Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Making Alignments a Meaningful Part of the Game

The School of Athens by Raphael
In order to make alignments a meaningful part of any role-playing game there has to be a real consequence to the actions that the players choose during the course of play that goes beyond the immediate reaction of the non-player characters close at hand. If a player decides to have the character be an awful mess of murder and predation on weak non-player characters then the world should react to her as such. But how do we avoid blanket responses that end up feeling like all evil characters are treated this way, while neutral characters are treated this way, and good characters treated yet another?

Nuanced reactions within the game world are generally not hard to accomplish over the short term as both the player and Game Master can easily keep in mind what has recently been done in the free city of Kimber but there is a mythologizing that occurs as time goes on around the characters previous actions. They become larger than life, so to speak, with the character's acts taking on a life of their own that often becomes far worse or better than what actually happened. For example, over time the story about killing of a town's sheriff expands to include his deputies and perhaps a few innocent bystanders.

Stopping the process of exaggeration within the average game (i.e. one not filmed or recorded) appears to be impossible. In truth it probably shouldn't be attempted as there is a natural enlargement of individual deeds through rumor and the retelling. Still, your non-player characters shouldn't know every misdemeanor and off-color joke the player's character has told in their lifetime; nor should they know every cleverly hidden away theft and undiscovered murder. How then do we keep the players' characters accurately assessed while still providing the room for rumor and exaggeration to take effect?

There is an additional problem that occurs to me at this point: how do we account for the differences between individual characters of the same alignment but who act in vastly different manners? For example, two characters of the chaotic evil alignment are being played. The first is a psychopathic killer who delights in acting out the worst aspects of human nature. By contrast the second player selfishly acts out her whims, often at the expense of everyone else at the table, but in general acts in a reasonable manner. Both characters are clearly chaotic in their actions and evil in their intent but there is a marked difference between them. How do we account for this difference in play?

In my experience such differences are hand waved with a look at a character's alignment and a dismissal of the actions as appropriate under that heading. Then the game goes on without any substantive difference in how the two characters are treated by the surrounding world (though that clearly isn't the case within the group). This sort of dismissal is a by product of the false equivalency produced by both characters being labeled as "chaotic evil." In our minds we equate all the vile actions of these players because of that descriptor with the end result being that all actions are treated as equals. The murder of a gigolo and the theft of a gambler's winnings are treated as the same even though they have very different consequences for all involved.

The problem of a false moral equivalent has been bothering me for a while when it comes to my own games. To help alleviate the discomfort I feel I have created a barometer to distinguish between the levels of evil and how others would perceive them in my game worlds.


This is the simplified version of the one I use in my home games. At the ends of the spectrum you have the Angelic and Diabolic ideals. These extremes represent the absolutes; the most extreme examples of good and evil that I can imagine. In between those two extremes there are four levels that I use to break up the levels of moral actions my players make. At the center of the barometer is the Neely Position which is the position of true neutrality on the moral scale. 

I've left the four positions between the end and the Neely Position blank for you guys to ascribe your own actions for each step. This should make it easier for people who want to use the scale to customize it for the morality of their game worlds with each position representing the actions of increasing magnitude (for example, in my games petty theft would be at the first position while genocide would be at the fourth position on the evil side of the barometer). This should make it easier to distinguish between characters of a similar alignment disposition without making the life of the game master into one of spreadsheets and hate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

It Was One of Those Days.

"June has been a frustrating morass of horseshit," he said as he opened another beer and passed it to me. "Twenty-five days in and I feel like I may as well have been taking a hammer to my dick for all the good it's done me."

"That seems a bit extreme," I said as I sipped my beer. "I mean your wife might need that thing again."

"Fuck that," he said as he threw an empty bottle at the fence and listened to it shatter with a satisfied smile. "We've already got four kids I don't need another one."

"Condoms work."

"Not with that woman."

I stared at him for a while as he looked back at me. Then he hung his head down, letting his hair cover his face, and said, "I think she takes a pin to the condoms."

"What?" I said with a laugh, "You're not serious."

He looked back at me and shook his head, "I found a needle in the draw where we keep the condoms."

