Friday, March 29, 2013

Never Unprepared (Book Review)

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep (EGP42003) by Phil Vecchione

I spotted this book at my FLGS about a month ago in the new product section and was immediately taken by the fact that the store had stocked not a gaming book but a book about gaming.  The gaming store owner told me he was trying to stock products that would appeal to a wide base of RPG customers.  It certainly appealed to me, because I'm not the greatest GM prep person in the world.  Part of that is because I am inherently disorganized, and the internal struggle between my lack of organizational discipline and venues such as work and my house makes up a lot of my life.  I've recently been reading Zen to Done, a book on how to increase productivity and organization, and Never Unprepared reads more than a bit like the GM's version of that book (in fact both book reference the same source material).

So here's what's in Never Unprepared: a step-by-step guide on the phases of adventure creation.  It begins with brainstorming, then selection, conceptualization, documentation, and review.  Each phase in gone over in detail in terms of what it does and doesn't contain, as well as helpful suggestions on how to handle this phase in your busy adult life.  There's also suggestions as to what happens when you do the particular phase too much or too little.

After that, there's a section on determining the best tools for your session prep.  This section was probably the least helpful, but only because my own process of finding tools for my work (which involves a bit of creative expression) is pretty well developed.  I'm a Levinger/Moleskin/Evernote addict, but if you don't know what any of those terms mean, this section will probably be very helpful.

The final section deals with identifying the creative dimensions that are particular to you specifically, including your regular schedule and personality.  Much of this section is just about making sure that you create a discipline of preparation that you can enjoy, rather than find odious.

I have to say, I've been running games for the better part of thirty years, and still found this book to be a fantastic read.  It took what is for me and probably most GM's a fairly messy, organic process and shaped into something that is functional and productive.  I know there's a brand of "all-improv" GM out there, and more power to them, but I think most players appreciate it when they are dealing with a GM who has their act together, and this book will help with that.

If I've got a criticism, and it's a small one, it is that the presumption regarding adventure design tends to presume a fairly narrative-heavy design.  There's lots of references to creating plots, and I know there's an entire school of adventure design that is dedicated to avoiding creating plots that PC's move through, but instead creating fairly neutral worlds and letter the PC's wander around and do what they want (the "sandbox" approach).  That bias doesn't take away too much from appreciating the book, but I could see some OSR grognards grinding their teeth a little bit imaging novice GM's being herded toward that kind of adventure design.

Buy it.  Seriously, it's $20, it's written by a RPG blogger like you and me, and its a well-written, very informative book.  And, I think it's the beginning of a new trend in RPG literature that I really like.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why I asked

I raised the question about how you know when I post to this blog for two reasons.  First, I was curious about the mechanisms involved, and how many people use(d) Google Reader.  Other blogs I follow had been tackling the Reader issue and I was curious about how many people were affected by this.

The other reason is a more personal one.  I have three blogs: the blog dedicated to my solo zombie campaign, my wargaming blog and my roleplaying game blog.  Now I do both wargaming and RPG's fairly consistently, at least in terms of painting miniatures, etc.  But because I have different blog posts in different areas, content is more spaced out between each entry on the individual blogs.  In addition, I don't know where to put posts on books I'm reading or other things that don't specifically speak to the blog's main topic.

What's funny is, I don't see a lot of people who straddle RPG's and wargaming, as far as I can tell.  Obviously there's overlap--they're sold in the same stores.  But I've been seriously considering consolidating at least my two main blogs together and leaving the zombie blog alone as its own quasi-serial adventure (side note: new entry coming soon!)

My son, who's 13 and spends a ton of time online, thinks that is a mistake.  He doesn't like it when he's looking at Youtube videos on videogames and has to sort through a bunch of videos on other stuff done by the same guy.

I've also been considering going back to Wordpress.  I miss being able to categorize posts and the greater latitude in terms of blog templates.  Also, my original Wordpress blog was cross-genre in terms of hobby, so there's a precedent there.  However the handful of you who responded to my post said you followed it on Blogger's dashboard, so I'll probably keep things here.

So, my question: does it matter that a blog hops around in terms of content?  Would you rather follow a dedicated blog, or are your own pursuits just as varied?  Please respond.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Cross-Blog Question

I posting this here and on my other blog, and please do consider answering:

How do you follow this blog?  Google Reader?  The Blogger dashboard?  A program like Feedly?

I'm trying to figure something out, and would appreciate knowing.  Thanks.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Grognardia Projections

I suppose, one could say, that I'm a Grognardia apologist, by that I mean that I tend to not excuse what has happened with Grognardia's author James Maliszewski (hence called James from here on out) and his failure to produce Dwimmermount, his Old School Megadungeon for which he raised around $48,000 on Kickstarter.  But instead, I try to understand what happened, as best I can from what scant detail is running around, and perhaps try to share what I think.

