Sunday, 6 November 2016

In Praise of the Singular They

So, yeah, it's 2016 and we pretty much live in the future. I can access all of the world's knowledge from a little brick in my pocket, drones buzz overhead recording the world in motion, and the US military is finally field testing frickin' lasers. Hell, the Cubs just won the world series, only one year after Robert Zemeckis predicted they would back in 1989. Pretty cool.

I am digressing again. Right. I am a game designer and this blog is about how I write and design games. But since this is my blog and I can talk about whatever I want, and today I am going to talk about gendered pronouns and the magic of the "Singular They".

Some Background
I was born in '79 and remember the '80s pretty well. In gaming terms, this makes me a little too young to be a Grognard, but too old to be a new kid in the industry. I am pushing into early middle age, and that means I can remember the way things used to be, and they SUCKED! Being a geek and nerd sucked and I took constant flack for it. I felt unfairly discriminated against by all the "normal" people out there, and it made me angry, bitter, and vicious. In took me years to realize what an idiot I was. Being a gamer and nerd is a social choice that I made and kept making again and again. I chose to be what I was every day. At any moment I could have abandoned my hobbies and joined the mainstream (whatever that is). I already had a good job and a decent education, if I stopped spending my evenings and weekends obsessing over giant robots and magical warriors, I could have found an acceptable niche to fit in. I'm sure people would always find me a little odd, but I could have made the effort. Instead, I yelled, "FRAK THAT NOISE!" and doubled down on my geekery. It worked out well, I am doing well, and people buy my games from time to time.

The Problem
Well, that took longer than it should have, back to design. Edge and Remnants used gendered pronouns: he, she, his, hers, etc. to describe people. Specifically, the nebulous, anonymous players of the games. I tried to switch it up and give some gender balance, but the result was always kind of clunky, and I favoured the male pronouns, especially in Remnants. Now, I had multiple incentives to fix this:
-Financial. I want my products to appeal to as many customers as possible.
-Efficiency. I hate complex, inelegant solutions to problems (standard model, I'm lookin' at you)
-Ethics. Not sure how, but somewhere along the line I picked up this idea that everyone should get fair and equal treatment regardless of race, gender, orientation, or lifestyle. Weird.

By the time Warbirds rolled around, we changed our style rules. If we knew the gender of the character or player in question, we use he or she as normal, but if we didn't, we used the singular they. Problem solved.

The Solution
For the record, I was not clever enough to solve this problem. That falls to the folks over at Post-Human studios and their game Eclipse Phase. It's a sci-fi/existential horror game set in a post-human future where people change bodies like we change clothes. I won't review the game in full, we're here to talk about pro-nouns. Because Eclipse Phase characters can change bodies so easily, gender becomes something of a moot point. So the writers had to deal with a world where a character can have as much gender fluidity or ambiguity as they wished. The writers solved the problem the same way I just did in the last sentence. I said "a character" which is a form of singular, but then said "they wished" which is plural. Did you notice? Did you care? Did it make sense? Damn right it did! In one fell swoop I pissed off English teachers everywhere, and made a coherent gender-neutral sentence. Behold the magic of the "singular they" and let's thank Posthuman Studios for resurrecting it in RPG writing.

Wait, What?
Oh, you didn't know? The singular they date's back to the 14th century. Wikipedia it. I'll wait. It was only in the 1800's that modern critics started whining that it wasn't correct. Well, you know what? They are dead wrong. We need the singular they for more than just gender neutral RPG writing. It provides a grammatically simple way to solve the problem of referring to anyone of indeterminate gender. I have seen some writers use the term "Xe" for being a gender neutral term (neither he nor she, and pronounced "Zee"), it works ok, but I prefer the singular they. First, I like science and upon reading Xe, I immediately wondered what Xenon gas (chemical symbol Xe) has to do with anything, and second, I prefer simplicity. Using Xe invents new words and lexicon, whereas the singular they does neither. Most people use it anyways, and just never think about (except for English teachers).

Circling Back
So, I started off with my background, so let's return to it. My life is pretty damn good. I have a loving family, a good job, and a kick-ass gaming company. This all came from two things: An enormous bucket of luck, and a few good choices. I thought I had it hard, but I didn't. But there are people out there that do have it hard. We push them to edges of society for being different and non-conforming, or even just looking different, but unlike me, they cannot choose to leave it behind. They are that way down to their very core and they cannot conceal it without lying to themselves and the world. The world is slowly learning how horribly it treats people, and each of us can take small steps to improve that treatment. My little step is the singular they.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Back With Big News

Yeah, I disappeared for a few months again. Sorry about that. I've been a little busy with life and health things. So fifty pounds lost and six months later, I am back on my blog with some cool news. Outrider Studios has two projects approaching completion, and we will be debuting them (unless we hit a snag) at the Origins Game fair in Columbus, Ohio. Hooray!