"Well that doesn't prove anything," I said as I set the beer down, "she could have been sewing on the bed."

"Are you kidding me? That bitch barely even knows how to put a bandage on, let alone sew."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Break Your Words Upon the Body of Skelos and Tremble

The lance isn't broken; rather it's your imagination that needs fixing. It limps along mumbling about what so-and-so might do about this or that while you clutch for pearls you've never been able to afford in the hopes that one day your hand will find them strung about your neck. Your precious neck with that massive head that balances precariously above your shoulders like an elephant on the tip of a pyramid with fire all around and a crowd waiting for it to fall to its death - a death it wants yet is too proud to give them.

Does that answer the question or has it created new ones? Ones bound up in the idea that the world should operate according to an instruction manual with clearly defined penalties and rewards? Would that make you happy?

Of course not. 

Your head is too big for that; your self-worth too inflated to bear the notion that another's view might hold over your own. It would chaff against your ears as they brushed against the walls of your clearly defined rules and your bellowing would deafen the world if you mattered that much to the rest of us. But you don't because you're as insignificant as an ant. A mote in our eye that stings but doesn't do any lasting harm. A fart in the wind. You're nothing and you keep the noise going to prevent that little voice in the back of your mind from being heard, "What if they're right? What if I'm wrong?"

The rules that we're playing by aren't set in stone. No god smote the ground with lightning and struck them out with their omnipotent will for the whole world to stand in awe of them. These are guidelines we're playing with that we barely agree on. Joe's evil, Jill's an angel, and Tobiscus plays too many video games? Who the fuck said?

I am the fugue that waits for you all. Stop your yammering and get to work or else nothing will ever happen. Nothing. Will. Happen. 

Done told you, Son.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Practiced Self-Control

Steam Sales are like alcohol in that it's easy to lose sight of your limitations and to easily spend all your money and be incredibly happy during those first few hours until you realize that you can't pay rent . . . or buy food . . . or own any clothes because you sold them all. The point is that you have to set limitations on yourself or else you spend entirely too much money.

I try to set my limits on such sales at $20. It makes it hard for me to get into trouble financially, but more importantly it forces me to be frugal and get the best deals for my money throughout the week long sale. This year that resulted in a pretty good haul of new games.

Final Fantasy VII



I first picked up this game nearly twenty years ago and have been in love with it ever since. It was the first Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) I had ever had the pleasure of playing and it set the tone for what my expectations of a computer based RPG would be and how the experience of playing one should feel. Without exaggerating I've probably put in close to four hundred hours of play time on this game over the decades and would still be playing my original copy if a certain ex-girlfriend of mine hadn't stole the second disc.

FTL: Faster Than Light



This was a game that I had been looking at for a while before actually pulling the trigger and purchasing it (for like $1.29). The game is deceptively simple but infinitely complex. You're constantly having to shift your focus between what's happening inside your ship to what's going on outside of it and the result is often a cluster-fuck of an explosion. It's immersive, and an absolute soul-sucker of a game as it's easy to disappear inside it for hours at a time. Really worth checking out if you've been contemplating it.

The Detail



I picked this one up because the trailer captured my imagination. I love point and click games because often the most important aspect of the game is the story rather than how many times can I hit my left mouse button before it breaks. I'm not real sure about what the actual game will be like so I'll write more about it once I start playing it.

Hotline Miami


This is one of those games that I've been hearing about for years but have never sat down to actually play. It's supposed to have an amazing soundtrack - and the limited footage I've watched of it has borne this out - and the game play is reputed to be ultra violent. I can get behind both of those things. I'm excited to check it out. Oh, and I got it for $2.99.

Fallout 3


This is one of those games that I always wanted to play but at the time when it came out my computer was nearly eight years old and it was financially beyond my means at the time to upgrade (I was the only one working). When I finally was able to purchase a new computer I was warned off picking it up because of it's instability on Windows 8.1 (which is the version I own). Still, I've always wanted to play it and I've spent hours watching people like +Many A True Nerd explore it. So when it came available for $2.49 I decided to take a chance on it and see if I couldn't get it to work on my computer.

