Monday, March 7, 2016

Victorian-Era Mondays: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the COMIC)

Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat - if you enjoy the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, that's great. But you should definitely read the source material. It's like watching the film version of The Watchmen but never having read the graphic novel.

However, if you strongly disliked the film (I fall into this camp), you should definitely read the comic. It's so different as to practically be a completely different story.

With that said, let's get onto looking at this work of graphic fiction as a source of inspiration for some Victorian-era influences in your games.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in Victorian London and brings together a disparate set of Victorian-era fictional characters into one cohesive story, led by Mina Murray (of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Unlike the film version, the American Tom Sawyer is nowhere to be found in the story.

Mina is hired by a gentleman named Campion Bond, a member of a British Intelligence agency to put together a team (described by author Alan Moore as "a Justice League of Victorian England") in order to stop a "gang war" (to put it mildly) between two major villains of Victoria-era fiction. This type of situation is one of the true bright spots of the series - major Victorian characters who never interacted in the fiction of the time are brought together into one very well-written story so that it seems completely natural that they would know each other. There are characters from Gothic fiction (Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) alongside characters from mysteries and crime fiction (such as Sherlock Holmes) and adventure fiction (King Solomon's Mines).

All of this fantastic story-telling is coupled with beautiful artwork by artist Kevin O'Neill, including some really neat pseudo-steampunk designs and period advertisements to really help convey a sense of the world in which the characters live. The artistic style of the character designs is perfect for the story, and O'Neill is a master at facial expressions, but also excels at background and architectural work.

As I mentioned before in my post on Gotham by Gaslight (another Victoria-era inspirational resource), one of the things I really enjoy about the Victorian-era for gaming purposes is that it combines some more "modern" inventions and things like travel and exploration alongside more "antiquated" ideas like superstition and globe-spanning empires. All of these types of ideas are used to full effect in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.

There are actually several books in the series - Volume II involves many of the same main characters but brings in ideas of Victorian space exploration via inspiration from works by the likes of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs (with an artistic sensibility not too dissimilar from the Space: 1889 game). The third volume of the series, entitled "Century" is actually three stories that take place in 1910, 1969, and 2009.  There's also a spin-off series, the Nemo Trilogy and a Black Dossier (which came out between Volume II and Volume III) that is more of a source book for the world of the League.

All of the volumes, but especially Volumes I, II and the Black Dossier, are fantastic, imagination-inspiring resources for a Victorian-type role-playing. There are tons of ideas for character backgrounds and personalities, equipment, architecture, and more to be found in these comics. On top of all that, they're great stories. Alan Moore is one of the masters of modern comic fiction and combined with the images of artist Kevin O'Neill, they create a world full of fun, adventure, and fantasy that can inspire any role-playing gamer. 

Format: Available in a variety of formats. The first two volumes have been collected in a 416 omnibus edition, but there's also a 176 page edition of just the first edition for about half the price.
Where To Buy: I am strongly in favor of buying comics at your local comics shop, if you have one. If you're not sure, visit the Comic Shop Locator, where you can enter your ZIP Code and see if there's a shop nearby. You can also of course order online at sources like Amazon. Lastly, if you're into digital comics instead of paper, here's a link to where you can download a copy at Comixology.
Price: Prices vary depending on the edition you get (e.g., the omnibus or just a single trade paperback). Currently, Volume I is available on Amazon for $11.68.
Rated: Comixology rates this as "Ages 15+ only" which is probably just about right. There are some real adult situations in here that could be confusing or inappropriate for younger readers. As always, my suggestion is that you read it first before deciding if it's appropriate for your kids.
More Information: It's a bit tough to find a "true" website for the series, because the publishers have changed over the years (Alan Moore has a bit of a bad history with DC Comics, who purchased the original publisher, Wildstorm Comics, and so he later moved it to another publisher, Top Shelf). Your best bet is probably just a Wiki type page, such as this one.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: A Scofflaw (with Orphan Barrel Rhetoric bourbon)
Listening: Happy-Go-Lucky Local (Live) by Duke Ellington

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: Supergods

Today is new comic book day - the day that shops receive their new comics. Although I'm currently subscribing to about 36 titles, this ended up being a slow week for me. Only one regular title that I'm reading came out (Batman & Robin Eternal, which is a weekly), and I also chose to pick up the first issue of Black Widow by Marvel comics.

Lately, in addition to my weekly comics, I've also been reading a lot of books about the history of the hobbies I enjoy, particularly role-playing and also comics. Not too long ago, I finished a book by comics writer Grant Morrison, called Supergods: What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which was published back in 2011.

While I'm going to categorize the book as a history of comics, it's really much more (and at times, much less) than that, and it defies categorization. It's part memoir, part auto-biography, part history of comics, and part philosophical musings about how we can view our own lives through the lens of the superhero. What's frustrating, however, is that the book isn't really divided neatly into these sub-categories. It wanders back and forth between each one, which can make it a bit difficult to follow if you're trying to get a linear sense of the different "ages" of comics.

