17 April 2011

Transparency

I'm not talking about wet t-shirts or those fancy sheets of plastic you show off on an old-fashioned overhead projector. No, I'm talking about the transparency demonstrated by a GM to his players.

I got to thinking about this last night as we were playing the last Warhammer Fantasy game I'll be able to run until we're safely nestled in our new house in Rhode Island. I've taken to making my to-hit and damage rolls in full view of the players. I'm fairly brazen about it, and I hadn't given any thought to how it might make them feel.

Let me preface this by saying: The chances of hitting, for anyone playing a first-career character in WFRP, are highly dependent on how crappy your Weapon Skill attribute is. Generally, it's pretty crappy, so unless players make liberal use of specific combat actions (which are relatively simple to incorporate), they're not going to be hitting very often. In fact, it often feels like you're rolling to miss, with the happy chance of a hit being a reason for celebration.

(Let me say that I really enjoy WFRP. Yes, starting characters are oftentimes inept to the point of comedy, but they *do* improve in the long run, and I think that's something that any player with a long-lived WFRP character can be proud of... especially when you consider the inherent lethality of the combat system.)

Keeping this in mind, I tend to make my NPC's to-hit rolls for all to see. Last night's posse of stinking, maggot-riddled zombies probably hit the players a grand total of four times throughout the entire combat. The players did manage to re-deadify the zombies in the long run, but they had to work at it... and there was much rejoicing.

On reflection, I started to wonder: Do my players actually want me to be this transparent? By making my rolls in the open, I have no recourse for fudging said die rolls. If I hit a player in his head and then roll a decapitation crit on him, there's no way for me to take it back. The player can, of course, spend a Fate point to avoid his messy and untimely demise, so there is a safety net of sorts worked into the process.

When I first started GMing games, back in... erm... well, in antiquity, I was quite attached to the GM screens I used. I hid my dice rolls, for the most part, because I knew that I'd annihilate my players if I didn't. I could fudge rolls as I saw fit, scaling back damage on lethal blows to make the fights that much more suspenseful. "Oh, wow, dude... he hit you for ten points of damage. You've got one hit point left? Sucks to be you!" And all that when my actual damage roll was closer to twenty than it was to ten.

(Another note, this one to the players I've played with in the past: Yes, I fudged dice rolls on occasion. I didn't do it all the time, only when it seemed appropriate to do so. Hopefully this doesn't ruin the enjoyment of the games we used to play (assuming you enjoyed them in the first place).)

As time's gone by, I've become less concerned with the GM screen as a method of secretly hiding my rolls. In retrospect, I think I liked using screens to hide my game notes from prying player eyes more than to hide dice rolls. Given that I tend to run my games from a laptop these days, which only I can read with any degree of clarity, the only real reason to use a GM screen is to reference the information they contain. Since I don't like rolling my dice on my laptop's keyboard, I make my rolls on the table.

But how do players feel about this sort of thing? Is it refreshing that a GM can be so open with the rolls he makes? Does it make the game more suspenseful knowing that my next roll might result in your character tripping on his own intestines? Does it aggravate you because you'd rather not know what I rolled? Or do you not care one way or the other?

Call me curious, but tell me what you think. That's what the comments are for on this here blog.

Oh, and I will get back to my dissertations on the games I want to play. As it is, I'm not really in the mood to write reams of nonsensical gaming jibber jabber after a long day at work followed by an hour's commute home. Once I'm settled in my new place, I'll definitely pick up the slack. I promise.

09 April 2011

How Many Books are Too Many?

I used to be proud of my gaming library. I had a lot of interesting books, some of them unusual, uncommon, or even rare. I still do, in fact. I find it difficult to liquidate my collection, even those games I don't play or rarely look at. I can find something cool, interesting, or amusing in every single one of them, from the art in SLA Industries to the fact that the author of Road Rebels uses the word "riffles" to describe longarms throughout the entire text of his game.

It really only hits me when I have to move. The family and I are relocating to Rhode Island at the end of the month, and this involves taking all of our stuff with us. In speaking with my moving company rep, she mentioned, "Last time, you had 110 book boxes. Do you think you'll need the same amount this time?"

"We haven't gotten that many more books," I answered. "I expect it'll be about the same amount, maybe a couple more."

As I answered her question, I felt a brief pang of guilt. A group of movers will be here in the next couple of weeks to pack, carry, and load my family's extensive library. Books are not lightweight. Yet, being as I'm closer to 40 years old than 30, I don't regret not having to move the boxes myself. I think I'll survive, just as I did when we moved from CA to VA, and from VA to MA.

Really, my primary hobby has been gaming since I was 13 years old (give or take). I bought (or conned my mom into buying me) a copy of the original Monster Manual when I was in 5th or 6th game. Little did I know at the time that I'd eventually have 4 or 5 bookshelves worth of splatbooks, core books, and hardcovers. Not to mention numerous boxed sets from the golden era of tabletop, various board games, card games, Dungeon tiles, miniatures, and a seemingly endless series of three ring binders containing game notes, characters, maps, etc.

But when does my pride in my collection give way to embarrassment at how large it's become?

People collect all sorts of things: music, movies, computer games, stamps, coins, bottles, sports memorabilia, figurines, paintings, sculptures, teddy bears, etc. Heck, I've got a coin collection (which I'm in the process of organizing) that I inherited from my grandfather, most of which consists of foreign coins that he picked up when he was in the Navy during and after World War II. But it's relatively lightweight as compared to my RPG collection.

