Jul 272012

Four months!

A great deal has happened. 38 Studios closed, meaning the beautiful and amazing game I spent the last two years working on will never see the light of day. The studio’s closure hit some employees very severely, since it happened with essentially no notice and every expectation that the situation we were in was something we could emerge from. We couldn’t, we didn’t, game over. Cody and I don’t tend to be extravagant spenders, and her benefits are equivalent to mine, so we simply rolled onto her plan with no interruption.

We finally got a dog! We adopted Crichton (named for John Crichton, FarScape’s astronaut protagonist) from a rescue shelter that operates out of New York. He’s a German Shepherd mix of some kind (strongly resembles a Rhodesian Ridgeback, too), born tailless. He chose Cody immediately, and that was basically that. He’s been an amazing addition to our lives and it’s actually hard to imagine what life was like before him. He’ll be six months old on Cody’s and my second wedding anniversary.

I had the excellent fortune to work with many amazing people at 38 Studios. One of them, with whom I worked very closely, made mention to me that his wife’s company was looking for a PHP developer. “Why, I’m a PHP developer!” I thought. I’ve been paid for PHP work in the past (when I worked for Northeastern while attending school there, and when I worked for Blue Fang), I use PHP on a regular basis in my own web projects, and I have a technical mind as a result of working on software for the last six years. A month after 38 Studios laid us off, I started work at Surf Merchants in Boston. So far, it has been amazing. The people are awesome, the company is fantastic, and I get to work in PHP every day–and get paid for it! I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, probably as a result of spending six years in a very volatile industry.

Ashes is making steady progress, thanks in part to my new commute that has Cody drop me off at the commuter rail in the morning for a 30 minute train ride into Boston. I use that time to continue working on the third draft, and have hit the troublesome middle section I mentioned several posts ago. And it is, indeed, troublesome. I thought I was nearing the end of chapter eighteen, only to realize that I was going to have to re-re-tool chapters fifteen through eighteen to make everything flow correctly. This is what happens when you think you remember your story treatment, but don’t actually double-check.

Joined Pax Gaming, to which Cody already belonged, and have started playing both The Secret World (due to Cody’s exhuberance and a desire to play an MMO together again) and Star Trek Online. I was very pleasantly surprised by STO. Cryptic did a great job capturing the feel of the Star Trek universe. Kudos to them. TSW is a blast, too, and I really dig the flexibility of their system, and the general ambiance of the world–except for all the damn zombies.

Why is everyone so into zombies? I mean, I guess Ashes sort of has zombie-like creatures in it, but not really. It seems like zombies are part of the modern zeitgeist, and I do not understand the appeal at all. I suppose the same argument could be made about vampires, but vampires don’t bother me nearly as much (or, at all, really; I enjoy vampires). I wonder if there’s an element of appeal to the monster. With a vampire, it’s a creature that has power, that has traits that are desirable despite the drawbacks. Same with a werewolf in some ways. But a zombie? Where’s the draw there? Why would you want to be a zombie? Why would you want to live in a world populated by zombies? I don’t get it.

I mentioned it briefly above, but Cody and my second wedding anniversary is coming up in a bit under two weeks. Last year, we went on a cruise. That’s not so feasible this year, what with Crichton and all, and it’s left us somewhat stymied as to what to do instead. Every time we think of things to do and look at the cost, it seems so inefficient compared to the cost/benefit ratio of a cruise. Instead, we’ve talked about doing something smaller for our anniversary (a nice dinner, for instance) and something larger later on.

I came across a fun little program called Manic Time, which tracks your application usage and document/website usage by time. I want to use it as a motivational tool to show myself how much time I waste that I could be writing. With actual metrics staring me in the face, I think that’ll be a decent motivator to not spend so much time idling.

That’s about it for now!

Oct 082010

I had this whole plan for what to write about today that congealed as I drove to work. It vanished when I actually sat down to write it.

