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Missed Opportunities
As I am slowly making my way through the back-postings of James Maliszewski's blog (Grognardia), you should probably expect a larger portion of gaming related posts. As if my blog weren't already 85% about gaming anyway.

Well, in one of his posts he talks about the loss of of the tradition of rotating referees:

...I think there's definitely been a slow morphing of the concept of the 'referee.' He's now viewed not just as a neutral arbiter cum occasional opponent. Rather he's now a 'storyteller' or 'narrator.' He's the guy who creates the 'story' of the campaign and keeps it moving in accordance with his grand plot. Given that, it's much less easy to accommodate a second or third referee, because they'll almost certainly spoil the story, or at least derail it, and that's not viewed as a good thing. In campaigns without explicit stories, a rotating referee just adds more details and events from which a story might later be woven, but there's no danger that he will 'ruin' the campaign by introducing things that get in the way of some grand plan.

So as I've probably talked about countless times before, I've got a fair amount of rotating referee experience. It all started with a game that we played back in '99. Everyone was willing to do some GMing, but nobody wanted to be the GM, so we came up with our 'Round Robin GM' game. Yeah, it had some odd inconsistencies, but I think it was universally held as darn good fun by everyone involved. We had some structure of rules around the trade-off and whatnot, but I think the real reason it worked so well is that none of us came to the GMing position with an agenda. More often we were just trying to fill the time until we could shrug the duty off on the next poor sap. I think this lead to a really nicely organically generated world, with some very interesting NPCs in it.

The thing that really hit me when I read this though was the game I co-GMed with my friend Dan a few years later. I think we fed off each other at the table very well, but we did but heads a bit in the planning. Nothing really antagonistic -- we were both mature enough about it to always talk intelligently, but I think we did have some root disagreement about how to run the game, a disagreement neither of us could really put our finger on at the time.

I wish I had the chance to run more games like that with Dan. I'd love to try some other stuff with two GMs. Perhaps occasionally let one GM completely take the reigns while the other plays one of the group's henchmen. Maybe create some adversarial NPCs controlled by each GM whose plans are not disclosed to each other. Or perhaps create a world were who GMs is based on where the group is geographically.

Anyway, this is really making me miss my gaming group of 10 years ago. We should have a reunion or something.
June 15th, 2009 - 01:07 pm | Comments (3) | PERMALINK

Situational Convention Games (or the Sit-Con)
So, having come to terms with the idea of sandbox gaming, the next question is, how do I get a similar style of play into my one-shot convention games? I've always assumed convention games had to be even more rail-roady then campaing play, simply because you couldn't get through a story from beginning to middle to end if the players could willy-nilly do whatever they liked. Now with my new attitude that story will emerge from whatever it is the players decide to do, I'm trying to find a way to present a mini-sandbox that the players can quickly jump into and build their own story out of in the incredibly short span of a four hour convention game.

My theory is this: create a situation with a few key NPCs that have well thought out goals (preferably goals that are somewhat antagonistic towards eachother). Create some pre-gen characters with some form of background or character sketch, that would icline them at least to be interested in the outcome of the situation or better yet manipulate it to their own ends. With an idea of how the story would unfold without any players present, and characters that are unlikely to allow that to happen, you have your setting for a mini-sandbox one-shot. Or as I've been thinking of it, the situational convention game.

In fact, I've already done this experiment, again without really thinking about it. Last HelgaCon I ran two games: one very traditional plot-driven game and one situational game. Let's start with the control:

I wanted to run a pulp Savage Worlds game, using a group of characters I had already created for a previous game. I was inspired by some of the Daring Tales of Adventure modules written by Wiggy over at Triple Ace Games. I went way overboard on the prep. Already having painted miniatures for the characters, I painted minis for all the bad guys as well. I wrote out the module to an almost publishable level (usually I have barely more than an outline to work from for my con games). I had appropriate diecast toy cars for the chase scene, and even created a huge terrain piece for the final scene on the cliff face. I ran a playtest of it once with a local group before going to the con. I think perhaps in the back of my head I intended to do a final edit of the module and release it to the internet. At this point I really have no interest in that, but I'll go ahead and share with you what I did create:

Axis of the Astrolabe

In practice, the game always ran too long for the 4-hour convention slot, even after I edited it down after the first playtest. The players would always 'waste' a bunch of time coming up with ideas that would completely de-rail the plot, and I had to work hard to get them to the big final scene. I won't say it wasn't a fun game, and I think everyone appreciated the visuals, but the fact is there really wasn't all that much role-playing to be done. Mostly the players were only to determine the very minute details of how they would push a scene to it's foregone conclusion.