Part of this, I'll freely admit, is that there is a part of my personality that seems to resonate with what is known about James and the last six months or so.  It's easy, all too easy, to get swept up in the emotional gratification of being appreciated for something you do or say online.  I love the support I get from my AAR's over at Hard Boiled Zombies.  I like being told I'm a clever storyteller and that my solo campaign is inspiring to others.

It's also easy to get a huge rush from what you think is a good idea.  I am the king of rushing to the internet to post some crazy goal like I'm going to paint 150 miniatures a year or a unit a month.  I actually started this blog, several years ago, trying to crank out a ton of NPC's for Traveller.  Just this past year I tried to create an NPC for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying every day for 25 days.  Why?  Simple, to impress the audience.  To show off my mad gaming skillz.  To get positive reinforcement from people about how I spend my downtime.  It's why we all blog, when we get down to it.  Sure, we're "supporting the hobby," or trying to share our Brilliant Wisdom, but there's a lot of ego involved in this blogging thing.

So, what happens when what you do doesn't get the response you hoped for?  Well, it can be devastating, even to an emotionally mature, healthy individual.  I'll freely admit, in what might sound like a bit of whining, that I wasn't thrilled by the fact that I didn't get a single comment throughout the entire "25 Villains of Christmas" bit.  Nothing but painful silence that got me wondering if anyone was even reading the blog at all. Now, take that bit of apathy and shift it over into full-blown scathing nerdrage to the point that it even spawned a meme ("giant rats and 2000 copper pieces").  James' early preview of Dwimmermount was mocked without mercy on the internet.  Maybe the criticism was justified, but I think there was probably a little exuberance over taking down someone who had been ordained by most of a gaming movement as being their high priest and pope.

Now, if you're maybe not in a great place emotionally, if maybe you're a little too used to being lauded for what you bring to the internet table, that's a pretty hard fall.  You could start thinking you're a fraud, a failure.  There's a real chance for depression there.  I think, if you read Grognardia near the end, that James' well was running a little dry at the time anyways since he had moved from anything resembling creativity to just reviewing out-of-print magazines and old advertisements.

Now I'm not saying that James is in the right, that's he's the victim of cyberbullying or somesuch thing.  He needs to make good on his promise to his Kickstarter investors, and in some possible way to Autarch, who was left holding the proverbial bag when he bailed out.  There's just a part of me that has probably half a dozen blog posts currently set in draft form that are various schemes, lofty goals, and ridiculous feats that I've wisely told myself to forego publishing for fear of even looking more like someone who can't finish what he started.  So maybe I'm projecting, but I think I can understand what's happened.

I still haven't published a 25th Villain.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Woken Furies

Woken Furies is the third (and I believe last) book by Richard Morgan featuring the body-jumping Takeshi Kovacs.  Kovacs, back from his misadventures in Broken Angels, has returned to his home planet of Harlan's World, the mostly ocean-covered world featuring the bizarre Martial "orbitals" that blast anything out of the sky.

In Woken Furies, Kovacs ends up hooking with a bunch of "decom" mercenaries whose job it is to wipe out a region on Harlan's World that is under the control of robotic drones.  The leader of the merc unit he joins turns out to have a bit of a weird glitch in her digital personality--a second persona claiming to be a notorious rebel leader.  Kovacs is then swept up in the political and military intrigue of the planet as powerful forces attempt to recover her, even employing a bootleg version of his own personality from his youth in the Envoy corps.

In addition to a solid sci-fi romp, Morgan gets some of his magic back from Altered Carbon by focusing a lot on Kovacs' personality and the conflict between his hard-earned cynicism and the various possible motivations available to him: revenge, duty, friendship, political revolution, and even love.  Religion is thrown in as well, not as a viable option but to contrast the other forces at work in Kovacs and the other people around him.  It's a good reminder that what makes science fiction great isn't blast guns or cyberware or strange alien ruins, it's the opportunity to take a human being someplace away from what's normal for us and see what continues to make him human.  Kovacs is a conflicted, emotionally wounded figure for most of the book, and it works out very, very well.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Three things out of the early 1970's

I mentioned in my last post that I've been reading some reprints of the Avengers from 1969-1971 (sort of the "bronze age" of Marvel) and that I had an unexpected, well, let's call it a "bonus."  Our tale begins with this fellow from Avengers #75:

Arkon the Magnificent
Did you know John Buscema also drew Conan the Barbarian?  Of course you did, and what better way to capitalize on that fact than to have a figure from a sword-and-sorcery world make his way into the Avengers universe?  And, just as a bonus, you get two of the things I mentioned last time about this era: wince-inducing storytelling and social commentary.