Yesterday marked Cody’s and my second month as a married couple. So far, so good! It seems a little silly to celebrate these milestones, given the four-closing-on-five years we’ve been together. The relationship is solid, we love each other just as much (if not more) now than we did when everything was exciting and new, we live together well, etc. It still feels like an achievement anyway. Marriage! It’s this big, important word that, for us, represented no functional change in our relationship toward one another that nevertheless bestowed a reaffirming, reinforcing strength that I didn’t even know could exist. I heartily approve.

I decided to bite the bullet and forgo worrying about writing a tailor-made web app for play-by-post Firefly-inspired Star Wars game I’ve been planning for a few months now. Instead, I went with MyBB and will adapt it as the need arises. I’ve used phpBB in the past, but it’s always felt a little clunkier than it ought to. MyBB is very smooth by comparison. This doesn’t obviate the need for a character creation web app, but it’s one less technical hurdle to starting the game than I had before. It’s been a long-standing desire of mine to play/run a Star Wars game that used an adapted version of the 7th Sea rule-set, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out. Play-by-post is an odd fit for such a dynamic and fluid system, but one never knows until one actually tries.

November is bearing down on us, which poses two annoying problems. The first is that Cody and I are still at a loss about a concept for Halloween costumes this year. There isn’t enough time to do anything complex1 in the time we have—next year, for sure—but even within that constraint, it’s rough. The second problem is one of time management: NaNoWriMo is going to eat my time in November, which presents something of a blockage on both the aforementioned Star Wars game as well as the heavy WoW-playing fronts. Oh, to have just six more hours each day.

Hell, I’d settle for two.

  1. Like the various costumes I’d make with a vacuform table []
Sep 202010

TIE Fighter case artIf that post title got you excited, I apologize.

For a while now, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing some kind of Star Wars fan film, being both a Star Wars nerd and an amateur filmmaker. One idea that popped into my head recently, while recollecting fond and cherished memories of playing the TIE Fighter computer game, was to adapt the game’s story into a TV (well, web) series. The game was story-driven enough that I think it could work, and had enough characters that it could be interesting. I’m not suggesting I’m going to do this. I barely have the time and energy to do all of the current projects I’ve saddled onto myself, let alone adding something as megalithic as this. But it’s still fun to think about.

According to lore, the TIE Fighter player assumes the mantle of Maarek Steele. Seems like a good choice for the series’ protagonist. As the game progresses, a number of major secondary characters and antagonists are introduced. Among them are then-Vice Admiral Thrawn, the rogue admirals Harkov and Zaarin, and Darth Vader puts in a cameo, too. Including the Imperial officer that briefs Steele before each mission, as well as the member of the Emperor’s Secret Order that provides secondary objectives, might work as well.

In terms of adapting the game, I think I’d first just go through the game mission-by-mission and isolate the major story components from each. These would get woven into the major arc of the series, which itself might even be split into seasons to mirror the distinct campaigns in the game. Once that had been done, the next step would be to pick out key bits of dialog from the game and weave those into the episode script. Nostalgia, man! It wouldn’t have to be line-for-line, but it’d be a fun callback to hit some of the key lines.

I might visit the idea some time in the distance future. TIE Fighter stands as my favorite game of all time (yes, even over WoW), and it nicely dovetails with the desire to do a Star Wars fanfilm. Of course, I’m not sure if I will ever be able to commit the amount of time doing an entire series would require. But hey, it’s fun to dream.

Writing Professionally

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Apr 072009

The first career path to which I gave serious consideration was authoring fiction.  The driving motivation behind this idea — telling stories — drives a disproportionate number of my hobbies: independent film-making, movie/TV-watching  and game-playing (on the receiving end of told stories, in this case), role-playing games.  Every other career I entertained the notion of pursuing held storytelling as a key component: acting, directing, visual effects for film, and now game development.  Within the last year, I decided that having a “day job” by no means precluded professional writing.  Author John Scalzi, internet-famous for his Whatever blog, cemented this decision by restating my own conclusion in as many words.  This led to my involvement in NaNoWriMo 2008, which I completed within the designated timeframe.  Though the resultant short novel is not something I feel is worth publishing (contrary to prior statements I’ve made about it), the simple fact that I wrote it armed me with the confidence that I can write a novel.

