Tuesday, December 28, 2010

On the End of Nerd Culture

I sell games for a living, but that’s not the only thing that gets sold in my store. Far from it, comic books outsell games on a nearly 3-1 basis, but we keep the games center chugging along because it is also making ridiculous amounts of coin for us. One of the things that I am constantly coming up against in comic book culture is “How much do you think this book will be worth in ten years?” My answer, always a disappointment to the customer, is “Cover price, more or less.” That’s because comic books aren’t collectible anymore. If someone tries to sell you a comic book because of it’s collectability, you should kick that person in the junk and burn his or her store down. That person is a jack-off.

Comic books were once collectible because they were rare. Printing used to cost a goddamn fortune. Printing a 22 page book in multiple colors in a huge print run every single month was basically impossible. You could do it, sure, but it was going to cost more than you would ever make back on the books you sold. Companies simply couldn’t afford to put out the insane amount of comic books we have available today because the technology involved was pretty cost prohibitive. The print run on Action Comics #1 was 200,000. That’s not a lot of books, not really. If you got one, you’d be one of a very small group of the population. Having the foresight to keep it in pristine condition would have been even more rare (why would you keep a funny-book looking nice?). So Action Comics #1 is one of the most valuable comic books ever printed.

The first issue of Spawn sold more than 1,700,000 copies, as a point of reference. With some pretty common computer knowledge and two free gigs of space on your hard drive, you can have it and 180 issues that came after it for free. Unless something big happens (and we’re talking big, here; Death of Superman big), the comics you buy this week won’t be worth more than you pay for them.

This same principle applies to all of the stuff I used to geek out about as a kid. Comics, Magic cards, Dungeons & Dragons, the works. Once upon a time, I couldn’t find D&D books to save my life. Comic shops didn’t carry much, game stores were few and far between. We’d have to drive three hours to buy books to feed my obsession with role-playing games. And it was an obsession. I couldn’t wait to get my grubby little paws on something anything D&D. I begged my parents for it, asked for it on Christmas and birthdays, borrowed the meager supplies in the local library. I hungered for more, but it was scarce, and so I treasured every morsel of goodness I could wring from the resources I could find.

If I were to give you a zero dollar budget and a fast internet connection, and gave you a mission: “Find me D&D books!” how many D&D books could you find? All of them? All of the D&D books ever published? Yeah. You could. I spent some time as a pirate, and it’s only gotten easier as the years have trudged on. This is a concept I was introduced to (nearly word for word) via this: a cracked article that doesn't really get the point. The basic idea is that we are living in an era in which all of the information that has ever been dedicated to digital media, be it text or pictures or sound or video or whatever else we come up with in the next few years, is available to you for free if you know how to get it. This is nothing new to me, and isn’t new to anyone who has ever downloaded a song without paying for it. Hell, the web is deep and uncharted, and we have had sites devoted to making you better at finding things on the internet since the internet became a thing.

So we have cheaper printing now. That makes your comics cheaper to buy. You can get your comics for free if you want them. Stealing is cheap as free. You never need hunger for comics again. Hooray!


Well, maybe not so much. See, part of nerd culture is about scarcity. Living in a post-scarcity world means living in a post-nerd-culture world. My jonesing for D&D books can be sated at a whim, now, if I want it to be, which means that I don’t need to wring every drop of value I can from them between now and my next trip to the game store. I’m not as involved. The minutia is less important. I geek over it less, because I have immediate and constant access to it whenever I want. And that, unfortunately, makes me less of a geek.

Patton Oswalt wrote a thing that got published today. Or maybe it got published on a different day, but I’m only seeing it today. He talks about how the things we used to jones for are readily available, and that it’s leading to a corrosion of nerd culture. It used to be that we needed to wait for our injections of nerd culture. They only came at intervals, and the cruel expanses of time between hits was when we would sit around being nerds about it. We recited Monty Python quotes while we weren’t watching Monty Python, because we weren’t watching Monty Python, and we wished we had access to more of it. If there had been a 24/7 Monty Python channel back in the 1990s, I don’t think I would have been half as into it.

Now, I fire up my YouTube, and I have as much Monty Python as my little brain can handle. I haven’t watched Monty Python on YouTube for a very long time, and I only realized it as I was typing that sentence. This is what Mr. Oswalt is talking about, the idea that when we have a glut of pop culture, we value it less, we geek on it less, and so the “culture” part of it lessens. Instead, we have a revolving door of memes to keep us occupied, and when we’ve had our fill of one, another will take its place.

Mr. Oswalt suggests that this will result in us having access to Everything That Ever Was – Available Forever. At some point, we’re going to have every pop culture thing that has ever existed available to us all at once. All of pop culture, at your fingertips. And it is his suggestion that this will engender a breakdown of pop culture in its entirety, that pop culture (and by proxy nerd culture) will implode under the weight of it’s own availability.

I understand that Mr. Oswalt is a comedian by profession, and I will assume that his apocalyptic notion of a pop-culture meltdown is mostly hyperbole. But he raises some interesting points regarding the nature of nerdity that I think merit further discussion. I mean, in a world where I can download every episode of the Thundercats, how do I value the time I spent yearning for Saturdays so I could catch up with Lion-O and his faithful followers and friends? Having done it, I can honestly say that repeating the experience didn’t live up to my nostalgia’s expectations of it. Is that just because the Thundercats actually sucked, and I remembered them being great because I was a little kid? Or is it because having immediate access to this thing I once had meted out to me in spoonfuls made the experience somehow less intoxicating? Perhaps a mixture of the two? I don’t know.

I don’t think that pop culture is going to implode. I think it’s changing, evolving into something very different from what it once was. I think that the concept of “pop culture” is a modern one, but we don’t live in a modern world anymore. We live in a post-post(post?)modern world, a world in which ideas and information are constantly and consistently available to us with the click of a few buttons. This is not a world in which geekery can survive, honestly. Where there is no scarcity, there is no yearning, and where there is no yearning, there is no nerd.

