Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fate Core and Tribe 8

I've been doing a lot of thinking about various implementations I've tried for adapting Tribe 8 to Fate. My first was using Spirit of the Century as a starting point, but I ran into roadblocks I wasn't able to work around. I backed off for a while, until I discovered Strands of Fate. I thought, "Yes, this one is what I'm looking for!" and was able to bust through a lot of those roadblocks. The result, which I've made available here, is something that I stand behind. I think it's a damn fine adaptation and brings a lot to the table in terms of capturing the tone and feel of Tribe 8 (or, at least, how I interpret it).

I love the Fate fractal, I think it's one of the most elegant, simple concepts since the first war gamer decided to name a character. Anything can be a character. Anything can have Aspects. The different ideas I've had for stress tracks, most of which I've written up here in support of Strands of Flesh and Spirit, are pretty awesome. They're not things I would use all the time, but it's great the capability is there. But there's still a bit of...heaviness...about the conversion. There's a lot of Aspects, multiple stress tracks, powers modeled after the framework provided in Strands of Power. I want it to be leaner, and that's certainly something that Strands can handle, but this has never been about being beholden to one implementation of Fate or another. It's about trying to capture the ephemeral feeling I have about how Tribe 8 should be. I'm like a bear standing on a rock in the middle of the rapids, looking for exactly the right salmon to pluck out.

Fate Core has brought together such an energetic, creative group of people with great ideas. Hunter Gatherer Games has a great post on tribes for their Apocalithic setting. Michael Moceri has come up with some absolutely genius ideas for his Exalted hack. I want my Tribe 8 conversion to be leaner, lighter and capable of supporting the vision I have for my Tribe 8 games. Fate Core, from the settings I've read as part of the Kickstarter, gives me ideas to see that vision through. It doesn't mean I'm done with Strands of Fate - the end result will have elements of both. Plus, I still really want to create a Mekton-worthy Fate hack and I think Strands of Fate is the perfect fit for the job. I'm also very much looking forward to Nova Praxis. But I want to take a step back, toward the type of game I conceptualized when I first read Spirit of the Century. In some ways, that means my Tribe 8 adaptation is coming home again.

I'm not going to remove or change any of the things I've already done. The Strands of Fate version of Dreams of Flesh and Spirit is pretty complete, and anyone who has really liked it and found utility in it can continue to do so. It's just personally, I'm going to move on toward catching that perfect salmon.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Welcome to Dixton, Torcher!

The Fate Core Kickstarter ended on an enormous high note. So high, I think I might fail a drug test. I'm honored and humbled to be part of such an auspicious event...I actually think this is roleplaying history in the making.

In honor of the Kickstarter ending, I offer a brief write-up of the setting I intend on using for a Thief/Dishonored inspired game. I've actually been working on it for over a week, but it wound up being too in-depth and very dry, so I backtracked and trimmed it down.

Dixton

Modern Dixton is a city of contrasts. The twin rivers of Eastfork and Westfork split the city into quarters and highlight the divisions between its people. The cramped, dirty, violent alleys of The Commons. The clean, safe manors of Highvault. The sweat and labor of Dockside. The parties and festivals of the Old Quarter. The genteel land-owners and the scheming merchants. Commoners whisper in the streets of secretive cults and conspiracies, of dark rituals and shrines to a shadowy trickster god, while the Deacons in Highvault proselytize their vision of a world of pristine order, bereft of chaos.

Dixton was also where torchpalm was discovered, a plant that transformed a whole Empire. Growing in the subtropical forests around the small trading outpost, the pods of the palm-like trees held the secret to creating a form of high-powered fuel. It helped usher in a technological revolution...powering factories and machinery, light sources, ships, and even weaponry. The sleepy trading town boomed into a sprawling metropolis virtually over night.

