Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A Fistful of Nerdery

For anyone following the blog for any length of time, you know that I've had a few ongoing projects simmering on the front burner for some time. I just wanted to catch you up on the latest.
  • The podcast - after a number of delays based on illness keeping us out of the studio - is finally go! We recorded the "Zero Episode" last Friday and I spent most of the afternoon yesterday editing it. A little more to be done on that front, but it's starting to shape up. The plan is to get two more episodes "in the can" and one more complete and edited before we release. I will let you know when we "go live". 
  • Blood Money - We've done two sessions of my online western game so far, and it's gone pretty well. As I've observed, playing with even a medium-crunch system slows things down quite a lot online (which is the conventional wisdom) but the overall experience was satisfying and perfectly captured a lot of RPG experiences I've had on the tabletop. The kinds of ridiculous goofiness you get in a not-serious RPG session with your buddies, amplified by the strange whims of the dice, seems to translate almost perfectly to the medium. Probably one or two more sessions, and then we move on to playing Ghostbusters, which may use Cortex Plus (I'm noodling with a hack) or FATE Core. 
  • Chrome - It's worth noting for anyone out there who is considering doing some online gaming via Roll20 that I have had some technical issues getting the Google Hangouts app to work. As in, it wouldn't. At all. But that seems to have been solved by getting Chrome. All of the apps that wouldn't work on Firefox work perfectly on Chrome. Firefox is great for everything else, but you need to get Chrome to work with Google Hangouts.
  • The Monday Men - I've actually started a second online group on alternate Mondays with the Blood Money game. This gives me an opportunity to do some gaming with a few other friends I hardly ever get a chance to play with - Steve, Mark, and Chris. Last night, I went online with Megan and Dave and Mark and we played a session of FIASCO that went very well. We used the "game board" I made with MS Excel (a pretty thing that shows all the elements for The Setup, which I then took a screenshot of and sent to the players, has all the necessary tables, and has a space where you can move around dice tokens to track the "score"), which worked pretty well -- although it works best if everyone has a large screen like I've got on my iMac. We played through a slightly-abbreviated game in two hours and had a good time, despite some technical issues. Next week, we plan to try again and this time include Steve and Chris. 
The Setup for last night's FIASCO.
I have also been chatting with another old friend who's been trying to get me to try D&D Online with him and some other old buddies I gamed with in Montreal. I would love to try to get those guys hooked up with a VTT game, which I think would satisfy them in ways that DDO can't. I'm not sure I can manage another regular game, unless we played something that was extremely open-architecture. Roll20 works well, but it takes a fair amount of effort to set things up initially.

Also, my wife would punch me. Hard.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Not Just Another Pretty Face: Grimjack

Last year, I had the privilege of spending several months being paid to write. It was probably one of the best times of my life, in terms of creative fulfillment. For someone who has long dreamed of having the ability to spend each day doing the thing he loves, it was an embarrassment of riches. Also, my cat loved having me around the house every day.

As the project came to an end, I had a brainstorm and -- with the kind permission of my boss -- contacted a longtime favourite comic book artist of mine through his website. A couple of e-mails later, Tim Truman had agreed to produce a piece of artwork for the project I'd been writing for three months. I was over the moon.

Tim has been a part of my life for a long time. I first encountered his artwork in some of the early Dungeons & Dragons books and adventures. He's had a long career producing a vast number of terrific comics for a variety of publishers, including his post-apocalyptic .44 magnum opus Scout, a re-imagining of Hawkman's origin called Hawkworld, a gritty Western about Superman's adopted family called The Kents, and two excellent Jonah Hex weird westerns with (another one of my favourites) Joe Lansdale. More recently, Tim has been writing Conan and has teamed up with his son to produce a Western comic called Hawken.

But I'm here to talk about my favourite Truman comic, another classic from the early days of First, the science-fiction fantasy noir western horror epic Grimjack, drawn by Truman and written by John Ostrander.

Grimjack got its start as a backup feature in Mike Grell's Starslayer comic, which (although I love Mike's stuff) never got much love. My friend Steve once said of that comic that "It was a comic everybody read for the back-up story." The same was probably true of The Rocketeer, which got its start as a backup feature for Eclipse comics (I can't even remember what the "A" story was). Where Starslayer felt dull, hearkening back to old-style Flash Gordon-esque science fiction/fantasy mash-ups without improving on them, Grimjack had a fresh, anything goes edge.

My apologies to Mike Grell. If it softens the blow any, Mike, you wrote and drew my single favourite comic of all time, Jon Sable Freelance, and I'll be writing a column about that soon.

Grimjack is set against the sprawling backdrop of the pan-dimensional city of Cynosure, a place where all dimensions intersect and meet (something that changes like the phases of the moon) and the laws of physics and reality can change from one block to another. It's a place where small hovering "tourbots" used to explore the slums are a constant pest, and alien gods might just belly up to the bar for a drink.

John Gaunt, AKA Grimjack, knows the territory. He knows that there are times it's better to have a sword in your hand than a pistol (in case technology ceases working temporarily) and he can handily kill most people with both -- or his bare hands, if it comes to that.

Gaunt is the world-weary Chandleresque hero at the center of the tale, a chameleonic mercenary who is whatever the story demands of him: a hard-boiled detective, a gladiator, a soldier (Gaunt is a veteran of the Demon Wars that once scourged Cynosure), a thief, a sorcerer, a politician, an assassin, even (in one memorable storyline) a time-travelling cowboy. He's like the city he inhabits -- a little bit of everything, and all of it dark and cynical.

