Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First Impressions: Player’s Handbook, Fifth Edition

I haven't been posting a lot on this blog, mostly because I've haven't been as involved in the tabletop gaming community since my son was born. I've been playing a lot of League of Legends, and failing at it rather spectacularly. You can read about that here.

But I picked up the new Player’s Handbook at Warp One today. I am always interested in a new edition, even if I'm not particularly hyped on playing it, and Fifth is no different. I haven’t delved deeply into it yet, but I figured I’d set out my initial impressions.

The front cover of the book features a female adventurer in an action pose fighting some sort of bone-clad giant. Very cool. The logos are clean, the typeface very legible, and the borderless art makes the whole
cover look very modern while retaining a distinctive D&D feel. The only issue I have with the design is the small red splash in the bottom left where they put “Dungeons & Dragons” when they could have just put that at the top of the cover where the D&D logo is.

The content background is a skeumorphic parchment deal, the sort of thing you expect from any fantasy role-playing game with any production value. Chapter breaks are full-page art pieces and maintain the level of quality I expect from Wizards of the Coast. There are a lot of great examples of race and gender diversity, which is nice to see.

The book’s chapter layout returns to the terrible Third Edition style. Building a wizard will require you to keep three different pages bookmarked as you reference between them. Combat rules exist between your spellcasting classes and your spell lists, as a particular point of ugh. The overview of character creation is brief and to the point, and seems to assume a level of familiarity with role-playing games and how they work.  

The integration with Faerun really shows through in the Races section, where the tropes from that setting are very apparent. To quote the section on dark elves: “Were it not for one renowned exception the race of drow would be universally reviled.” It does not make allowances for settings like Eberon (in which drow are the mysterious denizens of darkest Xen’Drik), but instead fully embraces the Forgotten Realms as its assumed setting. I’m not a fan of the Forgotten Realms books, which may make this point stand out for me more than others, but it lacks some of the versatility I expect from the game’s basic setting. Greyhawk is generic enough a setting that any basic fantasy tropes can be crowbarred in without much work, where I feel
like the Forgotten Realms requires a level of specificity that reduces the game’s reach.

The return of the half-orc and half-elf as crossbreeds, rather than as fully established races in their own regard, is a step in the wrong direction, I feel.

All of the Third Edition classes are in evidence, along with the addition of the warlock. The omission of the warlord class is notable. It’s difficult to really speak to things like class balance or niche protection without really delving into the game, but it seems to take a more Third Edition approach to both at first glance (which is to say little of either).

The lack of skill lists is a conspicuous departure from previous editions. Instead, players select a background, and that background provides access to skill proficiencies. Those proficiencies add a bonus to ability checks in situations where the skill would be relevant.

The equipment chapter is massive, with charts and descriptions for more stuff than you’ll probably ever need. Weapons, armor, adventuring gear, containers, tools, mounts and vehicles, and trade goods are all in evidence. There is a section on living a certain lifestyle. There’s even a section for “trinkets” which are simple items with a dash of mystery thrown in, to be used as possible adventure hooks or to add character to a player’s belongings.

Multiclassing is a two-page matter, now, and is much simpler than Fourth Edition multiclassing was.

Feats are back and seem more flavorful than in previous editions. Some of them are just “You’re pretty good at wrestling,” but others add new and interesting levels to the game. Lucky allows you to spend a small pool of points to roll another die if you roll poorly. Some of them increase your abilities by a point. One lets you give your party temporary hit points by speechifying at them. One gives you a bonus to use certain tools or skills. They’re interesting, and again would require a deeper delving into the book to really analyze.

There isn’t really anything sparkly or new in the Playing the Game or Adventuring sections of the book. Basic rules for rolling dice and movement and the like. Combat is quick and dirty in a Second Edition sort of way. No miniatures are needed, but I still generally like playing with them to keep track of stuff like who is flanking whom. Mounted combat gets some love in the last part of the chapter.

Spells have specific shapes again, and there’s a cute graphic of a gnome pointing at a chalk board with a cone, cube, sphere and cylinder on it. I’m assuming those same shapes will be used for stuff like dragon’s breath, as well. The spell list is three and a half pages long.

The replacement of the Astral Sea as it was envisioned in Fourth Edition is probably one of the most egregious mistakes of this edition so far. The Astral Sea was an incredible concept for adventuring at a multi-planar phase of a character’s career, and while Fourth failed in Paragon in a lot of ways, the Astral Sea was not one of those. My games will likely retain it, because it’s just too good to not use. The cosmology in general has gone back to a much more drab and boring place, which is a shame to see. The retention of the Shadowfell and Feywild make the loss of the Astral Sea all the more disappointing.

The sketches of the Conditions in the appendix are all basically perfect, and I appreciate that there are some critters to fight in the back of the book, though I don’t feel that it makes up for the wonky release schedule of a core book every month. I really liked being able to buy all three core books at once in the form of a boxed set on release, and I was under the impression that the new edition would be released the same way.

Initial Conclusions

The book is pretty and well designed, even if the chapter layout is something of a misstep. There are some things from Fourth Edition I feel are missing without good cause, while a lot of the choices made in the game’s design seem intent on bringing things back to a Third Edition place, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. There is plenty of interesting design space, but the basic setting being one as notable as the Forgotten Realms feels like it might be holding some of that potential back. There were some choices made that seemed a little too safe, and others that seemed very strange. It feels like Dungeons & Dragons, but it also feels like it doesn’t have anything new to say. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Art vs Design in Role-playing Games

Not all role-playing games were designed. Some of them were instead created, and there is a distinct difference between the two.

I’m not a designer or an artist, so this is sort of a difficult topic for me to write on. If I happen to offend either artists or designers by way of this writing, let me now chalk it up to my ignorance of your profession. I’ve been doing some research, but the gods alone know that reading is no replacement for first-hand experience.

