Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Sound of Awesome!

Yesterday, Xbox LIVE activated several new features that were promised as part of their recent software update. Included in these features is the ability to sync the Xbox to your YouTube account. Beyond the added potential for watching all sorts of nonsense in epic HD surround sound clarity, the new YouTube connectivity has wonderful implications for my tabletop game.

All sorts of nonsense

You see, I have been using YouTube playlists for a while to provide a game night soundtrack. My campaign even has a theme track that I roll when it is time to stop the chitchat and start rolling. Unfortunately, until now, I have been limited to piping my game night music through a pair of piddly computer speakers plugged into my lappy... well, no more! With YouTube on the Xbox, I can access my playlists from my home theater system and give the music the amplitude it deserves.

And this all came out just in time for game night tonight!

In other news, I love the Oatmeal. If you are unfamiliar, be sure to check it out. The site posted some new Bobcats comics today, one of which illustrates the natural roleplaying prowess of our feline friends. As a cat owner, I can attest to the veracity of this depiction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Depth of Character

Skull-butting Hitler might have been momentarily satisfying for Dr. Jones,
but the long-term benefits would be questionable.

Vanir over at Critical Hits has a great post about playing PCs with a sense of depth. He uses the example of a character whose parents were killed by orcs and how that character might behave if faced with orcs. In a nutshell, it comes down to finding avenues to express a character's backstory in ways other than.


As I was reading the article, I thought of existing fictional characters with similar backgrounds--ones that instill a strong opinion on a subject. Take Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. The dude hates the Alliance. They killed his whole army or something. While he is much more likely to jump at the opportunity to pull a fast one on Alliance interests, he is also very discerning about how he does it. He doesn't charge blindly shooting every time he sees an Alliance soldier.

Similarly, Indiana Jones hates Nazis. He actually says, "I hate these guys" (as if we didn't know!) in Last Crusade. Yet, he frequently hitches rides on their Zeppelins, submarines and trucks... and even goes to one of their big book burning parties. While he does these things to counteract their Nazi plans, he does not just start shooting or whipping every time he sees a Nazi.

Major events in a character's backstory, whether in a game, a book or a movie represent only a part of that total character. These events can have a profound effect on the character's motivations and actions, but they should color those actions rather than dictating them. Just because the good cleric detects an evil aura around the grand vizier does not mean he/she should immediately bash his head in, especially when trying to get an audience with the king.

Monday, December 12, 2011

1000 Blank White Cards

Ah, the holiday season. 'Tis the season for family, feasting and parties. 'Tis also the black hole of gaming. As holiday schedules fill up, maintaining a regular tabletop gaming routine becomes more and more difficult. Many groups find the prospect of holiday game scheduling too daunting a task to overcome. They choose to risk the dreaded "hiatus" slumbering through to hopefully reawaken in the new year. My group has been fortunate in the three years we have been together. We have never needed to put things on hold during the holidays. This year, however, our schedule is rougher than usual. We have postponed and skipped several game sessions, and I must admit my scheduling nerves are becoming a bit frayed.

A couple weeks ago, we were faced with a last-minute player shortage and the question of how to proceed. Rather than calling off the game for the night, I decided to scratch an itch I had been having to indulge in some collaborative world-building using 1000 Blank White Cards (1KBWC). If you are unfamiliar with 1KBWC, let me bring you up to speed. The game is born of the same imaginative strain as blanket forts and broomstick ponies--the comandeering of utilitarian objects for the purpose of imaginitive play.

The basic 1KBWC game begins with a box of ordinary, blank index cards. Players jot down items, scenarios and other imaginings and then assign them a point value from -100 to +100 and/or make up a rule associated with the card. Examples:

  • Party Foul! You spill your drink on your cards! -20 points and discard your most valuable card.
  • Baby-sized Burrito +40 points
Card contents are created on the spot before play begins and are only limited by the imaginations of the players. The cards are then dealt and played around the table with each player playing a card on either themselves or on another player... because players gonna play. The objective is to end the game with the most points.

Well, Matthew Neagley over at Gnome Stew has written a couple posts on his use of the 1KBWC format for collaborative world building. This variant of the game begins as the players of a tabletop gaming group jot down  things they would like to encounter in their ideal game world. These can be treasures, villains, fantastic locations or anything else that pops into mind. The best ideas are usually simple and not terribly specific. Complexity and specificity come as the game progresses. 

Once the cards are written, shuffled and dealt, play proceeds as in the standard game, except that the cards are played on the table rather than against particular players. Cards can either be laid down on their own or used to build on a card already in play. As the game proceeds, the clusters of cards develop into potential plot seeds and adventure locations. If you like, their placement on the table may also serve as a rough geographical orientation within the game world. My particular group chose to ignore the spatial component, but came up with some amazing ideas that may very well appear in future adventures.

