Monday, December 26, 2016

How-to: Under-bed Play Board

Happy Holidays everyone! This year, for Christmas, I undertook my first real woodworking project- meaning one that starts with boards and ends up with something that actually feels finished. My son is nearing the magic age of three when choking hazards become less of a problem and toy franchises really start vying for his attention. In preparation for this transition, I built him a play board that could serve as a base for train sets, LEGO, car tracks or really any sort of world-building toy.

I had a couple of these when I was a kid, but they were much simpler... just single sheets of decent quality scrap wood. I wouldn't say I was excited about having them, but I recognized their invaluable utility. I wanted to provide something similar for my son, but I also felt like taking it to the next level.

A board like this can also be useful for gamers in need of a stowable play surface. The 3ft x 4ft board I built is a little too big to easily cart around, but would still be handy for those without a good playing surface.

When I was finished, I posted pics to my Facebook page and immediately started receiving comments asking for instructions on how I built it. So, here they are. If you have a little one with a penchant for building toys, a board like this will serve you well.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Well-trod Paths: Thoughts on rereading Shannara

I decided to re-read Terry Brooks' Shannara series recently and have been picking my way through Sword of Shannara. I read the original trilogy somewhere in my tweens back during the last millennium, and my memories of the books have stuck around to influence my current game worlds.

I have always been especially taken by the post-post-apocalyptic setting of Shannara in which a medieval high fantasy world arises long after the collapse of a technologically advanced civilization. Shannara was a direct inspiration for the Gnossian ruins found in my homebrew D&D world. 

During my original read I recall the ancient technology aspects of Brook's world sneaking up on me as the books progressed. I was especially curious to know whether these elements were actually there from the beginning, or if they emerged as sort of an evolving backstory for the world. So far, the latter seems to be the case. I am well into Sword of Shannara, and while there is definitely talk of an ancient civilization destroyed by war, there has been little to suggest it was anything other than a high fantasy empire.

I was talking with one of my fellow fantasy nerds about re-reading the series the other day, and we agreed that as an adult with many of these stories under the belt, the plot of Sword of Shannara is incredibly on the nose. Mysterious magic user shows up out of nowhere to declare that a young, male nobody is actually "the chosen one" who alone can defeat the ubiquitous "dark lord". This is like the Ur fantasy trope, and Shannara does not try to hide or delay it in the slightest. Harry Potter, Red Wall, the Belgariad, The Wheel of Time and Fellowship of the Ring all at least make an attempt to establish the "normal" in the world to varying degrees before the ubiquitous stranger shows up to declare, "Yer a Wizard!" or whatever the chosen one's job title should be.

Shannara... no time for such establishing nonsense. The hero, Shea doesn't even have time to walk the last mile or two to his house before being accosted by the revelatory stranger AND overflown by the dark agents of the enemy. Of course, as a kid, I was oblivious to the wear on this particular expository thread. As an adult, it's causing eye strain from all of the rolling.

My dawning awareness of Shannara's particularly egregious hero arc did however, give me a wonderful character idea for a D&D campaign. I should note that this character would likely only work well as a PC rather than an NPC... and definitely only for someone comfortable being evil.

I think it would be hilariously wicked to play a wizard or other magic user who goes around convincing unsuspecting orphans and farm kids that they have been chosen by destiny to complete some epic quest. The wizard could bring them along as lackeys to do all the dirty work on an adventure until they inevitably meet their demise because they are not... in actuality... chosen. If timed right, this could leave the wizard fully spelled up to mop up where their patsy left off. As a PC, the wizard would of course need the cooperation of his/her adventuring party or... fellowship *wink, wink* in order to avoid blowing their cover. I suppose such a character might also work as an NPC, but probably couldn't directly target the heroes. I could definitely see a scenerio of adventurers being called upon to investigate mysterious disappearances of local children, all of whom seem to take leave of their senses and wander into the waiting jaws of some dragon or giant.

Anyway, I am continuing to pick my way through Sword of Shannara and really hope that the lack of nuance ends up being a first book thing and that the writing improves in later installations. I really love the concept behind the world, and really don't want to have it come crashing down like an ogre's club on a not-actually-chosen hero.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Boulder and Mrs. Dustwick

I continue to pick away at my pile of minis in my spare time. I find that approaching each paintingd project as a specific learning opportunity helps me overcome my desire to instantly master this hobby. When I say specific, I mean that with each mini I paint, I select a couple things to really focus on. My most recent completions were the chambermaid and stone golem figurines from the Bones line. 