According to some people, the difference between art and design is a matter of intent. Design is meant to motivate, to influence a person to take a certain set of actions or to partake of an existent experience in a new and interesting way. Art is meant to inspire; what it inspires is less important than the inspiration itself. Where design is meant to communicate about a thing that already exists, art is meant to share a feeling. Art can be interpreted, different people can talk about a piece’s emotional impact, and each person can have a different viewpoint on it. Good design, by contrast, is unambiguous. It is simply understood. And perhaps most importantly, art is a talent, it’s something you’re born with and develop in your own directions. Design is a skill. Poor designers become better designers through sheer force of education and practice. No amount of education or practice will make a bad artist a good artist; they will have more tools at their disposal, but will still be incapable of eliciting emotional response.

There is, obviously, a great deal over overlap, but that’s the gist of where the line lives.

So what does any of this have to do with games?

When someone makes a role-playing game, we say that game is “designed.” That the person who made the game is a “game designer,” and I think those are misnomers. Not everyone who makes a role-playing game is a designer. Some of them are making games because they are expressing something, they are trying to reach you on an emotional level (even if that emotional level is “Whoa! Cool!”).

For examples, I’m going to use two different versions of Dungeons & Dragons: First Edition and Fourth Edition.

First Edition D&D was a work of expression, it was meant to convey an experience. In particular, the motivations of Gygax, Arneson and crew was to recreate the experiences of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings within the constraints of a tactical war game. The rules were a slapdash bit of cut-and-glue from previous games, and were hardly the focal point of the game. Instead, the game focused on the experience of play, rather than a hard and well-defined set of rules, and I think that’s part of what got people into it. It was an emotionally resonant experience, one that could be interpreted differently by every person who played it. So much so, that the players took to the game in very, very different ways across the United States. Some played to the game’s tactical strategy elements, others wanted to actually build a story out of the play, and yet others were trying to create verisimilitude with the real world in their fantastic role-play scenarios. All of those things were valid approaches to the game.

Fourth Edition D&D was a work of design. It is a textbook that tells you exactly how to play Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. There is very little lee-way. The experience is very predictable. There aren’t a lot of ways to bust the game open, and there aren’t a ton of different ways to play it. Now, most gamers see that as a thing that is universally bad, but for new players it’s ideal. Think of games like Magic: The Gathering (another very designed game); the game plays the same way every single time, but it’s still a compelling, interesting game. Sometimes, new formats will come out to freshen things up a bit (Commander, Planechase), but for the most part you know what you’re getting into with the game, and that makes it a lot more comfortable to play. Fourth Edition is similar, it’s designed to provide a standardized experience within which there is a great deal of deeper play.

An example of a designed game that sits better with people would be Dungeon World. There are a number of good design choices in Dungeon World that enhance the play experience in neat ways. The game’s structure is simple, but very established: the players act, the GM (being the environment and opponents et al) reacts to their actions. The game’s rules provide a solid framework for play that will be similar each time the party gets together, and the rules are central to the narrative flow. The reason I didn’t choose Dungeon World as the first example for designed games is that it is also very artistic. It wants to express the feeling of playing Old School games, and does so through the medium of Newfangled Forge games.

And most role-playing games fall somewhere along a spectrum. Mouse Guard is more designed than artistic, but has a strong artistic showing. Palladium games have a ton of rules text, but clearly lean towards art over design. Pathfinder walks a pretty fine line between the two. And there are games I feel fit much more closely into one category than the other: HERO is designed; Don’t Rest Your Head is artistic; 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars is artistic; Marvel Superhero RPG is designed.

I’m not sure there’s really a point to this post other than an exploration of possible avenues for game critique we don’t look at often. Is a game art or is it design? Is it expression or instruction or a mixture of both? Can a game judged harshly for its “flawed design” still stand up as a piece of art? I would be willing to say so.

Let’s take RIFTS as an example. RIFTS is not well designed. It is obtuse, difficult to play, filled with strange contradictions of system, and riddled with poor design choices. It is also one of the best-sellers at the game store I work at, so it has to have something going for it, right? I think that thing is art. RIFTS as an expression of Kevin Siembieda’s ideal game, is an interesting artifact, and it communicates a lot about the man who wrote it. While on the surface it might seem a ridiculous hodge-podge of science fiction and fantasy tropes, it is in fact a deliberate collection of ideas that Mr. Siembieda finds evocative and interesting. It’s the role-playing game equivalent of a Dave McKean collage if all the components were provided by Larry Elmore and William Gibson.

So do with that what you will, I guess.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Puerto Vallarta, Part Six

We spent an entire day on the beach. It was fucking lovely.

Then we came home.

The guy in front of N on the second half of the trip was a total douche bag and kept throwing himself into the back of his chair to hit in her in the face with it while she slept. I wanted to give him a stern talking to. N wished him a slow death by stomach cancer. That should give you a pretty decent idea about the difference in our temperaments.

Game Stuff

I'm going to go play League of Legends on non-resort internet. Win!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Puerta Vallarta, Part Five

We got off to something of a slow start this morning. I was up really late, and none of us has had an easy time sleeping here, so it was well after eleven before we got our poop in a group and headed out. Today was Town Day, the day we’d decided we were going to see some of Old Town, the flea market, El Malecon and eat some good food. I tried to get a cup of coffee before the trip, because I am barely human without caffeine in my system, and ended up having to leave because the Starbucks staff was having a particularly difficult time with a lady’s credit card. Because I had not yet had my first coffee of the day, I hated them to my core. All of them. Forever.

The bus had a board nailed over a hole in the floor. The ride was incredibly hot, as Puerto Vallarta was rocking a solid 27o C (80.6o F) on the way out and for most of the day. Still, the scenery was quite nice, and we all decided to judge our previous bus driver much more harshly for calling out “Last stop,” before driving off with people still on the bus because our latest driver did no such thing and we got quite a bit closer to the boardwalk because of it.