OK, the second game. The other game I ran was to be a Warhammer RPG game, mostly because Jenn loves the setting and wouldn't forgive me if I didn't run one. I neglected this game in favor of doing more prep for the pulp game, and only really fleshed it out a week or so before the con. I had a vague idea in my head: wouldn't it be funny to have a game that starts with a Witch Hunter boarding a coach with the players, all who have something they'd rather hide from said Witchunter.

I made some characters, each with a clever detail of something to hide: a witch, a chaos worshipper, a concealable mutation, etc. I then out-lined a basic plot of what the Witch Hunter was up to. He was chasing a doctor who tried to help mutants by surgically removing their mutations (in the black and white view of a Witch Hunter, this is a real crime). In fact, his quarry was present at the next coaching inn the coach would stop at. If the players didn't interfere, he would arrest the man and lock him in a hold cell until the morning. During the night, some mutants would arrive to try and save their doctor, but I had no clue if they would succeed or not.

I wasn't really sure what the characters would do in all this. Some might try and save the doctor (especially the mutant character, who might want to hire his services). Some might want to help bring him to 'justice'. I had thought perhaps my chaos-worshipper might want to kill the Witch Hunter, but the player threw me a curve ball by playing as if he was on the Witch Hunter's side, merely so he could cause as much damage as possible but still have plausible deniability.

It went great. Except for a little rules bungling at the end that drew the final fight between the players out too long, I think everyone really enjoyed it. It made me nervous that the players were likely to turn on each other at some point, but I think in a convention game this is much more OK than in a campaign. In fact, I almost think it's a really good idea, if for no other reason than it gets the players playing with each other more and takes some burden off the GM to constantly supply the antagonism.

So there you have it, my simple situational based game with no pre-determined outcome went way better than my minutely planned plot-heavy game. I think for my next experiment, I'll try to write a situational adventure that encourages the players to work together more rather than simply making them fight each other. But I won't rule the latter out. I think that's the real key here, don't think of what the outcome might be, just create a situation that players can quickly dig into and come up with their own outcome.
June 14th, 2009 - 09:22 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

I had a real 'Come to Gygax' moment recently in regards to Sandboxes, brought on again by reading a Grognardia post -- How Dragonlance Ruined Everything. Obviously by the title it's a pretty controversial post, even though the author clearly states that the title is Hyperbole right off the bat. The post is really interesting, as are many of the comments afterwards.

That aside, what this did for me was define in my head the concept of just what a sandbox style game really meant. I know BJ has recently been runnign a self-professed 'sandbox' game, but I think in my head I wasn't separating the concept properly from the other interesting aspect of his game involving a sort of West Marches style of scheduling. The scheduling bit aside, the basic gyst of sandbox style seems to me the concept of creating the world ahead of time without any real thought to plot lines, and then allowing the plot to grow organically from the players bouncing off the setting and NPCs you created.

What I didn't realize is that this is exactly how I'm running my current Warhammer RPG game. Prior to this game I had been running a Savage Worlds plot-point game (Solomon Kane), which is pretty much the opposite of sandbox style. The plot is very rigid, though the books present it as a moduler style (hence the 'plot points'), still the over-arching story line of the entire campaign is pre-ordained from day one. This is actually similar to the way I had been running other games prior to this as well, in an effort to promote 'role-play over roll-play', I put tons of effort into an intricate plot for the players to unravel. The only real difference with the Solomon Kane game was that someone else had done all the prep work for me, I just had to run it.