Space Age!
The first book is Warbirds Space Age, our Space Opera conversion book for the Warbirds. It fast-forwards the timeline of the game into the stars, and the Guild starts exporting their antics to local alien civilizations. We plan to sell it as a PDF, and in a print-on-demand omnibus combined with the WWII and Jet Age Soucebooks. This book would have been out sooner, but Dim, our award winning super artist, is a busy guy and is only just now able to get to our artwork. I am super excited for this one, and it should make it easier for people looking to hack Warbirds for a certain setting that contains stars, and, dare I say it, wars.

Broken Lands II
So this one has been an albatross around my neck for a while now. Fans always ask when the next Remnants book is coming out, and I never have a good answer. The truth is, the Broken Lands setting is hard to write for. I tried so hard with the first book to keep things ambiguous, that I struggle now that I have to dive into the specifics. There have been other problems too, the biggest being time. I just haven't dedicated enough time and energy to dedicate to the book. So despite having a full outline and a big bucket of ideas, the project languished.

But not anymore! One of the unique aspects of my day job is mandatory time off. If I don't take all of my vacation days each year, I have to go on leave to use them all up before the end of March. So I spent all of last week not at work and with nowhere to go. So I decided to write a book. I spent five days in the local Denny's restaurant and pounded the keyboard while eating mediocre breakfast food. The staff was friendly and polite as I ignored everyone and everything and blasted out 4000 words a day for five days. This is a very bad idea, by the way, and I decided to document my slow slide into bleary-eyed misery.

Day 1: Enthusiastic Determination
Look me. I'm almost smiling. This is especially difficult for me, as several people have claimed that I don't just write about robots, but I am an emotionless robot. Anyways, it only gets worse from here.

Day 2: Focused Intent
At 4000 words in, I still look alright, but I've got the weird look in my eyes that says my soul is screaming on the inside. I held it together, OK on Day 2, but it was my least productive day.

Day 3: Mounting Consternation
This is where I transition from intellectually knowing that this was a bad idea to actually feeling its affects. The constant stream of diet coke and salty diner food is driving a burning dump truck through my guts as I start to lose myself to my setting. The Broken Lands might be real now; I think I live there.

 Day 4: Crippling Exhaustion
At this point I should tell you that I am power writing during the day while burning the evening hours playing The Division. Sleep is in short supply, and  I am running purely on the magic of free drink re-fills and a twisted combination of determination and spite. I got a lot done on Day 4, and Day 5 only had to be a half day.
 Day 5: Total Burnout
It was a long road, but I crawled across the finish line with all 20 000+ words written and ready for Cait to edit. I may or may not have hallucinated things on the last day, but I'm pretty sure the gremlin insurance salesman was real. I  made sure not to buy what he was offering. You can't trust gremlins.

The Aftermath
Cait edited the book in breezy, record time, fixing all the places where my ideas went of the rails. Now it heads off to Patrick for his editing touch and format standardization. Now I just have to create the art plan, wrangle the artists, go through layout, proofing, second proofing, etc. With any luck we will have copies for Origins.

That's all for now. I will keep you in the loop.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Probability Part 1: Randomness is a A**hole

I am talking about probability in this post. All discussions of probability involve foul language on my part. Consider yourself forewarned.

Play enough games and you will start thinking about odds. How often can you succeed? How often will you fail? The fact that games use dice (and sometimes cards) to generate success and failure makes the odds easy to figure out. Rather than dig into details and figure out the odds, a lot of my gamer brethren dive into the world of luck, superstition, and even prayer (Seen it once. It worked). For the rest of us there is the angry tentacle monster known as probability theory. We are subject to its random outcomes every time we roll the dice, and most of us never really take the time to understand it.

One of the most infuriating concepts in probability is the idea randomness. For me, it helps to think of the concept as an old-school Greek god. His name is Kaos and he's an asshole. Kaos does not care about you at all. He gives no shits about who you are, what you've done, or what you want. He doesn't love you, but he doesn't hate you either, but he sure as hell isn't listening to you. You are less than an ant to him. In addition to the not caring about you, he has all sorts of other problems. Most important, his memory is so bad that he makes Alzheimer's sufferers look like they have photographic memories. He pretty much forgets things as they happen, leaving him totally clueless as to anything in the past. He also can't look into the future. I'm not talking about prophecy here. I mean he can't plan where to go for lunch, or even how he will spend the next five minutes, or five seconds. That shit is just beyond him.