This expansion was not without its growing pains. Prior to the discovery of the torchpalm, Dixton was filled with all manner of criminals, pirates, smugglers and con men. The Empire installed a Governor and began granting land to wealthy nobles for plantations, and drove the criminal elements underground where they formed criminal families and syndicates. Dixton's rise in prominence as a transportation hub meant powerful merchant houses formed, vying with the landowners for more say over the city's affairs. The Governor's rule keeps the peace, but doesn't extend into every dark corner of the city. It is in these shadows were the battles are still fought using sabotage, theft and assassination.

Beyond Dixton and its vast plantations lies a continent that has been barely explored. Naturalists continually discover new plants and minerals with unheard of properties. Ancient ruins are covered by the forest and undergrowth, the artifacts and treasures to be found there coveted by wealthy collectors and scholars alike. The builders of these ruined cities are a mystery. The only natives to the area, the human-like Si who were set free two decades ago when the Empire abolished slavery, have no written language and only primitive technology. Yet they have unexplained knowledge of many things, from faraway lands to astronomy to scientific principles Their knowledge of the torchpalm is yet to be surpassed, and the strange tattoos inked with the tree's juice are said to have magical properties. Whether they are the true heirs of this lost civilization has yet to be seen.

Interwoven through all of these elements are those who aren't afraid of the shadows. They're the ones the wealthy turn to for their plots, the crime families for their operations, the relic collectors for their artifacts. They're the ones who don't concern themselves with the reasons they're needed or the origin of the coin purse they walk away with. They go by various names: torchers, thieves, sneaks, burglars, taffers, assassins, choffers, rogues.  And you're one of them.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sins of the Sister, Part 3


I fell feel asleep quickly and slipped into the River. I could have freely explored, but chose to stay confined within my own Dream world, flowing along with the River in the hope of gaining insight into the day's events.

I am standing over Robbo in Bazaar, pressing the tip of a sword to his chest. He begs for mercy, choking under the crushing weight of my boot against his throat. Filled with rage, a blackness rising up within me until I can no longer contain it, I pierce his chest with the blade in a gout of blood.
Suddenly I am looking skyward, a blade rising from my chest - the sword Robbo used to kill Nyeda. Shadowy figures fade in and out of view until one steps toward me, grasping the hilt of the sword and twisting, pushing the tip through me into the ground beneath. Tendrils of inky smoke snake their way down the blade into my mouth, silencing my scream as they fill my throat. Darkness clouds my vision until I can only hear the grinding of the blade into the hard-packed dirt.
Trey's boots scrape against the ground as two Blades drag him further into the center of the ruin. The building we had sought refuge in was relatively intact. We had shored up most of the gaps in the walls with debris and posted lookouts on the remainder. Someone even managed to get a fire going. In the pitch black outside the walls, I can hear scrabbling and the Serfs' foul language. 
Thwap. Thwap. Kileg's bow thrums with power, the Synthesis imbued arrows finding their marks even in total darkness. Something thrashes and moans piteously in the darkness. Kileg quickly squats back down, placing the bow across his thighs. 
"We can't stay here, you know," he says. 
I nod grimly. When some scouts had reported a Serf village a half day's journey or so inside No Man's Land, I quickly organized a raiding party to take care of it. It was a frequent enough event no one thought much of it; we would leave the Seven Fingers, find the village and raze it to the ground. If we did not, the Serfs would quickly multiply and spread like a disease. The village was easily located, but two Z'bri surprised us as we set about torching the buildings. Before we had a chance to respond, three of the raiding party were killed and two more wounded. 
One of the Beasts was a Koleris, who had fought savagely, pain fueling its rage even as I ran it through with my sword. Its death throes had sprayed burning ichor, reducing my shield to a smoking, melted ruin. The second Z'bri was a Melanis. It was an impossible-looking creature comprised entirely of constantly moving legs, bent in a hundred different angles. It had no visible head, only horrific, distorted faces that emerged and disappeared randomly from within its skin. Skittering in the shadows between the burning buildings, it somehow rallied the score or so surviving Serfs, who began to jerk and stumble toward us like Dahlian string puppets. The Z'bri then began using its Sundering to siphon our thoughts and memories, clouding our minds and sowing chaos in our ranks. Trey was the first to succumb, reduced to a slack-jawed drooling shell. Even now the Z'bri's Atmosphere scrapes against the inside of my skull and burns my throat with a putrid tang. When I spotted the ruin I quickly gave orders to retreat to it so we could regroup. 
"We need to slip out of the far side of this building," I say. "We break straight west, then south toward the Seven Fingers. When we're close enough, Kileg can loose a signal arrow and hope the lookouts see it and send out a war party." 
"It will find us," Selia whispers from her position near one of the openings in the wall. She is standing perfectly still, staring into the darkness. 
I take her face in my hands and gently kiss her on the lips. She is covered in blood and gore, but I don't care. Her eyes are wide, her pupils shrunk to dots despite the darkness. She needs me now, they all do. "We are going to get out this." 
Selia begins to shake, softly at first, her spine going rigid as the convulsions increase in strength. A terrible keening erupts from her throat and I hear the rasp of her sword leaving her scabbard. Kileg yells something behind me, but all I can do is look into her eyes, suddenly glazed over and unseeing, clouded by the influence of the Beast. I'm crying and shaking my head, even as I unsheathe my own sword. The inhuman sound trails off into a sputtering gurgle, and she looks down at the sword driven deep underneath her breastbone, her eyes wide and suddenly Selia again. I will never forget her look of betrayal and terror as she slumps into my arms. 
I'm in Bazaar again, holding Robbo's bloody sword. For the first time,  I notice the intricate glyphs on the crossguard and the blade's dull, flecked metal. In front of me stands the monster I faced when we escaped the ruins and the Z'bri attack. The bodies of my fallen comrades have been melted together into a patchwork of forms, lumbering along unevenly on legs and arms, multiple heads searching for its prey. But...the faces aren't right. Where there should be the faces of the Joanites who died that night in No Man's Land, instead are those of the three young Joanites, Nyeda's, the Sin Eater's and Selia's. All of them begin pleading with me, the cacophony growing until I can no longer take it and drive the blade deep into its fetid flesh...

