Friday, November 29, 2013

Game Maps and Notes From My First Adventure EVAR!

In my continued rummagings through my very first DM binder of 20 years ago, I came across the maps and notes I drew up for the very first adventure I ever ran.

The girl I was dating at the time (read getting caught making out on people's couches like the uber-jerk I was at that time in high school) had an interest in D&D I think largely due to her dad. The basement of their house was AWESOME. Wall to wall shelves of dad's fantasy paperbacks and game books.

Well, she and some of our other friends wanted to get a game up, but we had no DM... of course, I said I'd do it. What's the big deal? I thought. I had previously played and run a lot of HeroQuest and Dragon Quest games. I really liked THOSE. how hard could it be!?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving my Nerdly Friends!

Hello my lovely readers. I just want to say that I am thankful for all of you! Thank you for stopping by my little corner of the internet to share in the joys of nerdliness with me. I hope all of you living in the U.S. have a wonderful holiday weekend, however you choose to celebrate. I will definitely be eating my share of home cooked food and drinking gratitude like gravy... or is that gravy like gratitude? Anyway, there will be both gravy and gratitude.

Now, I will share with you a tip that one of my coworkers offered up for dealing with Thanksgiving leftovers. Take your mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing and whatever suits your fancy, and wrap it in a tortilla for a delicious post-Thanksgiving burrito!

I'll catch you all next week, but I have another map scheduled to auto-post this Friday, so keep an eye out!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Make-it Monday: Mini Painting, Dwarf Base Coat and Old School Birthday

So, my birthday was last week, and this weekend we threw a little shindig over at our place with food and board games. A couple of my friends even got me presents, and a lot of those presents just happened to be game related.

One friend got me an awesome set of brushes to add to my mini painting kit.

The angle brushes are awesome for getting into the hard to reach bits.
Of course, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to them out, so I busted out the Bones once again, and put a base coat on a dwarven fighter mini.

I'm basing the color scheme for this mini around a bronze palette, which so far is seems to be a nice change from the typical gunmetal/silvery chain mail and armor that seems to be my default. I also think I finally got my brain to shift away from worrying about being perfectly tidy on the base coat. Ultimately, it is more important for that initial layer to have thorough coverage than it is for it to have clean edges. Once you get that first covering, you can more easily go back and tidy things up.

Unfortunately, I can only do so much in one sitting before my hands get tired and my eyes start crossing, so I'll need to leave it where it is for a day or so before continuing with more base touch-ups and highlighting.

Blast From the Past

The other gaming presents I got were only sort of birthday presents. I have found that one of the advantages about being an out-and-proud dice dork is that former dice dork friends will occasionally offer up some of their old kit that they don't plan to use anymore. Such was the case when a couple of my friends mentioned that they had old D&D 2nd edition material they were looking to get rid of. One of these friends did package his set of books as a birthday present, while the other delivered two boxes of box sets to my door after about a month of delivery tag (if that's a thing?)

I actually took the Monster Manual upstairs to read before bed... just like when I was a kid.
Anyway, I'm just glad I have a nerdy and understanding Wife who indulges my habits, because this stuff is 
  1. unbelievably awesome inspirational material
  2. not likely to get used for their main purpose (as game modules) any time soon
  3. voluminous enough to nearly double the linear footage of my D&D catalog
Despite the fact that I don't think I'll be rolling a 2e game anytime soon, I've been flipping through the books and have already discovered a couple elements that I might even be able to work into the next game session. One of the truly wonderful things about inspiration is that it is not affected by new editions and rule changes.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kerbal Space Program: The Silly Side of Rocket Science

A couple weeks ago, Squad released an update to their amusing space sim, Kerbal Space Program. The version .22 update added a career mode feature, which has been directly responsible for a lot of my wasted time over the past couple weeks.

For those who are unfamiliar, KSP is an indie game in open alpha development that allows the player to build rockets to fly little green men (who are likely some genetic variant of the minions from Despicable Me) around a made up solar system. Here's the thing, though... unlike any other space game I've played, KSP uses extremely realistic orbital mechanics. Which makes it both compelling for a space geek like me, but also really hard to get the hang of.
First Kerbal on the Mun
Up until this recent update, the game has been a sort of sandbox spacecraft builder. You built rockets from an unlimited supply of parts and sent them off to who-knows-where with an unlimited supply of little green men at the controls.

The new career mode is only different from the sandbox spacecraft builder in that your starting parts are limited. Unlocking the parts in the tech tree requires that you fly missions and run science experiments along the way. This earns you science points, which you can use to unlock new tech. That's it... no specific missions, no storyline. Just a tech tree tempting the player with its forbidden rockety fruit.