So what does this crazy bastard do? He shouts out numbers because he thinks it's funny. Every time you roll a die Kaos gleefully yells out the number he wants to see. He can't remember what the last roll was, and he has no clue what he'll want on the next one, but in the moment he will be happy with his choice and you get to suffer the consequences. On the next roll he might shout the same number, or he might not. He doesn't know what he's going to do. If you stand far enough back from this insane amnesiac bastard you can suss out a few things. Mainly, he likes all the numbers about the same, so if you listen to him shout a few million times, then all 6 numbers on your six-sided die will come up about the same amount. Thing is though, they often don't. You look in there and find the asshole deity called out 3 twenty times in a row just for shits and giggles. Another time he went over a hundred tosses without calling 6. Bottom line: randomness means there's no pattern and you cannot predict future outcomes of the dice. You are at the whim of an insane God on the worst power trip imaginable.
All you can do is play the odds and remember that each toss of the die is totally new to Kaos and you and all outcomes are equally likely. Unless the die lands balanced on an edge. In that case the asshole has noticed you and is totally fucking with you. Roll again and keep in mind he just forgot what he was doing.

Summing Up
You cannot defeat Kaos. You cannot outplay him. His power is narrow but unstoppable. To all those gamblers out there thinking their number is due, it isn't. Kaos doesn't care about your bullshit. To all those players who think their dice are hot, cold, or hating you. You're wrong. Kaos doesn't care about you either.

But I will leave you on a hopeful note. Despite all of Kaos' power and indifference, he has a glaring weakness that we can twist and exploit: he's an idiot. He can only call his numbers. He has to call his numbers. Knowing this, we can bend those numbers to our will. Next time, I will explain how.

Monday, 6 July 2015

These Hands Are Not Idle

No posts don’t necessarily mean no work. I have been doing stuff, and perhaps even things of late. Outrider Studios’ webpage, after languishing in update purgatory is looking clean and spiffy with a new sleek design that I had absolutely nothing to do with. I just saw the finished product, and said, “ Ooh, that looks good.” I might take a more active role in redesigning some of our sub-sections, but we will wait and see on that.

As for Me
I’ve been working on Warbirds… stuff. We are almost there on a few new bits and pieces for the game. As per usual, I can’t talk specifics or deadlines. Keep your eyes open, and we will announce something soon enough. My other Warbirds project is one I can talk about: I’ve been running it for my weekly D&D group. We took the summer off from the 5th Edition to do some other games and give the new kids some non D&D experience. Right now I am running a Warbirds mini-series, and will follow it up with some Wars of the Star kind.

So far Warbirds has been a big hit with the players, but they keep running into what I would call “conversion problems.” The players like the setting, and they like the fast, variable air combat, but they are having some trouble with converting from the D&D mindset. Most of them build characters with good air combat abilities (a Warbirds design feature) but without great personal combat skills, and thus they should be avoiding personal combat at all costs. Yet time and again they stand their ground when they should run for the copious amounts of cover that I am always sure to provide. In other words, they keep getting shot. Now I designed the rules with a lot of give in them to allow PCs to get in Pulp gun battles without them all ending up in the ER, but I have actually had to relax the rules even further just to keep players playing. Here’s the hack I made for my own game.

Warbirds Alternate Injury Rules “It Ain’t Nothin’”
If you want to have maximum heroic action with minimal injury interruptions you can employ the “It Ain’t Nothin’” rules. Under these rules, characters knocked out of the fight never stay out for long. A character with the Medicine skill can make a difficulty 6 roll to immediately give a character back one point of health. This will probably take the form of a quick bandage followed by an injection of painkillers and adrenaline. On a failed roll the character remains out of the fight until the end of the scene, at which point the character gains back one health as if they were down but not out. Success on the roll immediately makes the character up and fighting,  and they can act normally (with the listed penalty) on their next action. Remaining injuries heal at the standard rate. These rules no longer apply when a character’s life goes on the line.

Some Madness
One or two of my players fell in love with the Mad Science in Warbirds, and one made it his sole goal to become a mad scientist. Being a magnanimous being, I indulged him. He then discovered that Mad Science is expensive. Even buying a basic workbench requires Fame 3. The high barrier to entry keeps Mad Science rare, and makes the Mad Scientist PC really earn their cool toys. My player, however, wanted a shortcut. Being a malicious being, I indulged him. So I created a new Mad Science item:

Discount Workbench
Cost: Fame 2
Mad Scientists love shortcuts, and starting mad scientists need shortcuts just to get started. Those who cannot afford full price for proper tools can cheap out on the hardware, and get inventing right away. This discount workbench looks like a normal workbench, but is made with defective materials, sub-standard parts, and shoddy workmanship. Its storage containers leak, its tools rust, and the whole thing starts to stink something fierce a few weeks after it’s installed. The workbench functions exactly as it should until the Mad Scientist fails a creation or maintenance roll. After the failed roll the GM may force the scientist to take a critical failure (“It’s Perfect!”) regardless of the actual dice outcome. The GM has total control over which rolls are regular failures and which ones are critical, leaving the Mad Scientist character confused as to what is actually going on. Alternately, the GM can roll a d6 with a 50/50 outcome: 1-3 regular failure, 4-6 critical failure.