With an audible whoomp I forced myself awake, sitting up in my pallet. I was drenched with sweat despite the pre-dawn chill. What does that night in No Man's Land have to do with Robbo? Or the Sin Eater? I thought. The sword! The sword was important in some way. Perhaps Den'a knew why.

It was not long before my initiate came with bread and porridge. After my meal, she helped me prepare for the day. I had no idea what to expect - where I was familiar with death, Mortuary was intimate with it. There was no telling what dangers might lurk within the enormous necropolis, hiding among its twisted paths and tangle of crypts, mausoleums, ruins and grave fields. I had him help me don my armor and weapons, pack provisions and a few other items, and descended from the Tower to make sure Robbo and the others were ready.

The air in the Tower's lower level was filled with the scent of cooking food. I said a few greetings but did not stop, heading past the bustle of the common areas and the clang of arms in the Arena to the stairs leading below. Robbo was the only prisoner in the small block of unused cells underneath the Tower. Most Tribal criminals wound up in the Red Gaol, where they stayed just long enough to be tried and judged, and Joanites almost never held prisoners of their own. This left the cells in the tower empty except for high profile prisoners, or unusual cases like Robbo.

Robbo was sitting in one corner of the cell, muttering to himself as he rocked back and forth with his knees to his chest. Around his neck was a wooden collar with two metal rings driven into either side. He was covered in filth, his hair matted and his clothes in shreds. Two poles with dull hooks leaned on the wall outside of the cell, just outside of reach from the bars.

"It was the only way could get him out of the cart." The jailer glared at Robbo as he brushed past me. The jailer was old and bent, one of his legs missing from the knee down. He limped around on a foot taken from some large doll that was found in a skytower near Bazaar. "He refused to get up or walk, and we were afraid to carry him with what happened to that Blade. So we slapped a collar on him and dragged him here."