Some example clusters include:

Cluster A:
  • underwater fortress built into the side of an undersea volcano
  • lizardmen cult
  • mechanical plesiosaur submarine
  • sentient coral
  • the kraken
Cluster B:
  • golden colossus
  • lava lake
  • trees made of fire
  • rebel group of good-aligned devil warriors
  • hammer of the gods
The exact associations within each cluster are ultimately up to the GM to flesh out, but both of the examples above could easily be expanded into an adventure. 

Playing 1KBWC was an excellent alternative to canceling a player-short game night, and I encourage my fellow GMs to give it a try. Our group had a lot of fun watching these cards coalesce into the birth-goo of adventure, and I do not doubt that I will catch excited glimmers of recognition if and when the ideas we generated work their way into my game.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dumbing it Down

Being my fourth submission to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group

One of the many challenges I face as a museum writer is achieving a certain "grade level" in my writing. As a form of self-selected edutainment *gag*, museum exhibits must strive to enlighten and accurately inform the visitor while simultaneously presenting a topic in an accessible manner (i.e. don't scare people with big words) I understand and support this approach of informing without lecturing. I am a huge fan of really smart people, like Richard Feynman and Mary Roach, who excel at presenting complex topics in an engaging manner.

However, I find the notion of a target grade level difficult to swallow and even more difficult to hit without dumbing down an exhibit's content to the point of non-existence. At the moment, I am struggling with an exhibit on space exploration, which is a complex subject full of jargon and big words. Today, my sub-topic of the moment was cosmic radiation (best pronounced "Cooooooooosmic Radiatioooooooon!") which is an even more complex and jargon-filled subset of the whole. As such, it has taken me two days worth of research to spit out 200 words on the matter. When I felt moderately satisfied with my draft--meaning it no longer made my eyes bleed--I decided to check the grade level of my writing in Word's handy-dandy Flesch-Kincaid readability checker. It came back as grade level 14+. Apparently a museum visitor would need at least an associates degree in reading to understand my 200 words.

Moderately irked by what I found to be an erroneous reading, I decided to check individual sentences within the text. Each came back with a ridiculously high outcome. Finally, I checked the first sentence of the panel, which was also one of the shortest.

"Radiation is energy that travels as either particles or waves." 

According to Microsoft's brilliant readability standards, the above ten word sentence represents a grade level of 10.7. Really!?

I then decided to look up who these Fleschy Kincaidians were in hopes of finding out that the metric was some long-debunked crackpot theory. Much to my dismay, I found that the F-K system is pretty dang standard, having been developed for the U.S. Navy. There are apparently laws based on this shit intended to keep insurance companies from swindling poor, plain-spoken, main street Amerkins!

Are we really that dumb? Do other countries have similarly low standards!? Do you really need a high school diploma to understand this sentence!?
"The Australian platypus is seemingly a hybrid of a mammal and reptilian creature."
Incidentally, this post is written at an 11th grade level, and so should be easily understood by someone who is not a complete moran.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fantastic Feasting!

Today is Thanksgiving, so naturally food is on my mind and soon to be in my belly. I read with my stomach. As a child, I did much of my reading in bed with a glass of milk and a piece of string cheese by my side. My reading tastes were often influenced by the descriptions of food found in the books I read. One of my earliest forays into the fantasy genre was with Brian Jacques' Redwall Series, and boy did that man knew how to describe a feast. For those unfamiliar with Jacques' work, the series centers around the adventures of anthropomorphized woodland creatures living in a fictional bucolic land called Mossflower. Every book in the series includes at least one feast, described in detail. Though the later books suffered greatly from uninspired formula, the feast scenes were always some of my favorites. Here's a passage from the second book, Mossflower.
Exclamations of admiration and delight greeted the food as it was served. After all, who could resist roast chestnuts served in cream and honey, or clover oatcakes dipped in hot redcurrant sauce, celery and herb cheese on acorn bread with chopped radishes, or a huge home-baked seed and sweet barley cake with mint icing, all washed down with either October ale, pear cordial, strawberry juice or good fresh milk.
Stepping back, the foods described in Jacques' mouse feasts could either be some of the most deliciously rustic dishes imaginable, or really horrible hippy crap... depending on how they're prepared. I prefer to imagine them as the former. One thing I never could figure out was where the mice and other critters got their milk for cheese and cream? In the 15 Redwall books I own, I don't recall a single mention of a cow, sheep or goat.