Other Work
A young gamer approached me about taking a look at his game. My first action was to try waiving him off the whole RPG creation gig. It’s not that I don’ want young people creating new RPGs, I do. It’s just that I want them to do it with their eyes open. I told him all the standard stuff about how there’s almost no money to be made, and making RPGs has more to do with seeing ideas through than having the next great idea (I think everyone has the next great idea at some point. I have at least 2). After my wave-off attempts I tentatively agreed to give his work the editorial once over. I don’t know where this will go, but... I'm an editor now, hooray?

(Cait, Patrick, I just want to be clear that I am in no way shape or form an editor and the work that you do is both brilliant and vital to the company's continued success. Love you guys!)

Next time I will get technical. I want to about to talk about the probability monster.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Steve Versus Homeworld

I've been gaming for quite a few years now, but I have actually been playing video games far longer than I have been playing tabletop games. I didn't play my first tabletop game until about 1993, maybe 92. In contrast, I played my first video game on the old Vic 20 computer system in the early 80's. In honour of my long video game history, I am going to discuss my experience with a single game: Relic's 1999 RTS classic, Homeworld.

Steve's (Lack of) Skills
First, some background on my video game abilities. Despite many, many hours of dedicated play, I am pretty bad at most video games. Over the years there has been 1 or 2 that I played enough to be passable at, but I have never been a top skilled player. The reasons for this are varied, but I will focus on a few highlights. Reason the first:I am a clumsy, uncoordinated sort of person. I don't excel at sports, music, dancing, or anything that requires grace or timing. This carries over into my fine motor skills. My so-called "twitch" reflexes are always a little behind.Playing any sort of game that requires twitch reflexes ends with me losing, especially if I'm playing against other humans. Reason the second: I have a bad habit of engaging in "non-optimal play". My competitive spirit seems to be a little lackluster, so instead of finding the optimal way to win a game, I tend to pursue a strategy that matches my mood. I know this is non-optimal, and I just don't care. Winning is just not important enough to me for me to ruin whatever "idea" I have in my head for what a game should be. These reasons, combined with several others, are why I prefer tabletop RPGs.

The Damned Game
Homeworld released back in 1999. I was in my 3rd year of college. I remember the advertisements for Homeworld in the pages of gaming magazines from the time (magazines made of real paper!). At first I was confused at what Homeworld was, then I became skeptical, and then finally excited by the hype. How could I not?
This is from 1999. It still looks pretty damn awesome

I pre-ordered Homeworld, upgraded my computer to run it, bought it on release day, and dived into its brilliance. The game blew me away. Its music is still with me, with its beautiful choirs and haunting melodies. The voice acting matched the music, with awesome chatter for combat ships, and subtle, nuanced voices for major characters. The game had a graphical fidelity unlike anything I had seen in 99, and ship designs were excellent.

That just leaves gameplay. Homeworld is a 3D real-time strategy with spaceships. You collect resources, build units, and wage war. The game has a limited resource bottleneck, forcing you to make tough decisions about which ships to build, how to employ them, and how much you are willing to risk. After each mission, surviving members of your fleet can carry on to the next, making risk management even more important. The other thing to note: It's tough. Homeworld has no difficulty settings, it has a set difficulty for you to overcome and it sets the bar high.

Repeated Failures
I love Homeworld, but I have never beaten it. I tried first in 99, and then again maybe 2 years later. I forgot about it for over a decade, but I found an old copy on Amazon back in 2012. I was surprised when the old game worked on my system at all, but I was most surprised when things went even worse for me this time around. I am terrible at this game.

Non-Optimal Play
So let's talk strategy. Why do suck so bad at Homeworld? The answer is I'm playing it "wrong". I looked at a bunch of strategy guides, and they all recommended the same optimal strategy: Don't kill enemy ships. First you damage them a bunch, and then send in your salvage ship to steal them and re-purpose them. Build your fleet up by stealing the enemy's and making it your own. This alleviates the resource bottleneck, and allows you to build a large and powerful fleet. 

Fuck. That. Noise.
I am not playing this game to wound and salvage the enemy. I'm playing to kill him and avenge my people! (the story of the game puts me on solid ground with this one). Wounding and stealing enemy ships gives me ZERO satisfaction. I want blast my enemy into space dust. Apparently, this desire to engage in this fun but non-optimal play style cripples my chances at beating this game. Well, I don't care. I am in this to destroy my enemies, and that is exactly what I will do.