I've actually had the chambermaid sitting partially painted on my desk for probably a year now. I painted her face and was actually satisfied with the eyes for once, but locked up after that. The paint on her skin was a little thick, and so got a bit cakey, and I let her sit for a year while I debated whether to strip the paint and start over, potentially never to get the eyes right again. Finally, I came to my senses and realized that a.) This is most likely a bit part figurine if it ever sees a battle mat and b.) she's an older peasant woman, so her skin is not supposed to be porcelain smooth! I finally got over my paralysis and used her as an opportunity to practice painting white, which is actually more complicated than it might sound. I feel like my efforts were successful in this regard, and her white apron is giving me the confidence to start considering the various tabarded paladins in the unpainted pile.

The stone golem was a great practice piece for two things. 1.) gradients and 2.) glowing eyes. The bouldery muscles offered a great opportunity to work on feathered edge highlighting and enhanced light and shadow effects and I'm really happy with the results. My technique for achieving these effects is starting to solidify around two brush wet blending techniques. I lay down a base color, and then when I highlight, I use one damp brush with paint to apply the highlight, and another damp brush with no paint to feather the edge creating the smooth gradient.

Once I finished these two minis, I set them up in my display case, and was suddenly taken by the incongruous juxtaposition. On their own, they are standard background players for any magical fantasy setting. Together, however, they gain something... they have potential... an anime-like partnership of hulking brute and weathered wisdom. I decided to name them Boulder and Mrs. Dustwick and set them beside each other in the display. Perhaps someday an unsuspecting band of adventurers will stumble upon an unassuming old woman and her decidedly unique helper/security system.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Mace of Disruption

Well, I went and created a spoof Twitter account. My love for puns and D&D finally smashed face first into a professional life spent interacting with the entrepreneurial set and the Mace of Disruption Twitter account was born. If you are the tweeting sort, I will be dishing out dubious buzzword filled business advice through the lens of high fantasy. Think Tolkien meets Malcolm Gladwell. It will be gloriously absurd.

I'm already loving all the business bot accounts that have begun retweeting and/or following me. I am sort of curious what would happen if I actually interacted with them. Would they understand the significance of the situation when I finally put on my robe and wizard hat?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Painting Pile: Orc Berserker

I stayed home sick yesterday, and some loud road work happening directly outside my house prevented me from properly convalescing, so I decided to knock out one of the minis I had primed on my craft desk.

I painted up the orc berserker from Reaper's Bones line. I wanted to practice a couple things with this paint job. First was to experiment with unusual skin tones. I actually used a blue gray as the flesh undercoat on this guy and then built up through layers of green mixed with leather brown finishing with a mix of leather brown and ivory for the highlights. I'm fairly pleased with the slightly olive skin tone that resulted.

I also noticed what I thought was supposed to be severe scarring on the right side of the orc's face. In retrospect, after reviewing some of the other paint jobs in the Reaper Bones gallery I'm not sure that was the intent in the sculpt, but I decided to give him a dead eye and a wicked, fleshy burn scar. I actually really like the result!

The last thing I was really practicing on this paint was my color blending and in particular my metal hilighting. I am pretty pleased with how the highlight on the sword turned out, and I like that the tone of the metal on the sword, the chain mail and the sort of cast iron look of the armor plates are all slightly different. It helps that orcs can be a little messy. I may need to refine my non-metallic metal technique a bit before tackling a crisp and clean paladin.

