Monday, October 31, 2011

Another Halloween video

Happy Halloween!


This year I'm going as Billy (basically just put on a blue headband and jean jacket) for Halloween, so I thought this was appropriate. Where's my bat?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Plot Is Overrated

Last night after class, I watched a bunch of interview clips of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach talking about their time working with Sergio Leone on The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. This was prompted by the question: what is your favorite movie? GBU is probably mine, which is why I ended up staying way too late watching it after seeing all the clips, but it still took some time to pin down. I began by making a list of all the movies I love to watch, the ones that influenced me unlike any other. My listed turned out to be thirteen films:

Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
Seven Samurai
Raides of the Lost Ark
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
For a Few Dollars More
Big Trouble in Little China
Rocky
Rocky II
Ghostbusters
It's a Wonderful Life
Terminator 2
Smokey and the Bandit

Not quite the list most people would come up with, right? Especially Smokey and the Bandit; I almost felt embarrassed that I enjoy that movie so much because it has an almost non-existent plot. That's when I realized that almost all these movies, some of them considered to be the greatest films ever, have thin plots. I also noticed that Jedi wasn't on the list, nor Fist Full of Dollars. I like both those movies quite a bit, but in the case of Dollars, even though it's essentially Yojimbo (and thus a more detailed story), it's just not as appealing. I think this goes back to the simplistic plots of the later films.

To fully explain myself, take the plot for Smokey and the Bandit: Two guys bootleg some Coors and evade a sheriff. I could make several movies using this plot, and I'm sure they'd be terrible if that's all I had to go by, yet for whatever reason, the actual movie is funny as hell. The lack of intricate plot makes it much easier to get involved and to be entertained. A major literary device employed is in media res; we don't see Bandit and Snowman in their early careers smuggling goods or evading cops, instead we start right off with the action. All the background information is important, but only alluded to when it drives the film forward. In fact, every single film I listed above has a thin plot and starts off using in media res, except for It's a Wonderful Life, which sort of does anyway as the whole first half of the film is a flashback. Star Wars literally beings with a battle in space, the princess already having stolen the plans, evading capture. The plot to that movie looks like it should be: Rebels battle an oppressive Empire for freedom. But that's just the backdrop...it's really something more like a princess gets captured trying to help some rebels and is rescued by a farm boy and a smuggler.

Even though the plots to these movies are simple, the implementation of those plots is what makes them great. The characters are what create the story; the story does not exist independently from them. Too many times I have seen films with characters that weren't an essential part of the story, and those films almost always suck. If you take Han Solo out of the trilogy and replace him with a similar but slightly different character, you've destroyed the film (cf. Han shot first). Similarly, Hannibal Lecter is a classic film villain, necessary for Silence of the Lambs to be thrilling. Replacing him with a less intelligent character, or one who wasn't as quite as diabolical would make that movie really long and boring. To reiterate, characters make the story, the plot simply exists to give them a reason to act.

How does this relate to rpgs? I've seen a lot of adventures or campaigns wherein the DM attempted to come up with a good plot in order to tell a great story. This is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive. The plot to any adventure should be succinct; if it cannot be written in one short sentence, you've done too much. Further, in media res really is the best way to start any game. I've seen a lot of games start off with waaaaaay too much crap like "Okay so you've never met these characters before, do some roleplaying and see if you want to join up". This is followed by several SESSIONS of "getting to know" the other PCs. Stupid. Do it the Seven Samurai way: would you like to join us on this adventure? Yes? Okay, let's go. That's it. The primary characters already have reason to adventure and they drag in the others along the way. There doesn't have to be any reason for the characters to get involved beyond their curiosity. Or greed or whatever. Simple reasons work best, because in the end, they're the heroes and actions define heroism, not initial intent. Story should be something that develops naturally from the interaction of the characters and the plot. I do realize that railroading players is sometimes necessary to encourage action, but use the literary term plot hook and suddenly it doesn't seem so nefarious. Real life is full of plot hooks that cause people to act when they'd rather be drinking beer and watching football just like literature if full of plot hooks that engage the main characters.

If you think I'm being too simplistic, here's another example: Hamlet tries to discover who murdered his father, the king, and avenge his death. If the play were an rpg, Hamlet would show up in town wanting to kick back and drink ale, but the DM would say, hey, your father was murdered. That'd be the end of it. A simple plot hook. The resulting story would be a product of Hamlet being utterly incapable of making any sort of decision (classic PC behavior) and using divination magic to discover the truth, completely ignoring the obvious.