That isn’t to say there won’t still be outcasts and weirdos out there, with fascinations and hobbies beyond the ken of our ONE and ZERO. The way I figure it, the outcasts will be the ones doing things. They’ll be the people who are putting cars together, not because they have any special love for driving, but because they capture that yearning between “I need this part,” and “Woo! I got that part I was waiting for!” They will be the people who go hiking, not because they want to be at the top of a mountain, but because they want to desire being at the top of a mountain, and because getting to the top of a mountain can’t be done at light speed. There are preparations involved, waiting for the right time, the right conditions, before you can even think about getting to the top of that mountain. That is where the last vestiges of nerdity will live, in the things you actually need to wait for, the things you can’t have right away.

At least, until someone invents the Transporter and the Replicator. Then we’re all fucked.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Being a Dick, 101

Siobhan came to me with a problem a few weeks back that I thought I had a pretty elegant solution for. One of her players, in a session, wanted to hide the somatic component of a spell in Pathfinder. That player’s character doesn’t have Still Spell, which is the normal way one gets around such pesky business, but instead wanted to fake it. He was suggesting a Stealth skill check, but I figure Sleight of Hand works a little better, as you’re trying to hide what it is your hands are doing.

In my own games, this would normally be accompanied by a few other rolls. See, I like to reward my players for doing stuff that rocks. You want to jump off a cliff spinning like a maniac, tossing grenades around yourself before landing on the giant’s eye, plunging your sword deep into his hideous cornea? Fucking sweet, here’s your plus five Sweet Shit bonus, and a small round of applause. You, sir or madam, are a goddamned hero. But when you want to do stuff that eschews heroism for the sake of your own hit points, you’re probably just being a scaredy douche. Too much of that sort of play, and any time you do want to do something awesome and heroic, you’re going to have to make a check against your own fear, Chicken-person.

Still, done is done. Dude wanted to roll a stealth check to hide his invisibility spell, and Siobhan let him after some arguing. Normally, I’d just leave it at that. Whenever I have a rules question at my own table and I don’t know the answer, or the answer is vague (as so often happens with role-playing games), I’ll declare “It’ll work like this for now, but we’ll look up the real rules after the game.” Then we look up the real rules after the game and decide what we’re going to do from there. But this guy decided that being able to hide his silent spell without the benefit of a feat wasn’t good enough. He figured he’d be able to get the spell off before initiative.

Or, at least, he figures that combat doesn’t start until after he’s flung his spell. Pathfinder is deliciously vague as to when a group should roll initiative. “When combat begins…” seems like it would be good enough, but when some guy is prepping a Fireball spell that can take out half my village, is that the beginning of combat? Or does it have to be after he’s actually cast the damned thing? Because I don’t know about you, when I see someone getting ready to cast a spell, I get a little uppity.

Now, I don’t know if these two arguments are related, but for the sake of a fluid argument, let’s assume they are. “I don’t want to have to take Still Spell to change the somatic component of my spell, and I think I should be able to cast that spell before initiative starts. Basically, I want to start every combat with Invisibility on.” This sort of douchery breaks games.

So just outlaw it. When people are being dickbags about vague rules, don’t let them. Hell, when people are being dickbags, punish them for it. Don’t let them get away with that sort of shit. You’re the DM. You are the final arbiter of all rules questions. The books do not supersede your rulings. Your players sure as shit don’t supersede your rulings. Gaaahhh!

Anyway. Siobhan’s a nice girl. She doesn’t want to have to retcon the little insta-invisibility from the game, and she doesn’t want to be unduly mean to one of her players, and I totally get that. She was looking for a different solution. This is what I came up with:

No one can cast spells from behind their back. Seriously. The somatic components of spells are set in stone; they are the way they are so that you can channel the arcane energy you’re calling forth and shape it into the spell you’re looking to create. When you try and do that backwards, you are probably going to fuck it up. I mean, your fingers aren’t even in the same places they should be. So to cast a spell behind your back is a hell of a thing. If anyone saw you do that, there would be talk. Rumors. Heresay. If a wizard saw you do that, there would be some ruckus, inquisition, questions to the highest powers of magic in the realm. Which is pretty much exactly what has happened.

Mr. McWizard had an audience, tossing his spells around from behind his back, and in that audience was a wizard. No one hugely powerful, no one you’d need to concern yourself with. But he’s talked. And the people he’s talked to have talked. And the people they’ve talked to have brought questions to some very powerful creatures, the most prominent of which is an ancient silver dragon called Grougaloragran (I stole the name from Wakfu; go watch it, it’s amazing). Grougaloragran is something of a geek. He collects things. In particular, he collects magical oddities, the sorts of things that just should not exist. He likes to figure out how they work. He wants to know how to do what they do. Think of him as the Sylar of the D&D world. He wants to cut open your brain and figure out what makes you tick. Grougaloragran is now very, very interested in Mr. McWizard, and wants the young (level five) dude to teach him how it works. Commence ridiculous skill-challenge with insanely high DCs.

Now, Grougaloragran is unimpressed. He came a really long way to find this young man, and he has turned out to be such a disappointment. He may just have to eat the little blighter… But wait! Maybe there’s a better use for tenacious young prodigies like Mr. McWizard. Maybe, instead of having to go and fetch the magical oddities himself, Grougaloragran will send this horribly disappointing little douche to do the work for him. And if he won’t, well, I guess Grougaloragran might just eat him after all…

The best way to deal with dicks at your table is to be a dick back. Don’t let your players get away with shit like this. Shut them down when they come up with ways to do things that rely on niggly little rules vagaries. Or, let them get away with it, but only if the NPCs get to do it, too. Or, worst case scenario, let them know they’re being unreasonable by getting unreasonable with them. Is a level 35 silver dragon too intense for such a low-level character to deal with? Well, a wizard who can cast his spells behind his back before initiative starts is a touch too intense for such a low-level campaign…

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why the Hundred-Year Ship Needs Game Masters

So the buzz is that we’re looking at colonizing Mars instead of just getting there, touching down and then getting back. This is mostly because getting back is going to be stupidly expensive, where colonization is, in the long run, much less so. A one-way ticket means that whoever goes is going to die on the Red Planet, having built a mostly-self-sustaining community there. This is a mission that is going to require some very special people with some very special skill-sets; you will need the usual pilot, co-pilot, science crew; but you will also need survivors, people who are going to make the trip, bunker down on Mars, and make the colony fucking work.

