize  them with the system and setting.  This, of course, is followed by tons of reading, writing, and other preparation such as making characters and backstories and the like before you could start.  It would take multiple gaming sessions and months of real time to make any game purchase worthwhile for its intended purpose.  With the products I was obtaining, there was no time in the day to come close to using most of it.

Worse, however, was that I would buy games even when I did not have a regular gaming group.  There existed really no chance of using any of my new stuff, yet I continued to buy it dutifully.  I probably didn’t put any old TSR employee’s kid through college in the 90’s, but probably an expensive day camp.  Did I need Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep if I was: A) Not playing any games, B) Not likely to play in any Forgotten Realms D&D games even if I did have a group, or C) Would most likely not be playing in Waterdeep even if I was playing a Realms campaign?  Um…no.  Not in the slightest.

See this amazing, unique, and imaginative game.  I read it and loved it.  And never, ever once played it.  Sigh.

See this amazing, unique, and imaginative game. I read it and loved it. And never, ever once played it. Sigh.

So, I would buy these products.  I would even make a character that I knew I would never play.  I would go through the process because I like making characters but always knowing it was pointless beyond anything but the fun of crunching numbers.  And while this activity might be considered fun for fun’s sake, the inflated price of most RPGs most likely made it an ineffective use of my limited dollars.

So why bring this up now?  Yesterday, I bought the new Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying game from Green Ronin Publishing.  Do I like it?  Yes.  Did I spend hours creating a noble house complete with location, history, and a fucking cote of arms?  Yes.  Did I make a character complete with stats, appearance, and backstory.  Again, affirmative.  Do I see an opportunity to play this character, use this noble house, or really even play this game at any time in the near (or even far) future.  Unfortunately, no.  So…why did I buy it?  Because I was lying when I said I used to have a problem.  While it is more under control now than in the past, it never ever really goes away.

No time to play

In Roleplaying Games on June 12, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I mentioned in an earlier post about my attempts to get a new campaign going with some old friends.  Guess what?  No real progress in the last month on that front.  In other gaming news, I find that my current bi-monthly gaming group (that means twice a month right?) tends to move pretty slowly, with some nights having very little progress in the story.  Is this a complaint?  Well, partially.  I really like gaming and enjoy being part of interesting stories with compelling characters.  But the problem is not the people I play with or am trying to play with.  Quite the opposite.

When I get together with either group of friends, we tend to enjoy catching up or hanging out.  A huge amount of time is spent laughing, making references, or telling personal stories.  It slows down the start of the game or the campaign planning session.  Since I don’t see these people all the time, I work too long on my personal connections and not on the story at hand.

Sometimes...okay, often, gaming takes a back seat when friends get together.

Sometimes...okay, often, gaming takes a back seat when friends get together.

It seems like there is just not enough time to get the game going or keep it moving sometimes.  I’m playing tomorrow and really looking forward to it.  I know it will be fun.  I just wonder how much actual playing of the game will occur.  I guess there are worse things than having a good time with friends.

Dumb fun?

In Books, Comics, Movies, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction on June 12, 2009 at 1:30 am

As fans of various genre narratives, I wonder if we have appropriate expectations or even appropriate desires from our entertainment.  Do we want smart, considered meditations on the possibilities of the future or alternate worlds?  Or do we want dumb escapist fun that takes our mind to more entertaining places than our current realities?  Do we want each sometimes?  Is there a happy medium between the two?

Let me bring out some examples, such as the Matrix. Personally, I think the idea of keeping humans around as a power source for machines is dumb.  I think that controlling of that source of power using an elaborate virtual reality that occasionally frees people to create an opposition that requires destroying as part of an elaborate cycle is really dumb.  Yet, I think that a cool virtual reality where people can do amazing things and fight scary agents is pretty fun and exciting.  The problem is, I have a hard time rationalizing the dumb parts with my brain and rationalizing the mundane parts with my gut.  I want visceral experiences but I want them to make sense.  I want quirky, ginchy coolness but I want it to follow some kind of real world rules.

For instance, you know who lacks any logical ability to fly under any possible understanding of aerodynamics?  The Rocketeer.  You know who has a sweet helmet and costume?  Yup, you guessed it.

If this made sense, you would be looking at the coolest quadrapalegic with third degree ass-burns in the world.

If this made sense, you would be looking at the coolest quadriplegic with third degree ass-burns in the world.

Should I be thinking about why Wolverine’s claws wouldn’t cut easily through metal no matter how hard or sharp his claws?  Or should I enjoy Wolverine fucking people up in cool and interesting ways?

I face the same paradox as a creator as I do as a fan.  When writing a screenplay, a comic script, or even a D&D adventure, I need to balance the child-like fun with logical sense.  I’m not talking about the creation of derivative material (that will be another post) but the creation of material we know doesn’t make sense but makes us feel good, or happy, or excited.  If you watch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, some people thinking that ginchy giant robots are amazing.  Others wonder why you would have have a flying machine with flapping wings.  The balance of sense and wonder is completely subjective.

So we get to my problem.  I want my heart to soar, but keep my head from hurting.  Is this possible?  Is this a problem for anyone else?   I feel like this is my biggest dilemma as a fan of geek culture.  It is something I have touched on before and will return to again.

New inspiration

In Books, Comics, Movies, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Television, Toys on June 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm

I was sitting down to write something for today’s post and was trying to articulate a topic.  I was thinking about the evolution of the pop-culture ninja since their re-emergence in the 80’s.  It got me thinking, however, about how in this last month of blogging I’ve mined nostalgia for inspiration.  As it turns out, a lot.  Which got me thinking about when was the last time I had a new geek interest or obsession.  So, the ninja conversation will have to wait for another time.  Sorry shuriken fans.

I was wracking my brain about the last time anything new or original grabbed my attention.  Almost everything that interests me, from comics to my favorite movies to toys to books to roleplaying games go back to childhood or adolescence.  I am almost completely at a loss to discover anything I really got into as an adult.  Fun and enjoyable media are often based on or inspired by old franchises that I’ve enjoyed for decades.

What will this kid ever love as much?

What will this kid ever love as much?

Oh, it’s not that bleak, I guess.  As I think about it, I can come up with plenty of stuff.  I really like Firefly, for instance, and that’s a new franchise.  Sure, it plays on familiar science-fiction norms but it’s still something new.  And there are plenty of comics, like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal series, that I think are pretty awesome without the lens of nostalgia.  And George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a very enjoyable series that sucked me in more than any geek literature I can recall.  There is new stuff, to be sure, but my head and heart seem most attached to the properties of my youth.

So I ask you, is there something special about youth for the formation of the adult geek?  Can new obsessions every really match the longstanding ties we have to our first loves, so to speak.  When is the last time you were inspired by something new?  Discuss.