Complex plots are the province of amateur writers as they cover up thin characters. Good writers don't need anything fancy because they know their characters can stand alone, independent of the plot or story. Just like Indiana Jones is a great character outside of the movies, so too should the PCs be in any rpg campaign. By doing less as a DM, the PCs have more room to grow and shine, which results in much better stories. Plot is, indeed, overrated. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Neo-Luddism and the case against online gaming

Last week, I played in Chris' inaugural Stormbringer Domain Hack Game Thing under the guise of an inept beggar named Johan, Sheik of the Sighing Steppes. Inept in the sense that his stats were rather poor, in all ways, compared the rest of the group, but for whatever reason was able to strike the killing blow against a giant tiger-beast and escape militant apes due to a high aptitude in the arts of subterfuge. Overall, I had fun, even though I ran out of whiskey far too soon. However, a couple problems arose that caused my anti-technology rash to flare up, resulting in some contemplative analysis on my part to discern why exactly I hate online gaming. In this case, I specifically mean using the internet as a medium to facilitate tabletop gaming, whether it be Skype, Google+, GotoMeeting, whatever.

Obviously, there are very good reasons to use something like Google+. Most everyone I know has a family, job, life; all the crap none of us worried about when we were in college. Wednesday night gaming at 1AM is a thing of the past, scheduling is important. The need to go no further than a computer makes it much easier to arrange times, and not having to drive somewhere means better attendance. Accessibility is probably the reason most people do not game as much once they get older, it surely isn't for lack of interest. Online gaming makes it easy for larger groups of people to get together as there is less room for excuses (kids? I can see their crib from the desk). Okay, I get all that, but something is still lacking...

Dice

I know this sounds stupid, but the tangible effect of dice at the table cannot be understated. It's what makes a game a game as opposed to an exercise in amateur theatre. Online die rollers just don't cut it. Die-rolling moments always create suspense in rpgs and wargames, moving them to an electronic format removes some of the fun of rolling dice. Plus, knowing what I do about computers, there's no such thing as a truly random number generator unless you use something like random.org. Not that dice are truly random, either, but at least I can SEE what's going on. The black box approach isn't that appealing. Included with dice are minis, physical maps and other random props that always seem to creep into games. Chris was able to display his nice hex map on the screen, but to be perfectly honest, I prefer his hand-drawn stuff. I'm sure he could scan that stuff in, but nothing like the real thing. Being able to hold a document provides sensory information far beyond the simple visuals.

"Technical difficulties"

My laptop decided to crash right during the most important part of the game and I was unable to bring it to a working state before finally deciding to call it a night and go to bed. That really sucked. Unless you have a seizure or an aneurism during a table top session, you're not going to miss any of the action. This goes hand-in-hand with actual face time at the table, the ability to interject and make jokes. Communication is still not instantaneous enough through these technical mediums to allow a true exchange to take place. It's nothing like a CB, but often times I felt like the 1/2 second delay was enough to cause issues. Typically, half the time of any gaming session I'm a part of is spent fooling around, but the conferencing technology allows far less of that. That's unfortunate as the social aspect is just as important as the game itself. It not, then just play Ultima or something.

There are many other reasons I dislike online gaming, but in the effort to demonstrate my point I've decided to leave this incomplete as I need to go outside and get some sun. The glow of my monitor doesn't provide the sort of tan I'd like.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I have No Hands, and I Must Type

Props if you get the reference; if you don't, let's just say I identify completely with literary characters who are essentially helpless to affect their doomed existence. In this case, I'm talking about the "blogosphere", specifically the collection of rpg blogs out there. I'm not popular, have few readers, and frequently produce nothing but poorly edited rants expressing my displeasure with guys actually writing stuff. Sure, some of it is crap, but they're doing SOMETHING. I feel akin to a movie critic: it's easy to rip on Transformers 3 and call Michael Bay a hack, but he's banging supermodels on top of a ruby mattress with a diamond comforter. I don't think anyone is getting supermodels by writing OSR stuff, but at least they're getting someone to read their stuff just like millions of people are watching Transformers. So why should I even bother? No one is reading this, and they probably wouldn't care anyway.

The last post I wrote essentially called most of the OSR product available today worthless tripe. That was a bit of an exaggeration although I certainly do feel that way. To be perfectly honest, I think a lot of people feel that way, yet are worried about offending someone. Most blogs either ignore possible conflict or peripherally reference it in such a way as to seemingly create discussion, all while avoiding disparaging remarks. Some people have to be diplomatic, I get it, but that's doing nothing for the hobby. At all. Attacking the product isn't attacking the author, and honestly there isn't enough critical analysis done on most of these products.