Gaunt is a killer, and he makes no bones about it. He's done a lot of bad things, and killed a lot of people. He's not a nice person. But he's loyal to his friends, brave, and like all good noir heroes he stands by his own code: "There are standards. If you can't see one, you make one and stick by it come hell or high water -- until you see a better one."

Grimjack in action.
When Gaunt is not on a mission with his mercenary buddy BlacJacMac, he drinks himself into a stupor in Munden's Bar, a seedy dive in a dangerous part of Cynosure. Gaunt's long-suffering manager Gordon keeps things quiet, the way the boss likes it, so he can quietly poison himself with rotgut in the corner with Bob the lizard. Bob drinks and smokes and talks a little, but he doesn't judge. It's worth noting that Munden's Bar had its own back-up feature in Grimjack (which likely owes a great deal to Spider Robinson's great Callahan's Crosstime Saloon books), where the colourful guests who visit the bar are introduced in more detail. Even the then-brand-new comic stars the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dropped into Munden's on one of their early adventures, in an early colour appearance.

Grimjack is full of action and intrigue, by turns dark and humourous (Gaunt's adventures include a journey to a dimension inhabited by anthropomorphic "funny animals" and a turn as campaign manager for a con-man in blackface who has adopted the persona of Michael Jackson), and always unpredictable and full of imagination.

Ostrander's stories are tight and full of great tough-guy dialogue. His yarns tend toward "done in one" or short arcs of two-three issues, so the slow build over the first year-and-a-half of the series toward an epic climax (The Trade Wars, when rival interdimensional corporations are provoked into open military conflict with one another by Grimjack's old nemesis, The Dancer) creeps up on you as a surprise. The grander tale is assembled slowly, with a collection of tiny brushstrokes and pieces of backstory. And then everything blows up good.

There is much in John Gaunt that hearkens back to Michael Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" cycle (Gaunt once comments that "one poor mook" had mistaken Cynosure for Tanelorn). As the Grimjack series continued, Tim Truman left the series and a number of other artists took a hand -- Tom Sutton, Flint Henry -- and the Moorcock analogy became more overt. Further storylines followed another incarnation of Grimjack in a future Cynosure. The series was never the same without Truman's artistic touch, though -- Truman has a gift for drawing tough guys, guns, and whatever weird thugs and monsters Grimjack ran afoul of (and then ran through). Zombies, robots, assassins with pumpkin heads, vampires, the skull-faced villain Mac Cabre with his Uncle Sam style top hat and red-white-and-blue outfit -- if Ostrander could dream it, Truman could bring it to life on the page.

The good news is that recently, like a number of the other creators who made First great back in the day, the rights to Grimjack have been returned to Ostrander and Truman and they've begun producing new adventures of the original, indispensible John Gaunt. (And the original tales are back in print from IDW too, in inexpensive omnibus format. You can even get the early Starslayer shorts in the first volume.) Truman's style has changed over the years, but he still makes the weird denizens of Cynosure -- and its cloaked, scar-faced champion -- as vivid as ever. Check it out.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Confessions of an Unapologetically Old School GM (Part Three)

Let me tell you what kind of role I see for the GM -- that is, what kind of GM I try to be -- and then you can get on with the business of denouncing my heresy on RPG.net and the burning in effigy and the voodoo.

I believe in a strong GM that leads the game with powerful but open elements of story. I think it is the GM's explicit job to create drama for the players, pushing them to their limits and driving them to make decisions that reveal and change their characters. Sometimes, those elements of drama and story should even be things the players might not necessarily want for their characters.

Controlling, manipulative heretic. Yeah, I know.

Here's why I think that: the GM is in a unique position among players at the table (and yes, that is another one of my beliefs - the GM is a player). Although in our "house" style of play -- High Trust, High Drama -- the players are both actors and audience, the GM is in the position of being the audience all the time. He observes the game as it unfolds from a particular position (he is not one of the main characters in the game, married to a particular point of view) where he is uniquely qualified to assess the "Big Picture" of the game. How does it all fit together? Who needs more spotlight time? What does this story need to give it extra "juice"?

You referred to the GM as a he, you misogynist heretic. I'ma pile more wood on that fire now. 'Scuse me while I get my gasoline can.

The GM is usually the one that keeps track of all the ephemera in play in a game: characters (both player and non, protagonists and antagonists), conflicts, locations, you name it. The GM is usually the one who spends the most time reflecting on this material and considering what might come next. And, in my assessment, although it's not necessarily the GM's job to provide plot twists and surprises, it's occasionally the GM's job to provide material that challenges the players in a way they didn't plan for. The GM's position of being a part of the group but apart from it makes that possible.

None of which is to say that I don't believe in collaborating with players at the highest level. I think that's important, especially early in the formative stage of the game, but also as an ongoing thing. There should always be discussions going on about what could and should happen to the characters next, and the GM should listen carefully to what the players say about that. Most of the time, he should provide exactly what they are looking for.

Joe McDaldno, the writer of the excellent indie game Monsterhearts, described one of the GM's responsibilities thus: Be a fan of the player characters. I think that's an excellent piece of advice. There should be affection and a deep connection between the GM and the PCs. He should always be making an effort to make them "look good on screen" and feature their stories in an interesting and important way.

I enjoy emergent play, but sometimes feel it's too undirected and laconic for our style of game. (Highly structured games like Fiasco mitigate this with built-in twists and mechanisms to keep tension high. In my games, it's the GM who takes the position of being the living Tilt table.) To create drama, both the GM and the players have to push, and maybe the GM has to push the hardest to make sure the player characters stay motivated.

