Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Happy Batman Day!

I almost let the day slip by without reminding everyone that today is Batman Day, as designated by DC Comics, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the creation of the character back in Detective Comics #27.

Here's an article on CNET chatting about it - but the basics are that you can drop by your local comics shop today to pick up a free copy of a comic re-telling the origin of the character. This story actually first appeared last year in Detective Comics #27 (volume 2), an anniversary issue with a bunch of short stories by various authors at DC. The free version of the comic includes a cover featuring the image that Greg Capullo created for Batman #0 (Volume 2) from September 2012.

Here are the four masks you can pick up today
at your local comic book store.
Also while you're at your shop, you can pick up a mask featuring one of four different versions of the character (the original from 1939, the Adam West version, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns version, or the current version from the New 52). After you pick up your mask, take a picture with your cell phone and Tweet is using the hashtag #Batselfie.

Your store should also have a bunch of other cool stuff, like limited edition capes and tons of comics and graphic novels featuring not only Batman but also Robin, the Joker, and other Batman character from through the past three-quarters of a century.

DC also has a sale going on Comixology right now, with $0.99 copies of individual Batman comics and 10 different graphic novels/trade paperbacks on sale for only $2.99. But, the sale lasts for today only so make sure to head over and pick them up while you can.

Drop me a comment below to let m know how you celebrated Batman Day today. When I pick up my daughter at preschool, I'll play a selection of Batman music in the car (TV series theme, Danny Elfman theme, etc.) while we head to our local shop. After we get home, I'm considering showing her an episode of "Batman: The Animated Series." I'm just not sure which one. She just turned five on July 8th, so I think something deep like "Heart of Ice" would be a little beyond her.

Cheers, all!


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird" by Sara Gazarek

Friday, July 11, 2014

Game Inspirations Friday: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Originally when I started this particular "column" on the blog, the idea was to illustrate the myriad of inspirations I used when creating my ongoing World of Samoth campaign.

However, there's just so much great material out there, so I've put an eye toward expanding this list to just other inspirational works that could be used in a variety of different settings. My weekly comic book reviews also fulfill this objective, so I'll be focusing on works other than comics for Friday inspirations. I'm also of thinking of things that could be inspirational to youngsters, as well, and this week's entry certainly fits that bill.

Back when I was in 4th Grade, my friend Lee had Barlowe's Guide, and I would always beg him to let me look at it. It was a fascinating, almost scholarly look at various aliens from the history of science-fiction, impeccably illustrated with these beautiful, detailed paintings. The artist, Wayne Barlow, has been called the "Audubon of otherworld creatures" and that description is perfect. Interestingly enough, Barlowe served his apprenticeship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, so it's understandable how he might choose to approach illustrating some of science fiction's most famous alien life forms.

Barlowe's paintings showcase things such as an aging Athshean's mane and how it grows more silver over time, or the resting and locomotive postures of an adult Merseian. The accompanying prose describes the Physical Characteristics, Habitat, and Culture (or sometimes the Reproductive Habits) of each alien creature and does so from an "in-world" standpoint; that is, it is written as though these creatures were really alive and the reader just wanted to find out more about them, similar to simply leafing through a copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. The source material for each alien creature is listed as well (the book and/or series and the author) but other than that, no other mention is made to the aliens being fictional creations. 

As a youngster, I really just loved the paintings of the aliens and thinking about what kinds of worlds they must inhabit. At age 9 or 10, I hadn't read, or even heard of, most of the source material that Barlowe used to create his book. As I got older, I began to appreciate that Barlowe's book came out at a time when science-fiction was still a relatively "young" genre. Although many of the major milestone books of the genre, such as Dune, Foundation, and Ringworld, had been published before Barlowe's Guide hit bookshelves in 1979, the genre as a whole had been a bit "under the radar", so-to-speak, until "Star Wars" was released in 1977. At the time Barlowe's Guide came out, though, the popularization and "Star Wars-i-fication" of science fiction hadn't happened yet. As a result, almost all of the source materials Barlowe relied upon for his guide were decades old, and many of them fall into sub-genres that aren't considered "true" science-fiction any longer (e.g., H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness is represented here, which most people these days would consider more horror than science-fiction).

Barlowe's source material creates an almost de-facto "the best of science fiction" list, with many hallmarks of the genre represented: the aforementioned Dune and Ringworld, Vance's The Dirdir and The Pnume, Clarke's Childhood End, L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls... the list goes on and on. There are also some titles that truly represent the time during which they were written, such as Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

From a world-building perspective, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials was immensely helpful to me in terms of how I thought about other races and creatures in my tabletop RPGs, and Wayne Barlowe's beautiful paintings were also an inspiration for me to work on my own artistic skills at the time. This is a great book to have as a deskside reference to just flip to a random page and get some inspiration for looking at non-human lifeforms differently in your games, as well as providing a great list of classic science-fiction to put on your reading list.

