Friday, August 30, 2013

Nerds on the Run

A few weeks ago, Matthew Inman posted a six part, autobiographical comic to his website, The Oatmeal. (If you are unfamiliar with the Oatmeal, it is a wonderful web comic site, full of truth, laughter and naughty words.) In this particular comic, Inman presented a very eloquent description of why he runs long distances.

See the whole comic here.
Reading that comic resonated with me in a major way. See, I used to be a runner in middle school and high school. However, after being forced to choose between participating in my high school's track team, whose season culminated in a trip to the state track meet in exotic Tacoma, Washington, and my high school's drama club, which was going to perform in Edinburgh, Scotland over the summer, I turned in my running shoes for stage makeup and a trip to Europe.

I haven't really run since then. I've tried from time to time, but could never really get back into it. I tried other things as well to stay in shape. I got gym memberships, lifted weights, ran on treadmills. I hated it. Gyms felt pointless. I always missed the sensation of running, but I was feeling too old and out of shape to get back into it.

Then I read that comic, and I thought... This. I need to do this. No more waiting. Time to beat the Blerch.

It was a sort of a perfect storm. I'm living right by my old high school, which is near a lake with a fairly flat 5k trail surrounding it. It is familiar territory. I used to run the lake during gym class and track in high school. I also finally had a pair of headphones that would stay in my ears while I ran. Finally, the comic served as a catalyst to get me out the door and on that trail.

I am on my fourth week of running twice a week.

When I run, I like to listen to music. It keeps me going. It distracts me from the creeping feelings of fatigue and the nagging voices in my head telling me it's okay to walk, or stop.

Being a nerd, I like to listen to NERDY music. I have two playlists that I have been running to. The less nerdy of the two is a mix of rock songs I like. It's got some Styx, some Nerf Herder, Jonathan Coulton, Flogging Molly, that sort of thing. This list works, because the songs have good beats to run to. Strong, but not too fast for a distance run.

The MORE nerdy of the two is mostly video game and fantasy soundtracks. These work for a different reason. The songs on this list are the epic soaring type that inevitably send a shiver up my spine. A little shot of endorphins to keep me moving. This list always starts with an orchestra playing the theme from the Legend of Zelda. I start my run imaging I'm Link booking across the open fields of Hyrule. Dorky, I know, but damn if it doesn't work. This list also has the Normandy theme from Mass Effect, the Battle music from the Chronicles of Narnia movie, the theme to the original Superman Movie... you get the picture. Again, the music that seems to work best is not necessarily the fastest stuff, but the songs that make me forget that my muscles are burning and my breath is wheezing and I still have half a lake to go.

Do any of you have workout playlists with this sort of nerdy music in them? Even if you don't, do you have any music that just makes you want to run? I built the playlists I'm using well before I started running again, and I've been meaning to refine them into the ultimate nerd running mix.

To put it another way, I'm looking for songs that might make me feel like this:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New Campaign Kick-off

From CopyPaperRepost

Mustering the Players

We had our first meeting for the new D&D campaign on Monday to talk about things like character progression, adventure plans and to do some shopping with the party's well-deserved spoils of war.

All of my players are back for the new adventure, and most are playing the same characters. The two whose characters were killed in the final battle of the last campaign decided to change things up a bit. Both elected to have their characters raised from the dead, which is a totally reasonable request what with them having just saved the sub-continent, if not the world.

The cleric's body was spirited out of the country by the members of her order before she was brought back. As her player put it, "she came back wrong." I should clarify that she didn't swing towards evil, though she did become more chaotic. She's also got a pretty big chip on her shoulder and looks to be shifting from upstanding tow-er of the church line to somewhat of a loose cannon. Maybe I should brush up on my "turn in your holy symbol and mace!" speech... "YOU'RE OFF THE CASE!"