Probe landing on Eve (the in-game equivalent of Venus)
Seriously though, career mode was a major game changer for me. When the game was a simple sandbox, I'd fire it up from time to time, maybe put a rocket in orbit, or try to dock two spacecraft together, but that was about it. Now, I find myself dreaming up missions, doodling spacecraft, even calculating delta V by hand! The fact that repeat missions produce diminishing returns on science only encourages this behavior. If I am going to get the whole tech tree unlocked, I need to explore new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no Kerbal has gone before.

Orbiter around Jool (in-game equivalent of Jupiter)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Make-it Monday: SketchUp Tiles

Using SketchUp's built-in style sets can yield some really cool looks.

I apologize for the lack of posts last week. Life got really slammed as the Wife and I scrambled to finalize our offer on the house it looks like we will be buying. All offers and counter offers have now been accepted, so we just need to finish wrapping up the mountain of paperwork that goes along with such things and we'll be on our way to home ownership! We also headed out of town late last week to go down to Oregon. I had a conference to attend, and we decided to extend our trip into a mini-vacation... without a computer.

Well, we're back. We are still busy with the house stuff, but I did have a chance to dink around in SketchUp a bit! I created a nifty little virtual version of my Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles. Each 10x10 tile is made into a component, which makes it super quick and easy to plot out a dungeon. Simply use SketchUp's [ctrl]+move and array functions to duplicate and move pieces around, and you can have a little dungeon complex up in no time. It took me about an hour to build all the tiles you see here, and set up the little example dungeon.

The whole dungeon was built from five basic block types

A top-down view

I think I'll keep tinkering with this method of SketchUp dungeon mapping. The components are simple to build, and I suspect I could come up with some pretty cool looking dungeons just using a few basic building blocks.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Make-its of Days Past: Map, Ulrich's Pass

Life came on pretty strong this past week. The Wife has been down for the count with a wicked cold, and I have been doing my best to keep up with the weekly chores so she can rest. Of course we didn't actually get much resting done, as we just put an offer on a house this weekend and had it accepted! Holy crap, now we're in the inspection and Escrow scramble.

The point being, I didn't have time to really make anything new this past week. That's not to say I didn't put time into keeping my make-it resolution going. I did put an hour or two worth of work into figuring out an approach to making SketchUp videos for gamers, and I am cultivating ideas on that front, but I didn't end up producing anything worth sharing from the effort. The Wife also got into the make-it act after getting bored with lying around, watching TV (and buying houses). She picked up a paintbrush and applied a base coat of grey paint to an entire set of the Dwarven Forge tiles that I started recently.

So, as a consolation prize for not finishing anything new this week, I give you another map from my very first DM binder. I don't even remember what Ulrich's Pass was supposed to be for, but I definitely dig the topographical feel. Also, hex paper! I found a whole huge sheaf of the stuff in the binder. I distinctly remember struggling to form my opinions on the usefulness of hex vs. square paper back in my 2e days. I definitely dig hex for regional maps like this one, but still prefer quad-rule for dungeons or other tactical maps.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Accelerando

Accelerando, by Charles Stross is an interesting thought experiment in novel form. The book is an extrapolation of Moore's Law written as a cyberpunk space opera? The story follows the family of Manfred Macx and his ex-wife/occasional dominatrix, Pamela. It begins in a near future that seems disturbingly close. Macx is a sort of altruistic patent troll, who comes up with ideas, patents them and then immediately releases them to the public domain. His reputation is his income, literally. He is also completely reliant on a system of portable memory banks, which interface with a pair of glasses that provide him with an heads-up display tracking the broad expanse of his virtual business endeavors. Pamela, is a sado-masochistic IRS agent trying to nail Macx for tax evasion.

Moore's Law

The book periodically fast-forwards through time, often describing the transition in (the incredibly useful units) megaseconds, or gigaseconds. The interludes describe the growth of artificial intelligence in the solar system as the sum total of computational processes knocked out by silicon begins to outstrip the total thinking power of biological life. People begin uploading their personalities into virtual existences, storing their entire physical, mental and emotional code for download into future bodies, etc. Death becomes obsolete.

The story goes on to track the exploits of the next several generations of the Macx family. First is the daughter, who mines asteroids around Jupiter before sending a copy of her consciousness off to explore an alien signal at the edge of the solar system. Next it focuses on the grandson who is a museum curator on Saturn after most of the inner planets have been dismantled to make clouds of spaceborn nanocomputers. Finally, it moves to the great grandson living among a bizarre human exodus out among the stars. Throughout all of this, none of the earlier generations ever disappear, and everyone is constantly shadowed by the presence of Manfred and Pamela's robotic cat, Aineko.

Unfortunately, I think that this book suffers from something fairly common in the cyberpunk genre: an overinflated sense of cool. The author seems driven to write cleverly, rather than to tell a compelling story. So, while this book succeeds at being an interesting thought experiment, I never really found myself invested in the characters or burning through pages to find out what happened next.