Jacques' feasts, along with food descriptions like those from Tolkien's Hobbit feasts and the meals made in Aunt Pol's kitchen in Edding's Belgariad worked their way out of the books and into my own reading-time snacks. I favored rustic crusty bread and cheese with nuts, simple unprocessed foods that seemed appropriate for a protagonist farm-boy destined for greatness.

Unfortunately, though descriptions of foods and feasting are prevalent within fantasy literature, they are much more rare when it comes to gaming. D&D skills like profession (cook) are generally overlooked in favor more "practical" abilities that help with the everyday tasks of killing monsters and looting the bodies. One of my players did actually take some points in profession (cook) and often scrounges for food to make breakfast for the party and the group has a habit of throwing parties for the citizens living near their keep. I've been pondering ways to encourage more detailed culinary roleplaying. Perhaps I could assign minor morale bonuses for well-fed characters or devise a diplomatic negotiation encounter centered on a feast. After all, slaying dragons is always easier with a belly full of pancakes!

Speaking of modern day corruption, while driving home from breakfast, I heard a discussion of turducken on the radio, and my brain naturally imagined the turducken as a living beast. So, for this holiday I would like to leave you with a mental image of the dreaded DIRE TURDUCKEN!

This "fowl" beast is believed to have been created by a cadre of transmuters. Resembling a large cockatrice on the outside, the Dire Turducken possesses several powerful abilities that make it a truly dangerous opponent.

Special attacks:

  • Reach: The Turducken has three heads, each living within the mouth of the next larger (pardon my screwy grammar). The heads may stretch out on long necks, giving the Turducken a reach of 15 feet with the smallest head.
  • Swallow Whole: If the Turducken succeeds on an attack with it's smallest head, it may immediately attack with the next largest head. If that succeeds, it may attack with its largest head, and if that hits, it may attempt to swallow it's victim whole. Swallowed victims take damage from the acids and stones within the Turducken's gizzard. They may attempt to cut themselves free using a light weapon.
  • Breath Weapon: The Turducken can breathe a stream of scalding hot basting juices up to 30 feet. Those hit take damage from the scalding liquid and smell mouthwateringly delicious for 1d4 days or until bathing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Gauntlet has been thrown!

Apparently the post from Animals Talking in All Caps, which I reposted here earlier this month is developing a storyline of sorts. A new character appears to have been introduced - a particularly fluffy gnoll queen and her as yet unnamed champion. We here at ROFL Initiative will continue to monitor the story as it develops.


Repost from (ATIAC)

Monday, November 21, 2011

What has it got in its pocketses?

Hello, my preciouses

This past weekend was jam packed with fun and auspicious tidings. To start, today is my birthday and so this past weekend was the nearest "go out and drink" time to my birthday. My friends all threw me a wonderful party on Friday, which included a smattering of gifts-none asked for but all appreciated. One gift, in particular brought back a flood of memories that plumbed the depths of my primal gamer self.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of David Macaulay's book, City. While I never had this particular book, I had a slew of Macaulay's other works as a child, and they definitely piqued my early interest in history, architecture and mapping-all fascinations, which are currently fed through my gaming.

Macaulay's detailed illustrations provide a vivid an enticing look into the construction techniques and design methodologies used by ancient peoples and they are always accompanied by a concrete narrative about the construction process.

Anyway, the gift churned up a whole heap of dormant inspiration and drove me to the children's architecture section of Powell's Books (yes the store is big enough to warrant such a section!) where I picked up Built to Last, a 2010 compilation that includes two of Macaulay's other books that used to grace my bookshelf, along with a third that I have not yet read.

Now, for the big news.

While in Portland, picking up childrens' books for my adult self, I asked the GF to become Mrs. Sporkchop, and she responded with a resounding, "yes". Well... first, there was lots of happy crying and repeated exclamations of "You're SO sneaky!" but now, after almost four years of courtship and lots of strange dances, we will finally be making things all legal and binding and stuff.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fortune's Fool

Another week begins after a particularly fortuitous weekend.

I am now, officially weird uncle Sporkchop. My first niece was born early Friday morning on 11/11/11 which is  significant for those who like seeing the same number written in series, those who really like Spinal Tap, and those who are robots.

As part of my weird uncle duties (not to be confused with doodies) my mind has been mulling various obnoxious nicknames that I might bestow upon the newlyborn. Many of these nicknames, of course, were inspired by her birthdate and include:

  • Nigel
  • One louder
  • Onesie
  • Carbon Unit #63 (binary birthdate in expressed in base 10)
  • Brookie Cookie
  • Trouble
Anyway, other fortuitous (but ultimately less important) events followed in the wake of my niece's arrival. A friend of mine, who works for a well known gaming company called me up, because he had acquired a "butt-ton" (a scientific measurement used in the literary field... of my brain) of game books in a recent purge of his office space and was wondering if I would be interested in any of his "leftovers"

"um?... yes!"

