Category Archives: Personal

Holiday Week

Ok, it’s not really a holiday, but I’m making it one. Short form, I’m taking the week off, and will resume blogging next Monday.

Longer form has nothing to do with gaming, so feel free to skip over this and come back next week, but I feel a little explanation is warranted.

As some of you may know, this has been the year I decided to really tackle my health. My physique is what one might best describe as “internet-like”, so I need to lose weight and generally get in better shape. I’ve tried before, of course, and that’s gone as you might expect. Of all things, I think writing this blog is a big reason this time has been different. I started this blog to make myself write every day, and after a certain point, I could look back on what I’d done and it was pretty amazing to see the results of that kind of extended effort. Getting healthy is a similar process, and I took some inspiration from that.

I’ve actually been at it since January, and it’s going well. I’m going to the gym, I have a trainer, I’m eating better and I’m down somewhere over 40 pounds. All in all, I’m really pleased. However, the past few weeks have been iffy – pretty much since PAX. The combination of getting very sick (PAX Plague!), my wife starting a new job (which is great, but changed our schedules) and my trainer changing gyms has been very disruptive. I haven’t fallen off the wagon, but I’ve been kind of half-assing things: exercising a little less hard, being more lax about food, all the things that point to a downhill slide. This became pretty clear this past weekend, and it became equally clear that I need to focus on getting back on track.

Now, it would be wonderful if I could disappear on some monastic retreat or movie-montage boot camp, but life doesn’t work that way. I still need to work, and I still need to honor my commitments, but I simply need a little more bandwidth this week, and the reality is that while I write for me, I’m getting healthy for me and the people I love. From that perspective, it’s pretty easy to prioritize.

Anyway, I actually will be shocked if I don’t end up writing some posts this week anyway, but if I’m smart, I’ll put them in queue and get ahead of things. I like writing, and it’s hard for me not to do it, but it is useful to absolve myself of the responsibility to write for a week. That commitment is, in some ways, harder than the writing itself.

So, that’s the story. As usual, when I return you will be spared this sort of personal jibber jabber in favors of cool dice tricks, but I figure the occaisional detour won’t hurt anyone.

See you on Monday!

Arguing Corkscrews

I like wine. I don’t know it very well, but I’m open to taking advice about it, what to pair it with and such. I listen to wine arguments and discussions with a bit of detachment because even if the people arguing are knowledgeable and passionate, they’re engaged with things that are outside the scope of my simple “I would like a good glass of wine” perspective.

It gets utterly surreal when they start arguing about corkscrews. There are, it turns out, lots of different ways to open a bottle of wine, all of which are potential subjects for argument. What throws me is that this is not even about the wine (at least not in any way that speaks to me) yet the arguments can get even more heated than those about wine. As someone who just wants to open the bottle to get to the deliciousness inside, it’s off-putting.

Gamers argue about corkscrews all the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it can be a lot of fun to argue about corkscrews with other people who also Care Deeply about them, but it’s easy for the corkscrew argument to overwhelm the discussion, especially as it gets heated. It becomes hard to see that for many people, the right corkscrew is the one they have, and they’re happy with that. And when you describe in no uncertain terms how their corkscrew is crap and how the only good corkscrew is this other kind, then the best case scenario is that they think you’re a jerk, and the worst is that they decide that maybe beer enthusiasts will be a trifle more welcoming.

Disagree about the corkscrews if you like, but don’t forget that people are really here for the wine.

A Foray into Comics

I do not usually dabble in fiction, but I think about it in very nerdy ways. This one is SUPER nerdy, and not really RPG related. You have been warned.

I like to think about comic books, especially because a lot of the things that make good stories hard with certain comics are the same things that make certain games hard. The easiest example of this is what it takes to tell a good Superman story – Superman is so powerful that it’s hard to introduce any legitimate external threats (even ignoring the reader’s meta-knowledge that the character won’t permanently change) without making the world silly. Anyone who can fight Superman toe-to-toe is a world-shaking bad guy, and to treat them otherwise is to cheapen the character.