I suppose my RPG collection would be all the larger if it weren't for my kids. When you're single, or even newlywed, and you have fewer expenses, it seems like a trivial thing to keep up with a number of game lines. As it is, I've really only kept up with D&D 3.5 and Star Wars (in its various editions) since my kids came along. Even now, both those lines are extinct, so there's not much to keep up with. I'm interested in keeping up with Dark Heresy, maybe even Rogue Trader and Deathwatch, when I've got money to spare. Which isn't often.

I guess I'm not terribly embarrassed by my book collection... but I am self-conscious about it. The size won't be growing significantly any time soon, though I suppose I'll continue to add to it when I can.

As a side note, it wasn't solely my books that filled 110 book boxes the last time we moved. My wife owns a substantial library of her own, mostly paperbacks and research books (science, history, sociology, you name it and she probably has a book on it). Who can blame us for being a literate family... besides the movers, that is?

02 April 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 3b: Horror

Continuing from my last "Games I Wanna Play" post...

Call of Cthulhu (Standard)
I want to run a Cthulhu game. I've been chomping at the bit to run one for a few months now, but it's a tough sell for some of my players. One thing about Cthulhu is the overwhelming mortality of the characters. Run in the traditional manner, PCs end up dead, insane, or both in a short amount of time. For players who devote a lot of time and energy to developing their PCs, this can be somewhat dispiriting.

To my mind, Cthulhu doesn't have to destroy characters. Not right away, in any case. In fact, a long-term CoC game could be so much more entertaining, because as players do become invested in their PCs, the fear and trepidation they experience becomes much more tangible when dealing with Lovecraftian horrors.

The nightmares that haunt Lovecraft's stories aren't the typical fodder for horror games. A lot of folks don't understand this immediately upon being exposed to the RPG. If they haven't read Lovecraft or his contemporaries, they may have a completely different idea of what the game is about. It helps if you can get them to read a story or two. I have my own favorites, such as Pickman's Model, The Colour Out of Space, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Shadow Out of Time.

Of course, if they know the fiction, they usually have a much better idea of what they're getting themselves into. Conversely, they also have certain expectations that might not jibe with my own plans or insights. So much has been written, insofar as the the RPG and the Mythos are concerned, that I don't like to be beholden to canon. This isn't to say I change things out of hand, but I do like to think I can surprise players without them having an immediate idea of what I've got in mind.

Lovecraft has never been about "cheap" scares for me. I'm not saying that CoC can't be used to tell stories that involve typical horror villains popping out of the woodwork to surprise their victims before chopping them to ribbons. At its heart, CoC is about things that are so terrible, so huge, and so hard to comprehend that they rend at your sanity before they eat you. Many times, the characters in such stories are so far beneath the notice of the creatures they encounter as to make their madness/death purely circumstantial.

All that said, I've never quite run a standard CoC game, though I've played in plenty. I wouldn't mind running a standard, "Vanilla" CoC game at some point. God knows I have access to plenty of books chock full of adventures and plot hooks, if I needed inspiration. Like as not, I'd prefer to do something wholly original to my game, though it's easy enough to adapt an existing scenario.

Though CoC is its own setting, it also has a number of eras available. These are commonly Victorian (1890's), 1920's, and Modern. I'm aware of sourcebooks that have been released that give insight into other eras, but I haven't looked at many of them. Cthulhupunk (CoC meets Cyberpunk) sounds interesting, but I'm not sure it'd be something I'd want to tackle as a GM. When it comes to CoC, I think I'm more interested in 1920's and Modern.

There's a certain awesomeness about 1920's games. You're far enough into the modern era that players have access to some technology, but not so far along that they can run roughshod over you with their cell phones, iPads, and other high-tech tools. The Great Depression adds another level of gloom to things, as does Prohibition and the organized crime associated with it. If I ran a 20's game, I'd want it to be like a cross between Road to Perdition and Of Mice and Men.

As for the Modern era, I wouldn't be able to run such a game without using some aspects of Delta Green...

Delta Green
I tell you, Delta Green did for me what no other CoC product had ever done. It took the Mythos, couched it in modern day conspiracy theory, and breathed fresh life into it. The threads were woven so skillfully, and they ran so deep. I was thoroughly inspired, so I borrowed my wife's CoC books and did some planning of my own. I called in elements of one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, namely Pickman's Model, threw in some crazy Karotechia Nazis, and shook until it was all quite frothy.

The game itself didn't last very long... heck, I was barely getting started. The best part was running the preludes, which is a technique I'd borrowed from the Storyteller system in order to give PCs more depth. The characters played law enforcement folks who'd been approached by Delta Green due to their prior experience with the supernatural. The characters included:

A DEA diver who saw something swimming in the Florida Keys while attempting to recover a load of narcotics that had been thrown overboard by fleeing smugglers;

A Border Patrol agent who was abducted by aliens, waking up three days later, hundreds of miles from his patrol route, with no memory of the lost time;

A Customs Agent whose drug-sniffing dog was inhabited by a strange, jelly-like organism which turned it into a slavering beast (which she had to kill in order to survive);

and

A DEA pilot who, while scouting the US/Mexico border in a plane with his partner, encountered strange UFO phenomenon that knocked out his plane's systems, resulting in a crash (and his co-pilot's death).

The plot that brought them together involved a number of stolen art pieces by C├ęzanne that were cropping up... pieces of art that had been stolen by the Nazis during WWII and never seen since. This led to some investigations of an avant-garde art gallery in Miami that, at the time, was showing a series of paintings by Richard Upton Pickman. The Pickman art didn't have anything to do with the overall plot, it was just set dressing, and 3/4 of the players didn't even know the significance of the paintings... but they still had to make San checks.

It was unfortunate that the game came to an end before we could really get into the meat of the plot. I guess I had a serious case of gamer ADD back in those days. I still do, but the medication seems to be working (just kidding).