During this paint, I also noticed that I seem to default to red for fabric colors. Not sure why that is, since my favorite colors are blue and green, but I have a whole bunch of metal, leather and red minis painted up. I added a bit of orange highlight to try and change this guy up a bit, but after drying, it still looks pretty red.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Beware the Smiling Dungeon Master

Last weekend we played the third session of my new 3.5 campaign and I feel like this session will stick in my memory as one of the best I have ever run… in part because of everything that went wrong. It may sound malicious, but the dice were often not with the PC's throughout the day, yet it felt like the ensuing calamities were directly responsible for some of the session's best moments.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Start with the Epic: The Wandering Hills

My players would likely deny it, but sometimes I feel like I really struggle and/or forget to add epic fantasy touches when planning adventures or building out my supposed to be epic fantasy worlds. Instead, I get lost in the mundane minutiae. What is the driving force in this town's politics? Do I have enough farms around the city center on this map? What animals make up this ecosystem? What are the mechanics behind this trap? I feel like I almost always start with the practical and work my way up. Sure, I might add some magical beasts to a forest, or have undead raiding local villages... but I regularly feel like it's just not enough. The undead might as well be raiding bandits and the owlbears might as well be divided back into their constituent parts. The epic feels like an add-on rather than an integral part of the world.

Then there are days like today when I feel like something epic clicks into place.

I've been trying to flesh out some of the regions surrounding the one where my players are currently adventuring. I do this for my own enjoyment, and to prep for the possibility of "next steps" in my game's adventure path.

Today, my world-building thoughts started from a slightly different angle than my usual approach. Instead of thinking, "What cities and countries are around this one?" I started pondering some images that have been squirreled away on my Pinterest boards and thinking, "you know what's cool? Floating islands!"

So, instead of starting with the basic size and industry of a nearby citystate... I used floating islands as a starting point for this particular world-building session. I decided to work from the epic concept downward to anchor it in my game.

Floating islands got me thinking about what makes them float. Magic is an obvious answer. More specifically, I am using some elements of the Eberron campaign setting in my world, including air ships built from soarwood. In Eberron, soarwood is rare, and possesses a "magical buoyancy". Well, what if soarwood was not so rare, and was buoyant enough that uprooted trees would actually fly? By that logic, groves of soarwood might have enough lift to drag chunks of land with them!

The floating islands in my game would all be covered in buoyant soarwood groves! But what would actually dislodge the groves? Here, I turned to the real world and the karst landscape of southern China. Perhaps soarwood grows best in areas high in soluble minerals like limestone. Natural erosion might lead to spectacular gravity-defying formations that actually break free and wander from time to time.

With a strong theme for the new region, I turned my thoughts to the type of civilization that might call it home. What if someone took advantage of these floating islands to build cities? The cities would certainly be difficult to assault. Unfortunately, since trees grow and die, maintaining a balance to keep the city in place would require some work. Arborist guilds might hold a powerful position in such a civilization! They would be tasked with pruning and growing the soarwood groves not for aesthetic purposes, but to maintain the physical well-being of the city itself!

The notion of arborists as a powerful profession then led me to begin thinking of this civilization as elven... but a group of elves with a more practical approach to their nature affinity. Instead of simply being the "MOAR TREES!" kind of elves, they would instead focus on the meticulous balance between natural and built environments in their cities.

Over the course of just a few hours mulling this over in the back of my head while I worked at my actual job, I had come up with a natural biome for my world, and a civilization which felt both more fantastic than what often come up with, but at the same time, anchored more deeply in the reality of the world as a whole. When I work the other direction, it often takes me days or weeks to reach this level of detail.

If you find yourself struggling with fantasy world-building like I so often do, it might be worth giving this fantastic > mundane method a try.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tackling the Painting Pile

I've been watching a lot of mini painting technique videos on YouTube of late, and this weekend, I decided to start addressing the massive pile of unpainted minis and game tiles that have been sitting in our craft room for... let's be honest... over two years since we moved in.

Anyway, the first step was to finally get this bugbear I'd been picking at for several months to a finished point. I really used him as a prototype for experimenting with different shade variations based on the same color... in this case, I was working with browns and reds. He was already mostly finished as of this weekend, but I hadn't started any of the metal surfaces on his weapons, shield or armor.

Next, I cracked into my Dwarven Forge cavern set. These tiles are great, because you can be super sloppy with the paint and still get amazing results. I painted one tile to completion to test out my technique, and then got started on an assembly line working through a whole set one step at a time.

Then I decided to attempt a set of several Bones minis at the same time. I stuck a selection of nasty insects onto a popsicle stick, but struggled to keep it steady while base coating... then I stuck the popsicle stick to the top of an old pill bottle and had much better success. Again, I couldn't resist just finishing up one whole mini instead of working through the group... so I painted a scorpion.