Mediocre writers tend to address this by approaching his angles of weakness – introducing kryptonite, magic or other things outside his sphere into the story. This can work to a point, as it can introduce a legitimate challenge, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. Outright bad authors occasionally handle it by undermining the character, rendering him some sort of idiot or caricature, but that’s even worse. Good writers find the meatier stuff, questions of who the character is, what he means, and how he connects to the world and make good stories out of it. Sometimes great stories. Between Superman and Batman, there is a vast swath of human stories.

The problem is that it’s sometimes a little too vast. In figuring out how to write a good Superman story, we are left with a bit of a gap when it comes to writing other characters in a similar niche. Most notably, I end up thinking about Aquaman and Wonder Woman. An author can look at them will ask “do their powers or situation allow me to write stories that are unique to these characters?” and often come up with a depressing answer[1]. Aquaman has tried to break out of this rut several times, usually by fleshing out his unique schtick (Atlantis) but it’s hard to get people to care. Tellingly, the most popular interpretation of Aquaman I’ve seen of late (from the Brave and the Bold cartoon) is distinctive for his characterization FAR more than his powers.

Wonder Woman has a rougher time of it. There may have been a time when the sheer novelty of a woman as an a-list super hero might have been enough to hang your hat on, but it’s not really enough anymore. In fact, it’s become a drawback as authors feel that Wonder Woman must represent some manner of feminine ideal (whatever that is) rather than be an interesting character. This has lead to a lot of uncertainty regarding the character as she goes from writer to writer, uncertainty that has kept her from ever crystallizing the way that Superman and Batman have. Her latest saga (where the character’s entire history and costume have been –temporarily one hopes – redone) is kind of icing on the cake for this.

It makes me crazy, because I know the answer I want. I look at Wonder Woman and her origin, steeped in myth and legend, and then I look at the DC universe, which has the most interesting and well done mystical underground of any comics company out there, and I wonder why those two things don’t come together. Every now and again a character in a Vertigo comic will mention Superman, and it’s always interesting because it’s usually with a sense of awe and distance, as if the two worlds never overlap. But it’s always Superman because, hey, he’s iconic.

All of which is to say, I would love to see Wonder Woman as the Superman of that part of the universe. That is to say, in a position of sufficient power that external threats are less interesting than going to actual storytelling.

Historically, she’s been on the receiving end of magic as often as Superman (maybe more often), even though it is nominally his weakness. This is, I think, mostly because writers get the idea that WW exists in the magical world, but they can’t quite round the corner on empowering her within it. And that last is the trick. To my mind, Wonder Woman has been steeped in magic since her birth and rubs elbows with the gods. Magic should not be something she’s ignorant of – it should be something that she is potently aware of, for good and ill. Part of the heart of magic in DC is that it comes with a price, and giving her the knowledge of that price, as well as reason not to pay it? That alone has huge mileage. All of which is to say nothing of the pure comic-book-y potential of facing mystical menaces of the interesting kind rather than the nth iteration of fighting something out of greek mythology. And, hell, stepping from the pure greek into the broader mythos of DC also does a nice job of putting the gods in context, shedding another sometimes super-lame element of play.

This is, by the way, a total pipe dream. I expect the character to continue to stagger along indefinitely, occasionally resetting to something akin to what you can find on a notebook or lunchbox. She’ll have bursts of excellent characterization in other people’s books (She had a page in an old issue of Birds of Prey that made the character 9 times more interesting than any recent issue) but really interesting stuff will be reserved to characters who can fly far enough below the radar to avoid uproars yet still make sales.

Anyway, back to games tomorrow. That one’s just been bugging me for a while.

1 – In contrast, Green lantern doesn’t have this problem. Not just because his power is so different, but also because his context is very different – he’s a space cop among other space cops. That’s potent.

Friday Roundup

It’s been a bit of a rough week – I’ve spent much of it trying to shake off some sort of bug and trying to not to completely lose my schedule to Wow, two distinct challenges. Still, good things are floating around at large.

