Monday, July 25, 2011

Danburudoa wa, sunde iru!

My friend and steam-powered bodice-ripping author, Olivia Waite recently posted on romance in the Harry Potter series with quite an amusing aside into the tawdry world of fan-fic. Anyway, when I saw this lovely image this morning, I felt compelled to post it as a sort of visual response/compliment to the fan-fiction section of Olivia's post and really as yet another attempt to sexify some otherwise very awkward characters.

Can you say Hogwart's Host Club?

P.S. I have the British version of the first Harry Potter book! I read it in a garrett apartment in Oxford... jealous!?

Friday, July 22, 2011

What is Your Preparation?

Sad Knight is sad.

Back in college I participated in a study abroad program with the Oxford School of Drama*. One of the acting professors for the program was a grumpy Transylvanian  man named Robert Fried (pronounced fhreed with a slight roll to the 'r'). One of Mr. Fried's favorite utterances, other than various epithets about "penetrating your mother" was, "Vhat is your preparation?" See, Mr. Fried was an adherant of the Stanislavski system of acting, which involves channeling one's own past experiences (read: emotional baggage) into a scene in order to trigger a more "realistic" performance. Now, while this technique represents many of the things I loathe about acTOR culture (narcissism, name dropping/mentor worship, over-psychoanalyzing), learning to develop "triggers" that can inform character choices and drive scenes is a very useful skill for actors, authors and GMs alike.

Early this week, I sat down with a fellow GM for a nerdstorming session to help me plan for my Thursday night game. As we were throwing around ideas for an upcoming encounter, my friend asked, "What is the ideal outcome for this character in this situation?" A light bulb went on, the floodgates opened and mental block walls came crashing down. That one simple sentence "What is the ideal outcome?" was the trigger for which I had been searching.

When I thought about it, it made a tremendous amount of sense. Whenever I find myself faced with a problem, challenge and or conflict, I always have a desired result in mind:

  • My mom will let me have ice cream for dinner
  • The prisoner will come along quietly
  • I'll kill the boar with the first thrust of my spear and the village will have snacks!
If something threatens to derail that ideal, I will drive over around or through the obstacle to try and reach it.

A character's ideal outcome helps inform the tactics he or she will use when faced with a conflict. A lawman who wants to bring a prisoner to justice will likely use different tactics from a bounty hunter whose ideal outcome is getting the reward. Of course, the actual outcome rarely follows the envisioned ideal. The ideal runs face first into obstacles like the environment, lack of resources, and/or the differing ideals of others. Those differences are what generate the conflict and excitement in a scene.

After the nerdstorming discussion, I decided to add a summary of each NPC's ideal outcome into the notes for each encounter I was planning. While preparing for the game, I found this helped me plan for more inherently exciting encounters and to create excitement out of things other than "OGRES! you all draw weapons!" During the actual game, as I played the parts of these NPCs, I kept that ideal firmly in my mind and directed their actions accordingly. Using the ideal as a guidepost helped me feel more comfortable with less preparation and, I felt resulted in some NPC encounters with more nuance and life to them.

Now, "what is the ideal outcome?" might not work as a trigger for everyone. Some people may prefer building their character interactions around props, physical mannerisms, voices or even catch phrases. I have tried all of these with varying degrees of success. Whatever your trigger, I find that having a clear, simple guide point on which you can hang your character helps tremendously in preparing more exciting scenes and then putting them into play.

* It sounds way more prestigious than it actually is as the school is not directly affiliated with any of the Oxford colleges, but is located in Oxfordshire.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lord of the Bricks

Clearly, I need more Legos!

Check out the description and photos of a project that recreated many of the iconic sets and scenes from the Lord of the Rings for the 2011 BrickWorld in Chicago.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

36 Dramatic Situations

Newbie DM has a post up today that references Georges Polti's, The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations. Back in the 19th century, Polti attempted to categorize every foreseeable source of drama by analyzing numerous classic works of literature. His work first came to my attention during my undergraduate days studying theater. However, in the intervening decade (really!?) I forgot the title of the work, and so was overjoyed to have my memory jogged today.