However, that doesn't stop me from recommending this book to those who are interested in comics from an historical perspective but also, as mentioned, from a philosophical one. Grant Morrison is highly regarded as a storyteller in comics and he has a real command of the form. His All-Star Superman is in my top three Superman stories of all time, and I'm not alone in that assessment. He understands these characters but, more importantly, understands the medium he is using to tell his stories, and does all of this in a way that makes his readers identify with the characters and insert themselves into the story. 

Supergods is, at times, written with that kind of mastery. In the first parts of the book, Morrison writes about the early days of comics, before he was even born, and in these sections he brings his love of comics and their characters to the fore. The section on the Golden Age of comics contains a lot of broad strokes history that I've read in other books on the subject, but it's instilled with Morrison's own sensibilities about the kind of political, social, and economic forces combined to create the right situation for comic book superheroes to become so popular. He continues these themes through the following "ages" of Comics - the Silver Age, the "Dark Age," and the "Modern Age."

However, once we reach the point in time where Morrison was old enough to be self-aware and has a memory of himself as a child, the tone of the book changes. Morrison can be a little self-indulgent at times, and his confidence comes across more as cocky and even egotistical. But, he also does a great job describing a very different environment for a young comic book reader than most of us are used to - he grew up in a more industrial part of Scotland, so his access to American comics of the time was much more reduced, and he also had the opportunity to read, and eventually write for, English comics that we here in the States never had a chance to see back in the day. These sections of the book are quite interesting from an historical perspective, as they describe a part of comic book history that most often gets glossed over in mainstream histories that focus only on the United States.

Those familiar Morrison know that he has some "unconventional" ideas about things such as magic (from the standpoint that, he thinks it's real and claims to practice it successfully to affect changes in his life) and other metaphysical theories. There are times in the book where Morrison's attention wanders and he writes at length about his experiences "summoning a spirit" to guide him in life, and these situations are only very tangentially related to the main points he's trying to make about the superhero culture. It's as though Morrison had the idea for three different books - a history of comics, a memoir about his experiences as a master of the metaphysical, and a theory about how humans can learn more about themselves by learning more about the main superhero archetypes that inhabitant the comics that we've read throughout history. Unfortunately, these three ideas don't really mesh all that well, yet Morrison went ahead and attempted to put them together anyway.

Then, out of nowhere toward the end of the book, with little transition to lead the reader along the way, Morrison reviews the current state of superhero movies (as of 2011) but never ties these ideas into the rest of the book. It's almost like an after-thought, as though a friend mentioned, "You should include a part about the Batman movies..." and Morrison decided to throw it at the last minute.

All told, this book does do a good job of describing and delineating the main eras of superhero comic books, and the main world events that were happening at the time that made the shift in themes and character happen between the ages. For that alone, this book is worth a read. For those who enjoy Morrison's comic book writing, this will give the reader quite a bit of insight into where Morrison gets some of his ideas and why he's written some of the stories he's written.

However, as a guide to help us understand "What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human," this book is sadly a failure. Ideas are proposed, but never fully developed, and in the end, the reader won't feel any closer to understanding what seemed to have been Morrison's main reason for writing the book.

Format: My copy is a 464-page hardback, but it's also available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.
Where to Buy: Since it was published about five years ago, this may be difficult to find at a brick-and-mortar store, but it's readily available on Amazon.
Price: A new copy of the paperback version is currently selling for $12.68 on Amazon.
More Information: Grant Morrison's official website has a page for Supergods

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: "Grapefruit Margarita" (recipe from a bartender in West Hollywood over the weekend, using grapefruit and lemon instead of lime, and mezcal instead of tequila, and muddled with fresh sage leaves)
Listening: "Coma Cat" by Tensnake

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Third Time's a Charm: One Page Dungeon Contest

Thanks to the kindness of All-Around Cool Cat Random Wizard, I will be one of the judges again this year for the One Page Dungeon Contest. This will be my third time being a judge, so hopefully I'm getting the hang of it by now. I'd like to thank good old RW for this opportunity, and also thank the other judges (several of whom are also returning from last year, as well as a brand new judge this year) for their time and effort in coordinating and judging the event. It actually is quite a bit of work, but it's "fun" work and really idea-inspiring.

I've written a few columns here on the blog about the One Page Dungeon Contest - here are a few of the more relevant ones for people who are planning to submit an entry in this year's contest or just wanted to learn more about the contest itself.

  • My Judging Criteria for 2014
    • My thoughts on the things I was looking for when judging for the first time
  • The Other Judges' Criteria for 2014
    • I interviewed many of the other judges of the 2014 contest via email to find out what their criteria was and why they chose the winners they chose
    • Coincidentally, this has been one of the most viewed posts on my blog, partly because Random Wizard has linked to it from the official One Page Dungeon Contest webpage
  • My Thoughts on the 2015 Contest
    • This is mainly an overview of "Why Do We Need a One Page Dungeon Contest" wherein I chat about what I like about the contest and why I think it's "important"

One thing I never really got around to doing last year was recapping my thoughts on the entries in 2015 and how they were different from 2014. I keep all of my judging notes in Evernote so I was able to go back and look at what I said. Here were my topline thoughts on the contest as a whole in 2015:

  • Spelling and grammar are much better this year than last year - HUGE improvement
    • However - some work needs to be done on "it's" versus "its"
  • Layouts so far have been better for the most part - not as many "wall of text" entries
  • Some layouts though are just too clever for their own sake - it's very important to use a legible font and to not have such a dark background that the font can't be read.
    • This was a big problem this year for many entries
    • [This is a new note I'm writing as I write this post on the blog, but there was one specific entry last year that was hand-drawn and the design was so difficult to read that I ended up not being able to actually read it, so I couldn't even score it. I felt horrible and I tried so many different ways - I printed it out, I enlarged it on my screen, I viewed it on my large monitor (32")... nothing worked. PLEASE have a friend, or better yet, someone who knows NOTHING about RPGs look at your entry before you turn it in to make sure it's legible, to catch spelling and grammatical errors, etc.]
  • A few entries this year that aren't actually adventures - more like board/card games that don't rely on any kind of player or character skill
  • These should ideally be "pick up and play" not "here are some rough notes for you to spend hours fleshing out to run."
  • A nice looking map with just a list of some random encounters is not a "dungeon"
  • The map should not be an "after-thought" - in a one page scenario, the map should really be more prominent
  • Lots of mini-campaign settings (essentially just a setting idea, an overview/summary, and a map - that's not an adventure that a DM can just run on a moment's notice)
  • Adventures should at least mention a rough idea of party level/experience (low-level, beginner, average, advanced, etc.)

I have notes like that for every single adventure - for a peak into how I picked my winners as well as the judging process for me and the other judges, you can watch an interview that we recorded on Google Plus last year after the contest was over. All of the judges used a fairly similar process to picking the winners, but to differing degrees (I score mine on a basis of "Yes," "Maybe," and "No" on the first round, then I go back and re-read all of my "Maybes" and "Yes" qualifiers and start narrowing them down to pick my Top 10, whereas other judges actually assign numerical scores for a variety of things like layout, theme, map, etc. and then weight the scores to get a total). 

Anyone out there planning to enter this year's contest? Have you participated in the past (Kelvin, I know you have!).

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: 2010 Bordeaux, Lafite Barons de Rothschild Collection
Listening: "Star People" by Blue Six

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

D20-Era Reviews Tuesday: Book of the Righteous

As mentioned last month, I'm going to reserve Tuesdays mainly for a new feature on the blog, wherein I'll review an old D20-era product, mainly from the standpoint of how useful it is for gaming with any system, whether you prefer stuff like D&D (any edition), Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, or other systems of your choice.

Today's book features a ton of non-mechanics content that can easily be used "as is" in a fantasy campaign world, or modified to fit an existing religious pantheon, regardless of your system of choice. We're talking about Green Ronin's Book of the Righteous, published in 2002 for the 3.0 Edition of D&D.

The idea and concept behind this book, as discussed in the introduction, is that most fantasy religions presented in campaign settings are simply very cursory overviews, covering a god's name, portfolio (areas of influence), maybe a favored weapon, and not much else. In most published fantasy game religions, little attention is paid to things such as the names and titles of the priesthood, how one advances in the priesthood (not just in class level but in influence), rites and ceremonies, and so forth. Most books even go so far as to provide some type of game mechanics and statistics for the gods or their avatars, which honestly aren't really all that useful if you're playing a cleric or paladin and are looking more for information on how your character might react in a certain situation based on his or her religious beliefs.

I've mentioned before that I've had difficult intertwining religion into my long-running World of Samoth game, which mainly has come from a lack of desire on the part of the players to really get into character and make decisions based on the tenets of their characters' faith (which is fine - they're just not interested in that aspect of the world). However, part of the issue is also the way I described the faiths in my campaign background I handed out before my campaign began. One of the later players to the group mentioned being interested in having his character follow a specific faith, but that he really didn't know enough about it to make an informed decision as to whether it made sense and also how it would impact his character's outlook and world-view. That's a fair assessment - I did get a bit more caught up in things like what color robes the priests would wear versus things as basic as how a member of that religion might view the government, the poor, the rich, adventuring and looting, non-believers, etc.

The Book of the Righteous is something that really could have helped me when crafting the faiths of my world. It presents a single encompassing mythology, which you can either adopt as-is, modify, or completely ignore. There are guidelines throughout the book for taking each approach. The meat of the book is actually descriptions of the major churches of this faith, which follow a pattern of being associated with typical fantasy gods - e.g., god of strength, god of justice, god of death, etc. But they are presented in very colorful and intriguing ways, and in each description it provides full details on things such as the myths, associations, alignment, representatives, purpose, and servants of the deity. It also covers the structure of the deity's church, including the doctrine, common prayers, holy days, saints, the deity's view of its church, and preferred weapons. Lastly, it cover the holy orders of each deity, including its clerics, holy warriors, and (because it is 3rd Edition, after all), Prestige Classes.

The authors describe the book as essentially being a campaign setting that is all about religion, but one that's written in such a way that it can easily be incorporated into an existing campaign world. This is a large undertaking, but for the most part, it does work that way. There is a ton of detail behind the various churches in this book, but plenty of guidance to help you modify things to mesh with your existing campaign world, especially if you follow a traditional fantasy polytheistic approach to religion. 