  • If you haven’t already heard it, I was recently on The Game’s The Thing with Cam Banks talking about Leverage. It was fun, and I don’t think I sound like too much of a mouth-breather, so score one in the victory column. And in an unprecedented media blitz (at least for me) I was also on Narrative Control, talking about Apocalypse world with Sean Nittner and Judd Karlmam. I just listened to that one this morning, and it also went pretty well.[1]

  • I admit that the two podcasts have left me tempted to show up at Fred’s with an Ipad and just record _something_ while we both play with our kids. It might be the first gaming podcast to include phrase such as “when the dice hit the what the heck is oh no honey don’t east that don’t oh man!”,(a sentence which I suspect can only be parsed in parentese).

  • A new and, by all reports, very cool game shop has opened down in DC, Labyrinth Games. This is a fantastic thing since the DC are has a real shortage of game stores relative to its population, and most of them aren’t accessible via the metro. Fred wrote about it more extensively and I’m envious since I have yet to actually make it into town to see.
  • Fred’s also taking advantage of the new space to take a page from the Endgame playbook and organize a Taste of Gamma World event, running a couple of tables of Gamma World on the 18th. I’ll be missing it, but it looks like it should be a great time. The funny thing is that this is not even a faintly sponsored event. Fred just likes Gamma World, and things like this happen when he gets enthusiastic.
  • A fantastic new blog has started up called Beyond the Golem. It’s pitch:

    This blog is not about the Golem. It’s about the underdogs. Over millennia, Jewish writers created a vast, imaginary world filled with demons, fabulous beasts and demi-human monstrosities, a world where vast deserts cover the open gates of Hell, and where singular individuals can traverse planes of existence and wield awesome powers. Compared to all this, the Golem is just a clumsy block of clay.

    Two posts so far, and they’ve both been great. This one very quickly ended up on my feed reader.

  • Someone was smart enough to publish Chuck Wendig’s ‘Double Dead’, so keep an eye out for that showing up sometime down the line. Chuck’s a non-stop font of talent who’s put in the time and effort to really pursue what he loves, and between this and Sundance, I’m super happy to see it bearing fruit.
  • Peter Bregman talked about not letting the package distract from the message. Not much pithy to say here, except that it was a useful read to me.
  • Speaking of useful reads, I have just finished my unprecedented second read-through of Influencer, by Paterson, Grenny et al. This was one of those books that was so good that I own it in three formats (print, kindle & Audio), but reading it twice, back to back, is something I can’t remember having done with anything else in a while. I’ve been recommending this one right and left, and I think it’s been making an impression.

    Basically, it’s a book about changing behaviors, and how it’s accomplished. In material, it has a lot in common with the remarkable Switch. However, since the authors are, ultimately, writing for a business audience, the net result is somewhat more practical while still being profoundly potent.Changing behavior is one of those things that matters on things as personal as me trying to lose weight to as large as solving serious business (or world) problems, and the book runs up and down that scope effortlessly and usefully.

    What’s crazy is that this book has lots of things that I really don’t like, stylistically. It’s got a business-y, sometimes jargon-y tone that can really grate. I hate stuff like that, especially when they make mention of their other book (Crucial Conversations) but the material is so useful that I could just ignore it.

    The book really ended up getting into circulation after a Gamma World game. A friend was having trouble with carnies in the kitchen (code for problems you know you should avoid, yet don’t.) and upon hearing him talk, I reached into my bck to pull out my copy of the book, complete with highlights and numerous little post-it flags sticking out. I hadn’t even finished it yet at that point, but I handed it over right then and there for him to read. I finished it on the Kindle, and I’m glad I did, since I think it ended up being the right book t the right time. Fred was there for the exchange too, and I hadn’t even realized it was on his radar, but somewhere in there it must have caught his interest too, because next thing I know he’s thrown quotes from it up on his tumblr.

    I think Fred ended up summing it up best with the observation that it was hard to figure out what not to be highlighting in the book.