N was a trooper today, walking for hours despite a heavy belly, swollen feet and a back that hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a week. We got off the main drag pretty early, and were treated to some of Puerto Vallarta’s slightly less visible gems: a gate trimmed in gold, a beautiful spiral staircase that led to a platform made of sticks, a parapet, crumbling old brick buildings and beautiful white plaster masterpieces, a restaurant painted like a huge work of graffiti, a rocky beach where locals sip pale yellow beers and don’t bellow their wares at you. It was nice to get another look at the city that lives just beyond the tourist plazas and resort malls, though I caught more than a few dirty looks as we made our way.

With a little foresight, we could have planned a bus trip straight to the Malecon, but where’s the adventure in that?

El Malecon is like an outdoor tourist mall. Standing on the beach, you can see where it starts: everything is pristine and beautiful, nothing is falling apart, the buildings are well kept, the statues are polished, and every restaurant is offering some sort of deal on food, booze, or both. We wandered a little aimlessly, shooing off the persistent salespeople who insisted we should go to this restaurant or go into that shop, or take this tour, or make these reservations. We took in the statues, from the man with a half-skull face holding a pair of swords to what could only be described as a matron yelling at two young girls on a ladder to be careful (Z postulates that the statue was actually a single alchemist creating two homunculi in her own image). There was the statue of the boy riding a seahorse that is in every advert for the city, and a pair of naval mines we’d seen in the airport. There was a mermaid and a merman looking at one another in apparent conflict; I was particularly impressed with the attention to detail on the hair.

Oh, and we forgot to bring anything that takes pictures.

Getting peckish, we decided to see what the area had for food. We had no intention of eating at Senor Frogs, and have thus far managed to keep to that, so we chose to get off the main drag again and see what we could find as far as more local cuisine goes.

When we were getting off our plane and into the city, there was a fellow who was both incredibly helpful and determined to sell us a timeshare. I don’t make nearly enough money to buy a timeshare (my income, combined with N’s, wouldn’t come to half of what you need to buy a timeshare). Z works at the same place I do. But he did give us a lot of information about the city that we have found really valuable. He told us about buses and where we could find one at our resort, he told us about the Malecon in the first place, and about tours and activities we could partake in, he told us about the city’s main cathedral, and he’d also told us about a restaurant we’d need to try if we were in the Malecon area. N suggested we start walking towards that, and if we found anywhere else that looked like it would be a good place to eat, we’d stop there instead.

First, we were confronted with the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Turns out, the Cathedral was pretty much exactly on our way to the restaurant, and we had completely missed that we were getting closer to it. The place is gorgeous, but I’m not really a Cathedral guy. I’m not Christian, for one thing, and certainly not Catholic. Also, there’s a sign at the front that tells you, in Spanish, exactly what you’re not allowed to wear, but it doesn’t make it all that clear in English, so while I was able to go in and take a boo around, N and Z decided to stay as near the entrance as possible because neither was wearing their Sunday Best.

I’m always in my Sunday Best.

The Cathedral is a beautiful example of Mexican Catholic piety, with incredible stained glass windows and a giant, tortured-looking Jesus Christ fairly close to the entrance. There are pews, and there were people praying at them, and there was a crucifix off-center at the front of the worship hall. I didn’t stay long, and I certainly didn’t explore or anything, but it was a neat little bit of architecture in a city that is filled to the gills with nifty architecture.

To get to the restaurant in question, a place called Pipis that apparently enjoys an international reputation, we worked our way through streets just off the main. If you were to come at the place from the main drag, it’s a single block away, and that block has a number of cute tourist shops. Coming from the direction we did, we got narrow streets and tiny corner stores, a couple of beautiful restaurants that weren’t really what we were looking for (I don’t come to Mexico to eat Italian food!) and school kids just getting out of class in their smart-looking white and red uniforms.

The restaurant was clearly designed with tourists in mind. It’s the sort of clean, Americanized eating experience that makes for a good meal, but not necessarily a memorable one. Where the first in-town restaurant we ate at was chock full of local flavor and small-town charm, Pipis is a well-built, well marketed, American-style Mexican restaurant. The food was undeniably better prepared, with fresh ingredients and a keen understanding of seasoning for a Gringo tongue. But the place oozed with stereotypes, from the musicians playing La Cucaracha to the signs offering a big bowl margarita.

I had the “Aztec” soup to start, which was just a tortilla soup. It was spicy and well balanced, and the avocado slices helped cool the tongue a bit, but I was hoping for something a little more exotic. I had the Supreme Fajita, which was a beef/chicken/shrimp stew with onions, peppers and mushrooms, served with a plate of guacamole, refried beans and salsa and soft tortilla shells to wrap it all in. Z went with the beef fajita, which was the same thing minus the chicken and shrimp (fellow doesn’t much care for seafood). N went with the Fajita Burrito, which was a monster. It was easily a hand-and-a-half long and would have taken two hands to wrap around, served with refried beans and iceberg lettuce.

It was far too much food, which is pretty much the best way to do food.

On our way out, we crossed paths with a pack of stray dogs. They were clearly starving, ribs showing through their fur, and they were digging through garbage looking for something to eat. There were a bunch of different breeds, from small lapdogs to larger hunting-breed mutts, and it was deeply saddening to see suffering creatures so near the luxurious resort side of town. They noticed us looking at them and started following us some, interested in N’s leftovers, and we hurried on towards the flea market, but not before stopping at one of the incredibly small corner stores to pick up a Mexican Fresca, a thing about which Z has been quite excited since noticing them. He was hoping they were the same as a great Fresca he’d had as a child – he was happy with the experience, and I found it largely to my liking as well.

There was a rope bridge. I think that any time an excursion involves a rope bridge, it’s officially an adventure.

