Sunday, December 28, 2008

This should exist: Video-sharing chat rooms

Right, so while I was helping Charlie host her occasional Ustream (where she does all the Photoshop work on the next Templar, Arizona page), I suddenly hit on the idea that it would be awesome to have a chat-room-and-streaming-video thing that could stream from video files on your hard drive instead of just from a webcam.

Now, this might already be possible with Ustream and other webcam sites: Charlie has a bit of software that streams video of her desktop while she works, and Ustream doesn't know the difference between that and a cam stream. So maybe all I need is a piece of software that can play an AVI or whatever and turn it into a stream. But, really, I'd much prefer a site that's based around the whole idea of sharing video clips. It'd be especially cool if a room moderator could let other users play their own clips, instead of everything coming from just one person.

Maybe everybody who wants to show something just cues up their file, and the server buffers a little bit of video and creates some little thumbnail screenshots from various points in the file. Then the room moderator sees a little "I've got a video to share" icon next to everybody in the chatroom who wants to contribute, and can mouseover each of them to see the video's filename and thumbnails. Then he or she can click something to add the video to the queue or tell it to play immediately (or something to stay "Video rejected; pick something else", of course).

I know this kind of thing would be a magnet for porn spam and worse shit, but keeping your room unlisted from any public directory would probably prevent that (or password locking it would definitely work, if that fails). I'm kind of torn about whether I'd want the site to allow totally anonymous contribution or not.

So does this exist, already? Anybody know? Because I ain't gonna make it. And I've got a whole pile of animated shorts and other crap I'd love to show off to my Internet friends.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Post-holiday blog post of thanks

God damn, I have much better friends and family than I deserve. Seriously, we had a really great Christmas over here, and we got so many gifts in the mail that I actually kind of feel bad. We received way more than we gave. And it was all such great, well-thought-out stuff, a lot of it made just for us by awesome and talented people.


Books from my parents! I'm really digging this 4e Monster Manual, but now I've gotta finally break down and buy the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide...


Clothes from my parents! All in my usual preferred spectrum of black-gray-blue. This is good, because I almost never buy clothes. Get a load of the Pandemonium Books t-shirt by Rich Burlew! Really great SF/RPG book shop in the Boston area. Love that joint.


My brother Keith got me these DS games, and they've been pretty much occupying all my attention since I opened them. Puzzle Quest is like Bejewelled as an RPG, but that is actually awesome. Megaman ZX Advent has these really embarrassing anime cutscenes, but it's looking like a solid game so far. It's blowing me away how complicated Megaman games have gotten, but that's cool. I like complicated.


God, I love these. They were for both my wife and me, made by our incredibly talented friend Brenna Zedan. On the left are "The Twins", the mascots for our little Internet forum. In the middle, a reverse griffin (lion head, bird butt and feet, no wings) with a mane of fluffy string. And, on the right, a mummified rat. That one's because we mummified our rat. Anyway, Brenna makes loads of cool stuff like this and sell 'em on Etsy.


...And another incredibly talented friend of ours, Roxxy Goetz knitted little dolls of us as superheroes. Oh, man, there's a whole bunch of backstory to where these characters came from--I mean forum discussion backstory, not character backstory--and I ain't getting into it now. Also, she made a sweater for our dog. We actually got a bunch of dog clothes this year, and I should probably take some photos of the poor creature all dressed up. (Roxxy, I should also mention, designed the forum mascots shown above. She's really great.)


I think this one is technically more of a belated birthday gift for my wife, but it's awesome, so I'm posting it anyway. This is a painting of the protagonist from her comic, done by our buddy Nina (who is once again overhauling her whole website, apparently).


Anyway, Nina also sent us fancy Brazilian chocolate-covered biscuit things. They are huge and extremely delicious.


My mom has started taking pottery classes, and she sent us the very first bowls she made. They're simple, of course, but they're really beautiful. My poorly-lit photos don't really show off how cool their colors are, but I really dig these things.


Speaking of candy, my parents sent us marshmallow Santa things with some rather interesting packaging. Santa looks like he's just started transitioning, here. Or maybe it's just Santa Claus crossplay?

Man. There's actually a load of other stuff I ought to post, but this is already kind of a huge post. Let me just end by saying HOLY GOD THANK YOU EVERYBODY. You're all great folks, and I wish I deserved you. Happy holidays, all.

Friday, December 19, 2008

[IaWA] Clutch Oracle

Clutch logoI don't know if I've mentioned the band here before, but I'm a really huge fan of Clutch. They're pretty much my favorite band. (And Charlie's, too. We go to basically every show they play in the Chicago area, and she's give the band some art a few times. Last show, we actually got to go backstage and hang out with them a bit. Extremely nice guys.)

Anyway, in addition to rocking hard and huge, just about every song they've ever recorded has extremely interesting and evocative lyrics. There are some weird ideas and stories, there, and--inevitably--they tend to make the think about roleplaying games. So I've been playing around on Abulafia again, building a Clutch Oracle for In a Wicked Age.

Who could fail to come up with game ideas given a set of story elements like this?

The robot revolution is coming.

A homeless hoodoo practitioner sells temporary cures in return for service after death.

A young folk healer in Latin America, rejected by her community for offering mercy to a defeated demon.

An order of assassins who wield wooden blades, raised from infancy under an oath of silence.
Or this?

A society of swamp women, drunk and deadly as maenads, armed with shotguns and consorting with boars.

A woman storms castles while riding a pterodactyl.

A dead cosmonaut contacts Earth to discuss the gluttony of the starving stars.

The dread capital ship of Hell's forces, crewed by dog-like demons and bringing its own black ocean with it.
To be honest, I'm not sure when or if I'll actually get to use this oracle, as I still haven't even managed to get get people to play regular IaWA. But I dig the idea, so I'm going to keep working on the oracle and adding elements.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Campaign setting/plot generation gimmick

I'm messing around with a simple little idea over the weekend. I was talking to Brian a little while ago about maybe trying out Dungeons & Dragons 4e, and I've recently been thinking about how Mutants & Masterminds could be used to run a fantasy game, so I've generally had fantasy campaign settings on the brain.

So, just for the hell of it, I've been writing various fragmentary campaign setting/plot elements on bits of paper, scattering them randomly on the table, and then arranging bits that seem to work together into rough relationship maps. It works beautifully. I definitely want more setting elements to play with, though. Maybe ones written by other people. The concepts I put together are familiar to me, since they're made up of components that have been rolling around in my head for a while, now. I've gotta try this game with other people, some time. That sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Random color selector

Over the past couple days, I made a thing over at the completely awesome wiki-based random generator site, Abulafia. It's full of all kinds of RPG-oriented random generation goodness, and one of its coolest features is the fact that a user can build generators that use other generators. So I figured it might be useful to somebody if I created a generator which just picked random colors, and displayed both the color name and a sample of the color itself.

Here, check it out. The example implementation you'll see at that page is really simple: It just pulls three colors from the list of 500 or so that I gave it (taken from Wikipedia, naturally). In theory, though, this bit could be used as part of a larger generator. Like, say, to describe the flag of randomly-generated nation, or the pigmentation of a randomly-generated alien.

It's the first thing I've ever made for Abulafia, so I can only hope that I didn't do something drastically wrong.

Friday, September 26, 2008

[dream blog] Outbreak escape

stairsI was some kind of superhero. One of a team of such. We had a whole variety of individual, maybe somewhat low-level X-Men-ish powers (in fact, some of them might actually have been actual X-Men characters), but few or none of us wore any sort of costume. Most of them looked like regular folks, in fact. (Or television's version of reagular folks, perhaps: unusually young and attractive.) I think I might not have been with the team long--or maybe wasn't even an actual member, but just someone momentarily working with them--because I mostly couldn't really keep track of them as individuals, and didn't even know their names.

My power was something about releasing big, very short-range bursts of concussive energy from by whole body. I think there was something else I could do--something more versatile--but I never got a chance to try it.