Anyway, I hadn’t mean to talk to much about Influencer, but I guess it’s self-evident how good a book I think it is. Beyond that, lots of good stuff out there in the world something worth rememberingon a cold, blustery Friday.

1 – I’m a sucker for the Narrative Control guys because they read my blog. I means, sure, they’re smart, insightful and talented, but that’s purely secondary!

Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a holiday here today, so I’m gong to treat it as such and wrap up the Leverage posts tomorrow. Today, I will eat pie and be thankful for this hobby which has brought so much happiness to my life and which I look forward to sharing with my son as he gets older. I hope the day treats you well and gives you something to be thankful about.


Sick days are good for video games and popcorn reading, and today I finally decided to take a swing at Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. It is, so far, inoffensive and enjoyable and it absolutely makes me want to pull Nine Worlds and Scion off the shelf and shake them up a little. And that twigged me to something.

I’d never given it a lot of thought, but I had always associated my love of RPGs with being a reader. Sure, there were fantasy and sci fi movies out there which I watched and loved, even some TV, but books had always been the centerpiece of the sort of adventures and stories I imagined that I wanted to capture in play. For a long time I just assumed that was universal, but I am less and less certain of that assumption these days. Other media have simply gotten richer, partly as a result of multi media, but in large part from the growth of cable TV and the evolution of storytelling in TV programming.

I think it’s safe to say that more people have seen the Lord of the Rings films than have ever read the books, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The growth of anime in the states has opened the doors to deep, rich, fantastical stories of amazing depth. In short, I no longer have a problem imagining someone who might enter into the hobby with most of their imaginary touchpoints coming from something other than books.

Intellectually, this should delight me. Anything that grows the hobby is a good thing, right? But at the same time, I must quiet that voice inside myself which sounds a lot like my hardcore video game friends talking about HALO players. These are strangers; outsiders who are invading our space. Clearly they must be relegated to some sort of lesser status, condescended to, condemned and hopefully driven away so that we can go back to withering away.

So, yeah, I try to squash that instinct. And some days its made easier than others.

See, I can talk about a shift in media, but in some ways that’s less telling than the inevitable shift in touchpoints over time. The books and movies that were most important to me are going to fall by the wayside, and as time goes on people find new touchpoints: Jordan, Martin, Rowling or whoever else – it always changes and that’s a good thing, But it’s hard. There is a temptation to treat the bibliography in the original DMG as some sort of holy writ. To think that the problems people see with our games or our play would be solved if they would simply read those books and internalize them the way we did. And it’s easy to couch this desire in the noblest of terms, talking about respecting roots and acknowledging the giants who built these foundations of our play.

Except, that’s kind of crap.

This is not literary criticism. This is a hobby where people take imaginary swords and kill imaginary monsters while sitting around a table with their friends. It does not demand that you read the right books or buy into the right logic. It demands that you revel in imagination, and that you carry worlds within you. It demands that you find joy in things that can never be.

That is, to my mind, pretty fantastic. There is no need for us to be less than that.

Labor Day Games

For labor day, I want to celebrate the work of my wife[1] who managed to organize my game collection from something like this:

Into this:

Shelf by Shelf breakdown follows for those nerdy enough to care.

It’s been crazy, as I’ve been discovering games I had no idea I had.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s enjoying the long weekend. See you tomorrow!

1 – My wife has informed me that much of the credit belongs to my friend Kim, so I expand the shout out!

DonoCon 2010

To take the edge off Gencon jealously, we had another Donocon this year, with a bunch of people over at the house hanging out and playing games. There ended up being some unexpected logistical challenges and my wife deserves a huge amount of credit for making this all possible, but it worked and it was pretty fun.

Games that saw play: Attack of the Killer Bunnies, Forbidden Island, Thunderstone, Dixit and Fiasco. Forbidden Island and Thunderstone are standing favorites, so no real commentary on those, but the others were all interesting in their own way.

