Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The map is not the territory....

...and in this case it's not even the same freaking planet.

On Sunday, Syrian state run TV news ran a segment explaining how the onfield formation and passing attack of the current world-dominant Barcelona soccer team serve as coded instructions to the rebels who are running weapons into Syria, highlighting smuggling routes and final delivery destinations. You can watch it on youtube here.

The story starts 30+ seconds in, but you need to stay on board until the graphics arrive at the one-minute mark.

You can find a US news site covering the story here.

I'm not sure whether this could be a subject for Robin Laws' occasional  Ripped from the Headlines blogs. Sure, it could be done, if you can stomach using the Syrian bloodbath's whackjob accompaniment as inspiration for gaming.

There are suspicions that the explanation for the story is whacky-ass humor instead of whacky-pack paranoia. I guess that would be 'nice.' I'm hoping that the story should be filed under the Arabic word for 'the Onion.' But Syria seems like the type of place that being forced to explain your joke about national security could have bad consequences, so I'd be content not to know.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fenris Among the Barbarians

I just signed up to support Steve Long’s MYTHIC HERO on Kickstarter. It’s like Deities & Demigods for the HERO System. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s like Gods, Demi-gods and Heroes for HERO. Pantheon on pantheon clobbering time! We could kill Foxbat as Finnish gods! Hurraavaa

HERO is one of the systems I think with a hell of a lot more than I ever played it. In practice I nearly always end up running simpler games. But HERO made a deep impression on me when it first came out and I still find it easy to think using its terms.

HERO is a system that can handle fights between gods without undue distortion to its usual play dynamics. I don’t feel like and dissecting the various ways that d20 games have handled fights with gods. Maybe someday when I’m feeling analytical. But today I just wanna tell the story that popped into my head as I signed on for MYTHIC HERO. This is a D&D story from junior high, the downbeat tale of my first battle against a god.

In the late 70’s, before AD&D came out, I went to the Eugene Public Library most Saturday afternoons for public gaming . The day I’m thinking of brought a surprise: a friendly guy I’m not sure I’d known before volunteered to run a D&D game for everyone who wanted to play. This wasn’t just special, this was High Holy Day Special. Most of us library gamers wanted to play D&D but there wasn’t anyone willing to run a regular game. We usually ended up playing board games or war games or miniatures games or talking about roleplaying instead of playing.

I think the DM’s name was Danny. He was jolly and friendly and he wanted everyone to join in to try something he couldn’t do with his regular gaming group: an all-out battle against Fenris Wolf!

I had to have that repeated to me a couple times because it blew my mind. I had thumbed the pages of Gods, Demi-gods, and Heroes but I didn’t own it. I was pretty sure that fighting Fenris Wolf was impossible, but Danny saw the game as a big interesting hilarious experiment and just wanted everyone to pile in and see what happened.

I’m pretty sure Danny also wanted to have fun running the game. So things weren’t going to turn out well for him. At the start of the game I was one of the problems. I’d run less-and-more accurate versions of D&D for friends and I’d played in a couple other people’s games but I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I was just supposed to take one of my characters that was from another game/world/table and play it here. I didn’t even have those characters with me because I obviously wasn’t going to play those games at the library.

I eventually made the leap of imagination between worlds and attempted to recreate one of my characters. I have no idea which one. I think I knew it didn’t matter, My highest level character, third or maybe fourth, was not going to do much against Fenris except end up as a tooth stain.

At which point Danny gave another lesson in DMing that could have gone well if he hadn’t been trapped among barbarians. He told people who had low level characters that we should all take a magic item or two to give us a fighting chance. Maybe that’s not exactly how it got played, maybe he got browbeaten into it, I don’t know. But I remember confusion and frenzy as truffles were dropped in front of swine. I think the high level characters got into the truffles also.

There were side fights between gamers telling each other that the items they were getting were or were not usable in their regular home campaign. About this point I made some type of adolescent sensitivity roll and realized that Danny was just trying to be nice and run a game for a whole bunch of people and that he had twelve or thirteen players being whiny and terrible and annoying to him. We were like brain-damaged baby birds. Finally, a Dungeon Master! We will tear him open and suck his marrow!

By the time we started actual play I think Danny was depressed.. The table, oblivious, whined about many sudden-and-inevitable deaths before a variety of Monty Haul characters started carving Fenris up. There was some broken magic item combo attached to a flying invisible halfling who ended up sitting on Fenris’ head and stabbing away at no personal risk.