Across the river, there were dozens of kiosks where people had their wares out for display. If the Malecon was annoying for having salespeople approach you, the flea market was ten times as bad. We couldn’t pass a kiosk without someone telling us to go in, asking us to look at something, telling us how good the deals were or asking if we were looking to get high. The stuff for sale was all the same kitschy souvenir bullshit you can find all over Mexico, with the inclusion of large knives and bullwhips, so we didn’t spend a ton of time there. N bought a present for her friend T. Z and I picked up a present for the boss that we think he’s going to like and on which we spent entirely more than we should have. Then we made the slow trek home, bellies filled with food that insisted on naps immediately.

Tonight, N and I spent some time at the pool cooling off after the long, hot trek into town, and spoke with some precocious children about how awesome Canada is. Canada, for the record, is pretty awesome.

Game Stuff

So, I basically had a random encounter today. I wasn’t expecting to see a pack of stray dogs. I certainly wasn’t expecting them to take any sort of interest in us. And I wasn’t scared of them, I was sad for them.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to role-playing games is the concept of Engagement play. We don’t always play role-playing games because they’re fun (or at least, I don’t). Sometimes, I play incredibly difficult games. Sometimes, I’ve played games that have made me sad or hurt my feelings or made me angry or brought me a sense of happiness. Games of all sorts are a vessel for experience, and the range of experiences that can be brought out by role-playing is incredibly wide. Wider, I think, than any other sort of game.

While this is just a brief note rather than an exhaustive study on the subject, I felt it was worth bringing up, at the very least. Sometimes I want a random encounter to hit me in the feels, and I think that’s something we should be looking at carefully.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Puerto Vallarta, Part Four

I slept in today. I'm on vacation, so I'm allowed to do that from time to time.

Today was one of those awesome days in a vacation when you don't do much of anything at all. We woke up late and ate breakfast at a waffle shop in the mall. I had the huevos divorciados while my compatriots had waffles and pancakes. The eggs were done over-hard (it's how I always have my eggs given the choice) with green salsa on one side and red salsa on the other. Between them was a line of refried beans and tortilla chips. It was tasty enough, but desperately wanted some hot sauce, which was later provided.

If you haven't been able to guess, I really like food. I'm a pudgy dude, and I spent a couple of years apprenticing to be a chef, and many more in high school Food Science class. So I have a certain expectation of my food when eating abroad in that I want it to be a great example of the cuisine of the land. When I was in Paris, I had the Lapin a la Cocotte. In London, I went out of my way to have a Full English Breakfast. I had chocolate sprinkle sandwiches in Amsterdam, and when I'm in the States, I eat like a fatty fat slob (Steak and Shake, I both love and hate you...). So when I eat Mexican food in Mexico, I'm after the real deal. I want spicy salsas and flavorful tacos and beautiful chimichangas and creamy guacamoles. I'm looking forward to going back to that restaurant in town tomorrow. It was both less expensive and the food was incredible.

In my long-standing grudge against the ocean, I've chosen to arm myself. We hit the beach today, this time armed with boogie boards. Boogie boarding is a lot like surfing for people who don't know how to surf, and is also a lot like flailing around in the water for people who don't know how to boogie board. For the record,  my understanding of boogie boarding is at a pre-school level. I'm terrible. I never catch the belly of the wave, instead catching the crest and floating along for a second before tumbling back into the ocean. N and Z were doing much better, with Z having the clear advantage. Having now done some research, I can see that I have been working with equipment not well suited to me; I'm too tall for the boards they'd given us, but they were free, so I'm hardly complaining.

I did catch one wave, which was pretty exhilerating. It felt something like flying over the surface of the water like one of the many sorts of birds that lives in the area, skimming across the water effortlessly. It was a lot of fun, and it's probably something I'm going to try again the next time I'm in an area conducive to it.

I spent a lot of time writing in a Starbucks today. I understand that this doesn't sound like the sort of thing you do on a Mexican vacation, but I find that spending too much time focusing on the place you're in begins to dull you to it a touch. I'm on an adventure, but at the same time, it's a chance for me to catch up on a couple of projects I've been putting off and to make some room for new projects. I've been working on a new role-playing game project, one that I think is pretty neat. I'm putting together my ideas for the Extreme Library as a campaign book or adventure path. I'm not really sure how I'm going to publish it, if I ever get it done (most of my projects like this die sometime during the part where I have to make the words march on paper), but it will likely be an online thing.

The girl behind the counter at the coffee shop asked if I had a girlfriend and seemed a little put out that I'm married. So there's that.

I took an afternoon nap, as I wasn't feeling very well, during which I had gods-awful dreams about my wife and our unborn child dying during birth. I've just looked up the statistics on that in Canada, and while it's not a zero percent chance, I'm feeling a bit better about it. Still, the dream was horrific, and N and I had a chat about it after I woke up. We decided it was a good occasion to go out for a romantic dinner and walk on the beach, which was entirely lovely. The moon was out for the first time since our arrival, and a few stars dared peek out from among the clouds. I stepped on a crab, but he seemed okay when he scuttled out from under my foot (I couldn't see him, I'm just guessing), and we chased some birds who were eating whatever was in the waves as they came up on the beach. The bed we've been sleeping on is really firm, and N is really feeling her pregnancy this week, so I really appreciate her making the extra effort to come out and reassure me.

Game Stuff

There are some things I could write about today - regional food, boogie boarding, ideas for Z's new game Hero of the Beach, or, as I like to call it Whoa Dude: Seriously Dude, Whoa. I could write about pregnancy and how to handle it in-game or even if you should, or I could write about various bits of accommodation while traveling as a factor in the places you stay - I mean, we're in the nicest condo I've ever stepped foot within, and the bed is still really uncomfortable. Instead, I figure I'll share what I was writing today in Starbucks and see how y'all dig that.

The Extreme Library

Libraries are where it all begins.
-                                                                   - Rita Dove

Ten Things About the Extreme Library

The Extreme Library is not like other libraries, and bears resemblance to them in only a few ways. The ways in which it resembles a real library are thus: it is a place that contains books, there is something that resembles an organizational system, and there are people who will help you get the books you are looking for. The ways in which it does not resemble a typical library are slightly more numerous.