For those of you like me attempting to get this game to run on Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 there's a guide that the community has created to make it functional. The Ultimate Fallout 3 Setup Guide has a lot of great information collected on how to get the thing to run and a pretty active comments section where people are bringing up problems that they've had and how they fixed them. So check it out if you're wanting to play this one.

Fallout 3: New Vegas


One of my best friends loaned me a copy of this game for the PS3 and I've just absolutely fallen in love with it. The game is incredibly deep and requires a lot of thought. Every action you take feels like it has a real weight behind it and there is this sense that at any moment your next decision could be the one that pushes your character over the edge and off into the abyss of being hunted by everyone you meet and have ever hoped to meet.

I would not have bought it without the Steam sale that knocked it down to $2.49 though. Playing it on the PS3 would have been enough for me, but at such a discount picking it up on PC for my very own seemed like a good idea. My PC is quite a bit more robust than my PS3 so I'm really excited to see the differences in how it looks and plays.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

This is one of those games that I always wanted to play when it first came out. The game just looks fun to me though it may be a cluster fuck. Either way for $2.49 it was worth checking out. I'll have more on it when I play it a bit.

So did you cats pick anything up?

Friday, June 19, 2015

When It Doesn't Matter and Yet Does.

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons the only consequence for doing an evil act was the empty threat of an alignment shift that would never come - and on the few occasions that it actually happened there was no meaningful change in the game for me or my character. Non-player characters didn't become more adverse to dealing with me. Magic didn't stop working for me. There was literally no reason, other than my own personal preference, for me to worry about being a terrible bastard in the game world. 

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix

The alignments that we were playing, and the actions that we performed in the game worlds that impacted those alignments and the game's denizens, held no meaning. We may as well have played without the alignments and just simply gone through the game without them - yet that would have been a mistake because we agonized over what alignment we were going to play. And when the threat of an alignment shift was made it often resulted in a change in the player's behavior to avoid the shift.

Clearly the alignments mattered to us in a meaningful way but it was how they were reflected in the game world that was causing the problem. So how do we fix that? How do we make our actions have a meaningful response in the game that not only rewards the choices of a character in the game but that provides them with consequences that feel appropriate to their actions?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mock-Up Cover for the Princes of the Apocalypse Player's Guide

This morning I was kicking around on the Princes of the Apocalypse Player's Guide when I noticed that the cover was that cropped version of Raymond Swanland's painting. There's nothing wrong with Swanland's painting, in and of itself, but the way that Wizards of the Coast cropped it has just always felt a bit lackluster. So I thought that I would mock-up one based on some of my favorite book covers. 



I patterned it off an old A Canticle for Leibowitz cover that Bantam Books put out back in 1976 that I just loved. That cover, I believe, was done by Richard Powers. Powers was a fantastic artist whose work is featured on so many covers that it's hard to list them all but just know that the guy was an amazing artist who should far better known. In fact I like him so much that I used another one of his paintings, this one from the War of the Worlds, for this mock-up cover. Lord knows it's a hell of a lot creepier than the one they're using now. Oh, and on the spine and on the front cover I used the old TSR wizard and put Wizards of the Coast under him because I like that logo a hell of a lot more than the one they're actually using.

The cover is a jpeg and is set up dimension wise for the 6 x 9 US trade which should make it possible to use. Either way I hope that you cats like this mock-up because I might be doing a few more.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Book Shelf: Telempath by Spider Robinson


I picked up Spider Robinson's Telempath for $0.50 at a library book sale a couple of weeks ago and finally decided to give it a try this past weekend. Like many of the books that I'm into lately this one takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where society has collapsed. Only unlike the majority of those type of books this time the end was brought about by a virus that affects our ability to smell and our sudden discovery of another species that has been living on our planet since the days when it was a fiery inferno.

I really enjoyed Spider's writing as he managed to make the main character, Isham Stone, feel real and the danger that he experienced throughout the novel felt dangerous. I actually caught myself leaning forward as I was reading the book and completely forgetting the world around me - which is the best compliment that I can give this book. It is cleverly done and has sold me on reading more of Spider's books.