My experience this weekend taught me a couple things about my technique. First, I need to load more paint on my brush while base-coating. I had much more success getting the first coat on the scarab beetle than with either of the scorpions, because I was starting with a properly full brush. It resulted in a much smoother edge when free-handing the legs on top of the model's triangular leg slab things. On a related note, I need to not be so stingy with the paint on my pallette. All my paint bottles are dropper style, so I can drip out really tiny amounts, but if it dries or gets clumpy before I finish, then any added efficiency will be lost. Lastly, I really need to thin my shade and highlight layers. The Bones line is a little obnoxious because the plastic repels anything except full-thickness paint, so the base-coat can't be thinned. But thinning the top coats really helps smooth out any blending work.

I still have a few process questions I'm still wrestling with, particularly when it comes to working with Bones. They are advertised as being paintable without priming, and indeed, that is what I did with both the hobgoblin and scorpion, but base-coating black by hand was a real pain and would have been much more quickly done with a rattle can of primer. Unfortunately, I have had some bad experiences with Bones and primer. I found that a hobgoblin similar to the one I just completed remained tacky to the touch for at least several weeks when primed with a Krylon spray can. Spray on clear coat has had a similar effect. I have two Bones candelabras that are still sticky to touch years after painting and sealing with a clear coat. I'm not sure what causes the reaction, but it is something I haven't experienced with pewter models.

The need to use undiluted paint when basecoating unprimed Bones is similarly frustrating. I feel like many of the faces I paint on Bones models wind up looking cakey, and I wonder if it is because the base coat has to be so thick.

Regardless of my outstanding questions, it felt good to make a small dent in my pile of painting. Now if I can just let myself be a relative beginner at this and not try to match the high level of expertise I see in the YouTube videos I've been watching. I may get there, but not if I'm too paralyzed to practice.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

New Campaign - New DM System

Introducing the toddler to the joys of dice.

Last November I started up a new D&D campaign with an almost entirely new group after the old familiar cocktail of schedule conflicts, long drive distances, and unresponded emails caused my previous game to unravel. The new group is smaller (just four players), and includes my wife, and three friends I made through grad school. Though I really loved my previous long-running group, it's really neat to explore a new dynamic with new players.

Our November session was also the first time that I played with a fully armed and operational toddler station running around our house. What's more, our particular toddler is incredibly fascinated by anything and everything electronic... and remember how he's fully armed? well those arms can now reach the top of the dining room table where we play. As such, I had to adjust my DMing a bit on the fly during the last game by putting away the Surface tablet mid session and switching to scratch paper and note cards.

Over the holiday break, I did some thinking about how to adjust my DM toolkit to better deter toddler interference. I'm currently prepping for our second session happening this weekend, and thought now would be a good time to share some of the adjustments I made.

The short of it is that I am switching to a digital/analog hybrid.

I am keeping Microsoft OneNote as my main record-keeping system. I contemplated switching back to an old-school quad-rule notebook, but I just like OneNote's search and reorganizational capabilities too much. However, I am ditching the Surface as a game table interface. The kid was just too drawn to it, and besides, we still have our 1st gen RT. It's upgraded 8.1 operating system takes up nearly the entire hard drive, though I shifted pretty much the entire file storage system onto a sim card, It still gets really bogged down the longer its on and becomes nigh unusable really fast.

Instead, I plan to shift to printed copies of my OneNote pages at the table. This worked really well for me during a one-off I ran for some of my previous players last summer. It just means that I need to remember to print the sheets.

In addition to the printed OneNote pages for encounters, I am going to try out 3x5 cards for my NPCs, and I did pick up a quad rule Moleskine for rough planning notes and adventure mapping.

I suspect the biggest change the notecards and printed pages will have on my style is to force me toward brevity... and therefore wit, right?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Great Craft Room Makeover

If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you likely know that crafting is an important part of my family's character. Whether you are talking about epic group Halloween costumes that take months to pull together, elaborate mixed-media dungeon sets, hand drawn maps, or simply mini-painting, the Sporkchop household are big fans of homemade creativity. This past summer, the Wife and I decided to finally construct a dedicated space for all of these crafting endeavors. With that in mind, we embarked on the great craft room makeover.

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