The subject matter is the other big problem. Exploring the end of human mortality has the unfortunate, possibly inevitable, side-effect of lowering the stakes of the story. The main characters cannot die… in fact, by the end, deaths of individual instances are almost a daily routine. Death loses its impact and its meaning. I stop caring about what happens to the main characters, because if something bad occurs, they can just reboot. I think the author tried to insert a twist into the end, but it really came across as a hybrid of a Shyamalan-ian flop and a Stephensonian non-ending. Great thought experiment. Poor novel.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Running Dreamland Adventures in D&D

After a month of conferences, illness and Halloween craziness, my regular game group finally managed get back to the table this past Monday. We ran through a session that accomplished something I had been wanting to run for a long time. The adventure we began on Monday took place in the dreams of one of the PCs.

I came up with a few custom mechanics for creating a dream-like feel to the adventure, and I will get to those in just a bit, but first a little back story to set the stage.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Make-it Monday: Painting Dwarven Forge, First Impressions

After a month of nothing but costumes, I finally got to scratch my painter's itch this weekend. Yesterday, I cracked open my Dwarven Forge Kickstarter set and decided to try my hand at the technique described in DF's official painting tutorial found here.

Waiting for the paint
Painting the tiles is a four step process when making use of the official Pokorny-brand paints that were available as an add-on to the Kickstarter. here's how it went. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

SketchUp for Gamers

The landing at Fenwatch from my last campaign
I've been seeing an increase in the use of SketchUp lately for game mapping. The most common technique seems to involve importing a hand-drawn dungeon map and pushing/pulling it out into three dimensions. You can check out an excellent example of this by mapper, Kevin Campbell here.

Now, I am a huge fan of SketchUp. I deal with it regularly in my day job as a museum exhibit developer. I even teach an annual introductory seminar on it for my former grad school program. So, I like to think of myself as being relatively skilled with the software. Yet in my several attempts to adapt the program for game mapping purposes, I always wind up faltering and leaving a half-produced model waiting to be finished. Why is that?

Hey Geoff... why you no finish Wayshepherd's Guild?

Using SketchUp well takes time. 

I think the name SketchUp is a bit of a misnomer, because if you use the program like a sketch pad, simply drawing in your maps, your model can quickly become cumbersome to work with. The program should really be called "ModelUp", because, as I tell my students, it works best if you "group early and group often". To translate for mapping, each bit of the map should be "sketched" as its own unique group or component. Every doorway, pit trap and blood-soaked altar should be set up as a discrete building block and then plugged into the model. The downside to this technique is that it adds steps, which adds time to the process. If you are in a hurry to get a map done for next week's game, you might want to run with pen and paper. Heck, even at work, we use pencils and sketch pads as much as any software, especially when pressed for time.

Because I'm running an active game, and leaning towards the Lazy DM model for most of my planning, cracking open a SketchUp file for my location-based encounters just hasn't been practical of late. If I were focused on mapping for maps' sake, or making something for publication, it might be a different story, but when in a hurry, it's best to stick with quad ruled paper and pencil.

That being said, SketchUp can offer some definite advantages in certain circumstances such as:

  • Dungeons with overlapping levels. The ability to view models from all angles is a powerful visual tool when dealing with twisting ramps, balconies and other vertically layered environments.
  • Recurring locations. Recurring environments in your game, especially those that might be modified over time can really benefit from the SketchUp treatment. If you set things up well, it can be quick and easy to expand the kitchen on the party's keep, or add battle damage to the mage's tower. If set up poorly, however, such changes could be a nightmare.
  • Established Settings. This is a bit of a Catch-22. SketchUp can get more efficient as you use it, but it can take a while before it is efficient enough to be worth using for a game. Why is this? Well, again, if you are building your models well, you will start to accumulate a library of components that can be quickly plugged into other models as needed. If you don't need to create a creepy statue for your 2nd or 3rd creepy statue dungeon, you can save a lot of time if you slogged through the work in the 1st one.

So, perhaps the best way to start using SketchUp for a game is to build game-like things for fun... without session prep deadlines, or real requirements. Once you have your system down and a library built up, then take the plunge to work it into actual game mapping.

Of course, all of this rumination on SketchUp has both given me an idea and gotten me tempted to try my hand at game mapping in it again. I think that I will take a stab at creating an online version of my intro to SketchUp seminar, but with a focus on creating things for use in RPGs. I don't have a schedule for it, so it will likely be slow to roll out. Nevertheless, I think it could be helpful for those game mappers who want a leg up to use SketchUp well.

In the mean time, if you are currently using SketchUp for fantasy mapping purposes, you can find some furniture and other dungeon/castle elements (along with a couple unrelated projects) for use in your models in my SketchUp warehouse here.

It's like some sort of kobold-filled Ikea

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