If you're looking for a good, quick read then this novel will not disappoint. Also, fun fact, it's been published by a bunch of different companies over the years and many of the editions have really excellent covers. My version was a Berkley Medallion Book and had these trippy plasmoids floating across the cover with a barren landscape behind them. I dug this cover I showed above more though so I used it. Cool book.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Fevered Dreams of the Dispossessed Marching on the Nightland

Last night I trembled. 

I laid in bed as my body shook from the fever that had taken hold of me and hallucinated in that nightmarish half sleep of fevered dreams. At first I found myself talking with Andy Jackson about the problems of dealing with ISIS while Willie Nelson picked his guitar absently in the corner and smoked a joint; but then a thunderstorm broke overhead, sending fat droplets of rain crashing against my windows and things began to change. Jackson stood up stiffly and walked over to the windows to watch the lightening striking the lake below.

"What do you see," he said.

La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas

I stared into the curtains and felt a cold hand grip me. "A line of refugees making their way across the foothills," I said with a tongue thick with fever, "The sky behind them was a roiling mass of black clouds with massive, dark shapes lit by lighting. The people whimpered as they heard the thunder and felt the shadow of the clouds move inexorably towards them. The women cried while children stared forward with vacant eyes. Men mumbled to themselves, pulled at their hair, and tore at their clothes as tears streamed down their faces. 

"Behind them, in the darkness beneath the clouds, the ground seethed with millions of bodies. They struck, bit, and slew each other trying to get closer to the edge of darkness yet their numbers never seemed to diminish. I can hear their shrill voices in the distance. 'We'll be there soon children. Just slow your parents a little and it'll all be over.'

"They're terrible and I hate them."

Jackson sat down on the edge of the bed and said, "Then what will you do about them?"

"Kill all of them."

Hours passed as the fever wracked my body and pulled the muscles of my back as I coughed in uncontrollable fits. Yet Jackson remained by the window watching the storm as it sent wave after wave of rain against the house.

"How will you do that," he said after a time.

"Do what?"

"Kill all of them."

I moved the washcloth off my eyes and stared at him. "With fire."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Busy

Working on a half dozen projects right now. Not really able to type anything on here at the moment. So tell me something cool you're into so that I can know people are still having fun out there.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Rage of Demons Pre-Order Price Drops!



Since it's initial pre-order release was announced the price for the Out of the Abyss, Rage of Demons has continued to drop. In an effort to keep from paying too much I thought I would do an update on how the prices have reduced with a little over three months left to go until it officially releases.

Amazon



Original Price: $49.95
Current Price: $34.33 (SAVE $15.62 OR 31%)

Barnes & Noble



Original Price: $49.95
Current Price: $34.67 (SAVE $15.28 OR 30%)

Books-a-Million


Original Price: $49.95
Current Price: $49.95 (NO SAVINGS)

Walmart


Not Available

Chapters

Out of the Abyss
Current Price with plum membership: $35.74
ONLINE PRICE: $37.62
Checked this one out, shipping to my US address was $16.42
THIS PRICE HAS NOT CHANGED SINCE MAY 15, 2015
Total:$54.04 

As you can see from the above prices only Barnes & Noble and Amazon have further reduced their prices since the initial pre-order date nearly a month ago. Walmart, reportedly the fourth largest book retailer in the United States,* still does not have it available for pre-order.

I'll be updating the pre-order price changes again in June. 

*While the link is to an older article first published in 2012 I have not been able to find anything that makes an alternative claim in the intervening years.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Standards Turned on Their Heads.

Over the last few months I have become completely enamored with the idea that the best individual to run a module is someone who has little affection for the dominant themes of the adventure. You can see a bit of this expressed in the Ravenloft post I put up a few days ago. See one of the problems that I think hampers our creativity as Game Masters is when we develop a fanatical devotion to the source materials and begin to convince ourselves that there is one, true way to run the game. We look at Tolkien, Moorecock, Howard and say, "If we're going to play then it has to be just like this!" We develop these simulations of their fictive worlds where every blade of grass has been lovingly craved out of the intellectual terra firma of our imaginations and we limit ourselves to the confines of what has been done; rarely allowing ourselves to stretch our own creativity to its limits.