I am neither a pilot nor a survivor, but I want to go to Mars. This presents something of an interesting challenge for me, because it means I need to be able to justify the waste of resources I am going to represent to the mission. I mean, I suck at building stuff, and my ability to garden is so poor that I have managed to kill my only houseplant. I am horrible at math, I have no science in my background at all, and what small amounts of medical knowledge I have accumulated over the years is the rough equivalent of a first-year English student. My resume to become an astronaut is not exactly shining.

But one thing I excel at, the one thing I can do better than anyone I know, is tell stories. I can’t write them down (or I would already be a wildly successful novelist), but I can make them up off the top of my head with little or no difficulty, I spin them from raw dreamstuff into whole storycloth. I am one of the last of the traditional storytellers, those weird-ass hippies who refuse to give up the oral tradition of sitting around a camp fire and telling people lies.

This is a necessary skill for settlers, and will be given added weight due to the very nature of the mission. We will be in space for years. We will have nothing to do for years. So we’d might as well play Dungeons & Dragons.

Add to that the need to chronicle the adventures we’re actually partaking in (something I could do in the form of videos sent to the good people of Earth, or I could like, I dunno, type them), and I’ve got myself a full time job. Kristoffer the Chronicler, I shall be called, and it will be my duty, my privilege, to record the adventures of the Hundred-Year Ship, the First Martian Colony, and the characters they play in ridiculous role-playing games.

So I here submit my intention to travel to the planet Mars, to become the first of the great Martian storytellers, and to chronicle the grand adventure that is our first colony on another planet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Box Blues

Producing role-playing games is not an easy thing to do. There are a lot of publishers out there, and each of them is putting out a product that is about as good as yours is, if not better, and you have to compete with those people for a pretty tight market. The sector is shrinking, as well; the average age of a role-playing gamer is going up, and the rate at which people drop the hobby for something more blink-flashy is going up with it. New people simply are not picking up Dungeons & Dragons like they used to. I mean, back in the day, the best multiplayer video game on the market was Pong, and that game required about as much imagination as D&D to make it playable. Now we have World of Warcraft.image

So in a world where a screen has replaced our friends, how do we get people to start playing more role-playing games? Wizards of the Coast’s answer has been to box up some beginner-level products and market them like they did back in the 1980s. One of my first memories of Dungeons & Dragons was picking up the Red Box with the Larry Elmore art on the front, and playing through the introductory adventure with my buddy Landon. Other initiatives, like the Dungeons & Dragons Encounters initiative have been plagued with problems and have actually served to turn players away from the game, so going back to basics and seeing if new players can be found in a simplified rules set and a gaming environment reminiscent of the time we started gaming ourselves seems like a solid plan.

Except that the people who are buying the New Red Box are not new gamers. They’re old gamers who are looking for a spot of nostalgia. And those gamers are pretty damned disappointed by what they find in the box. The new DM’s Kit came out this week, itself in a shiny off-white box, and it is perhaps less disappointing, but still misses the mark in a pretty significant way.

What the Red Box lacks is meat. Or, rather, crunch. It delivers on the promise of a choose-your-own-adventure style character creation method, which is pretty neat. Those of us who played through the original Red Box remember the “You are a Fighter!” mini-solo-adventure from the character book quite fondly, I’m sure. There was a rust monster, and it was dope. This adventure doesn’t have a rust monster in it, and the character creation bits are a lot more spread out between the four classes, but what the book lacks is the ability to build characters that are not made through the choose-your-own-adventure path. Towards the back of the original Red Box were notes on the various classes and a more “normal” how to build your character section. The Elf, Dwarf and Halfling were their own classes back in the day, remember. There was a small section on equipment and money. There were some rules, clearly laid out for people who aren’t afraid of rules, and there was some new stuff for experienced gamers to chew on in those later sections.

image The Red Box players book is entirely filled with this choose-your-own-adventure stuff. Which seems like it would be good for beginning players, but it lacks something that is pretty integral to learning to play Dungeons & Dragons, and that’s easy reference material. There isn’t a place with all of the Fighter options laid out in front of you. There isn’t a page you flip to when you’re looking to see what a Wizard’s hit points per level are. Honestly, the Red Box should have come with a copy of Heroes of the Fallen Lands, or at least an abbreviated version of it (levels 1-3, much like the original Basic Set, with later boxed sets coming out with subsequent levels).

The DM’s kit is, admittedly, a much better product. It comes with some cute tokens for creatures and player characters. There are some maps and a couple of Dungeon Tiles, which is nice because if there’s one thing a DM is usually missing, it’s some sort of mat to play on (though, let’s be honest, a blank grid sheet on dry-erase paper would have been much appreciated). There is a cardboard dungeon master’s screen, and they actually include the whole DM’s book, which is pretty well a rearranged DMG with the errata in it.

Still, where the product kind of falls flat is in the New Stuff direction. Having the current errata in a book is pretty great, sure, but when I picked up the DMG II, I was thrilled to find discussions of Authorship and GM fiat in the book, and hoped that this trend of including indie role-playing theory in Dungeons & Dragons would transfer over to the core of the New Line. New options for ways to handle things like Action Points and dramatic editing and player-directed scenes and the like would have been a godsend. Guidelines for creating new powers or class features or… y’know… anything… would have been great. So while it’s a solid product for new players, it does nothing to cater to the established base, who are the people who actually buy these products. image

If Wizards of the Coast wants to bring new players into this hobby, especially with positive associations for their own lines of games, they should really be looking at initiatives like the Heroes of Hesiod mini-role-playing-game they put out to accompany the Monster Slayers books. Get kids playing games with their imaginations, and make it a habit, one that they won’t put away for a weekly 6:00 raid. Give me a boxed set with rules for a Heroes of Hesiod style of game, aimed at the six and up crowd, and I will show you a marked 10-year increase in sales to the teenage demographic of D&D purchasers. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Impressions of D&D Essentials

So, we played the first session of the D&D Essentials season of Encounters last night. Being the guy behind the games counter at Warp, I’ve owned the book for weeks now, and as is always the case, reading the book and playing the game are two very different experiences. I had much the same experience playing D&D Essentials that I did playing D&D 4th Edition: “Wow, this plays a whole lot different than it reads.”