First, it is built into the side of a cliff, endless shelves open to the elements. The cliff has no bottom that anyone has ever found, and it is thought that the library grows out from the realm of some long-forgotten – perhaps dead – god of knowledge and learning.

Second, the organization of the books is hardly ideal. The Library is fabled for having at least one copy of every book that has ever been imagined (including every book ever published in every language). Books that are published are nearest the top, with books that were only a fleeting idea near the bottom of broad, poorly organized “sections.” There is a “History Section,” certainly, but it contains everything from the histories of real nations to histories of those nations as imagined by the insane. There is a book in that section that is every thought Grand Emperor Zan Shoa ever had; “Zan Shoa” is a character not known to exist in true history or in any popular fiction. There are comprehensive histories of events that never happened, of people who were entirely unimportant to world events, of things that were the subject of wild dreams or flights of fancy. This sort of thing is true of every Section of the Library, and the divisions between one Section and the other are largely arbitrary and make no sort of sense.

Third, there are things that live in the Library. Many of them are the sorts of things you would expect to see living on the face of a cliff, but twisted by the strange magic of the place. Birds, bats, rodents, insects, spiders; all have been reshaped and remade into the image of the library. You will not find a bird that is just a bird, it will be an origami bird built from the pages of a philosophy text. Bats are built from hardcovers, their heads jutting awkwardly from the spine. The rats are made from quills, the insects typewriter keys and fingers. The spiders build trap doors beneath the tomes, waiting for an unsuspecting Librarian to pull out an important book. Moreover, there are things that have moved into the Library. There are at least three tribes of goblins that are known to the Librarians, for instance. A group of trolls lives a day’s climb from the top in Pseudo-Anonymous Autobiographies. There are at least a dozen dragons, though no one has come face-to-face with one and lived to tell of it – they can be seen sometimes, circling, hunting. And perhaps worst of all, there are the creations of the library itself: the haiku elementals, the stream-of-consciousness-shadow-monsters, the half-formed-idea swarms, the mimics. There are whispers of monsters both horrifying and beautiful in the deepest depths, and scarred veterans will swear up and down that they’ve met the worst the Library has to offer.

Fourth, the Librarians are adventurers. Getting a book out of the Extreme Library requires a man or woman of spectacular fortitude, wit, and dedication. It can often be like finding a needle in a haystack. The Librarians are a unique lot, consisting of as many warriors, wizards and rogues as scholars. There is a mercenary air about them: they are a rag-tag group in it for the gold and the experience, and that shows in the way they carry themselves. The only unifying ideal the group holds would be a love of books, an appreciation of knowledge. Beyond that, Librarians are as diverse and rag-tag as any other group of adventurers.

Fifth, the most important books in the world can be found here. That book of apocalyptically powerful spells you wanted to own when you were in wizard school? Yeah, it’s here. The book that describes how to attain godly power? Also here, somewhere. A book that will immediately make the reader the most charismatic intelligent creature on the plane? Yeah, that’ll be in Self Help. If a book can be imagined, it is located somewhere in the library. Seriously, if you have ever thought about an overpowered magic tome, it is totally in this library somewhere for a brave enough adventurer to find. That makes the Library an incredibly lucrative business. People will pay top dollar for trained Librarians to make excursions to find a specific book, a book they have just thought up.

Sixth, the Library is organic. It heals when it’s damaged. It grows new sections. New books are being created every day and circulating throughout the various Sections. No one really knows how it works, or why, but the Library is constantly changing, constantly shifting and building. This makes it more difficult to locate the books you’re looking for, and also makes it damned near impossible to predict how the Library may react to any given event. Sometimes, a section burns down and is replaced by the same thing; other times, something entirely different takes its place. There has never been an accurate map of the Library, and any attempts to map the area have been met with a great deal of frustration. There is, however, an up-to-date atlas of the Library somewhere in the Library itself that was imagined by Headmaster Aufast Nordlebrink. No one has ever found it, and there have been a dozen Headmasters since.

Seventh, the Library is not national. While many nations have attempted to claim the Library as their own, none has ever been able to hold it, and the laws passed that relate to the Library are universally ignored by both the Librarians and their patrons. The Library’s remote location makes it a position of strategic unimportance (it’s on a cliff in the middle of nowhere), but it is thought that possessing the Library provides a great deal of political clout.

Kings and Emperors have occasionally tried to take the Library by force. The Librarians have never put up a fight, but maintain that looking for a book for a King costs the same as for anyone else. In one famous example, a conquering king tried to side-step the Librarians and send his own army in search of a book that would make his words instantly binding to those who heard them. 
The army did not come back. Two weeks later, the conqueror had died of a terrible malady, and a card was delivered to the Library by an imp. The card read “We regret to inform you that the book you seek has been checked out,” in a tight, perfect script. That card is still on display at the Longhouse.

Eighth, there is more than one thing that is called the “Library.” While the Extreme Library proper is a cliff face covered in books, there are other things commonly referred to as the “Extreme Library.” There is a small village that exists near the cliff’s edge that serve to shelter Librarians and the books they’ve retrieved. There is a longhouse near the Library where the most important Librarians (the Headmaster and his council, who are largely responsible for the upkeep of the village and for dealing with patrons) live and work. There is the Vault, which is a huge, fortified building in which the most dangerous books ever retrieved from the Library rest with layers upon layers of protection. Any of these might be called the “Extreme Library.”

Ninth, the Library does book transfers. The fact that the Library as a copy of every single book that has ever been imagined means that when one is removed from the library, another copy takes its place. One of the biggest reasons the Vault exists so near the cliff-edge is that books that close to the Library proper rarely cause the library to spawn new copies. So if a more conventional library or book collector requires a book, the Extreme Library is often happy to send a copy of the book for an appropriate price. Librarians always accompany books when they are on transfer, often a small team of them. Book transfers rarely occur for books that are not incredibly difficult to find, dangerous, or both.

