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.

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