I bought Swords & Wizardry Complete and was completely dissatisfied with it. Matt Finch seems like a nice enough guy, but I think this book sucks. I liked the Core Rules, so it was even more disappointing that Complete failed to impress me. Yet, reading various blogs and webpages and message boards, it would appear I'm alone in my assessment of the game. Am I actually an outlier (possible), or are most people unwilling to bad-mouth a product simply because they don't want to offend the author?

I could care less if people hate me or my opinions. Further, I'm not one to pay money for something and not complain if I feel like I got ripped off. If I don't like something, I'll say it. This has nothing to do with how I feel about someone personally, in any way. Here's the real problem, as I see it: if authors are never challenged, how can they produce better work? When I played sports, the coach would say yes, you are doing it correctly or, no, you suck, do it better. When playing music, if the audience is entertained it means I'm doing a good job and if they hate it, well, time to practice more. Ignoring negative remarks about your work is asinine; assuming those remarks are validated with evidence of course. If I say something sucks but give no reasons, that's worthless. If I provide a critical analysis, but you still ignore me, you're an idiot. By no means am I elevating myself to some sort of King of Critics, but I've read a lot of fucking books, especially rpgs, and know what constitutes good writing and rules.

Again, this will probably be lost in the shuffle of countless blogs, but at least I'm trying to give an honest assessment of problems I see. Professional life and personal life shouldn't mix, so nothing I say here is a personal attack. I do realize that most of this stuff is hobbyist, and rarely comment on the freebies, but if you're charging for products then you have entered the realm of professional publishing so be prepared to be ripped upon by yours truly, the blogger who has no readers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Enough with the retro-clones already

In the beginning, I thought it was a great idea: use the OGL/SRD to create some clones of various out-of-print editions of D&D. We got Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry out of it, and all of them do something valuable while remaining reasonably priced (i.e. free). On the heels of success come other games like Swords & Wizardry Complete, Dark Dungeons, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and others. Prices begin to increase. Still, the clones keep coming, along with oodles of crappy adventures. Some of the stuff is really good, worth buying (Stonehell Dungeon). But let's face it: these are just house rules in published format. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but quite frankly, I could give a fuck. There are only so many times I can see someone else's take on barbarians or monks or fireballs. It's really all the same shit Gygax et al cranked out in 1974, revised for modern sensibilities. By that I mean rewritten to remove all the substance, all the style, contained within those old tomes. I realize the clones have to differ from D&D due to legal reasons, but reading some of this stuff you'd think these guys invented roleplaying games. Some of the best games ever produced were essentially D&D house rules, but they never pretended to be written in a vacuum. Chivalry & Sorcery for instance explicitly states that it was written with the intention of getting out of the dungeon and engaging in long-term play, something D&D was ill-equipped to handle. C&S never acts like D&D didn't exist; it references it continuously and offers suggestions on how to improve. Runequest does a lot of things differently, including spell points and skills, but character generation is still 3D6 for a bunch of attributes that line up with the common six. Essentially the entire history of roleplaying game design is people taking D&D, modularizing it, dropping the portions they disliked and adding new stuff. GURPS doesn't look much like D&D, but if you look at its lineage (Melee/Wizard->Fantasy Trip->GURPS) it's easy to see how it came into being. Alternative tactical combat system for D&D becomes a fantasy rpg which is further developed into a pure skills-based system. But all these games have their own style, their own way of doing things, and the better ones introduced innovative ways to accomplish goals within the game.

This is exactly why I'm getting sick of the clones: it's like they're not even trying. Labyrinth Lord is my favorite version of D&D because it's essentially just a cleaned up version of B/X. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Reading through Swords & Wizardry Complete...fuck. Was this game really necessary? Thanks for making me pay $20 to read your crappy house rules, I appreciate it. I'm not even sure what these guys are doing anymore. Are you trying to recreate a copy of D&D so you can play it, make it available to everyone who can't get an OOP copy? Or are you attempting to pass off yet another shoddy interpretation of D&D as a legitimate artistic endeavor? If it's the first one, we have enough good, free games that do this just fine. If it's the second one, why not innovate? If you give me a game with six stats and hit points and THAC0 and dwarves and elves and thieves, hey, guess what, it's just another fucking copy of D&D. Why not expend your effort on stupid adventures no one will ever use instead? In case you're wondering, this product is what spurned my rant. I honestly haven't read it, and it could be well written, but $5 for yet another necromancer class? Hell, I wrote one up in around 20 minutes and put it up on this very blog. Should I have charged people a dollar to read it? Yeah, I get it, you came up with a bunch of new spells and XP charts. Wow. Lemme guess: some of those spells are variations on Animate Dead, right? I'm seriously not trying to be disparaging here, but Jesus Christ, that sort of shit is what's being produced and SOLD now? I'm not about to spend five bucks on something like this. Ever. Any DM worth his salt can simply take a Magic-User, give him the Turn Undead ability and call it a day. Seriously, what value is being added to the hobby by this sort of crap?

