Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rulemakers, Toolmasters, and Judges: Tomorrowland, Undertale, and The Joy of Painting

Months ago I watched Tomorrowland and it got me thinking ever since about myopia of imagination and stagnation of aspiration and the vital atoms of creativity but not in the way the filmmakers probably intended. More in the way a bacterial culture might compel you to clear your throat. A respectablish filmmaker with a strong Randian streak and a writer associated entirely with deferred expectation and delayed gratification, Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof were perhaps always a pair destined to crash their weird little quantum-phase bi-plane of a movie straight into the ol' swimmin' hole. It's very difficult to imagine that this movie turned out according to any individual's expectations, including the squandered cast's, but the lack of verve and commitment from a couple of the industry's commitment legends seems to convey that they had grokked it somewhere along the way. This was likely not the film anyone set out to make but it had to be damn obvious along the way that this was the film we were getting.

The moralizing, the coyness both in the script (Is this what's going on? Wouldn't you like to know? Ah haaaaa...yes, yes it is, I'm so sorry) and to a suffocating degree in its disastrous afterthought of a marketing campaign, the job-interview-level performances, the visionless production design, all this and more could be forgiven by a hell of a lot of people. They'd write it off as the cost of summer popcorn or the price of a message worth sharing. All this might have been forgiven, sure, if, that is, any of it had been in the service of something either more novel or more noble than self-aggrandizement, as any film about the importance to the soul of man of a theme park, made by a theme park company, must be considered.

Such an effort may preach looking forward but again and again in the film it looks back to the point of being nostalgic ABOUT previously looking forward. A creed of creation and innovation has the lie put to it through paint by number plot twists, character interrelationship bingo, and some of the most absolutely perfunctory set pieces ever to grace a big budget release. No thrilling climax should make one pine for the exposition. The film sees people going outward into the world to find new ideas but the entire production is surprisingly insular. It's also completely reflective, seeing itself as a metaphor for itself, a love letter from a company to that same company, sealed with a seventy million dollar kiss. Its Message...

Sometimes a filmmaker will decide Message >> Whatever. As long as the Message is conveyed clearly, even insultingly simply or wildly exaggeratedly, then you can paint the walls any color you like and just set that chair anywhere and why don't we knock out this wall here supporting beam what the hell is a supporting beaOH GOD!!!... These are films who dare you to consider them by any other metric because to find fault with the process is to fault the Message and flag yourself as the Enemy. This is fucking teams, this is Radiohead chatroom yearbook committee church lady gossipy face fanning falderal. I have no place for it in my life and neither do you or any artist you've ever genuinely cared about. When someone is drawing a line in the sand and screaming "OR ELSE" staying on one side of the line or the other is a fucking trap designed to make you forget you can go anywhere else in the entire fuckdamning world and stand there instead.

Tomorrowland's Message is one of optimism and we know that a just and loving God either either exists or doesn't thanks to this movie, for if any more capricious or vengeful or paying-attention-a-li'l-type God of any kind hovered above us then the film and filmmakers would have all exploded into flame for taking such a cynically mercenary operation and daring to present it as a beacon of hope, promising us a chance for the future that isn't theirs to own as they pass us a plastic keychain and smile that the sun will come out tomorrow. land.

I read an article angry about truly original science fiction being overlooked in favor of laser robots and super people. But the author meant, like, truly original science fiction like Tomorrowland. Jesus Moses Mohammad. Did you know Hugh Laurie is in this movie? Because he doesn't.

One of the Dogme 95 guys once said something like, once something has been expressed on the screen there's no need for it ever to be expressed again. Like a lot of creative theory it sounds like a fantastic philosophy until you think about it much. Nevertheless it has been on my mind a little since the movie Tomorrowland wants to be - paean to the golden age of Disney both as a studio and as a perceived place of invention and innovation, a place where the future could happen or at least the future of films - got made already. By Disney. Meet the Robinsons does everything Tomorrowland attempts (and I mean right down to the far out sci fi notion of "You know what would be super convenient as a mode of transportation in the future? Bubbles") and then drowns the whole proceeding in Wonka whimsy and Dreamworks smarm. It works far better than it should and I could speculate on the reasons but I'm going to basically lay it at the lack of involvement from Damon Lindelof. There is no more consistent stamp of marketing backpedaling, no surer warning flag that I'm going to hear people just biiiitching about this forever. At least Bird made Iron Giant for shit's sake.

What would be an amazing forward vision for our commerce conglomerate? Let's take everything way more seriously and make it live action. What a philosophy for any company to embrace. What a philosophy so perfect at odds with this company's projected public image yet completely appropriate given the company's current megalithic weight and storied history of No Fuck You Guys.

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Around the same time I also played a lot of Undertale. It had me thinking a lot about violence and death and the default assumptions of most RPGs but probably not in the way Toby Something intended.

Whether you murder and loot everything or not the core gameplay remains the same. On your end you can decide whether you want to use the underdeveloped attack timing mechanic or the underdeveloped conversational mechanic but the bulk of your time in conflict will be identical: playing Galaga. Now the 'conversation system' basically fills the role a traditional magic system might. Get the right combination or use the right technique on the right enemy or at the right time and you avoid a big chunk of the attack/defend grind. They might have been fireballs instead of flirting but the effect is the same. This decision tips the hand of Undertale. Playing pragmatically, using whatever tool seems the most prudent at a given time be it steel or magic words (Please is a magic word) gets you a fun enough short little game with too many references to Tumblr anime culture. However, a lot of the content in Undertale is held hostage to the decision that every moral choice video game eventually demands: Light Side or Dark Side. Undertale's raison detre is not only forcing this choice but sitting in judgment of you for making it.