Last Chance to Dance
This extended rant comes on the heels of the HD re-release of Homeworld. It's a beautiful remastering of the original game, and I am looking forward to playing it one last time. Will I play the game differently? A little. I will be more careful about ship losses and how I spend resources. I will quicksave frequently and not be afraid to lose progress to try something over in a better way. But I will not abandon my non-optimal play. Doing so, despite the higher probability of success that it will bring, would make the game un-fun. I do want to win, but I want to win on my terms. Anything less would be cheating. It would not be cheating the game, but cheating myself, and that is something I cannot do.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later. Right now, I have a fleet to command and enemy ships to destroy.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Creative Construction

After a long absence that I will not be explaining for once, I am back. Let’s just dive right in.

My weekly 5th Edition game continues at the local game store. Life does obstruct this game from time to time, but I persevere, and my players are seeming to have a good time. Today’s blog is about last week’s adventure, and specifically, the monster I put in it. 

Quick back story: the PCs are working for a powerful church in the hopes of earning a resurrection for their dead comrade. While on a mission, one player used a very unreliable artifact to save the day. The side-effect was the opening of a sealed gate to some demon dimension or other. The players had to then travel to gate and close it with the same unreliable artifact. Problem in the way: Something got out.

That something was a nameless horror. It being nameless, I get to name it, so I shall name it Phil. Phil was a fun challenge for the PCs, primarily because they didn’t know what to expect. You can’t find Phil in any monster manual or guidebook. I made Phil entirely from scratch… or did I?

Phil is a giant, blind, enormous crab monster with dozens of spear-like segmented legs. He radiates fear like a dragon, casts magical darkness at will,  has 300 hp, AC 20, and a fun attack mechanism. His spear-legs tap their surroundings to echolocate their targets and then strike with such unerring precision that it’s a dex save to avoid them. Every round that a PC stays in range of Phil’s claws, more legs strike out, doing more and more damage as his targeting solution improves. For the record, I like Phil.

So why is Phil the way he is? Because he was custom built for facing the party. I designed him to take on all the PCs at once, inflict damage that got worse as the fight went along, and included multiple ways to get around him (which no one noticed or bothered to use). In the end, the party beat Phil down, but not before he savaged several of the PCs and dropped two of them to 0 HP.

Afterwards, one of my players, a young teen (most of my players are young teens), asked me how I thought him up. I didn’t give a very satisfactory response, and said something like, “I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years, and designing them for 5, I just kinda figured it out.” So young player (who is also an aspiring GM) here’s how I thought up Phil.

Time Crunch
I knew I was working with limited time. My game had to run in under 4 hours, and there was a lot of stuff leading up to Phil, so I had to limit the time allotted for the final battle. That means one big boss instead of a group or team of bosses. 1 boss means less book keeping, a simpler combat sequence, and less for everyone to keep track of. Despite the Phil’s heap of hit points, and high AC, running one big bad is faster and easier than lots. Also, Phil’s attacks were all saves made by the PCs instead of me rolling the dice. This meant there was even less for me to track.

Large Party
Phil needed to take on 7-9 PCs so to make a threat I need him to be able to do a lot in a round. He also needed to survive a lot of punishment, as I know my PCs can pour out buckets of damage. The first idea that came to mind was an octopus or other larger creature with lots of limbs. Phil got his armoured carapace (and thus high AC) from a similar monster in the first half-life video game, that giant spikey crab monster was terrifying then. I’m sure it would be now. So Phil can attack a lot, and he can hit every PC every turn. His armour class makes him hard to hit, and his high HP ensures the PCs won’t take him out with a few lucky hits.

Creating Fear
Phil is scary. He lurks in darkness,  and taps at his surroundings to “see.” I got the idea of an echolocating monster from a recent episode of NPR that talked about blind people using clicking noises to echolocate. I knew that knocking on the table like Phil’s claws would build tension before I revealed him. Phil had the magical fear spell to back me up on creating tension, but I knew it would be better to pull it off by making him menacing before the fear spell hit. Once the PC’s dispelled Phil’s darkness I tried to describe him as being as alien as possible, and tap into that innate human fear of things we don’t understand. I was aiming for something akin to a Cthulhu Mythos horror, I’m not sure how well that worked out, but the players seemed nervous and off-put, so I achieved at least some success.

Phil was not a true Cthulhu monster in that he could be killed, and he had certain built-in weaknesses. The biggest weakness, that only some of the PCs realized, is that Phil was immobile. They found him hulking over a vineyard structure in partially destroyed convent that contained the aforementioned dimensional gate (sidenote: Convent with demon gate is an idea straight-up lifted from a New Orleans ghost tour I attended the week before the game). Phil was stuck, though, he could lash out with his spear claws, but he lacked the strength to drag his armoured carapace anywhere. Several of the PCs realized this, held back, and attacked at range. Phil could only return fire with a relatively weak firebolt spell. Phil’s second main weakness was spin-up: he need  several rounds of targeting a PC before his attacks did full damage. If the characters had played smarter, moving in and then out of range of his attacks, they would have faced a much lower risk.