If I could start a new Delta Green game, I'd probably use some of the ideas presented in the latest supplement, Targets of Opportunity. It's a particularly meaty book, with a lot of disturbing content. I'd also delve a little deeper into the way the actual Delta Green runs things, just for flavor. This means that the number of actual agents in a cell is limited, but other players would take on the roles of civilian experts and the like.

That's about all I've got to say at the moment. I might touch on this a bit more later, but for now... thanks for reading.

01 April 2011

Memories of November '09

November 2009 is important because it was the month that Electronic Arts laid me off. The proper corporate term is, I guess, "Reduction in Force," or "RiF" (pronounced "riff). It was a pretty tough time for me, as I'd never been through such a thing before. I was living in Virginia, 3000+ miles away from home, with no idea where I'd be when the money ran out. It's not as if EA hung me out to dry. The severance was fairly generous, but it wouldn't last forever.

The reason I'm reminded of my own layoff is because, just yesterday, SoE (Sony Online Entertainment) cut a substantial portion of their workforce. That's 205 people out of work and three studios shut down. I don't know any of them personally (at least, I don't think I do), but I still feel for them. On the off chance that you, dear reader, are one of the affected, please check the job listings at 38 Studios. Words cannot express how awesome this place is.

In my case, the layoff was a blessing in disguise. When it happened, I was in shock. I didn't know what to do. One of the first things was to sign up for the GamaSutra newsletter and start combing their job listings for things that might suit me. The second was to talk to a recruiter. Neither did me much good, job-wise, but it kept me busy, and gave me the feeling that I might find something eventually.

What really helped, though, was word of mouth from people I already knew. One FaceBook friend who had also worked at Mythic suggested I send my resume to 38 Studios. I'd never heard of 38, so I checked their website out. What little I read sounded interesting enough, but there weren't any positions on the job listing that reflected my skill set. I sent my resume in, anyway. It couldn't hurt... and it didn't.

Within a week, I got a call from 38's recruiter and the ball got rolling. I had a phone interview, followed by an on-site interview, followed by an offer, all before Christmas. Things were suddenly looking up for me. By February, my family and I were living in Massachusetts and I was getting acquainted with the job, the processes of a new studio, and all the people I'd be working with. Looking back on it, I'm glad EA let me go when they did.

I still miss the folks I worked with, some of whom had been let go at the same time I was, and others who were retained. I keep in touch with some of them, and they keep in touch with me. The industry is pretty small, all things considered, and I expect I'll be seeing some familiar faces as my career continues to evolve. Life will never be boring, but I hope to all that is holy I'll never have to go through that process again.

My thoughts go out to the folks who lost their jobs yesterday, and to their families, as well. I know it's hard, but I also know there will always be a sunrise tomorrow. Keep at it... get your name and your resume out there. Stay positive and don't give up. I can't promise your experience will be the same as mine, but I wish you the best.

26 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 3a: Horror

So I covered the World of Darkness in my last post, but I haven't really touched on the horror genre of gaming yet. That's where this post comes in. Now, for one reason or another, my horror library is fairly limited. I'm not sure if it's because I've never really explored it, or if it's because there's not much in the way of horror games out there (outside of the obvious titles). But even with my limited access to different horror-themed games, I tend to have a pretty extensive library of pertinent supplements and sourcebooks.

The first horror game I ever ran was Mayfair's Chill, and the only reason I bought it was because I thought the cover and graphic design were cool. Even though the system was somewhat... unique, I still loved that game (and I still do!). I had a tradition where I'd call together my gaming friends and run a Chill game on Halloween night (though it was typically the weekend before Halloween, and given the seasonal time change, we usually got an extra hour of gaming in). We'd run from just after dark until the game ended or the sun came up.

I certainly don't have the stamina for that kind of endeavor these days. I'm too old and I value my sleep too much. But damn, those were good times. But more about the specifics of those games when I cover Chill in full, below.

I was introduced to the horror genre of tabletop by a friend of mine who liked Call of Cthulhu. I wasn't all that literate in those days, and I'd never read HP Lovecraft or his contemporaries. Blasphemy, I know, but I was all of 14 or 15. I was more interested in the less cerebral aspects of gaming. You know: blowing stuff up, shooting bad guys, and looting their rapidly-cooling cadavers.

Those initial sessions (which were most often done on local bulletin board systems... that was what we had before Al Gore invented the interwebs, don't you know) piqued my curiosity, but I didn't really get a true taste of Mythos horror until well after I'd met my wife-to-be. In fact, my current CoC gaming library is comprised, in large part, of books that she brought into our marriage.

My wife ran a number of awesome CoC games in those days. I still recall with fondness the exploits (or, rather, the depredations) of Sheridan MacDonagh and his brother, Grady, as they blazed a trail of violent crime across the American Midwest; or Caleb Tucker, my intrepid G-Man, who had to "do the hopscotch" in the course of his investigations of an odd little girl that had disappeared some twenty years before. Amy doesn't run games anymore. She's far too shy to sit behind the GM screen. Maybe she'll get over her self-consciousness someday, and I'll be lucky enough to play in her games again. We'll just have to wait and see.

But enough of that. Let's talk about the games and why I'd love to run and/or play them again.

Chill
As far as horror games go, Mayfair's edition of Chill was my first true love. At the time, it was a game none of my friends had ever heard of. This meant that all the juicy bits of fluff and story belonged to me and me alone. There was no expectation from the players as to how the setting operated. For example, players with any experience with the WoD will have certain expectations about the world when playing in a Vampire game. I didn't have that baggage with Chill.

