Friday, May 29, 2009

The Orb of Xoriat

Although it took me a few weeks to read it, that was a factor more of my distractedness by other things than a commentary on the quality of Edward Bolme's The Orb of Xoriat. Orb was actually one of the better D&D fiction novels I've read, and miles above its predecessor, The Crimson Talisman. It really "gets" the Eberron vibe too... it reeks of The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca... basically the main character is a spy/assassin, who's on the lookout for a magical super-weapon that was stolen by another spy from another nation. The structure of the book is not too unlike Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal where you go back and forth from the Jackal himself and the gendarmes officer who's leading the charge to find and stop him. This book goes back and forth between Teron, an Aundairan monk, and The Shadow Fox, a Cyran spy, who's stolen the titular Orb of Xoriat.

Nobody's really a good guy. There's a megalomaniacal gnome that gets involved and becomes part of Teron's group. He, in turn, has a half-orc butler/bodyguard called Jeffers who becomes one of the most sympathetic characters of them all.

The book is fast-paced, it's an interesting twist on the fantasy genre, it's reasonably well-written, and I don't hesitate to recommend it.

The only thing it lacks, is some more development. All of the books in this "series" are within about 5 pages of each other in page-count, so I presume that a strict wordcount quota was given to the authors. And, although I won't say this much in the fantasy genre, which I believe is flooded with over-written, needlessly verbose, overly long stuff, in this case, the book felt rushed. The characters were under-developed, and the plotline raced forward leaving behind too many unfinished and unresolved loose threads. If you look at mainstream thrillers, which the structure of this book quite remarkably resembles, you'll see that most of them are longer than this book too.

This, sadly, leaves us with a book that's pretty good... but I can sense an even better book struggling to get out, but perhaps stunted by the formatting requirements of the publisher. Pity. Another aside of an observation; the scene on the front of the book never actually occurs. Those three characters are recognizable (sorta) as Teron, Praxle the gnome and The Shadow Fox, but at no point do the three of them engage in combat with ghosts. In fact, only extremely briefly are the three of them on screen at the same time at all, and when that happens, they're fighting with each other.

Anyway, I've already started on the next book in the "series", James Wyatt's In the Claws of the Tiger, which also (so far) seems to scream the Eberron-vibe really well, and seems to also be more engagingly written than much of this subset of the genre tends to be. I'm hopeful that it'll turn out well too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sabertoothed... hyena lizard?

I was poking around online for a picture of the cover of Piers Anthony's novel Phthor for a discussion online about some of the worst science fiction and/or fantasy novels we'd ever read. This one takes the cake, largely due to the minionettes, cloned women who somehow got messed up and who get turned on by rape and masochism, but who die if anyone actually loves them. Turned me off Piers Anthony for years, and I can't say that the damage was ever completely undone, because it's not like the Xanth novels were so amazing that they made up for it or anything. Anyway, this is also apparently the sequel to another novel called Chthon, but needless to say, I never bothered to look that one up and get caught up.

No, what sparked my imagination was the cover art itself, by Clyde Caldwell, who was a rather prolific cheesecake fantasy artist in the 80s whose work graced a lot of D&D products, actually.

Ignoring the very silly vaguely buglike beaked thing, and the creatures that look like ridiculous thumb-puppets behind it, we've got... the Swamp Thing, and these weird... sabertoothed hyena lizards.

Perhaps it was always the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, but I've always thought my fantasy worlds should really be other worlds; not just our world with a different geography and a few mythological creatures thrown in for fun. I could do something with those things. I could give them an interesting name, a few quirky biological habits, and find some great use for them.

Or... I could see if anyone else has any ideas they care to post here. How about it?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Swords & Wizardry

Although I'm rather explicitly not an old school gamer, I've been reading (as I said last post) Grognardia, and have therefore become somewhat more aware of the retro-clone movement, in which folks utilize the OGL to replicate the rules of older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, make the content open, and then write new material compatible with these cloned rulesets. In theory, I suppose, the retro-clone games themselves become somewhat superfluous, except as a gateway to the new material, since you could just use the old material itself outright and not need to "clone" it.

That said, and my tastes notwithstanding, I find this cover image from the OD&D (1974) retro-clone Swords & Wizardry to be really interesting, and evocative in a nice, nostalgic kinda way. Anyway, here's a quick snapshot from the website of the fine Swords & Wizardry folks,

Old school RPGs

In spite of the fact that I really don't consider myself an old school gamer at all, I enjoy reading James Maliszewski's blog, GROGNARDIA, which is a community hub of sorts for the "old school Rennaissance." Recently, he made a post in which he attempted to describe the need for a definition of "old school" as more than just nostalgia and emotion. He didn't provide such a definition, but he called out the need for one. Skimming through the comments, I think he's right. Very quickly, folks got side-tracked by what, exactly, was meant by the term. I don't know that I can add much to it, though, other than to discuss my own "old school" experiences and my own tastes today. Which, really, haven't changed much in over twenty five years, at least at a "high level." My preferred execution to get there has, of course, evolved significantly over time.

To me, old school is inseparable from a very gamist paradigm. The whole "challenge the player, not the character" concept (with which I'm not sure I agree) translated into traps, tricks and puzzles, which I very cordially dislike in my gaming. I take that back. I don't dislike it cordially at all, I flat out refuse to engage them. They literally turn me right off a game I'm playing. You never forget, in old school gaming, that you're playing a game. It's structured at all times to be a game. This leads old school gaming to resemble very little the very fantasy stories that brought me into gaming and made the concept interesting to me, so I wandered away from old school gaming back when it was still "current school" gaming, making me one of the few prodigal D&D sons I know who actually dislikes First Edition AD&D quite a bit, and its concomitant paradigm of playstyle.

Old school also means a great deal of arbitrariness. Stuff happens, most frequently, because it was the result of some die roll on some table. Old school especially means dungeoncrawling. I hate dungeoncrawling. A lot. There's no interesting narrative to be pulled out of a dungeoncrawl.