Nearly two years later, in 1996, Barlowe published his much anticipated sequel, Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy. Unfortunately, it just doesn't have the charm of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. Part of the reason relates to the subject matter, as Barlowe makes the odd choice of focusing on quite a few human or very human-like characters, so the diversity of life isn't as large is it is in the Extraterrestrial book. In terms of the source material, the history of literary fantasy fiction isn't quite as developed and rich as that of science-fiction. Although there is a treasure trove of ideas from mythology, much of fantasy fiction, post-Lord of the Rings, is comprised of a lot of LOTR pastiches. Barlowe includes most of the standards you'd think of, but then makes some very odd choices (e.g., Howard's Bran Mak Morn is featured, but not Conan). Interesting, Barlowe includes the Machine-Beast from the derivative Sword of Shannara but doesn't include any creatures from Tolkein. While this might have been a rights issue, it stands out in a strange way.

The original Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, though, is a classic in its own right and serves as a great introduction to the genre of science fiction literature. As noted, I was around 9 or 10 when I first saw the book, and in that context, this would also make a great gift for a young one who is looking to expand his or her science fiction knowledge beyond Star Wars.

BARLOWE'S GUIDE TO EXTRATERRESTRIALS
  • Format: Full color hardback with 112 pages. The version I have was a reprint from 1987 and includes a Foreward by Robert Silverburg and an additional 32 pages of illustrations from Barlowe's sketchbook for the aliens featured in the book as well as of his own creation. 
  • Where to Buy: The book was out of print for a while but is available on Amazon in both hardcover and softcover versions. 
  • Price: Price varies widely based on condition and demand. Right now it looks like most "new" copies are selling for around $42+ dollars, and used copies can be had for as little as $0.55. One seller also has a "collectible" version of the hardcover, signed by the artist, in "Very Good" condition.
  • More Information: Here's the Wikipedia page, where you can get a full list of each alien and its accompanying source material.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Halo" by Depeche Mode



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Campaign Setting Idea: The Power of Royal Blood

Here's yet another campaign setting idea, this time about a world where royal blood has actual power. This follows up a short series I've been doing, including an idea for the League of Anarchist Scientists and one for a dystopian future where governments have been replaced by powerful families.

Background and Setting
In this world, those of royal blood have actual powers, like flight, telekinesis, super strength, and more. Since most countries have royal families, there's kind of a "gentleman's agreement" among them all that the royal families won't get involved in bigger world conflicts. Rather, they continue to just hold all the power while letting the common people handle things like fighting wars and so forth.

The royals guard their blood very carefully, which could perhaps explain a bit about why rumors of incest among royal family members seem to be common. They also all have different, unpredictable powers. That is, no two royals are exactly alike in terms of their powers and abilities.

Let's set this world during a major world conflict that's one of the most destructive that this world has ever seen. In fact, let's make this an alternate earth and set it during World War II during the German bombing of London. The devastation of the First World War has eroded peoples' confidence in the royal families, to the point that some of them, like the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs have been overthrown. However, in the United Kingdom, the royals still rule.

During the bombing, let's have one of the English Princes decide that he'd fed up with living off the taxes of the commoners of England and seeing his country destroyed by Nazi bombers. So, let's have him, on a whim, use his powers to join the battle and destroy a bunch of Nazi planes.

Although this action saves the country temporarily, it has severe repercussions. Let's not forget that most other countries have, or had, royal families. The Emperor of Japan has several children of his own...

What about Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Republic of the United States?  Surely there's no royal blood in these countries. Or, is there?

Characters
Obviously the campaign here would probably revolve around some of the lesser members of the royal families, but could also involve military attaches or non-powered special agents from countries with no royal blood, for example.

Given that this is all about family, we'll probably see a lot of in-fighting between siblings and also between sons and daughters and their parents in addition to the fighting between different nations. We're also liable to see long lost royalty uncovered in some countries and discover that they might not really support the current regime.

This setting is also ripe for a lot of exploration of the interactions between non-powered commoners and the super-powered royalty they are supposed to follow. There's probably a lot of questioning at best, or outright resentment and hostility at worst.

Challenges and Conflict
Of course you've got the big "everyone versus the Nazis" type of conflict, which is easy, but it's very simplistic and of course the war wasn't just about that. There were a variety of theaters and more than one Axis power. But the actual war is going to be the main conflict.

There's also the conflict described above of dealing with matters of family among the various royal houses. Impetuous children disobeying their elders and getting the royals involved in the war is going to be a major point of conflict and drama in this type of story.

And lastly, again as noted above, there's the conflict that exists between the "normals" and the royals.

To me, this sounds like a really fun setting for a supers-type game. While the idea of supers in World War II has been done before, this is a fresh perspective by taking the idea of royal blood having "powers" to the extreme and turning royalty into the world's only superheroes and villains.

As you've probably guessed, this idea is yet again from a comic book, a six-issue mini-series called Royals: Masters of War, published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. The last issue came out earlier today, which means that this entire story will most likely be collected into trade format soon. Not only is the story really well done, but the art is amazing. All together, it makes for a very interesting and evocative setting for a role-playing game.