Like this, but with more fur, claws and teeth.
Speaking of cop analogies, after being resurrected, the paladin pulled a Roger Murtaugh, declaring that she was "getting too old for this sh*t". I believe her decision was to retire to start a shrine to her nature deity in the valley where the PC's keep is located.

Her player decided to roll up an entirely new character, which is a bard/shadowdancer/were-bear. If you are familiar with the show Firefly, River Tam is very similar to a shadowdancer. They are incredibly graceful and deadly, and at higher levels can jump between shadows, so to envision this character, picture a dancing bear, who jumps between shadows while throwing knives at you.

I should just end the post here.

but I wont.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Make-it Monday: Player Survey

Here we go again on our owwwwn! *bwahm bwahm* Goin' down the only road I've ever knowwwwn!

Tonight is the first meeting of my D&D group ahead of the new campaign. While the evening is going to be taken up with character creation/leveling and general discussion about the road forward, I hope to be back to the actual dice rolling sometime after Labor Day.

Do you like George Wendt?
I also hope to approach this next campaign in a more systematic way than I began the last one. Several years of play have helped fill my DM toolkit, and I look forward to running a more focused and coherent adventure with a little less... sprawl. As part of that, I want to make sure this upcoming campaign gives my players plenty of what they crave (like electrolytes). In order to facilitate that sweet, smooth satisfaction, I whipped up a pre-campaign survey for this week's Make-it project.

The survey is just two pages to assess each player's preferences when it comes to play style, and things they look for in a game. Player surveys are nothing new to the world of tabletop RPGs. The version I created for my specific group, however is slightly different from many of the examples I found because my players have already been rolling around in my world for years. As such, I wrote some of the questions specifically to focus on the transition, rather than starting from scratch.

However! If you are interested in using a player survey for your game, I also created a more generic version that you can either download and/or borrow from to make your own players fill out a bunch of paperwork for your own personal amusement.

Get the survey here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Campaign Retrospective: Synthesis

Today, I want to talk about where inspiration comes from, and the little voice that tries to stifle it by pointing out how unoriginal your ideas are. I embarked on my first D&D campaign, in part, to prove to myself that I could sustain an interesting story over an extended arc. I like to think that the end result was a pretty unique tale and a unique experience for my players. However, my story was largely crafted by shamelessly ripping elements from existing stories, which I found inspiring.

Now that my first campaign is complete, I feel like I can discuss my inspiration in a bit more detail without spoiling things for my players. This post reveals, in very broad terms, the sources behind my campaign plot, and how I mixed them to suit my own ends.

The idea for the Westerlands began with a combination of two simple things. 1.) My infatuation with Muse's song, Knights of Cydonia, and 2.) My dissatisfaction with D&D's alignment system. I really wanted to create a campaign arc triggered by a Paladin's dilemma, which pit two essentially lawful good forces against each other.

As I began to flesh out the primary arc, I latched onto the rules for blight in the Heroes of Horror book. I decided to use these rules as a backdrop to a plot constructed by forcibly mashing elements from Hamlet into Macbeth. I added a wicked queen who kills a king and then uses her influence with her husband to hold onto control (Macbeth) In my story, she was actually plotting against the king while pushing him towards an evermore tyrannical rule, citing the need for order in a time of crisis. Meanwhile, the estranged brother of the king sets out to find what is causing the mysterious blight while simultaneously looking for the true murderer of the king (latter bit from Hamlet). The conflict builds through twists and turns until the brothers finally confront each other and the estranged prince summons his father's ghost to call out the true murderer (Hamlet). The queen is accused, forcing her to kill her husband to create confusion before making her escape.

With the country reunited, the players were left to deal with the blight. I turned to Conrad's Heart of Darkness to inspire the feel of the long journey into the blighted lands to the East. The players had to move past outposts where strange behavior was becoming more common as human needs ran up against scarcity, fueled by the influence of creeping evil.