I never used the stock player organization, known as "SAVE," in my games... at least not as a player resource. When SAVE appeared at all, it was as an NPC organization, and they weren't always acting in the best interests of the player characters (more on that later). When I ran it, Chill was less about the players fighting evil than it was about the players (as everyday folks) being exposed to the Unknown.

The game was really creepy, especially given the fact that I tended to run it after dark, by candlelight, with soundtracks to scary movies playing softly in the background. The soundtracks to the Hellraiser movies were particularly effective. Plus, I seemed to have a knack for describing just enough to make the players worry, but not so much that they'd know what exactly I had in mind. Of course, I could be ascribing powers to myself that I never had, but at the time it seemed to work fine.

So every fall, I start to get that itch to drag out ye olde Chill books and run a Halloween game. I've been stymied in recent years by lack of time, lack of energy, lack of players, and (this last Halloween) by pestilence. So I'll get there someday, I just don't know when. I hope it's before I'm in the rest home, because I'd hate for my geriatric players to suffer from cardiac arrest if I still have a knack for creeping people out.

Those original Halloween games were pretty fun. Generally speaking, they involved a group of pre-gen PCs. One of the most memorable scenarios involved a group of college-age kids in Colorado, driving up to a mountain cabin for a good bit of Spring Break fun. They get up there, start to get settled in, when some scared stranger, bleeding, knocks on the door and forces his way in. He's got a gun, so they humor him. He's yelling, "Lock the doors! Board the windows! They're coming!!"

"Who's coming?" they ask.

Just then, the zombies attack. They break down the door, bust in the windows, and swarm in. The guy opens up with his pistol, but it doesn't do much good. Before long, the entire group has been wiped out.

They wake up the next day, bruised and battered and not feeling particularly well. The guy is gone, as are the zombies. It takes the next hour or two of game time before they realize that they, too, are dead. The humorous thing was, one of the kids had sustained a broken neck during the zombie attack, but he just assumed that he'd been mildly injured. So they went to an urgent care center for x-rays, which is when the doctor reveals that, wow, he ain't got no vital signs.

From there things got progressively weirder. One of the kids, who's taking psychology and parapsychology courses at their college, goes to his professor for help. The professor calls his contacts at SAVE and schedules a meeting. Little do the kids know that SAVE has already written them off, and sends a kill team in to put them out of their misery... with a LAW rocket. End of game.

But it was a fun ride, anyway.

There were other games, too. Like the one based on the novel The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon. It's about a U-Boat that is buried by an aquatic avalanche caused by depth-charges in WWII. Just as the sub is going down, a voodoo priest curses it, and turns the German crew into zombies. Flash forward to the modern day, and the sub gets freed by an old underwater mine, floats to the surface, and the Nazi zombies come out to play. I realize it's all very silly when you think about it, but it was a good game anyway.

So... yeah. Someday, I'll break out those Chill books again and do another proper Halloween game, from dusk 'til dawn. Candlelight, creepy music, the whole shebang.

(To be continued...)

22 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 2: Supernatural Games

Note: If you aren't interested in my self-absorbed opinions about the World of Darkness, you can skip to the end. Otherwise, prepare for an essay (or even rant) about Vampire the Masquerade and as many of its spin-offs as I can recall.

First off, let me clarify: I'm not talking about the Supernatural RPG by Margaret Weis Productions. To my mind, "Supernatural" is a genre of gaming akin to Horror, but is instead where the players portray the monsters instead of the victims. Not that the monsters can't also be victims (in many cases, they are). More often, they're antiheroes. The games have elements of Horror, true, but the focus is usually on the loss of humanity, guilt, and/or angst derived from being a Creature of Darkness (tm).

Chief amongst such games is Vampire: The Masquerade, the original tragically hip game of Lestat-esque vampiric shenanigans. Truth be told, though, I'd explore this genre from a more traditional angle before the original V:tM was released. I was a big fan of Mayfair's edition of the Chill RPG (more on that when I talk about Horror games), and I got the idea into my head to turn my friend's character into a vampire. Without his prior knowledge, of course. It's always more fun when they're surprised, right?

Thinking back, I don't remember the specifics of the scenario, other than he lived in the middle of nowhere and a new neighbor moved in next door. It was very Jerry Dandridge/Fright Night, I'll admit, but I was younger then and not quite as aware of stereotypes. For whatever reason, Chris (my friend) ran afoul of his new neighbor, was overpowered, and then drained of every last drop of his blood.

Flash forward to Chris' character waking up in a coffin, six feet under. It'd taken some time for the whole vampire curse to take effect, and he'd been found dead, shipped home, and buried in a local cemetery. Lucky for him, the local groundskeeper heard his hammering and dug him out. Chris leaped from the coffin and made good his escape. Being hungry, he stopped by a nearby Circle K and discovered that food wasn't what he was hungry for...

We never got very far. In fact, I think we only ever played that one game, though Chris might have different recollections.

The World of Darkness
Speaking in broad strokes, the World of Darkness is the penultimate setting in this self-designated supernatural genre. I had a sort of love/hate relationship with the WoD for a while, but I've come to appreciate its finer details and do my best to ignore the more banal ones.

Vampire was really popular with a bunch of my friends, and it quickly replaced just about every game that we'd ever played. I didn't have the depth of knowledge of the setting, or of any of the fiction they were reading (Anne Rice, specifically), so it didn't have the same sort of appeal to me. I played in a few games of the original first edition, but beyond that... I was more attracted to other games and other settings.

When Werewolf: The Apocalypse (first edition) came out, my friend Chris snatched it up. It was his new pair of shoes, and he ran a few games, too. I remember them well. I remember sitting in a Burger King on San Marcos Boulevard with Chris, flipping through the book and talking over character ideas. I was his guinea pig.