Pursuant to my goal to be a professional writer, I decided yesterday that I would take another page from Scalzi’s playbook and try to write a blog entry every day from now on.  My morning routine includes perusing a number of websites (a task made much simpler thanks to Google Reader and the wonder of RSS), which often have several interesting stories worth pointing out.  My hope is that readership here will grow beyond the small circle of friends that now read it and that it can become a community unto itself.

What do I mean by professional writer?  I don’t mean quitting my day job.  Scalzi (yeah, you’re going to see him name-dropped quite often) makes the observation that unless you can guarantee annual income from writing that’s 30% above what you make at your current day job, your financial situation will be worse if you quit your job to focus on writing.  The only reason to quit your job for writing is that if holding the job impedes the income you could otherwise make from writing.  

Professional writer, in this sense, is synonymous with Stephen King’s definition of a talented writer: if you wrote something and someone paid you for it, you’re talented.  It doesn’t matter if the writing was technical, analytical, editorial, or fictional — if you wrote something and got paid, you fit the definition.  Take it as a forgone conclusion that my ideal world would have me waking up at noon to eat breakfast and surf the internet for an hour, writing fiction for the next five, eating dinner with Cody, and then spending the evening on entertainment, all while making much more than I make now.  It’s not an unrealistic fantasy, but it’s not one that will come without time and effort.  

Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to elect to do things you otherwise might not choose to do.  To that end, I stopped procrastinating last night and bought myself a copy of Writer’s Market 2009.  This book is the ultimate go-to resource for writers, listing every publishing outlet for every topic available.  I plan to find a small outlet that publishes articles I might be able to write about with some intelligence, and submitting.  Without some incredible luck, it won’t be fiction.  I would be more than happy, however, to be paid for writing movie reviews, technical reviews, game reviews, or any other number of topics on which I tend to pontificate anyway.

As with every other industry, you first need to get your foot in the door.  Prove that you’re publishable in a small way before you can hope to hit big.

Savage Worlds

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Jun 042008

I had the opportunity to play my first Savage Worlds game last night. I am an instant fan! The GM utilized the ruleset to run a game based on the Japanese Ultraman TV show and we all had a blast playing it. Savage Worlds uses several of my favorite mechanics in clever ways.

Savage Worlds replaces the common dice mechanic — something I often champion — with a variable dice mechanic. Larger die indicate greater skill (i.e. d6 is more skilled than d4). After playing with it, I see merits to both approaches. However, only one die is rolled and this often conjures up feelings of nerd rage.

Savage Worlds abates that rage with a second die factored into every roll: the wild die. In addition to your normal roll (be it d4, d6, d8, etc), you also always roll a d6 and take the better of either die. While not as preferable as a bell curve, the mechanic is interesting enough that it alleviates the normal d20 problem of “I’m an expert, but rolled a 2!”

Also included are die explosions, like one finds in Storytelling and 7th Sea. Any die can explode when it rolls the highest number (i.e. d4 explodes on a roll of 4, d6 on 6, etc.), which results in rolling that die again and adding the new roll to the previous one. This can happen indefinitely, and we saw several double- and triple -explosions last night. This also applies to the wild die, and you can decide after rolling all your explosions which of the two die you wish to keep.

Savage Worlds includes a mechanic by which excellent role-playing, cool actions, and so forth are rewarded by the GM with a “benny” that may be later traded in for a re-roll, avoidance of wounds, and so forth. This mimics the drama die of 7th Sea and hero points of Mutants & Masterminds, and is a mechanic I favor. Dare I say that systems lacking such a mechanic are outdated? I do indeed.

There are a number of smaller interesting quirks to the system, too. The usual target for a check of any kind is 4, and beating the target by multiples of 4 results in raises, which yield better results. Damage is either sustained or avoided based on your toughness, and may be soaked via use of a benny. A simple hit with no raises results in being ‘shaken.’ Another shaken result produces a wound, and any raises on a hit can result in wounds, too. Wounds are crippling and can pile on very quickly, making avoiding damage at all a major strategy (as it ought to be!). Each wound imposes a penalty on every roll you make.

