Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Association Fantasy

Okay, I'm posting this a day early. Why? Because I'm really excited? Why? Because my blog just set a new personal high for monthly viewership. FURTHERMORE, it is super close to getting over 2,000 monthly views for the first time EVAR. I know that's teeny-weeny beans in the grand data flow that is the internet, but for my little corner of the web, it's a significant milestone. Can I get the remaining 40 views by the end of tomorrow? I sure as heck hope so!

Now, let's cut to the chase. Fantasy art is weird and classic fantasy art is downright nutzo! Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the work of folks like Frazetta and Vallejo, but the situations these folks dream up are not just fantastic, but often hard to wrap your mind around. I'm fairly certain most of them reflect a deep-seated anxiety over their inability to find clean pants.

Well, I have decided that I will help interpret some of these seminal (heh... seminal) works of fantasy art for you, my lovely readers.



First, we have the piece, Two-headed Dragon by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell. This lovely painting depicts the lithe widow Higgenbottom pleading with her neighbor and fellow gardening enthusiast, Mr. Francis Whipple to help her coax her pet, Smokey, down from the top of the magnolia tree.

The painting captures the moment when Mr. Whipple, frustrated by the stubborn Smokey, prepares to cut away the branch on which the pet is perched. 

"I'm sorry Gladys, but we've exhausted all options. We need to either leave out a can of food and wait, or trust in his ability to land on his feet."

Anyway, let me know if you like this bit, and I'll try to do some more.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Penny Dreadful in 2012 Dollars

Hallo, my readers!



Last week, an old college roomie reached out to me about a web project he's working on called Turnskin. After checking it out for myself, I am excited to recommend it to you, my readers and especially to my writer-readers.

The premise is interesting. A fictional character posts to a blog about a series of bizarre events happening in her life. The tone of the project is really intriguing. It's inspired by old penny-dreadfuls, but set in contemporary Los Angeles. This makes for an eclectic mix of pulpy, noirish first-person voice with contemporary situations. This excerpt from the first post illustrates what I mean.

So far the only person who knows is my buddy Spencer.  He’s not the ideal person for something like this – he has that sweet but clueless vibe that characterizes a lot of guys in their early twenties.  Still, I’ve known him since I was a girl; we’re pretty tight, and I had to tell someone, right? 
The morning after the incident I went to see him at the video store on Pico where he works.  He took a fifteen and we walked down to the 7/11 for a Red Bull.  I hadn’t slept much; the bruises around my eye had darkened to a scary purple-gray and the scabs on my lips and chin had crusted over all gruesome-like.  As we stood around on the street talking about my ordeal, Spencer gaped at them, his eyes all huge and nervous. 
When I finished, he glanced around the street and started chewing on one of his fingernails.  He was trying to think how to respond.  My instincts had been right – Spencer wasn’t ready for something like this, but at least he was visibly resisting his first impulse: to tell me I was friggin’ nuts. 
Anyway, I recommend you check it out, I've been thoroughly entertained by the first fledgling posts. Also, my prediction as to the heart of the matter- wereodile... definitely wereodile.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Long, long ago...

I know the Star Wars prequels are over a decade old at this point, and in that time there has been a lot of speculation on why they are "TEH SUXXORS". I freely admit that I firmly side with the George Lucas has lost his mind/talent/whatever side of the argument. I also, however, recognize that we perceive time as a uni-directional flow that we cannot control or revise after the fact. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot to learn from the botch job Lucas did on his otherwise beloved world. Though we can't fix Star Wars, we can learn from his mistakes and the potential amazingness that could have been.

Anyway, this morning I saw an excellent video put together by a Jason Biggs lookalike which presents an amazing vision of how good Episode I could have been. The video is 12 minutes long and contains not only a reimagining of Star Wars but also a lot of excellent advice on how to craft an engaging story. Check it out!


Also, if you are interested in reading my own long-winded rant, which uses D&D archetypes to describe how the prequel trilogy completely botched Anakin's story, let me know and I'll buy a bottle of whiskey to get the juices flowing.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A fate worse than death?

...or at least more interesting.

The death of a player character is something every GM must face from time to time. Though the role of game master is not supposed to be strictly adversarial, the real risk of character demise is an important contributor to the excitement of the game. However, under certain circumstances, PC death might not be the most appropriate outcome, but neither is letting the players completely off the hook.