The rough points:

Combat feels a lot quicker, and plenty dirty. By the end of the first round, someone had been knocked unconscious, two more were bloodied, and they were actually winning the crap out of the baddies. Powers take less time to resolve, people are more likely to make simple attacks like Melee or Ranged Basic attacks. Someone actually screamed “I CAST MAGIC MISSILE!” like it mattered. And it did matter. It seems that hit points are at a lower starting value, which decreases healing surge values quite a bit as well, which makes every hit that much more devastating. It could just be that we’re back at level one, though, and I’d forgotten what a level-one character was like…

Combat actually takes about as much time as D&D4. Even with a full half-page of boxed text to read, and some time set aside for role-playing before the Encounter, the encounter took almost a full hour, at level one, with what I consider a slightly under-powered set of bads. With a full table of five, the encounter took one hour and twenty-five minutes. With six, it took just over fifty minutes.

Simple shit matters. The first time the fighter said “I guess I’ll use my Melee Basic attack,” some part of me cringed. Then I remembered that, in a lot of cases, that’s the best possible option for a fighter. In the second flight of the night, the cleric used all three Ranged Basic javelin attacks he had, just to stay out of melee range and keep the party’s first-aid kit up and running. Access to healing was pretty much limited to the cleric’s Healing Word, making the two precon clerics less redundant in the party and more a necessity.

Characters make more sense. I’m a professional gamer. I organize and play games for a living, so I’ve gotten used to the looks of confusion and horror on the faces of new recruits as they try to figure a new game out. Try to teach someone who has never played  a collectible card game how to play YuGiOh!, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. That look comes back whenever you deal with a new edition of a game people already know (and make no mistake, Essentials has all the hallmarks of a new edition). This time around, people took a glance over their character sheets and seemed to just “get it.” Powers are mostly hot-and-dirty, doing exactly what it seems like they should do. Making ranged basic and melee basic attacks is a fine choice most times. There is nothing on the character sheet that is extraneous (other than the whole “Abilities do not equal their own modifiers” bullshit that permeates D&D; seriously, is it that hard to say your strength is +2 or your wisdom is –1?). Everything just fits.

I’m sure I have more, but that’s all I’ve got written down for now. Next session is tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll find new things to talk about then.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Slavery, Alignment and Moral Relativism

Keeping slaves is not compatible with a good alignment, but doing so does not necessarily make a character evil. Most slave owners are unaligned. Overseers who treat their slaves brutally are definitely engaging in evil acts that should outrage good characters. The question is whether anything can reasonably be done about the situation. Given how commonplace slavery is on Athas, good characters can’t reasonably attempt to free every slave they meet, nor should they recklessly challenge slave owners who are too powerful to overcome. Good characters should be anguished by the abundance of human misery in civilized areas, however, and they should be dedicated to aiding however they can short of attempting suicidal actions.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting
Side-bar, Page 197

It’s been a long time since I read a game book in which I’ve found nothing to argue with. Sometimes, it’s a list of horrible glaring errors that make me want to chuck a book across a room (Exalted, I’m lookin’ at you…), and other times it’s a few niggling little things that make my eye twitch, but I pass over it because the rest of the game is solid. Sometimes, it’s just one thing. In this case, the just-one-thing is the quote above, a side-bar from the Dark Sun campaign book. I’ve always had some difficulty reconciling the alignment system in D&D with the way I envision morality in fantasy fiction, but things like this just really slam the point of subjective morality home for me.

I wish I had a degree in philosophy. Actually, I don’t, but I wish I had taken a couple of classes on ethics so that I could better address issues of morality within the context of role-playing games (which is actually what I think about the vast majority of classes I wish I had taken…). When I was living with Steve Bignell in Stettler, we’d have long rambling discussions about epistemology that would devolve into horrible debates about semantics’ place in a philosophical discussion. Those debates were invariably my fault, as I don’t actually trust language as a medium for transferring ideas, and feel the need to hammer out definitions before I’m comfortable discussing anything as profound as ‘thought.’ I’m sure he tells horror stories about me to other philosophers, and they huddle in their blankets and shiver off the sudden chills that runs down their spines.

So, to be fair, I don’t really have a solid backing to discuss the meta-ethical implications of things like ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and ‘moral relativism.’ Even if I did have such a background, I’d spend half the time talking about how we can’t actually define good and evil well enough for anyone to have a decent argument about them.

What I do feel a little more comfortable talking about  is descriptive relativism. As a white man in North America, who grew up in a belief system not entirely alienated from basic Christian values, I can look at the Asian people of Northern China and say “Those people have different beliefs than I do; that does not make them evil people.” It’s an important skill for a role-playing gamer to have, as it means you can disconnect your own personal beliefs from the beliefs of your character, if you’re playing a character that comes from a background greatly divergent from your own.

And let’s be fair, every character you play in a game of Dungeons & Dragons is going to hail from a background greatly divergent from you own. There is no McDonalds in Athas. You cannot watch reruns of Friends in Eberron. Greyhawk doesn’t have flushing toilets. The lives and beliefs of the fictional people we create in role-playing games are varied and strange, and that often means that we need to stretch some of our own beliefs to be able to play those characters reasonably well.

One of the recurring problems in Dungeons & Dragons, from it’s very first edition, is the idea of an objective morality that is based on the values and traditions of the 20th-Century United States of America. The alignment system assumes that there is a True Good and a True Evil, and that those lines are drawn along good ol’ American beliefs. Which is, y’know, wrong. There is no objective Good and Evil in the world; these are concepts that are built from the customs, worldview and teachings of the culture in which an individual is raised. Is female genital cutting evil? To a lot of people, particularly those coming from a Western cultural background (and well versed in the medical ramifications), it certainly seems to be. But people keep doing it, to their own children, not out of some horrific desire to maim young women, but as a practical, cultural and religious practice. You can’t be a ‘good’ parent if your daughter doesn’t undergo genital cutting.

But we’re not talking about female genital cutting, we’re talking about slavery, and the implication that owning slaves, in a culture where slavery is commonplace, automatically lowers a person’s moral standing.