The last thing I should say is that I am also a strong believer in playing shorter games (6-10 sessions) with a definite ending point. I'll probably write about this in more detail at some point, but part of the reason for that is that I'm an older gamer without an infinite amount of time to wait for a game to unfold. Also, I have found that my players are the happiest when I wrap up a game and they have a satisfying sense of closure about it, even if every element isn't entirely resolved (the way sometimes a novel will leave a few things hanging).

Running shorter games means structure. Things have to happen, and happen fast. You need to hit the ground running and push the PCs hard to get to that finish line. You need to push conflicts and reveal secrets and manage all the disparate elements of story quick, quick, quick.

I guess what I'm arguing for is that -- contrary to the common notion that old style GMs want to be authors writing a novel (a notion which I find, frankly, offensive) -- I think that strong GMs are closer to a director in the theatre. The guy who knows the material better than anyone, sitting in the front row night after night, watching the rehearsals, coaxing out nuance and smoothing off the rough edges. The guy (or gal) who loves this material and wants the cast to look good and get applause and leave the stage bursting with the energy the audience has given them, dying to trade stories about it at the pub over a couple of pints.

And if that makes me Old School, or old fashioned, I can live with that. We are all the sum of the gaming baggage we carry with us, it's true, but I don't think that means we need to live our lives in fear of the Douchey GM.

We just have to remember to Not Be That Guy.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Confessions of an Unapologetically Old School GM (Part Two)

I am amazed sometimes at the amount of vitriol that is aimed at GMs on forums like RPG.net. (Oh, I know, baseless vitriol and ugly flamewars are what RPG.net is famous for. Still.)

People seem to reel at the notion that a GM is there to do anything at all but sit quietly in the corner, roll dice for the opposition, and occasionally make a rules call. If you're making any kind of creative contribution to a game at all, you're controlling or manipulative or engaging in the capital-E Evil of railroading, a term which Ken Hite rightly pointed out has become entirely devalued.

I love you, Ken, but could you be a little less Republican?
Are there that many people who have had terrible experiences with GMs? Really?

In my experience, the GM is the person at the table who has worked the hardest to make the game a success, if it succeeds at all. The GM is the one that buys the books (often, the only one that does so), helps get the ball rolling when the campaign is in its infancy, the one that spends their spare time preparing material or doing research to make the game better, the one who brings the most energy to the table and sets the tone, the one that settles any arguments and works out the problems of rescheduling sessions, and sometimes the one who brings the chips (or, at our table, does the cooking).

In short, the GM is the glue that holds the group together. And if they aren't That Guy, then why are you playing games with them to begin with?

Sure, I've played in bad games with GMs who abused their power and acted like assholes. I played in a session one time with a guy who thought it was funny to solo me through White Plume Mountain (which would be challenging even with a group of experienced players) and added in a Tarrasque for good measure to make sure that I died horribly at the end. That was Not Fun.

An unkillable giant monster! Hilarious!
Most of my GMs over the years, though, have not been like that. In fact, even that GM wasn't like that most of the time. He ran some incredible adventures over the years that I enjoyed so much I was inspired to take up the screen myself. Sometimes he did things that were douchey, but hey -- we were kids. Kids are mean little beasts. I've done douchey things too in my years as a GM. I hope I've grown up a bit since then.

I don't play with people like that now, and haven't for probably twenty-five years. Still, the industry and the community seems to be labouring mightily to get out from under the shadow of the Douchey GM.

To be continued...

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Confessions of an Unapologetically Old School GM (Part One)

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the early 80s, when gaming as a hobby was still quite new and soon to acquire the cachet of being a Satanic plot.

Still, it was the 80s, and practically everything was a Satanic plot. Roleplaying, heavy metal, episodic televison drama (it speaks to the vast dullness of TV in the 80s that I'm actually nostalgic for the imaginative but poorly-executed shows of the 70s), hairstyles, leg warmers...

Fear Satan's low production values!
My mother, who bought me my first D&D box set, summed up her feelings on the hobby once like this: "You kids are quiet, and I know where you are." So much for a Satanic plot. Maybe D&D was actually masterminded by 4-H or the Christian Youth League.

So I've been roleplaying for a long, long time. I have no illusions that I was any good at it in the early 80s, nor that any of my early efforts at GMing (pardon me - DMing) were particularly good. I can tell you the exact moment when what I thought DMing was about and what gaming could be changed, though.

I was running a standard dungeon crawl -- I think it may even have been randomly generated, just fodder for my players' characters to hack their way through. The only memorable thing about that session was this one encounter with a lone orc. I decided on the fly that this orc was going to be an old drunk, rather than someone the players needed to attack and murder. I played that scene for comedy rather than (ho-hum) as a combat threat, and the players loved it. They even invited the orc to join the party as a comedy relief mascot.

Afterward, I remember thinking to myself: What if you didn't generally make the assumption that the monster was going to immediately attack, in every encounter?

Eureka! A GM who cared about characters and story was born. It took me a long while to carry that "lightbulb moment" forward to actually running good sessions where a story was told and characters were developed, but I was on my way.

These days, I could give a rat's ass about doing any more of what most people call "old school" roleplaying. I ceased to enjoy a dungeon crawl years and years ago. I have no illusions that we had better times with the rulesets and perspectives on gaming that existed in 1982. Do I have nostalgic feelings about those early games? Sure. But no wish to revisit them directly.

However, I am realizing that those formative years shaped me as a GM in ways that are significant. Maybe indelible. Or maybe I've still got some formative work to do before I have all the tools I'll need in my utility belt.