Ultimate Demise
Those who take great risk earn great reward when they succeed. One of my PC’s allowed himself to be impaled by Phil in the hopes of getting in closer for a better attack. Phil did his level best to devour this daring fellow, but failed, so when Phil’s HP got low, I planned to let this PC land the killing blow. As it turns out, the PC landed the attack that crossed the 300 HP threshold, so there didn’t have to be any fudging of the numbers on my part. Phil died and the PC’s then closed the breach. A good time was had by all, except for Phil. 

In Conclusion
I created Phil to fulfill a specific need in a very specific amount of time. I gave him stats that I knew would work for my game, and drew inspiration from science, Cthulhu mythos, aquatic creatures, psychology, legends, and video games. No part of Phil is truly original, but my blending of so many elements hopefully made him seem as though he was. By building my own monster I put all of the players back on their heels, creating the uncertainty and fear that people feel when they face the unknown. Phil fought, Phil died, and the PCs prevailed. 

Good game, Phil.
Rest in peace. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

For the People! (or Dear God, what have I done?)

Well, with Mad Science out and Gencon being merely an attend event for me this year, you would think I would be smart enough to take a bit of a break this fall, and focus in on getting my new day job in order. That is a very reasonable thought, and isn’t even close to what I ended up doing. Instead of easing off the gas, I floored it.

Giving Back to the Community
Being new to the Panama City Area, I was looking for a way to meet other gamers and have some fun. My arrival coincided with the release of the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I offered the local game store (Comic Emporium) proprietor to run a once a week open game of the new 5th Ed so that people could learn the new game. I would get to meet new gamers and have fun, AND give back to the gaming community by teaching new players the ropes.

Now, while I have mentioned that D&D is not my preferred game, it has always been a very serviceable game, and I have burned many hours blasting through dungeons and even fighting a dragon or two. The new version of D&D is, in my opinion, the best version to date. It is fast and smooth, but keeps the heroic D&D feel. So I bought the new book at Gencon, read up on the rules, created an episodic campaign, put up an advert and hoped players would show. Due to a serendipitous event, my first session was overflowing with players. Things slowed down to a manageable 3 players the following week, and 4 players the week after that, but last Friday hit 9 players! Next week I might have more!

I will take a moment to remind you that I prefer small groups. Remnants was always designed with 3 or 4 players in mind, while Warbirds works best with 3 to 6. Dealing with 9 players in a system as complicated as D&D, even streamlined 5th Ed D&D, is a rough go, and I had one hell of a time keeping up. The saving grace of a group that large is that there was always someone who grabbed whatever bait I dangled in front of them, and there was too much chaos for the players stop each other from making foolish mistakes.

If I do hit 10 players next week, I am going to have to split the group in half. I was thinking an early game and a late game, or run two parties while GMing for both, but I think Cait has the most elegant solution: an A game and a B game that are played on alternate weeks. I have to check with my players, but while there are GM’s that can run 10+ groups, I have never been one of them.

Opening My Big Mouth
So a while back, this thread popped up on Reddit. Being the foolish fool that I am, I replied when Warbirds got a mention, and I sort of accidentally committed Outrider Studios to an unplanned project. As a result of my folly, The Jet Age Sourcebook for Warbirds is nearly finished the draft process. I hope to write up the last few jets within the week, and have it ready for editing in early October. The plan is for it to be similar in style to the WWII Sourcebook as a PDF-only release with lots of public domain photos instead of art.  

In making the new book, I had to break one of my personal rules of game design and include a chart. The chart is both simple and colour coded, but a chart none-the-less. It turns out that once you explore the complexities of Beyond Visual Range air combat, a chart becomes a necessity. Cait gave the chart a very suspicious once over, but decided to let it slide on the promise that there would be no other charts in the book and I would not increase the current chart’s complexity.

Oh, and once I finish this project, I still have another bucket of them waiting to go.

*Note: By “Chart” I mean that players must consult a grid to determine the result of an action(s). I don’t consider lists of stat blocks of vehicles or gear to be charts. You can just copy their statistics onto your character sheet and never look at them again.

More Theory
My posts of late have been more biographical and company-oriented of late. I have a few bits of theory that I definitely want to write on, and I will try to touch on them in the coming weeks and months.

Until then…

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Problem in Sidonia

So, the print version of Mad Science is in the dreaded proofing process, and it looks like I will make Gencon this year, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I am going to talk about anime, specifically, Knights of Sidonia and my thoughts on it.

Some Background
I am not an anime aficionado, nor am I a weeaboo or a japanophile. I was enamoured with some aspects of anime in my late teens and early twenties (sorry Kirk), but my tastes drifted away from anime with time. These days, a show has to really stand out to grab my attention.