In addition to covering each of the deities, the book also presents an interesting concept at the very beginning - the "Great Church." This is an over-arching church structure that incorporates the entire mythology but doesn't focus on worshiping just one particular deity. It could easily be used as a pattern for a medieval Western European monotheistic religion, and one thing I really liked about it is that its Prestige Class is a "Deacon" which is more of an aristocratic leader versus a spell-casting cleric. In fact, Deacons don't even require spell-casting to qualify for the class, nor do they gain spell-casting abilities.

There is also a discussion on incorporating "The Old Gods" which are ancient gods that are more "elemental" in nature (air, earth, water, the "tree of life," and the creator). Each of these, like the other deities in the book, includes same detail in terms of the myths and purpose, details on the church structure, and the different holy orders associated with that deity.

There's a ton of great content in here and it's very easily modified, adapted, or expanded upon, and very little of it has game mechanics - there are mentions in the sections on the holy orders for how you modify a cleric or paladin's (called "holy warriors" in this book) powers to swap them out for things that are more appropriate to the deity in question, but it's minimal. For example, in one of the chapters covering the clerics of the goddess Zheenkeef (goddess of wine, madness, and inspiration), it just mentions which domains those clerics can pick from, when during the day they would pray for their spells, and what alignment they can be. That's it. Nothing too fiddly. The game mechanics in the section on the holy warriors (paladins) of Zheenkeef are limited to: what domains they can choose from, additional class skills they receive, two powers they swap out in place of "remove disease" of a standard paladin, what spells they can choose from, what animals they can choose from for their celestial mount/animal companion, and their "code of conduct" (which isn't mechanics - it's just flavor). Again, there aren't a lot of mechanics here in the majority of the book. Obviously the Prestige Classes do include more mechanics behind them, but you can easily just read the background/introduction to the class to get the idea of what it's about, and then decide how to apply that for your particular system. In a "rules light" version of D&D, like B/X or 1st, you'd just role-play the differences with no mechanical benefits (or maybe swapping out a a higher level ability or two) and call it good.

After the presentation of the churches, which take us through more than half the book, there's a chapter on "Putting Faith in Your Evil" which talks about the structure of evil faiths, gods, and cults. It's a short but interesting chapter.

This is followed by "Campaigning" which provides ideas on alignment, geographically integrating your faiths into your campaign world, adventure hooks, evil races, and heretical teachings and blasphemy. This is all great information that is most often overlooked when presenting fantasy religions for campaign worlds.

Then there is a chapter called "Do It Yourself," which covers how to design your own mythology from scratch. It covers such topics as Cosmological Implications, Names, Complete Religions (things like "The Past Returns" and "Friendly Foreign Culture" all the way to "Gods From Another Dimension"), Single Gods, Racial Gods, Altering the Churches, and Altering the Mythology and the consequences of doing so.

Then we get to the mechanics of 3rd Edition with Chapter 11, called "Additional Rules." This section is only 33 pages long, representing only slightly more than 10% of the entire contents of the book. It covers a new class, the "Holy Warrior" which is basically a paladin but one that swaps out different class skills, preferred weapons, and class abilities (such as remove disease, lay-on-hands, and mounts) for different abilities based on the deity in question. It's a really neat solution and one that makes paladins different from each other while still maintaining the essence of what makes them a paladin. I actually used these a lot for my 3rd/3.5/Pathfinder World of Samoth Game, modifying the class abilities to fit the religions of my campaign world. The section also includes the requisite new skills and feats, new cleric domains, new spells, new magic items, and a handful of new creatures.

The appendices cover topics like "A Treatise on the Divine" which covers the creation story of the mythology and where the gods came from, and also quick reference guides for all the gods and churches presented in the book.

Anyone else pick up this book back in the day?  what were your experiences?

  • Format: Originally a 320-page hardback book with color cover and B&W interior. Also available as a PDF.
  • Where to Buy: Although the hard-cover is out-of-print, used copies are available right now on Amazon or you can also buy a PDF directly from the Green Ronin website
  • Price: The original price for the hard-back was $39.95. The PDF currently sells for $19.95.
  • More Information: The product page on Green Ronin's website describes the book and provides links to preview some images, designer spot-lights, etc. When you buy the PDF version, you also get a free 16-page PDF Update of the Holy Warrior class for the 3.5 version of D&D. The book itself was never updated to 3.5 so this is a nice bonus.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Water
Listening: "Gotta Be Love" by Joey Youngman

Monday, February 22, 2016

Victorian Era Monday: Ravenloft's Masque of the Red Death

Mondays around here are typically reserved for reviewing books, comics, TV shows, movies, or games that are focused on non-standard fantasy genres, namely Pulp/Noir and the Victorian Era. Today's entry is from Sword & Sorcery Studios: a supplement for their D20 version of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting called Masque of the Red Death.

This supplement is a D20 update of an old 2nd Edition D&D era Ravenloft supplement from TSR that took its name and loose inspiration from the Edgar Allen Poe story, but moved the time period to the 1890's and incorporated many elements of gothic horror.