Now, I’m not going to deny that slavery is, in my culture and in my opinion, evil. North Americans own a pretty rough history with slavery. The United States was pretty late in abolishing it, and half of it fought a war to try and keep the practice legal, and that has had some long-reaching repercussions for them. And before my Canadian brothers and sisters start getting smug, I’ll remind everyone that we had slaves here until 1834, and engaged in the wage-slavery of Chinese immigrants to finish our railroad. The fact that slavery was only so recently abolished in North America, and the treatment of ex-slaves and their descendants after emancipation, makes slavery something of hot-button topic for us.

Not to say that it isn’t still happening, of course. People are still abducted and forced to do things they don’t want to do for the rest of their lives. True story. Go read The Natashas. It will break your heart.

So yeah. Slavery is evil, it is a violation of fundamental human rights, and I strongly condemn it in all forms. But I know enough about the world to know that my view of slavery is not universal, and that, historically at the very least, there are cultures that believe(d) the exact opposite. There are cultures that believe(d) that slavery was a viable way to get things done. And it really did get things done. Some of those things would have been impossible without slaves at the time. So, at the very least, proponents of slavery can argue that the practice of slavery has been very useful.

To the non-slave people of Athas, slavery is not evil. Not even a ‘necessary evil.’ Slavery is a good thing, something that good people use to make sure important shit gets done. It is a work-force that can be made to do anything (even things that hurt them), indefinitely, because no one else will do it. Owning slaves doesn’t preclude you from being a good person in a world like Dark Sun. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can’t be a good person without owning slaves, but I think it would be an indicator of standing in a community. “John’s a right sort of fellow. Well tended front yard, coaches little league, owns some twelve slaves, and keeps ‘em well, too. Those are some mannered slaves, he’s got.”

And it’s not like slavery lacks supporters in the real world. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke all viewed it as an important part of a proper social system. And previous to the abolition of slavery in North America, there were those who supported it as an institution, suggesting that slaves were better off indentured than they would be free (and given the living conditions of simple waged workers, and the open racial hostilities at the time, this sentiment was likely closer to the mark than we’d like to think), and that slavery was an important, integral supporter of the economy. There were arguments for years over the perceived benefits of slavery over abolition, and not all of the men and women fighting for the cause of slavery were evil people; they were trying to do what they thought was best, politically, economically, religiously, and even legally.

Again, I’d like to reiterate that I do not support slavery in any way, and believe it to be a vile and horrific fate for those who have been forced to suffer through it. But I’m not Athasian, and I don’t live in a society where slavery is the norm. While I refuse to play let’s-pretend on my own morals, I can say with certainty that the non-slave population of Athas would be unlikely to condemn the practice as an evil one. And I think a well-thought-out write-up on the topic of slavery in D&D, as opposed to a tip-toeing side-bar would have been a much better way to deal with the issue.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

First Thoughts on Dark Sun

So the store got Dark Sun in today. I can sell it as of Friday (remember, folks, if you go play at your Friendly Local Game Store’s organized events, they get to keep running them, and when they run enough of them, they get to sell you product eleven days before Street Date). I’ve already had a flip through the setting book, and a briefer flip through the creature catalogue, and both look like solid Dungeons & Dragons manuals. I think my only beef with Dark Sun is the mantra “there are some things in D&D that don’t really fit in Dark Sun.” It seems to pop up at least once per chapter, and I realize it’s something they need to hammer home to make sure people don’t play an Avenger in Athas, but I think saying it once, right at the beginning of the book, was enough. If you had taken all of the “this doesn’t fit” repetitions and set them in one place, it would serve as a solid reference page for what to disallow in Dark Sun games.

And let me just say, up front, that I think Athas is kind of a strange step for D&D4. Thus far, the inclusivist ideal for Dungeons & Dragons has been pushed really hard. There has been this theme throughout the publication history of the latest edition that anything from Eberron can be used in a Points of Light setting or a Forgotten Realms game, and vice versa. The same isn’t true of Dark Sun; while you can certainly use whatever you like from Dark Sun in other games, the reverse is heavily shit upon throughout the book. There are a lot of settings that could have used an update that would have fit the inclusion market strategy more elegantly. Even creating a new setting would have been a solid idea, and I think that it’s about time Wizards look at Fantasy Setting Search II: The ReSearching.

That aside, I think this is a solid product, for a lot of reasons. The most important to me, right off the bat, is character themes. This is something I want to see explored in broader terms. I want to see Eberron themes, and Forgotten Realms themes, and a Ravenloft theme, and some generic points-of-light themes (not unlike the Lover I wrote up before I got to see Dark Sun properly). One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about D&D4 is that characters lack customization, and themes provide both a customization option (which is fun) and something I can point at and say “There. That’s where the customization lives. Fuck you.” I mean, even with the growing number of class builds, it’s been pretty tough to make yourself a pirate, y’know? There really aren’t that many good swashbuckling powers for fighters; or, for that matter, wizards. Now, we have pirates. You want to represent that you’re noble born? Well, step away from the Auspicious Birth background, and say hello to the Nobleborn theme.

Another touch I loved was the idea of getting powers as magic gear. The heading is gold, like an item, there is a value in gold pieces, like an item, but you just gain a power, forever. I suppose it could be taken away by the same sorts of mystical forces that would give you the power in the first place, but barring such an occasion, you have permanent access to a new ability. They suggest that this should be used as an alternative reward for gear, when one is in a place of power or some such. Personally, I prefer the idea of being granted a power by a patron or by some powerful person you’ve just saved from certain doom, or for allowing your DM to do something stupid to your character for story reasons (Skull, you’ll be getting your ability to turn people into squirrels through this mechanic). One of the more interesting bits about powers-as-gear is that the powers can have a property attached to them. For instance, I could give someone a level-5 power that gave them a +2 bonus to Reflex every time they use a martial power. On top of that, have a daily-use martial attack.

In a world where your best magic item could break in an instant, powers-as-treasure makes a lot of sense. In worlds where your magic gear isn’t going to break, it makes for an interesting alternative to the normal 3500gp art item, plus 500gp. The best part: because they have a gold-piece value, you can just slot them in to a same-level magic item parcel.

I only skimmed the atlas of the world, being far more interested in the crunchy bits. It seems very much like the normal D&D4 world information, though a nice touch was the addition of “personalities” in each area. These are little NPC ideas inset into the text as a sidebar, and give you someone worth talking to when you happen to be in the Merchant District of Tyr. There is a huge poster-map at the back of the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of opening. It’s in full color, and the usual Wizards of the Coast quality for large world maps.