Attack of the Killer Bunnies was, to be frank, a stark reminder of why I no longer play a certain sort of game. By a certain sort of game I mean any game where you play for several hours while sitting on your hands for most of the game as the turn goes around the table, and only maybe being able to do anything on your turn. It’s got clever cards and a clever mechanic, but clever only goes so far (especially with an outright malicious victory condition). For context, the games of Forbidden Island and Thunderstone were both set up and played while the Killer Bunnies game was still going.

Dixit, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Fred brought it, and the sole context I had for it was “That game I’d never heard of that won the Spiel des Jahres” but the box itself made a good case for the game. It’s loaded with picture cards which are beautiful in the way that good childrens art can be – lots of strong broad strokes and themes, but also lots of interesting details. Gameplay is simple, and very reminiscent of apple to apples. You look at the cards in you hand, pick one, and say a sentence it makes you think of like “Worst job ever.” or “At last, we can begin!” Everyone else picks a card from their hand that matches that as best they can, and the cards are spread out for all to see. Players try to guess which is the right one, and points are handed on who guesses what.

One clever twist on the mechanic is that the storyteller (the person with the sentence) gets points if his card is guessed, but only so long as only SOME people guess it. If everyone or no one gets it, then everyone else scores except for him. So you want to be clear, but not _too_ clear. Also, the quality of the cards is a subtle, but powerful design element. The broad thematic strokes of the art make more cards more applicable toe sentences than you would expect. Many card also have some amount of action in them which might be interpreted in more than one way (such as one image of someone either about to be eaten or about to be rescued, depending which way you think things are going) which adds another layer of interpretation to things.

I definitely want to grab a copy of this game at some point. Setting aside that the cards are so beautiful as to demand other uses, I think this is the game that straddles the line between folk who like the creative, fantastic games and those who want to play the social balderdash/pictionary sort of game. That’s a powerful straddle.

We did setup and a little play for Fiasco and while very enjoyable, it petered out. I think it went well enough that there’d be interest in trying it again, but I think it suffered from two things. First, we started it late in things, where it got interrupted by food and children getting put to bed, so the inertia got lost. Second, I think the Arctic playset was probably not the best first choice, if only because so much effort had to go into figuring out what the hell we were talking about setting-wise. Lack of context hurt. I think we also didn’t quite end up with enough teeth in our setup, since the macguffin (antarctic Nazi Gold) ended up going up in play rather than directly from the cards on the table. I figure that’s my fault for not guiding things helpfully enough, but so it goes. Net result was if nothing else, very educational, and I think the game got some new fans.[1]

Much discussion of Smallville and agreement we need to try chargen sometime, but also that we didn’t have the juice to do so just then. Ths came up because Smallville is looking to be a go-to game for almost any game that has the bones of a soap opera, with the extra bnus of being able to handle weird elements. As an example, we discussed how well it could hand In Nomine: The way relationships are set up does a very good job of providing for intimate yet antagonistic relationships (so you could have angels and devils in the same game) and some nice ways to insure that the only way an NPC ends up mattering is if he matters to multiple players.[2]

Beyond that there was pizza and socializing and I hope everyone had as good a time as I did.

And now, I prep for tonight’s Cold War game. Discussion with the players has, I think, clarified for me what I need to do. I have been letting them bask in being the best in the world at what they do, and that’s been useful for establishing foundations. But now comes the time to turn up the heat, and demonstrate that when they’re playing at this level, being the best in the world is just table stakes. Which is to say, it’s on.

1 – and as a reminder to myself, I need to put the other playsets on my ipad.

2 – Mechanically, this is kind of clever. Chargen involves drawing relationship maps between the players, with squares for players, diamonds for locations and circles for other characters. If you add a character to the map, you add a circle, denoting them as an extra. It is only when another character draws a connection to that extra that the circle gets a double-line border and now denotes a “feature”, which is to say a full on NPC, and switches from being a resource to being someone players have relationships with. This is, using the In Nomine example, an absolutely brilliant way to handle archangels.