And what was the most enjoyable and memorable part of that Solomon Kane game? I think for both myself and the players it was their nemesis, a minor character they had defeated early on and allowed to live, that I harrangued them with for the rest of the campaign. Oh yeah, a character that didn't even exist in any of the pre-written material.

I knew I wanted more elements like this, and I knew I wanted to spend less time in prep each week for games, but I still hadn't put the pieces together. Jenn wanted me to run a Warhammer game, so I dragged out all the books I've accumulated that I never used to see what might grab me for a basis of the new game. And through an extremely happy accident, I picked up my copy of Renegade Crowns, supplement on the Border Princes, a volitile part of the warhammer world where many small lordlings squabble over resources and the political landscape is constantly in flux. I had never actually read the book, it was just collecting dust on my bookshelf. So I picked it up and read it.

This book is not your usual supplement. It has no locations, no dungeons, no NPCs, no new monsters. What it has is rules for randomly generating your own section of the Border Princes, including laying out the geography, creating the local Princes and their motivations and relationships, populating monster lairs, etc. Yeah, it's a random generator for your own warhammer sandbox. For larks, I followed the steps and built a few principalities.

We've been playing this game for I think over 6 months now. I barely do any prep between sessions. The players have created their own goals to follow, of which there are actually several and they love to argue over which to do next. I just make the NPCs re-act to player actions. Occaisonally I do spend some time drawing out a location they're going to visit, but more often than not I just lift a location from Karak Azgal, Sigmar's Heirs, or some random adventure I found online. It's fantastic. I actually feel like I'm playing the game too, not just putting on a show for my players.

I bet this was the problem Dan and I hit against when co-GMing. Not that that went badly, but I bet any friction we felt was probably due to his being more sandbox oriented while I felt the need to push some pre-determined plot forward. Well, I've come around, I think sandbox is the way to go. Next I want to build a sandbox entirely of my own devising, instead of playing in a prefabbed Games Workshop sandbox. Also, I have to figure out how to get the same feeling into one-shot convention style play. Actually, I already have some ideas formulating. I'll save it for another post.
June 13th, 2009 - 05:17 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Early Music Festival
Just got back from the Boston Early Music Festival. Actually, just the exhibit hall and CD store part. We didn't go to any of the concerts, thoguh I would have liked to. None of the ones on today really caught my eye.

The exhibit hall was fun, though it was mostly just recorders. The Early Music Shop, England was there with some interesting percussion and reed instruments, and there were quite a few gorgeous harpsicords there. A few places carrying some string instruments too. Still, it was mostly recorders. Also, much of the music (written or recorded) was Baroque, which is I suppose technically part of early music, but I'd much prefer to see more medieval and renaissance stuff.

Furthermore, I couldn't help but feel a little intimidated by the people there. It seemed everyone that stopped to try a recorder or play a harpsicord was stunningly talented. I felt way too much of an amateur to even try picking up one of the instruments there. Especially given that I haven't played anything at all in months. What I really need is someone more into this stuff than I am to motivate me. I'd love to play more, but I just don't have the energy to be the sole organizer and motivator for any such thing.

Ah well, it was still fun. I came home with a couple neat CDs, and some interesting flyers of local groups. The pictures don't have any captions, but I don't think they need any. Enjoy.
June 13th, 2009 - 05:00 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

I've started reading Grognardia, the epitomic blog of old school gaming. While he focuses mostly on OD&D, while I tend to prefer B/X, a lot of the core values expressed on the blog are in sync with my own.

I'm catching up on all the back-posts, and happened upon this gem:

The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games. I think that it's at the root of why most old schoolers have an instinctive hatred of skill systems in RPGs. Skill systems often imply not just what your character can do but also what he knows. That creates both a powerful separation between player and character knowledge but also creates the expectation that a character's knowledge ought to be able to give the player the solutions needed to solve in-game puzzles, tricks, traps, etc.