It has fallen out of fashion in recent years to have a strong GM role in games. More and more of the power has gone to the players, even in mainstream games like D&D 4th Edition. The really cool kids in the indie world have been sharing narrative authority between players and GM (or eliminating the GM entirely) for years now.

I like those things, for the most part. I enjoy sharing narrative authority with my players, and collaborating with them to make the game better, deeper, and something that they feel a sense of ownership in.

But I still believe strongly in the importance of a strong GM in crafting a good game...

To be continued...

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Chaykin Up the Comic World: American Flagg!

One of my best friends in the world is named Steve.

I have known Steve since I was in Grade Eight, when I was invited by another friend (Rob) to join a weekly roleplaying group across the road at the high school. Steve was there, as was his brother Greg and their friend Randy. (My memory is faulty on whether our friend Chris McKinnon was part of that group or not.) We played D&D in the English room and had a lot of laughs. And the one who made me laugh more than anyone was this short guy with a thick black beard and a wicked sense of humour.

The beard comes and goes these days, but Steve still has the wicked sense of humour.

Anyway, I enjoyed Steve's company but I didn't know we were soul mates until we both happened to be on the same long bus ride - an English trip to Stratford the following year, when I'd finally made the jump from interloping grade schooler to "Minor Niner". Steve had brought a backpack full of comics, the likes of which I'd never seen before. This was my introduction to the world of Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Cover to Issue #1.
AF! was one of the most important titles coming out of First Comics in the early eighties (it rattled a lot more cages than The Badger, which I've written of elsewhere) when a lot of the superstars of 70's comics were seeking greener pastures outside the mainstream publishers. Howard Chaykin was probably best known at the time for his work on the Marvel adaptation of Star Wars, in addition to stuff like Ironwolf (DC), a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser adaptation called Sword of Sorcery, Cody Starbuck, Dominic Fortune, and graphic novel adaptations of Samuel Delaney (EMPIRE) and Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination, through Heavy Metal magazine).

Chaykin was looking to do more adult stuff than he would be allowed to at the mainstream publishers, and the material he brought to First perfectly synthesized some of the personal obsessions that drive his work. It also introduced a few of the elements that would go on to characterize the cyberpunk literary movement that was just in its infancy.

AF! is set in a world of the near future where a global economic and political collapse in 1996 has motivated the ruling elite to relocate to Mars. Now three worlds -- Mars, Luna, and what's left of the Earth -- are ruled by a fascist corporation called The Plex and their star-spangled police force, the Plexus Rangers. What's left of society on earth exists in heavily-fortified shopping malls called Metroplexes, bombarded by Plex video programming from omnipresent vid-screens, and beseiged by crazed motorcycle Go-Gangs that go nuts every Saturday night when their favourite show (a cartoon called Bob Violence) ends.

Cover to Issue #2. Note "jukebox" design.
The well-and-truly Plexed remains of Chicago are where we meet Reuben Flagg, the washed-up Martian star of a racy vid show called Mark Thrust! Flagg has been replaced by a computer-generated lookalike, and decided (out of a perhaps naive sense of patriotism) to volunteer as a Plexus Ranger on Earth. Flagg immediately butts heads with the thoroughly corrupt and mean Chief Ranger Hilton "Hammerhead" Krieger. Flagg is barely off the shuttle when a rifle is pressed into his hands and he's fighting off the Saturday night Go-gang attack.

(Aside: the crowd control drug they use to take down the Go-gangs is called Somnambutol, a sleep drug that makes a distinctive sound like a doo-wop band: PAPAPAPAPAPAOOOOOOMOW!MOW! Chaykin and letterer/logo designer Ken Bruzenak have a lot of fun with little gags like this slipped in at the margins of the panel, in Chaykin's highly-designed style, such as slightly absurd sound effects and over-the-top names of vid shows playing in the background like Interspecies Romance and White Sluts on Dope.)

Flagg survives the Go-gang attack, and discovers that he has a visitor waiting for him in his new apartment -- Gretchen Holstrum, the madam of the local Love Canal brothel. Gretchen insists on giving Flagg a warmer welcome than the Go-gangs, introducing another important element of Chaykin's future world: sex. Unlike other comic book characters of the era, Chaykin's hero is frequently shown engaging in that most human of pursuits, something that was almost unheard-of in the early 1980s. (Flagg, of course, learns the next day that Gretchen was sent to greet him by "Hammerhead" -- who taped the whole thing. Krieger offers him the Plex's universal contraceptive and antibiotic -- Mananacillin -- "kills all VD on contact.")

"So begins the first week of Ranger Flagg's five-year tour of duty, a week of unending banality, and mind-numbing vulgarity, punctuated by frequent outbursts of senseless violence." Flagg also makes the acquaintance of Chicago's mayor, C.K. Blitz (who has a pair of robot bodyguards named Bert and Ernie) and Krieger's firebrand daughter, Mandy.

What really kicks the series into high gear is Flagg's discovery that Bob Violence -- the cartoon that the drugged-up Go-gangs love so much -- is filled with subliminal messages of violence. Krieger doesn't believe him, though, and accuses Flagg of trying to get out of the Rangers as a "Section 8". Only one other seems able to see the subliminals -- Krieger's cat Raul, an unforgettable character who can talk and think like most humans, even though he's a cat. (As far as I know, no explanation for this is ever given.) Raul says that it must be something in Flagg's Martian physiology that lets him see the subliminals, but warns him not to mess with them. Bob Violence comes from the Plex, you see, "and nobody screws with the Plex."