ROYALS: MASTERS OF WAR
Format: Six monthly four-color issues, the last of which was published on 7/9/2014.
Where to Buy: As always, I strongly encourage you to buy this at your local comic book store. You can find one close to you by using the Comic Shop Locator. If you don't have one close by, you can buy a print version online at places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or you can buy a digital version to read on your desktop, tablet, or smartphone at Comixology. That link takes you to the page for the entire series.
Price: The first four issues are each available for $1.99 each on Comixology, and the last two issues are currently priced at $2.99 each.
Rated: This is for more mature people - the Age Rating on Comixology is 17+.
More Information: The official page for Royals: Masters of War on the Vertigo Comics website is here


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Mother Earth Brewing Co. Sin-Tax Peanut Butter Imperial Stout
Listening: "The Girl's Insane" by the Januaries



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

One Page Dungeon Contest: "Honorable Mentions" Prizes

My daughter in her homemade Wonder Woman
Costume, Halloween 2013. She's trying to look
"tough" to capture the Cheetah. She turns 5 today.
(So it doesn't get buried in the post: I'm offering a free RPG book to the two Honorable Mention winners of this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. Please read below for more info.)

Today is my daughter's birthday - she turns five years-old and is super excited. She has a little party planned this weekend - a "neon party" out in the backyard. My wife has been purchasing everybody garishly colored neon shirts to wear, but of course I have something completely different and thematically appropriate to my own personal tastes.

Recently my friends came over to play another session of my World of Samoth campaign. We've been continuing to play despite my lack of updates about it here on the blog. My daughter was home when the gang came over and entertained herself with books, her Leap-pad, and movies, but also asked a bit about Dungeons & Dragons and said that she wished she was old enough to play. This got me to thinking about running a game for her and a few of her friends, which I'm going to try to set up soon.

And all of that got me to thinking that during my judging for this year's One Page Dungeon Contest, I remembered seeing two entries that were clearly written by young people. One of them, Gwendolyn A. Potter's "Ponies Candy Square Dungeon" had a cute introduction written by her dad, wherein he identified that the "Tiny Tyrant" was age six, and that she demanded to be able to make a dungeon for the contest her dad was entering. Her dad took dictation and wrote out the dungeon word-for-word, and it's really quite charming.

The other dungeon, "Magic Dungeon" is by Sadhbh Brennan and includes a very colorful map with some hand-written descriptions such as "Tower full of statues coming to... life."

I was very impressed that these youngsters chose to enter the contest and come up with their own dungeon designs, and I had actually emailed the contest coordinator, Random Wizard, to ask if we could award some sort of "honorable mention" status, which did end up happening. You can see the full list of the winners here, including these two dungeons called out for special honorable mentions.

While that's really nice, as I thought about my own daughter and trying to encourage her to use her imagination and I've explained to her how a role-playing game works and what we do when we play. And I thought I could use this opportunity of the One Page Dungeon Contest to reward these two youngsters for their creations.

To that end, through a series of circumstances, I have ended up with extra copies of the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide II and also the original Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting (the one before Paizo created the Pathfinder RPG system, so it's also 3.5 compatible). I'm offering Gwendolyn and Sadhbh each one of the books as a reward (including shipping) for their work and to encourage them to keep at it. I want them to understand that their creativity was recognized by the other judges and myself.

I have Gwendolyn's dad's email address, as he put it on the submission, but if anyone knows how to get in touch with Sadhbh's parents, please have them contact me on Twitter, Facebook, G+ (links to all over at the side) or to email me using gmail and the name samothdm.

Here's a bit about the two books - I'm hoping that they'll each want a different book. Otherwise, I'll flip a coin.

The Dungeon Masters Guide II for the 3.5 system is really less about mechanics and more about running a game. It includes chapters on things like knowing your players and their play styles, communicating at the table, modifying published adventures for your own campaign, and ideas for archetypal locations such as a battle in the sky, a burning building, a flooding dungeon, or an ice bridge. It also covers how to begin and end a campaign, using house rules or expanded rules, building cities, and more. There are also some really fun random tables, such as "50 Rumors and Hooks" and "100 Instant NPC Agendas." Again, while this is a 3.5 era book, the vast majority of this book is either mechanics-free or can be easily stripped of mechanics or replaced with the game mechanics of your choice. Hardback; 288 pages.

The Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting depicts the world of Golarion, the world in which the Pathfinder game takes place. It covers about 40 different empires, kingdoms, and city-states as well as the religious pantheon common to Golarion which includes 20 different deities in addition to a variety of lesser gods, archdevils, demon lords, and more. One of my favorite parts of the book is detailed descriptions of the standard D&D races in Golarion (dwarves, elves, etc.) but also all of the world's different human ethnicities. When this book was first published, it wasn't common to call out differences in humans; they were just "humans." In this campaign setting presentation, we get 11 different human ethnicities that are all different, but with no mechanical changes to those presented in the standard rules. This isn't a book about "giving bonuses" but rather just a book of ideas to mine for your own campaign world creation, or you can just use it "right out the box" (so-to-speak). Hardback; 256 pages.