There is no right way to play Undertale but there is a Correct one. It's written into the mechanics and the script. I mean forget about the feely Think Of The Children violence is never the answer Message (which has the lie put to it because of how many times your 'pacifism' amounts to getting other people to fight for you or hoping the opponent just gives up for Some Reason), the Correct way to enjoy the game is not honing your skills on the surprising moments of intensity in their shooting gallery. It's all about playing matchmaker to mummies and shit, because then everybody has friends. Do otherwise and ugggggggh you never stop getting shit about it to the point where it brands your save files themselves. You liked the wrong thing, you made the wrong decision. You shouldn't have played this game the way you did. The ultimate evidence of this is in the simple nature of the conversation mechanic. To stay alive you have to have a lot of hand eye coordination and good reflexes. To kill your foes you need good rhythm. To make friends with them you need to pick from a list of like four options from a pop up menu at your leisure. The Correct way to encounter a monster is usually obvious and if trial and error is required in one instance it is never, ever really required for monsters of that same kind. And man I hope you really do like seeing the same monsters over and over, chief level designer for this project was Ctrl+V. The way the bosses will just throw up their hands during a Pacifism playthrough constantly assures you that you made the right call: "Well shit, I could keep fighting the Player but fighting someone is so MEAN! What kind of person would I be if I easily defeated them like some minor enemy? Can everybody hear me in the back?"

In many moments  of Tomorrowland you get a breathless sight of what could happen if these people used their powers for evil. At many more times during Undertale you get an excellent marriage of story and gameplay. Coming off of Undertale, though, it's really a tale of divorce: you can test your ability to play a game or you can test your ability to follow a storyline, and if you're playing Correctly then twain shan't meet. The morally Correct way to play is to be someone who prefers the latter to the former. That more than anything else sits ill with me: a line in the sand and a cry of "OR ELSE."

Level design is astonishingly linear for a "sprawling RPG" apart from some backtracking. Puzzles are often puzzles in name only, less tests of skill or even set pieces and more plot points. "Then a puzzle happened" is the point of the puzzle, something that doesn't stop being annoying just because the game lampshades it. Music and sound design are solid but never on the same page from one chapter to the next. I found out later that this thing was crowdfunded which explained a ton of stuff, like the absolute scattershit approach to enemy creatures. I notice that no one hyping up the game uses "You spend a lot of time fighting other people's stupid backer rewards!" as a selling point. Undertale plays like The Groove Is In The Heart: nice beat and I can dance to it but ten years from now even oldies stations won't play it. None of that is why Undertale sticks with you or why I played it like five times and was super annoyed the whole time.

Most all dichotomies are false dichotomies. Being told that there are only two REAL ways to play simply isn't true. Playing a game that insists you play by those terms and then chides you for playing by those terms is an incredibly petty sort of allegorical implement. A Skinner Box does not Game of the Year make. Even then I could be alarmingly forgiving if it served a more novel system than making your Monkey Island dialogue tree a combat mechanic. The lack of curve is where the real gall comes in. By the end of a murder run you've had to perfect your dodging and murder games using increasingly difficult gauntlets and you're a more skilled player clearing more intricate boards. There's never a grade to the sunshine path. Nothing ever gets steeper or tougher. The only thing that is truly tested is the lengths you'll go to in your commitment to this bit: now that you've committed a long work day to playing this game and we've even taken away your option to not kill this guy...will you avoid killing him anyway? Will you go the extra meter so your play through wasn't a waste of your time? As much as the idea of a conversational bullet hell gags me and as bumfuzzled as I am of the notion of a similar but better system to employ...I do wish it weren't so easy. It's disingenuous to present a case of separate-but-equal gaming experiences when one is basically an epilepsy simulator and the other has all the panache of navigating your inventory. As much love for Earthbound and SNES RPGs are in its DNA it doesn't really reflect this when putting forward what the developers and everyone promoting the game to their friends clearly consider to be their best foot.

So we have multiple games: the game they don't want you to play; the game where they make you feel shitty for playing well and "gittin gud"; the game where the play is shit but you'll feel really good about it. I'll probably play Undertale again a few times in my life, sure, but damned if I'll ever watch Tomorrowland on purpose again. That's because while Undertale has a bit of that email forward attitude where if I don't resend to 100 people I hate puppies and Jesus at least it works as a game. Tomorrowland shot for mediocrity and missed, along the way indulging in the hubris for decrying a lack of hopeful imagination in its audience, any one of whom could have thought of something more interesting to do with dimensional travel, a predestination computer, robot girls, or Hugh Laurie. It's like being called shallow in the tags on someone else's selfie.

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I got into this hobby late enough that I didn't have a shortage of games to learn about, games to read, games to try. Not only the 400 lb gorillas like D&D or Rogue Trader, or even the 300lb gorillas like Vampire and GURPS or Fudge. Weird little games. Incredibly specific games. Sometimes it was games that you could already play with a dozen or so other systems. I didn't know that at the time. Sure, some games can handle Genre, but can they handle Subgenre of that Genre? The answer was always "Likely yes" but my firsthand experience came backwards. I rifled through all the faerie candy before I realized I was eating just leaves.

Sometimes the specificity was not a question of micro genre codification, the official RPG of luchadores fighting mermen. Sometimes it was a question of result. Do you like games where you win? Where you do well? Sure, who doesn't? I don't know that TriBond was ever anything close to a good game but I usually won so I owned a copy as a kid. That's how kids think, trying to carve out spaces where we're Da Man enough to feel safer in taking a risk, surrounded by risks which felt much more dire at the time. "This is my area, and, to an extent, this is Me." The roleplaying games which offered this security in excellence had, often, very low floors for difficulty and a lot of softballing of consequences. There are quite a few where you can fail, succeed, super succeed, really holy cow succeed, or My God forever succeed. You risk astonishingly little. It isn't a barrier to entry in terms of a learning curve but it also doesn't reward greater risk or higher valor.This is a safety net of gameplay because it's not about playing the game, it's about getting through the story.