Well, upon arrival at his house, I found that his "leftovers" filled the trunk of his car. He had already selected those that he needed for his personal collection. He had also set aside some for other friends. Fortunately, the claimed books were all either from games I don't play, or were books I already had. I ended up leaving with five new D&D 3.5 books to add to my slowly expanding library. He also presented me with a deck of fortune cards, which are made for 4th edition, but many of which can be used in or adapted to D&D 3.5

When I arrived home, fortune continued to smile upon me when I discovered that one of the books I had grabbed on a whim was directly relevant to my current adventure planning tasks! I will certainly make heavy use of the tome while prepping for this weeks' session.

In closing, I would like to offer a big congratulations to my sister on her successful spawning of a human larvae and a big thanks to my friend Ruxbin for his wonderful generosity.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It Builds Character

I am reaching an age, perhaps an epoch, when everyone around me expresses concerns about decidedly adult matters, most of which involve either rings of power, which bond one human to another, and/or the spawning practices of modern hominids. The latter subject has been especially prevalent in recent conversations, as my sister is decidedly infested with baby. Not to worry, her condition is scheduled to culminate this very day in a beautiful yet grotesque ritual, which will bestow several new titles on various members of my family -mother, grandparents, uncle.

My impending promotion to the status of "weird uncle Sporkchop" has naturally wormed its way in to my thoughts on gaming, specifically the notion of creating a character. The ideas of fatherhood and rpg character generation hold a bizarrely similar appeal in my mind. I see both as a way to craft another sentient being, to project some aspect of my own personality and style onto the world and to take pride in their mighty deeds. When creating an rpg character, the world and person are fictional and the imprinting is done with pencil and paper. When forming a babby, the person is obviously very real and the character building is done through years of nurturing and acting all role-model-y.

Of course, there is also a great deal of chance involved with raising a child. They could have serious health problems, or do poorly in school, or develop tastes and opinions entirely opposite to yours. They might even grow up to be *gasp* a douchebag... or get eaten by orcs. These are all concerns that no doubt weigh upon the mind of every parent, keeping them up in the wee hours of the night. I suppose all you can do is hope that your care and example will guide your child in the right direction.

The girlfriend and I have had numerous conversations about real-world character generation and seem to be on the same page. We both want to have at least one kid, and want to do so in the not-to-distant future. The urge to procreate is weighing more heavily on the GF, whose ovaries have lately been holding her mind in thrall like some sort of fallopian illithid.

Side note: for those not familiar to the D&D beastiary, illithids are the game's shoutout to Lovecraftian octopoids that wreak havoc on the minds and sanity of those who behold them. To those not familiar with Lovecraft, picture this guy, but evil, and more psychic. 

Fortunately, my maleness has spared me from a similar level of emotional anxiety, though I do occasionally pause and think, I'm not getting any younger! Best get into the game!

Monday, November 7, 2011


Lately, I've become horribly addicted to the blog, ANIMALS TALKING IN ALL CAPS, because... well... it just cuts so close to the essence of the internet. It speaks its true name, exerting a tremendous gravitational force over all who behold it. Anyway, an entry from this morning made me giggle and seemed to resonate with the themes of this here blog.

Let this be a warning to my players... should you run across a boistrous Kenku cheiftain in the course of your adventures, please know that he is not one to be trifled with.

Happy Monday, y'all!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

O, for a Muse of fire

Being my third submission to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group

November is the month of Thanksgiving, so I thought I would post a bit about things that have contributed to my abilities as a writer for which I am thankful.

I am very thankful for my past English and writing instructors who helped me build the skills to compose my writings with clarity and style. Do I still suffer from an itchy comma finger? Of course. Do I still occasionally commit grievous grammatical errors? Yes. However, after spending a great deal of time reviewing and revising others’ work, I have grown very thankful for the modest tools I have been given. 

Foremost among these tools is the ability to read a block of text sentence by sentence. My college writing instructor taught me this, and to this day, I am amazed by how many people seem unable to look at a sentence on its own, to analyze its structure and then to understand how it connects to the sentences that surround it, the paragraph in which it lives and the piece of writing that forms its world.

YSW Artistic Director, Darren Lay with
1st-year student, Danesha Harris and the First Lady
I am also thankful that I had the opportunity to be involved with a program that just popped up in the news yesterday. The Young Shakespeare Workshop, a program that really sparked my love of the Bard and language in general, just received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Award. The summer program immerses teens in the study of Shakespeare; participants study Shakespeare’s works beginning with sonnets, then monologues, then scenes. They receive vocal training and instruction in Elizabethan rapier and dagger fencing. Plus, each applicant is handed their very own Complete Works of Shakespeare on the first day of class. Here’s the kicker... it’s all COMPLETELY FREE.