Both books are un-used and I never even cracked the bindings, as these are duplicate copies that I was given as gifts. As an added bonus, each one also has the price sticker from Border's, where they were purchased for me, and as we know, Border's is out of business so maybe these are collector's items! (Just kidding).

Hopefully Gwendolyn and Sadhbh will get some use out of these books and they will help to spark their imaginations even more, and encourage them both to enter the One Page Dungeon Contest again next year.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Hendrick's Gin Martini
Listening: "Oh My God" by Mark Ronson featuring Lily Allen

Thursday, July 3, 2014

80's TV Thursday: Max Headroom

Looks like it's the week of dystopian near-future topics, after yesterday's ideas I gave for a potential campaign setting.

Anyone remember this short-lived ABC series that was actually created by and produced in Britain?


Max Headroom aired for 14 episodes across two seasons in 1987-1988. The series was based on a made-for TV movie called "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future", which itself was created to develop a backstory for the character of Max Headroom, who was a computer-generated TV host.

Confused?

I don't blame you. But, let's just focus on the series that eventually aired here in the States. 

The World and the Premise
Max Headroom takes place in the relatively near-future, in a very odd world characterized by the majority of the populace leaving in squalor and oppression in over-crowded conditions. In this world, television networks have assumed positions of power as the true ruling class, with the actual governments in a subservient role. The show exaggerates the extent of the networks' power by inventing such conceits that there are laws preventing TVs from being shut off, and that TV sets can actually monitor peoples' physical and emotional state. In this world, the sale of TV advertisement time is a form of monetary stocks for the networks.

The importance of advertising in this world leads directly to the plot of the pilot episode, in which an investigative reporter for one of the networks, a man named Edison Carter, discovers that a new ad serving technique called "Blimpverts" is actually killing viewers.

Later, Carter along with a team of friends from the network form a sort of underground resistance movement to make public the unethical practices by the networks via hacking networks feeds to air their investigative news stories.

The Characters
Edison Carter (played by Matt Frewer, in probably his best-known role) is discovered and chased down by network employees. During his flight, he has an accident and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, eventually creating the AI character of Max Headroom (also played by Frewer). Max has none of the inhibitions of Carter, is smarmy and disrespectful, but generally a huge help to in uncovering crimes committed by the various networks.

Edison Carter is helped by Theora Jones (played by Amanda Pays, a character actor who has appeared in dozens of films and television programs since the early 1980's), a controller at the same network as Carter. The two are friends and there are hints of a simmering romantic relationship but that was never fully explored before the show was canceled.

Edison's other helpers consist of a variety of network personnel including his producer, Murray McKenzie (Jeffrey Tambor) and Ben Cheviot (the new and surprisingly ethical Chairman of Carter's network). There's also a computer hacker and tech-genius who is part of the network's research department, Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) who is the person who uploaded Carter's consciousness to create Max Headroom.

Another of Max's non-network friends is Reg, a colorful character with a 1980's punk aesthetic who prefers older music styles and printed books over electronic forms of communication. He is referred to as a "Blank," because he is not listed in any government database.

The Bad Guys
Almost all of the crimes in the series are committed within the context of corporations, mainly television networks, program distributors, and other communications-related companies.

The Ending
Max Headroom was definitely a fad that had a very short window of popularity. The initial mid-season run of six episodes was popular, but by the time it came back for its second season, the popularity of the Max Headroom character had waned and become almost a parody of itself. The second season lasted only eight episodes before cancellation and despite having been at one time the spokesman for New Coke and also hosting a short-lived interview show on the Cinemax pay TV network for a while (during which, in one episode, he famously yawned to indicate boredom while interviewing Sting), Max Headroom hasn't aged well and is almost seems to be forgotten these days.

Cultural Impact
Max Headroom was strangely prescient in much of what it portrayed in the show, with ideas such as computer hackers (and their personalities), the fading of printed media in favor of TV and digital, and the idea of people going "off the grid" (as expressed by the Blanks) to keep corporations and governments from spying on them. Additionally, the show portrayed many other cyberpunk themes, which was a relatively new science-fiction genre when the show debuted, and exposed a wider TV watching audience to the cyberpunk genre.

Any Good Ideas for Role-Playing Games?
Most of the ideas here would come from the world-building of the show and the setting they created. Much could be copied over into a pseudo-cyperpunk game, especially one that relies on a 1980's aesthetic of what the future looked like (which, oddly, matches quite nicely with the actual Cyberpunk game by  R. Talsorian Games in 1988.

With only a bit of work, a games master could probably adapt some of the plots of the actual episodes into adventure seeds for his players. 