"We're not going to be able to handle the poles and collar...I'm going to need him in wrist and ankle shackles. If there aren't already rings in the wagon to lock the shackles to, I'd suggest you set to putting them in."

The jailer nodded, grabbing one of the poles. Two burly guards entered from an adjacent room, and started to put shackles on Robbo. He was covered in more blood than I remembered, and had several serious burns on his face and hands. The jailer must have read the look on my face.

"The Inquisitor went easy on him. Couldn't get nothing anyway, not even from Truthsaying. Boy won't speak."

"I won't have him looking like a Squat. Clean him up, and bandage those burns. He needs new clothes, too. Make sure he's fed and see nothing more happens to him between now and when we leave." My own words surprised me. I had little doubt he was the one who had murdered Nyeda. But something gnawed at my thoughts, something that didn't add up, and I felt Robbo was the key.

"Will do. You'd better get upstairs, I heard Kileg was waiting for you. We'll take care of him."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fate Core, Some More Thoughts

Fate Core, even as a draft, contains some of the best GMing advice I've ever read. It's a fundamental revelation, like the first time reading a system that didn't use levels, or classes, or random die rolls for attributes, or random damage from weapons. Even someone who runs a non-Fate game can benefit from this stuff.

The recurring theme throughout is something I've subconsciously understood when running games, but never gave a lot of thought about: how does this add to the game? We are told in various ways, in various sections, to make things matter. If you can't come up with a compelling reason for a die roll, or a ruling, or a story element, then you need to rethink it a little bit. If it doesn't do something to move the story forward or challenge the PCs, maybe it doesn't need to be there. Chapter 9 - "Scenes, Sessions and Scenarios" - is a particular goldmine of wisdom on examining various elements ranging from the relationships between the PCs, other characters, the world, and various other connections for getting a scenario going. A GM doesn't need to have Aspects in their game to take advantage of the methods Fate Core suggests.

In "What Makes a Good Fate Game?", three basics are laid out: competence, proactivity and drama. The characters are competent at what they do. Situations shouldn't exist unless they let the PCs show off their competence. When things go pear shaped, it's not because they didn't know what they were doing, it's in spite of their competence. Maybe the plan doesn't go right, or there's something beyond their control. The PCs are also proactive. They get involved, they do stuff, and don't just sit around waiting for the adventure to come to them. Finally, there need to be complications and difficult choices that the PCs have to make. Nothing should be single-faceted, unless that in itself is interesting and moves the story forward.

I've played in games where the GM seemed to only focus on setting our characters up for failure. They weren't fun games. Nobody wants to be forced to make a Dexterity roll for no reason other than to open a door - not an important door, not because the character is being chased by a demon, but just because the GM randomly decides it's a thing to do. Similarly, I've played in games where none of the players actually had their characters do anything. The PCs sat around like lumps, waiting for the next plot point to find them. The only way to get them engaged was to set up a fight, and even those turned out mechanical and boring because the players weren't engaged. They didn't have any skin in the game besides the scribbles on their character sheets. Fate Core's advice does a lot to counter these types of things and I can see how employing some of the techniques could help pretty much any game.

Obviously, some GMing styles might not mesh well with this. If you're someone who doesn't really like metagaming - or are a "let the dice fall where they may" type person where chance encounters are expected to be deadly - competence, proactivity and drama may not be the best fit. Even so, the higher level idea of make it matter should still  be a takeaway. If a character is going to get an infection from a random injury they sustained, it should matter somehow. If you're going to call for a die roll, at least think about how that die roll might turn out. What happens if the character fails? How can it lead to additional complications? What are the stakes? Those are questions I'm going to be asking from now on, regardless of what game I'm playing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mike Pondsmith and Me


I first came into R. Talsorian Games' products in the mid-Eighties. There was a comic book store called Funny Business in Pomona, CA run by a gentleman named Joey. Joey was very big into anime - his store screened anime on Sundays (no subtitles, no dubbing, often a copy of a copy of a copy sent from Japan). He also stocked some roleplaying games, and one day he showed me this game called Mekton. I loved the first edition of the game, and scooped up Mekton II when it came out. When I found out Mike Pondsmith was going to be at one of the Strategicon conventions, I saved up every cent so I could go.