I spent my summers as a teen immersed in this program. I went through both years as a participant and then returned as an assistant director while I was in college. The Complete Works I received still holds a place of honor on my bookshelf, dog-eared and besmirched with notes and doodles. The Young Shakespeare Workshop was absolutely formative to who I am today, and could not be more deserving of this award.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

-Henry V, Prologue

Friday, October 21, 2011


My girlfriend and I frequently have discussions about scheduling and over-scheduling. While we have many things in common, which cause us to like each other (like, like-like), we also have several distinct differences. One very prominent difference is that she is a "planner" She likes her schedule orderly and full. If she hasn't started working on her Halloween costume by August, she starts to get nervous. She fills her week with classes, dinners with friends and other forecast events weeks and months in advance.

By contrast, I prefer to take a more casual approach to my activities. I can handle one or two weekly commitments, but I like having the option of sitting on my butt in front of the tube if I'm exhausted from work. I don't want to put myself in a position where I feel forced -dare I say, "railroaded?"- to hang out with friends or do something I would otherwise enjoy if I were approaching it on my own terms.

So, why this ramble about relationships and personality differences? Well, I realized during last night's D&D session that player characters in an RPG can be overscheduled as well. As a DM running a weeknight campaign (3-3.5 hours of play with a hard stop time) I get really wrapped up in moving the story along. I want to get my players to the next boss fight, the next town, the next big reveal. I worry that the pace of the story is dragging, so I crack the whip in my head and bellow, "Hyah mule! I say, Hyah!" In short, I regularly try to squeeze too much play time into our play time!

You have three waves of orcs to defeat before piano lessons mister.
You're having fun, dammit!
Last night, it finally hit home that much of my recent malaise over my campaign might be because I overfill my sessions. While I try hard to avoid railroading my players, to give them options for approaching different situations, when I try to fit four encounters into a three hour session, I find myself getting impatient when my players start deliberating over those options. My irritability starts to show, and my players don't get the time to reach some of their more creative and innovative ideas. The play starts to feel hack and slashy and downright bland.

Well yesterday's game was different. I didn't let myself worry that we have only been playing three hours a month for the last three months. I didn't try to force things along quickly and I presented my players with several very open-ended situations:

  • You know you are traveling through hostile territory, what's your plan for avoiding detection?
  • You know you will have to cross the enemy lines, how do you want to do that?
  • You've been discovered by a patrol that is suspicious of your alibi, how do you respond?
  • You've made it through the initial checkpoint, but need papers and/or authorization to make it through the next one, how do you get them?

Most importantly, however, I allowed my players the time to discuss their plans for answering each of these questions before moving on. I felt like the game play last night had a creative spark that has been dampened for a while. My players were thinking both inside and outside the box, and when I inevitably poked at the holes in their plans, they were quick on their feet to try and plug the gaps.

half-orc monk: "Oh, hey Mr. patrolman, I wasn't hiding behind this tree, I was just having a piss, what can I do for you?"

Loosening my death grip on the schedule for the night made the game actually feel fuller, like we got more done than during sessions where I line up the encounters like dominoes. Bonus: My players got to a great cliffhanger stopping point, which was right where I  was hoping they would end the evening. I liked that feeling. I was happy to be a part of it.

So, the plan moving forward... maybe... if I feel like it... is to worry less about driving the plot forward by cramming in the encounters, in favor of preparing to meet the creative approaches my players dream up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In the Beginning

Being my second submission to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group:

That's it, no more monkeying around trying to write Shakespeare. The content writing phase of my big project at work has officially begun and I expect that my life between now and the end of February will be characterized by grumpiness; deer in headlights looks in response to otherwise reasonable requests; interesting, impromptu hairstyles; baggy eyes; frayed nerves; and an obsessive focus on a single subject... oh, and of course, writer's block.

Starting a writing project is always the worst part of the endeavor. No matter how much I tell myself, "The first draft doesn't have to be good, just put something on 'puter!" My mind can't let go of thoughts that belong two or three steps down the road. "Is this information best included here? or there? in combination with this? or that? or left out entirely?" My mental state quickly devolves into a self-directed argument about how over-thinking is going to slow down the process when there is a very aggressive, borderline-unreasonable deadline to meet, to which the response to myself is:
"well, at least I'm thinking about the project instead of nitpicking about how slow its going"
"Oh yeah, well you're nitpicking now, and because I'm actually you, you are just as bad as me, you self-righteous prick!"
"Who do think you are calling me self-righteous!?"
and on, and on...
And of course this usually happens when I am either trying to write or trying to sleep so that I can write the next day.