When Mandy helps Flagg jam the Bob Violence signal, it sets off a chain of events that leads to Hammerhead's murder, the discovery of just how far Plex corruption goes, and ultimately a revolution.

Cover to Issue #12, the end of the first story arc.
So what makes AF! so seminal and unusual for its time, or any other time?

It's probably not an accident that Reuben Flagg -- and by extension, a lot of Chaykin's square-jawed main characters over the years -- resembles an idealized version of his creator. Flagg is a character with a lot more complexity than comics were accustomed to in the early 80's (and pretty much since then too), a Jewish hero that struggles with idealism and cynicism, has a number of lovers (but few long-term relationships), knows how to cook, and likes old jazz and swing music. Flagg often finds himself struggling to find the right course of action in a world that's filled with corruption, and loves his country despite that corruption. Steve once summed up Flagg's complexity thus: "He's the only character in comics with a middle name."

Although the violence and media-saturation of AF! that make it a formative cyberpunk text are prominent, so is the constant presence of satirical humour (such as the many media clips seen in the background and the various trademarked product names). The closest analogy to the world that Chaykin creates in AF! is probably Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, which embraces the same heady mix of satire and brutal violence (but perhaps lacks the subtlety of Chaykin's characterizations and the depth of his world).

Chaykin's visuals are sharp and heavily-designed, with characters rendered in great detail (with costumes that often change) using pointillism to create texture. His covers and splash pages are swingin' bursts of energy, and his page layouts are complex.

Flagg and female cast. Note Raul at bottom of frame.
Although Chaykin is often remembered (rightly) as a great artist, he's an underrated and talented writer. His scripts on AF! crackle with sharp dialogue, intrigue, and comedy. His characters are lively and sometimes indelible, in the case of Raul the cat, and later additions to the AF! cast like the grifter Sam Luis Obispo and blackmarket basketball player Jules "Deathwish" Folquet, not to mention the rightful King of England.

It should be noted that Chaykin's work is certainly chauvanist, if not actually misogynist. Chaykin's female characters are complex and interesting, for the most part, and are always the intellectual equal of the main character. Of course, he still usually manages to get most of them into bed.

The good news is that American Flagg! has recently come back into print in both softcover and hardcover collections from Image. Check it out.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Tea & Crossbows

Tea & Crossbows is the name of our regular Saturday night game group here at Casa del Nerd. I borrowed it (okay, I stole it - happy?) from the name of the unpublished Watchers sourcebook for the Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG. It fit us perfectly, partially because several of our favourite, most formative games used the Cinematic Unisystem that powers the Buffy and Angel games, and also because we often serve our guests an assortment of teas on game night.

Shortly after moving to Merrie Olde London, Ontario, my wife discovered a wonderful little tea shop at Covent Garden Market called The Tea Haus. They sold a wide variety of interesting loose teas, and Megan began exploring them -- in typically exacting Megan fashion, in alphabetical order. In the years we have been in London, we have sipped our way through the alphabet several times. (The Tea Haus is run by very nice people who also happen to do a large portion of their business via the Internet. Visit them here: http://www.theteahaus.com/)

Guests in our home are often offered a choice of teas as they come in the door (especially during typically cold Canadian weather, which is to say ten months of the year), and it's not uncommon for us to enjoy a pot of tea midway through our gaming evening, sometimes with dessert.

Tea is a very civilized drink. It warms and welcomes you. It greets you with a variety of delightful smells, tickling you with cinnamon or bergamot or lavender. Tea is a drink that requires you to be patient, slow down, take a moment and savour. It is the drink of conversations where we catch up on each others' lives, the sweet kick of caffeine that gives us the gusto to get dinner on the stove, the pause that brings us together halfway through the evening and lets us re-focus so the game can get into high gear.

Food is a big part of our gaming life. We often cook a meal (or, more accurately, our friend Colin usually cooks a meal and we ply his culinary talents with tea) as part of gaming night. Sharing food with our friends before we game is an important part of the social fabric of our group. A meal lets us come together around the table and get to know each other again, gives us a common baseline before we blast off for whatever roleplaying world the night has in store for us.

And all of that usually starts with tea.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Folie a Deux (Part Three)

A sequel to the game that got us started on the HTHD road, American Nightmare, is something that I've given a lot of thought over the years but only recently seriously considered. In that case, time has brought me around to a theme that interests me as much as the theme that rumbled under the surface of the original ("skeletons in the closet of the American Dream"). A contemporary American Nightmare game would have to ask the question "What is the state of the American Dream?"

Of course, a theme only gets you half-way there. Without characters that are as driven, as desperate, as urgent as the characters that made the original the game it was... it won't work. Or it won't amount to much.

So much of what a sequel is rests on the shoulders of the players, and the question of whether or not they really want what they're asking for when they say "How about we do another season of (x)". Do they really want to push those characters further? Or just wrap themselves in nostalgia?

At a certain point, have characters earned their happy ending or selfless sacrifice or ignominious fate?

And that is the problem at the heart of Year of the Dragon, a sequel to my well-received series Shadowrun: Disavowed. I haven't written about this game at length yet (but I will), but the short version is that it's a vision of the Shadowrun universe that would make most Shadowrun players weepy and irritable. We played a game that was heavy on character drama, angst, and straight-up soap opera, and short on mercenaries shooting up office buildings for cold hard cash.

After that game wrapped, I wrote a "trailer" for a second season that hinted at a series where the characters went on a rollicking Bourne-esque chase through Europe battling some familiar enemies from the first season and some old enemies from their days as company men. Not to mention a shadowy magickal conspiracy in the mix. It would be a lot of big stupid fun.