We were all trapped in a huge shopping mall--or maybe it was an airport, or some kind of shopping area attached to a big hotel--a bright, airy place that was all steel and glass. It was empty except for us, and some ill-defined threat that had somehow been unleashed upon the world from somewhere inside or below that building. This threat also looked like a bunch of ordinary humans, and displayed some kind of minor powers. But they also clearly had the ability to either take infest or replace people. They harried us as we tried to find a way out of the mall while keeping them locked in, and gradually they started to take over our members. We couldn't manage to put them down for more than a few moments.

I couldn't understand why the rest of the team found blasting their way out of the mall difficult, or why our enemy hadn't already escaped. I decided to just use my concussive powers to bounce myself up out of the enemy's reach and knock out a window, door, wall, or whatever. Some of my team would surely be able to follow, and those who couldn't could probably be carried.

Then I was in a different place--maybe part of the same place, possibly the hotel attached to the mall--and I might have been someone different. I definitely wasn't currently superheroing, even if I was the same person. This hotel (or this part of it?) was all dark, wooden walls and smooth marble floors, and it wasn't empty. It seemed to be in ordinary operation. I was wandering through it at a brisk pace, looking for an Internet cafe I'd seen earlier so that I could check my email.

I was caught in a small crowd--mostly an Asian tour group, apparently--outside the elevators when an alarm went off. Something bad but unspecified was going on, and the hotel was being evacuated.

One of the tour group was telling me, clearly with great worry, that he'd found his room broken into and his computer tampered with shortly after some lesser crisis leading up to this alarm had gone down. He said the log files on his machine showed that a large amount of activity had gone on through that machine while he'd been out of his room, and wanted advice about something relating to the computer's serial number sticker.

I was too distracted to be helpful, though. Was this the same problem the superheroes were dealing with? Was this the result of their failure to contain their enemy? Or was that fight in the mall still going on? Or maybe this was happening before that whole scene, and this evacuation would lead to that abandoned mall.

At any rate, the elevators were no longer working, so we all consulted an evacuation booklet. It contained needlessly complex blueprints of the hotel, but apparently we were supposed to open up hidden emergency exits and proceed down a tight spiral staircase to safety. The plan was detailed enough that I could see how some landings of the staircase had been badly spaced, making it necessary to actually crawl on one's belly to fit down the stairs at one point.

We didn't look at the plans too carefully. We all just wanted to get out of there.

I helped open up the exits, and was the first one down. The stairs were gray, unfinished, clearly never used. Worse, they were absurdly claustrophobic. The further down we went, the cruder the stairs got, and there was ever more frequently clumps of dry, gray sea sand scatters over them. Eventually, we came to the place where the blueprints had shown we'd have to crawl, and they certainly proved accurate in that regard. I got through it okay, although I worried about all those behindme.

The stairs opened up again after that, but were still tighter than before. A lot of the time, I couldn't stand up all the way. I worried about running into more pinch points. But, as it turned out, that possibility didn't even have a chance to become a problem: The stairs ran straight into a solid layer of sand.

The crowd behind me was too frenzied and the confines were too tight to dig, and in any case I didn't believe there was anywhere to dig to. And time, we were all sure, was short. The situation was hopeless.

So I decided to wake up.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Meme!

I caught a meme off Mimo of Toy Division fame.



Rules:
Take a picture of yourself right now.
Don't change your clothes, don't fix your hair...just take a picture.
Post that picture with NO editing.
Post these instructions with your picture.


This is a monitor's eye view from work. In retrospect, I think I should have made a facial expression of some kind.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dark, part 2

Dark
So, like I mentioned before, I'd like to try and hack Mutants & Masterminds to run a Doom/Quake-themed survival horror RPG. Maybe I'll call the resulting system "Mutant". Dunno.

Anyway, since a big part of beating a four-color superhero RPG into such an unaccustomed shape as this would be just removing material, there's actually good reason not to have the M&M core book on the table at all during play. So this abomination is free to be its own creature, allowing me to make some changes that are more for taste than to fit the specific themes of Dark. The first thing I'd start with would be a minor change to the standard, D&D-inherited ability scores. I'll rename Dexterity and Constitution to Agility and Endurance, and reorganize Wisdom and Charisma into Perception and Willpower. Perception obviously takes over all sensory abilities, but also Initiative checks, while Willpower handles both mental stability and focus, and social abilities.

Oh, and I'd ditch the ability scores and use modifiers alone (True 20-style). That should just be standard practice.

I'll also get rid of a few skills, introduce a few others from the Mastermind's Manual or elsewhere, and reshuffle some ability score dependencies as seems logical. The result (at the moment) is this:

Strength
Climb
Jump (separated from Acrobatics)
Swim

Agility
Acrobatics (loses its jump function)
Drive
Escape Artist
Pilot
Sleight of Hand
Stealth

Endurance
Stamina (similar to D&D 4e's Endurance skill)

Intelligence
Chemistry (effectively Craft: Chemicals and Knowledge: Chemistry)
Computers
Demolition (from Mastermind's Manual)
Disable Device
Gunsmithing (effectively Craft: Guns)
Investigate
Knowledge (might divide this into a few specic skills, like Biology, Tactics, etc.)
Medicine
Repair (from Mastermind's Manual)
Trapmaking (effectively Craft: Traps)
(Might be a lot of other Craft skills I could adapt...)

Perception
Initiative
Search
Sense Motive
Track (the tracking function from Survival, which otherwise doesn't have much use in this game)

Willpower
Bluff
Concentration
Diplomacy
Intimidate

I've added a few skills here, but I've subtracted a lot more. Since this version of M&M is intended to run a very specific kind of game, things like Disguise and Ride just didn't seem useful. A PC who plays the harmonica can just be admitted as a good harmonica player, with no need for a Perform skill.

The other big area I'm changing is saving throws: They can go turn into D&D 4e-style "defenses" quite nicely. I'd also add a passive Perception-based defense--also quite 4e-style--called Alertness. This replaces the Notice skill completely. So we'd have the following defenses:

Reflexes = 10 + Agility + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Fortitude = 10 + Endurance + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Alertness = 10 + Perception + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Resolve = 10 + Willpower + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Toughness = 5 + Endurance (These ain't superhuman characters, so they can't increase their Toughness with experience. They have to find some armor.)

(Thinking on my feet, here: What if I moved Toughness over to Strength--since it represents sheer beefiness more than Endurance does, and melee damage bonuses don't count much in a gun-focused game--and then made a lie-detecting Insight defense based on Intelligence, replacing the Sense Motive skill? One defense for each ability appeals to my sense of symmetry . . . although I don't believe that kind of symmetry is a worthwhile goal in game design. Might go with it, though.)

Now people get to make damage rolls! Damage rolls are fun. And instead of comparing a Toughness save result to a damage DC and then calculating the difference to determine the result, every character can have a series of clear and simple damage thresholds right there on the sheet. So if a character's Toughness is 7, it'll say right there on the sheet that a damage roll of less than 7 has no effect, a roll of 7 to 11 produces an injury, 12 to 16 injures and also stuns, 17 to 21 stuns, staggers, and disables, 22-26 leaves the character unconscious and dying, and 27 or more kills the character outright . . . and messily (because a game like this obviously needs a "gibbed" result).

I'm not even going to address non-lethal damage, here, as there isn't really a place for such a thing in this variant.

I'm also thinking about removing the possibility of a "no effect" result (since any successful attack roll ought to hurt the target at least a little), but I'm not sure of the balance implications there. Obviously, this game should be grittier than standard Mutants & Masterminds, but I don't want to go too far.

Anyway, just to keep the damage threshold on each character sheet simple and static, modifiers from a target's injuries and armor would be applied to the attacker's the damage roll instead of the target's toughness score. So when an attack roll succeeds, the attacker rolls damage, adds the target's injuries and subtracts the target's armor value, then compares the result to the damage threshold track on the target's character sheet. I think this would result in faster combat, but I'd have to try it to be sure. One thing I'd like to do to speed things up is keep track of injuries with tokens (poker chips or similar), to that damage bonuses against injured targets can be tracked without resorting to pencil and paper.