So here's the set-up.  Arkon is the warlord of a violent planet named Polemachus lit by a ring of asteroids circling around it (its "heated from within" so that's not an issue).  When the asteroids begin to dim, the world is plunged into darkness, killing off all plant life and encouraged famine and plague (Polemachus already had a lot of war and death, so this was a real problem).  But, as it turns out, atomic blasts from Earth provided light for Polemachus, so all its leader Arkon had to do was to go to Earth, kidnap a few atomic scientists, and make them create a powerful atomic device that would then be transported back to Earth and detonated, thus providing Polemachus with light for eons to come.

But, as an added bonus, Arkon also decided to kidnap the Scarlet Witch, who at the time had lost her powers and left the Avengers.  Despite the fact that his entire cockamamie scheme involved destroying all life on Earth, the Scarlet Witch still found herself attracted to Arkon.  Well the Avengers make their way to Polemachus thanks to Thor's magic hammer's ability to do anything, battle Arkon and his armies, and then follow him back to Earth to battle him once more in New York City while he is waving around a nuclear tennis ball and has the Scarlet Witch slung over his shoulder.  I should say, some of the Avengers go back to New York--Thor and Iron Man, who are really mostly secondary plot characters at this point, have managed to whip up a device to restore luminescence to Polemachus' asteroid belt, thus saving his world as well.  Having learned his lesson (for now), Arkon gives Scarlet Witch a flower, and she begins to realize how attracted she is to really dysfunctional non-human men.

Now, one of the things I really did like about this story was the planet Polemachus, which could easily have been what happened if the Hyborean Age never stopped by kept on going.  Here's the best pic of what I'm talking about.

I just don't know where to begin: the leather headbands, the lizard-horses, or the giant, spiky, phallus-shaped tank barrels, but it's all awesome.

So, to continue my tale, I read the Arkon story right before bed, and then fell asleep. I ended up dreaming about this funky D&D module series taking place on a world looking a lot like Polemachus.  One of the little theories kicking around the gaming blogosphere is that the original D&D world was not so much a fantasy realm as a post-apocalyptic one.  Thankfully I've retained a bit of that dream and now I'm thinking I might try to get some of it to paper--an OSR-style module series featuring a setting that's a little more overt in its post-apocalyptic nature than even normal D&D fare.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading the Essential Avengers

To help get me thinking about how a team book works, especially in the Marvel style, I headed down to my local public library and picked up Essential Avengers, Vol. 4 (Marvel Essentials)

Volume Four covers Avengers 69-97, which is roughly 1969-1971 and for the most part features Roy Thomas as writer and John Buscema as artist (and Stan Lee consistently getting top billing as editor).  While the cast rotates a bit, it's a mostly Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Wasp, Yellowjacket, Clint Barton as Goliath, Vision, and the Scarlet Witch.  There's a few leit motifs throughout these years.  For example there is the snarky sarcasm and semi-affectionate name-calling between members of the Avengers, especially Goliath, Yellowjacket, and the Wasp.  There's the somewhat overbearing tendency to have people verbalizing the action as a way to help the reader follow along (e.g. "Goliath's bringing down the entire building!" or "Your bullets can't do anything against the Vision's diamond-hard form.")  The worst quality of the era in my mind is loose plot writing that occurs.  Vision quits at the ends of an issue, only to rejoin up the next one.  The Scarlet Witch loses her powers (mostly to make her a easy captive), only to have them be restored by traveling through dimensions, which by the way is helpfully pointed out to her by a muscle-brained savage.  It's not constant, but it crops up enough when you read several years in one bulk to make you realize that there's some sloppiness in there.

But the biggest theme of this era is the contemporary social commentary, especially on the issue of race.  The other common member of the Avengers at this time is the Black Panther, who is publicly shown to be a black man after battling the racial supremacist supervillain organization the Sons of the Serpent.  (As a small corollary, the Native American superhero Red Wolf is also introduced, following the tradition of naming minority characters after their stereotypical skin coloring and an animal.)  The Sons of the Serpent are looking to create a "race war," and Marvel ends up tarring both sides a bit by having it come out that the Sons of the Serpent are actually co-led by a white and black man, both public figures on both sides of the racial tension divide, who merely wanted to stir up conflict for the purpose of gaining power.  The series has that "inner city New York" vibe that I tend to think of as being emblematic of Marvel Comics in general over the years that made it just a little more real than DC Comics using fictitious cities like Metropolis and Gotham.  And the Avengers of this period are frequently torn between dealing with street-level issues, which appeal to the Black Panther, and the more high-level threats which are more Thor and Iron Man's speed (Cap's in the middle, what with him being a downtown graphic artist dating a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn.)