You'd think, then, that I'd be a strong supporter of "new school" gaming; narrative control mechanics, stuff like that. As it turns out, I'm not that either. I prefer narrative to be what happens in game, not something that is dictated by metagame concerns, or managed by actual mechanics. But, I can't be interested in gaming that doesn't incorporate interesting plots, interesting characters and interesting scenarios. Plots does not imply pre-crafted railroad tracks on which the players must run their course without deviation. Plot is what happens after you've played. But that doesn't mean that reviewing your play sessions shouldn't more resemble the outline of a cool story than it does the diary of somebody just wandering around doing random stuff.

I don't know what that makes me. "Middle school?" Perhaps, there is no school that applies directly to my gaming tastes. Be that as it may, I do really enjoy the discussion about what makes gaming fun to different people. For me, I think I've always approached the hobby as a would-be writer. I want my characters to feel like well-drawn literary characters. I want my games to develop plots organically that would be interesting to read if they were converted to novel format. And yet, I want it to be a collaborative effort, with the players themselves driving the plot, not the GM. I came to gaming already a fan of fantasy literature, and good fantasy literature has always been my benchmark for gaming as well. I don't care too much about tactical depth of combat in the game. I don't care too much about puzzle solving (in fact, I strongly dislike most of it) and I do care about motivations, intrigue, and social difficulty, as well as, of course, plenty of rip-roaring action.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fatal Fury Redux

It's a slow day at work; I'm just waiting for a final meeting and then I'm off to a long Memorial Day weekend, and I'm feeling rambly. So, although I think this is my third or fourth blogpost for today, I'm makin' it anyway.

Fatal Fury. I posted a link about it, I've blogged in the past about how I think it's a sadly under-rated series, perhaps unjustly overshadowed by its competitor Street Fighter and it's own SNK "brother series" King of Fighters. In particular, I think it matches up very well with Street Fighter, and in fact has iterations that closely match iterations of Street Fighter. However, it's not an exact science---Street Fighter 2 came in no fewer than five official arcade versions for example (the Fatal Fury corresponding iteration only came in two) and the titles obscure an "extra" step in the evolution of the series. Let me talk briefly about the various iterations, as I see them.

Phase 1: This is made up of a single game, Fatal Fury itself. Fatal Fury was developed by the same folks who did Street Fighter (the first game) and can be seen in a way as an evolution of that concept, just... by a different company and with different characters. In every way, although it's similar, it's an improvement. However, Capcom was also developing a follow-up to Street Fighter, and Street Fighter 2 overshadowed this game signifcantly. Probably the biggest reason for that is that not only did Street Fighter 2 have all the improvements that Fatal Fury did, but it also had a greatly expanded character selection. And Capcom were always a little better at localization than SNK anyway, so Street Fighter caught on internationally in ways that Fatal Fury couldn't ever hope to.

Phase 2: I consider Phase 2 to be Fatal Fury catching up a bit with where Street Fighter was. Fatal Fury 2 is, then, a nice analogue to Street Fighter 2, and Fatal Fury Special is almost the same thing spiritually as Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition. Or perhaps somewhere between that and Super Street Fighter 2: The New Challengers, since not only did it make the bosses playable, but it also added about four "new" characters, most of which came from the older title, yet which had to be completely redrawn and designed from scratch. This one, like it's predecessor, enjoyed phenomenal success, especially in Japan arcades, but never really scratched the shine off of Street Fighter 2.

Phase 3: Fatal Fury 3 and Real Bout Fatal Fury, despite belonging to different subseries in title, actually belong together. The sprites were redesigned yet again, and the gameplay experienced considerable tweaking again as well. From a chronological standpoint, it could be argued that these are the counterparts of the Street Fighter Alpha series, but I don't believe they were really quite there yet. The next phase is a better analog for the Alpha games at their best.

Phase 4: Once again, the sprites were all redesigned (well, most of them anyway) from Phase 3, and gameplay again picked up considerable polish. This Phase has Real Bout Fatal Fury Special and Real Bout Fatal Fury 2. (The PS only Real Bout Fatal Fury: Dominated Mind would also count, but I'm ignoring anything other than MVS arcade games and their AEG/NeoCD ports). These two games were really the apex of classic Fatal Fury gameplay; sharp, quick, polished, technical but not too much so, fun, easy to pick up and difficult to master. As well as having, arguably, the best look of the series. In fact, I'd say Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 is my favorite game in the entire Fatal Fury line-up, with the only extremely minor complaint being that I dislike the way they reskinned backgrounds to minimize workload. C'mon, a truly unique background for every fighter isn't too much to ask, is it?

Phase 5: Sadly, this is the last phase, as SNK went bankrupt as work on the sequel was underway, and when they reorganized as SNK Playmore, they focused on the core titles of King of Fighters and Metal Slug only, leaving Fatal Fury in the past. The only game in this phase is Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, which compares in many ways to Street Fighter 3. This is a very highly polished and well-done game. Although I just called out Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 as my favorite, this one isn't far behind it, and my ranking would probably be atypical for Fatal Fury fans. Sadly, this did not get bundled in the Fatal Fury Battle Archive 2 for the Playstation 2, like it should have been, but happily (for me, anyway) I have a copy of it anyway, because I bought it for the Dreamcast years ago.


I've never been overly fond of the idea of gnolls. They just don't seem to have a place in the campaign world. Hyena headed humanoids? What do you do with them?

Anyway, a picture that was part of the online Dragon Magazine article on Yeenoghu, the Demon-prince of Gnolls, made me change my mind a bit. Here's a cropped portion of it, the part which shows a couple actual, regular gnolls. This picture made me want to find a place in my settings to use them.