I think this is what I've been struggling to reach with my own thoughts on skills, or the lack there-of. I'm dead curious now to see what kind of stuff I can come up with for my own adventures with this concept firmly in mind. It really makes me jones for a #2 pencil and a pad of graph paper.
June 12th, 2009 - 02:44 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Elf is a Class?!
One major difference between Basic and 1st Edition Advanced D&D is the race/class dichotomy. In Basic, the races are promoted to classes, eliminating the concept of race all-together and making the major classes of Basic: Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, Thief, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. It's an unusual concept, and I think unfortunately, a much maligned one.

The fact is, for many of us Basic was the gateway to Advanced (as I think TSR intended it to be) and in our memories Basic becomes an 'earlier version' of D&D we played. We forget, or just don't know, that Basic and Advanced were two different products that lived side-by-side. In fact, the basic line continued even alongside Advanced 2nd Edition, and the last printing of Basic (19th printing) hit shelves as late as 1999. Basic only vanished completely with the introduction of 3rd edition.

Our collective memory of Basic as the earlier version of D&D tends to see the idea of races as classes as a quaint oddity, as though we just didn't know better to separate the two back then. Of course this isn't true either, as the earliest versions of D&D (Whitebox or Original D&D) back in the early 70's had races separate from classes. The authors of Basic clearly made a choice to join the two.

Was this done just to simplify the number of variables the player had to deal with? Perhaps. As we see the complexity of D&D increase with each edition, the idea of simplification by any means is somewhat attractive. However I think there's another force at work, one rooted in the canon of the genre itself.

Nobody can deny that J.R.R. Tolkein's influence is heavy in D&D. The modern game seems to wish to distance itself as much as possible from this original influence, but I think that's a mistake. I liked Lord of the Rings, and based on the success of the movies I'd say I'm not the only one. And in Tolkein's books, a Wizard and an Elf were two very differnet things. Were their Elven Wizards? Well, Elves had some magic, that you couldn't deny. But clearly the Wizards had their own organization, and perhaps could even be seen as their own race separate from man.

I like this about Basic D&D -- an elf is an elf, not a wizard or a fighter or even a wizard/fighter. It feels more appropriate to the canon of the genre. I think it makes the non-human races that much more special, and the human classes as well. It's a matter of identity. You hear it at the gaming table all the time: 'the elf searches for secret doors, while the fighter stands guard'. The characters have names, we know their names, but we still refer to them as 'the dwarf', 'the thief', etc. Do you ever hear 'the human fighter' or the 'the elven wizard'?

As long as that's how we're identifying the characters, why not play to that? Why not make each as unique as possible, so we're proud to be referred to by that single identifier, rather than feel we're being trivialized?
June 11th, 2009 - 01:55 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

I haven't gone to the gym now for three days straight. I started going in the morning before work back at the end of December, and I've managed to keep to that habit pretty well. I miss the odd day now and again, but for the most part I've been going every day, and I definitely think it's helping. I'm starting to feel guilty about not going, but it is a conscious decision. I just hope I don't completely fall out of the habit.

I have collected some mysterious injuries recently, hence the break from the gym. I figure I should give myself some time to heal. The more recent injury is I think a pulled muscle on my back. A couple days ago I discovered a sharp pain whenever I tilted my head forward or to the left. I've done this to myself before, so I was fairly certain it wasn't my neck that was really the problem, but the back muscle just below my left shoulder blade. I don't recall doing anything specific to pull that muscle, but it could be just from my regular work out. Or perhaps it was lugging around the enormous battery for our new battery powered lawn mower. Anyway, it's mostly gone now, but I still feel a little sore on that part of my back. It wouldn't hurt to give it a few more days rest.

The other injury came on slowly and is far more concerning. It started as a soreness on the pinky side of my right hand. I assumed it was just from too much typing, usually when I have to hold the right shift key a lot or hit enter a lot I notice a little soreness around there. That seems to have settled now into a general ache in my right wrist, and occasional tingling sensation across the back of my hand. Given that I'm at a keyboard all day for work, I'm always nervous about the possibility of carpel tunnel syndrom, but everything I've read online says that usually manifests as pain/tingling in the palm, thumb, and first two fingers. This is in the exact opposite location -- the pinky side and back of the hand.