I'm tired of such things. They're boring and they stifle what's possible. But their worst sin is that they make your games predictable. I can't stand that feeling that everyone knows just what I'm going to do or what I'm going to say. It disgusts me; makes my skin crawl.

More later. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ravenloft? Yeah, I Can Do That.

I've decided that I'm going to be running a Ravenloft game. See the problem for me though is that most of the people that want to play in it with me have this colossal hard-on whenever it comes to the setting. They start stuttering about it when it comes up and every couple of sentences find "Oh my God" ejaculated into the conversation with hands outstretched and orgasmic looks passing across their faces. They have constructed these elaborate fetishes around the setting. The world is ultra deadly where even the rabbits on the side of the road will kill you and devour your souls. "Oh my God!" The gypsies are all cat burglars who will lift all your possessions without you knowing about it, "OH my God!" And let's not even get started on the vampires. "OH MY GOD!"

Fuck that noise. 

Look I like Greyhawk and if you ever follow me on Twitter you're sure to see me throwing #GREYHAWK tags about like they're gang signs and I'm representing. The thing is, I do that because I like it, not because I go home at night and touch myself under the covers while whispering Otiluke's name until I get gooey. The way these cats have constructed their Ravenloft fetishes is beyond me. 


So I'm going to run it my way.

The game begins before we actually start playing with me loudly announcing to the group that we'll be playing in Ravenloft. I'll even go so far as to lay out the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft book so they can see what's happening. Then I'll throw open the gates. They can pick any race, any class, any feat, any items they can afford, and they'll be starting at fifth level.  The day of the game comes and I'll make a big show of going through the book while they're talking and getting ready. Then I'll start. They're in a city - it doesn't matter which one - and I'll fill it with fog; a wolf howling in the distance. At this point their own imaginations will be filling in the gaps. They're there: Ravenloft.

"Oh my God!"

Only when they go inside everyone they meet is going to be super friendly and excited to meet them. It's like walking into a convention, only without the open bar, and these cats are super excited for visitors. They're talking about the rain washing out the bridge and how they're glad these guys have made it here. The whole city is getting ready for the festival of Saint Sidney and they're opening up their doors to the players. Now the players are off their game because they were expecting a world that's ultra grim dark with a side of grim and a glass of dark. But I'm giving them sunshine, roses, and a city that's looking for a good time. Everywhere they go it's going to look and feel like a normal city and the only thing anyone tells them wherever they go is don't use the outhouse near the Red Snow Tavern. If pressed on it they all just shake their heads and say, "Seriously, don't go in that fucker."

I know my players and that's enough to get them heading to that outhouse where they'll find a great big sign that says stay out and a gem the size of a football when they look down the shit hole. These cats aren't going to pass up that football with a dragon sleeping on it so you know they're going to go for it. That's when the gigantic Purple Worm explodes out of the shitter and eats however many players where in the outhouse. I expect that they run with a few, "He's fucked," and at least one,"Peace out, bitch," as they get the fuck out of town. 'Cause this Purple Worm is going to be pissed and tearing the city to bits. 

So they're booking it out of town and they're going to run into this old Japanese man who looks like he's getting ready to try out for a samurai movie. He only speaks Japanese and I only know like three words so it's just going to be mostly gibberish as I shove a bottle into their arms that has this big cork stopper in it and take off. If they open it great, if not the old dude will have a thread tied to the cork that he'll pull to release the Tarrasque. This mother fucker will kill all of the players as he charges off and starts fighting the Purple Worm because I like Godzilla movies and it's about fucking time that I had one in a game. 