So, what I've stumbled upon is combining them with my militaristic hobgoblin empire, Kurushat. What if the hobgoblins worshipped a being not too unlike Yeenoghu (Yinigu, to give it some differences but still a facile familiarity. Sorta like how Clark Ashton Smith and Howard Phillips Lovecraft would deliberately spell names differently when they borrowed them from each other.) Gnolls could be "the Chosen of Yinigu"; hobgoblins who, upon undergoing a ritual, undergo a painful mutation process if they are, in fact, chosen of Yinigu (otherwise, of course, they die) they become gnolls, and are given an elite place in hobgoblin society and the military; a sort martial chaplain, or holy warrior of sorts.

To me, that's infinitely more interesting than the cliche of gnoll bandits and highwaymen.

Combining two loves

Occasionally I wonder what it would be like to combine two of my hobbies that otherwise don't intersect; Japanese anime-like superhero fighting games and roleplaying games. Street Fighter the RPG, in other words.

You may say, "but Mr. Dark•Heritage guy, there already is such a game; White Wolf published it in the 90s." You may also say, "But Mr. Dark•Heritage guy, you could also use the totally free 'homebrewed' Thrash RPG, which was specifically designed to emulate that genre."

Or you could conceivable say other things as well. I don't know that any of those games really give me the experience that I want. I've considered perhaps using Mutants & Masterminds to emulate it, and I've had some, including some game designers (If I remember correctly, Ethan Skemp, who is a Storyteller game designer most famous for his work on Werewolf, said that's what he would do to run the setting, for instance. But maybe it wasn't him, but someone else instead. Take that with a grain of salt.)

The challenge I find is that trying to emulate the specific techniques seems like a quixotic endeavor. It'll never approach actually playing the video games. Rather, it should be somewhat abstracted and suggestive, without trying to replicate the styles of the fighters in minute detail. This is where I think games like Thrash and the White Wolf Street Fighter game fail. If all you want to do is replicate the combat system in a pen and paper environment, you're better off not, really. Just fire up your console and game of choice and play it.

That's why I think Mutants & Masterminds would be a good choice. It's got just enough granularity to suggest the different perks and quirks of the various fighters without bogging you down in minutae. It also allows you to go farther afield if you want to. It allows you to create, for example, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 with Spider-man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Venom, etc. fighting against Ryu, Ken, Akuma and the rest. And you can do it without having to create house rules for various styles and moves. The system is already robust enough to suggest these differences without modelling all of the details of it.

That said; I'm still not sure how else to pull this off. I'm just rambling a bit right now, but if you've got any suggestions, feel free to let me know here. And I'm not so much looking for mechanical help as I am "what in the world do I do, assuming I set this up?"

Paleontology news

The press has been all abuzz with reports of the find of a "missing link" from the Eocene. That's all press talk. The reality is that what was found was a very primitive monkey from about 45 million years ago that is, nonetheless, not a lemur, but one of the more "advanced" clades. Because fossils of this nature are rare and usually fragmentary, this is a nice find, that advances our understanding of early primates a bit. But missing link? C'mon. Is the press going to say something that inane every time a fossil monkey is found?

Darwinius masillae, the creature under discussion (colloquially known as "Ida") isn't exactly a missing link, and the sensationalist journalism that's called it such is kinda embarrassing. As Chris Beard, a paleontologist at John Hopkins University says, "It's part of the primate family tree that is about as far away from humans as you can get and still be a primate."

That said, to call it a missing link per se isn't necessarily embarrassing. It kinda is a missing link between prosimians (lemurs) and simians (other primates). But to suggest that it's a missing link with regard to the ancestry of humans is sensationalist and silly.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fighting Games

Gabe may be the FickleGM, but I can give him a run for his money. My interests flit back and forth from several different things, and what is ascendant at any given time may change significantly. For instance, after being quiescent for many months, my interest in two-dimensional comic book-like Japanese fighting games has surged to new life again. I've spent much of the last several evenings with my Dreamcast, my Playstation and my Xbox, reliving the wonders of the King of Fighters series, the Fatal Fury games, the Street Fighter games, and even the Marvel and Marvel vs. Capcom games. I've been listening to my game soundtracks while doing other things (how geeky is it that I even have those game soundtracks, anyway? Those aren't exactly easy to track down outside of Japan, y'know.) And, I've revisited my old fan fiction website. Many, many years ago, I actually wrote a fairly lengthy Street Fighter fan fiction, and I'm actually pretty happy with how it turned out. I mean, it's old, and glancing through it now, there are all kinds of things I'd do differently, but there are many other things that I still think work very well, and I enjoy reading it again, with enough distance that it's almost as if someone else wrote it.

These days, though, as the picture below shows, I'm thinking more ambitiously. If Street Fighter is good, why not King of Fighters? Why not Fatal Fury? Why not Darkstalkers? Hey, why not all four of them mashed together? Well, because it's kinda crazy and intimidating to attempt such a massive undertaking, that's why. Yet, that's exactly what I'm doing.

Creating a coherent setting and narrative that combines the literally hundreds of characters and dozens of plotlines of these four games is going to be quite a challenge, and in order to do it, I'm going to have to not feel constrained to get every little detail right, exactly as it appears in the canon of the game from which it originally comes.

Which is OK. Which is, in fact, desireable. What would be the point of retelling a story that someone else has already written exactly as is? I'm adapting the characters and storylines, with an eye towards making them work together. After all, half the fun is telling stories in which Ryu and Terry can rub shoulders with each other, and the rest of their respective (and separate) casts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fatal Fury

I just found this site, which is a cool find for fans of old-school 2-D Japanese fighting games. It's an essay (or series of them, actually) on the Fatal Fury series. Fatal Fury really tried to be SNK's answer to the wildly successful Street Fighter series by rival Capcom, and although it struggled with some localization issues (it was always way too Japanese to really take off in North America, for instance) it did a good job of it in a lot of ways.

Today, the entire series is kinda obscure unless you're really into the genre (and even then it's mostly overshadowed by Street Fighter and King of Fighters titles) but it had some real gems. Fatal Fury Special was a credible substitute for some of the early Street Fighter 2 iterations. The last two Real Bout Fatal Fury titles were credible substitutes for Street Fighter Alpha titles. And the swan song, Mark of the Wolves, was even a credible competitor against Street Fighter 3. Despite the ancient hardware on which it ran.