It’s been a long while since any anime show caught my eye for any length of time, let alone an entire season. Knights of Sidonia managed this by shamelessly pandering to my interests. It has:
-Giant Robots
-Giant Monsters
-Space Battles where Giant Robots fight Giant Monsters.

If you follow my blog, or have read my RPGs, then you know that I am into these things pretty hardcore, so I hung in for all 12 episodes. Now, having watched the series, and in the spirit of my rants on Pacific Rim and Titanfall, here are my thoughts on Knights of Sidonia. Spoilers will follow, so read at your own risk.

The Cliches
Serialized anime is loaded with clich├ęs and Knights is no exception. We could dive down the TV tropes rabbit hole, and look at how the main character, Nagate Tanikaze, is a teenage (maybe 20 years old?) boy with superhuman mecha piloting skill who needs to use a special weapon to defeat the alien monsters attacking his home. But I am not too concerned with the plot and tropes here. I can accept that the show follows the typical Campbellian hero’s journey, and encounters the standard trials and tribulations along the way. I am more concerned with how well the series pulls these tropes off, and where it stumbles.

A Weak Protagonist
There are some serious problems with our hero, Nagate Tanikaze. In short, he lacks agency and has a weak story arc. We will tackle each of these in turn.

First off: agency. Nagate doesn’t do much. Instead, he has stuff done to him and he reacts. He is essentially forced to become a pilot, dropped into his first mission, and then is a pawn caught in the schemes of Sidonia’s captain and council, while being fought over by a small harem of love interests (more on that in a second). We never learn what motivates Nagate, nor how he feels about any of the larger issues in Sidonia. By the end of the season he manages to claim that he wants to defend Sidonia because he likes the people there, but he is still mostly incurious and passive.

Number the second: weak story arc. The very first scene of the series establishes that Nagate isn’t just a good pilot, he’s a great one. He has mastered the art of mecha combat. He is so awesome that the only time he makes a serious tactical error, it turns out to be a rival sabotaging him rather than a true error on his part. In later episodes we learn that he has special training (never mentioned up to that point) on weapons that no one else knew existed. So, as far as character growth is concerned. Nagate does not grow as a pilot. He starts off as the best of the best, and stays there.

So how about personal growth or relationships? Well, there isn’t much there either. Nagate is too passive to take any chances in his personal dealings, and despite multiple opportunities, never really makes any attempt to connect with the people around him. Oh, they all try to connect with him in some way. His bevy of girls literally fight to be with him. His rival tries to discredit him, the cook (who’s a bear, don’t ask) tries to mother him, and the ship’s captain tries to control him, but he is too imperceptive to catch that most of this is going on. Even when he almost forges a relationship with another pilot, Shizuka Hoshijiro, the series brutally kills her one episode later. She is resurrected as an alien mute creature captured by the humans. After that Nagate has the perfect companion. They just sit and stare at each other through a piece of armoured glass.

Portrayal of Women
At first glance, Knights of Sidonia seems to do a good job in the world of gender politics. Sidonia’s captain is a powerful, competent woman, Women can and do become mecha pilots and a woman is one of the main squadron commanders, and there is even a gender-swapping character who is genetically androgynous. Past that veneer lies a very sexist show.

First, there’s the character design. Every female character (except for the cook, who I once again remind you is a bear) has the overdeveloped proportions of typical male fantasy. They also have the high-pitched teenage girl voices that have become default for anime (I watched the dubbed version, I didn’t want subtitles distracting from the action). You could explain this away in-universe by talking about why would a world with genetic engineering accept anything less? Well, there are male characters in the show who have less than perfect looks, and wouldn’t a society that uses genetic engineering and cloning progress beyond such simple sexual aesthetics? There should be more characters like the cook with widely varied body plans that follow either practical function or whimsical invention. No, the girls in the show are pretty so the guys who watch it have something to look at. The show even throws fan service at its audience with characters having to get naked to photosynthesize. It’s strange how only female characters are shown doing this…

Next we need to talk about the purpose of the women in the show. They nearly all exist to serve Nagate in some way. In twelve episodes he has no less than 3 women that are madly in love with him. Even the androgynous character immediately falls for the guy. The weird thing is that we never find out why these girls find Nagate so attractive. It certainly isn’t his charm or warmth, or even his looks. My best guess is they like him because he is an outsider, and he’s a good pilot. These traits don’t seem like a good basis for a relationship, but these one-dimensional women are hard to read. So maybe his skills make him seem like the badboy transfer student who also turns out to be an ace football player? These are pretty shallow reasons to like a guy. But Nagate lacks depth, so I guess this is all we’re going to get.

Finally, we need to talk about a minor character, Eiko Yamano. She is only in episodes 1 and 2. She is important because: 

a) She does not give a shit about Nagate, 
b) We immediately learn through flashback that she is personally motivated, and has her own reasons for becoming a pilot, and 
c) She is immediately killed. 