The D20 version has the typical trade dress and focus on horror elements of many of Sword & Sorcery Studios' Ravenloft offerings of the time (including some really difficult to read cursive fonts that I can't stand), but what makes this stand out is the setting - a late 1890's era setting called "Gothic Earth" which is very similar to our own earth with a similar history, but one that includes magic and also the encroachment of an evil entity called the Red Death. The Red Death, as detailed in the history at the front of the book, is actually responsible for many events in world history including the fall of Rome and several different wars throughout the centuries. Standing against the Red Death are a secretive group of small qabals that have learned of the Red Death's presence that work semi-independently from each other to try to fight its influence, all while trying to maintain their anonymity lest they be discovered by agents of the Red Death.

The book is oozing with Gothic atmosphere and does a good job of updating the technology level of a typical D&D fantasy game without adding an over-abundance of rules. Of the 290 page book, less than half is reserved for rules (with the majority of those rules being descriptions of the different kinds of character roles/classes).

There are the typical D20 stats here including a look at the different classes for the setting, which include variations on the typical D&D classes such as Charlatans, Occultists, Explorers/Scouts, Parons, Physicians, Mediums, Dandies, Journalists, Mechanics, and Performers. There is a real focus on "non-combat" type classes including scientists, intellectuals, and dandies in addition to the standard soldiers, shootists, and criminals. There's an overview of new skills and feats, which (even if you don't use them for the rules) do help to give a sense of the setting. Feats with names such as Ancient Knowledge Expert, Light Sleeper, Perfect Pitch, and Pugilism, really help to describe the types of characters that would live and adventure in this setting, even if you don't use their mechanics. That is, again, one of the main themes of my blog - you can find inspiration from a variety of different sources, regardless of the system involved. Don't avoid looking at something just because you don't like its system. 

The real treat of this book for those interested in Victorian-age adventuring is a section toward the back called "A Practical Guide to the 19th Century" which, in about 22 pages, covers social classes, race relations, the role of women in Victorian society, clothing styles, health and fitness, burial customs and mourning, leisure time, inventions, literature and journalism, travel and exploration, secret societies, and codes and ciphers. Obviously you shouldn't go out and buy a 290 book to use only 22 pages, and you could find much of this information by doing online research. However, in this case, the authors have focused on those key elements that are likely to turn up in-game or could be capitalized on by enterprising players seeking to really immerse themselves in the setting.

Additionally, the rest of the book is quite good. The alternative history that incorporates the Red Death throughout major world events is an entertaining read and likely to spark many ideas for your campaigns, regardless of whether you plan to use the "Gothic Earth" setting and the Red Death as presented here. There's also a nicely detailed Atlas of Gothic Earth which covers all the major continents and describes the main cities therein, providing a history and a section on the "forbidden lore" of each city.

In the Appendices, you get a fun section on the Villains of Gothic Earth, including descriptions of Dracula, Imhotep, Frankenstein's Monster, Professor James Moriarty, and more. There are also details and explanations on various "monsters," which are grouped into categories such as "Creatures of the Weird" which includes Lost Boys and Hollow, and "Creatures of the Hunt" which includes Haunt Beasts and Shadow Hunters. Additionally appendices cover Lairs of Evil and tips for creating adventures in Gothic Earth (covering topics like sources for inspiration, techniques for creating terror, developing adventure ideas, etc.).

All told, this is a very focused, detailed book for creating Victoria-era horror adventures in an alternate earth (but one that is very close to our own). It makes a great resource for standard Victorian adventure games but obviously would be very appropriate for horror-type games as well.

Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death

  • Format: 290 Hardback (also available as a PDF)
  • Where to Buy: The print version if out-of-print but you can find used copies on Amazon.
  • Price: I found a copy on Amazon for $47.69, which is a bit high. I'm sure with enough searching online at used book or game stores, you can find it cheaper. The official PDF version no longer seems to be for sale, but again, if you do an Internet search you can find it (I won't link to it here because none of them seem to be "legal").
  • System: This was created for the 3.5 Version of D&D
  • More Information: There's a Wikipedia page about the Masque of the Red Death setting here.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Water
Listening: "Barrio Beats" by Michael Tello

Saturday, February 20, 2016

My First LARP - Not What I Thought

Last weekend, I went to Orc Con in Los Angeles with my friends Cal and Jeff. Cal and I have been going to game cons in L.A. off and on for the past few years, usually to play board games but occasionally to try some role-playing, which as I noted a few months ago does not always work out.

Given what happened last time, we thought we'd just focus on board games this time. My friend Jeff isn't much of a board-gamer - he plays sometimes and is known to engage in some fierce Munchkin battles with his kids, but for the most part he stays away from the "heavier" strategy games. Cal is at the farther end of the spectrum in that he tends to prefer heavier games that have little or no luck components to them. I'm somewhere in-between, although I'm probably closer to the Cal end of the spectrum in terms of my preferences, even though I tend not to do too well at games, especially ones I haven't played before.