Perhaps I've pulled a hand or wrist muscle, or pinched a nerve in that area. For now, I've bought myself one of those plastic wrist braces from the drug store and am wearing it fairly regularly. If it isn't gone by the end of the week, I guess I'll go see the doctor.

Man, who knew going to the gym regularly could be so bad for your health?
June 10th, 2009 - 07:54 am | Comments (3) | PERMALINK

Audio File
Had a few interesting adventures with my Myth box this past week. I've been having a lot of audio issues: first a typical digital noise issue, that under-water sound you get especially in higher frequencies. The sort of thing you get with poor VOIP. Second, and much more annoying, was an intermittent garbled audio sound where it sounded like the card was being overloaded. If I quit out of TV viewing mode and re-entered it would go away, but often come back a few minutes later. It would also go away if I just let it sit like that for a couple minutes. Extremely annoying. Finally, not audio related but annoying, my Pinnacle USB remote continues to be unsupported by the version of LIRC that comes with Mythbuntu, so I have to recompile those drivers from source every time I get a kernel update.

Thinking some of this might be related to the fact that I upgraded from Mythbuntu 8.04 to 8.10 to 9.04, I decided to try re-installing the OS from scratch. I was clever enough to back-up any pre-existing data, as well as the contents of my myth database, unfortunately something in that process went wrong. Not only did the clean install not fix anything, but suddenly my TV capture card stopped working. After a lot of attempts to fix this, I removed the box from the TV and brought it upstairs to my desk for a complete overhaul. While I was at it, I decided to try buying a new sound card for the thing, in hopes that the audio issues might be due to using the crappy built-in sound card. After a fair bit of work I got it up and running again. Here's the current config of my myth box:

Dell P4 Desktop with 1 GB RAM and 80 GB hard drive
nVidia 6200 low-profile AGP video card
Pinnacle PCTV 800i TV capture card
Turtle Beach Riviera sound card
Pinnacle PCTV USB MCE Remote
1 TB external hard drive

The capture card pretty much works right out of the box, nothing special required there. It does turn out that some of the audio issues I was having was due to the recording settings for the card. I found some info on the MythTV wiki about this card, and in the Recording Profiles set the Default settings to:

Codec: MP3
Sample Rate: 48000
MP3 Quality: 9
Volume: 50%

This fixed the general digital noise, but I still get the intermittent garbled sound which is far more annoying. More on this later.

I disabled the on-board sound card in the bios, and then my Riviera sound card became the default which eased a lot of things. While I was able to set the audio device to use for playing videos and TV, I couldn't figure out how to modify what was used for DVDs. Anyway, this got the sound card basically working through the mini output plug, but the real pay-off was to get it working through the optical cable. To do this, first I had to set my audio settings in the General setup section of Myth to:

Audio output device = ALSA:default
Passthrough outputdevice = Alsa:iec958:{AES0 0x02}
Enable AC3 to SPDIF passthrough check
Enable DTS to SPDIF passthrough check
Use internal volume controls uncheck

Second, I had to run alsamixer and unmute iec958 out. There were easily half a dozen iec958 channels muted in alsamixer, and originally I tried unmuting them all, but this didn't work. I had to specifically look for the one labeled out and unmute only that one, leaving all the others still muted. Sure enough, not only was I then getting output through the optical cable, but playing DVDs showed full Dolby sound coming into my receiver. I've had that receiver for years now, and I think this is the first time it's had proper surround sound coming into it. Woot!

I continue to have to build lirc mceusb2 drivers from source, but fortunately the current source drops (0.8.5 pre3) have everything in place to support my Pinnacle USB receiver. Man, I wish that version would just make it into the official Mythbuntu packages.

So, everything's working again, but still I get that intermittent audio issue. It's really annoying as it sometimes shows up in recorded shows, and I've determined it's not the output feed at that point but the actual recorded audio that's garbled. This makes me pretty sure the issue is in the audio input in my Pinnacle 800i capture card.