A past GM of mine introduced me to the tactic of a fate "more interesting" than death. This technique is useful in the event of the otherwise "accidental" demise of a character (i.e. one that occurs out of the blue, perhaps due to bad rolls, during some activity that is otherwise inconsequential to the plot.)  For example, a dwarven fighter I played in this GM's campaign was attempting to lead a pack horse across a makeshift bridge over a deep chasm. The GM had me make a check to see how well I coaxed the animal across. I rolled a 1 (critical fail). The horse balked and slipped off the bridge. She then had me roll a balance check to see if my character maintained his footing. Another 1 (critical fail again!) Based on a strict interpretation of the worst possible two rolls in a row, my character should have been dwarf pate on the bottom of the gorge. Done in during an otherwise routine skill check crossing a bridge.

The GM, however, decided to take a more creative approach to this critical failure. Rather than killing me off, she had my character land hard, taking damage on a ledge partway down the cliff side. This set up a spontaneous encounter wherein the other players had to figure out a means for extracting me. The GM also added a caveat to my character's miraculous survival. She declared that the experience had so traumatized him that he now carried a permanent and crippling fear of heights. Almost as disabling to an adventurer as an arrow to the knee... but also an excellent catalyst for future role playing.

A couple weeks ago, my group had its first real encounter with player death. Others had been brought to a "dying" state, but this was the first time a strict interpretation of the rules should have meant "dead". Unlike my dwarf's experience, this death occurred in the middle of a major fight. So, why didn't I go through with it? Well, in this case, the consequences were largely out of the control of the person playing the should-be-deceased. His character had been immobilized by a spell and one of the enemies had put a knife to the PC's throat initiating a bit of a standoff. One of the other players had a chance to act ahead of the neck-stabber, but chose to attack her current target rather than responding to the threat. Neck-stabby stabbed and the immobilized player failed the check that would have saved his character. In this case, the situation felt a bit like this scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.


Though the knight declares, "he chose poorly" after Donovan gets all old and stuff, he didn't really choose at all. He let Ilsa choose for him (I know, handing off the decision is a poor choice in and of itself, shut up!) The point is, Donovan's fate, like that of my player's character was out of his control. So, rather than let the PC die due to the choice of of a fellow player not to intervene, I decided to invoke the fate more interesting than death. I dropped his character to a single hit point above completely dead (essentially bleeding out). This gave his companions a second chance to help. However, I also decided that the scar on the character's neck would remain, despite magical healing... a tell-tale mark branding a roguish character who often relies on disguise. If my fantasy world had a stock market, I would invest in scarves.

If a similar situation came up in the future, I'm not sure if I would take the same route, or if I would make the players burn some time, dough and xp getting their friend resurrected. After all, that's part of the fun, right?


Friday, February 17, 2012

Nerds, in Spaaaaaaaace!

Some philosopher... or maybe it was a super spy penned something about not mixing business with pleasure... and yet, here I go.

Note: to those of you who know the phrase, I am about to Craig the heck out of the following comic/joke.

I am an avid reader of Penny Arcade. If you are not familiar, you probably care nothing for video games, but to sum up in non-gamer layman's terms, the characters of PA are the Siskel and Ebert of the game industry, delivered in comic form with a lot more naughty jokes. Maybe they are actually more like the reincarnation of a nerdy Oprah... if she could send out spores in the form of two white guys even before she died... My point is, they bring a lot of joy and help a lot of people, which is part of why I enjoy their stuff. The other part is naughty jokes.

Anyway, their comic this morning dealt with a topic that I have been bathing in at work for the past year. No, not marketing gimmicks for Mass Effect 3... Space!

Penny Arcade from 2/17/2012


Anyway, I love that the comic brings up the topic of space, however, I feel an uncontrollable compulsion to pick apart the thesis of Bob Mass Effect in the strip. I think it's a wonderful opportunity to teach you lovely readers about the often misunderstood details of Spaaaaaaaaaaace!