Once the party reached the source of the blight in the mountains near an ancient, ruined capital, I turned to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for inspiration. I even had hobgoblin thugees, a corrupted ally and a minecart chase encounter planned. The cart chase never became necessary.

For the final battle, I didn't really draw from specific sources of inspiration, except to mine as many fantasy battle tropes as possible. The speech from Independence Day, an allied army of good vs. an army of evil nastiness, last minute reinforcements showing up to propel the protagonists through to the final confrontation. Flinging magic, squadrons of marauding skeletons, flying beasts… I basically just poured it all in before having the party confront the evil masterminds just as they were attempting to bring their grand plan to fruition.

That is the overall plot arc, but within that story, I drew inspiration from… to name a few:
  • Blazing Saddles
  • The Elenium
  • Ghostbusters
  • Harry Potter
  • Henry IV
  • Invader Zim
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • LOL Cats
  • Mass Effect
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Naruto
  • Night at the Museum
  • Star Trek

As I progressed through the campaign, and in my personal life went from an unempolyed, single 20-something to a full-time employed, married 30-something, I felt any anxiety about co-opting existing stories begin to fall away. Now, I never copied an existing property in its entirety, but felt no qualms about mining them for good ideas. Not only did this spirit of borrowing lead to a richer story, but it also served as an excellent time-saver while prepping around a busy life.

If you are getting ready to create a fictional story, whether it is a book, a play or film script, or a game, I encourage you to push the harping little voice that accuses you of unoriginality aside, because just as each new child is born of generations of previously existant people, so too can a unique story arise from existing good ideas.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Make-it Monday: Halloween Costume 2013 pt. 1

It is August, which means that it is high time around our crazy household to start planning our Halloween costumes. Crazy? Absolutely! but the Wife and I take Halloween super seriously, at least in terms of the effort we put into it. We have constructed join costumes every year that we've known each other, and if we don't have a plan by this time of year, I start hearing grumblings from my better half.

The Wife has actually had her costume idea for some time now. A while back she ran across a concept for a feathered cloak... probably from one of the drag queen  reality shows she is obsessed with. She latched onto the idea and decided that she wanted to go as some sort of dark raven queen. Okay Spork, what goes with raven queens?

Well, this weekend I figured it out! On Saturday, the wife and I went to the Bonney Lake Midsummer Renaissance Faire. As we wandered the aisles of shops selling wares of dubious historical accuracy and scoped out the colorful costumes of the fair-goers, I began to envision a costume anchored by a helm or crown with a pair of antlers protruding from the top.

Now please understand, that I'm thinking more Oberon or Cernunnos like this...

than something like this...

Anyway, as is my usual procedure when creating a costume from my imagination (rather than from a movie or other pre-existing creative property) my first stop was to HeroMachine to sketch things out. Here is what I came up with.

Behold! The Woodland King! Thus begins the long march towards Halloween 2013. We purchased some rabbit and coyote pelts at the fair to serve as costume elements, and the Wife has already began pricing fallen deer antlers. Making the hooves will require some sort of shoe-topper combined with fur leggings. Those and the helmet and/or crown will likely be the most challenging parts of this year's build.

I'll keep you posted as the costume progresses. Hopefully by starting early, this year's effort will be less stressful than last year's craziness.

P.S. The Wife and I tried out the axe throwing booth at the fair and both did surprisingly well for first timers! I stuck four axes in a row (clearing the target after the first three) and the Wife stuck three of hers! Moral of the story, don't mess with us when we're carrying axes!

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Introverted Gamer

There has been a lot of stuff buzzing around my webisphere lately about how to deal with introverts. Honestly, it seems to be popping up enough that I'm starting to feel like introversion is becoming a new trend, like twerking, or fake gluten intolerance.

I am both an introvert, and a gamer, which can make for an odd mix. Tabletop gaming is an inherently social activity, and for someone like me who relies on alone time to recharge, this can be problematic. My introvert self and gamer self have been butting up against each other a lot since the wedding. The wife and I registered for and received several board games as gifts that we've had our eye on for some time. We also came to realize that we have many people in our lives that we don't see often enough. In order to make use of our new games, and to spend more time with friends, we've started organizing regular game nights.

