Well that’s annoying…

So there was an update to WordPress, and it broke the old theme I was using.

I’ve patched this together in the meantime, but I don’t know how long the site will stay looking like this.

Today had been going pretty well. And then… just kind of slid downhill.

On the plus side, I did put some more reviews up.

Some new content

I’ve started working on something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I launched this new version of the site, namely migrating content from the old version over to the new one.

You should notice a new category up at the top of the page, where I will be posting reviews of RPG products that I wrote several years ago.

There’s a lot to migrate, so this is likely something that will go in fits and starts over the course of the next several weeks, but I plan to restore a lot of the content originally available through this site, including episode reviews and other commentary about Xena: Warrior Princess, some of my early fiction, and the adventuring journals from my old Earthdawn campaigns.

A life half-lived…

As has been my habit lately, I haven’t been posting much of anything to this blog. Last time I posted was back in early October. It is now the tail end of March. That’s six months. Half a year.

Also, as is my habit, I’m writing this in the wee hours of the morning as I am gripped with a case of insomnia and self-reflection.

We went on strike. The strike lasted about four months, from mid-October until the end of February. It was a long, difficult, frustrating process. I had my birthday on the picket line.

That’s kind of what inspired the title of this post. I mean, it’s kind of a play on a thought — I turned 40. About halfway through the typical life expectancy of a person. It’s also one of those lovely round numbers that we humans are so enamored with, the kind that makes you all introspective and shit.

And by you, of course, I mean me.

Going back to work four weeks go made me realize something. I do not like my job, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it. Front line customer service is a draining, often thankless, annoying pain in the ass. It saps my energy. It makes me unhappy and short-tempered.

I’ve started looking for a new job, but my options are kind of limited. I had a very short college career — only completing one semester (that is a long story that I may get to one of these days). I never went back, for a couple of reasons. One, I could never decide what it is I actually wanted to do. Two, I am a generally lazy sack of crap that prefers to coast along as things are.

Now, with my family and financial situation, going back to school seems to be right out. Not that I know any better what I want to do now than I did twenty years ago when I first came up to this wattle on the neck of the east coast.

I really think I need to get out of Maine, or at least out of Bangor. This past winter was rough, and I don’t think that hanging around this area would be the best for me.

As usual, I don’t have the foggiest fucking idea what I’m going to do. Half my life is behind me, and I have no idea where the second half is going.

 

Insomnia

I don’t know where this one is going to go.

I’m sitting in bed, shortly after midnight, unable to sleep.

I’m not sure how much to talk about, or what to talk about.

Some things aren’t going well. The combined stresses of life, the universe, and everything are really weighing on me.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned (during our annual furnace tune-up) that we need to get the furnace replaced. This is a not-insignificant expense, and our financial situation was already tenuous enough.

The Earthdawn books are behind schedule. Part of this was an inability on my part to judge how much work was involved, as well as an almost pathological need for perfection. At this point, the Player’s Guide is waiting on art to be finalized, but the GM’s Guide is not anywhere near the shape I want it to be.

I am afraid. Of so many things.

The 9-to-5 is going okay. Not great. We’ve been working without a contract since the beginning of August, and there is a good chance that we will be going out on strike sooner rather than later. I don’t really like the job, and I really wish there was an alternative available that would provide for my family and not leave me waking up in the morning with bleak, fading hopes that things will turn around.

We are moving into fall and winter. Hopefully the anti-depressants and vitamin D supplements will stave off the worst of the winter doldrums.

I love my family so much. I can’t help feeling like I am letting them down, that I’m not strong enough, or good enough to deserve them. I’m scrabbling hard to keep us from sliding downhill too quickly, but I am having a hard time seeing any kind of positive direction at the moment.

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Hell, this whole post feels like some adolescent call for attention, a self-indulgent whine in the dark that things are hard, and I want them to be easier.

Some things never leave you. I can’t shake the feeling of that inadequate teenage dork who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and is terrified of being found out as a fraud and banished to the outer darkness. But that was half a lifetime ago — I’m pushing 40.