The demo he ran at the convention featured new systems and rules from the upcoming Mekton Technical System. The scenario was an Elaran unit trying to defend an installation in the middle of the map from Kargans. If the Kargans got into the installation, they won. If we held them off for x amount of time, we won. By virtue of my knowing the system very well, I was chosen as the Elaran leader. Mr. Pondsmith ran the demo with one other person, and it was a complete blast. His presence, style of running the game, and encouraging the other players added a lot to the experience.

For anyone wondering, the demo ended with my side losing even though only one Kargan unit remained. He was close to the installation but nearly finished (if I remember right, both of his mech's arms had been blown off). He announced he was going to self-destruct (a very Kargan thing to do, "Death before dishonor" and all) , so I ordered a full withdrawal for my remaining units (a very Elaran thing to do). The turn before the powerplant would have blown, the Kargan player miraculously made the TECH roll needed to stop the countdown. My units were already either off the map or too far away to do anything, so his unit limped into the facility and they won.

After the demo, Mike Pondsmith congratulated both of us. He commended my decision to withdraw, saying it was exactly what he would have done as a goody-two-shoes Elaran commander. Afterward, he stuck around and I talked with him for at least an hour about anime, mecha, gamemastering, movies and books. That talk stuck with me. He was so animated and such a compelling speaker, plus an all around great guy. I felt he genuinely wanted to talk to me - I don't recall him ever looking around desperately for an excuse to get away from me. I was very honored he took the time to talk to me.

When it was released, Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! became my bible for running more games than Cyberpunk 2020. I saw a lot of the general advice he had given me at the convention in the book, and "When in doubt, roll and shout!" became my motto. I played hundreds of hours of Cyberpunk 2020 and various editions of Mekton, probably more than any other RPG prior to my discovering them. I bought nearly every Cyberpunk 2020 supplement sight unseen, even from third parties like Atlas Games or Ianus Publications/Dream Pod 9, as well as Dream Park and Cybergeneration. I liked Ianus Publications' Cyberpunk 2020 supplements and Jovian Chronicles for Mekton II so much, I started keeping tabs on their products as well. That lead me to Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles and one of my favorite RPGs of all time, Tribe 8.

Mike Pondsmith, and R. Talsorian Games, have left a very deep mark on the games I play and how they play them and are responsible for some of my best gaming experiences (whether playing one of their games or someone else's). I'm very excited to experience Cyberpunk 2077 when it's released,  and for Mike Pondsmith who will get to see his creation come to life in a new medium.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Note About Assumptions (and how a bad one doesn't invalidate the point)

So, in the verbal melee with the Dark Phoenix Publishing sock-monster which has broken out on the artist's DeviantArt account over their unauthorized use of her artwork, the point has been brought up by the sockpuppet that no one asked DPP how they came into using the logo (which is true). The sockpuppet and DPP's blog - which is being treated as a website because all of the entries are pages and not posts, which is  really weird in and of itself - have also stated this logo has been copied and used across the Internets without consent of the artist (which is true). In all, we can glean from their postings that the following are the facts:

  1. Any assumption of deliberate misuse of a copyrighted logo is false.
  2. DPP was somehow misled into believing they had license to use the logo.
  3. The logo has been copied widely against the artist's explicit consent.
  4. DPP is taking good faith measures to remove the logo from everywhere they are using it.
With these four facts, it's a slam dunk. The whole thing is a misunderstanding, right?

Not quite.

Number 3 doesn't even count, except as possible support of 1 and 2 but that's really super flimsy. "Well, the logo is everywhere so the hobo who sold it to me could have downloaded and claimed he drew it himself. He was shaking really badly and smelled like Fritos, but I trusted him anyway." 4 I'll look at in a moment. Which leaves facts 1 and 2.