Is It Good for Kids?
This is a relatively harmless show, but it does depict a somewhat bleak future, and portrays most authority figures as selfish at best or downright criminals at worst, including most government officials. There's some violence as well, but almost no sexual situations or other "adult content" and since it was on broadcast television in America, there was no swearing. I'd say it's probably fine for a real mature eight-year-old or an average ten-year-old or older.

I'd love to hear your memories of the show. Please drop me a note in the comments below. 

MAX HEADROOM

  • Format: 14 hour-long episodes (which work out to about 45 minutes without commercials).
  • Where To Buy: The complete series is available on DVD from Amazon. It oddly does not seem to be currently available on any of the mainstream streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. 
  • Price: The 14-episode boxed set is currently priced at $30.51 on Amazon. 
  • Rated: Not rated.
  • More Information: Here's the IMBD page for the show.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Bloodletting Go" by Tears for Fears
Drinking: Heal the Bay IPA by Golden Road Brewery

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Campaign Setting Idea: Family as Government in the Near Future

Here's another idea for a cool modern/futuristic role-playing game setting. I wrote about another idea last week called the League of Anarchist Scientists.

The Background and the Characters
For this new setting idea, let's think of it as a dystopian near-future. Through a series of major economic catastrophes and the associated wars that resulted, world governments slowly over time ceded more and more authority over to powerful Families, most of which had grown obscenely rich as the heads of companies that developed weapons and cutting edge technology in a variety of fields like medical, communications, etc.

In this new world, boundaries between lands are based on what Family rules over them. The Families, for their part, long ago agreed to divide up the world, but there are of course border skirmishes and battles over resources as well as technological secrets and advances - a sort of "corporate espionage" taken to its most extreme.

The Families refer to their members simply as "Family." They are the rulers of this world, and family means everything to them. Working with the Families are the Serfs - the servants of the families that acts as guards, police, doctors, domestic help... basically they are any kind of skilled laborers that have been granted this status by one of the Families.

Lastly, this world's version of the "99.9999%" are the Waste. These are everybody who isn't Family or Serfs. Every so often, the Families will have a special ceremony in their territory during which Serfs will travel for hundreds of miles for a chance to be "Lifted" to Serf status and make a better life for themselves and their families. Very few are chosen for this honor.

The Personalities
"Family" usually sounds like such a positive word, but in our world these Families who rule are not from the "Leave It To Beaver" mold. Patriarchs are demanding of their children, cold, and aloof at best; and are straight-up criminals at worst. Their children run the gamut from dutiful sons and daughters to spoiled heirs of privilege. Some of them are sneaking around with members of other enemy Families. Some of them are sneaking around with each other. Many of them actually hate their Families, and some of them are scared of them, but none of them would trade being part of a Family for being a Serf or worse, being Waste.

The Unique Family Member
Let's create a unique member of every Family who is part super-soldier, part protector, and part commander. They've probably been augmented by some interesting tech. In fact, they might have been augmented so much that we might not even necessarily consider them human any more. Maybe they've somehow had their minds wiped, and are conditioned to obey the commands given to them by other Family members. They're probably quick healers. They might even been extremely difficult to kill. We need a cool name for them. How about... "Lazarus." Each Family's Lazarus is unique, and they each don't know the abilities of the others.

The Challenge
The player characters are most likely Waste, living outside of the rich urban areas and instead out in the extremely depressed, poverty-stricken and crime-ridden outskirts. They are quite possibly members of an underground resistance movement who is trying to take down the Families and gain back some measure of control and self-worth. But, they don't have the resources and most of the other Waste is too scared to fight back. Perhaps they can try to infiltrate the Family by being lifted up to Serf-hood. But, the Family Lazarus seems to always be a step ahead of them no matter how carefully they plan.

The Details of World Building
Above, we talked about some cool technology that could augment humans and eventually help turn them into a Lazarus. We also talked about the economic disaster that ended the political system as we currently know it.

What if we went a  step further in our world building and researched actual current things in the news to help us really sell to the players the details of this world and why it exists? We could mention things like how a study in January 2013 concluded that the annual income of the world's 100 richest people could end global poverty four times over. Or another story from last year reporting how scientists at Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute have identified the gene responsible for regulating death (apoptosis) of steam cells. One of the lead doctors was quoted as saying, "By making cell death difficult, we may be able to improve wound healing and regeneration."

Let's take all sorts of details like this and extrapolate them to create our world.

Sound fascinating? You've probably guessed, but this is based on yet another comic book published by Image Comics, called Lazarus, written by Greg Rucka with art by Michael Lark and coloring by Santiago Arcas. This is a wonderfully written and illustrated book with a huge amount of immersive world-building, the fascinating details of which somehow don't interfere with the story which is really, when you boil it down, about the character of Forever, the Lazarus of Family Carlyle. She's a young woman trying to figure out her place in her Family and in the world in general, and her journey is very intriguing and very engaging one.