Anyway, I am at the part in the process where I feel like this:

This video was made for a friend-of-a-friend by several of my friends. 
Read the previous sentence over and over until it gets too annoying to bear

The implications of my impending writing block/blitz for work is that my writing for pleasure--including the posts I pen for this blog--will likely be sporadic at best. If you enjoy what I have to say, stick around, because I'm not giving up on the blog, I'm just getting busy... awww yeaaaaah!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Ceremonial

Girls wave to a kamikaze pilot before he departs on his mission

cer·e·mo·ny   [ser-uh-moh-nee]  noun, plural -nies.
  1. the formal activities conducted on some solemn or important public or state occasion: the coronation ceremony.
  1. a formal religious or sacred observance; a solemn rite: a marriage ceremony.
  1. formal observances or gestures collectively; ceremonial  observances: The breathless messenger had no time for ceremony.
  1. any formal act or observance, especially a meaningless one: His low bow was mere ceremony.
  1. a gesture or act of politeness or civility: the ceremony of a handshake.

I've been thinking a lot about ceremony lately. In the past two months, I have been to three weddings, several birthdays, floated around the periphery of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and as my arguably warped mind is wont to do, thought about how such events can be applied to a fictional world like a D&D campaign setting, video game or novel.

Specifically, I have been thinking about how to use ceremony to breathe life into a part of my game world's pantheon that I find really dull--the lawful-good church that worships Heironeous, god of chivalry and valor. The D&D rulebooks present Heironeous in a way that resembles the medieval Christian church, but without all the dark, interesting bits. He is the god of knights and heroes and slaying of dragons. Always brave, with a strong arm and cleft chin. To me, this deity feels like he has the personality of a main character in a Shakespearean comedy, or -to use a more contemporary analogue- a popular kid at school (i.e. he is dull and intended to get by on looks alone)

Unfortunately, this particular stick-in-the-mud is hovering over the center of my current campaign. The kingdom that my players are trying to save consists of some of the god's most devoted followers, so I am forced to deal with the religion and turn it into something more interesting than a cub scout meeting with swords (which actually sounds really interesting, now that I think about it.) and I have come to the conclusion that ceremony is key to adding a sense of depth to an otherwise one-dimensional message of "do good all the time."

The September 11th anniversary manifests an odd phenomenon that could easily be applied to the shiny Heironean faith and which actually seems pretty perverse when you separate yourself from the emotional context: The human desire to sanctify horrific events. Why do we do this? Ground Zero is actually the site of a mass murder, and yet we often refer to it as "sacred ground" as though it were a church. Perhaps it is part of our coping mechanism when faced with human evil and mortality? Perhaps, by focusing on the selfless acts committed by those who were ultimately victims of murder, or attempted murder, we are able to wrestle control of that narrative? Examples of this sort of positive-spin symbolism are everywhere in human history, from the hallowing of Pearl Harbor, to the Crucifixion of Jesus (Easter is a celebration of ritual torture, execution and a missing body!), to countless tales of martyrdom in numerous religions. These events supply a comforting meaning to an otherwise horrible tragedy. "I'm sorry this happened, but your brother died a hero." One could easily use such events as an example to create fictional ceremonies and or beliefs for a faith like that of Heironeous. Perhaps his worshippers celebrate a 300-esque last stand, or have constructed a cathedral on the site of a mighty victory. While one could argue that such deeds were brave and good, hallowing such conflicts begs the question, what about the other side? Why was there conflict in the first place?

Memorials to conflict are not the only way to add shades of gray to an otherwise black and white belief. While thinking about Heironean ceremony, I also stumbled across the notion of putting on a public display of bravery in the face of pants-wetting danger and worry. A book I am reading for work talks about NASA's tradition of having the astronauts' spouses meet their spacefaring significant others at the launch site a few days prior to launch. It is a big press event intended to send the message "we are sending representatives of the wholesome American Dream into the cosmos!" Everyone smiles and waves and looks excited/unconcerned. What is not publicly shown is that the astronauts and their spouses often have tearful goodbyes prior to the launch, full of conversations of "just in case I don't come back". The spouses are even assigned a NASA handler to make travel arrangements for them, but also to act as a casualty liaison for the family should something go wrong. As I read about this ceremony, I immediately envisioned a procession of soldiers parading in front of their wives before going to battle.

These examples reveal something that can make a Dudley-do-Right religion seem much more dramatic and rich from a storytelling standpoint. Exploring the difference between a public show of bravery and meaning, and the inner worries and thoughts secretly harbored by individual members of the faith, opens up a world of plot seeds and rich storytelling possibilities.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I sense... a TPK

Running a successful tabletop RPG involves quite a bit of future-telling. When I prepare to hunker down behind the screen, I often find myself trying (and less often, succeeding) to anticipate how the upcoming game session will play out. There is a fine line every GM must walk between a game that feels like a movie about trains and a game that feels like... well... um... what do you guys do next?