To start, the marketing guy says they would like to send a gamer into "low Earth orbit on a weather balloon." Wonderful idea! Totally not possible! Why? In one word "speed" or in three words "not enough speed." In order to orbit, an object  (e.g. spacecraft, weather balloon or frozen gamer) must be traveling fast enough so their forward movement counteracts the Earth's gravity... or rather works precisely with the Earth's gravity to bend their path to match the curvature of the Earth (i.e. they fall "around" the planet) the space shuttle and International Space Station both operate in low Earth orbit and must maintain a speed of about 17,500 mph to stay there. Weather balloon? not so much. This 1954 video from Disney includes an excellent description of how this works... the relevant stuff begins at about 1 minute in.



The other problem statement the character makes is that the final destination of the nerdcicle would not be "space space". This one's a little trickier. If the weather balloon is actually going to where weather balloons operate, he's correct. They typically go up somewhere around 100,000 feet-not actually into space. However, if the assertion is that low Earth orbit is not "space space", things get a little fuzzy. Why? nobody has bothered to draw a dotted line in the sky and put up a signpost reading, "now entering space."



So where does space begin? Technically, low Earth orbit includes the last two layers of the Earth's atmosphere, the Thermosphere and the Exosphere, because the air doesn't just stop... it sort of fades away (and changes into free-roaming atoms). That being said, international treaties recognize space as beginning at a place called the Karman Line at 100km (62 miles) up. This is where the air gets too thin for it to affect wing surfaces. NASA, has their own definition. They assign "you made it to space!" astronaut wings to anyone who travels higher than 50 miles up.

Finally, the notion that someone would freeze solid in space is problematic. Our own internal body temperature prevents the flash-freezing so often depicted in movies. Since space is a vacuum, it is actually a really poor conductor of heat. We use less-perfect vacuums in Thermoses for just that reason. An unprotected human in Earth orbit would likely get a horrible sun burn before they froze. Check this out for more details on what space does to unprotected bodies.

I say this stuff not to put down the comic. It's a really funny strip, and I could totally see a marketing guy delivering that exact pitch. However, I also get frustrated by the frequent miunderstandings and misrepresentations of space that appear all the time in the media, including coverage of EA's actual marketing stunt.

Oh, what a Wonderful World

The Colossus was a nut-shot waiting to happen.


This week, Critical Hitter, Bartoneus posted another edition the Architect DM, which happens to be of one of my absolute favorite sources of world-building inspiration. The latest installment, titled "Seven Wonders of Your World" uses the seven wonders of our own ancient world as a model for spicing up your own fantasy setting. I know when I sit down to describe a new setting in my game, I often have to remind myself:

"look, Sporky, they have magic and stuff here. It's okay to include things that would otherwise be architecturally impossible, so throw some of that extra spiciness into the mix! mmkay!? Lava geysers in the throne room? No problem. Flying towers? Please! That's old hat!"

After reading  Bartoneus's post, I started thinking about some of the "wonderful" elements my favorite fantasy authors have included to spice up their own worlds. Some examples that popped to mind include:

The White Tower and the Stone of Tear from Wheel of Time
Cherek Bore from the Belgariad
Basilica of Chyrellos from the Elenium
Don't even get me started on the architecture from LOTR!
The Archives from the Kingkiller Chronicles (A big lightless room containing every book ever written!?)
The Wall and that big colossus thing from A Song of Ice and Fire

You see what Bartoneus and now I'm getting at? These things stick in your mind ("colossus thing" = really specific). They make you want to go to there. Anyway, I then started thinking about my own game world and was pleased to discover that I already had a few elements that make excellent candidates for Wonders of My World. Specifically:

The Spires of Panthium
The great gnomish Repository (another big, windowless box of knowledge)
The dwarven city of Clangathar (built in a massive cave said to be the Earth-womb that birthed their god)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Truth is Out There

and I have found it!



Game designer, Jason Bulmahn posted a link to a meme on his Facebook page this morning. The basic premise of the meme is a that a thoroughly soused warrior type has been pondering deep, philosophical thoughts in the depths of his cups. On the surface, the Cayden conspiracies are good for several chortles and even a few guffaws. Beyond that though, they may very well offer up a goldmine of plot hooks or flavor text for GMs and fantasy authors alike. As much as we may roll our eyes at real life conspiracy nuts, that kind of stuff is storytelling gold!

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