Today, it's not too difficult to get most of the titles on the two compilation discs for the Playstation 2, Fatal Fury Battle Archives and Fatal Fury Battle Archives 2. However, that still doesn't give you Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, which is (arguably; I think Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 does this credibly as well) the best game in the series and one of the best games the genre itself has ever spit out. For that, you still need to seek out the obscure and expensive Dreamcast version. Which I have, by the way. And which I played for a while last night.

Anyway, in celebration of Fatal Fury, I've attached in in-game profile pic of Terry from Real Bout 2. Are you OK? Buster wolf!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Edition Wars

Every once in a while, discussion online about Dungeons & Dragons erupts into so-called "edition wars." Edition wars come in many flavors, but the most prevalent over the last year or two have to do with the release of 4th edition, and therefore are between 3e (or 3.5e) and 4e. Every once in a while, I'll get involved in these discussions, but mostly I don't too much. I don't really have a horse in either race, and I don't feel passionately about editions. Not only that, these are the stereotypical unreasonable and unreasoning flamewars rather than actual good discussion, so what's the point? Occasionally it can be fun to virtually bite someone's head off for being an imbecile online, but by and large I find that an unsatisfying venture in which to involve myself.

What I hope to do with this post, however, is to provide my non-edition wars opinion on 3e vs. 4e. A chance to have that reasonable discussion, even if it's just me blogging at myself. If nothing else, it gives me a chance to write down my opinions and make sure that they hold out under the harsh light of scrutiny.

I'm a 3e guy. 3.5, I guess. Although I wasn't really thrilled with the kinda sorta change midway through, backwards compatibility between 3e and 3.5 was a breeze, requiring little (if any) work, and the "need" to re-buy stuff I already had was very low, so I just grumbled about it a little bit to myself and moved on, basically. However, this doesn't mean that I'm a huge 3e fan, or even necessarily that I think 3e is better than 4e. To be honest with you, I don't know that it is.

Rather, what happened to my taste has little to do with any intrinsic qualities of either edition, and is instead completely defined by a few externalities. Let me list and describe them real quick.

First, the easiest. Nobody in my gaming group was interested in transitioning to 4e. What's the point of buying a new game if everyone (mostly) that I'd potentially play it with has expressly stated that they're not interested? Would have been a complete waste of money.

Second, also easy. I have a lot of 3e material. I had dabbled in the rpg hobby for years, but I never really became a big spender until 2000, when 3e came out. Prior to that, I had several Werewolf splatbooks, a few Traveller editions, Top Secret S.I., MERP, and a handful of other games, but within the first year or two of d20, I bought more RPG books than I already owned across all product lines, and then I kept buying more. I've got a lot of 3e material. Much of it, I still haven't even used. Businessmen will tell you that sunk costs are sunk, and therefore shouldn't enter into decision making going forward, but in my case, I had absolutely no need to migrate. I had a game that I'm happy with, and I've got tons of material for it, and I'm still happily mentally amortizing the expense of that edition, and can see myself doing so for years to come. In fact, it feels really good to be nearing a completion stage. There's still a few sourcebooks here and there that I missed the first time around but actually do want to own, but not very many. Within half a dozen to a dozen more purchases, my need for new material will be almost completely nil, and I can just occasionally pick up a Pathfinder Chronicles or Companion setting book for fun. You know how nice it is to be out of the buying game? It's nice. It's kinda like paying for a car. If you lease one, you're always paying. But if you buy it, at some point, you've got it paid for. And then, you're no longer making payments. It's sooooo nice.

Third, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not that much of a systems person. Several years ago, when 3e was new, and there were also Wheel of Time and Star Wars variants of the d20 game engine, I was pretty happy with them, but unsure if the system was really robust enough to cover all my gaming needs. The book that sold me was the d20 Call of Cthulhu game. Here, the game engine was used for a game that has a very different tone and feel than D&D. And… it was a great game. At that point, I think I made the decision, partially subconsciously, that I was going to stop searching for the Holy Grail gaming system that does everything I want to perfectly. D20 was good enough that I could use it for anything with predictable and reasonably satisfying results. As more and more modular rules add-ons were developed for d20, often by third party publishers, this became even more true over time.

Fourth, and related to the third, most of the really innovative changes and improvements to mechanics have already been done. 4e, even if you accept that it's an improvement on 3.5, is only a marginal, incremental improvement, not a monumental improvement. In fact, what a lot of folks I've talked to like most about 4e was the changing paradigm moreso than the actual changing rules. The idea that you can simplify opponents stats down to just what you need to run a combat, and not everything else. The idea that you can generate those numbers on the fly, even, if you need to. The idea of minions, etc. However, for me, that wasn't a new paradigm. I was already running 3.5 that way. Granted, I don't think it was the designers' intentions that I do, but there wasn't any reason why I couldn't. I think it's kinda funny in a way that a lot of people never had the thought cross their mind to whack out rules elements that were time-intensive and tedious to use, when it was obvious (to me at least) that those rules elements weren't really necessary, and that if you didn't use them, nobody would actually be the wiser.

Fifth, and this is related to the fourth, I like having a robust ruleset, but also one where I can ignore portions of it that I'm not interested in without the system breaking down. D20 is pretty consistent, which means that I can (more or less) correctly extrapolate how it should work without having to actually look stuff up and make sure. If I can make a ruling on the fly and find out later that what I decided to do is pretty much the same as an "official" ruling would be, then that system wins a few points for being robust and consistent. I've found that d20 (of the 3e stripe) passes that test. This means that I can run d20 without much prep, and without even knowing all of the rules thoroughly, as long as I understand the concepts behind their design well enough to smoothly run the game. A robust and consistent system offers this benefit, and I find that 3e does this very well. For those who find that the system is too stifling or tedious to use, I say that it's not the system's fault; you're just doing it wrong. It doesn't have to be run that way, you just have the option of doing so if you want to.