The categories Polti came up with are as follows:

  1. Supplication
  2. Deliverance 
  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance 
  4. Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred 
  5. Pursuit 
  6. Disaster 
  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune 
  8. Revolt 
  9. Daring Enterprise 
  10. Abduction 
  11. The Enigma 
  12. Obtaining 
  13. Enmity of Kinsmen 
  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen 
  15. Murderous Adultery 
  16. Madness 
  17. Fatal Imprudence
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love 
  19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized 
  20. Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal 
  21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred 
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion 
  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones 
  24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior 
  25. Adultery 
  26. Crimes of Love 
  27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One 
  28. Obstacles to Love 
  29. An Enemy Loved 
  30. Ambition 
  31. Conflict With a God 
  32. Mistaken Jealousy 
  33. Erroneous Judgment 
  34. Remorse 
  35. Recovery of a Lost One 
  36. Loss of Loved Ones
In list form, a lot of these beg for clarification. Is "murderous adultery" (#15) necessary as a separate category from the run-of-the-mill variety (#25)? What is the difference between "enmity" and "rivalry" of a kinsman (#13 & 14)? Does he mean kinsman in the Protestant Jesus way so that it includes, guys you hang out with? Shouldn't "mistaken jealousy"(#32) be a subcategory of "erroneous judgment"(#33)? Fortunately, the actual work provides further explanations for and examples of these situations as taken from classic literature -often Greek.* 

Anyway, I look forward to adding Polti's categorization to my Kindle, and to my DM toolkit as I feel it has a lot of potential as a source of inspiration. I have also added it to the Plot Garden page on this here blog. My only question is, where does man vs. food fit in, ambition or daring enterprise?

* because they knew how to make things horrible for their characters!

Monday, July 18, 2011

He's Crafty!

So, I'm supposed to be preparing to launch the third act of my campaign this week, which meand I of course found it necessary to procrastinate and do nothing of the sort this weekend. Rather than prepping for my upcoming session, I launched into a crafting project that I have been itching to undertake for quite some time: I built my own custom GM screen.

During the two and a half years I have been running this game, I have never used a screen. This is partly because I used to run my game from a laptop, which served as a sort of screen in itself, and partly because I run an out-of-print version of the game, making appropriate screens difficult to come across. Well, recently I started looking at custom built screens and finally decided to take the plunge.

Here's what I used:


  • 3 pieces of foam core scrounged from work (approx 10" x 16" each)
  • duct tape
  • 12 mylar photo corners
  • Elmer's Glue
  • 3 binder clips
  • Scrap-booking paper with Japanese dragons printed on it


  • Metal straight edge
  • Matte knife
  • Cutting mat
  • Popsicle stick <-- Perfect for spreading glue
  • Junk mail <-- Perfect as a drop cloth when spreading glue

Making the Screen:

  1. I laid the foam core down end to end and joined it along the GM- facing side with duct tape.
  2. I trimmed the two outside sheets of foam core to 10" x 12" to allow for a better fit on my table
  3. I trimmed my scrap-book paper to fit the foam core.
  4. I glued the sheets of paper to the foam core backing and used the metal straight edge to burnish it smooth. (I had to do this because the foam core had previously used museum signage on one side.)
  5. I measured and marked the desired position for each stat sheet on the GM side of the screen and mounted each sheet with mylar photo corners. This will allow me to easily swap out stat sheets if I play a different system or have need of a special reference at some point.
  6. I clipped the three binder clips to the top of the screen, which will allow me to display maps, visual aids or other references for the players.

I am quite pleased with the results of my afternoon's effort. While it may not be as professional looking as a store bought screen, the foam core makes for a much cleaner looking structure than cardboard, and the photo-corner system adds some excellent versatility not available in an off-the-shelf screen.

I am also once again toying with some modifications to my game management technique. There have been quite a few articles floating around lately that discuss ways to run games from index cards, and I just got run over by the bandwagon. During the last adventure I ran, I found myself being forced to choose between flipping back and forth in my notebook if an NPC or monster appeared in more than one encounter, or transcribing the same stat block multiple times. Well, in an effort to solve this particular inefficiency, I created an NPC card template that can be printed on a 4x6 index card and easily moved between encounters when running a game.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: Narnia Exhibit, or Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious

After entertaining the girlfriend's 8 year old brother for over a week, we decided to take an adult vacation by heading down to Portland, OR with my family... which included two 4 year olds. : \ 4+4=?

Anyway, on Sunday, we took a trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) which was featuring The Chronicles of Narnia, the Exhibition. The exhibit attempts to do something very unique and, in my opinion, admirable by using the fictional universe depicted in the films (let's be honest, the exhibit wasn't really about the books) as a vehicle for teaching real-world scientific concepts.

For example, one section uses Jadis, the White Witch's attempt to cover Narnia in perpetual winter as a way to discuss real-world climate change. Another discusses architecture and design as they relate to the functionality of castles in Narnia and the real world. Having previously helped install the Harry Potter exhibit (BTW, I develop museum exhibits for a living) I found the attempt to include educational content in a major "theme-park style" exhibit very refreshing. Harry Potter doesn't make any attempt to be educational and, in fact, contractually forbids venues from attempting to add their own educational content into the same exhibit space! So, I find it admirable that Disney made a serious effort to educate with Narnia.