All in all, it’s a lot of fun to play and contains a number of neat ideas that I might try and adapt for my own homebrew mechanics.

Favorite Characters

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Apr 302008

In the previous post, I discussed the origin of Nigel, a character I play in a space cowboy-themed game. I adore Nigel and playing him is a joy. There have been just a handful of such characters, and only Nigel panned out as such a character during the course of play. Instead, these others grew into interesting characters after I had stopped playing them. Rather than disappearing from thought, they lived on and developed on their own.

The first character that became more than my own in-game avatar was Fornan Dejat, a Cardassian character in a free-form Star Trek IRC game. Dejat’s personality was based on (one might even say copied from) the character of Elim Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Dejat was a defector to the Federation from the Cardassian Union and a former member of the secretive Obsidian Order. This made him a priceless asset to Starfleet Intelligence. He would go on to be the helmsman for the titular ship of the game.

Sadly, little of what made Dejat a great character came out in-game. My greatest joys with Dejat came through writing out-of-game “logs” (akin to play-by-e-mail posts, though concerning a single character and further fleshing him out). I had the notion of anti-Cardassian sentiment among the ship’s enlisted element, which might have gone on to become its own subplot had I not abandoned the game due to waning interest. Dejat, despite my frustrations in both my own inability to execute the character as I imagined him and the lack of opportunity afforded him for expression, nevertheless lives on as one of my favorite characters.

The second character that made a lasting impression is an even more bizarre case than Dejat: I’ve never played her as I imagined her. Instead, I created a variant version of her from the seed idea and played that version. Despite that, Belle Lamairian lives on. I hope to find the opportunity to play the real version in the future.

Belle is a young woman intended for a fantasy setting. The version of her that saw play, Belle Hammason, was the orphaned, adoptive daughter of a great swordsman. While tasked with much of the housework in her youth, he would grant her wish to learn swordmanship. When he was murdered, she vowed to avenge his death and set out to do just that. After enlisting to guard a caravan and becoming mired in a web of suspicions, the caravan master ejected Belle and two companions from the guard. The three were later set upon by some of the caravan’s less savory guard elements and two of them — Belle included — died.

The GM gave me the option to let Belle live, but at the point I knew I had taken the character in the wrong direction from the beginning. I moved on to a different character. In retrospect, I wish I had kept her and tried to develop her into my vision for what she was meant to be. In some strange way, I think doing so might have resulted in a very different social path for that particular gaming group.

This meager description doesn’t do justice to the person living in my imagination, but I offer it all the same. Belle Lamairian (the proper Belle) is based in broad strokes around the appearance of the character Sorsha, from Willow, though without the whole “daughter of an evil queen” aspect. She’s also similar in many ways to Lord of the Rings’ Eowyn, though again from a more common background than Eowyn’s. She’s young, spunky, and a hot-headed (to match with the redhead stereotype). She fancies herself much better with a sword than she is — she’s a teenager, after all — but as she adventures, she grows into its use and becomes one of the greatest swordsmen alive (another concept inspired by Willow, though this one from Madmartigan).

My final mention for this entry is someone to whom you’ve already been introduced: Nigel. I detailed Nigel’s origin and unlike the other two, he’s an active character. The first great moment I had playing Nigel came early in our first session. The group had made its way into a seedy establishment to meet with an even seedier information broker, who tried to poison the biologicals (Nigel’s word for non-robots) with an offering of hors d’oeuvres. Nigel’s sensors picked up on this. As they began negotiating the price of the location of a particular bounty, the broker demanded 70% of the bounty’s payout. Naturally, we found this unpalatable.