Also related, sixth, is that I like a robust chargen system. Sometimes I really understand the character I'm making, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes I only have a vague idea of who he (or she) is going to be, and going through a detailed chargen helps me to quantify and figure out who this character really is. An overly simplistic chargen is OK when I have a solid mental handle on the character, but not when I need a system to help me get that solid mental handle. Not only that, I like the more exotic options. A more fully developed, robust ruleset allows me to strike out in new directions that a simple PHB would not. It's going to be a long time before 4e is really as robust in this regard as 3e, if indeed it ever is.

So, for me, my decision to stick with 3e instead of move to 4e wasn't really based on very many qualitative differences between the systems. Basically, 4e just wasn't (and probably couldn't ever have been) sufficiently improved over 3e to overcome my inertia and indifference to changing systems.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Psionics instead of magic?

I've always got a good half dozen or so wikis in various stages of development (usually not very developed) and one of them that I've recently turned some attention to is one based on the concept of using psionics as a replacement for magic.

Because a region of Eberron does something similar(ish) I've attached a small portion of Wayne Reynolds' cover for Secrets of Sarlona, showing an inspired woman, a psionic villain, with a little bit of a quori monster behind her. But, I don't want to recreate Sarlona, I want to take this idea my own direction. Of course. I'm too much of an egotist to simply use someone else's great ideas as is, without putting my own personal stamp on them.

In requesting feedback on how to do it, I'm finding that D&D players in general have a hard time seeing the word "psionics" and not thinking "science fiction." I specifically don't want an overtly science fictiony feel to this setting; I'm just using the rules for psionics in place of magic. If it helps, consider it magic that just happens to use the mechanics of psionics instead.

I'm leaning towards making another nod (I actually do this frequently because I like some tropes and conventions of the genre) to the Dying Earth idea; the setting is an ancient, tired world, not a vibrant, young one. Civilizations are old, decadent and decrepid, people are depraved and sensualized, and the setting is, to attempt to coin my own phrase, a "romantic dystopia"---the kind of dystopia that one might actually want to visit because, hey, at least it's adventurous, dangerous and exciting rather than tedious and dull.

The Dying Earth subgenre was named after Jack Vance's own Dying Earth stories, but Clark Ashton Smith had previously charted the territory with his Zothique stories, and heck, even H. G. Wells' The Time Machine is an early herald of the subgenre. Although dark, and suffused with a sense of doom and futility as the setting may occasionally be, I want it to still be firmly sword & sorcery too; the world may end when the guttering, cooling sun goes nova, but right up until the end, life carries on, and action is the order of the day.

Anyway, anyone with any ideas for how to develop this further, feel free to drop me a line. Frankly, for this setting, I'm more working off a mechanics idea rather than a setting idea, and that's not nearly as interesting. Although I really like the mechanics idea, I'm still struggling to develop with a compelling setting in which to place it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Personal Appendix N

Because I try and keep track of stuff going around in the RPG blogosphere, I became aware of the challenge thrown out there to put down your "personal appendix N." The original Appendix N was part of the original First Edition Dungeonmaster's Guide and as such, was basically list of stuff that Gary Gygax saw as important source material for the game, either in that something was borrowed directly from it, or in that the feel, vibe or what-have-you owes a debt of gratitude to the work listed.

I made my own Appendix N as part of this challenge. Some of my entries aren't books (I've got several movies, a TV show or two, and several series of books) and many of them are not "genre." Some of them are recent, and therefore may be more reflective of what I like rather than formative. Despite that, they bring something to the table that I've seen as what I want my games to have.

Anyway, without further ado:
  • Alexander, Lloyd: The Chronicles of Prydain
  • Asprin, Robert: Myth Adventures series
  • Brackett, Leigh: "The Book of Skaith" and other Eric John Stark stories
  • Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Tarzan series, Pellucidar series, Barsoom series, and various other series and stand-alone novels.
  • Butcher, Jim: Harry Dresden series
  • Carter, Chris, et al.: The X-files series
  • Cook, Glen: The Black Company series
  • Curtiz, Michael, et. al: "The Adventures of Robin Hood"
  • Dickens, Charles: "Oliver Twist"
  • Dumas, Alexandre: "The Three Musketeers", "The Count of Monte Cristo"
  • Fiest, Raymond: Riftwar Cycle
  • Harrison, Harry: Stainless Steel Rat series
  • Homer: "The Iliad"
  • Howard, Robert E.: Conan stories, Kull stories, Solomon Kane stories, various other stories.
  • Kripke, Eric; et al.: The Supernatural series
  • Leiber, Fritz: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series
  • Leone, Sergio: "A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More", "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly"
  • Lovecraft, Howard P.: "The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath" and other short stories and novellas
  • Lucas, George, et al: Star Wars series, Indiana Jones series
  • Ludlum, Robert: "The Holcroft Covenant", "The Matarese Circle", "The Bourne Identity" and others
  • Sabatini, Rafael: "The Black Swan", "Scaramouche", "Captain Blood", etc.
  • Scott, Sir Walter: "Ivanhoe"
  • Sommers, Stephen: "The Mummy"
  • Smith, Clark Ashton: Hyperborea series, Averoigne series, Zothique series
  • Stoker, Bram: "Dracula"
  • Sturleson, Snorri: "The Prose Edda"
  • Tolkien, J. R. R.: "Lord of the Rings" and other stories
  • Unknown: "Beowulf"

The Crimson Talisman

Last night I finished Adrian Cole's The Crimson Talisman, the first book of the War-Torn series set in Eberron. I'm not exactly sure how this is a series, since I've already started the second book, and it's an all new plotline set in an all new location, with all new characters. Maybe there'll be ties, but I kinda doubt it. I'm also not sure why it's called The War-Torn, because the recent Last War (an integral part of th Eberron setting is that it's set immediately following a Great War; not unlike a fantasy version of our own World War 1 in some ways) seems to have had little effect on the plot, or any of the characters save one or two where it gets mentioned in a minor way.