But is it necessary? In the end, is there a good enough reason for those characters who survived the first season to come out of retirement -- putting what happiness they've managed to scrape together on the line? At the end of season one, I said I wouldn't do another one unless the players could give me good reasons why their characters would do that.

At our table, we often tend to think of our games through the lens of TV series -- and that figures, when you see what a big shadow Primetime Adventures has cast over our collective gaming life. (Thanks, Rob.) There is a seductive logic to the idea that a sequel game makes perfect sense in the context of serialized television -- you're just doing another season, after all, and where's the harm in that?

Television shows have a "best before" date too, though, and most of us would agree that a lot of shows tend to linger around long after they should have called it quits.

I'd rather have people remember a game like most fans remember Firefly: a brief, bright convergence of great writing, pitch-perfect casting, and high concept that was sweet and fleeting and left us wanting more.

Something that lives in your imagination and inspires you to do something new, something bold and fresh and dangerous.

That sounded convincing, didn't it?

...Didn't it?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Folie a Deux (Part Two)

I have written here about my adventures running an online game for some friends using the Roll20 platform. As I've said before, these players were once upon a time my most fanatically loyal players in a long-running Villains & Vigilantes game. So important were those formative adventures, almost 20 years ago, that the players made action figures of their own characters -- the better to keep the game alive during the long months that I was away at university.

During the time I was writing my first novel as my masters' thesis, I also wrote a novella featuring the characters from that game. I used it as writing practice, a fun thing that I did to get the gears turning while I spent those long hours alone in my parents' basement. The heroes of that game world sustained me during that long, lonely journey. They endure in our collective memory.

And now we're discussing reviving that game, nearly twenty years later.

When I first started seriously considering getting a Roll20 game into motion, a new game featuring The Allegiance was right at the top of my list. A lot of those guys are spread out across the country now, and most of them haven't gamed together in years. Now we're all nice middle-aged men with wives and children (all except me, I think -- the children part, not the nice part) and without the miracles of modern nerdery the chances of an Allegiance reunion would be very slim. The most we could hope for is to somehow all manage to be in the same city -- with time to kill -- during the all-too-short holiday season.

I was amazed that all the guys have expressed interest in getting something going, although the practical realities of life and technology may have something to say about it. They were all eager to return to their superpowered alter-egos and see what new stories we could tell. I thought we might find that one or two players were simply unavailable or not interested in the project.

Our early conversations so far discussed what I saw as the three options we had for returning to the Allegiance:
  • Restart the campaign. We simply pick up from where we left off, twenty years ago. The characters remain who they were then, superheroic versions of my friends -- as teenagers.
  • Reboot the campaign. We start over, treating the characters like comic book heroes who had been picked up by a new publisher or forced to endure one of the many tiresome retcons that plague comic books. This has the advantage of letting us change the characters in ways that make them more relevant to us today. 
  • Reunion. We continue the campaign with the characters having aged during the interval at the same rate as the players have. Like us, they would now be older, changed by their lives, and possibly with more problems and domestic ties than those characters had as young men.
The players expressed the most interest in the latter option.  This is interesting, because in a way it's the most problematic option of the three. There is a thread of thought in the comic book world that comic book heroes are the most relevant to the largest number of people when they are young and unattached - witness the recentish reboot of Spider-Man which erased his marriage to Mary Jane Watson, and the fact that Superman's marriage to Lois Lane did not survive the DC revamp.

How will those characters' lives differ from or reflect the lives of the players? What kind of dissonance could that create?

The Allegiance would follow in the footsteps of many fine comic books that examine the lives of older heroes returning to their duties when the world has all but forgotten them. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Mark Waid & Alex Ross's Kingdom Come are just a few. And they are all exciting precisely because they are willing to cast the characters as older, fallible, changed and made uncertain by the stress of heroic lives.

What kind of heroes will the Allegiance be today?

And then there are the other sequels that lurk inside my hard drive, little time bombs of story waiting to go off...

To be continued...

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Folie a Deux (Part One)

Part of the evolution of my GMing style that eventually brought me to HTHD was a decision to begin writing campaigns with a specific end point in mind. This decision was founded by heartbreak -- I had been involved with running one too many campaigns that I was forced to abandon, with no firm resolution or sense of closure in the players' minds.

It's a young man's idea that roleplaying games are meant to sprawl on forever, with no particular end point, an ever-increasing spiral of story and character that expands out to the corners of the universe. Adult gamers come to realize that gaming time is precious, and it's preferable to play in short, focused bursts that squeeze all the juice out of a game rather than take a leisurely pace which wanders its way toward an overall direction by serendipity.

The world of the adult gamer is uncertain; we never know where the fickle demands of work or family or fate will take us next, and how far we might be separated from the fictional lives that nurture us. And there are so many games to be played, so many worlds to visit and explore, so many lives to be lived outside the borders of the merely real.

This is one of the reasons that I generally prefer a game with a specific ending (even if I haven't charted the details of that ending in great detail) and why I have generally avoided running games that are sequels.

Although over the years I have had many requests for sequels to games that ran to completion, I have rarely returned to material once explored to a successful conclusion. To do so would be a huge risk, I've said, because firstly you're hoping that there are still deep waters out there to explore -- if you did your job right the first time, you've said everything that needed to be said. If there isn't anything new to say about a group of characters, if their story isn't more urgent and the stakes higher than ever in your sequel, then why do it? Secondly, you risk damaging the happy memories that people have of a campaign that's run to completion.