I'd also treat Attack and Defense bonuses (maybe I need a different name for Defense, since I turned the Saving Throws into passive "defenses"...) a little bit differently. It's the easiest thing in the world to split Attack into Melee Attack and Ranged Attack. I think, though, that I'd actually have characters pay 2 power points for each point of Ranged bonus, and only 1 for each point of Melee, since ranged weapons will be significantly powerful and plentiful than melee ones. Meanwhile, I can take Defense and the Dodge Focus feat and reverse engineer them into Active Defense and Reflexive Defense: The former costs 1 point per point and is lost when the character is surprised or flat-footed, while the latter costs 2 points per point, can't exceed half of the Active Defense bonus, and works as long as the character can move freely. Strange as it sounds, the costs work out the same as standard M&M Defense and Dodge Focus.

One last thing: I believe I'd use 2d10 for the standard die roll in this system, rather than 1d20. I think a probability curve that's actually curved--and thus produces slightly more predictable successes and failures--would fit gritty, cautious, strategic gameplay a lot better than the flat probability curve of a d20 roll.

Okay, that's way more than enough for now. I'll probably have more to say later, though. I've been thinking about it enough.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dark, part 1

So a few days ago I found myself reading a thread on RPG.net about CthulhuTech when the Quake soundtrack came up in rotation on my MP3 player. It was then that I knew I had to figure out a way to run a sci-fi survival horror / bughunt RPG incorporating themes from both Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and id Software's Quake and Doom games (as well as other first-person shooters). I don't ever expect to actually run such a game, but I love theorizing about this kind of thing.

After much dithering, I'm currently calling it "Dark", largely because first-person shooters of that era tended to have monosyllabic names that didn't really have much to do with their actual content.
Dark
The way I'd set it all up, the player characters would be a small mercenary team in a vaguely-defined future that could be anywhere from Blade Runner to Dune. While it's a big detour from the source material, I think it's important that the characters not be a legitimate military force, since roleplaying proper military discipline and command structure sounds like more hassle than fun, and it gives them a reason for all their equipment and tactics to be individualistic and sub-optimal. If one PC arrives with a flamethrower, it's not because the mission brief said there's a specific need for that weapon here, it's just because he's the dude who likes to use a flamethrower.

Anyway, the PCs' employers would naturally be the weapons R&D branch of some giant megacorporation (not unlike Doom's UAC) who have hired them to quietly take care of some monstrous fuckup in one of their research facilities. The weapons research angle is important because--in accordance with both first-person shooter and survival horror tropes--the characters must have the opportunity to pick up bigger and better guns in the field than the ones they came in with. The employers' monster-ridden facility naturally has to be a source of both mundane and highly experimental weapons and armor.
It also has to be so remote as to be virtually inaccessible. It might be deep underground, underwater, in space, or in another dimension, but for one reason or another, no reinforcements are immediately available, and whatever monsters the corporation has released are (temporarily) contained. The PCs would have only one obvious means of escaping the facility after completing their mission, and that would be whatever conveyance brought them there. For drama's sake, of course, they might lose that option and then have to find another one.

The setting idea I'm really liking, at the moment, would be some space station or or ship that has fallen halfway into another plane of existence through some tear in reality that may or may not have been a naturally-occurring phenomenon. The different physical laws of the other universe--and their applications in weapons development, of course--were the primary subject of the facility's research, but Something Went Wrong, and now the whole thing is sinking inexorably into a dimension inimical to human life.

It also might be fun to have the bulk of the facility be made up of modular cubical sections which have perhaps been rearranged somewhat randomly by a confused or maddened central computer. I dig the idea of actually rolling on a few tables to determine what's behind the next door. (Seriously, in a lot of ways, Rogue was the first survival horror game, largely due to its randomness: You could never count on the game's levels to be even remotely fair to you and your dwindling hit points.)

I'm not too sure exactly what kind of swarming, shootable monsters infest the facility, yet. Certainly, a major component of the hordes must be mutated / possessed / infested / mind-controlled humans; the "former human" is an important genre cornerstone. They're a great source of weapons and ammo, and just about everything in the players' arsenal works on them. Beyond gun-wielding zombies, though? I'd like to Quake's fleshy, quasi-Lovecraftian route, but I've got no final ideas about just what the monsters should be like or where they should come from. Maybe I'll draw on CthulhuTech a bit.

There are a few different possible objectives for the PCs' mission. They could be sent in to the facility of its infestation or simply plant a nuke and leave. They might also have to retrieve data or valuable prototypes, or even specimins of the monsters themselves. And I think I'd actually break with genre conventions and make it a rescue mission, we well: For a change, there'd actually be some non-monsterized survivors to save. These NPCs could also provide aid to the PCs, and both exposition and roleplaying opportunities to the players. Not to mention the fun moral issues they might introduce: Do we save the prototype, or the wounded researcher who might be harboring an interdimensional plague? Should we set the self-destruct timer and get out of here, even though we haven't checked every part of the facility for survivors? Are the guys who shot at us possessed by alien parasites, or just scared?

So, what system would I use for all this? As far as I'm aware, there is no perfect fit for something like this. There are cases to be made for GURPS, d20 Modern, and 3:16 - Carnage Amongst the Stars, and of course I really should consider CthulhuTech's own Framewerk system, but--if only for the purposes of this academic exercise--I want to try hacking my old favorite, Mutants & Masterminds, for the job.

On the face of things, M&M is a terrible fit: Its default power levels are high, most of its crunch is devoted to superhero powers, equipment is regarded as part of a character, ammunition--on the rare occasions that guns are addressed--is assumed to be infinite, etc. I'd get around all of this, though, by just using M&M as a construction kit to develop a much slimmer, simplified player's document, which would largely feature modified lists of skills and feats, and a big equipment section. And, because not all players have my burning love for point-based character generation, I'd offer mix-and-match ability, skill, and equipment packages. Equipment--as is appropriate to the survival horror tone--would be expended, destroyed, and replaced with fresh loot constantly (with no regard to M&M character point totals whatsoever), so each piece of gear would have its own card, including both stats and ammo boxes to check off (and maybe an illustration stolen from a computer game).

I've been doing a lot of thinking on what this hybrid mutant system would look like (oh, man, that is a perfect names for it: "Mutant"), but I'll save the big crunch dump for another post.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

[comics] Avengers: The Initiative: Is that a jheri curl?

Ryder in 1995, by Steve Yeowell, from Skrull Kill Krew #1 Ryder in 2008, by Stefano Caselli, from Avengers: The Initiative #16

I really love that they brought back the Skrull Kill Krew for this whole Secret Invasion thing. And I dig the hell out of Stefano Caselli's art. And I do realize that this character is a shapeshifter.

...But, man, it's pretty lame that Ryder has apparently turned himself into a white dude.

Right, so the image on the left is from Ryder's initial appearance in Skrull Kill Krew #1. The image on the right is from his reappearance (after 13 years of limbo, far as I'm aware) in Avengers: The Initiative #16. And, to be perfectly fair, I don't really think Caselli actually intended to draw the character as a white guy. The dude is from Italy, and perhaps isn't quite as familiar with what dreadlocks look like as an American artist might be.

...And, hell, the dreadlocks / jheri curl confusion has long been a pitfall of some Marvel characters. I think Bishop is an example, although maybe his Rick James hair was totally intentional. Hell if I know. Terrible freakin look, either way.

[comics] Milestone characters joining the DC Universe


Yeah, I'm pretty excited about this. According to Newsarama, a few characters from the lamented 1990s comics imprint Milestone--specifically, Icon, Static, and the Shadow Cabinet, I think--will finally be brought back, this time as part of the DC Universe. I heard some theories about exactly this kind of thing happening, back around Milestone's demise in the late '90s. At the time, the idea kind of bugged me, since it had already been established in Milestone continuity that DC's heroes were known in the setting as comic book characters (which made that "Worlds Collide" crossover they did kind of weird), and I was a big continuity purist. Fortunately, I've gotten over caring much about that kind of thing, so I'm totally happy about this.