In general, I am highly skeptical of gaming fiction. I've read some that wasn't bad; some was even good enough that I bought used paperback copies for a few bucks and still have them. But those are the exceptions; the original Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels, the original Salvatore Driz'zt novels. Not great reading, but at least marginally entertaining. Even so, those tend to be among the best that gaming fiction offers; stuff that's comparable with mediocre regular fantasy fiction. Sigh.

This book, sadly, doesn't change that maxim any. It's fantasy by the numbers. You've got all the plot points you'd expect, you've got all the characters you'd think you'd have, and it does a good job of showcasing the setting (arguably, it's main purpose.) As a novel, though, it's sadly lacking. Most notably, the characters never really seem to come alive. Their motivations seem forced, unwieldy and unbelievable. They're not sketched out in such a way that I find them believable, with the exception of one or two minor supporting guys. The book is certainly not a page-turner, largely because they have no charm, no chemistry, and no life. At the end of the day, you simply don't really care what happens to them. This is in pretty stark contrast to, say, Scent of Shadows that I just read, where even though I started the book skeptically, I found after a while that I simply couldn't put it down until I was done.

Other than that, the plot is cliched, yet serviceable. The writing style was kinda stilted and stiff, and several times I caught myself being pulled out of the narrative and really noticing it, and commenting to myself mentally, "what a badly written line of dialogue" for example. Rarely did it sound naturalistic, and real.

The book also failed to generate very much tension. Part of that may well be that I really didn't care what happened to any of the characters, but part of that was that these supposedly horrible entities; vampires, demons, Cthulhoid jungles, etc. never really had any bite. They just didn't really feel like threats.

In any case, I'm going to continue the series. For one thing, all four books have different authors and different characters, so for all intents and purposes, they're four only marginally related novels. But for this one, I'm left with the somewhat unfortunate conclusion that the cover art is the best thing about the novel.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Dawn of the Dinosaurs

I finished Nicholas Fraser's Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic last night. I think I mentioned it earlier, but when I first requested this book from Interlibrary Loan, I imagined that it was a children's book like Patricia Lauber's book How Dinosaurs Came to Be. Also illustrated by Doug Henderson. I was quite shocked (and pleased) to find that it is a very thick, meaty book indeed, and fairly technically written. It also was apparent that it was a general survey of life in the Triassic period, which I was even more excited about, because that period is one that is sadly poorly covered by popular literature, so you have to be able to decipher technical literature as well as piece together facts, hints and whatnot from various sources to get a good picture of life in the Triassic at all.

However, as I delved into the book, I found that it was not without a number of very disappointing features as well. The book talks a lot about sedimentology (not too surprising; that's at the heart of actual paleontological work, after all), and makes a great survey of the Triassic background. A lot of text is spent talking about Triassic climates, for example. Triassic plants are given lots of text. Triassic insect, fer cryin' out loud, get lots of attention. The same is true for fish, crustaceans, clams... you name it, it's covered.

With the exception of the dinosaurs. For a book that's titled Dawn of the Dinosaurs, dinosaurs are, surprisingly, barely and reluctantly even mentioned at all, and only when it would be really glaring to not do so. So, for example, the chapter on the Ischigualasto and Santa Maria formations make a brief mention of Eoraptor, Herrerasaurus, Pisanosaurus, Staurikosaurus and Saturnalia. The chapter on the Chinle formation talks for a few paragraphs about Coelophysis. That's really about it. There's so much that could be said about the origin and earliest radiation of dinosaurs, and Fraser, quite simply, just doesn't say it.

That could be forgiveable if he talked about some of the other large vertebrates of the Triassic, but all of the archosaur radiations are given pretty brief mention. Phytosaurs are perhaps the most frequently referenced, but that's only because they show up in all of the fossil formations, and little more is said about them than that they appear. Aetosaurs, rauisuchids, ornithosuchids, and basal dinosaurimorphs are all treated extremely lightly, when my expectations would have been that that was the heart and soul of the book. Even the therapsids and early mammals are only lightly brushed on. I was a fairly disappointed to have read the book and discovered that it talked more about insects, little lizard-like (sorta) drepanosaurs and sphenodontians, and procolophonids than it did about dinosaurs, therapsids, phytosaurs, or the other most interesting large faunal elements.

Perhaps Fraser made the assumption that he was unlikely to say anything there that readers didn't already know (which is, I suppose, fair and probably true for people like me anyway) but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.

I did learn two words, though, that I had never seen before but which he used frequently. Depauperate (which basically just means "poor" especially in regards to a paleontological formation that is lacking in specimens) and xeric, which means 'pertaining to or adapted to dry, arid environments.' I like both of those words.

All in all, I can't really recommend this book, though, unless you've done a fair amount of independent research of your own on Triassic vertebrate life; the big patterns of large, megafaunal animals is just simply not discussed sufficiently.


Well, in that interview post, I said that was Part 1, implying that subsequent parts would follow. I'm wondering, though, if I should bother. With the "re-launch" of the Scratch Factory blog, and its refocus on pulp gaming (and stuff like that) as well as the fact that I'm now also going to be a regular contributor there, it seems like that kind of discussion is more suited to that blog. So, rather than continue the interview questions, I'll bug Corey to make some DINO PIRATES related posts or something, and that'll fill the same content void that a Part 2 of the interview would have.

It's in my blogroll, but here's the direct link:

Ray Winninger's Dungeoncraft

Anyone remember that old series of Ray Winninger Dungeoncraft articles that were in Dragon Magazine the last two years or so of Second Edition?

I mean, I don't really, because I wasn't doing D&D in those years, but the Dragon Magazine website used to have them archived as online articles that anyone could come by and read. I grabbed them, cut and pasted the text into a Word document and kept them, which is good because not too long after that, the articles were pulled down.

Anyway, they've been archived in other places as plain text, and I highly recomment checking them out. Ray's GMing methodology is a very good fit for my personality and style, and I found that without codifying and putting it into words the way he did, I was doing things very similarly. His advice helped me really hone that style of GMing down to a much finer art.