Tenth, the Library is a place filled with mysteries. There is an enormous steel safe with a lock tall enough to stand in (but don’t, because it will electrocute you). Chains secure it to the cliff face, and bolts the size of an ogre’s hands bolt those chains to the cliff wall. No books grow within ten yards of the place. No one knows why. There is an old man who lives three day’s climb from the top of the cliff, and maintains something of a modest book-garden there. He keeps old, hard-to-find volumes, and is often willing to offer advice or some small amount of help. No one knows who he is, but he’s been there through two dozen Headmasters and has been referenced as far back as a thousand years ago. There is a statue of an ibis’ face that juts out of the bottom of an overhang, facing straight down. It looks concerned. Only one kind of plant has ever been found to grow on the cliff-face, a kind of phosphorescent lichen that produces just enough light to comfortably read by at night. Attempting to grow this lichen anywhere else has proven universally futile; it dies within a couple of days. Ten days’ climb from the edge, there is a hundred-yard garden of this lichen that grows into the shapes of people who have stopped there. There is a podium in the Encyclopedias in Fictional Languages Section that will change the text of a book in any language to any other language, but it seems to intentionally omit key sections of text, or change the context of paragraphs to mean something very different from the original text. There is a swarm of glyph-shaped biting insects that lives over the Prohibited Works, Forgeries and Hoaxes Section of the library; they only attack people who don't have a banned book on their person. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of examples of this sort of weirdness, and the further down one travels, the more one is to find something deeply unnerving and strange in the Library's depths. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Puerta Vallarta, Part Three

Yesterday, we tried to go out snorkeling and couldn’t. The only snorkeling crews around were full, and the earliest one the next day wouldn’t accept pregnant ladies. Given that my wife is really, really pregnant, we went with the company offering “light” snorkeling today, and were not at all disappointed.

The tour started off at 8:45 in the morning, and I was chronically afraid we were going to be late. N and Z both took their time getting breakfast down, while I paced around nervously hoping that the boat wouldn’t leave without us. I’d already paid $300 to be on that boat. Turns out, the boat took some time getting itself figured out, and rather than the sleek green sailboat number we were looking at, we got what looked like a bit of a clunker called the Isis. I noticed the Isis was hauling a smaller craft called the Osiris, and decided I liked this crew better for the Egyptian mythology references.

I’m a sucker for Egyptian mythology.

We took a slow, meandering ride out of the marina and into the bay, and were almost immediately confronted with the sight of humpback whales spouting, a wee cub and her mother. The cub was only a few days old, and tiny in comparison to her enormous mom, and they came to the surface a dozen times to breathe. The cub was a playful sort and breached for us briefly before diving down for a longer run.

We were another ten minutes before we saw our first breaching bull humpbacks, and they were incredible. A small group of three or four bulls were trying to impress a cow, and one particularly energetic fellow had tossed himself into the air to do it. The guide told us that it was very rare to see a breaching humpback, and that we were lucky to… Another one! And another! Right after we were told that we shouldn’t expect more, the same whale threw himself into the air a half dozen times, almost hitting a boat in the process. It was incredible.

The size of these animals is unfathomable. Look at all the scale pictures you want. Try and imagine what a whale must look like. It won’t make a lick of difference, because the real thing strikes a sense of awe into you like no other creature can. This is the second-largest animal to have ever lived on the planet. Seventeen meters seems like a lot, and then you actually see what seventeen meters MEANS, and it’s a whole different kettle of fish.

And then you realize that the monstrous creature before you is actually a size category smaller than a ancient red dragon – at sixteen meters and forty-five tonnes, it is only a “Huge” creature.

We were apparently very lucky to have seen any breaching at all, but we saw at least a dozen examples by the trip’s end, as well as a few infant whales, a sea turtle, and a flock of birds eating a school of fish near the surface of the ocean. All in all, we had a really lucky day for sight-seeing.

When we got to the Marieta Islands, a small archipelago off the coast of Nayarit, we donned our flippers and masks and dove into the water. Just below the surface of the water were hundreds of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors. We swam through a nearly-submerged cave to a hidden beach beneath the island, and while the rest of the tour went for a short cave-walk, I explored outside, marveling at the ridiculous amounts of life just below the water. I don’t have names for half the fish I saw, and of the ones I recognized, I’m willing to admit I only know of them because I’ve watched Finding Nemo. I don’t know nearly enough about the ocean – a sentiment I share with basically everyone, I think – and I always enjoy an opportunity to explore it. N, who suffers from some claustrophobia, was able to put on a mask and put her face underwater for the first time on this trip, and I’m really happy she was able to share that experience with me. I wish I’d gotten a picture of the cave, but I hadn’t the foresight to buy a waterproof camera prior to our tour, and I wasn’t about to get my iPad wet.

There is nothing scarier in the entire world than swimming through a cave while breathing through a tube. You have nothing but darkness and the sound of your own breathing to comfort you.

On the way back, we ate a delicious lunch that featured ham and cheese sandwiches, rice salad, guacamole, and some vegetables in a sauce that was apparently two and a half times spicier than jalapenos. It was delicious. Almost nothing happened on the way back, beyond the crew opening the sails and turning off the motor. That in itself was something of a treat, as I’ve never been on a sailing ship that was actually sailing; I’ve always been on ships that ran on motors. It was also a brilliant form of torture. N and I, having just dried off and warmed up from our excursions under water, were treated to blasts of cold sea-water as the ship lurched in the first swells, and though it evened out over the course of the trip, we never properly dried off again.

Then we came home and ate dinner. I ate seafood out of half a pineapple. It had too many pineapple chunks for my liking. Maybe I should have expected that.