In any event, before we signed up for the Con, Cal mentioned that his friend Tom was going to be running a LARP and that we might want to check it out. Cal, Jeff, and I are not LARPers - Jeff and I have never done it before, and as I recall Cal has only done it once. However, at game days at Cal's house in the past, Tom has really talked up LARPing to us and mentioned his preference for it over traditional tabletop role-playing. I also learned from Cal that Tom runs the most popular LARP at GenCon every year, and since I know Tom personally I felt "safe" signing up for his LARP.

I really didn't know what to expect - everything I've read or seen about LARPs (which admittedly is not much) led me to believe that we'd be donning costumes and running around with plastic swords pretending to stab each other and using some kind of goofy codes or hand-signals to indicate what we were trying to do. It all sounded pretty silly to me, but I had to remind myself that trying to explain to novices why I enjoy tabletop role-playing probably instilled the same thoughts in them. So, I tried to approach Tom's LARP with as much as an open mind as I could muster.

As it turns out, it was pretty much like nothing I was expecting - I had a really great time and found that it was much easier to "get into character" in this fashion than it is when role-playing at the table, especially when a lot of my tabletop friends tend to playing by saying things like "my guy is going to move over here and try to hit the bad guy with his sword." In this case at Tom's LARP, everyone playing was "in character" and after a few minutes, it felt relatively comfortable. I'm not an actor by any stretch but a lot of the players, including my friend Cal, really got into it and created personalities that were very intriguing and identifiable. For the most part, I "acted" like myself with no accent or crazy personality quirks, but I did focus on my mission and make alliances with other characters and always referred to myself as my character name, etc.

The scenario was a modern-day bunker created to keep people safe from any potential disasters, which in this case was a deadly virus outbreak. The scenario's goal was to figure out how to keep the bunker's systems running and determine how best to provide food, water, and fresh air for all of the people in the bunker for as long as we'd need to stay in there. It required cooperation and matching skill-sets among characters that were mainly divided into five  broad groups: security, medical personnel, engineers, computer specialists, and "rich people with no skills" who had bought their way into the bunker.

The mechanics were elegantly simple - each character was given a score that ranged from (I think) 2 to 5 in three areas: Fighting, Talking, and "Figuring." The Talking score was used to try to influence other people and Figuring was used to solve puzzles. Whenever you wanted to try one of those three things, you told one of the GMs (Tom or one of his two friends, who had helped him create the scenario), and then you'd pull a card from a deck that included numbers from Ace (1) to 7, with heavier weighting of the lower numbers. I only saw this in action a couple of times when Cal (as chief of security) used his Fighting ability against a few people. I never witnessed anyone using their Talking or Figuring abilities, and for myself, I actually never used any of the three abilities during the game, as it didn't come up as necessary for my character's goals, but I was still able to figure things out on my own.

Each character also had skills in a mixture of Medical (Hearts), Engineering (Spades), "Manual Labor" (there was a different name for it; Clubs) and I think Technical/Computer stuff (Diamonds). My character was an emergency room surgeon so I mainly had Medical cards but I also had a few Engineering and Manual Labor cards. The numbers on the cards didn't matter in the game - you just had an envelope with a set of cards in them, and those cards were used to help "turn on" the various systems of the Bunker such as the Hydroponics Bay, the Security System, the Air Decontamination System, etc. Our main goal was to work with all 18 players to figure out which systems took priority and which ones needed to be turned on first, and then find the appropriate characters with the right skills to turn them on, and then convince those players to use their skill cards to help turn them on. Once you used a card, it was gone - you didn't get it back. Each system was represented by a series of pictures laid flat on tables around the outside walls of the room we were in, and each picture had the number of symbols of the cards it would take to turn that system on - the Medical Lab might have Four Hearts, Three Spades, Four Clubs, and Two Diamonds on it, for example so you'd have to work with the other players to get that many of each card put above that system to show that you were trying to turn it on, and then you'd tell the GM that you'd done so and they would tell you how it worked.

Each player also had a "player number" and a series of small yellow stickers, so any time he or she used a card to help start a system, he or she would also place a yellow sticker on the system and write the player number on the sticker, so that a person would know that Player 6 was trying to work on setting up the Communications System, for example.

Things got interesting for a variety of reasons. Without getting into specifics in case Tom ever runs this particular scenario again, my character was actually not really interested in getting the medical systems up and running and instead was more interested in hacking into the computer systems to find some information that would help him in an investigation. This was all background information that was given to me when Tom assigned me my character. But, other people expected me to use my "Heart" cards to help get the Medical Systems up and running so I had to be careful to make it look like I was helping. Also, the systems that I wanted to turn on were things that I didn't have the capabilities of turning on by myself, so I had to find other players with those skills and try to convince them why they should help me to turn something on that most likely didn't really have much to do with keeping us healthy and alive. All of the other players had similar things written into their backgrounds - for whatever reason, there were certain systems that each character really wanted to turn on, and they might not always be the ones that seemed obvious for their character career.

Also, there were, as you've probably guessed, saboteurs - people who could play cards to make it look like they were trying to help turn systems on but were actually sabotaging those systems. Tom had a way of how players could "mark" their cards when they did so, so that the GM would know it had been sabotaged without the other players getting wind of it.