Now I play some video games on Easy. I admit it. Sometimes I just want to play with all the toys, see all the art assets, blabber with all the NPCs, and just roam around the world a minute. I don't always have to be on the clock. But I'm working within the game's restraints. When those restraints are removed and I'm not slaved to a limited amount of time spent designing and programming, and anything can happen....say in a traditional table top rpg....the chucks are taken away and I'm rolling freely down the hillside. The carefully curated story experience I was being guided through gone, I'm off the path basically immediately because I can't see the damn path at all. The only way to get things back on track is to take me by the hand and drag me along, forcibly keeping me from straying.

It's a constraint, one you can't escape through getting better at playing. You can only follow the rules more closely, color even further inside the lines. RPGs should not be pure game and they should not be pure story and they should not be pure socializing and they should not be pure chance and they should not be pure obedience and they should not be purely predictable, meeting all your expectations. They're some wonderful combination of all of these, including surprise, and in too many games whose fans tell me they're playing the right way, a better way, the only surprise involved is when my character runs into an invisible wall. I tried to cross a threshold no one anticipated and which I didn't think I'd have trouble crossing, and an artificial barrier is in my way. This is only ever reactionary, you can't see the bulwark coming and chart accordingly. Nope, you can't do that, so you don't end up learning this rule or that rule. You end up learning not to try. (This is also how the US' obscenity laws work and it drives me insane and it's the reason an agency like the CBLDF has to exist.)

And that's fine to an extent. I have been part of fantastic games that were a ton of fun with all my buds, and we were playing these same games I'm bellyaching about. Whether you think it was in spite of the game or because of the game (or just want to throw in signal noise about a good group can blah blah blah you have no thoughts to contribute go away), we did. So I'm not against them.

I am against anybody who sees someone play this game and not enjoy it and considers that a failing. A personal failing, a moral fault even. You did not like this game and it is good, therefore you are bad, and you like this other game instead therefore it is bad. Whether you are an oldschool edition warrior or a newschool yes-and-er I have no patience for anybody who tells me I can only spend my time a certain way or only enjoy certain things. Ten years of Christian school: I had enough of that to last eternity. But even these crusaders do not earn my ire, as little love as I have for any evangelist.

No, my distaste is for the games out there who only seem to exist in judgment of other games. "If you played other games and enjoyed them you were wrong" and the actual gameplay of these challengers is entirely about confronting how wrong those games were and how wrong you are. "How dare you think this, or feel this way." You don't know what I think or feel and I am not going to tolerate it. "This is how things work," pages later "How DARE you just ASSUME that's how things work!" Craphole you don't get to set the parameters and then make them my fault. And I swear to Crom if I read your introduction and you start talking about being a true hero wasn't possible until now or this is roleplaying fantasy done RIGHT I will forcibly forget your game even existed. I will employ whiskey.

The worst kept secret of RPGs is that nobody ever has to buy a book or use an established rules set. An afternoon of hashing thing out and agreeing to boundaries and agreeing to who has final arbitration in an edge case: boom. You and your friends have a RPG you can play with. You did it all the time as kids. The reason to avoid doing this is simply that your time is worth more than what it takes to work that all out yourselves. Have a short conversation, someone spends ten bucks to get a book on their phone, you're playing ten minutes later. When a game book's advice and mechanics largely come down to "You can play a game like this if you want?" that isn't very useful advice. Anybody with the gray cells to play a game already knew that without being told. You can make hanging out with your friends and making up stories into a game kiiiind of, in the same way that you can turn sex into a game kiiiiind of, but very few people (in terms of there being seven billion or so of us) are going to find the experience enhanced just because they bought a book and some dice.

[[added- Fate and Fiasco (both games I own, both games I've run, both games I've played, both games I've enjoyed) are not games that I love. They are also far from the worst offenders of what I'm talking about. But there's not that much game in either, or not more than what Quick Time Events are to modern console gaming, press A to keep playing. In both games the answer to "Can I do this" is almost always "Very likely," and they're very concerned with everybody rubbing their characters' backstories all over each other like starting a fire. It makes their Companion books oddly some of my go-to suggestions for best DMG analogues: I prefer tools over advice every time and since their core books are mostly advice their Companions have to go "Oh right, tools, here's a ton of options for both games to make them more game-y."]]

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I've been watching a lot of Bob Ross lately. The Joy of Painting. A lot of it is on Hulu and YouTube.

The entire point of Bob's show was to be a judgment free zone and to provide you with tools. The show never seems to be about teaching you to be a great painter. It was about showing off how using very simple instruments allowed one to learn the tools they would need if they were going to be a great painter some day. He said as much several times. It wasn't about turning you into a gallery artist just from copying him. It was about teaching through rote repetition to master some elementary techniques, use an editor's eye, and to do whatever the shit you feel like doing regardless of what Bob says. It was about getting someone painting at all and getting someone painting routinely as both a form of relaxation and a form of expression.

All his paintings were pretty samey but he didn't preach one way to be an artist, one way to express oneself in the medium. Any didacticism was only an imperative to do, not a screed about what to do. He also didn't think painting should only be open to the kind of people who thought and worked like them. When viewers would write in saying "I can't do that" or "That's not the kind of thing I like" he would do something else just to show them that no genre or style are mandatory for art. A viewer was left handed so Bob painted with his left hand that day: you can do this. A viewer was completely colorblind so Bob painted entirely in grayscale: you can create things. A viewer complained that Bob (who admitted his talents did not include portraiture) never did portraits so every once in a while Bob did a portrait. And it was fine. He had fun doing it. None of these were the kind of thing he himself wanted and needed out of art but he did it anyway and enjoyed every minute of it.