All in all, this looks like a solid book. I probably won’t be writing up a more in-depth review, because I have other things to do, but you should probably buy this book, and then love its crunchy bits to death. Simple things like weapon breakage, or more in-depth things like inherent bonuses by level (which are a godsend for people using double-experience to breeze through encounters while giving out meager bits of gear… like some game masters… that I’ve heard of…) are fantastic to add to any campaign, and the more setting specific stuff, like Defiling Magic and wild psionic talents are well done, and still feel very much like Dark Sun.

Friday, July 30, 2010

All You Need is Love

Despite the fact that romance plays a key role in storytelling, it is one of the hardest things to incorporate into a role-playing game story scheme. A lot of that has to do with the nature of role-playing games as a hobby. Role-playing games are played with a group of people, and the story authorship belongs to everyone in that group (though, with GM-heavy systems, it could be argued that the brunt of the work in authorship belongs to the Game Master). We are, in a group, realizing our personal fantasies through the fiction we create, and when those fantasies remain largely in the realm of “If there’s a bad guy, I want to stab it with my sword and look awesome doing it,” they’re safe. When we start to work our own romantic fantasies into the mix, things can get a little awkward for a lot of reasons. Usually, this awkwardness is avoided by simply not involving romance in an ensemble game, or by handwaving and bluebooking whatever romantic stuff is happening into the background.

So I’m going to sit down and talk about this right up front. If someone in your group is uncomfortable adding romantic love to your game, don’t do it. We are not here to make people uncomfortable. We’re here to play a game and have fun. If one of your players isn’t having fun because you’ve mixed romantic love into your normal game-play (even when it’s as abstracted and crunch-tastic as I’m about to make it), stop using it.

What follows is a crack at a character theme. We haven’t actually seen these babies in action yet (as of this writing, Dark Sun is still a few weeks away), but it seemed like the best way to mechanically depict the complete devotion and powerful motivation of love in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. It gives you a solid reason to involve romantic relationships into your game, because the benefits of having a beloved in the party are pretty staggering. The idea of dealing 6[W] at level 9 is, to me at least, awesome. 

You’ll notice a few of my political and social leanings in this writing. I made no assumptions about the gender of the Lover or the beloved, and some of the feats below give you killer bonuses for having more than one beloved. Those things may not suit your game, so I would suggest changing them if you plan to use the theme.

Also, I allow for the possibility that your beloved does not love you back. You can take the Lover theme, designate one of your party members as your beloved, and if that player does not want his or her character to be in a relationship with yours, your love is unrequited. Storytelling tools ahoy!

And I know the power names and flavor are corny. That I did on purpose. ^_^

Lover - A Theme

Should I draw you the picture of my heart it would be what I hope you would still love though it contained nothing new.  The early possession you obtained there, and the absolute power you have obtained over it, leaves not the smallest space unoccupied.

Abigail Adams
In a letter to John Adams
December 23, 1782

Love is perhaps the most incredibly motivating force in the world. For it, people will lie, cheat, steal or kill. There are no laws as powerful, no religion that can withstand its tidal force. True love is so strong that it will withstand the pain of torture, the struggle of war, and even the ravages of death. Some say there is no stronger force in the world (those people are wrong, but they’re closer than you might think).

It is a universal concept. Even in the deepest pits of the darkest hells, there is love (perverted and twisted though it may be). Every creature on every plane of existence is capable of love to some degree or another. True love, the sort for which one might combat entire armies or martyr one’s self, that is rare indeed. Some of these lovers lead long, happy, uncomplicated lives. Others, though, face great hardship in being with their beloved. The stories of these lovers, overcoming the difficulties in their being together (or, sometimes, dying tragically in the attempt) are the sorts of tales that are told for centuries past the deaths of all involved.

True love appears at every caste, and no race is free from its ravages. Anyone can fall deeply, desperately, stupidly in love, and when it happens, it is a powerful, moving experience. Many lovers, facing adversity, will leave everything they know to be with their beloved; this has led many to a life of banditry, begging or adventure. Their devotion, intuition and empathy make them strong allies and terrifying enemies. They always have something to fight for, and when their beloved is threatened, will not hesitate to fight to the death.

The lives of true lovers are varied and often strange, the sorts that songs are written about. They are the heroes of romance tales and the trials they are willing to endure for their love are the stuff of legend.

Building a Lover

Sometimes, a person deep in the thrall of love decides to abandon the comforts of home to be with their beloved. Other times, a long-time adventurer discovers new love. Occasionally, a person will fall in love with the wrong person – the relative of a life-long enemy, a powerful (and married) noble, a pirate captain – and dedicate themselves to earning their beloved’s favor.

The lover theme is a common choice for bards, clerics, ardents and other leaders. The theme powers offer strong options for healing a particularly individual at a decent range, a useful skill if one of your party members is particularly squishy. Also, melee combatants (for example wardens and fighters) interested in helping keep the heat off of a particular character might benefit from these powers.

Lover Traits

Secondary Role: Leader
Power Source: Love (Divine)
Granted Power: You gain the meant to be power.

Lover Powers

Meant to Be

You Know Me

I Will Protect You

The Power of Love

Dont Let Go

Couples Intuition

Together We are Unstoppable.


Love Triangle
Prerequisite: Lover Theme
Benefit: Choose a second beloved. After initiative is rolled, choose a beloved character. Only that character is treated as your beloved for the rest of the encounter.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme, Love Triangle feat
Benefit: Choose a third beloved. When you use a Lover power, choose which beloved character will be treated as your beloved for the purposes of that power. You may take this feat multiple times. Each time, choose a new beloved.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, you and your beloved gain 5 temporary hit points.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme, Engaged feat
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, you and your beloved make a saving throw.

Prerequisites: Lover theme, polyamorous feat, marriage feat, level 26.
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, all of your beloved characters benefit from the use of that power. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Warp One's Eisner Video

So we were nominated for an Eisner Spirit Award this year. To people in the know, that might not seem like a huge deal, because you can nominate yourself, but we think it's a pretty awesome accomplishment that we did nothing of the sort and still got short-listed for the award.