The entire game was really about getting into character and then using your background knowledge to try to work with the other characters to create alliances and accomplish your goals - every character had a list of goals he or she should try to accomplish by the end of the game. There was actually really almost no combat at all until about the last 30 minutes (we played for three hours) and that mainly came down to people figuring out there there were too many people in the bunker for the amount of supplies, so some people were going to have to go. Things fell apart very quickly after that (in game), as you can probably imagine.

Tom and his colleagues had also spent a ton of time on the background materials and props for the game. There were "rope lights" (I'm not sure what the real name is - it's like a long, thin, clear plastic tube with green lights inside it) that were taped across the bottom of the floor to outline the room around where the tables were set up, and at a certain point the "power went out" and so we were left in a relatively dark room with only the faded green lights from the floor to light our way - it definitely added to the atmosphere of the scenario. There were also props on the table such as handouts and maps, and there were two "safes" that had codes that we had to figure out how to open (one safe had weapons, the other had documents that were important toward figuring out certain things), and they even had some costume props like lab coats, stethoscopes, camouflage shirts for the security guards, etc. These were mainly used to help the characters recognize someone else immediately - instead of having to say "where are the doctors at?" you could just look around the room and based on the costume props, figure it out pretty easily.

At the end, after we finished the game, Tom gave us all the opportunity to "tell our story" about why we did what we did so that we'd all know what each other player was trying to accomplish. This was really fun, as some of it a few of us had figured out during the course of the game, but there were a lot of characters who just weren't who they said they were or whose motives were completely different than what they had alluded to during the game.

I had a ton of fun playing through this, and I asked Tom if it was representative of all LARPs or if his was different. I can say that, if given the opportunity, I'd definitely play in one of Tom's LARPs again (but probably only if I was with my friends like Cal and Jeff), but I'm not sure if I'm ready to sign up for a LARP run by someone that I don't know. Like any kind of role-playing experience, a lot of the fun of the game is going to come from how good the GM is. Having participated in Tom's, I know that he runs a quality game, but I can see how difficult and time-consuming it would be to run one properly. After the game, a bunch of us headed to the hotel bar with Tom to chat about it and I heard some horror stories about poorly run LARPs that gives me pause.

As always, I looked at this opportunity as a chance to gain inspiration for my tabletop role-playing, and from that standpoint I gained a lot. I have a much better appreciation for "being in character" when playing now than I did before, and I also got some great ideas for using puzzles in-game with simple resolution mechanics. Also, Tom is a screen-writer by trade and so his character backgrounds were really rich and fun, and that helped expand my imagination with ideas for creating my own characters, both for myself as a player but also for when we run one-shot/finite games where I assign characters to people.

As always, I'd love to hear thoughts from my readers who have participated in a LARP before and what your experiences were like.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Coffee (black)
Listening: "Heartbreakers (DJ Edit)" by Crazy P

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Happy 5th Anniversary

Five years ago today, I started this blog with an appropriately titled blog post, "Why A Blog?" to discuss why I chose to start blogging.

As I look at my stats in terms of the number of posts I've made each year, I am a bit dismayed that if you put them into a line graph, that line would just point steadily downward over time. As I mentioned last year, I no longer have the time (or frankly, the energy) to post as often as I did when I first began the blog. However, as I did mention last year, I do think that the quality of my posts has increased. I'd like to think that most of them to provide some sort of inspirations or thought-starters for role-playing games, which is a big theme of my blog. I like writing that kind of content much better than trying to cover "geek news" which I did a bit of in my first year or two of blogging.

Here are some highlights of the blog over the past year.

The missing three months. 
 I've mentioned this a few times, but my daughter was involved in a very traumatic accident over the summer and I pretty much just disappeared from blogging while helping her recuperate. It just felt a bit weird to me to keep blogging about comics and gaming while my daughter was dealing with her recovery. Whenever I am stressed, whether from work or personal issues, the blog is one of the first things to suffer because I'm just not in the mood.

I did game quite a bit last year before my daughter's accident, with a combination of my Friday Night Labyrinth Lord hack of S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth at the beginning of the year. A month or so ago, we actually decided to put that game on hiatus for a few months and return to my friend Sean's Savage Worlds' version of Cthulhu, picking up right where we left off in the middle of Masks of Nyarlothotep. That's fun for me because it means I get to be a player, which I really enjoy.

In other role-playing news, I continued running sessions of my long-running World of Samoth game - last May saw the 14th Anniversary of that game and I commemorated it with a post that includes images from my campaign notebook. And this past October, I played D&D at a Convention for the first time ever, although it was sadly a less-than-stellar experience.

I also did quite a bit of board gaming with my friend Cal and his wife, and a few times with my friend Wil and some of his other friends. However, my board gaming is a lot less frequent than it was when my daughter was much younger. As a result, I've found that I'm actually just not as good at board games as I was even just a few years ago. I was never particularly great at the hard-core European strategy games, but I could usually end up figuring out the strategy eventually and even if I didn't win, I could think through what I could have done differently that would have resulted in a better showing. The past few times I tried a new game, however, I did pretty poorly. I don't beat myself over this kind of thing, but it's just been pretty eye opening that I've started to lose my "board gaming muscles." I'll be attending Orc Con this weekend with Cal and my friend Jeff, so hopefully I'll get some time to test out a few more games.