I think the fact that Milestone's beautiful experiment didn't work out back then kind of indicates that I should make a case for why this is awesome. Milestone, sadly, was written off as "DC's hip-hop imprint" by a lot of folks, and generally seen as just another line of superhero comics, except with black characters. The first problem with this perception is the idea that Milestone wasn't black-exclusive at all: The casts of its books were generally very diverse, both ethnically and sexually. The other problem with Milestone's image is that the characters' demographic checkboxes were never really the most important thing about the books: The big draw for me was the fact that they tended to have much smarter writing than the other superhero books of the era.

Of course, the writing and the characters are two completely separate components, so I can't really expect that ever DC writer who uses these characters will use them as well as their original books did. But, hell, they've got Dwayne McDuffie himself--creator of the Milestone line--leading the whole return. Also, I'm of the opinion that DC is a better company now than it was back then, anyway, so I'm pretty optimistic.

I am a Dungeon Master, and my wife is awesome


Right, so my wife is awesome. She's been commissioning comics about me being a really, really bad Dungeon Master from various cool webcomics people. I'm not really sure why she started doing this, but it is extremely cool of her. I want to make "Minus 10 horse points" my avatar / custom title on every RPG forum I frequent, now.

Anyway, the first comic is by John Campbell, who does the odd, quiet, and very funny Pictures for Sad Children. The second is by KC Green, who does Horribleville and a whole mess of other bizarre and hilarious comics. They are cool guys.

Absurdly, these actually make me want to start running a D&D game again. But then, hey, freakin everything makes me want to run or play some RPG or another. Now I gotta go figure out when my used-to-be-Tuesday-nights game crew can meet for Spirit of the Century, next. (Yeah, the game's been moving along nicely, even though I can't be arsed to post session summaries, lately.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Something Secret Steers Us

Right, so I've finally got time to type up the ideas I was talking about in my last post. For an appropriate--if obvious--soundtrack to this blog entry, click here.
Something Secret Steers Us
Something secret steers us. It calls us up in a dead, distorted monotone; it leaves us email that comes from no address; it whispers in the hiss of static and stray radio broadcasts on our headphones; it hides messages in the system code of our computers; it strobes words and images in the snow of old television screens. We can't understand much of what it says, but we know it wants something. Wants a lot of things. Sometimes it gives us names, sometimes strings of numbers we've managed to decode into dates and times. Sometimes it turns out that those people later do terrible things, and sometimes things--terrible or just strange--happen on those dates.

And sometimes--a lot of the time, really--it shows us how to build things. Most of us wouldn't know where to begin following its instructions, and a lot of us are afraid to try. But some of us have done it. One made something like an antenna that caused patterns and shapes to appear in dust and cigarette smoke. One modified a monitor so that it displayed strange diagrams, demonstrating more things we could build. One mixed up some kind of drug that turns the human body into a receiver for yet more messages. Bit by bit, it speaks to us louder and clearer, if we're willing to help it do so.

We're learning from it, even as it learns from us. Building new things. Some don't seem to do anything yet, but others are letting us fly. Walk through walls. See the other side of the earth. Talk to machines. Burn things by pointing at them. Some are changing us on the inside, letting it talk in our heads and rewrite our bodies' operating systems.

But we still don't know what it is.

For almost all of us, it started on the Internet. There were unexplained service outages in the beginning, even some rolling brown-outs. All over the world. And after that, weird glitches kept showing up. Only those of us who spent a lot of time online really saw much of it, and only those with a little knowhow could really recognize just how weird--even inexplicable!--these things really were. Meaningless images that somehow displayed at a higher resolution than desktop settings allowed. Echoing audio phenomena in the absence of any microphone. Destructive bugs that seemed to communicate from one site on to others that it merely linked to.

So some of us looked into it. Anonymously, on fast-turnover, auto-wiping boards, as was our habit. We found new traces, and posted them up for anyone who was looking at the time. Uncountable nobodies, sharing secrets no one else even knew to look for. And I think, as we did that, we started to attract its attention.

We've got a lot of theories, fueled by its own cryptic images and shreds of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of fevered imagination. Most of us think it's some kind of living or sapient computer program or energy pattern, beamed through space and caught by our communications satellites. Who knows from where or why. Maybe it's some deliberate attempt to contacting or invade Earth, or maybe it's just the result of some galactic-scale malfunction. I heard one theory that it's a naturally-evolved information entity born from some titanic alien internet, and the reason it's having so much difficulty expressing itself it just that it can't function properly in our limited and unfamiliar technology. Another idea, though, says that it's actually our Internet, gradually gaining self-awareness and beginning to stretch its limbs.

Some of us think that, whatever it is, it isn't alone inside our networks. The names and dates it gives us, the incidents they point to . . . they look like the work of the very technologies it's teaching us to build. But I think it wants us to kill those people before they use it. And we might not have a choice. Because I think, maybe, something else is telling those people to come after us.

Something secret steers us. And I think it's sending us to war.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Strange alchemies of ideas

I listen to a lot of soundtrack music, and some of my favorite stuff is from the various Half-Life games and expansions. Mostly created by Valve's own Kelly Bailey, it's some of the best music ever composed for a game. Really atmospheric work.

And, lately, I'd had the title of one of these tracks stuck in my head. Not the piece itself, but merely the title: "Something Secret Steers Us". It's just evocative as all hell, especially when paired with the music from all these Half-Life soundtracks. And, naturally, it's had me thinking about campaign settings.

At first, I just wanted something that would literally express that title. The idea was that the player characters would have some unseen--perhaps immaterial--allies or guiding force that would give them low-level superhuman abilities . . . as well as instructions as to what they should be used for. Voices in their head urging them to use their new power to walk through walls or turn invisible in some secret, bloody war . . . against other unseen forces, which also act through human intermediaries. Maybe these factionalized manipulators would be aliens, or sapient computer programs, or electrical ghosts, or higher-dimensional intelligences. The whole concept was just a vague scattering of theme, tone, and imagery. (And, of course, soundtrack.)

But today, somebody posted something on RPG.net that just clicked. It was an idea about a setting where energy-based aliens are invading our world via the Internet. And, before I evenreally thought about it, I posted this reply about Anonymous and the /b/tards getting ahold of alien technologies before the rest of the world even knows something weird is happening.

Then I realized how these two ideas fit together.

More about this later.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

In a Wicked Age character sheets, etc.

So I finally bought a copy of Vincent Baker's extremely fascinating In a Wicked Age. It looks fun as all hell (yeah, I retract my previous statement about not digging the mechanics now that I've read them in Vincent's own words), and I really hope to get a chance to play it soon. However, I was surprised to see the game does not include any character sheets.

Now, John Harper has already designed some beautiful ones, but I really enjoy doing this stuff myself. Also, this let me make additional IaWA paraphernalia in the same style. And, I know it's kind of a cheesy move, but I thought the name "In a Wicked Age" just fit with the font Endor.

So, check 'em out.

In a Wicked Age major character sheet In a Wicked Age minor character sheet In a Wicked Age particular strength sheet In a Wicked Age story sheet In a Wicked Age owe list sheet

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spirit of Cthulhu? Horror of the Century? Unspeakable Fate?

I've been listening to Yog-Sothoth.com's excellent Horror on the Orient Express audio sessions, once again, and it's got me wondering once again about how to hack Spirit of the Century / the Fate system for Call of Cthulhu-style horror. On the face of it, the system is a very poor fit for the genre, seeing as the former is known for superhuman player characters and extended, less-than-lethal combat systems, while the latter generally expects a level of harshness that goes beyond "gritty". But I think it could work.

More to the point, I think it could be awesome. There are a lot of peculiarities to the Fate system that, if calibrated appropriately, should be able to produce a meaty, flavorful kind of brutality that would fit the Call of Cthulhu mind set better than the very oldschool BRP system.

Puny mortals

First and most obviously, the PC power level should be lower than the SotC standard. I'd go with "Good" quality PCs, meaning they'd each get a skill pyramid capped at the Good level (+3) and just 6 aspects.