Subcontracting Ragnarok out to the bastard stepchildren of Finieous Fingers turned out to be a depressing one-shot. I died early and drifted away from the painful table. In later months I thanked Danny for the game and fumbled attempts to say how cool I thought it was that he had tried it. It took years for me to realize how many game-opening lessons had played out in that session. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"If I could stick a pen in my heart...

…and spill it all over the Sage...”

You are watching the Fellowship of the Ring movie. The Fellowship has arrived at Rivendell. It is time for the Council of Elrond. Elrond begins to relate the history of the Ring.

While Elrond speaks, Mick Jagger climbs onto the council table. Mick is dressed something like an evil elven kabuki dancer. Mick Jagger is Sauron.  

As Elrond speaks, Jagger mimes the rise of Sauron, the forging of the rings, and the gyrations of Elendil. Those about the table pay Jagger no mind. He is kabuki, invisible except to us.

This moment of alternate cinematic history could have come to pass if Tolkien hadn’t been alive to read John Boorman’s script for the Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien slashed the script up with red pen. Slain before reaching maturity, the script fell and came to lodge in the Tolkien collection at Marquette University.

Which is where Seattle’s Tolkien scholar, John D. Rateliff, read the script and lived to tell the story. I wouldn’t know about the Boorman script if John hadn’t told me over a Tolkien-anecdote-stuffed-lunch. Boorman’s Excalibur was one of my favorite movies as a teenager. I think some of the images that he wanted to use in Middle-Earth found a home in the story of Arthur.

But kabuki Sauron? And the entire Fellowship prancing and strutting their stuff to try and seduce Galadriel only for her to choose Frodo as bedmate? Too close to Bored of the Rings for comfort. This is epic 70’s pipeweed material.

John’s blog over at http://sacnoths.blogspot.com/  talks Tolkien in depth and breadth. I poked around on the web after hearing John’s story and found it interesting that fans on some Tolkien discussion sites mentioned just how terrible they would have felt if something like the Boorman movie had been filmed first. But now that Jackson made the films that people pretty much agree got LotR right, some people said that they would be curious to see a less faithful adaptation, an artistic treatment that brought something new and unexpected to the story.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Jonathan Tweet and I became friends through Lee Gold’s Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Actually we became friends when he started writing about what became Over the Edge and I sent him a postcard picturing Dutch bicycles and gushing about a book I deemed relevant: Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuscinki’s account of the civil war in Angola. Jonathan’s subsequent letter (yes, this was pre-email) replied that he also liked the book but that Al Amarja was full of people and had almost no guns while Angola had almost no people and was full of guns. Otherwise, thanks for writing.

And with that we became friends and have worked with or around each other as often as not over the years. I played in Jonathan’s original 3e campaign. He played in my original 4e campaign.

And now we’ve got a roleplaying game design that Jonathan and I have been working on together called 13th Age. Pelgrane Press is publishing it and running the playtest. There’s obviously more to say but the full announcement of the game will come later, there are plans afoot in that regard and I won’t be traipsing over them by saying more.

If you’d like to learn more now, you could go over to the Pelgrane web site and ask to be included in the playtest. http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=7584

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Baby's First Combo

Epic Spell Wars is out and selling extremely well. People who know nothing about the game beforehand buy it for the amazing art by Nick Edwards. The gameplay comes as a pleasant surprise.

It’s a game that can be played with friends who aren’t ordinarily interested in gamer-games. I refer to the appeal of the core mechanic as Baby’s First Combo; people who haven’t experienced card combos before react well to putting cards together for synergistic effect. I think of ESW as a gateway game, it has helped a couple people who usually aren’t comfortable playing with the rest of us happy about joining in.  

The Baby’s First Combo tag got a workout a few days ago when a friend’s 20-month old, sitting on her lap during a game, got hold of the Thundering card and gave it a mouth-over. Lisa said, “When the box says the game is for 15+ it means months, right?”

ESW’s non-gamer appeal put me in the mockery seat when I played the game with a circle of non-gamers and Eurogamers. Whenever I referred to rolling one die I always said “Roll 1d6”and people at the table laughed at me and said, “You’re such a gamer! Roll 1d6! Only gamers talk like that!” It’s been a Loooong time since I got made fun of for being a gamer. Given the context, I could live with it.

Earlier in the day I’d been in a six player game. At some point Jay Schneider, my co-founder at Fire Opal Media, came by the table and said, “Oh my god! Mons IS the last Wizard standing! Look at yourselves!” You win Epic Spell Wars by being the Last Wizard Standing in two games. And our table of six included five former Wizards of the Coast employees and just one still-going-strong WotC employee. We could have handed Mons an LWS token on the spot but we made him work for it and he went down in spatters.