Before much could be made of the situation, a loud alien bashed his way into the cantina and started yelling at our informant. The captain hid behind Nigel during this, but Nigel was content to watch it play out.
Once the alien had finished his rant, and seemed prepared to act against our informant, Nigel calmly tapped him on the shoulder and, with no ceremony at all, punched him out cold. Nigel then turned to the informant and said, “Thirty percent.” The informant replied, all to happy, “Thirty percent!”

Apr 292008

I found this What RPG Player Type Are You? quiz at RPG Blog II while browsing Google for other RPG blogs. Thought it was relevant in light of yesterday’s post and the earlier Flawed Origin post. My results:

What RPG Player (Not Character) Type Are You?
You scored as Character Player. The Character Player enjoys creating in-depth characters with distinct and rich personalities. He identifies closely with his characters, feeling detached from the game if he doesn’t. He takes creative pride in exploring different characters, often making each new one radically different than others he’s played. The Character Player bases his decisions on his character’s psychology first and foremost. He may view rules as a necessary evil at best, preferring sessions in which the dice never come out of their bags. For the Character Player, the greatest reward comes from experiencing the game from the emotional perspective of an interesting character.

Character Player
Casual Gamer
Weekend Warrior
Power Gamer

The results seem accurate to me. The quiz doesn’t appear to have a “See All Results” option, but since my “Storyteller” rating tied with my “Character Player” rating, I could go back and get the description for that one.

The Storyteller is in it for the plot: the sense of mystery and the fun of participating in a narrative that has the satisfying arc of a good book or movie. He enjoys interacting with well-defined NPCs, even preferring antagonists who have genuine motivations and personality to mere monsters. To the Storyteller, the greatest reward of the game is participating in a compelling story with interesting and unpredictable plot threads, in which his actions and those of his fellow characters determine the resolution. With apologies to Robin Laws.

Again, pretty close. I sense a post on GNS Theory is imminent.

Creating Characters

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Apr 282008

Enough with the negative articles. Let’s talk about something more fun. At the heart of every role-playing game is a character, usually several. These characters run the gamut, ranging from simple stereotypes (“Rar, orcish barbarian!”) to deep, complex individuals whose players portray them with such conviction that it rivals some of the best screen or stage performances. On the assumption that such characters are the goal of every role-player, how does one go about creating them?

As with many aspects of role-playing, we can turn to the writer’s craft for advice. Almost any exercise to concoct memorable characters in fiction in which one engages applies to the creation of characters for an RPG. Most of this advice is easy to locate on-line, so I’m not going to go through most of it here (sorry!). What I will do is outline how I came up with one of my own “most memorable” characters. It all starts with thievery.

Continue reading »

Apr 252008

In my previous post, I highlighted what I felt were the fatal flaws of the d20 System. I’m going to reverse what I said and praise it now, but in a way that is sure to upset d20 fans in the same way the previous post might.

Though d20 is a poor choice of system for creating unique and interesting characters — again, it can be done, but you have to work around the system rather than with it — it shines when placed in the right setting: computer games. Though the trend in cRPGs of late seems to be toward the “action RPG” mode of play (The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect), several games have had incredible success in adapting the d20 System to a cRPG with few modifications. The turn-based play of combat is often transparent, but two stand-out examples of d20 games spring to mind: Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

While both games put d20 through heavy modification (condensing skills, modifying feats, spells, etc.), they both kept the core idea of d20 at heart. They are also both tremendous fun to play. When the player need only call out to whom they wish to speak, on whom they wish to use a skill, which target they wish to attack, and so forth, d20 works well. That’s not to suggest that the system is too complex; it isn’t. What it is, however, is suited to a user with an avatar and a computer game-style, objective-based mode of play in mind. I would argue against such a mode of play being labeled “role-playing” by any stretch, but that’s a battle with too much inertia pushing in one direction.

Where Levels, Classes, and Races fall down in player-based RPGs, they are a great tool in cRPGs. Levels and experience provide a measurable way for a player to chart their advancement through the game, classes provide a focus down which a player can target his character toward completing that advancement, and races provide interesting visual differentiation and customization options.