Players might not be willing to see serious changes and challenges to characters that have achieved a place among the pantheon of favourites. And maybe that is not a wrong instinct. Neil Gaiman once wrote that any story that goes on long enough ends in death; so it is for player characters, and so it is for their worlds.

Nostalgia is a poor substitute for substance, in my mind, leading people to the kind of dissatisfaction that I see hanging like a black cloud over the Star Wars prequels. Perhaps there were ways to approach that material again that would have seemed relevant and exciting, but it seems to me that people were setting themselves up for disappointment. Of course no prequel thirty years on could re-bottle the magic of youth. How could it? And you run the same risk in gaming. Returning to a once-beloved game world to revisit old characters and storylines is an excellent recipe for dissatisfaction, with players left wondering why the beloved old stomping grounds no longer feel like home.

Better to tell new stories than wander around a series of dusty old rooms looking for something that's no longer there.

Which is why I find myself in the most uncomfortable position of contemplating not one but several sequels to games that have been very important to me...

To be continued...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Blood Money - Session One

So last night was the first episode of the new Roll20 western game, Blood Money. We had a good time overall, but not without some bumps.

First impressions:
  • The most common complaint about online gaming is correct: things move very slowly. I prepared what I thought was a very modest adventure -- an overland map, plus four more detailed "scenes" where the players have a chance to take down their bounty. It took us more than an hour to play through one of those short scenes. On the GM side, this may actually be a plus, because it takes a little longer to set up something like this where you have to build maps, etc. On the down side, if you don't like tactical combat, this drags it out even more. Some of the time factor is unfamiliarity on all of our parts, both with the interface and with the rules / expectations of play on the players part. I think it will improve with time.
  • The other common complaint about online games is that it's difficult to get people to commit. That also seems to be true. I have six players, and two of them didn't show for this session. That actually worked out fine, because even four players is a lot in this interface, with everyone learning the system. It may be a reality of playing in this format that you're going to have to work in "episodic" mode where characters drop in and out. 
  • Technical issues are a real pain in the bollocks, especially when you're just trying to get going. We agreed to a slightly later start, last night, which was fine - but technical glitches slowed down getting everyone up and functional just as we were about to start. This may have something to do with the amount of traffic on the site, or on Google Hangouts, I'm not sure. The lesson here may be "start early", so that you can iron out those problems and get on with the gaming.
  • I realized that I'd been doing something dumb myself all evening, and hadn't flipped a toggle which makes all of your characters' skills appear at the bottom of the screen as buttons - easy to press and keep track of. It is a pain in the butt to flip back and forth with the various digital character sheets, which could be better. 

Some positive stuff:

  • Notwithstanding the technical issues, we actually did have fun with the session. The audio chat makes the kind of table talk that makes roleplaying memorable quite easy. When people spoke in character, it really was quite effective - because without the other player's face behind that voice, you felt a very direct connection to the character. 
  • The GM-side tools that allow the GM to control what the players see on the game screen are really nifty. The ability to "pull" the players' view to a particular point on a map and to be able to place tokens on a map layer the players can't see -- so that you can "pop them in" at an appropriate moment -- was cool. There was at least one audible gasp when a token appeared somewhere unexpected. 
  • It's very slick to have the computer manage all the die-rolling parts of the mechanics. Having the ability to click one button and have all of your various rolls finished and tallied immediately is fabulous, especially in a system like Savage Worlds where there can be a lot of re-rolling. I worried that it wouldn't feel the same as dice, but it's actually way better to roll dice in the chat window than to use the 3D dice -- they are, as I'd been told, nifty but slow to animate. 

Some things for next time:

  • I forgot to try out the streaming music during the game last night. During the playtest, people found it was disruptive and hard to hear, but it might still work as a quiet background note. Or sound effects might pep up combat a bit.
  • I need to work on providing more in-character play, to develop the HTHD side of the game experience, but I'm taking a "baby steps" approach overall. Once the scene management stuff has fallen into place, I can work more on experimenting with presenting compelling scenes, music, that kind of "polish" and depth that moves a game from the realm of the acceptable and entertaining to the memorable and challenging. 
More to come!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Something Old, Something New...

As I've previously described, I'm starting up a new semi-regular game in a format I've never tried before: online play, using a virtual tabletop program called Roll20.

This is an exciting opportunity for me, because it allows me to gather together a group of players that I haven't gamed with in almost twenty years. Like most of us, they have been scattered across the country by the passage of time and the acquisition of careers and families. Some of them probably haven't been able to sit down for a regular gaming group in a long, long time.

Back in the day, I ran them through a Villains & Vigilantes campaign that they were hugely, fanatically dedicated to. (V&V used to be my go-to supers game all through high school and university, basically until the first edition of Mutants & Masterminds came along and surpassed it in every way.) We played it for years, on and off, and when the guys weren't playing, they were doing other creative things -- writing stories, creating artwork, even making action figures -- to keep the game in the forefront of their minds.

Remember that this was a long time ago, and although there probably wasn't a lot of deep roleplaying going on in this game (they were playing the standard character concept in V&V, which was "yourself - but with super powers!") it gave me a glimpse of what a gaming group with truly passionate, dedicated players looked like. Together, we followed the adventures of those characters from a convenience store robbery in small town Ontario to the far side of the galaxy.

This is my first time at bat using the Roll20 platform, and we've had some technical issues to manage as I learn the system and what it expects of GMs and players. Although the site does a good job of giving you a feel for game play with their instructional videos, sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out how you're expected to set things up. I had initially planned to manage my bad guys on file cards, simply plugging whatever rolls I needed into the chat interface as we played - but it seems the system prefers that I work with fully-statted out bad guys inside the system. Once you figure that out, you can copy and alter existing pages to quickly bolster out your cast of bad guys, but I literally didn't figure it out until we were online doing some playtesting.