I don't know if this is helpful for anyone looking to recreate the feel of the era or figure out how to craft stories for teams with both high- and low-powered heroes, but they are a pretty fun read.  I did get one bonus out of reading this book, which I will detail in a later post.

As an aside, however, can anyone explain to me the appeal of the Vision?  What a jerk.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Our first Marvel Heroic Roleplaying recap!

Here’s the campaign journal  to our first Marvel Heroic Roleplaying session.
Freedom City is hosting a peace conference between representatives of the Latin American country of Paragonia and members of the People’s Socialist Front, a leftist group of rebels who have been engaging in acts of insurgency to attempt to gain political reform in the region.  The talks are being mediating by U.S. Senator Jason Rybeck, an up-and-coming figure on the nation’s political scene.

Novice superheroes Positive Crisis and Mr. Eternity have volunteered to provide additional security for the conference, and are present when the plane arrives bringing the dignitaries.  The mysterious vigilante the Ferret is also on hand, quietly keeping an eye on things.  In the crowd the telekinetic Dr. Mind is present out of costume, just taking in the event, while Samkhara is at the airport bar looking for free drinks from pilots she can manipulate.  Meanwhile, the solitary gargoyle Abrasax observes as strange trail of fire heading for the airport.  His takes off in pursuit, curious as to what is going on.

Suddenly, the airport is attacked by Giganto, Feur, and several agents of Terror, Inc. (although the PC’s are unaware of their identities).  The Ferret and Dr. Mind battle Feur, while Abrasax, Mr. Eternity, and Samkhara attempt to stop Giganto and the agents.  Positive Crisis helps get most of the media and bystanders to safety, but then notices a third supervillain, Scorpia, has entered the jetplane obviously going after Sen. Rybeck and the Paragonia emissary, Hernan  Cortez.  He goes to rescue them.

Feur is defeated.  The other heroes defeat Giganto (with Abrasax and Giganto both getting engulfed in a burning vehicle) and Dr. Mind goes to help Positive Crisis, who has his hands full with Scorpia.  Seeing her fellow villains defeated, Scorpia escapes the plane along with a handful of Terror, Inc. agents.
In the transition scene, the heroes all introduce themselves, and Sen. Rybeck asked them to help transport the captured villains to a holding facility.  The heroes agree, although Samkhara is unable to identify the organization, despite her background in the criminal underworld.

While escorting the prisoners to jail, the convoy is attacked by Scorpia, a few agents of Terror, Inc. and their leader, Professor Muerte.  Muerte proves to be a powerful opponent, and seriously injured Mr. Eternity before blowing up several explosives placed around the bridge on which they are battling in order to make his escape.  Feur and Giganto escape with them.

The heroes fish out one member of Terror, Inc, that was thrown off the bridge (actually, he was compelled to jump by Samkhara) and Abrasax, assisted by Samkhara’s fear-generating powers, intimidates him into revealing where Terror, Inc is headquartered.  The agent cannot, however, tell them who hired them to attack the diplomats.  The PSF is the most likely candidate, however.

The heroes attack Terror, Inc’s headquarters in an abandoned warehouse by the docks.  Realizing that Professor Muerte is the biggest threat, they focus on him first.   The Ferret again finds himself squaring off against Scorpia, while Samkhara uses her powers to make short work of Feur and Giganto.  After the villains are defeated, Professor Muerte is unmasked to reveal that he is Hernan Cortez, the cabinet minister from Paragonia!  Cortez planned on disrupting the peace process and eventually killing the president, while the blame would fall on the PSF.  Cortez would seize control of Paragonia and use it as a base of operations for Terror, Inc.

The heroes reflect on the fact that, following the deaths of the Wonders (a trio of high-powered superheroes who died in an alien invasion) there hasn’t really been another group of heroes to take their place.  They decide to team up to fight evil (perhaps with Sen. Rybeck’s support).

Friday, March 8, 2013

So I played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying...

...and here's what I thought.

The whole dice mechanic takes people a while to get used to.  I did some fairly straightforward combats to get people in the swing of how everything worked.

The fact that you can add an opponents damage die to your attack die meant there was a tendency for players to pile on opponents.

While some people liked the open ended, narrative feel of the game, others thought that it was too easy to talk your way into getting a better situation rather than just going with it "as is."

Miniatures helped keep track of who was with whom at a given time.

Having six players meant it was easy to get to 2D12 in the Doom Pool, thus ending a scene. Some players didn't like how that meant I could call a scene to an end fairly arbitrarily as a result.

All told though most people liked the fluid feel of the game and the fast pace of the action. More thought after some time to process.

Over at Strange Vistas