That's because what he really wanted and needed (apart from a 30 minute commercial for his supply line, I guess, but he would also caution that you should use whatever tools you came to prefer) was to spread the idea that there are no gatekeepers. There is nobody you have to check with before you are an artist. Did you draw something? Paint something? Sculpt something? Write something? Boom: you did it. The rest is not about making what you make look like what Bob makes or making something that people like or making something profitable. A lot of those things are fine but they aren't the point of making something. The point of making something to Bob, above all else, was making something. Maybe I'll one day get to that place with my own art. Until then I'm trying to get to that place with how I treat rpgs. (There's a floating debate about whether rpgs are art that has made the rounds recently. For all I know it's still going. I don't really care one way or the other.)

From the outside my perception of rpgs was a lot of learning rules and then showing up and following the rules and being able to argue about rules, like Risk or Monopoly. While that does happen in games it doesn't happen with the cool people. Instead it's more like "A company releases a game, someone says hey i did this weird thing with it, and then you take that and do something weirder with it and be ye player or dm that's what you bring to the table." 90% of the game is listening, asking questions, talking with your friends, and making decisions, and for the other 10% that's all rolly and rulesy you have a guy at the table who knows and arbitrates all that shit on everyone else's behalf. He rolls behind the screen because his friends trust him and he earns that trust by being fair, fun, and fluid. He's never there to judge you and he's never there to condemn you. He's actually not there to torture you and he isn't there to condescend to you. He's not there to treat you like a kid.

And the greatest thing that he can hear as a DM is "Hey would it bother you if I ran next week?" Because it means someone twigged to the only two lessons that matter in the hobby: that anybody can do this, for one, and for another that it is better in life to be the rules keeper than the Rulemaker, the kind of person who wants to dictate how you are allowed to think and feel about something and smack your knuckles with a ruler if you misbehave. The rules keepers are here to help in the same way your buddy with a copy of the bus schedule in her purse might be here to help. The Rulemaker sneers at you for being dumb enough not to have the schedule bookmarked on your phone, and is harsher when you confess you hadn't even thought of that.

The best gift a DM or judge or referee or whatever can give someone learning the ropes is to show the man behind the curtain as much as they show the great Oz. And the best gift the player can have is to get it, appreciate the demystifying beat their dj is laying down, and pick up on the groove. If that means your boogie is pretending you're a wombat on a wombat ranch and you prefer using muffins to track resources and there's no randomization and the only negative consequence in the game is eating some muffins but not as many as you like, so be it, so long as you be the muffin keeper and never the person who screams on the internet about people who like naan.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