That's where you can find them now. Have fun with it! I bring this up because a thought occured to me not long ago, that I'll probably post on the Scratch Factory blog later, about some of my own "Rules of Dungeoncraft." And I was reminded that I hadn't read Ray's columns in a couple of years at least. It's good enough advice that it should probably be re-read once every few years as a refresher. I find the same holds true for the GMing advice in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, which is the best chapter of that variety that I've seen anywhere.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


As well as being a generally nice guy, Wayne Anthony Reynolds (hereafter known as WAR) is one of the leading artists in fantasy RPGs today, and is possibly the most definitive artist of D&D since the WOTC takeover of the old, failing TSR offices. And although some argue with his technique, his anatomy, and his style (it's too comic-bookish!), one complaint that no one can make is that his work isn't exciting.

Personally, I'm a huge fan. I don't listen to the criticisms, and many of the things that those critics don't like are exactly the same things that I think makes WAR is so good. Not every piece of work of his is genius, but I've got a pretty nice digital collection that I've accumulated on my hard drive over the years---about 250 works, from his website, from the Paizo website, and from the WotC website mostly---and by and large, I think they rank among the most exciting fantasy art I've got.

This piece, from the Paizo website, is a pretty recent one, and it highlights his style; both the positive and the negative, and is a darn good piece of work in my opinion. Ladies and gentlemen, the mean streets of Absolom!

I take a lot of the "vibe" of WAR and really want to incorporate that into my games. I think his "vibe" is very compatible with the pulp aesthetic. It's never sitting still; always in motion, always exciting; it's action written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, BY JOVE!, it's exotic and "k3wl" characters, it's fantastic environments, it's classic and yet modern at the same time.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Roleplaying mechanics

Due to a discussion taking place on a messageboard that I frequent, I've given some thought to the desirability of "personality" mechanics, and other tools that exist to facilitate roleplaying in RPGs. Some of these mechanics have been floating around in various systems for a number of years. GURPS certainly popularized a large portion of it with its traits and flaws mechanics. The so-called Storyteller system, which billed itself as a system designed specifically for roleplaying (as opposed to merely combat and miniatures gaming) also heavily used them (by the way, I could make a whole 'nother post on whether or not Storyteller really met that goal, or if they merely wrapped that like a pretentious Christmas wrapping paper around a system that "on the ground" didn't encourage any particularly unusual or innovative behavior in its players than any other system ever did.) D&D itself has toyed with them; Andy Collins' Third Edition version of Unearthed Arcana had both traits and flaws; traits being trade-offs; you get better at one thing while getting worse at something else, and flaws being merely a way to get worse at something; but to get a free feat out of the deal.

Anyway, the guy I was chatting with is very much in favor of this type of mechanic, but the more I think about it, the more I don't really care for it. I've discovered over the years that I don't care a whole lot about mechanics. I bought into d20 in 2000 and when the d20 rendition of Call of Cthulhu was actually a very good game (and diametrically opposed thematically to D&D, Star Wars, or other offerings we'd had so far) I threw in my chips and counted myself a d20 player.

Although there are still things about the system that I don't like, I've made my peace with them and accepted that the Holy Grail system that's absolutely perfect for everything I could ever want doesn't actually exist, and I'm not even sure what it would look like anyway. The other advantages to this is that d20 is an incredibly robust system. If you need rules for something, you've probably got it out there somewhere, and it's pretty modular in how it can be used. I suppose if you slavishly adhere to ever detail of the rules, you'll find yourself quickly in over your head, but I've always seen d20 as a toolkit (remember the saying that Wizards of the Coast used to throw around in the early days of Third Edition? "Tools not rules?") and the rules as such do not trump GM adjudication. I don't need to know every detail of every facet of using, for example, the Jump skill. If I have a PC that wants to jump, I whip up a DC on the fly that seems reasonable for what he's attempting to do, and tell him to roll it. So, for me, the robustness of the d20 rules isn't a tedious hindrance, but rather a full toolkit that I can dig into to find what I need, and leave what I don't sitting there unused until I do need it.

And d20 doesn't really have any roleplaying mechanics per se. The character options are really (mostly) more about combat capabilities then they are about your actual character and personality. Alignment, I guess, passes muster, and the Traits and Flaws mentioned in Unearthed Arcana do too. My experience with using them (mostly in games other then d20, but mechanically they were more or less identical) is that roleplaying mechanics do not actually promote better roleplaying amongst players who are unlikely to be good roleplayers in the first place, and in fact lead to problems with an extremely annoying breed of metagaming and mechanical abuse.

Good roleplaying isn't something that can be mechanically enforced, and I'm skeptical of how well it can even be mechanically encouraged. If you want good roleplaying, you need to find a group of gamers who value it for its own sake and do it on their own because that's how they play, not because the system does or doesn't reward and/or penalize them for attempting it.


I just realized that my comments settings might have been keeping my blog so quiet; I had it set up so you had to have a Google account to comment!

Anyway, I've now changed that to the "default" that I've seen on most blogs; you can post anonymously, but you still need to type word verification. If I start getting spam or something, I'll revisit.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Blog updates

I added three little "What I'm Reading" gadgets there to side. What I'm Reading (Fiction), What I'm Reading (Non-fiction) and What I'm Reading (Gaming). Fun, huh? Sometimes I pick up and read a book so fast that it'll never have time to make it on the blog that way, but mostly I'm busy, and I rarely get so engrossed in a book that I read it that fast. These three have all been what I'm reading for over a week now, for instance, and the gaming book has in fact been what I'm reading for months now.

Anyway, just a heads-up. I'll still review them as I'm done in my very Spartan, not very useful review style, but at least now you can know what to expect next on the review queue.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Interview with Corey Reid of DINO PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND

Part 1

Today, I've corralled Corey Reid, a good online friend of mine, and the developer for the DINO PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND setting, to talk about, well, to talk about DINO PIRATES, gaming in general, and anything else that's cool, in an interview type format. So, let's get started! I have some memories of this myself, but for everyone at home, can you give us a quick story of the creation of DINO PIRATES? How the idea got started and what happened to it from that point to today?