I am still refining my methods for achieving the zen-like balance between well-crafted story and player-driven experience, and I occasionally wobble to one side or the other, but I have learned a few tricks to keep things from toppling into the abyss.

1. Know thy players and their PCs: One of the first things I try to do when designing an encounter or longer adventure is to approach the problem from my players' point of view. How will they try to solve this? If it is a fight, the sorceress will likely try to kill things with fire, the wizard will lay down AoE spells to hamper the enemy, the whole party will be hasted ASAP and the monk will charge in with fists flying. If the situation calls for sneaking, the rogue will use her ridiculous move silently, disguise and hide bonuses. If there is an obstinate NPC to win over, the bard will step in.

Understanding how your players operate (standard tactics, abilities, etc.) is a good first step, but can often feel frustrating, especially when trying to devise something that will actually present a challenge. I have come to the realization that it is much easier to run a campaign for low-level characters. Now that my group is around level 10, they have so many tools at their disposal that it is difficult to challenge them. Why slog across country for a week when you could teleport?

2. Know the rules: When designing a session, I find it is very valuable to brush up on the rules that are likely to come into play during each encounter. Clifftop fight? Review bull rush, falling damage and climb checks. Bargaining with the king? brush up on the rules for changing attitude and perhaps some of the softer spells like charm person or zone of truth

3. Personality goes a long way: This may not work for everyone, but I find that if I understand my NPCs' goals, favored tactics and personalities, I often don't need to flesh out the anticipated details of how a scene will play. I used to fear roleplaying encounters, but now find them much easier to prep than site-based events such as dungeon crawls, because all I need are a couple note cards and a willingness to act the part.

4. There are no wrong answers: or right answers for that matter. Last week, this idea really hit home as I watched my players wrestle with how to get into a city with heavily restricted access. They weighed options from disguising themselves as beggars, to a traveling show, to the Wookie subterfuge, to just offering to join the army. Eventually they realized that they have the ability to make themselves invisible, but the discussion around the table became a scene unto itself. This helped me realize that I don't always have to have an ideal solution in mind... which, while refreshing, can make it all the more difficult to anticipate the PC's next move.

Fellow GMs, do you have any tried and true techniques for ensuring strong preparation without railroading?

Separate, random question: How would you adjudicate a spell-caster who used Web to break his or her fall (i.e. blasting a magic safety net below) after falling from a particularly high spot?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The New Shiny

It’s the last day of Speak Out With Your Geek Out and, once again, I missed my midweek post. Oh well…

Okay, this may sound like a bit of a cop-out or catch-all, but I am an “idea geek” I love to learn and try new things! From new foods, to new places to new software, I constantly crave new knowledge. I soak it up! It’s weird though because, despite loving new things, I get really antsy about change. I also tend to become obsessed with particular subjects, which seems counterintuitive. Whether its politics or D&D or gardening or Minecraft or spaceflight, if I get into something, I want to know EVERYTHING about it.

One down side to my constant search for new ideas is that I often flit from one new shiny to the next, leaving the other by the wayside like yesterday’s discarded Popple. This works in tandem with the abovementioned obsessiveness to send my focus ping-ponging around to numerous ideas that fit within my obsession du jour

My love of new things has definitely manifested within my extended obsession with D&D. I have tried numerous game management styles, from a laptop running purpose-made DM software, to custom built Excel spreadheets, Word Docs, One Note, to printouts, hand-written notebooks, aaand notecards. I have invented and discarded house rules, character templates and uncountable planning and time management techniques. I often worry that my players feel overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the “so, I had an idea”s.

That being said, occasionally my dalliances with new things bear lasting fruit. Just last night, I tried an experiment inspired by TheSheDM over at My players ran across a slave-toting ogre panning for blighted blood rock along a river. Rather than plan out the map ahead of time, I decided to let the players draw what they saw. As they approached the river, I announced that they saw a river approximately 40’ wide with a bridge running across it, and let them draw the rest. The resulting battle map featured more tactical potential than anything my overworked mind would have come up with during my prep time. There were rocky stepping stones paralleling the bridge (with a mermaid drawn on one.) there were trees to provide concealment, a waterfall and a “zip line” which I converted to a rope that the ogre’s slaves used to keep from going over the falls as they panned.