I'm Playing Chrono Trigger Through For The First Time


  • I have to pick my combat style before the game starts and I know how to make that decision. I pick Wait, because that's what I'd like to do about this decision.
  • Oh what is my guy's name why his name is BALLS thank you for asking.
  • Chiptune birds.
  • Five more minutes mom.
  • My bed is apparently just leaned against the wall because I stroll out of it. Can't get back in bed damn it. 
  • AWW SHIT BOI YOU CAN OPEN AND CLOSE THE CURTAINS THIS THE REAL SHIT NOW BB NEXT GENERATION GAMING
  • Mom move aside...oh I have a friend who builds machines. Must be some fake geek girl, bet she's never even played Chrono Trigger.
  • Her name you say? balls.
  • Oh man every time you run over this cat it goes EEUU man why do they still even make video games give these people the Emmy shut it down.
  • I AM HUGE. I AM BOHUNKUS THE CRUSHSTROYER!
  • This town has one house and a store in it and this town has one house and a hotel.
  • There's balls' house am I supposed to go there? I'm probably supposed to go to the chiptune fireworks, I'm sure those fireworks took a whole dungeon's worth of space on the cartridge so it's probably important. Of course by that logic I'm about to fight some motherfuckin birds.
  • Man I look terrible when I am huge. Ladies...
  • Butt Review #1: BALLS has a terrible butt. It's like someone stapled a stadium cushion to the guy (guy?)
  • Welcome to the annoying music party.
  • So note to Reynaldo, for BREAK!! to have verisimilitude every campaign needs to begin with idiots doing nothing in a town based setting aside from walking back and forth waiting to yell at you about nondigetic concepts. "My muscles feel good after rolling dice all day! I get a workout from critical hits! Roll 20 for an extra surge of strength! Mwah!" fuk yuuuuuuu
  • Oh shit I'm getting mugged by Princess Zelda.
  • You are definitely Princess Zelda.
  • Your name is Ze.....
  • Your name is 84115.
  • Man six sodas is pretty good you asshole the button doesn't go any faster.
  • Here's that girl's cat but I can't get it.
  • You're not eating lunch you're doing sprints, you're faster than the green guy.
  • Ohhh shit giant singing robot cat sumo fighter DONE.
  • We have defeated him but I'm not sure how, I hit A a lot.
  • We get 15 silver which somehow turns into an exchange rate of 25g/1s or is silver not supposed to be gold? It's confusing either way.
  • Better sword. No you can't have this pendant it is obviously the Triforce.
  • Awesome skull tent DISEMBODIED CLOWN FACE three guys named after star wars guys ok now what oh shit I was supposed to pay attention to where they went ummm fuck there goes my money.
  • There is no penalty to this race so if I just bet on the green guy for long enough eventually it will be him.
  • Better outfit. I will be prepared.
  • Bitch you take to long to buy candy.
  • Man a whole bunch of other running around back and forth and getting money using the booths. Money is cheap so far.
  • Now we're at the demonstration put on by my friendzoned Velma friend, balls, and her dad, Ron Swanson.
  • Time to become Brundlefly.
  • Aw.
  • Well 84115 is fucking dead.
  • No I'm not trying to become Time Brundlefly I'm just stealing her jewelry.
  • Fine, I blew up and now it's the past.
  • Fighting goblins now. Goblins riding Totoros. Are these goblins or frogs? Wait do I get a frog? Do I remember that right?
  • Here's Ron Swanson's distant ancestor making a bell and wishing he had a little Velma girl, just hang in there a few centuries...
  • balls' house ain't here.
  • Bridge out of town is gon.
  • Goblins and Shroomoids and shit now, a mysteeeerious box we can't open.
  • Oh here is the castle.
  • No shit is she the queen except no shit is she not really the queen guys.
  • Chancellor acting shifty but all chancellors always act shifty.
  • OK I got a nap and some food where the hell do I go, these towers look like dead ends...
  • No the mountain is where I materialized, these are the world's tiniest towns, guy in the bar mentioned a creepy church? OK here is the church.
  • GHOSTS! Oh wait she turned around it's just nuns. NUNS! REVERSE!
  • She is getting some amazing sound out of that organ considering she's playing it with her ass.
  • Wander around the whole castle again. Oh here she is this tower keeps going.
  • Oh no! 84115! She exploded!
  • The bit where you actually watch her different generations grow up and spring off is neat but does this mean that all these women hit like 100 yrs old?
  • balls is here! Time for us to investigate this church again finally since we're ALLOWED TO. No points for putting all this together already.
  • These snake dames never get to attack. No matter how much they slow me...
  • Oh right, so fighting is apparently done on a recharge/cooldown system like a MMO and some characters recharge faster than others, I guess a character or enemy's general speed determines order unless magic slow or haste comes into play, also you have to navigate menus on the fly in close-to-real-time combat. I never liked that in Kingdom Hearts, it works a bit better here unless you, yknow, want to use Tech and think about your choice for more than a second. Man, Square just loves holding onto things, but we already knew that. 
  • Also you gain Tech Points which I guess means Technique and unlocks abilities that in turn use Mana Points or Magic Points or McDonald's Points.
  • OK cool scene with monsters in the break room talking about being shitty human impersonators and then a monster is like time to go on shift and when we leave HE leaves and we see him walk into another room. When we go in that room there are people pretending to be the Queen and Chancellor and shit so that's great. "The quest is finished, everything is fine, go home after clearing one room." Nice. But then they all turn into monsters to attack me when I try to leave and none of them turn into the guy I followed here. Seems odd to call attention to a detail like that and then whiff on it.
  • ah HA i KNEW  I got a frog.
  • So the princess' name was supposed to be Merle and now we have a frog named Frog. Man these people are terrible at names...
  • anyway now his name is Balz.
  • Puzzle room but like puzzle in quotes.
  • Chancellors always shady this one is a grub monster. He goes down qu-i-ck. Queen's here.
  • Everybody's happy, oh right princess zelda let's check upstairs again...
  • OK now that the Marty McFly effect has been dealt with she is here and alive again and definitely the princess and she things the frog is gross. balls also thinks the frog is gross. Scintillating character development.
  • Balz has failed his queen and just leaves. Forever? Who can say. Velma style girl has mixed emotions about him leaving. I thinks balls is going to fuck Balz.
  • Fight through mountains and then back to the future!
  • I'm in trouble. I didn't NOT kidnap the queen I guess...
  • The trial is a neat set piece but I actually know ahead of time that this is something of a supposed-to-lose encounter, which bleh. I don't even try.
  • I am in jail.

Somewhere in the past Balz is doing a Goemon walk-off. 84115 is princess zelda and she has to go do princess things and not save me because SHUT UP, WOMAN apparently. balls is also someone who exists. The character I've spent more time with in this game and my childhood friend is so far this blank slate sexless Donatello. BALLS was arraigned in superior court, county of Los Angeles, in a moment the results of that trial.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

New VDND Honor Rules

The 5e DMG talks about Honor and Sanity. You can use them if you want. Is there any reason to? No, but you can use them if you want. Is there a big downside to them that a DM might want to bring into play? No, but you can use them if you want. They are called ability scores but basically exists for Checks Against Being A Specific Kind Of Guy. You know that thing you do where you pretend to be some kind of guy and you and the DM try to work out where the boundaries are and sometimes the DM will say "That doesn't sound like something Dolphin Legend would do" or, if he's boring, "That sounds more lawful good than lawful neutral?" That thing that every person playing a game does, the wonderful give and take conversation we are all involved in? You can have separate number for that if you want, divorced from anything else in the system, floating on top and doing a job your extant ability scores can already model.

You know, if you want.

I don't necessarily care about a system for Honor in my game. Not a codified structure and boundary as opposed to just behaving honorably. But I had a player who was going to join one of my games as a jaguar paladin and even though that never happened it got me thinking about Rokugan and Adventure Time. So, now I have Honor rules, and you can use them if you want.

HONORABLE
Skills: Insight
Languages: Any 2
Tools: Calligrapher's Tools
FEATURE: Honor Bound

You gain a resource called Honor. Roll 3d6 to calculate your starting Honor. You gain 1 Honor by pledging yourself to a cause or task and seeing it through; by protecting someone helpless; by openly shaming dishonorable conduct. You can spend a point of Honor to improve a character's Reaction to you (hostile to neutral, neutral to helpful, helpful to friendly, but NOT from aggressive to hostile); to declare some NPC or group has heard of you (though not any specific accomplishment or bit of background, apart from being Honorable); or to make a check against a character's reputation (informing you whether they typically act with Honor or if they have betrayed someone they were pledged to).