And that's when my brain started overloading.

See, as an introvert, I can only take a certain amount of scheduled social time. Even knowing that I have upcoming events on my calendar is enough to cause some degree of anxiety. If I find myself facing a weekend with three or more social obligations, there is a strong chance that I will short circuit before attending anything and just curl up on the couch. I don't even need to encounter the crowds to feel overloaded, just the thought is enough.

This is problematic, because the gamer in me is really excited to have a lot of free time and new games. I've started planning my next D&D campaign. I really want to have my players over to discuss some basic character advancement and game maintenance stuff. I want to go to friends' game nights. I want to get back to running Spirit of the Century. But as my schedule fills with other end of summer social events, my gaming self is forced to go into energy save mode just to maintain a sense of sanity.

On a certain level, it's funny, but it is also challenging, especially because the wife is both very extroverted and very much a planner. She likes to go to karaoke every Friday, and has started penciling in game nights for friends we haven't seen. When summer weddings, reunions and barbecues get added to the mix, I find myself wondering, on the edge of complete shutdown, when am I going to get a chance to just sit? Maybe paint some minis, or play some Skyrim?

The Wife is very aware of and understanding of my introversion, but it does mean that I need to actively bow out of jointly booked events from time to time. One of the wonderful things about our relationship is that we are okay doing our own separate things when one of us needs to socialize or rest. Unfortunately, sometimes its hard to tell when I am going to reach my lock-down point, and there have been a couple occasions lately where I've found myself in an otherwise "fun" situation feeling suddenly miserable and on the verge of panic? crying? screaming? running out the door? jumping through the window? curling up fetal? Don't get me wrong, I am doing something I like to do in these situations, but the surrounding stress and volume of events have turned fun into a chore.

So, if you are someone I hang out with IRL, and you have noticed me in a seemingly grumpy, borderline catatonic mood lately, I'm probably just suffering from social overload. I'm not trying to be a jerk, or the enemy of fun. I really just need some quiet, a snack, and maybe a book.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Make-it Monday: Character Organization in OneNote

This past week, I spent a lot of my spare time working to clean up my campaign OneNote. I started with the character section and plugged away until I had all of my non-player characters compiled into a relatively consistent format that at least lends the appearance of organization. Then, to celebrate, I made this nifty video where I show you exactly how I keep my characters organized! Hopefully this video will help spark some ideas in my fellow gamemasters for ways to better keep track of your cast of characters without getting totally bogged down in pages of crunch and/or description.

This is the second GM video I have made, and I have hit a couple stumbling blocks that make this particular type of video a bit frustrating to produce. First, my webcam software really does not like to play well with Adobe Premiere, which is my editor of choice. This means that I have to compile and edit any video that shows my face using the much more clunky Windows Movie Maker. Second, it took me several takes to pull this clip together without sounding like a complete stuttering buffoon, and even then I feel like I miss important points or spend to much time on boring stuff. Nevertheless, I want to be good at making videos, and I realize that the only way to get better is to practice!

Anyway, hopefully you enjoy the video, and if there is something else that you would like me to explain or demonstrate in a video format, let me know!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Between Campaigns: Planning and Re-Organization

Now that the wedding craziness has passed, I find myself slowly shifting back into D&D mode. I am currently in what I suspect is a rather rare situation: having successfully completed one campaign and gearing up to start another with (mostly) the same characters in the same world.

I am trying to use this intermission time to get my game notes in order so I can approach the next chapter with a better system of organization. This is not to say that I am changing my current system, just that I have not had a chance to fully implement it. Well, now I'm implementin'! and holy carp is it tedious to do so!