Now the players are going to wake up in Castle Ravenloft - cause if I've had them go to all that trouble then they don't need to see it all wasted. So they wake up and there's the Count doing his best Bela LuGosi impression with the cape and everything. "Oh my god!" He turns to them and with a gesture to the table implores them to sit down. And they do because they've got this shit built up in their heads that this guy's a god damned vampire capable of destroying them with but a look. "Oh my god!" Whispers all around the table at this point. Furtive glances to each other as they're served food by half naked men who only have compression shorts on and body glitter. And then the count speaks and he's so gay that he makes the Pride Parade seem like an exercise in repression. The Count doesn't pine over that girl who died. "That bitch just won't move on," he'll say, "I told her she was ratchet as fuck but she keeps on moaning."

That's how my Ravenloft starts. What about yours?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Changes Keep Coming for Google Plus

When it rains it pours I suppose, and so it goes with Google Plus it seems. In a series of recent changes to the social network unveiled over the last few days it appears that earlier, dire predictions for the service may be nearing. Now if you're like me than you've probably been busy working on the 2015 Great Blog Roll Call and reading more than 7,000 posts over the last few days so you might have missed what's happened.

Let's catch up together.

Automatic Hashtags Discontinued

In April Google stopped using the automatic hashtag option for Google Plus posts. The reasoning behind this is that they were going to be debuting the Collections feature which would, presumably, work far better. I've yet to fully explore the Collections feature so I'm not sure if it's better or not. You can still use hastags if they're something that you really love using, but by and large it's now nothing more than a superfluous feature that won't help in SEO searches or anything else, really.

Google Local has Been Removed

This is a feature that I never used. So I can't say that I'm particularly sad to see it's removal on May 5, 2015.

Circle Sharing Discontinued

On May 9, 2015 it was announced that the service would no longer allow users to share their circles at will. The reasoning for this move was that doing so often resulted in people being circled who neither had anything in common nor wanted to be connected. While that certainly could be an issue it also created a situation where it became more difficult to discover each other on the platform.

Like many of you in my circles I have greatly benefited from people like +Zak Smith sharing their role-playing gamer circles as I have made new connections and been introduced to a lot of people who no longer post on their blogs that I would never have had an opportunity to discover otherwise. So in many ways this discontinuation of this avenue feels like a major set back for connecting with each other and expanding our social circles. 

Ripples Flattened Out

Later in May the Google Ripples feature, which allowed you to observe how a post was being shared across the platform in a visually appealing manner was discontinued. This kind of bummed me out as this was another one of those analytical tools which allowed you to see how your posts were impacting the wider community. It wasn't a widely publicized tool, but it was a neat feature nonetheless.

Google+ Notifications Bell Name Change

Sometime during the evening of May 27 or the morning of May 28, 2015 Google changed the name of the Notification icon from Google+ to just Google Notifications. This may indicate that the service is getting ready to be expanded into additional channels - or it could be a further sign that the Google+ social network is steadily being dismantled as was first reported back in April of 2014. Were it just an isolated change to the service it might be easy to dismiss such thoughts as the usual fear mongering that's gone on with the service for the last few years but . . .

Google+ Photos is Now Google Photos

One of the better features of the Google+ platform has been the Google+ Photos and now that's being separated from the social network to stand on its own. On May 28, 2015 it officially left the Google+ umbrella of programs and became its own service. For a lot of people this was a clear indication that the social network was actually being dismantled. So much so that Bradley Horowitz, Google’s head of Streams, Photos and Sharing, felt the need to give an interview where he went out of his way to stress that Google+ was not a dead social platform and that this was just part of Google's strategy to revitalize the network. 

"Three and a half years into this journey, we’re looking at what the users are telling us Google Plus is good for, and doubling down on those uses. For instance, one particular use-case on Google Plus is people aligning around common interests. If I’m interested in astronomy and I want to meet other people interested in astronomy, we think we have a good solution — Collections, a new feature that we launched just two weeks ago. It’s the first in a series of pivots. We’re also moving aside the things that either belong as independent products, like photos, or eliminating things that we think aren’t working."

Do you find that very reassuring? Me? Not so much. So I'm looking into other social media platforms. Anyone got any suggestions?

Monkey Business by Jens D., The Disoriented Ranger

For those of you who haven't yet heard Jens D of the Disoriented Ranger produced an adventure, Monkey Business . He's publi...