We use the system that already exists. I try to stick to the idea Some Guy said where backgrounds don't give major mechanical benefits and yet, also, fuck that a little. Instead of some Charisma based skill you get a new space on your character sheet. Instead of a tool to broadly influence the game in a wide and general way you have a pool of resources that do very specific things more accurately. That's not going to break a game on its own.

We also have a built in reason to run little side quests and pledge yourself to pick flowers for Mrs. Crenshaw or whatever. You're here to help, sometimes that means killing a gobbo and sometimes that means being a mensch. The more you play up your guy's honor and fulfill your commitments the more you get to play with your new toy, replenishing and increasing your pool of Honor. The more you act out of line or abuse your power the more you can be punished by having your toy taken away. I'll say that pool can't exceed 20 like normal ability scores can't.

[[added- Bonds, Flaws, etc, these should come from a more personal place than a table. In composing those think of bonds as Allegiances, flaws as Taboos ("I must never/will never"), ideals as Vows ("I will always"), and maybe replace your traits with a list of Deeds which can be deeds you've accomplished or great deeds you intend to accomplish. Not "slayed a dragon" but "Slaying a Dragon," a phrasing that lets it be something you can be known for aspiring to, achieving, or failing]]

Any person may be Honorable. A Thief? Absolutely, robin hood n shit. A Monk? You bet. How about someone who sold their soul to the devil? Man, even Doctor Doom has a sense of (if not honor) propriety close enough to compel him to keep his word, pay his debts, even if only because of the prospect of being shamed for doing otherwise. So any character can be Honorable...

But c'mon. We have a specific thing in the game that was invented to be warriors sworn to a code of Honor. So, at 2nd level, a Paladin may select the following Fighting Style:

Fair Play

On your turn you may spend 1 point of Honor to receive +1 to hit.

This is not as big a bonus as other class' Archer features add but there's also a greater range of melee weapons doing damage superior to a longbow. It's actually a large benefit but it requires sacrifice of a valuable resource. Hence, it's fighting fairly. There's no real reason to take this fighting style, though, unless you are really making Honor core to your character's being. In that case you'll be needing a Paladin advancement path. I think the word Oath is redundant here...


Code of Honor

Spells

3rd- compelled duel, restore honor*
5th- magic weapon, detect thoughts
9th- bestow curse, remove curse
13th- banishment, dominate beast
17th- commune, geas

Channel Divinity

At 3rd level, you gain the following options for your CD.
Turn Dishonored- Gain 1 Honor and Turn creatures within 30' with a Wisdom or Honor less than your current Honor.
Champion's Defense- When you are within range of an attack against an ally and the value of the attack roll is less than your current Honor you may use your Reaction to gain 1 Honor and make yourself the target of the attack. You have Resistance against the damage from this attack.

Aura of Bolstering

At 7th level, allies within 10' no longer suffer from Exhaustion while you have 1 point of Honor. You do not suffer the penalties of Exhaustion.

My Virtue Protects Me

At 15th level, you may use the total of your current Honor plus your Proficiency Bonus in place of any normal Saving Throw. You may use this a number of times per day equal to your Charisma bonus.

Inspirational Paragon

At 20th level your armor no longer counts toward your Encumbrance. Also, after every short or long rest, you gain Temporary Hit Points equal to your current Honor. Finally, once per session, you may confer a point of Inspiration to an ally.

A lot to talk about here. First of all, the spell choices. Rite of single combat. The power of your heart infusing your blade with holy magic like a bunch of anime people and Scott Pilgrim. Like a Battle Princess. The power to know someone's innermost heart. The ability to condemn but, more importantly, the ability to forgive. Dismissing unnatural forces and calming the rage of nature through perfect mu. Understanding the true thoughts and wills of your gods and ancestors. Seeing their will done by the very hands which once opposed you, offering an enemy a chance to earn penance and amnesty or damning them to the service of a cause greater than they. These are all very deliberate choices. I wanted something that would be equal parts Lancelot, Jesus, and Steven Universe.

There's a new spell here which I think should be restricted to Paladins, Clerics, and Druids, even if you have a weird feat that would let you otherwise take it. Nope. Gotta meet those bare requirements. You can't have your honor restored unless you are showing contrition to a great power you have somehow failed, supplicating for the strength to carry on and see their cause won. The great and ancient orders and kingdoms to whom you are sworn, your brotherhood or regent; the gods themselves; the immutable majesty of ancient nature.


*Restore Honor
1st level evocation I guess. (Oh almost forgot, Ritual)
Bonus action
Touch
Talking and Moving
Instantaneous

You beg clemency of the great powers. This show or respect is rewarded by your sins, failures, and weaknesses being forgiven by those to whom you are forsworn. You make your sign and touch one humanoid, restoring them 1d4 points of Honor.
At Higher Levels: Casting this spell in a slot of 4th level or higher, one may add their spellcasting ability modifier to the Honor restored.

Now I'm not so sure this spell even needs to exist most of the time. It is, however, valuable for when you've been in a dungeon or lost in the wilderness for a jillion years. Showing the proper deference and observing proper ritual has an upside in a world where you can go visit the gods at their rotary club. If someone is spamming this, well, give them less and less Honor reward each time. Being honorable isn't something you can TOP OFF or hoard like a miser or use to get an unfair advantage.

You can of course just decide to never cast this spell because it breaks the fiction or is too 4e or whatever. In that instance your Channel Divinity features give you the chance to do specific and situational cool things while still refreshing your resource in those times when you're Between Mordors. That second CD power requires some common sense to adjudicate, requiring you to basically be close enough to use a movement to interpose yourself somehow. Inspired by me, and the work I did on the Lawman.