I've also discovered that card now has a loose connection for it's input lines. It has this proprietary input jack with a 3' adapter that includes both composite and s-video inputs. I've discovered sometimes the screen loses color (displays in greyscale) unless I press the connection of that cable to one side. I suspect it's not the adapter cable, but the actual plug on the card that's screwed up, but I can't be sure. Either way it looks like that card's going.

I tried to figure out how to plug the input audio cables to the line-in of my fancy new sound card, but I couldn't get it working. Given that I'll probably loose video signal eventually and the loose connection could very well be the source of the sound issue I'm experiencing, I think the best bet is to just replace the capture card.

After cruising around MythTV.org's list of supported analog capture cards, it seems like the best supported is the Hauppauge PVR-150. I like that this card appears to have actual RCA connections built in -- no stupid proprietary adapter cable necessary. So I tracked one of these cards down (it looks like they're starting to give way to the newer HVR 1600 cards) and ordered it online. Hopefully this will fix the audio issue.

Anyway, that's a lot more info than most people care to know. However, a lot of research and trial-and-error went into getting it all working, and I'll be very happy if blogging all this helps someone else when they're searching the web for info on similar issues.
June 8th, 2009 - 08:18 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Game Development
I've posted in the past the odd brush with corruption in the gaming industry. I suppose every industry probably has its criminals, but the ones in gaming are always so surprising and colorful. Anyway, I got a couple links today about Duke Nukem Forever that are just so bizarre and scary I had to share them.

First, some background. For those not in the know, Duke Nukem Forver is the game that never was. It was announced in 1997 and after a few years won a few awards for best vaporware (that is, software promised but never delivered). Lots of claims were made about it still being in development, but as the years passed it seemed more and more bizarre. Finally, just a few days ago it was announced that developer 3D Realms is shutting down.

Here's a great site that covers all the details of the longest developed game in history. You've got to love the fun facts section of other things that took less time, like 'The Beatles formed, released every single one of their albums and broke up. During this time they also toured the world several times.'

Of course, as it turns out, it looks like it was all a huge marketing scheme. Sure, they intended to actually deliver game, but they were intentionally milking the 'longest developed game ever' bit. Check out this article about an ex 3D Realms guy who was in on the meetings at E3 2001 that hatched the whole plan.

I can't decide which is worse, that some biz guys were scummy enough to actually come up with a plan like this, or that they coerced the developer into the deal with physical violence. Colorful, fascinating, and incredibly lame.
May 8th, 2009 - 08:48 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

I posted the following to the Helga's Heroes email list, but just in case any of my blog readers are not on that list and interested in gaming related stuff, I'm cross-posting it here:

So I had this idea about RPG game world building, and I need your help testing it out. Originally the idea was kicked off by BJ's sandbox stuff and in turn the West Marches concepts. It actually is an interesting idea that could be used in any RPG, but the idea of having a larger player base is what sparked the idea.

OK, so the idea is that the world is not pre-built, only a starting region is. There is a list of rumors concerning what's out there in the unexplored lands. Players can cast votes on what rumors they think might be true, and can add their own rumors to the list. The GM then scans through the list of rumors, selecting those with the most votes and working them into the world. Thus, the world expands by slowly proving (or disproving) rumors over time.

At the same time I was learning turbogears, a very sweet python driven web development system. I thought, hey, why not implement the rumor voting system as a web app? Then I can both learn tg, and maybe have something that will prove out the rumor system when I'm done. So I did, and now the app is complete.

What I need now are guinea pigs. I want to test out the rumor system, without actually running an underlying RPG. I'll ask folks to visit the site regularly, cast votes, make up rumors, etc. Instead of actually holding RPG play sessions though, I'll just post occasionally some written fiction about how the knowledge of the world is expanding. Hopefully this will let us tear through the meta-game of making up rumors much faster than if it were really tied to a normal weekly RPG game.

So if you want to help, check out the site here:


Let me know if you have any questions or if you discover bugs in the system. Otherwise, grab a tankard of ale and let the gossip flow!
May 1st, 2009 - 11:27 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

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