We had to make a video showcasing the store for the judges, and this is what we came up with. This is a comics-related award, so we focused on the comic side of things. When the ENnies start giving out awards to awesome retailers, we'll make another video for the games center (hint-hint, ENnie people... hint-hint).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One of Our Best Fights Yet

We played a single encounter in our Bones of a Dead God campaign today, as one of our players needed to go to work early in the night. That single encounter took just under three hours to finish up. Here’s the stats I was running off of:
Four of those. Also, two Two-Headed Trolls from Dungeon Magazine. Though, I actually eneded up using three of each for the encounter as played. I toned the Two-Headed Trolls down from Elite, though, making them a bit more easy to handle. Also, I kept forgetting they had two heads, so I was playing them as straight-up brutes.
The fun bit of the encounter was less the creatures and more the layout. The players began above ground-level, literally getting the drop on their opponents. There was a cliff some eight squares away from where the characters could just fall, necessitating that they swing in on ropes (some athletics checks). Some did so, while others hung around in the back. The paladin was immediately hit with two hits of Quotable, pushing him down to dazed. There was a power-round in which the trolls took it to poor Triptych, dazed and beaten and then, very quickly unconscious (from failed saves on Quotable). One of the two-headed trolls picked up Triptych’s body and started using him as a club, going after Memphis and slapping him upside the head.
Triptych makes his save, waking up and magically trading places with a slightly-pissed-off Memphis. Trip delivers the final blow on the troll, and the troll starts to fall… Still holding Memphis in his hand. Memphis dives for a rope, but falls a long way before he catches anything. He slams into the cliff, taking a HORRIFYING 10d10 damage from the fall, the catch, and the crash. He survived, wounded from the event, but not unconscious (a very real threat to life here…). And he lost his hat.
For those unaware, whenever Memphis’ hat becomes threatened, there is a chance the character will go completely batshit crazy, run up to people, and fire bullets into them with wild abandon. So, losing his himageat, he is super angry. He climbs up the cliff with a dislocated arm, frenzied, and starts shooting every bad guy that moves. Skull’s familiar, who is also her brother, who is also a dragon, dives for the hat, pulling him out of combat for the rest of the encounter, but he isn’t fast enough to get it right away.
Triptych gets back onto the ledge (having been brought by the troll, as a weapon, to beat on Memphis, who was not on the ledge), and starts laying down some smack, as well as healing his own broken self. He gets in a few good hits, takes down one of the trolls with the help of Kage (who made his first appearance in a while this session), and turns his attention on helping the injured (Memphis).
Skull, until this point, has been tossing bits of magic out from her safe position on the r opes. She can hit guys that are close to the edge of the cliff without having to move, and she’s more than happy to stay there until her space starts filling up with trolls. One gets close enough to attack her directly after she summons her new spider friend (from an item). The troll tries to swing back to the cliff, but the spider attacks the rope, cutting it with its jaws, and kills the troll attached to it. Skull is pretty impressed with this, until a troll knocks her ass off the cliff with its club. She flies off the cliff, falling out of reach of any of the ropes when, from below her, she’s hit by a little dragon wearing Memphis’ hat! Woot!
She crawls her way back up the cliff as a couple more trolls get picked off, and when there are two left, they start to spread out (much to her consternation). She blasts one full in the face, and kills it, but doesn’t like that she wasn’t able to kill the second in a huge blast attack. They clean up the last of the trolls, and camp out on the cliff for the next few hours before heading further down the cliffs.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Idea for a Book, Plus a Social Encounter

So, I had this idea for a book a long time ago, and I still think it’s a good idea, but I’m never going to write it. So I figured I’d put it out onto the interwebs and see if someone else would like to write it instead. I don’t want any money, or even as much as a free copy or anything; I just want to read it.

So Stephanie Meyer wrote a few books that were sort of popular. They made some movies or something. Now, the point of the books was apparently “Sex before marriage is bad,” and “Vampires are actually pretty cuddly, once you get past their asshole first impressions.” I can’t say as I’m really all that familiar with the material. I read the first three or four chapters of the book before literally throwing it across the store. It landed somewhere between my RPG indie shelf and the manga shelves. It’s not that I had an issue with the plot (or lack thereof). I’ve read books that took longer to get to the point. Robert Jordan’s books, for instance, can take upwards of seven hundred pages before something actually happens. I liked (most of) those books.

No, the problem was that Ms. Meyer doesn’t know how to put a sentence together. The quality of the writing itself was so amateurish and semi-literate that I couldn’t force myself to put any more of her words into my brain. So I threw the book in disgust, and it festered on our novel shelves for a while, and I tried to forget about the experience.

There was, however, something deeply insidious about her portrayal of vampires as objects of lust and love, about her exploration of a young girl’s obsession with an older (dead) man, and how she displayed the cuddlier, sweeter side of the whole bloodsucking thing. Her vampires kill the scary bears in the woods and protect their teenage sweethearts from harm. That’s really… tame of them.

Which makes me wonder why she would display these traditionally predatory creatures as fluffy bunny versions of themselves. From what I hear, she tries to leave a little of the danger in them, but it mostly fails because the protagonist is entirely blinded by her ridiculous, sexless love-plot. So why neuter your vampires? Why make them respect religiously-inspired pre-marital celibacy? Why leave your characters as blank, faceless avatars for self-implantation fantasies?

My theory, is Stephanie Meyer works for real vampires. Not the sort who sparkle in sunlight, but the kind that lurk in the shadows and prey on unsuspecting men and women. The sort of vampires who have replaced sexual predation with actual predation. Interview with a Vampire vampires. 30 Days of Night vampires. Those vampires. She was hired by them, maybe with money, maybe with promises of immortality and power.

The job was simple: give the vampire legend a facelift, make them friendlier, objects of romantic interest and sexual obsession. Make. Hunting. Easier. And she’s certainly accomplished that goal. Teenage girls are so desperate for some vampire attention they’re asking their boyfriends to rub ice on their lips to facilitate the fantasy they’re kissing vampire boys. And the boys are desperate enough for female attention they’re actually doing it.