Lastly on the gaming front, I was once again given the opportunity by All-Around Cool Cat Random Wizard to judge the One Page Dungeon Contest, which is really a ton of fun. This past year, there were fewer judges than in 2014, but that resulted in more communication between the judges and in the first-ever Google Hangout after the prizes had been awarded so that we could all talk about why we chose what we chose, and also people could ask us questions. As luck would have it for me, just today on Twitter, Random Wizard announced publicly that I will be among the returning judges for the 2016 contest! For those who are interested, there are a lot of posts on the blog from the 2014 contest. I also wrote a post in 2015 about "Why We Need" a One Page Dungeon Contest.

I continued to read a lot of comics, although I did skip my weekly visits to the comic book store for about a month or so after my daughter's accident. Luckily I'd cut back on the number of monthly series I read - at one point I was up to 60 per month, and now I'm down to fewer than half of that, which is much more manageable. I still continue to write reviews for althought I haven't written a "full" review since the summer. I did recently attend another "Red Carpet Premiere" for ComicAttack, where I got to interview the voice-talent and crew for the new Batman: Bad Blood animated feature which came out last week. I'm transcribing my recorded interview notes and will be posting that article soon.

Here on the blog over the past year from a comics standpoint, I wrote about a very cool book on the history of the Avengers, which I reviewed for ComicAttack. In another post, I wrote about a variety of new Star Wars media that included some comics from both Dark Horse and Marvel.

One fun post I made about comics last year involved me asking the question, "Do you read comics? Why or why not?" It was intended to be a two-part series, and I finished the second part just yesterday. 

Geek Stuff. 
One thing that's really important to me as the dad of a young girl who has both "geek" interests (super heroes, Star Wars, and comics in general) as well as stuff like Disney Princesses and frilly dresses, is that girls are represented well in "geek" media and that they are given the same attention, as consumers, as boys are. I wrote a post about this last year when I'd gotten fed up by the lack of female super hero toys and comics for my daughter. This really came to a head after my wife and I took her to see the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, and in the Disney shop next door that sold all the merchandise from the movie they did not have any Rey action figures. My daughter specifically pointed it out, and it was just one in a series of things she's mentioned: "How come that poster doesn't have Wonder Woman? How come that t-shirt doesn't have any girl super heroes? Why don't they have Raven and Starfire action figures?" Things seem to slowly be getting better with Disney finally figuring out that the public backlash against them not including Rey in their Star Wars merchandising is a PR nightmare, and also with DC coming out with their new girl-oriented super hero line.

On the "general geek front," as opposed to the "Top 10" list I did at the tail-end of 2014, this year instead I did a list of some of the interesting movies, TV shows, comics, and games that I'm looking forward to in 2016 (as well as a few things I'm not all that excited about). 

I've been keeping up the Inspirations theme of the blog, most recently by starting a relatively "new column" here on Tuesdays, which is "D20 Era Reviews." The idea is that I'll be writing about some old forgotten D20-era publications that could be dusted off and mined for inspiration and ideas, regardless of what system you're playing. I started the series with a look at From Stone to Steel.

Fridays have been "reserved" for Inspirations for quite a long time. Most recently, I looked at probably my favorite post-apocalyptic book, Hiero's Journey.

Looking Ahead.
I suspect the blog will continue much as it has, albeit with me making an even more concerted effort to try to post at least once a week. I do try to use the comments as a guideline toward why kind of content people are most engaged with, but I have also noticed that a lot of people tend to comment on Google+ instead of here on the blog which makes it a bit more difficult for me to keep track of. But, it does make sense - it's more "immediate" to comment on Google+ sometimes, and I myself do it quite a bit. As always, though, I'm always open to thoughts on things people are more interested in reading about.

And Now... the Stats.
  • 8,172 Page Views. This is down a bit from the 9,319 I had last year.
  • 1.53 Pages/Session (last year: 1.58 Pages/Session)
  • Average session duration 1:44 (last year 1:52)
  • 79.56% Bounce Rate (last year 77.86%)
  • 70.92% of visitors were "new" instead of returning (75.4% last year)
  • 83.95% of the readers are from English-US readers (81.16%)
So clearly, my stats have fallen a bit but I attribute that to the less frequent blogging, so it makes sense.

One post from this past year is now my my Top 10 All Time Posts (in terms of views) - the one about New Star Wars Media, with 1,544 views total. 

Over the past month, of the Top 10 posts, six of them are older posts on the site, including things like my interview of the other One Page Dungeon Contest Judges in 2014, a review of DC's Earth 2 comic from 2013 (which is odd considering it's not even published any more), and an old favorite, The Evolution of D&D Snacks from 2011.

There's a look at the past year. Thanks, as always, for reading. I look forward to another year here on the blog, and hope to hear from you in the comments here or on Google+. Cheers!

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Sparkling cider
Listening: "Ego Spiritual" by Max Sedgely
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