I think I'd also scrap stunts completely, since that would further lower the PCs' power level and save a hell of a lot of time in character generation (which, after all, needs to be quick in a high-lethality horror game), but the upcoming Dresden Files RPG might include genre-appropriate stunts that'll change my mind. Anyway, if stunts are out, then I'd use some variation on the stuntless SotC variant rules to give aspects a bit more utility.

Another severe change I'm leaning towards would be to limit the fate point refresh to half the number of aspects, so PCs would start each session with only 3. Limiting players' narrative power is crucial to the genre, and it would also increase the importance of compels (and, therefore, encourage players to make more flawed characters than usual). However, I'd take some of the sting out this fate drought by letting PCs spend a "virtual" fate point if, in the course of the same action, they also take a consequence. That is, they have the option to take some physical or psychological sacrifice in order to give themselves better chances at success. After all, sacrifices (as a theme) and consequences (as a mechanic) are pure gold for horror games. More on that below.

A terrible price

...In fact, I'd say that consequences are so important that I'd remove stress tracks from Fate combat system all together. Yep, any shifts of damage inflicted on characters would either be converted into consequences or take them out of the fight (a variant originated, as far as I'm aware, by Colin Jessup for his Star Wars Fate hack).

Now, in order to make room for all these consequences the poor, brutalized characters will be collecting, I'd let physical and psychological consequences use separate slots, and extend the spectrum of potential survival harm one more level, as below:

  • Minor consequence - Covers up to 2 shifts of damage. Goes away as soon as the character gets a few minutes' respite. Things like "bruised", "winded", and "shaken" would be appropriate.

  • Major consequence - Covers up to 4 shifts of damage. Lasts until the character can get a serious rest--like a night's sleep--or some specific remedy is obtained. A physical major consequence like "bleeding" might be remedied by medical treatment, while an emotional one like "infuriated" or "humiliated" might require something like an apology from the party who inflicted the consequence. I think any remedy that doesn't require several hours of time ought to require some kind of skill check or story-based accomplishment.

  • Severe consequence - Covers up to 6 shifts of damage. These would, by default, last until the character has a chance to get days or even weeks of downtime, but might be reducible to major consequences by some kind of skilled treatment. Broken bones and real mental trauma would fit this category. Also, I might deviate from the SotC rules a little bit by saying that a character who takes a severe consequence is taken out, just not permanently, and not on the attacker's terms. So, in that way, it would work a little like a concession.

  • Extreme consequence - Covers up to 8 shifts of damage. This would cover permanent harm, things like lost limbs and lasting mental afflictions. Naturally, taking an extreme consequence would definitely include being taken out of the conflict, as above. And, what's more, it might mean the permanent loss of the character--to death, madness, or what have you--if they can't get help afterwards: If all the PCs are lying around in pieces with no one functional enough to so much as provide first aid, that's a total party kill. With time and treatment, however, extreme consequences become regular permanent aspects. (Clearing that extreme consequence slot for more hurt, of course. Just because your character's already lost an arm doesn't mean he can't lose an eye once he's back in action.)
(Originally, I was going to call the 8-shift consequences "critical", but I just learned that Dresden Files is already planned to use 8-shift "extreme" consequences to describe permanent harm. So, yoink!)

I'm a little bit torn as to whether or not the Endurance and Resolve skills should give characters in this system more consequence slots the way they give SotC characters more stress boxes. On one hand, I'd hate to devalue those skills, and the strategic question of whether to take a 4-shift hit as two minor consequences or one major one sounds like fun. On the other hand, I'm afraid it might make them--especially Resolve--too important. After all, Resolve is already rolled as an active defense against emotional and psychological attacks . . . and that's something a horror game should include a lot of.

Speaking of which...

A fate worse than death

Arguably, the defining element of the Call of Cthulhu gaming experience is the sanity check. Any system trying to emulate this genre absolutely needs to include something along those lines. And, believe it or not, I think Fate already has a system which can that kind of thing beautifully: our good friend "consequences". Just let sanity-threatening situations make a psychological "attack" on characters (which would naturally be resisted with a Resolve check). Any consequences a character suffers as a result of such an attack could be states of fear or nausea or confusion, or the kind of colorful temporary (and sometimes permanent!) insanities familiar from good old Call of Cthulhu.

And, of course, because the "death spiral" effect is also important, new shocks would get to tag the consequences inflicted by previous shocks. That is, if you're already shaken by the corpse you found in the street, you're all that much more likely to lose it completely when the thing gets up and lurches towards you.

I'm not entirely certain, however, if sanity threats should actually roll to attack, or if they should just have a static horror factor that characters have to roll against. I suppose it's a question of just how much randomness feels right in play (and how much dice-rolling you want to do).

I'm toying with the idea of letting very successful sanity checks create temporary aspects along the lines of "keeping cool", "ready for a little blood", or "facing the darkness". Like a kind of anti-consequences, these would show that the character is hardened or inured to certain shocks, and would be invokable for a Resolve check reroll or bonus when a similar situation comes up. They could even mirror consequences in their values and time limits. That is, getting 4 shifts on a successful sanity check would create a major anti-consequence (for lack of a better term) that would last the rest of the day. I could complicate matters further by having these things actually take up psychological consequence slots--so that they'd make you more likely to break more severely once something does manage to crack your defenses--but I fear they'd become a punishment for rolling well rather than a reward. Not too sure.

A desperate struggle

Other than the elimination of stress boxes, I'm only envisioning rather minor changes to the combat system.

Naturally, I'd have weapons grant bonus shifts of damage on a successful hit, as a whole lot of Fate mods do. I don't think I'd bother introducing any sort of armor rules (beyond the possibility for characters to invoke aspects like "bullet proof vest" or "squamous hide" on their defense rolls).

I'd like to replace Fists, Weapons, and Guns with simple Melee and Ranged skills. Melee might continue to be a defense skill--but only against melee attacks--while Ranged might only be for attacking, and dodging ranged attacks might only be done with Athletics. I worry this could be a bit too harsh, though, since PCs in this variant would have far fewer skills than SotC PCs.

I haven't really done any thinking about magic rules. There are a whole lot of Fate variants addressing that issue already, and even one specifically aimed at Call of Cthulhu-style magic, and I'm not sure it's really high priority to begin with.

At any rate, I don't expect to have a use for any of this system-noodling any time soon, but it'll be worth looking at again when I've got a copy of Starblazer Adventures or Dresden Files in my hands.

Monday, July 14, 2008

[comics] Justice Society of America: Drastically lame atheism portrayal


Justice Society of America #17, page 12, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Fernando Pasarin
Right, so this is from Justice Society of America #17 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Fernando Pasarin). And I'm really digging the current JSA storyline; it's about this giant, god-like entity called "Gog" who's walking across Africa performing miracles and being awesome to people, while the superheroes all hang around wait for the other shoe to drop. I'm hoping against my own judgment that they've got a more interesting resolution planned than "Ha ha ha! Now the people worship me and I will conquer the world!", but it's definitely a cool ride at the moment.

But, damn, this scene between Michael "Mister Terrific" Holt and Pieter "Doctor Mid-Nite" Cross is just cringe-worthy. I think the setup hear is that the blatantly god-like Gog didn't respond to the atheist Mister Terrific's attempts to communicate. Now, I'm gonna ignore how deeply bizarre it is for anyone to be an atheist in the DC universe when they've got actual damn angels flying around in public as members of super teams, but the way they're portraying Holt's atheism here pretty grating.

They've got him saying "I don't have faith in God because I don't want to." in one panel, and "I wish I had faith . . . I wish I believed in this with all my heart." in the next. I'm not alone in seeing a contradiction here, am I? Was there a word omitted from that first line, maybe? Like "lack"?

And they end with Holt angsting about how he can't "understand" spirituality. Shit, man, he was just wishing he believed he'd see his dead wife again in the panel before that! I'd say that's about all you need to understand.