So I’m thinking maybe a Dresden Files book (go ahead, Mr. Butcher; this one’s yours). Or maybe a solid Buffy the Vampire Slayer story, in which Stephanie Meyer is the Big Bad. When it’s published, let me know. I’ll go buy it.


This is, ostensibly, a blog about gaming. So I feel the need to throw in some game notes. Obviously, any plot that would make a good book would probably make a decent game (though for a book like Ulysses, this is obviously less true). Stephanie Meyer would make a solid mini-boss in a Hunter or Vampire game. Whoever hired her is the real evil, but she’d be a solid lieutenant.

More, though, this is a tactic that can be applied to any Evil Thing that would prefer to have a bit friendlier an image. Viral marketing is a thing we’ve been doing for centuries. You write a book, someone loves it and lends it to a friend, then buys a copy of their own (or writes one, pre-printing press, or pirates one, post-interwebs). I mean, you want to find a master of viral marketing, you need look no further than the Bible. Yeshewa ben Yoseph (Jesus) was a fucking carpenter, and now he’s responsible for the salvation of some hundred bazillion souls.

Because this is also, primarily, a D&D4 blog, let’s look at a more Gygaxian example. Goblins have kind of a bum deal in most D&D worlds. Eberron made some allowances for them while it was making allowances for everyone else, but in most campaign worlds goblins are seen as vermin, pests or outright evil depending on who you talk to. Now, I have some issues about racism in D&D, so the idea that an entire species of intelligent creatures being lumped into a single stereotype kind of chafes. But let’s run with the idea that they are irrevocably evil creatures who want nothing but to torment and destroy the “good” species in the world.

But goblins are crafty little bastards, and King Krug is more crafty than most. He has been in contact with the most prominent minstrels and bards in the world, inviting them to come and partake of goblin hospitality. Over a fabulous dinner, he has insinuated that great riches await a bard who can raise the general public’s awareness of the goblins’ more genteel attributes. They are, after all, fine craftsmen and powerful warriors. They are dashing rogues, living on the outskirts of a society that has shunned them. There’s somewhat romantic in the notion, no? Should a minstrel happen to make this more… Accurate view of the goblin peoples’ character the more readily accepted, King Krug would certainly make it worth the bard’s while. And he or she would be praised as a hero to goblins everywhere. Surely this is a noble and worthy goal?

Diplomatic Encounter: King Krug

King Krug

Level 4 Solo Controller

Small natural humanoid

XP 875

HP 196; Bloodied 98

AC 18; Fortitude 16; Reflex 16; Will 17

Speed 6

Saving Throws +5; Action Points 2

Initiative +4

Perception +4



O Hospitality • Aura 5 (social encounter)

Creatures that begin their turn within the aura take 5 damage and 3 ongoing psychic damage (save ends).

Standard Actions

R Used Cart Salesman (charm) • At-Will

Effect: Ranged 10 (All social opponents in burst.); +12 vs. Passive Insight; 2d8 + 4 and the creature is .

C Soothing Voice of Deep Rumbly Doom (thunder) • Encounter

Effect: Close Blast 5 (all social opponents in burst); +8 vs Passive Insight; 1d6 + 5 and the target is weakened until the end of King Krug's next turn. .

M Attack • At-Will

Attack: +9 vs. AC

Hit: 1d10 + 5 damage.

Minor Actions

Summon Goblin Minion • At-Will

Effect: Summon a single Goblin Cutter into a square adjacent to King Krug. The Goblin Cutter's initiative is 1. .

Skills Bluff +11, Insight +9, Intimidate +11, Stealth +9

Str 14 (+4)

Dex 15 (+4)

Wis 14 (+4)

Con 9 (+1)

Int 13 (+3)

Cha 18 (+6)

Alignment      Languages

Equipment jeweled scepter, random crown, fresh-water fish

© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


SlyFlourish wrote a short article about Status Effects over at his blog, and it’s good, so you should go read it. Status Effects are one of my favorite parts of the 4th Edition experience; they’re one-word, easily groked effects that happen to your character or to a bad guy. It’s a solid design element stolen from console and computer role-playing games (Final Fantasy, I’m looking at you!), and they provide a level of threat that straight-up damage simply doesn’t. Damage does not effect your character’s ability to perform. Being Dazed really does.

Part of what Mike is trying to do with his article is clean combat up, make it faster and remove some of the more frustrating aspects of Status Effects. Which is an admirable goal, no doubt. It inspired me to do something a little different with them, though, and find ways to spice combat up. Being Dazed is annoying, but mostly because it happens all the time. With a greater variety of status effects, GMs have the opportunity to throw new wrenches into the combat machine, lending some novelty to each battle.

At the beginning of your turn, choose an action.
You control that action this turn. The possessing creature controls your other actions this turn.

Obviously a variation on Dominated, Possessed simulates your character’s attempts at throwing off the shackles of the possessor. You get one action, move, minor or standard, and the rest of your turn is controlled by the possessing creature. If you run away from your comrades, you can’t attack them, but you might end up switching out your standard for a minor and running off a cliff. If you attack the bad guy, he might move you deeper into his hordes of minions. Or he might just make you drink all of your potions…

Your attacks deal zero damage.

Crippling for strikers, frustrating for defenders and inconvenient for leaders, this Weakened variant takes you out of the fight and into a support role until it goes away. Used too much, it could completely disable a party, but as an encounter power (save ends) or as a recharge (end of the monster’s next turn) pacifying enemies is a powerful survival technique.

You grant combat advantage.
Roll 1d4.
On a 3 or 4, make a melee basic or ranged basic attack against the nearest ally as a standard action.

This was one of my favorite Final Fantasy status effects. It would just automatically fight for you, and it would attack someone completely at random. Sometimes it was a friend, sometimes an enemy, and it always made fights more interesting.

You cannot use Encounter or Daily powers.

It always amazes me that the good folks at Wizards miss things like this. I have to assume that they decided against something like this on purpose, or they wanted to make it into a power or something. It’s a simple, elegant design that works well on an “until end of monster’s next turn,” or “save ends” ability, effectively conveys that a character has forgotten something important, and keeps the character involved in combat without hurting their ability to move or act in any way.

Also, go read Mike’s article for interesting ways to exchange Status Effects for stuff that sucks just as bad, but doesn’t fuck with your game.