The audio/video chat feature on the site itself also seems to drop out unexpectedly, but it seems to function well alongside Google+ Hangouts, which can run in the background to manage audio chat. (The Google+ Hangouts also seems to have much less lag time than the Roll20 A/V chat.)

Note that although the site is glitchy sometimes, it's still in Beta testing and so far is free to use. I'm not complaining about it - far from it, this seems a huge boon to gamers everywhere - just telling you my experiences. Like early editions of tabletop games, it's got issues but lots of promise.

I was lucky enough to find a recommendation from someone who used the site to acquire a free tool called Token Tool which helps you easily produce virtual game tokens for use on the site. Useful, as the selection of Old West tokens on the site is limited. Now I have hundreds of gunfighters and banditos and buffalo hunters at my disposal with the touch of a button.

Of course, most of the virtual tabletop setup is designed to give you tools for tactical combat on your screen -- the better to explore your dungeons and battle your dragons, squire. I admit that this has little appeal for me, but I'm interested to see what else I can use it for in terms of presenting dramatic scenes. The first adventure I've produced for it is a straight-up Western bounty hunter game called Blood Money that has the players hunting down the members of a notorious gang of bank robbers. I've used a variety of scenes for the players to game through, including a title page which can also serve as a "transition" card, an overland map we can move the players through, and various close-up tactical maps focused around the various gang members. I hope that I've set it up in such a way that the players can approach the scenes with a variety of strategies and succeed. They could go in shooting, or sneak their way through, or try to coast through on charm.

The game system I'm using the first time out is Savage Worlds, which is reasonably crunchy but should feel relatively straightforward to the players - especially since Roll20 does most of the work for us. It works well enough, but I'm thinking that in future I'm going to use systems that only require rolls on the player side of things -- less work for me that way, and it gives me more time to concentrate on what the players are doing. ICONS (or some hack of same) seems a natural fit for a reunion of our long-ago superhero characters, when we get to that (it was agreed that would be a long-term project as we got more comfortable with the system). The next thing is supposed to be a Ghostbusters game powered by FATE CORE. Assuming we could sustain the massive size of it, we could use this medium to play through the massive Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu.

Questions I'm most interested in at this point are whether the electronic / virtual tabletop can be leveraged for playing deep, character-driven stories in the HTHD style, and how that might be achieved...

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Tales from the Table: Firefly (Part Five)

Sorry for the long gap there, I've finally gotten down with the funk that's been laying the entire city low for the past month or so. Ugh. Slowly improving.

So, how did the players handle the interrogations? Each in their own way. This is an excellent case study in why High Trust, High Drama play demands players who are willing to go above and beyond. And what a player can do to take play to the next level.

  • Colin, as his pregnant war criminal Carmen, saw the arc of his character as trying to redeem her family honour somehow through her actions. He was not willing to accept the gangster's offer, even if it would have provided him with power and security. (Also, I remember that Colin definitely used my "safe word" protocol -- signalling "This is too heavy, need a break from this scene" at least once. Others may have also done so, but I'm mentioning it here just as an important case-in-point -- remember to leave yourself a "safety valve" when you put the pressure this high.)
  • Amanda, as captain Tess, had probably the longest conversation with the gangster, and perhaps the level of civility between the two of them stayed the most "friendly". Lao Feng told Tess about his several wives and their gifts, one of whom had grown both the tea they were drinking and the poison used to drug the crew into unconsciousness. But when the gangster threatened to use her ship, the Fandango, as a drug-running scow, Tess managed to strike the only blow against the bad guys this day -- she grabbed her tea and threw it in Lao Feng's face. Note that this was the only overt act of violence in the entire episode. (Sticks and stones are for sissies -- words cause permanent damage.)
  • Megan, as the Quaker "conductor" on the Underground Railroad Lena, chose a complex path. She decided that giving the gangster anything -- anything at all -- would be the beginning of the end. She chose to passively resist, refusing to respond to anything he said. I had to push harder and harder, of course, to try for some reaction out of her, and said some pretty damned evil and cruel things. Lena didn't buckle under intimidation, but Megan told me later, it had been incredibly hard and painful to endure that sort of attack without resisting. And also taught her something about the power of passive resistance. I even had Lao Feng toy with her by putting a loaded gun in front of her on the table, and sending Eden his assassin away -- Lena could free her friends and escape, but to do so she would have to abandon her principles utterly. She refused. (Her fellow players actually audibly gasped during this exchange.)

One last moment from that episode:

Tess realized that the hysterical inmate in the cell opposite hers in the prison block -- Sandoval, a gambler who had previously shipped out on the Fandango, but clearly owed Lao Feng too much money -- might hold the key to her escape. But first she needed to talk him down.

When Sandoval -- convinced they would be executed any minute -- began to sing "Amazing Grace" hysterically to himself, Amanda (as Tess) hit a home run by picking up the song and singing it to him in comforting tones. That was a powerful moment.

"My, my momma use to sing that to me," he choked, after she finished. "When I'd get scared."

Sandoval managed to jimmy the locks on both cells, and the escape was on...

When the dust had settled and we talked about the episode, the players were I think exhilarated and exhausted. We had taken the HTHD jalopy up to full speed and shot it across the Snake River Canyon to see what happened. And landed safely on the other side.

Megan summed it up:

"That was amazing and tough, and let's not do anything like that again for a while, okay?"