Mage: The Ascension was another milestone for WW, but outside of an overarching appreciation for the content and ideas behind the game, I never really enjoyed playing it. That might be due to the games I did play, which I never found all that enthralling (and I can certainly blame the storyteller for that, I guess). As for the rules... I've always found them somewhat intimidating, given how open-ended they are. So in that regard, I'll never run Mage, but I'd certainly give playing it another shot, so long as I can find a storyteller worth his salt who's willing to run it.

I've picked up a lot of WoD books over the years, everything from Kindred of the East to Orpheus. After White Wolf canned the old World of Darkness (oWoD) and introduced the new World of Darkness (nWoD), I stopped buying their books. I didn't like what I'd seen of the new rules, and given there was no backwards (or forwards) compatibility at the time, I chose to stick with what I knew and avoided spending money I didn't have on a game line I didn't care about.

Vampire: The Masquerade
The original had some holes in the rules, but the second edition cleared most of them up, and the third edition went even further. It's funny, because it came to pass that any of White Wolf's first editions were akin to playtest copies that you had to pay for. The second editions, ultimately released in hardback, were much more polished than the firsts. I generally couldn't help myself, though... I bought the first editions. About the only first edition WW product I didn't buy was of Vampire: The Masquerade, and that was mostly because (at the time) I was sick of it.

After the release of the second edition, I came to appreciate VtM a lot more than I did initially. I also managed to pick up a slew of supplements at bargain basement prices, which helped to flesh out my collection. Working in a game store, I also had an employee discount (and it's true, more than half of my income went right back into the cash register... sad, sad days, those).

I've run a few VtM games in the past, only one of them being truly successful. The others were one-hit wonders, including a brief game set in Miami that ended just as soon as it began due to issues with players and their personal lives. It could've been good, but I have yet to revisit it. If I ever intended to run another VtM game, I'd attempt to resurrect my 1920's VtM game. Set in San Francisco during the heyday of Prohibition, it involved the forces of the Camarilla, Anarchs, and Sabbat struggling over control of 'Frisco. The players were all caitiff. Despite their clanless nature, the size of their coterie gave them a strength that no side could ignore. Plus, the '20's are a kick ass era.

I've been playing in a VtM game at work, run by my friend David. Without going into details, it's a lot of fun, and in playing I realized how much I'd missed the relatively intuitive mechanics of the Storyteller system. So the more of I've played, the more I've tossed around the idea of running my own game. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I've been revisiting my books. As it happens, though, I haven't been looking real closely at my VtM books... instead, I've been pouring over my Vampire: The Dark Ages books.

Vampire: The Dark Ages
VtDA was the game that really gave me an appreciation for Vampire. I don't know what it was that attracted me to it. Was it the fact that it wasn't set in the modern era? That the traditional factions of Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarch hadn't been established? Or was it the art and styling of the Dark Ages book? I think it was probably a little bit of everything, honestly.

I ended up running a long-term and, IMO, successful VtDA campaign. The first half involved a two-person play group, but it eventually grew to four players by the time the game was finished. The second half was a continuation of the first, but it involved a couple of the original players and two new ones. Both games were a lot of fun, and I'd love to run it again someday.

When Dark Ages: Vampire was released, it seemed somewhat superfluous to me. It lacked a lot of what made VtDA appealing to me. While VtDA was pretty open-ended, DA:V established a meta-plot that I didn't care for. Plus, the rules on paths and roads were revised in a manner than didn't resonate with me. I bought the core rules for DA:V, as well as the first couple of supplements, but I decided to stick with the original VtDA after that. I've become aware that there is a vocal group of folks out there who feel that DA:V is superior to VtDA, and that's fine with me. I'm happy with the vast amount of support that the first DA line had, and I'm not interested in upgrading to a new edition if I don't feel the old one is broken.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse
I've also been mulling over running a new Werewolf game eventually. While the first edition of the rules was rough, the overall tone of the game was much darker and less campy than the second. Despite this, the second edition's rules were a heck of a lot better, and it's easy enough to focus on the parts I like and ignore the ones I don't.

I've only ever attempted to run one Werewolf game. Being someone who is never quite willing to leave well enough alone, I had to run something that wasn't quite traditional. The premise was the the Apocalypse had happened, the world had "moved on" (in a vein similar to the world in King's Gunslinger books), and the players portrayed orphaned cubs who didn't even know the tribes they belonged to.

The PCs were raised by a crotchety old werewolf, and part of the fun was the self-discovery of it all. The players made the foundations of their characters, while I secretly chose their Tribes and gifts. Of course, one of the players was a Black Spiral Dancer. I don't remember if that ever came out or not, but the nightmares were definitely a clue as to his origins. The overarching story, outside of learning who and what they were, involved establishing a new cairn while standing against enemies, old and new.

The game ended prematurely, as many games do. I'm not sure why. I still have my notes, though, and it'd be fun to bring it back, even in the context of a short-term campaign. We'll have to see about that.

Back to the present. A few weeks ago, I was seriously considering putting together a Werewolf: The Wild West game. I pulled out my W:tWW books and started reading, and I remembered (with dawning disappointment) why I'd hated that product so much. It's so damn shallow! It'd be easy enough to run a wild west game using just the W:tA rules and a firm grasp of history. Nothing in the WW book was particularly necessary. The setting information concentrates quite a bit on the struggle between the Euros and the Native Americans, as well as the more stereotypical aspects of a "Cowboys and Indians"-style setting. No mention is made of the Civil War or its effects in any of the history (though it is giving a passing entry in the brief time line supplied with the game).