I can hear d20 enthusiasts clamoring about how all of those arguments might apply to tabletop games as well. I suspect I would find myself bored in the type of tabletop game they would enjoy. If that’s the kind of game you want to play, why not play it on a computer? Computers can’t (yet!) afford us the possibilities that tabletop games provide for role-playing opportunities; if you don’t care about exploring them, why don’t you play NWN?

In a computer game, too, the weakness of using a 1d20 as a core mechanic is less of a problem. Though I find the visuals a little silly at times (we’re standing still, two feet apart, I swing at you with my three-foot-long sword, and you duck?), it provides a reasonable amount of variation coupled with predictability that tabletop versions of the game don’t seem to afford. Hit Points become much more acceptable, since a paced way of tracking a character’s degradation is more important. Few players would be happy with seeing wound penalties stack up until they drop from a single blow.

I’m sure that systems better than the d20 System can be concocted for cRPGs. Computers are fast enough now that a simulationist’s wet dream should be possible, while leaving the player unencumbered by having to remember all of the mechanics associated thereto. Still, of the games produced (that I’ve played) with the d20 System at their core, they seem to be quite successful.

A Flawed Origin

 Posted by at 11:08  6 Responses »
Apr 252008

Let’s kick things off with a bang and dive right into the flawed origin of RPGs. The inspiration for this piece comes from Mu’s Unbelievably Long and Disjointed Ramblings About RPG Design and the concept he calls “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity.”

One of the flaws underpinning many RPG systems is the underlying assumptions that motivate them. To be precise, RPGs as we know them today came from the original Dungeons & Dragons, which itself came from Chainmail. Chainmail was not an RPG; it was a miniatures wargame. As such, many of the operative underpinnings that form the basis for D&D, which in turn formed the body of expectations for its offspring, come not from an ideal solution for role-playing, but for war-gaming.

The quickest way to demonstrate this is to open the index of the D&D Player’s Handbook. Do you see an entire chapter devoted to combat? I do. By making combat the focus of an RPG system, the designers of D&D — and this applies to any edition — have put forward a system the intent of which is to place a fantasy world dressing around a miniatures combat game. If that’s the goal, that’s great. However, if we step back and look at the broad genre that is role-playing games, we see a great deal of dressed-up, miniatures combat games.

I’m not knocking miniatures combat games, nor am I knocking the idea of combat in an RPG. I get into a good combat encounter as much as the next person. I think it’s worth raising the awareness of this “genetic trait” of RPGs, though. A quote I’ve seen attributed to John Wick (7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Orkworld) says, “All RPGs have a grand total of two mechanics: swinging a sword and picking a lock.” While I doubt the veracity of this attribution (since I’ve seen it in only one location), I think it’s a succinct way of encapsulating the flawed box in which RPG design thinking often takes place.

I define RPGs by a break-down of terms: a game in which one role-plays. One can read many possible interpretations into that. For my money, it’s a game in which the participants derive enjoyment from the portrayal of a role — a character. Absent from that definition is any mention of rolling dice, swinging swords, killing monsters, and many of the other conventions that are common in RPGs. I’m not suggesting that I don’t enjoy such things, but they are not what the reason for which I’ve come to your table.

So far, the only system I’ve encountered played that gets away from the idea of RPG-as-wargame is White Wolf’s Storytelling system. While it does have mechanics for handling combat — for which I do think RPG systems need to account in some fashion — there’s little room to argue where the focus lies: story, mood, and character. Storytelling is by no means a flawless system. An unprepared GM could find himself dealing with a party of munchkin characters if he’s not careful. Such characters, though, defeat the purpose of Storytelling and so one might wonder if such a group would be better off playing D&D.

EDIT: While I never stated it in the above, one of the unspoken assumptions in the preceding paragraph is that the core World of Darkness book did not have its own combat chapter. Imagine my chagrin when I realized it did, in fact, have one. Plain-as-day. So, I apologize for any presumption that I may have appeared to make in that regard. (Yes, I can be wrong. When I am, I will admit as much. This minor revelation does not alter in any significant way the above post, though.)