In addition to the wonderful story and some of the best art in comics, each issue also includes pieces of a very detailed timeline showing month-by-month and year-by-year how the world came to be the way it is depicted in the story, and how each family came to power. Nice touches include back-cover advertisements which at first glance appear to be actual paid ads, but which upon further study are revealed to be fake ads created for the various companies owned by the Families featured in the story. The ads are that convincing that they really almost pass for the real thing.

And then Greg Rucka wraps up each issue by including an "In the News" page, wherein he details all of the news stories he's uncovered about economic studies, medical advances, new weapons, and other technology so you can see how he's used that knowledge to improve the details in his story. Actual physicians and medical students have written in on the letters page to complement Rucka on his eye for medical details to include.

As with all of my reviews of comics, I include them on my blog not only because I have a passion for comics but also because they truly can be mined for some really great RPG settings if you're willing to give up the perception that "comics are for kids."

 I actually wrote briefly about this book in a New Comics Wednesday post almost exactly a year ago, in which I covered a handful of independent (i.e., not DC or Marvel) comics.

The first trade paperback of Lazarus is already out, with the second one to be published later in July. The latest monthly issue comes out today and I'll be picking it up at my shop in about two hours.


LAZARUS, VOLUME I: FAMILY
Format: Trade paperback collecting the first four issues. Note that I only have the single-issue copies and I understand that Image does not include the scientific facts or the timeline in the trade version, so it really is worth it to seek out single-issue copies if you can.
Where to Buy: As always, I strongly encourage you to buy this at your local comic book store. You can find one close to you by using the Comic Shop Locator. If you don't have one close by, you can buy a print version online at places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or you can buy a digital version to read on your desktop, tablet, or smartphone at Comixology. That link takes you to the page for the entire series. The trade version of the first four issues is only $9.99, but if you just want to dip your toe into the series, the first issue is available for only $0.99.
Price: As noted, the trade collection of the first four issues is only $9.99.
Rated: This is for more mature people - the Age Rating on Comixology is 17+.
More Information: The official page for Lazarus on the Image Comics website is here


Hanging: Home office (laptop) with my daughter, who is recovering from a minor surgical procedure earlier this morning.
Drinking: Just tap water right now
Listening: "Change" by Tears for Fears

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

One Page Dungeon Contest: The Other Judges Take a Turn

As a follow-up to my last post regarding my thoughts as a judge for 2014's One Page Dungeon Contest, and my advice to future submitters, I sent out a short questionnaire to the other judges involved. To date, all but two have answered the questionnaire (and the two who haven't answered yet said that they will but that they are busy putting the finishing touches on a soon-to-be-published RPG project).

I'm going to edit a bit and pick-and-choose from the answers for a few questions, especially for a few where the answers from the various judges ended up being a bit repetitive (probably a sign that my question was not all that interesting).

Note also that sadly this wasn't an "interactive" type of interview of questionnaire - as much as I would love to meet these guys at the pub and share a pint, that unfortunately wasn't meant to be. But, one of the benefits of that format is that there are no "shared answers" - none of the judges saw each other's answers. That means that for a question like "What were your top criteria for judging?" it's interesting to see how most of the judges had the same criteria (including two separate uses of the word "evocative"). That's a good sign that these are the main things to consider.

I also add a few editorial comments regarding my own judging on a few of answers below.

I started out by asking the judges,  

"Is this your first time judging the One Page Dungeon contest? What other similar contests, if any, have you judged before?"

Delta: "It's my first time, and so I wrestled with developing some criteria as I plowed through the list.. I don't usually use the one-page format myself, but this was golden opportunity to see a wide range of perspectives on dungeon design (110 entries, to be exact). It felt like a master's class in the subject, and was tremendously educational from the judge's seat."

[Editor Comments: I, too, struggled with what exactly to use for my judging criteria and then just developed my own system, which looks like what we all did.]

Steve Winter: "This is my first time judging the One-Page Dungeon contest. I was a judge for the RPG-related Origins awards for two years, and I’ve also judged the Three Castles Awards twice. That’s in addition to a few years spent sifting through the Dungeon Magazine submissions pile in search of great adventures to publish."

Brendan: "First time. I haven't judged similar contests before, but I have refereed conference papers, and this felt similar in some ways."

Sean K. Reynolds: "
This is the first time I’ve judged this contest. However, I’ve been a judge for Paizo’s RPG Superstar for four years, and I judged this year’s EN World D&D Next adventure contest..."

"What were your expectations for the contest before judging began? Were those expectations met?"

Sean: I really had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to do this. I had seen the results of some of the earlier competitions, but didn’t know there would be quite so many entries in this year’s contest. I was hoping to see a lot of fun, creative ideas that made the best of the one-page limitation, and I was not disappointed."

Steve: "Mostly I just expected to see plenty of clever, innovative adventure concepts. And yes, I’d say those expectations definitely were met."

"In general, what kinds of things stood out in this year's submissions? For example, did you notice any similar themes across entries?" 