Some of the rules were utter crap, too. The rules on silver bullets, especially, made them much less useful, and were presented in a style that said, "We're not going to explain the physics of this, so you'll just have to trust us." Basically, if you could find someone to make you silver bullets, you'd pay out the nose for them, they'd be more difficult to hit with, and do less damage than regular bullets. In my own research of the topic, the bullets would be more difficult to make, but they might actually be a little more accurate at short range (due to the density of the material). They'd also deform less than lead bullets, which would probably make them less damaging than traditional ammo. But it was the way that the authors handled the topic which really got my dander up.

So, long story short, I decided that I'd avoid the wild west setting and look into other alternatives... and this brought me to my copy of Werewolf: The Dark Ages, a VtDA supplement that I'd had since its release, but never quite read in depth. Outside of the lack of an impending Apocalypse and a lack of a central threat to the Garou, the DA setting is much more appealing to me. At the moment, it's at the top of my "I Want To Run This" list. I don't have any story ideas (that I want to discuss right now), but I'll get around to it soon, I'm sure.

Wraith: The Oblivion
Wraith was another first edition WoD product that I bought, read, and immediately disliked. I can't remember why, but I think it had a lot to do with the mechanics. Much later, I ended up buying the second edition used for $10, and I found it possessed none of the problems I'd had with the original. By this time, the Wraith product line was being phased out, and I was woefully behind in supplements. Luckily, this time period also coincided with a bunch of local clearance sales, as well as a good run of the books and the aforementioned used book shelf. In a short time, and for much less than cover price, I had a nearly complete collection of Wraith supplements.

As much as I've wanted to run a Wraith game over the years, I've never been able to. I even worked out rules for converting mortals to wraiths (which I still have) which I intended to use to hoodwink my players into a game. They'd start as mortals, get involved in something terrible, die, and then wake up in the afterlife (headed for the serious strife). I'd still like to do this eventually, as I think it'd be an interesting way to explore Wraith. Maybe I'll have the chance to in the near future. The real question is, do I want to surprise my players with such a significant change? I mean, if you expected a game about mortals in the WoD, but ended up dead and ghostified, would you be upset?

Other oWoD Titles
I've done a little bit of talking about oWoD titles in general. I've got the majority of them on my shelves, but I'm not all that interested in exploring them with more than a peripheral interest.

I was initially excited about the prospect of Hunter: The Reckoning, but after I bought the book and read it, I lost interest. I was looking forward to a more detailed version of The Hunters Hunted, not a game about humans imbued with special powers who hunted down the supernatural.

Changeling: The Dreaming was another one I didn't buy on release, though I did eventually pick it up used. It didn't really appeal to me.

I do have a copy of the Mummy RPG, as well as the two previous WoD supplements for mummies. It might be interesting for building interesting NPCs and villains, but I don't think I'd ever run it all by itself.

Orpheus interested me, at least initially. It seemed like a reboot of Wraith, but with a finite limit to the depth of the game. I never picked up the rest of the Orpheus books. I might do that eventually to see where it went.

While I'd never dare to run Mage: The Ascension, I might consider exploring Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. It's the non-modern aspects of the setting, mostly. It's got a lot of neat setting material, too, and was just as good as VtDA in exploring the whys and wherefores of the Renaissance and how it applies to Awakened individuals. I mostly bought it because I felt I could leverage some of it into my Dark Ages games. That, and it was cheap.

Of course, there's Kindred of the East, which I really, really liked after I bought it and read it. It seemed to take all the interesting things about VtM, WtA, and WtO, and mashed them together into an Asian-infused supernatural game. I always felt, though, that it'd be difficult for most players to assimilate all that Eastern mysticism and mumbo jumbo. Still... it could happen. We'll have to see what I think after I review the particulars.

Last off, I only picked up Demon: The Fallen because a local game store was going out of business, and all the stock was 60% off. I got the Storyteller's kit, too, as well as the Los Angeles supplement. It might be interesting if I cared to dig into it some more, but without a Player's Guide (which goes for a lot of cash, depending on where you look) I'd be hard-pressed to seriously consider running it. Chalk it up to my feelings on the Mummy game: it'd be an interesting way to develop new and unusual NPCs and bad guys.

So, in summation (and after all that reflection and blathering), I would most like to run a Werewolf game set in the Dark Ages, or a Vampire game set in the 1920's.

Next up, I'll talk about the horror genre in general, because (dammit) I'd really like to dust of my Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green books and get down with some madness!

21 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 1: D&D

I have a pretty big gaming library. Come to think of it, "pretty big" might be an understatement. Used to be (before I had kids and financial responsibilities) I'd buy any game that caught my fancy. If it looked even mildly interesting, I'd pick it up, read it in the bathroom, and then stick it on my bookshelf. Nowadays I'm not so free with my cash. Impulse buys are a thing of the past. My money goes towards things like rent, utilities, gasoline, and food.

So despite the fact that I've really only kept up with two or three titles since I "grew up," I still possess an embarrassing collection of RPGs, many of which I've never actually played. But this rumination isn't solely about my regrets as to these long-ignored titles, but rather to the games I'd love to run or play, whether I've done so in the past or not. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, and even if the time available to me was unlimited, I doubt I'd get a stable of players with just as much free time.

Dungeons & Dragons (3.5)
I get this hankering every so often to play or run a good, old-fashioned D&D game. I can't quite bring myself to run AD&D 2nd Edition... or any prior edition, for that matter. I've come to like the options available in 3.5 too much. It may still be class-based nonsense, but it's a lot more flexible than previous editions.