Game Stuff

I tossed around a few ideas for Game Stuff on this blog post, and all of them were pretty okay. One was about phased quests and pacing, how you can have interesting stuff happen at a few set points over the course of your story and still keep it interesting, compact, and fun. Another was about sea monsters, because God. Damn. Giant. Whales. Another was a short adventure that uses diving and exploration as the main conflict points instead of Fight. Another was a cool location that was an island with a skull on it (for those in the know, the second island in the Marieta chain has an awesome skull on one of its faces). So I had some ideas.

What I think I’m going to talk about today, though, is a pretty common misconception, I feel.

Your character’s life doesn’t have to be constantly interesting.

This is maybe a Game Master problem than a player problem, but I think it’s one that could use addressing on both sides. I see this most often in sea travel, because sea travel is tough to pace properly. Rather than use sea travel as Just Another Form of Travel, the inclination is to use it as a sort of secondary dungeon, because the sea is treacherous or something, so you have to. And clearly this stems from an uneducated idea of water travel, because anyone who has done a lot of travel by water knows that there is nothing more treacherous about water travel than there is about air travel or car travel. It’s a little more uncomfortable most of the time, sure. But the ocean isn’t any more likely to treat you like an asshole than snow is. And snow is deeply, incredibly boring to anyone who knows how to deal with it.

I think part of the problem is that most people don’t travel by sea anymore. As an aside, I was in Las Vegas for GAMA last year, and one of the things I noticed was that the people there don’t know how to drive in the rain. For me, being a Canadian and having grown up with Canadian drivers, this seemed entirely ludicrous. There was barely a drizzle, and people were driving like it was Rainmageddon 2012. I saw one guy actually drive into a meridian because he couldn’t figure out how much hydroplaning he was going to do. The answer was none. Zero hydroplaning. Because it’s fucking drizzling out.

Like I said, I’m a Canadian. We drive in worse conditions all the time (well, I don’t, because I don’t drive, but that’s another blog post entirely). We know full well that you should drive a touch slower, give a bit more room in the front, and otherwise drive like normal, because rain is like a really mild case of snow.

Most people are to the ocean what Las Vegas drivers are to rain. They overblow it. They don’t understand it. They don’t realize that they can make the turn normally and they drive headfirst into sea serpents. Every goddamn time.

Traveling by sea is boring. Let me say this one more time to make sure I have everyone: SEA TRAVEL IS BORING. It takes hours and hours, you get nothing to look at really, it’s kind of cold, it rocks back and forth nauseatingly, a lot of people get proper sick, and then… Presto, you’re where you were trying to get. Even storms are more often a complication than a disaster. It rains on the ocean all the time, and most people get by okay. I’ve lived through two ocean storms with nothing worse than an upset stomach to show for it. I’ve only been visiting the ocean since 2008.

 There is an inclination to make your characters’ lives as interesting as possible, to fill every hour doing something you’ve never done with adventure and derring do. But seriously, that’s not the way the world works, and it can ruin the pacing of a good story if every moment you have is an exciting one. Get on a boat and have a few boring days during which nothing interesting happens. “You all board, the captain welcomes you, and you travel along the coast for a couple of days. There is a minor storm on the third, for which the captain steers the boat away from the coast – and rocks – and then sets back on course once it’s passed. You have arrived in the trading port of Alchazar, what do you do?” That’s fine. That’s everything you need it to be. Ask them what they’d like to do while they’re traveling if you like, but keep it simple. Two or three of these, and your players will stop expecting sea serpents and colossal tropical storms.

That’s when you give them both at once. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Puerto Vallarta, Part Two

“I really like the ocean,” Z said as he did a spin-jump into an oncoming wave. It’s a sentiment I share. I didn’t see the ocean until I was a man grown, twenty-six and a youngling to the world of international travel.

I’d been Stateside a couple of times, but never to the coast, only the landlocked states of Montana and Indiana. Both were interesting in their own ways, but nothing had prepared me for the majesty and beauty of endless swells of water. It was awe-inspiring, and I immediately fell in love with the waves.
We spent most of the day at the beach, alternating between getting the crap kicked out of us by seven foot waves and relaxing in sun chairs, warding off the merchants who insisted we should own their hats, buttons or earrings, get our hair braided, or some other such bit of ridiculous. I don’t do a lot of “rest” vacations; I’m one for adventure and zaniness, so just sitting on a beach while the others read might not seem like my cup of tea. It was, though. I ate tacos, I swam in the ocean, I napped lazily in a beach chair, and I thought.

I really like the ocean. I would live by it, given half the chance. I could see myself loving the life of a scuba instructor, for instance, or perhaps a sea taxi operator. Be on or near the ocean all the time, working and living in a beautiful coastal area. I would need to move to somewhere that isn’t Canada for that, though, and Mexico is not as kind to immigrants as it could be.

We went into the town of Puerto Vallarta. It’s a pitch-perfect rendition of a stereotypical Mexican city, to me. It’s green and beautiful, with ivy growing on the overpasses and palm trees dotting the landscape. It’s also clearly poor, with buildings that are falling apart and streets that are barely kept. Anything off the main strip is desolate and sad, with kids punting a stuck-together ball in the street and a small tavern serving as the local meeting spot. There was nothing for us, there, and it took far more wandering than we would have liked to find a decent spot to eat.

It turns out that in an incredibly Catholic nation, nothing is open on Sundays.

We did eventually find a little fast food place tucked in between a KFC and a strip joint, and sat down for a bite. They brought us salsa that seared my mouth with spices, radishes and lime, and a variety of sauces less immediately threatening than the salsa. They came with a small flatbread that was authentic tortilla chip, and we dug into them with the relish of people who have been looking for a place to eat for an hour.

I had the sausage and cheese tacos, which were delicious, and exactly what I was hoping for when I ordered tacos at the beach. Three soft tortilla shells held a line of minced meat veined with cheese, and a plate with roasted hot peppers, fried onion and bell peppers and refried beans. It was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and it was in a little dive on the main strip that I think most of the tourists were walking right past. N had a burrito that looked delicious, and Z had some chimichangas that were delightful to look at, and I can only imagine better to eat.