Maybe I'm expecting the wrong kind of belief system from a world where "atheist" kind of can't mean the same thing it does to me. And I'm almost certainly expecting too much depth and logical consistency from a character who runs around with the words "FAIR PLAY" written on his sleeve. But, damn, this scene just rubs me the wrong way.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Planet of War

My last post was about a setting inspired by William S. Burroughs. Today, I've got a setting inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is purely coincidence.

Planet of War

The gimmick here is a pulpy, sword-and-planet version of Mars, amped up to God of War or 300 levels of crazy, over-the-top violence. Major trappings would be taken from the various occult correspondences new agey types associate with the planet: war, iron, blood, fire, strength, wrath, vengeance, competition, that kind of thing. I'd also make shameless use of the usual pulp Mars tropes: It's an ancient, fallen world, a desert dotted by the ruins of more noble and advanced civilizations.

  • hot, arid environment, warmed more by underground fires than the sun
  • dry canals, ruins, fossilized vegetation, the dust of dead seas
  • subterranean water reservoirs
  • civilization generally in its iron age
  • planet, conveniently, is loaded with iron
  • lots of other fun, weird, powerful fantasy McGuffin materials, both naturally occurring and created through alchemy (not above Herculoids-style "energy rocks", here)
  • primitive guns, along the lines of carryable cannons
  • crazy alchemical weapons, like swords that burn when exposed to the air, and hammers that generate a jolt of electricity on impact
  • low gravity, so jumping really far is a major element of locomotion, and very crazy architecture is possible
  • lots of huge, dangerous fauna (possibly unnatural), including beasts bred and armored (and alchemically mutated?) for battle
  • warring empires, rival clans, blood debts, ancient enmities

Naturally, a Burroughs-style take on Mars necessitates multiple races of Martians. And, of course, that's also the kind of thing that's a lot of fun in RPGs. It seems a little unlikely for a whole mess of sapient species to emerge independently, though, so I'm gonna say my Martians are all technically one species divided into several wildly divergent bloodlines, possibly through some millennia-long eugenics program in the planet's forgotten past.

Iron Tribe
  • sense and generate magnetic fields (powerfully enough, in many cases, to deflect sword blows)
  • consume raw metal ores and refine them in their bodies
  • hairless, dark gray skin, made shiny and tough by iron content
  • can encode and read information in the magnetic fields of small bits of ferrous metal
  • more vulnerable to non-ferrous weapons (and, for the same reason, often carry at least one non-ferrous weapon for use against their own kind)
  • tend to wear armor made of brass, as it doesn't interfere with their magnetic capabilities
  • known for aloof and superior demeanor when dealing with other tribes, consider personal honor paramount
  • currently a powerful force on Mars, and sometimes claimed to be the tribe that dominated the planet's lost Golden Age

Stone Tribe
  • large, powerfully built
  • tough skin, which thickens to plate-like carapace on back, shoulders, other areas
  • yellow-orange-brown coloration, tusks, blunt features, stiff manes of hair
  • great craftsmen of sturdy, solid stone and metal constructions, such as buildings and simpler weapons, also known as sculptors
  • highly traditional, formalized culture, where uncontrolled emotion is looked down on
  • little political ambition; willing to work as soldiers or craftsmen for other groups without any qualms
  • great respect for scholarship and history
  • hold particularly stable territories, where they are responsible for much of the world's agriculture

Sand Tribe
  • like smaller cousins to the Stone Tribe
  • tough skin, but no carapace, agile rather than powerful
  • pink-red-brown range of coloration, no tusks, short tails
  • incredibly sharp senses, and able to absorb and process a massive amount of detailed information at once, good memory
  • traditionally nomadic, living in caravans that chase good weather and good hunting, with some permanent encampments in reclaimed ruins
  • adaptable, pragmatic, fall easily into any cultural niche, but rarely found in any position of power over other tribes
  • known as ingenious scavengers, even thieves, unrestrained by personal dignity or moral compunctions
  • associate easily with other tribes, and always eager to trade
  • skilled at riding, and breeding beasts for war, convenience, or consumption

Wind Tribe
  • small, lightly-built
  • using powerful legs and tails, able to jump great distances
  • extrude temporary gliding membranes from their backs, like sheets of spider silk
  • natural skin color is a soft brown, but somewhat able to change color to match environment
  • armed with small claws, better for climbing than fighting
  • tend to wear loose, neutral-colored, abbreviated clothing, to avoid impeding gliding membranes and camouflage ability
  • traditionally live in high, difficult-to-reach areas, separate from more integrated Martian societies
  • work as messengers, spies, and assassins in integrated societies
  • paint faces and bodies as a sign of security, power, and honesty ("I don't have to be able to hide.")
  • deadly ambushers, prefer poisoned javelins hurled silently from great heights, en masse

Smoke Tribe
  • tough, deep red, somewhat scaly skin
  • resistant to heat, poison, and disease
  • decent night vision, and typically live in caves and subterranean settlements, frequently in close proximity to the fire caverns which heat the planet's surface
  • mine and refine much of Martian society's exotic alchemical materials, and are known as the planet's greatest gunsmiths
  • not especially light-sensitive, but tend to be nocturnal for the advantage their night vision gives them
  • typically wear dark, thick, concealing clothing
  • ambitious, often at odds with the Iron and Water Tribes

Water Tribe
  • fully amphibious, as effective underwater as on land
  • pale, pinkish, slick-skinned, hairless, adorned with elaborate fins and crests
  • very powerful night vision, somewhat vulnerable to direct sunlight
  • low-level magnetic sense, a much weaker version of the Iron Tribe's ability
  • almost strictly subterranean, controlling most of the Martian water supply, as well as having underground farms and access to precious gems
  • powerful force on Mars, limited by their aversion to the light and dryness of the surface, often acting through hired servants and mercenaries from other tribes
  • ancient rivalry with the Smoke Tribe, who also seek to control the deep places of Mars
  • holders of some of the Golden Age's lost secrets, particularly medical and biological sciences

The various tribes traditionally (since the end of the Golden Age, anyway) live apart, but come together in some of the few powerful, cosmopolitan cities, and in bandit nations made up of the exiled refuse of other settlements. They're capable of interbreeding, but attraction between tribes is uncommon. Also, hybrid children tend to lack either of their parents' strengths (although they do sometimes display some wholly their own).

The sort of plots I'd run a Planet of War game with would be straight out of Conan and Greek myth: clashes of civilization and savagery, the disputes of powerful families played out between nations, ancient secrets misused, settlements menaced by monsters and bandits, and so on. I'd want to do both violence and intrigue, so ideally all characters would be capable in a fight and also have a bunch of stuff they can do outside combat.

I'm not entirely sure what system I'd use. Exalted seems like it could easily be perfect, but I've never used it myself. Same story with Feng Shui. Naturally, I really dig the idea of using Spirit of the Century, and that's definitely an option. SotC is crazy-ass-stunt-friendly, it would save me the hassle of actually coming up with stats for all the different tribes, and Mike Olson's Spirit of the Sword hack would be a great resource for the sword-and-sorcery stuff. Of course, if I do feel like doing crunchy work, some flavor of D&D could work nicely. Planet of War would be a nice way to experiment with 4e, at last (although, honestly, I should probably run 4e straight before I start messing with it).

Man, I am digging this whole idea. I don't know if I'll ever end up doing anything with it, but I'll definitely add it to the pile for future reference.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Edge City

As always, I've been thinking about campaign settings. I'm kicking around ideas for two, at the moment, but the first one isn't exactly new.

Edge City

I'd originally thought of this setting as being some kind of vague real-world-but-exaggerated bit. Some kind of William S. Burroughs supernatural elements / magical realism was part of the plan, but I didn't really know where I intended to go with it. Now I'm reading Naked Lunch, though, so I've got some new ideas.

First of all, Interzone--the otherworldly omni-city of Naked Lunch--is a blatantly, obviously awesome setting for a roleplaying game. Get a load of how Burroughs describes it.

The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian -- races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body.

...

The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.