I have a stack of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures, many of them geared for low- to mid-level characters, that I'd love to dust off for a short-term campaign or two. Sometimes the "kick in the door, kill the orcs, take their stuff" adventure is fun... and they can always lead to meatier, less formulaic adventures later on.

I've also been tempted to pull out some of the old settings I've always loved. Midnight is one of them. It's sort of like "Red Dawn," but instead of having the Russians and Cubans occupying your lands, it's Morgoth and the orcs. And they've been on your soil for a hundred years. A very grim setting, but there are a lot of really awesome options.

My all-time favorite setting for D&D is Dark Sun. Outside of Athas.org, there was never and official 3.5 update for Dark Sun. Well... I take it back. There were some Dungeon and Dragon articles back in the day, and they weren't bad (outside of their take on half-giants, IIRC). And the Athas.org stuff is usable, too. If I ever did it, I'd need to take a long look at the available source material and decided which version(s) to use.

For more traditional fantasy D&D, it'd have to be either Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. A long while back, before I moved to VA and started working for EA, I was running the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure, but I'd set it in Forgotten Realms. I've often thought about reviving that game with a new cast of characters. It could be fun.

Even though I contributed to Green Ronin's Thieves' World campaign setting, I've never run a game of TW (outside of a couple of sessions at conventions). Between the core setting book and the other supplements, it is such an awesome product line. It's really too bad it didn't sell better, but I guess TW fans who also play 3.5 are nothing if not a niche audience. If you like TW and you don't have the books, I suggest you check out Green Ronin's online store. Last I looked, the gift set was discounted quite a bit.

That about covers it for D&D. There are some other settings that would be nice to mess around with; the short-lived Dawnforge, for one. When I was just getting into the industry, I'd been contracted to write part of the Dawnforge monster supplement, prior to the product being scrapped due to poor sales of the core books. It's too bad; Dawnforge would've been an interesting product line. Who knows how it would've turned out if WotC had chosen it instead of Eberron?

There are others I could touch on: Green Ronin's Testament (Biblical!), Eternal Rome (Romans!), and Skull & Bones (Pirates!); Mongoose's version of Lone Wolf (which is a bit too rules light as written); and Nyambe (deepest darkest Africa).

So... that's about it for D&D. Next time I'm going to cover some other RPGs I'm hankering to try out, be they pulp, science fiction, horror, or even non-D&D fantasy. See you then!

20 March 2011

Games, Etc.

It's obvious that I need a better handle on the WFRP rules, but I'm getting there. I learn by doing, and I've only run the game three times so far. I have a comfortable familiarity, but when it comes to some specific questions, I find myself combing through the rules looking for an answer. I'm somewhat self-conscious about it, but I also had help from one of the players last night (thanks, Jason!).

All in all, I like the system. Amy made an observation that in combat, it's like you're whittling away at someone and then, suddenly, they die. It's pretty much the way it is, and the wound system makes it incredibly deadly. At the least, the potential for being seriously maimed is definitely there.

There's also the question of relatively low skill percentages, but this is mitigated by liberal use of difficulty modifiers, combat maneuvers, and the like. Let's just say that both the players and the NPCs missed a lot... except for Amy, who proved that her Protagonist is the meanest chick this side of the Rhine. And to think she was using her "crap dice" last night.

We finished the adventure. I admit, I sped through some of it, but I had assumed we'd be unable to meet again until after the move. After consulting the calendar, it looks like we've got one more Saturday available to us before the proverbial hammer falls.

18 March 2011

Tri-Tac Podcast Interview

As you know from my previous post, I was a guest of honor at TotalCon a few weeks back. While I was there, I sat down with Peter Blix Bryant, and he interviewed me. We talked about my experience in the games industry, what I've written, and what I'm doing these days. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and Peter was a very congenial host.

So, for those of you who'd like to listen to the podcast, you can check it out by following this link. Yes, it's shameless self-promotion on my part, but so what? If only one person walks away entertained or enlightened in some way, I'd be perfectly happy.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was recently revealed at PAX East. Lots of fanfare there. It's definitely brought additional excitement to the workplace. Feel free to do a search for more info if you're interested. Otherwise, just check out the Reckoning website (at its new address), or read the fanfare over at 38 Watch.

In other news, I'll be running my Warhammer FRP game tomorrow. It'll likely be the last session for a while, as we're all going to be moving to Rhode Island within the next month or two. I'll miss my friend Justin, who was one of my players when I was running games back at Mythic in Virginia. I don't know if he'll be willing to commute to the Providence area to play with us or not... I guess I'll need to ask.

I've been playing another game at work every couple of weeks, a Vampire: The Masquerade game run by my friend and co-worker, David. It's oWoD, which is just fine with me. I've never felt the need to "upgrade" to the new World of Darkness. The size of my library is expansive enough to keep me running Vampire (or Werewolf, or Mage, or Wraith) until the day they stick me in a rest home.

It's certainly brought back memories of the games we played when we were younger, unmarried, and childless, and I really have missed the game system more than I knew. I've been re-reading a lot of my old WoD books, and I'm slowly getting a hankering to run a game of my own. Dave is fine with me stepping up to the plate once he's put the last nail in our coffin.

That's about it for now. Thanks for checking in! I'll try to put more words down in the near future.

28 February 2011

TotalCon 2011

This past weekend, I attended Total Confusion (TotalCon) in Mansfield, Massachusetts. The convention was advertised as being the largest game convention in New England, and has been running for 25 years. That said, I knew that TotalCon wasn't going to be the size of GenCon or Origins, but that's just fine with me.

In my experience, every local convention has its own charms, and I was looking forward to seeing how TotalCon compared to the smaller conventions I'd attended back in California. I have fond memories of DunDraCon in San Ramone, and OrcCon, Gamex, and Gateway in Los Angeles.