My wife does not watch much anime, but she caught the first episodes of Knights. Her immediate reaction to Eiko, “I like her.” My immediate response, “She is so dead.” When I was proven right just minutes later, my wife stopped paying any attention. Knights took less than two minutes of screen time to establish Eiko as an interesting, driven, and conflicted character. It then killed her outright. This would be ok if there were other characters with comparable depth, but instead the series hamstrings itself by leaving less interesting characters alive. We could dig deeper and talk about how male writers punish female characters who dare to be interesting on their own merits, but I think I lack the background to discuss those ideas with authority, and there are some bloggers already doing a better job of it than me. 

Redeeming Qualities
Ok, I just spent a lot of words slagging this show, and its problems do run deep. But believe it or not, I liked it. The animation is beautiful. The mech and monster designs are well done. The setting is weird and interesting, and the central mystery of what the monsters are and what they want is compelling. I thought some of imagery was a little heavy handed in its attempts at symbolism (the neo-natal nature of the monsters and the spears that kill them pretty much screams “abortion”), but over-all I enjoyed the ride. 

What I really saw in Knights of Sidonia was a series of missed opportunities. The show has so many chances to make interesting and mature choices, but instead bogs itself down with mediocre execution of genre tropes that make it so much less than it could have been. It’s still enjoyable to be sure, but it was like hoping for a ride in a fighter jet but getting stuck playing a flight sim. Maybe things will pick up in season 2.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Good News, Everyone

Well, I've been busy. I live in Florida now, and the locals have been nothing but friendly. So far we are having a great time, and we are happy to be visiting the US for a few years.

ENnie Nomination!
Warbirds was nominated for an ENnie for best setting. Hooray! please go and vote for us. While you're at it, vote in all of the other categories too. The ENnies are the closest thing that gaming has to the oscars, so I'm hoping for the best for us, and wishing the best for all of the other nominees.

Mad Science!
If you backed our indiegogo campaign, then you got a little surprise the other day. The Mad Science book is out for backers. Yay! We hope to have the PDF up for sale on DriveThru early next week, and the print-on-demand version in a few weeks (we have to go through the dreaded proofing process again).

I still don't know if we can attend. I am willing to offer a fairly strong maybe, but I can't go further than that. Assuming we can go this year, I am stoked. It's been a few years since I attended the con just for fun, and I am looking forward to getting lost in the dealer's hall, finding random pickup games, and generally goofing off with friends old and new.

If I do attend, and you do find me, and say, "I voted for Warbirds for the ENnies!" I will immediately owe you one demo session of Warbirds before the end of the weekend. A few caveats though, this offer is not valid if you are a member or affiliate of Outrider Studios (Derek, Desi, Patrick, Kevin, Andrea, this includes you), and I will run a demo for no more that 4 people, so this offer is only open to the first 4 people who give me a shout. While I am not expecting to have anyone take me up on this, I really hope someone does, as it would be incredibly cool.

What's next?
Well, with Mad Science out, I can take a short breather, but there are more supplements to write and other projects to develop, so we will see what we can get done this year. There are a few options, and I have a plan. Let's just hope this new job lets me stick to it.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Good News and Bad News

As the title of the post says, the last month has brought some good news and bad news. So without any further adieu, bad news first.

Bad News:
No Outrider Studios booth at Gencon
Sadly, Outrider Studios will not have a booth at Gencon this year. We had everything all booked, but if you remember my rant about moving to Florida, well, that’s happening. And it’s happening too close to the Con for us to be ready for it. So, we have deferred until next year. If we are lucky, and I mean really lucky, we might get to attend as just attendees, but if you want Outrider games you will have to go to the IPR booth to get them.

If we go, and if you see us, please feel free to say hi. We always love to meet fans of the games. I hope we can make it, but no promises.

Good News:
Mad Science Art
Dimitris, our esteemed Warbirds artist, delivered some of the pieces for our Mad Science supplement, and they look fantastic:

This will be an NPC in the book. Note the little imp in the foreground.

Everything about this picture is awesome

Bad News:
More Delays
We still have more art on the way, but even once all of the pieces are in, construction of the book is going to have to wait until we arrive in Florida. We may miss our Gencon window on this one. That is great sadness.

Good News:
More Warbirds and Remnants Products Planned
Once we get established in Florida, I am getting back on the writing train. We have at least one product planned for each game for next summer. As per usual, it will be a terrible slog to get them made, but here's hoping that we have a bunch of new stuff ready to sell at Gencon 2015.

Random News:
Panama City is within striking distance of Atlanta. Maybe we should give Dragoncon a shot (as attendees only). It doesn't sound like a place where a little indie RPG company like ours can make a profit, but it does sound like a heck of a lot of fun.