Delta: "It was indeed interesting to see how some of the same ideas bubbled up in multiple entries. Two very young crayon-based entries was present (given special mention in the results, amusing). Two of the entries were full-on "mini-campaigns" that both ended very high in the results. Two entries had features which called for sending PCs to *other* one-page dungeons in the contest, chosen randomly. And several were systems for producing randomized or "infinite" adventures."

Steve: "...Most of the entries showed plenty of originality."

Sean: "There were over a hundred entries, and (other than a couple of them that were a little similar) I don’t recall any of them having a common theme. Some of them weren’t even “dungeons.” :)" 

"Have you used any of the ideas from the contest in any games you're currently running?"

Brendan: "I think some of the entries have inspired a few traps and tricks, though I have not had a chance to use any entries directly."

Sean: "...
some of these ideas were very inspirational and I’d love to stick something like them into an upcoming campaign."

Delta: "I made lists of specific adventures and trick ideas I could use in my own play, but I haven't actually played them out yet."

"What are the Top 3 things you were looking for in the submissions to pick a winner?"

Steve: "Qualifier #1 was a theme that either was different from what we see over and over, or was a different treatment of a familiar theme. Qualifier #2 was a map that meshed with and amplified the theme. The map didn’t need to look professionally rendered, but it needed to be the right map for that adventure. Qualifier #3 was solid writing and adventure design. I looked for adventures that a DM could print out and run as-is, not just a collection of suggestions. Ideas are cheap; everyone has plenty of ideas. Polishing those ideas into shiny gems takes talent and work. That’s what DMs are looking for."  

[Editor Comments: This last point of Steve's is very well-worded and an important one to consider. Execution of an idea, in this case, is almost as important as the idea itself.]

Brendan: "Relationships between different areas or aspects of the scenario. Evocative premise. Good non-linear maps that can support many ways of approach."

Delta: "Overall, I found myself looking for clever and coherent design, plus quick usability for the DM (readable, fully executed, etc.). Some good points would be: (a) Specific number appearing and usable stats for monsters, traps, and treasure (almost any system will do, prefer to see AC, HD, Damage); (b) Clean and readable linear text layout (ideally: map and text aligned, with area 1 at top, and last area at bottom in each); (c) More encounter areas (with detail) are better than few; (d) Usability as a pure drop-in to an existing, standard fantasy campaign."

[Editor Comments: I myself didn't look for the inclusion of stats - as long as the monsters are pretty standard fare, or I can discern how they would react in a given situation, I can adjudicate stats on the fly. But that's part of what makes this contest fun - Random Wizard did not give us any criteria for judging and instead let us pick our own criteria.]

Sean: "The top 3 things I was looking for in a submission are (1) a visually interesting and legible map, (2) a cool “hook” or premise for the dungeon, and (3) evocative or memorable room descriptions.

"For those who are thinking of entering next year, what are 3-4 things you would suggest *not* do to?"

Sean: "1) Don’t make something that isn’t actually a dungeon. The contest is called “One Page Dungeon,” and if your entry is a single outdoor encounter, you’re not aiming at the correct target. This is not to say that an outdoor area can’t be a “dungeon” (one of my top 10 entries was an above-ground ruin overrun by dangerous plants, another ), but one room is not a dungeon.

2) Don’t be satisfied with something unexceptional. Be innovative, be old-school, or both. In other words, try to make something the judges haven’t seen before. One designer’s dungeon requires you to look at it with colored filters to distinguish the two overlapping phased layers; several were mapped as vertical cross-sections of a multilevel dungeon. If your dungeon is an ice cave with frost giants, that’s been done before; spice it up with a new twist.
 
[Editor Comments: I definitely agree with Sean on his last point - there were actually a few dungeons that fit that description and could have used a bit more creativity. On the other hand, I alluded to this yesterday, but I actually didn't vote for the "colored-filter" dungeon, not because I didn't think it was creative, clever, and well-written, but because it required a lot of additional prep-work beyond printing it out and running it, and the additional materials needed for prep aren't exactly super easy to come by. I almost felt guilty not voting for it because it was really a neat idea but I think it's something that would work better as a printed product that you could buy that came with the colored cellophane already included.] 

3) Don’t introduce concepts or themes that might not be accepted at other gaming tables. One of the entries had a rape scene; out of nowhere, you're reading a room description, and there’s a rape occurring between two NPCs. Sexual violence, pregnancy, abortion, infanticide, and harm to children are a trigger for many people, and are best avoided."
 
[Editor Comments: 100% agree with Sean. I had forgotten about this one until he brought it up, but immediately upon reading it I was very put-off, not because I'm squeamish or a prude or anything like that, but rather just that there was really no reason for that to have been included - the adventure could have worked without it.]
 
Brendan: "1) Don't write 'in character' (like, this is the expedition journal of blah blah). 
 
2) Don't bother including formulaic hooks (guarding a merchant caravan, rescuing a whatever). 
 
3) Don't base the scenario on a mini-game that pulls people out of the system they are actually running. In this case, an instantiated scenario is better than a system to generate an adventure."
 