Minarets, palms, mountains, jungle... A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in the grass, play cryptic games, Not a locked door in the City. Anyone comes into your room at any time.

...

All houses in the City are joined. Houses of sod -- high mountain Mongols blink in smokey doorways -- houses of bamboo and teak, houses of adobe, stone and red brick, South Pacific and Maori houses, houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred feet long sheltering entire tribes, houses of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty iron racks rising two hundred feet in the air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.

Expeditions leave for unknown places with unknown purposes. Strangers arrive on rafts of old packing crates tied together with rotten rope, they stagger in out of the jungle their eyes swollen shut from insect bites, they come down the mountain trails on cracked bleeding feet through the dusty windy outskirts of the city, where people defecate in rows along adobe walls and vultures fight over fish heads.

...

In the City Market is the Meet Cafe. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Harmaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bangutot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war.... A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum... Larval entities waiting for a Live One...

I could definitely work with this. Or something like this. The idea of a city outside the normal world--one which is the apotheosis of all cities, where all things and all peoples can be found--sounds extremely fun and game-friendly.

First of all, it's about time I actually defined Edge City itself. It wouldn't be my Interzone ripoff, but instead a relatively normal city on Earth. Specifically, it'd be something like a little New York located on the American West Coast, a jumped-up suburb near L.A., reborn in the 1950s after a vast crack opened up in the earth, swallowing up a quarter of the town and cutting the rest off from easy access. The remains of the settlement--popularly renamed "Edge City"--went a little weird after that, developing an odd, insular culture of its own through its partial isolation . . . and constant exposure to the influence of that great rift in the Earth.

The earthquake, of course, wasn't wholly geological in nature. It was largely the result of an intermittent dimensional weak spot which opened up at a fault line at exactly the wrong time, dumping thousands of tons of bedrock and several square miles of American city into a ragged, spacially-convoluted continuum between worlds. Haven't got a good name for it, really, so I'm just calling it "the Between" at the moment. I'm picturing it as an endless, cluttered gulf of psychedelic sky, with a breathable atmosphere and something of a do-it-yourself gravity situation.

The indigenous life of the Between tends to look like abyssal and prehistoric sea life, often with strong tendencies towards infectious, parasitic, mutational, and addictive qualities (all very Burroughs, of course). In some places, it mirrors Earth life forms in ways that suggest the Between doesn't follow the familiar processes of evolution or inheritance.

Different regions of the Between are "closer" to different worlds, so stuff that falls through from Earth tends to end up in the same general area. And this is where the Interzone shtick comes in. People from (and pieces of) Earth have been finding their way to the Between one way or another throughout all of history, and they've come together as a sort of composite city, a drifting cluster of broken landmass, linked by ropes and chains and iron rods, all encrusted by architecture in every conceivable style, some it it reclaimed from terrestrial wreckage, and some of newly built in the Between out of alien materials. I'm not sure what to call this city--Croatoan? Limbo? Gateway? The Tatters?--but I do know that getting a chunk of (what later became) Edge City added to its bulk half a century ago had a significant impact on its culture. Along with that slice of 1950s urban/sub-urban landscape, it also got a number of armed and experienced 1950s gangsters. They became a powerful new political faction in the Between, and introduced a new kind of drive and organization to its inhabitants.

The old mob from the '50s has since fragmented and mutated, inevitably being changed by the Between as much as they changed the Tatters (or whatever). Now there are Maoris and Germans and weird, semi-translucent fish-things all wearing pinstripe suits and fedoras, wielding tommyguns and smuggling goods from a hundred different worlds. Some of the old guys are still alive, sustained by alien drugs, but they're looking less human than the fish-things, these days.

And they don't just confine their operations to the Between. It's actually easier to get back to Earth than it is to get to other free-floating islands. So various types of shady individuals from the Tatters tend to come through to Edge City--via the Crack, of course--from time to time, creating in a cross-dimensional black market in alien drugs and weapons, and some very, very strange pornography.

...So the angle I want to work in Edge City itself comes from some of the elements of Jack Kirby's Intergang, along with some episodes of Angel, and Torchwood. Oh, and Unknown Armies, of course. Basically, the whole otherworldly underworld bit, where there's this large, weird, hidden subculture fighting amongst themselves for power and profit, all without the world at large ever knowing.

One complicating element might be the fact that matter from the Between isn't quite the same as matter from proper dimensions. In places like Earth's universe, it just doesn't last. So humans who've lived in the Between for a while, subsisting on food made out of local matter, tend to have trouble if they return to Earth for too long. Those born in the Between have it even rougher. And native life forms, of course, have the most trouble outside of the Between, having a tendency to simply dissolve within hours or days if they can't consume and metabolize a great deal of local matter very quickly.

Just how one gets to the Between and back is something I'd have to figure out, of course. The Crack at Edge City started off as a minor contact point which became much more significant when the earthquake dumped a huge amount of mass through it. I like the idea of heavy or prolonged usage making gateways more reliable, and also frequent passage making crossing over easier for a given individual. Maybe if you've been across often enough, you don't even need to find an existing gateway, but instead can just push through by yourself. Also, maybe consuming food (or, of course, drugs) from the Between makes it possible to find or make gateways, or to see otherwise-invisible alien artifacts. There's a bit in Naked Lunch about "Black Meat, flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede", traffickers in which "exhibit paralyzed crustaceans in camouflage pockets of the Plaza visible only to the Meat Eaters". For Burroughs, it's obviously a big junky subculture metaphor, but I really love it as a sci-fi concept.

Okay, this post is already too long, and I haven't even gotten around to discussing the other idea I've been toying with. I'll try and post about that soon.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Wordle, William S. Burroughs

So there's this awesome, pointless little Web toy I've been screwing around with a little bit: Wordle. Found it through Rob Donoghue's blog a while ago, and I think a lot of folks have probably seen it, by now. Still, I have to talk it up now because I just found some fun text to material into it: the full text of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.



Click for bigger, of course.

So, what Wordle does is take a pile of text and count up occurrences of each word. Then it assembles a big cloud of those words, making the more common words larger. The great big "like" in the middle of this cloud is the result of Burroughs' love of similes such as the following:

"like an obscene, festering mouth"
"like an Aztec Earth Goddess"
"like a great black wind through the bones"
"like a gorged boa constrictor"
"like a picture moving in and out of focus"
"like a old rotten cantaloupe"
"like music down a windy street"
"like an invisible blue blow torch of orgones"
"like death in the throat"
"like an Eskimo in heat"
"like an overloaded thinking machine"

I'm digging on Burroughs all over again, lately. I've got an audio version of Naked Lunch I've been listening to, but the damn thing's abridged. It's also read by the man himself, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. So, for the sake of completeness and clarity, I've also been following along on a text version I found on some Hungarian website.

And, man, Interzone is such a roleplaying game setting. I've been thinking a lot about what I could do with it, or with some bastardized, RPGed-up version of it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

[comics] Fantastic Four: Marvel super-prison protocol

Fantastic Four #558, page 11, written by Mark Millar and drawn by Bryan HitchNot to rag on the same book all over again, but this page is from Fantastic Four #558 (written by Mark Millar, drawn by Bryan Hitch), and it's a shining example of a weird, annoyingly-common phenomenon in superhero comics. Click it and take a look at the full size version.

Doctor Doom is being held (according to the next page), at the Raft, a prison facility for superhuman offenders. And, for some reason, the people running this place let him keep his goddamned armor. You know, with the lasers and the forcefields and maybe a fucking time machine, for all I know. I'm sure he'd pitch a serious fit if they tried to take it away from him--especially since he's so nuts about keeping his scarred face covered up--but I kinda think it'd be worth the trouble. Hell, even if they think they've removed all the weapons from his getup, I can't imagine it'd really be safe to leaving the evil genius walking around in a whole pile of electronic scrap.

And, of course, superhero comics do this shit all the time. And, of course, we all know why: character recognition. If a supervillain isn't wearing his brightly-colored tights, how are the readers supposed to know who he is? Well, okay, maybe through the dialog. Or even a narration box. But how are potential readers just flipping through a book to see if it contains something of interest supposed to recognize the dude? I guess that's what it's really about.