That being said, the exhibit has a couple shortcomings. First, the broad array of scientific and engineering concepts addressed in the exhibit results in a slightly disjointed feel. As opposed to an exhibit with a strong central theme, Narnia feels like a sort of closet, or wardrobe, into which a mishmash of ideas has been tossed. Second, using a fictional universe to address issues like climate change just begs for a denier to draw the parallel that global warming is as made up as the minotaur and centaur mannequins peppered through the gallery. Perhaps it is not the best way to generate serious dialogue on such issues.

Still, I appreciated the effort.

P.S. what is up with the automatically loaded music on the Harry Potter and Narnia exhibit websites!? Were they made in Geocities in 1998!?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fantastic Holidays: Even Barbarians Need a Vacation

I took a break on Monday for the 4th of July. Ate some grilled food, threw frisbees at an 8 year old on the beach and watched things explode in various colors. So, now that I'm back, I would like to talk about made up holidays.

One quick way to add a sense of depth to a fantasy culture is to come up with a number of holidays that they celebrate throughout the course of a year. Developing fantastical holidays is fairly simple and is simply a matter of figuring out what is being celebrated, and how it is being celebrated.

What is being celebrated:
Most holidays celebrate an event of major importance for a culture. These can be cyclically occuring events such as the start of spring, the completion of the harvest, or the beginning of a new year. Many holidays also celebrate the anniversary of an important event that occurred during the culture's past. Such events might include the birth or death of a king or religious figure (e.g. Christmas and Good Friday), the founding of a nation and/or a great military victory, the completion of a major cultural project, or simply be a symbolic gesture not tied to an historic date, but honoring something the culture deems important (e.g. Memorial day or Pi day).

In general terms, the events deemed worth celebrating most often relate to survival, religion or politics or some combination of the three.

Some examples of celebration-worthy events in a typical high fantasy world might include:

  • The ascension of a great hero to divine status.
  • The arrival of an annual migrating food source.
  • The anniversary of the defeat of a horrible monster.
  • The mystical alignment of the planes which refills the source of magic in the world.

How it is celebrated:
The events that take place on a holiday often relate in some way to the subject of the celebration. Harvest celebrations are often celebrated with feasting, religious events include services, pilgrimages and/or sacrifices to the pertinent Gods. Politically affiliated holidays often include some display of generosity by the ruler, parades or other manifestations of national identity.

Some examples ways a fantasy culture might celebrate

  • Sacrifice animals or people to ensure an annual flight of dragons passes over the realm without incident.
  • The wizard's guild launches a magical light show to celebrate the birthday of their founding.
  • The seafaring tribes roast the largest animal caught during the summer kraken harvest.
  • Worshippers of the Sun God stand vigil through the longest night of the year to ensure that their deity will return.
Incorporating one or two such celebrations into a fantasy novel or game world culture can add flavor and depth to your world, and can offer up opportunities for story development -what happens if the Sun God doesn't return?

Perhaps my most successful inclusion of a holiday in my own game world was when my players defeated a vampire who planned to ruin the summer solstice celebration by opening a massive portal to the plane of shadow thus covering the land in perpetual darkness. In this case, a typical celestial religious observance expanded into something greater when I asked, how would other religions get in on the act? I decided that the followers of the god of rogues, revelry and mischief (think Bacchus or Loki) would launch a sort of trick-or-treat by raiding the households of their neighbors. In hopes of preventing the loss of true valuables, the neighbors would hang their small clothes out their windows hoping the raiders would take those instead.

Anyway, in my game, my players were just leaving the vampire's lair with a massive pile of loot when this celebration was beginning. They ended up as the toast of the rogues' district.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: Ticket to Ride

In honor of the 8 year old guest running around our house this week, game night was spent playing Ticket to Ride instead of D&D. Ticket to Ride feels like a cross between Settlers of Catan and Take Off! Players compete to earn the most points by completing rail routes between cities across the U.S. To complete a route, players turn in colored train cards that correspond to the color and amount listed on the route. Players also receive mission cards that award bonus points for connecting distant cities, but are penalized for unfinished missions at the end of the game. The game ends when the first player runs out of plastic rail cars.

Ticket to Ride is a game with a very simple premise and quick learning curve which I suspect has the potential to become deeply strategic: Do you attempt to complete your mission cards immediately? Do you make a grab for several core routes early on that will allow you to complete multiple missions later? Do you just focus on gaining your routes, or go on the offensive to block other players' access to their mission goals. Do you draw a bunch of mission cards hoping to complete multiple missions, or reduce the risk of an end-of-game penalty by focusing on your initial missions? Apparently the game has a pretty avid following, which includes international tournament play. I am both intrigued and a little terrified to look into how the "pros" play.

At $50 from the FLGS, Ticket to Ride is a bit rough on the pocket book, but certainly within the limits of normal game pricing these days. However, after tonight, I have no regrets about the purchase, and do not doubt that we will play quite a bit in the future.

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