I mentioned Stonehell Dunegon: hey, a product that is actually useful. Sometimes it's cool to have a bigass dungeon someone else worked on at your disposal. Even some of the not-so-great adventures I've seen provide good ideas to a lazy DM. But further rules-variations can suck a dick. If you want to write up some rules, make them unique and innovative or put the PDF on your blog for free. There's absolutely zero reason to pay anyone for D&D rules variants when Holmes Basic can be distilled into literally two pages.

Political Correctness wreaks havoc on my ability to read crap

In the past few years, the push to make the English language "gender neutral" (whatever the fuck that means) has created a lot of stupid nonsense words. Words like congressperson and spokesperson...I don't understand what was wrong with congressman or spokesman. "Congressman Michelle Bachmann is running for President." Is that phrase meaningless because she's female? The word "man" encapsulates males and females. And it's succinct, unlike the stilted and stupid-sounding "-person" terms. If you want to say congresswoman, fine, but be consistent. I've seen congressperson applied to men but congresswoman applied to women. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but that's either plain idiotic and inconsistent or there's some agenda being pushed. The only agenda I have is to uphold the rules of English, which says the masculine voice applies in all cases unless the object is known to be feminine. This is because English, unlike some other languages, has no neuter voice. Well, actually it does, but the words are exactly the same as the masculine voice. That's how I learned it in grade school and it made sense to me then, especially when I took French and Latin in subsequent years. Baguettes are female and fromage is male so your cheese sandwich is fornicating. Injecting some stupid PC sensibility into French would make all those sex jokes irrelevant, which would be a real travesty.

Okay, the point of this: he or she. Holy fuck. I was reading Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying the other night and literally every single sentence has the "he or she" construct at least four or five times. It's unwieldy and sucks to read. Fine, you don't want to appear sexist and use this stupid phrase to be inclusive of women. Even though you're not sexist if you simply say "he". At all. I guess this is like calling someone racist because they called you niggardly. Sir, kindly get a fucking dictionary. When did perception overtake the proper use of language? Arrg. One RPG I read used he when referring to PCs and she when talking about the GM. Can't remember which, but it worked pretty well because the sentences were unambiguous. But then again, the book was referencing a specific person whose sex was known. Using "she" when the sex of the object is unknown is bad grammar, too. What about when the aliens invade? Will we have to start using "he, she or it"? Perhaps they have five sexes. "He, she, it, v'sdgtty or asdjkhasdjkh". DON'T WANT TO OFFEND THOSE EGG RECEIVERS!

If you disagree with me, well, fuck you, because I'm right and that's all there is to it. Readability is paramount when writing anything, and the whole idea that masculine grammatical constructs somehow exclude women is idiotic. Buy an English grammar book.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A few reasons I like MERP

So the second game of the Middle Earth game was completed yesterday, and a few things stood out that made me appreciate the MERP rules.

1) Experience points are pretty much outside the GM's control. Characters get points for a wide variety of things, and all of them are specifically outlined. 1 XP per mile traveled, XP for hits given, etc. Makes it a lot easier to run the game without having to worry about awards.

2) Crits add excitement to the game. Yes, my goblins were killed rather quickly, and in an alarming manner, by a bunch of pugnacious dwarves, but the fact that one PC lost a hand more than made up for it. He also received 500 XP for the loss, apparently because he knows not to rush into battle without support. Crits also make for some hilarious results.

3) 0-level characters are explicitly outlined in the rules. And they're not worthless. PCs start at level 1, which requires 10k XP. 0-level characters, thus, are made exactly like PCs, but only gain adolescent skill ranks to start. This does mean dwarves are the most militant race in existence, as they are all capable warriors before they ever gain any experience. Hobbits, in turn, are natural thieves.

4) Low, almost non-existent, magic is great. I'm not a fan of magic rich environments (Forgotten Realms pretty much nauseates me), so MERP, even with its spell lists and spell-casters, is cool. Further, the manner in which items gain power (per the setting) makes for interesting results. The hand-severing dagger is now "magical", given the deed accomplished in battle. Not really sure how many of the players care to use a goblin dagger of Beorning-slaying, but they now have one.