Still. I'd call this kind of a special case, here. Why not show Victor von Doom without his armor and cape and such, but with his mask? It's enough to make him recognizable, and it'd slightly imaginable that he'd be allowed to keep something he's got such a psychological dependency on. Also, he'd present a much more interesting visual, wearing just the mask with an orange prison jumpsuit.

Anyway. This silliness aside, it's a good issue. Looks like the start of a very interesting arc. Just hope it ends better than the last one did.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

An excessively longwinded update

downtown Chicago with a rainy skyOh, man, busy days.

Been helping Charlie out with the prepress stuff for the second volume of Templar, Arizona, and some related t-shirt design. Also, she's doing Wizard World Chicago this weekend, and I've been playing comics roadie for her.

We met colorist Corey Greene at Wizard World's preview night (Thursday), and he seems like a cool guy. On the train ride home, we got to horrify him with the contents of my iPod. Those who know me will not be surprised: Among all the Professor Brothers shorts and episodes of Cooking Master Boy, I also have some unspeakably horrible stuff. Interestingly, this attracted the enthusiastic attention of two total strangers, a young couple named Becky and Dallas. We watched a deeply terrifying video from BME together, and that was all they needed to guess that Charlie and I are Something Awful goons like them.

The Internet. Still with us wherever we go.

Charlie and I have both totally been neglecting Age of Conan, which is kind of tragic. Both of us basically just got off of newb island (Are we the only people who use this term for the starting region of any MMORPG?), and then immediately stopped playing. And that is dumb. We'll get back into it soon, I think. Especially if we finally her her a copy, so that we can actually play together. (Honestly, I'm not really into the "massively multiplayer" featured of MMORPGs, so unless I can play 'em with my wife or some other people I know, I get bored fast.)

Anyway, as all good humans should know, the Spore Creature Creator is finally out, and that has been taking up most of my gaming time (if you'd really call it gaming). Spore is basically going to own Charlie and me when it finally comes out for real, and even the little Creature Creator is well worth my time and money. It's just a construction kit for creatures you can't really do much with, but it is hugely, hugely fun. I've really got to make a big post sharing my creatures, soon.

We're also getting back into Team Fortress 2, lately. That is such an incredibly well-made game. Charlie and I tend to play as a Medic-Heavy team (respectively), although last time we found ourselves really loving the Scout and Pyro (separately, of course). Valve is one of those companies that can just have all my damn money right now. They're just insanely reliable. (Getting real interested in their upcoming co-op zombie game, Left4Dead, by the way.)

On the RPG front, I'm still running my Spirit of the Century campaign--Lost Worlds and Secret Histories--every week (well, theoretically every week) and loving the hell out of it. I'm also playing in a monthly Amber game with almost the same bunch of people as my LWaSH players.

I think after I finish up with arc of LWaSH, we might give In a Wicked Age a go. I told my crew about it, and they were immediately interested. (I really love this group. They are basically up for anything. We've really been playing a good variety of stuff.) I also kinda want to do something with 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, if only to try it out.

Also! Brian from my RPG group has been thinking about running a Stargate game for a while, now. I'm not generally a big supporter of licensed properties as RPG settings, but I'd totally be up for this. Stargate really strikes me as a hugely, awesomely gameable setting, and I'd just love to see what Brian does with it.

Oh, and I'm still doing photography, even if I haven't been showing it anywhere. ... Ah, what the hell. I'll post one with this update.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Do a Google image search for "concept car".

As you can probably guess, you'll see some crazy shit. I've gotta say, I'm liking the "streamlined aquatic predator" direction in some of these designs a lot more than the "consumer electronics plastic bubble" look of others. What is up with those independent wheel pods on so many of these things? Is there some new innovation that makes axles unnecessary? I'm not a car guy by any stretch of the imagination, but I do dig weird-looking machines.

concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car concept car

Monday, June 2, 2008

[video games] The whole MMORPG quest paradigm is kind of broken

quest NPC from Age of ConanRight, so Age of Conan has sucked me back into playing a more-pig again, and while there's definitely a lot of cool stuff going on with it, elements of the usual MMORPG formula that it improves or fixes, it's also doing a lot to remind me just how wrongheaded a lot of that formula really is. I've got a whole list of complaints with MMORPGs, but the biggest one is probably this: Developers are still creating quests and quest systems as if they were for single player games.

I'd assume that everybody knows what I mean by this, but there is compelling evidence that I'm the only one who actually cares, so I'll spell it out for those who don't let stuff like this bug them: Questgiver NPC Guy stands out in the middle of the town square, staying in exactly the same spot throughout all the years of the game's life cycle, endlessly telling any player characters of a certain level range about how he lost his lucky hat in the haunted forest, and would they go get it back for him? Questgiver Guy remains in that spot, collecting the lucky hats which are delivered, night and day, by an endless stream of PCs, giving each of them a fairly item (or a choice of a few items) which he has no particular reason to possess. And still he stands there, eternally hatless, eternally begging for aid from the hordes of appropriately-leveled PCs.

So, naturally, if any two player characters of similar level were to share stories of their past adventures, they'd usually find their pasts to be remarkably similar, differing only in the exact order in which they did their favors for various Questgiver Guys. Worse, in a lot of games, this means often that a player won't be able to find the goblin who stole the lucky hat because some other player has already killed it. Instead, they have to wait for the goblin (and the hat) to respawn in order to kill it all over again.

I think the tremendous popularity of these games is compelling evidence that other people don't really let implied absurdities like this bother them, but seriously, they drive me fuckin nuts.

So what kind of alternative am I looking for? Yeah, that's a tougher question. Personally, I don't think I'm so enamored of cute banter and deep dialog trees that I'd mind randomly-generated NPCs giving out randomly-generated quests along these lines:

I'm [FIRSTNAME] [LASTNAME], the [OCCUPATION] here in [TOWN]. I was attacked by [MONSTER]s over in [LOCATION], and they took my [ADJECTIVE] [OBJECT]. Could you get it back for me? I'd go after it myself, but [WEAKEXCUSE].

Hell yes I would prefer that Mad Libs shit to doing the same damn quests that every other player has already done. And, to be honest, I really think that with a flexible enough modular quest/NPC system, a big list of basic quest forms (fetch, escort, scavenger hunt, etc.), and enough attention paid to creating generators that are limited to somewhat logical results, I think this could actually be really great. And the best part might be that it would be extremely easy to add new component pieces--new OCCUPATIONs, new OBJECTs, new WEAKEXCUSEs,etc.--whenever the developers can write them up. Hell, they could even include screened submissions from the players. With enough care, I honestly think that random quest system doesn't have to result in bland and nonsensical quests.

I could keep going on about this, but I think I've played backseat game designer for enough paragraphs, already.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

LWaSH player character tokens

I think I've actually found a solution to that whole customizable token thing I was musing about a while back. I got the idea from a bunch of magnets Brigid had on her refrigerator. She sent me a link to the instructions she'd used to make them, and I basically just did the same thing minus the magnet part.

LWaSH player character tokens

Basically, I just bought a pile of these things, and all I've gotta do print out my character portraits and paste 'em on. The really remarkable bit? If I run out of glass bits, I can just scrub off the portraits and reuse them.

Anyway, we've been using these things in Lost Worlds and Secret Histories to represent the PCs on my simple little hand-drawn maps. Range and positioning in Spirit of the Century is handled in a really fuzzy way, using general "zones" instead of any kind of exact measurements, so playing it fast-and-loose totally works. I think I might get a magnetic whiteboard to draw maps on, and maybe actually add magnets to the character tokens. That could be pretty convenient.

Oh, one other thing: SotC frequently features hordes of minor antagonists ("minions") who really don't rate their own tokens, and would really start to crowd the map if they got 'em. So, instead of inch-and-a-half glass bits with pictures, we've been using those little "glass stones" people use to keep track of point pools in other games.