Seriously, does anybody ever really figure it out? Intellectually I understand that on some level, nearly everyone is stumbling blindly in the dark, doing the best they can to keep their heads above water. But why does it have to be that way? The universe is a vast, dark, unfeeling place when it comes to the greater scheme of humanity, but why does our own balance seem so askew? I think that the cosmos has whatever meaning we give it, and right now there are so many of us on this speck of dust that know something is off, some sense of justice or decency or empathy that just seems to be lacking…

Is this a cultural thing? I don’t think so, as there certainly seems to be enough of this sentiment going around in the world at large — though American cultural dominance makes it hard to tell how much is universal and how much is exported.

I believe in the inherent nobility and decency of the human spirit. It is just very hard to see at times.

Fuck if I know. Another sunrise tomorrow, and another one after that. Keep moving forward, and try to bring a little bit of light and decency to the world.

Phoenix arise! Arise from the ashes!

This blog has come back more often than Jean Grey. When was the last time I actually posted anything here?

September?!?

Sheesh.

Admittedly, I have been rather busy. You know, putting together the new edition of Earthdawn. Managing a successful Kickstarter (with the aid of several wonderful people). Dealing with press and questions and project management… all while learning the ropes as I go, and balancing all that with a regular 9 to 5 job and family life.

What I’m saying is, some things have slipped by the wayside.

Part of it is not really knowing what to talk about here. I have been doing a developer’s blog over at fasagames.com, talking about the new edition and stuff we’re working on with that (but as deadline crunch looms, that has faded a little bit). I haven’t been getting into as much media stuff lately, because time spent on that is time spent away from working on the game. Heck, I haven’t really even gamed much because I’ve had so much going on and only so much creative energy.

Still, the Earthdawn Player’s Guide is locked down and in layout. The Gamemaster’s Guide is still in the works (behind schedule) and a couple of other books are in the wings waiting for me to tackle them. I’m hoping that when the GM guide is locked down things will level out a bit.

But we all know how things like that go, don’t we?

If I’m totally honest, this past winter was rough. I ended up with a major case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this past February, with my Vitamin D levels at really low levels. It took me out of commission for a week, aggravating the depressive tendencies that crop up in my life from time to time (usually stress related).

This isn’t intended as a woe-is-me type of post, by the way. It’s just something that I want to be honest about — stress knocks you on your ass, slows down your output, puts you behind schedule, and makes you feel worse because you’re not meeting some kind of idealized objective you set for yourself.

Blah. I feel like I’m rambling. I suppose that will do for now.

I’ll try not to have another eight or nine months go by without a post.

All the Faces of the Moon

Just a quick note here. A friend of mine has set out on a crazy mad quest. Over the course of 29 nights, he is telling an epic tale of modern magic — each night a new monologue. Working from an outline he performs a mostly extemporaneous story, and is giving shape to a narrative that is very Unknown Armies in its feel.

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or American Gods, or enjoy the work of Tim Powers or Chuck Wendig, this should be right up your alley. Each show has been recorded and posted as a podcast so you can follow the whole thing.

Here’s a link to the podcast on itunes.

Check it out.

Success and Failure (GenCon After Action Report — Part 3)

So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.

On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?

Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.

I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.

With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.

Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.

No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.

I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.

But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.

So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.

I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.

Quick news update!

We take a break from our current series to make an announcement. This actually happened at GenCon, but I could only talk about it now.

I have been offered, and I accepted, the Line Developer position for Earthdawn.

This means that I will be in charge of the direction and development of the game line, creative and otherwise. I will also be the public face of the Earthdawn game line on web fora and the like.

This is a big deal. I am excited, and a little nervous.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 2)

In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.

While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.

I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.

All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.

What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.

This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.

I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing.  Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.

The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.

(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)

Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.

Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.

(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)

That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 1)

This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.

In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).

There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).

Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.

Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.

That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!