I've been trying to break my tasks into manageable chunks. The first step being to get the character records in my OneNote into a consistent format. Even this is proving daunting as I would often pull in stock descriptions from the 3.5 SRD website to avoid having to pull out a monster manual in the middle of a game, but when I had some time on my hands or was creating an NPC from scratch, I would use my own custom mini-stat template. If I was making a group of allies or baddies, I would often just shorthand a single block and then indicate a couple key stats to tweak up or down when rolling for the group's leader or other unique characters. Well, now that I am faced with getting my DM house in order, I look at this mix of desperate time-saving measures and I want to scream.

I'm sure I could move forward just fine without cleaning up my mess, but knowing that its there really bugs me. I also know that once we get wrapped up in the next campaign that I will never get around to cleaning up this pile, so I need to do it now, or not at all.

While I'm busy on my own trying to get my notes organized, my players and I are also starting to plan out some intermission sessions. These will be less formal get togethers to discuss things like how to incorporate any character swaps, what improvements to make to the party's base of operations and to go shopping with all of their reward money from saving the world.

Have you ever had to get organized between games, or even other creative projects? How do you handle it? Is it worth it?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Card Hunter Beta

I have been playing a lot of Card Hunter over the past week or so. In case the trailer I posted last week when I released some beta keys wasn't clear (it really wasn't), Card Hunter is a Flash-based game by developer, Blue Manchu.

My party getting ready to battle a bunch of kobolds
The game offers a unique take on turn-based RPGs. While most RPG videogames have you take on the role of the characters in the made up world itself, Card Hunter adds a framing story that holds you one level above the fantasy adventure. Rather than taking on the role of human warrior, dwarven cleric or elven wizard, you are a guy sitting at a table playing these characters in a tabletop RPG run by a dorky guy named Gary with occasional snide commentary from his more experienced DM brother, Melvin. So, it's sort of like Chess Master?

The frame story also ties in the game's money-making scheme. Though it is free to play, there are certain options that can only be purchased with pizza (one of the in-game currencies) and pizza can only be purchased with real money. Gary occasionally throws a few slices your way as a sort of tutorial on how the system works (first taste is always free), but certain special levels, decks and character portraits will require real money to unlock.

The game is clearly an homage to old school D&D. The class and race options, monsters, place names and even the visual design all hearken back to early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. The gameplay in Card Hunster differs from D&D however, in that all of your actions are determined by decks of cards tied to each character (hence Card Hunter). The specific cards in a deck are granted by items like weapons, armor or shields, or by a character's racial or class traits. You can adjust your deck by switching out items, and as your character levels, they gain more potential item slots.

The encounter intro screens have a wonderfully old-school feel
Each adventure consists of a series of skirmishes in which your characters must battle against Gary's baddies. Most are straight up fights, though some encounters have the added option of occupying victory spaces in order to earn points towards the encounter's resolution. Once the baddies are dead, and/or your victory star meter fills up, you win, collect your loot and move onto the next battle. In between skirmishes, intro screens designed to look like old-school game books provide a basic storyline to flesh out each adventure.

The card-based gameplay makes for a quick and addictive experience. You should be able to burn through a fight in about 5-10 minutes, and an adventure in about 1/2 hour. One thing that I have noticed, as my characters have begun to level up and earn bigger decks is that it is more common for me to draw a useless hand. While my hands in early levels, were almost always a mix of movement cards and attacks, now that my decks are bigger, I'll occasionally get a bunch of moves when I need an attack, or several attacks when I'm clear across the room from my enemy. I try my best to balance the variety in my deck, but with no way (that I know of) to reduce the number of cards, the chances of drawing a good mix seem to be dropping as my levels go up.

My center character's deck has 4 move cards and just 1 short range attack!
The levels can also honestly get a bit redundant after a while. While this is good because it keeps the game quick to pick up and get back into, I would love to see a couple more bells and whistles in the final release. Perhaps deadly terrain that characters can get pushed into? or objectives with a round limit to complete? Collectible drops that help forward an encounter? I'd also love to see a ranged attack class other than the wizard, perhaps a thief or ranger.