That 7th level ability is inspired by lots of things in general but very specifically by that Lone Wolf and Cub story where the guy who couldn't make faces kept killing people when Ogami Itto went into town, so he just sat in a cave until the ninja got so dehydrated he fell out of a tree. Or something, all my books are in storage because my life is so great right now. Fuck I love that book.

"My Virtue Protects Me" represents a kind of Ned Flanders immunity to the grime of life through clean living and also things like that racist ass legend from Ernest Goes To Camp. Originally was a #/day=Charisma but then you never have to make a regular saving throw. I would have left it like that if I hadn't invented restore honor.

All the end game advancement traits are pretty baller but none of them really compare well against each other in terms of scale. Always hard to model, I think. 2/3 of the features here are pretty normal benefits and the kind of thing that 3.5 would have handled with a feat. I do think that creating a unique exception to the way Inspiration works as-written is a good enough benefit. Especially if the DM isn't normally employing that rule or keeps forgetting.

You can use all of these or just the Background or just the Oath path. I think using just the Fighting Style or even just the Fighting Style and Oath path, trying to slowly build your Honor over time, would be a not great idea. But the path has a lot to recommend it even without the subsystem maybe, like you want to have a setup for your specific kind of guy but don't want to be constantly adjusting knobs?

Anyway. Let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Best Table


Melissa knows what RPGs are. She sees people playing in the back of her store. When she was a kid her older sister played a lot of Vampire and she never got invited. Now she is giving it her best go but she does not know how to do anything. She has grasped like three basics - pretending to be someone else, how her dice work, and since her party uses minis she has a good grasp of wargame scale. There are many things she does not understand. She keeps getting her d10 and d8 mixed up, same with her d12 and her d20. She keeps forgetting her thief has skills that aren't backstab, or that her wizard has spells, or her barbarian rage. But she approaches everything in the game 100%. She picked out her own mini and painted it. She likes to draw the party. She wants to get to know the monsters. She has a bottomless curiosity about whatever they find in the world. Importantly, she never has a concept of what she cannot do, or, worse, what she should do. She approaches every interaction with the rules as Brainstorming. She has a dozen ideas about how things could work in this specific situation for every general rule she actually knows. She wants to try everything. She gets told No a lot but she keeps being awesome and eventually one of her outside the box approaches saves her life, maybe even saves the day. She will never take this as a positive and will constantly apologize for not knowing the rules or doing math quick enough.

Alphonse used to play a long time ago. He did a lot in middle school and quit after he started getting laid. Reconnected in college but too many Next Great Novelists and byzantine rules systems (if he had time or patience for that he wouldn't have a D in Trig) left him feeling like it's just not his thing. Later on he played some WoW and even lost a lot of money on Warhammer before realizing it wasn't for him. It did rekindle his dormant embers, though, so he sought out a game. "Official" D&D at the store was where he ended up. He is grateful of the opportunity to have even a short amount of time to play. He has bad night sometimes, one 4 rolled after another, but it's the activity that he really enjoys and he gets some great stories out of it. It's all good. He has some disposable income to spare so he always has some extra supplies or minis or oh man MAPS? He brings snacks, occasionally covers pizzas or beer. It's all about being a part of the game, not about making sure his guy comes off the best. He will 100% be the most likely to be working with the DM regarding his backstory or fleshing out some part of the world. He seems always so eager to help because he just wants to be somewhere and be heard. He has a very active social schedule but this is by far the creative high point of his week.

Wakana is a grognard. She played back in the iron man stone age of games and she has played more hours and more kinds of games than anyone at the table. We won't catch up until she's dead. She takes the trappings of old school games very seriously -- base to base, scaled movement and range, proper player mapping, copious note taking, diligent accounting (because her group used to also track partial experience points based on copper and electrum) that she accepts no racist bullshit over -- to the point where you can come up with all the modern flourishes you like, she still will position herself deliberately behind her target before attempting to get Sneak Attack, which she still calls Backstab. Rolls in order. Won't play a class invented after the monk. However, she doesn't judge the people who do. She is a wealth of knowledge but she never interposes that over the DM's direction or the party's plans. It never becomes a Grandpa Simpson scenario, it's just there to be exploited. She is a canny and calculating strategist. She will almost never talk in-character, actually, but she is the most talkative person at the table, always describing what her character does, why, what they're after, where they've been....She is eager to cross talk and happy to explain a rule or concept when asked, so the DM can keep going. But she doesn't leap on new meat in order to teach them the True Path. Nor does she metagame. She's in fact maybe too conscientious about metagaming, and if there's ever an opportunity to benefit herself while breaking character she will, at best, roll for it.

Ernesto is friends with everyone at the table. If they wanted to go to a baseball game or see Tegan and Sara then Ernesto would do that instead. He's down to just play Camel Up or Smash Bros. But he really likes spending time with everyone here and finds he additionally really likes spending time with them while role playing. Always the first to praise a good idea, first to laugh at a joke, first to react to a dangerous situation....Always thinking about the benefit of the group overall. He is living in a movie that is being made just for him by all his best friends. He will bend like a willow reed any way the wind blows. He is up for anything. He also pays fierce attention. He used to talk when it wasn't his turn, which is fine, but loud enough to swamp DM narration. He's now the guy who asks the most questions about each room, the appearance of each NPC....A lot of his characters die and it's a joke but he has a good attitude about it. This way he eventually gets to play one of EVERYTHING. Ernesto joined the group late, and honestly any more players and things would start getting unwieldy, the table cramped...this means that Ernesto is always a lower level than everyone and always has been. That's fine with Ernesto. He still contributes a lot and when he reaches level 9 (Ernesto heard you get to build a castle and he has big plans and sandwich napkin designs) he wants to EARN it.