I drove to Mansfield late Friday morning. It was cold and rainy, but the drive was uneventful. The Holiday Inn parking lot was packed, but I managed to score a "rock star" parking spot mere yards from the hotel's front door. I wasn't able to check in to my hotel room right away, as it wasn't ready, but I did get to meet up with a new friend, Lorien, and grab a quick bit of lunch.

The first thing I noticed was the architecture of the hotel, which is perhaps not unique to the east coast. The hotel room balconies opened onto the interior courtyard and pool of the hotel, rather than outside. The hotel's indoor courtyard smelled of chlorine as a result, which wasn't necessarily bad... just unusual to an uninitiated guest such as myself.

After eating, Lorien and I went to registration, and I picked up my guest badge (and other goodies). I've never been a guest of honor at a convention before, so I didn't expect half the bennies that were bestowed upon me. The TotalCon staff really treated me well, and I was more than happy to be there in support of their event.

With my badge in hand, Lorien and I walked over to the room where the panels would be taking place. Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask, two industry veterans from the earliest days of TSR and D&D, were talking about our hobby's history and waxing nostalgic. We sat and listened for nearly two hours, because it really was an interesting discussion. I also decided then and there that I wanted to play in one of Frank or Tim's games before I went home the following evening.

Eventually we slipped out of the discussion, as Lorien had a long drive through inclement weather ahead of her. As for me, I needed to check in at the hotel and get my room organized. I considered a nap, but it wasn't in the cards. Instead, I had dinner at the hotel's barbeque restaurant, Pike's Peak, and then spent a lot of time reading. The food was decent, though not extraordinary... I was hoping for a more Claim Jumper sort of feel, but neither the quality nor the portions were up to the standards I desired.

My first panel of the weekend, on game design, was scheduled for eight o'clock. It lasted an hour, was hosted by Peter Blix Bryant of the Tri Tac Podcast, and included the likes of James Carpio, Ben Gerber, Jeffrey Talanian, and Jay Libby. The discussion was informative and entertaining, and I left feeling pretty good about the experience. I've been on a few panels previously, all of them at GenCon, so the size of the audience was somewhat smaller than I was used to. Being a shy guy, though, I never complain about such things.

I decided to try and attend Tim Kask's next OD&D game... at eight o'clock the next morning. "Who the hell games at eight o'clock in the morning?" my wife would ask me later. Such is life. My thoughts, at the time, were that it'd be easier to crash an eight o'clock morning game than any of the other scheduled sessions, as most sane D&D players would be snuggled away in their beds.

As it turns out, five players (not including myself) showed for Tim's eight o'clock session, High in the Hellgate Mountains. The potpourri of players who attend conventions always makes such groups interesting, if not dynamic. I spent much of the initial prep time observing, but found myself piping up as time went on. As the other players would often descend into off-topic banter about things as banal as the name of the evil princess from Buck Rogers, Tim (as DM) would interrupt their "philosophical discussions" with roving groups of random monsters.

For the most part, these encounters always surprised us, regardless of who was involved in the offending conversation. It got to the point where, once we'd exhausted whatever a dungeon location had to offer us, I would immediately goad the rest of the group into moving on before they could start another inane conversation about something completely unrelated to the adventure at hand, and thereby earning another random encounter.

In the end there were no character deaths--something that surprised the shit out of me. The game lasted a little over four hours from start to finish, and according to Tim we managed to accomplish everything we'd set out to do. Maybe Tim was tired (heck, I know for a fact he was tired), or maybe we were lucky. It was a nice way to spend a few hours, especially for someone who, like me, rarely gets to play games at conventions.

It did help me to narrow down my feelings on old school RPGs, though I admit that I need a little more input before making a final determination. While there were several moments where I experienced a very strong sense of nostalgia for the old days, I really do prefer modern systems that allow for specific skills and detailed rules for various circumstances. At one point, I asked Tim if fighting with two of my daggers would have any kind of effect. He scoffed and jokingly replied, "What do you think this is? A Drizzt novel?"

And to think I work with Bob Salvatore on a regular basis... ::sigh::

After the game, I talked to Tim for a while before going on to my interview with Peter Bryant for the Tri Tac Podcast. The interview was pretty straightforward, and I have no idea when it will be available for folks to listen to. Peter estimated it could be a month or longer. I'll be sure to give a shout when it's available.

Following the interview, I limped my way over to the room where the next panel would be held. Limped, yes, for I had slipped on a sheet of ice that morning while taking my bags to my car. It wasn't the slip that hurt, so much as the impact, and I spent the rest of the day limping around like Captain Ahab. Getting old really sucks.

I propped up my injured ankle and read until people started to arrive for the panel, which was entitled "Gaming and the Media." Sharing the panel with me were Tom Vasel, Eric Summerer, and Rone Barton (at least, I think it was Rone Barton... I could be wrong). Overall, I felt like a fifth wheel. I'm not a marketing guy, and my experience with digital media--especially a lot of the newer media--is seriously lacking. The other guys, with their experience with podcasts and self-publishing/small press, were much more informed (and informative) than I was.

When it had ended, I thanked Peter, said my goodbyes to the other panelists, and went off to buy my kids some dice. I was approached by a fan of 38 Studios, a guy named Adam, who asked me how I liked working there. I told him the truth: It's the best job I've ever had. He seemed satisfied by the answer.

I'm going back to TotalCon next year, and I think I'll even run a game or two of my own. I'm not sure what I'll run yet... I've got time to think about it, after all. But despite my painful tumble in the parking lot on Saturday morning, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Special thanks to Angelia and the rest of the TotalCon staff for making it a memorable weekend.