Not Gencon Friday

Not at Gencon, and definitely feeling it today. That calls for Bullet Points.

Starcraft 2 has been proceeding apace, but I think it’s safe to say that I liked Blizzard more than I like Activision-Blizzard. Certain secondary things like the quality of writing and of music production have been pretty clearly deprioritized. I’d be more worked up about things like policies if I cared more, but I don’t. I’ll finish the campaign eventually, maybe get some multiplay in (but maybe not) and then forget about it until the next game is released. I mean, the gameplay’s good. What the campaign lacks in writing it makes up in excellent level design. But I contrast this with my experience with the original and it’s a little disappointing. Maybe it will grow on me, though.

Mostly, this makes me worry about Diablo III. I may hold off on pre-ordering that one if I can expect this kind of experience (that is to say, good, but not measurably better than others, as I had come to expect from Blizzard). That said, it also resolves my internal conflict between Blizzard and Bioware for champion of my personal universe: Bioware takes the throne.

I’ve been enjoying the webcomic Supernormal Step enough to add it to my regular reading rotation. The art is colorful and fun, the story moves at a decent clip (with some periods of dragging to explain), and the characters are enjoyable (A lot of that is, I think, that the artist sometimes really *nails* expressions). I could totally see doing a game in this style, with lots of fast and loose “zappy” magic.

Couple new good finds on the ipad.

  • iAnnotate PDF is, as the name suggests a pdf annotation app. Admittedly, this is a kind of a specialized need, but if it’s a need you have, it’s pretty cool.
  • Flipboard is a twitter/facebook reading app that I really think everyone should try. Basically, it takes feeds and, if they have links or pictures, grabs the content the point to and posts that, along with the feed, to turn your whol feedreading experience into something akin to reading a magazine. It’s free, and it’s something you really need to see to believe.
  • I got approved for Hulu Plus, so I can watch hulu on the ipad now. So far, cooler in theory than practice, as there seem to have been network issues, but I’m hopeful. I am mostly sad that their anime seem to mostly be subtitled, which is not my bag.
  • For pure visual fun toys, Gravilux and uzu are both cool, and maybe a buck each.
  • Small World has released its AI expansion, so you can now play against the computer, and get whupped. This is pretty cool, but I admit there are other Days of Wonder games I would FAR rather play on the iPad.
  • Tried Droptext for a while. Love the theory (text editor that works directly on files in your dropbox) but got quickly frustrated in practice. Because it needs to sync up every time you start it, it is not fast to get in and out of, which is a pain. Returned to myTexts as my primary writing app.
  • Couple of really excellent games. I’ve bought into the Angry Birds movement, and while I don’t think it’s grabbed me as much as others, it’s still pretty fun. More obscure, but totally worth getting is Honey, That’s Mine! which is just a reskinning of Hey, That’s My Fish (an awesome game) that supports solo or multiplay.
  • By the way, may I say how annoyed I am that none of the ipad apps do .rtf? Pages doesn’t. The various Office apps can display it, but not edit it. Maddening.
  • I’m still using Twitterific as my primary twitter client, but I have to admit that Osfoora HD is good enough that I could see using it instead. Tweetdeck continues to promise the world, but disappoint on delivery.
  • Dicebook looks very promising. PDF reader plus dice roller is creeping up on a super GMing App.
  • Clock Apps all suck. Why couldn’t apple include one so I could set a freaking alarm? Can you maybe throw it in with ios4 along with my long awaited folders?

Game went ok on Monday. Some issues with Fate Point economy, as discussed yesterday, but more broadly, it’s proving an interesting challenge to run a game with a true espionage focus,(rather than merely action with espionage elements). A lot of my instincts and well-worn tools are poorly suited to the specific needs of the genre, but expressing what new tools I need is still a little fuzzy. No doubt I’ll talk about it more when I have something more concrete to go on.

That’s about it. Hopefully a burst of gaming this weekend will blow away my no-gencon blahs, but for now, I’m pretty well tapped. Have a good weekend, all.