During the course of the encounter, most of these features were not put to use, but having that potential made the fight feel more alive-at least to me. While I didn’t receive specific feedback from my players, they seemed to enjoy the experience and I suspect I will use the technique again. Hopefully this is one new shiny that will retain its luster for quite awhile.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out

Monica Valentinelli has launched a week of geek pride with her online effort, Speak Out With Your Geek Out. Given my oft-cited reasons for starting this blog, I jumped to participate when I learned about the project. SOWYGO asks participants to:
Take a stance against baiting nerd rage and stereotypes of geeks.
Post about how much you love your geeky hobbies or vocation from Monday, September 12th, 2011 to Friday, September 16th on your blog, website, social media account or in a forum somewhere. Then come here and tell us about it. We'll have a kick-off post where you can stand and be counted.
Let's show the world why we're awesome and why there is nothing wrong with being a geek.
So, for my first post of SOWYGO week, I would just like to reiterate exactly why I love to play D&D. 

Dungeons and Dragons has helped to revitalize my creative side. It has provided inspiration for artistic side projects that I had lost for a long time. It has also challenged me to sustain a single creative project over a long period of time. Even during my days of prolific artistic expression during my youth, I would struggle with extending drawing or other art projects beyond a single sitting. I have been running my current D&D storyline for almost 3 years now.

Dungeons and Dragons has helped me grow closer to my friends. Contrary to the stereotypical image of tabletop RPGers as socially inept do-nothings, I have found my gameplay experience to be quite the opposite. My players and I use our game much like a book club, poker night or other recurring gathering as an excuse to take a break from our busy lives and have fun with friends. It is decidedly social; We talk, we have dinner and we just happen to also roll dice and fight imaginary monsters.

I think SOWYGO is an admirable endeavor, if for no other reason than perhaps a kid, tossed about in the hormonally driven tempest that is high school will take heart that geeks often grow up to be more interesting people and... oh, sod it... the Oatmeal said it best.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Online Therapy

I apologize for missing all of my posts this week, I have been struggling with my writing. Not for my game or for my blog, but for work...which comes first. That's why I decided to join Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group (Though I question his choice of apostrophe placement). Members of the group will post on insecurities that stem from writing on the first Wednesday of every month. Yes, I know it's Saturday! I was feeling insecure!

On to my insecurities!

I research and write museum exhibits for a living, which is both the most awesome job in the world and one of the most frustrating and odd writing beasts I have ever wrassled.

Insecurity the first: The Illusion of Expertise
When writing for a museum, the first thing you do is go out and acquire an advanced level of knowledge on a particular subject. Sometimes the subject is something in which you are really interested, sometimes it is not. Because museums are culturally perceived as trusted sources of knowledge, outside observers begin to treat you as an expert on the subject you just scrambled to learn. While the attention is nice, this perception is entirely illusory. When writing an exhibit, you rely heavily on actual experts and feel like a bit of a charlatan when asked to field questions as someone who knows about stuff.

Insecurity the second: A Rare Beast
Museum text is a very strange writing format, due in large part to how it is read. The reader is typically looking for some combination of learning and entertainment when they visit the museum. he or she is also likely standing while reading your text and often juggling children, talking with their in-laws they brought along and otherwise being distracted. This means that you have to keep things short and snappy -my museum tries to keep things under 250 words per panel and we are verbose among our peers. You also need to account for the fact that many people do not read the whole panel -again, lots of stuff to distract. Therefore, it is important to include the most important information first. Since the reader is standing, you also need to make the text easy to scan quickly. This means short sentences (under 20 words is best), with active verbiage, few subordinate clauses and with the main clause coming first whenever possible. Oh, and it is also important to be incredibly accurate in your subject matter but interesting/entertaining at the same time.

Insecurity the third: Design by Committee
Museum writers do not just have one editor to please. You get opinions from EVERYWHERE. Your boss, other members of the exhibit team, subject matter experts in the field, members of the board, members of other departments, volunteers, and (after it's open) the general public. Further, the less connected with the project these people are, the more adamant their opinions. Your teammates might say, "hey, what if you did this?" beyond that circle, opinions generally come in as, "You need to make sure to include this." or "I noticed this egregious error in your text while visiting from Walla Walla last week." But in the end, the content quality of the exhibit falls on your shoulders... at least in your own mind. If the exhibit does poorly, or the public hates it, there is little comfort in saying, "well, I had to compromise here and there." You still feel lame.

Anyway, I am in the middle of a major project scheduled to open next spring. I already feel behind the curve, but can't push back the deadline (people at higher paygrades have made up their minds) and seem to have a heck of a time getting a moment of peace to actually write. All those opinions want me to produce extra documents and go to endless, rambling meetings to keep them in the loop about what they are not giving me the time to do.

Sigh. I promise to only dump work stuff in my single insecurity post each month. The rest is all fun and games.

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