First thing to say is I am NOT the creator of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. The whole idea was conceived of by a poster on ENWorld known as JPL. JPL posted a comment about the setting search that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) conducted in 2003.

Folks were chatting about their submissions, and JPL chimed in with a "Hey, I didn't submit my idea but here's what I would do:" and posted the original description of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND:

"A fantasy Asia, filled with warring island nations. Samurai mounted on domesticated raptors. Bigger dinosaurs hunted by quasi-Polynesian tribesmen. Dueling factions of shadow warriors. Privateers and bucaneers battling the servants of the Imperial Navy. Fallen kingdoms deep in forgotten jungles."

Obviously that sparked a wild and hilarious conversation, and a number of threads were spawned to discuss the possibilities of this crazy idea. Dark Jezter started up an "official" setting discussion and lots of folks contributed great ideas. Dragon Magazine printed the setting description in an editorial. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it. I spoke with JPL and asked him if I could run with the setting and try to actually develop it, and he gave his blessing. He keeps tabs on how it's going and I think he's mostly bemused that I'm still so obsessed with this idea he had.

Anyway, there was a short-lived Yahoo! Groups group but after the nine-days-wonder event passed, it became clear I would need to make this thing happen myself if it was going to happen at all.

At that time I was experimenting with a lot of game design. I'd published my Gun-Fu game, which took a lot of liberties with the d20 mechanics and which sold pretty well. I WAS planning to build a custom d20 branch, as it were, for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, but then Green Ronin came out with True20 in 2006, and it was pretty much the sort of system I'd wanted to build anyway.

So at that point I felt like I'd found the seed of the game, and I ran a homebrew campaign just to flesh the world out and see what players would want to do with the concepts. After that finished up I went on to develop some one-shot adventures and ran those at various events, especially Gen Con in 2007 and 2008. Developing the system and the adventures for those events really finalised the basic structure of the game and the setting.

So then the question of distribution had to be solved. I needed to make it possible for OTHER people to run this game, but I didn't want to go to the expense of printing a book and distributing it. I have no illusions about making tons of money at this.

I'd already developed an online rules doc for d20 Modern, so it was natural to try and do that for DPoNI. That turned out to be really helpful from a game design perspective, as the True20 forums are a total hotbed of design genius. Having the rules up online where everyone can look at them has made it possible for dozens of great designers to collaborate with me on the ruleset. I certainly couldn't have pulled all the rules together without the help of those folks.

There's still a few tweaks that need to be made to the rules, but they're fully playable now. I am now selling the first DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND adventure, SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY, over at Your Games Now, and there will be more of that sort of thing coming down the pipe this year.

So... obviously DINO PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND features dinosaurs, pirates and ninjas. And an island or two. Digging a little deeper, what do you see as the core conceits of the setting?

JPL, the original creator, summed it up pretty well:

• Dinosaurs
• Ninjas
• Pirates
• Robots
• Monkeys

I've taken it all pretty much at face value and tried to come up with a setting where all those elements can reasonably co-exist.

For pretty broad values of "reasonable", I guess.

But here's the idea:

Imagine a tropical archipelago that ranges across the south-eastern edge of a vast Empire. These islands have been home for many centuries to assorted native nations, but over the past little while, these islands have also become home to more and more pirates. These folks band together in associations much like fraternities. They took names and inspirations for their groups from the great beasts that lurked on the islands. The DINO-PIRATES.

The Empire has always wanted control over the islands, but the natives have always resisted. So there's a lot of bad blood between the Empire and the natives, who are now supported by the pirates.

And just at the moment when the Imperial forces were gathered to strike, the eunuch sorcerers who ran the Imperial bureaucracy revolted. The only significant forces that resisted were the hundreds of ninja clans, whose loyalty to the Emperor could not be suborned.

The ninja may have been loyal, but they didn't have the power to fight -- some made brave last stands, but many fled to the islands to seek shelter. The Grand Masters of the various clans realised that their rivalry with each other had contributed to the disaster and so they agreed to create a neutral space where they could settle disputes peacefully.

Thus was created NINJA ISLAND.

It seems to me that the RPG world is going through a phase where it's re-evaluating a strong pulp aesthetic over the last few years, and publications, game lines, and even entire companies dedicated to producing a pulp-influenced gaming experience have popped up in a number of places. But, you seem to pre-date that fad. Tto what extent and how do the pulps influence you, and DINO PIRATES?

Pulp stories include elements that have become cliched -- like pirates, dinosaurs and ninja -- and expect the audience to treat them straight, without irony. And yeah, I like that.

In my review of Peking Opera Blues I talked about this, and I think the Hong Kong cinema aesthetic still comes closer than anything else to my vision of pulp story-telling. Perhaps Steven Brust, also. I just believe, fundamentally, that your stories can have dinosaurs, pirates and ninja in them and still be GOOD stories. IMPORTANT stories with honest aesthetic value.

I guess that sounds like kind of a challenge, which is part of the attraction for me.

Describe for us, if you will, your gaming background; what kinds of games have you run (or played in) in the past, what kinds of games (or what elements of the RPG experience) do you most prefer, and how have your past gaming experiences led up to what you're doing with gaming today?

I love running games. It's like being the conductor of an orchestra that's improvising its own symphony. It's social and creative and endlessly surprising. My job as a DM to create situations for my players to exercise their creativity and come up with really really cool stuff.

I'm always trying in my games to create truly involving stories, with characters who really go through honest emotional transformations and manage to do extraordinarily cool things at the same time. I'm forever tinkering with rules changes to see if THIS will bring about the kind of feel I'm looking for.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is kind of the culmination of what I've learned about running wildly cool games -- there's a lot of rules in there that in my experience serve to help players come up with cool stuff.