Steve: "1) Don’t wait until the last minute to get started. Rushed work stands out, and not in a good way.  
 
2) Don’t rely on 6-point type and ⅛-inch margins to fit everything onto the page. Be vicious about razoring away everything that’s not 100% necessary and 100% in line with your theme. If you don’t have space for all your encounter descriptions, then cut whole encounters until everything fits comfortably.  
 
3) Don’t go overboard with graphic design. I downgraded more than a few entries because it was a struggle to figure out the correct reading path across the page or because the text was just hard to read. Good graphic design doesn’t just make the page pretty, it makes the page easy to read. If the layout and design are making the page hard to read or understand, then they’re wrong."

Delta: "1) ...I would recommend including bare-bones D&D-style monster stats (again: at least AC, HD, Damage). Also specify their number, as well as traps and treasures. Don't say 'here is a group of very strong monsters' or 'there is a powerful NPC wizard' (that the DM must spend time selecting and designing before running the game); personally that made me to see red and immediately reject entries.

[Editor Comments: I can see Delta's point here, but this just wasn't as much of a concern for me, as I was thinking that a lot of these submissions could be used with a variety of systems; e.g., most of the fantasy-based ones could be used with OD&D, WFRP, 1st Edition AD&D, or even stuff like GURPS and Savage Worlds. So, to my mind, including monster stats probably would have used up space that could be better used for other descriptions or increasing the point size of the font so that the judges didn't have to squint to read it. :)]

2) Don't create a "randomized infinite adventure table" system. I think there were around a half-dozen in this group of entries? One did get into the finalists, but not highly, and none were on my list. This kind of work makes it hard for the prospective DM to "know what they're getting" or discern a theme (when in fact there usually isn't one)... As my college creative writing instructor told us 'it's the specific details that really sell a piece'.

3) Don't create a sci-fi piece. Now, personally, I was very open to the entries that went in this direction, but none really made the cut for me or other judges. (Paul Hughes' space-fantasy "The Great Stag" was #14 on my list, just a bit too sketchy to get in the Top 10.) I think it's just a bit too hard to reconcile these when thinking about using them in a D&D campaign or similar context (as the judges probably have on their mind when reading a series of these adventures).

[Editor Comments: As readers of my post from yesterday will note, I disagree with this point, but I see where Delta is coming from. There were some really fun and interesting non-standard fantasy submissions this year that I quite enjoyed.]

4) Don't have blatant logical gaps in how pieces connect, how traps function, etc.

[Editor Comments: Yes! Whole-heartedly agreed. There were a few submissions this year where I was left scratching my head about how it was supposed to work only to discover there was some pieces missing.]

5) Don't create just an image entirely lacking text or numbers.

6) Don't have typos or irritating grammatical errors.

"Unrelated to judging, but what are some things you're currently working on that you'd like fans to know about, and where can they go to find out more information?"

Delta: "'I'm currently working on Version 2 of my "Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells", to incorporate the last few years of play experience, and align it even more closely with the old-school game (that is, Original D&D). This summer I'm writing a "Spells Through the Ages" blog at least once a week as I go through the assessment and judging process on this particular project: at my usual blog, http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/. Plus trying to apply some lessons and become a better adventure-writer myself. :-)"

Steve: "I just wrapped up design work on the first two adventures for the upcoming edition of D&D, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, where I was writing with Wolf Baur and Alexander Winter. Currently I’m putting the finishing touches on an adventure for the D&D Organized Play program’s Adventurers League. I’ve signed on to several other assignments for the coming months that I’m very excited about, including a major Kickstarter project, but since they haven’t been announced yet, I’ll get into trouble if I say any more than that about them."
Brendan: "http://www.necropraxis.com/. Currently in progress is a sorcery supplement for old school play called Wonder & Wickedness: http://www.necropraxis.com/tag/wonder-wickedness/. I am collaborating with some other folks on this, and am pretty excited about the specifics, though I am not quite ready to announce details."

Sean: "Right now I’m writing an adventure for the (currently unannounced) next Adventure Path from Paizo, an adventure for Monte Cook Games, and a kickstarter for a Pathfinder-compatible sourcebook, working on an online class for teaching better magic item and monster design, filming a bunch of tutorial videos for YouTube on various topics (mainly game design and painting minis), as well as transferring content from my old website to my new one (http://seankreynolds.wordpress.com)."

_______________________________________________________________________________
 I'd like to thank all the judges for taking some time out to answer my questions about their judging experiences for the One Page Dungeon Contest. Not only do I feel like it helps potential future adventure designers (for the contest specifically but also just i general), it also provides an interesting glimpse into how they themselves view adventure design and what things are important when creating an adventure. 

Please let me know your thoughts below. Do you agree with the judges' criteria above? Disagree? If so, why? What criteria would you use?


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Blame It On My Youth" by Jamie Cullum
Drinking: Sierra Nevada Harvest Fresh Hop IPA
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