Hopefully some of the minor gameplay issues like the card mix will be addressed before the game gets out of beta. Until then, I will continue to enjoy my beta test experience. If I get more keys thrown my way, I'll be sure to post about it here, so keep your eye on the blog.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Make-it Monday: Papercraft, Halls of the Mountain King

Awhile back I went on a wicked Kickstarter bender, and among the several (mostly gaming related) projects I backed was a new papercraft set from Fat Dragon Games. The Kickstarted Halls of the Mountain King features some impressive dwarven architecture in the best tradition of Tolkien. 

Last night, the Wife and I sat down and started assembling the primary feature of the set, a bunch of big-ass stone pillars! Working together, we managed to get four knocked out in a couple hours. It's always hard to tell just how many of a certain item are supposed to be included in a papercraft set, since you print and assemble everything, but I suspect that the pillars are intended to be produced in sets of six. I draw this conclusion based on the fact that the top pieces come six to a sheet and the bases come three to a sheet.

Four fully assembled pillar tiles with minis for scale
I'm quite pleased with how everything looks so far, and especially happy that the pillars are designed to come off the bases for easier storage!

The basic pillar tile unit

with pillar removed for storage
This was the first time the Wife has helped me out with a papercraft project, and I gotta say, she works a lot faster than I do! I may need to enlist her aid on such things more often.

The finished product makes for quite the dramatic encounter.

Long, long ago...

On an entirely separate creative note, the Wife and I launched into our post-wedding reorganization with gusto this weekend, and while digging through an old portable file cabinet, I stumbled on a play I co-wrote with my friend Jon in college. It was one of those wild and reckless projects, written over one or two alcohol-fueled nights with little regard for editing or nuance.

The play is called Lando, and it is a 24 page tale in the spirit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but requiring far less brain power. It explores the off-screen happenings of the minor characters in Cloud City during the final act of Empire Strikes Back. It's ridiculous and farcical, and I was surprised just how much I laughed reading it over a decade later. I'm not sure if it's actually funny, or if I'm just reading it in the voice of myself and my co-author.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Card Hunter Beta Keys

Hi everyone!

I just got a couple keys for the beta of the D&D-esque computer game, Card Hunter! If you are interested in a key, let me know in the comments! I only have a couple, so first come first served.

Learn more about Card Hunter here.

Inventory Management

Nodwick by Aaron Williams

If you play tabletop RPGs or any videogame that involves the collection of stuff with limited space and/or weight capacity, you are no doubt familiar with inventory management. That is the time, often when you have either reached your storage limit, or when you have just reached a major accomplishment, when you go through your inventory organizing all your stuff, keeping what you need and selling or discarding what you don't.

Well, the Wife and I have entered into a real life phase of inventory management post-wedding. Think of the wedding as an end boss that we have just kicked the crap out of. We have some gear that we picked up specifically to help defeat it, but did not use (leftover booze, tableware, etc.) We also have received some phat lootz (wedding presents) for defeating Wedding. Finally, we have all of the disorganization caused in our lives as we rushed headlong into battle marriage, which we neglected in the chaos, but which now stare us in the face every time we get home from work. It's time to get all this nonsense organized!

After our honeymoon spent in rather austere surroundings, the Wife, and to a slightly lesser extent, myself, got the bug to put things in order and trim the fat from our lives. We are planning out ways to declutter our house, prioritizing those things that are important to us (like games) while culling those that are no longer useful (posters from college). Some of the culled items will go into storage, others will get donated to Goodwill, some will go into the trash.

Hopefully we are actually able to stick with this inventory management plan, as I know we both feel more relaxed when we are in a relatively clean home. Unfortunately, if videogames have taught me anything, an organized inventory only lasts so long before you find yourself carrying around 275 pounds of brooms.

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