Brenda has read every DragonLance novel. Every Pern novel. Every uhhhh Wheel of Time novel. She is not fun to watch Game of Thrones with, although she doesn't even like those books very much. She has a normal desk job during the week, leaving her plenty of down time. That means she knows the DM's world as well as he does. She reads (and often writes) every play report. She has read every bit of history, everything on the DM's blog...She has copies of handouts from letters and stuff. She recognizes elven script on sight. She knows about the homelands of every character at the table, and knows what they would know because of it. She'll sometimes cut the DM off if someone asks "So was Krikguch a fishing village?" but her answer, although detailed, brief. If someone has a wiki for the campaign she maintains it, and it may just be Brenda and the DM that ever look at it. She likes to keep a journal or maybe tweet as her character. Puts her hand up when speaking OOC, and says "OOC." Deeply invested in forming a personal connection to many NPCs. Her characters are never in it for the money but always up for a dungeon or adventure because the world is a terrible place and we need to make it safer/more dangerous. Completing a quest, even a dungeon siege, can change the world, and she is ALL about changing the world.

Tater Dawg is the DM. TD has never purchased an adventure and he hasn't bought dice since high school. He doesn't have a huge map collection but does have a large collection of handout maps, all of which are inaccurate in some way. He never asks for homework and he never asks the party to care about something. He is very up front: "I spent all week working on this thing so we could do that, or we'll do that another time and you can just wander the hillside and I'll make it up as we go." He is always two steps ahead of the party, but only just that, and loves the challenge of keeping up the pace. When the party completely surprises him...well, that's the only reason to do this, isn't it? He owns every splatbook and is quick to let you flip through them but he never runs from them at the table. If you allow him his DM-tools sprawl will cover his whole side of the table but everything he needs to run eight sessions fits on two sheets of yellow legal paper. The harder you work and the smarter you are, the more permissive he is as a DM. He also gives out too many magic items, or lets PCs level too fast, or gives them spells or items way too powerful for those characters, because he trusts in two things. First, that the players will be smart enough not to abuse these luxiries. Second, that if they do, that's an important learning experience and it inevitable sets into motion about four interesting things. He figures out ways to have the players write his prep for him. As he has trust in them he demands much trust, and so rolls in secret. Perhaps he is being vicious. Perhaps he is fudging. He will not say either way, and expects you to trust that he has your group of players' best interests at heart as a whole, rather than worrying about the best interest of player characters. He employs technology when it does not get in the way but is quick to dismiss it - as with his own ideas, he is reluctant to marry himself to anything. He is always trying new mechanics, new classes, new tweaks and house rules...Sometimes this fucks things up but he has trust that his players will forgive him. Lastly, Tater Dog does voices. His range is narrower than he thinks it is but he tries hard.

And everyone showered and brushed their teeth before sitting down to play.

I think these are the gods of my next campaign.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

DM Notes From The Crypt

I found this fucking ancient questionnaire Zak did and I thought I'd do it since I was working on something about running games and this reminded me of it.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be? Probably my loot and crit decks I built, except I think I need to make new ones. I use both a lot at the table.

2. When was the last time you GMed? Ten days ago, VDND, Whiskeyworld. It was busy.

3. When was the last time you played? 8 days ago, VDND, Dark Sun. I was a Dragon Quest slime.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to. Like the whole campaign is about adventurers getting Honey I Shrunk The Kids'd.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things? Either describe things further, have a person nearby chat them up and/or pressure a decision, any decision, or simply let them know we're going to do other things with the other players until they come up with something cool. If everyone is hopelessly dithering I flip around for a cool monster to have show up.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play? I usually eat very little but drink a lot of caffeine. We often break for pizza with my groups. I prefer eating real food before and after and getting by on like cookies and shit during, if anything.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? Never during, always after, partly because of the above.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing? Getting a feel for a person's general moral fibre and trustworthiness by investigating the hearth of the fireplace at the heart of the house.
 
9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither? Treating the world like there aren't any stakes never feels very fun but whether someone is really invested in their lore or just trying to shock you it usually elevates the stakes somehow. I love cutting up at the table and am very permissive to a point but when someone goes out on their own and tries to rub their character all over the texture of the world I do pretty much anything to accommodate them.

10. What do you do with goblins? Keep them in back as a general threat unseen, until used. Then everything.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)? Indigo snakes will just beat the monkeyshit out of their prey against rocks and trees.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now? I don't know about funniest exactly but my go to story for this is when the party tried to attack a trio of dragons in their walking house and accidentally started a dragon orgy and then the dragons fucked the house.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it? Absolutely Towers Two because I wanted it inside me.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator? As someone who just wants to see that kind of art in rpg books maybe Bill Sienkewicz or uhhh Goseki Kojima's team?

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid? I don't know that rpgs can? Disgusted, angry, tense, sad, happy, excited, even horny, I've seen all of these but never what I think of as real fear. "Creeped out" at best.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever) Pearce Shea's In the Woods.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in? Outside by a fire on a windless, bugless night in October, on a custom-built table, somewhere where we can be as loud or nude as we feel like.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be? I'll say LotFP and Feng Shui since they're very different in most respects and I like both of them.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be? In my current 5e game it's probably Mad Max and the Goetia.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table? Someone who takes ridiculously good notes because I do not.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms? Personal failure.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't? Rollr, the Tindr for people who want to play a game, any game, right now. Would require a hobby like 300x the size to be profitable.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go? I used to do this for a living and it always went really well, but it went better when I could get them into an open organized play event. Outside of that I talk about this sort of thing with...Joe? Who wants to try it but never can for overwhelming family reasons.