I also had a Coke with sugar in it for the first time in months, and it was incredible.

We ate a tasty desert of crème caramel, which they simply called “flan,” and and I had a cup of rice water, which is almost exactly like coconut milk if you take the coconut taste out of it.
We stopped by a grocery store on our way home, and paid far less for our food there than we did the day before at the grocery store near the resort. I dare say the resort grocery store is trying to capitalize on our tourist naivety.

Game Stuff

When you’re thinking about the places your characters are, try and look at how they differentiate from the stereotype. One of the coolest things about Puerto Vallarta is that it is two different towns with very different styles. One is the clean, posh, incredibly rich tourist town, where people stay in mock-Aztec resort rooms and laze on beaches in the midday sun. The other is the busted down shanty town where people are doing their best to eke out a living that doesn’t totally suck. I like both towns, I really appreciate the great Mexican food at the place you’d pass right by if the nicer restaurants weren’t closed. I like seeing a bunch of kids riding third-hand bikes and playing like I remember kids doing in the ghettos I grew up in. I like seeing the Real Mexico, and I like lazing on a beach and occasionally punching the ocean in the waves.

The Real Mexico isn’t any more or less real than Resort Mexico, it’s just much more MEXICO, which I think is neat. I think the same could probably be said of Edmonton, in a lot of ways; there’s the touristy Whyte Ave district with the nice shops and the beautiful old-style buildings, there’s the posh hotel down town with bus service directly to the beautiful university district, there’s the sprawling monstrosity of a mall that serves as Edmonton’s tourist hub, and then there’s long stretches of Jasper Ave. that look like they were designed by Soviet Russia in the 1950s. Everything is bare concrete and slummy bare patches of dirt in front of terrible apartments rented by poor, broken people. Which of those is more real? Which of those is more Canada?

Maybe your town has an adventurer’s district, a few clean roads and gorgeous magic item shops that cater to that specific clientele. Maybe there are some really posh inns, resorts even, where for a few hundred gold, you get an apartment of your own, with maid service and access to a private beach. And maybe a few streets off of that, you see the real city, the parts of the city that the façade aims to hide. Not necessarily a bad place, just a poor place, or a place that has nothing for these strange roaming wizards and fighters.

And maybe your adventurous player characters will never see that part of town because they’re too busy seeing how the +7 maquahuitl cuts the heads off of dragons. 

Puerto Vallarta, Part One

Travel almost never happens when and how you want it to. Don’t get me wrong, travel has come a long, long way from the days of the stage coach, but to get anywhere today, you need to be willing to inconvenience yourself some. Our plane left at twenty past six in the morning, and required us to be in the airport, ready to do security check-ins and the like at four. Which meant being awake at three. Which meant going to bed pretty much immediately after getting home from work and hoping to get some solid sleep in before we had to get our butts out the door.

I don’t really sleep on planes, or any moving vehicle. I’ve always had to wrestle with sleep to get it to do the things I want, and even then, sometimes it wins the fight.

The travel portion went more smoothly than I’m used to, though it took over fourteen hours to get where we were going and we were all pretty exhausted by the end of it. We took off from Edmonton Intl. at twenty past six and arrived in Phoenix, which is the worst airport in North America, about forty five minutes early. 

Phoenix has never been my favorite in any of the occasions I’ve had the pleasure of laying over there. They’re gods-awful for gate changes, the waiting areas seem negligently short of seating and the place constantly feels as though it’s run by people who have never run an airport before. It makes the Edmonton International feel metropolitan by comparison. So spending an extra 45 minutes there was not nearly as pleasant as it could have been; we ate bad pizza, I tried to write this blog post, the others slept. We had to get our passport re-checked and our boarding passes stamped, which is a pleasure unique to Phoenix; I’ve never had to do it anywhere else, and it means getting in line twice.

The second half of the trip was by far the more difficult. Everyone was tired, and even I managed to doze for a few minutes. The landscape beneath us was unrelenting red mountains, there was nothing to watch or do (US Airways flights do not have entertainment centers; not even an in-flight movie). Still, traversing a continent is never easy work and is made simpler by flight in ways I cannot even imagine, so the fact that I’m typing this from a balcony above a beautiful marina with Mexican mountains in the distance the day after my departure is nothing short of a modern miracle.

Puerto Vallarta is gorgeous. From the moment the plane set down, I was immediately impressed. Jungle borders a clean, professional airport, and the well-maintained roads are a picture of Mexican beauty. I remarked to N that the key difference between Mexico and America is that, while both seem ready to fall apart at any moment, Mexico is somehow charming about it. Many of the buildings are ragged and unkempt, a few are just falling apart, but there is a sense of aesthetic about it in Mexico, almost as though it were intentional. Where America is strangely arrogant, boasting claims about being the greatest nation on earth, while sweeping under the carpet their crumbling buildings and broken streets, Mexico embraces that nothing lasts forever and humbly accepts the broken with the shiny and new.

And there are shining moments of incredible beauty in Mexico, sometimes in strange places. There are sudden arches or perfectly groomed gardens that pop out from the broken pieces and remind you that you’re on vacation here for a reason.

The first person we talked to tried to sell us time-share.

The first thing we did was take a nap.

N and I don’t nap lightly. When we go down for a quick nap, that’s a three-to-five hour investment. For some folk, that’s a full-night’s sleep. But we hadn’t slept much before the plane, and we weren’t planning on wasting an adventure on our state of exhaustion. The bed was huge and comfortable and we found no trouble falling immediately into a great slumber, much to Z’s dismay, as he has an explorer’s spirit and wanted to hunt out experience and gold at first opportunity.

When we woke up, Z went to bed, and we spent the evening with a walk along the beach, playing in the waves like children do.

Game Stuff
No game stuff today. I’m on vacation. One of those relaxing ones where you spend a lot of time on the beach and get a sunburn. Maybe I'll make a note about travel being crazy and never happening on your schedule some day, but for right now, I'm relaxing.