Two years ago, Mykal Lakim was having issues with Wikipedia. One of those issues revolved around the DPP logo, as well as other art and logos, not conforming to Wikipedia's copyright attribution standards. Looking through the logs uncovers this (emphasis mine):

06:24, 31 October 2010 Mykal lakim (talk | contribs) uploaded "FileDarklogo2010.jpg" ({{Information |Description = |Source = I (~~~) created this work entirely by myself. |Date = ~~~~~ |Author = ~~~Mykal Lakim, Dark Phoenix Publishing, copyright 2010 |other_versions = }})
19:42, 9 May 2010 Mykal lakim (talk | contribs) uploaded "FileDarkphoenixlogo.jpg" ({{Information |Description = |Source = I (~~~) created this work entirely by myself. |Date = ~~~~~ |Author = ~~~ |other_versions = }})


That is our friend, Mykal Lakim, claiming he created the logo entirely by himself. So, even if 1 and 2 above are true, Mr. Lakim still tried to take credit for the creative work. Even if the pieces he tried to upload to Wikipedia - repeatedly, despite the fact they were deleted - were different logos entirely, it doesn't change the fact that when Wikipedia wouldn't accept "I made this by myself" as proper attribution, instead of looking into the matter:


Mykal Lakim did this:


In case you're wondering what two-year old Wikipedia edits have to with anything, it's because the logs demonstrate not only a lack of understanding about how to follow proper procedures, but an unwillingness to even try to learn what those procedures are. When those attempts to prevent his pages and files from being deleted failed, he resorted to threatening lawsuits and claiming discrimination. There's a name for this kind of behavior: entitlement. He believed he was entitled to do things his way, and everyone else be damned. This is the same behavior I've seen out of his social media outlets and sock-robots.

I suspect he will claim the logos he attempted to upload to Wikipedia were different - but the filename of the earliest use of the graphic as a logo is from the same time period and very similar (it has an "a" appended to it) and without Mykal Lakim coughing up a different logo, there's no reason to suspect that it wasn't the same graphic.

Finally we come to the fourth fact, DPP taking good faith efforts to make things right. The logo is still on their website. It is still being used on merchandise (not currently for sale, but still). It is still in PDFs which are being distributed. Sure, it was removed from the obvious places, which is a start - but it belies the attitude of  "Only doing what I have to" and "I'll do this my way". Any reputable publishing company who got themselves ensnared in some kind of bad deal involving a hobo selling them unlicensed artwork would shut their shit down. They'd remove the graphic from every easily modified place where it is displayed, and disable access to the others (such as a website) until they could fix the situation. Above all, they would apologize to their customers and potential market. Profusely. Repeatedly. Instead of apologies, we get statements like this:
After finding out part of the logo design was used in dozens of other artworks we were contacted by the original artist. After discussing the matter with the artist and how the logo came into our hands we decided the best option was for us to discontinue the use of the old logo and have the artist commissioned to draft us a new logo.
and
We won't apologize for being so tight lipped about our practices and we won't name who we do business with until things are finalized. Sorry, that's just how we (and our affiliates) do business.
"We decided". "We won't apologize." Take very careful look at the language there. The first gives the impression that DPP was contacted as part of an effort by the artist who was hunting down multiple other unlicensed uses. That's patently untrue. The artist contacted Mykal Lakim because I pointed out the plagiarized art in my review and another RPG.net user alerted the artist. The second quote pretty much sums everything up - he won't apologize. He won't own his shit. If I write bad code and it comes back to me after it's been released, I don't blame the business analysts for writing bad requirements. I don't blame QA for passing it in the first place. I say, "Wow, I'm sorry. I really screwed that up. Let me fix that. How can I prevent that from happening again?" But from Mykal Lakim there are no apologies forthcoming. Just more evasion, doubling down, excuses, sock puppets and condescension.

In the end, he set the stage for people making assumptions by coming out as condescending, combative and evasive from the very beginning. From where I'm standing even a bad assumption doesn't invalidate the facts, it just puts them in a different light. In the case that Mark Smith and BeautifulDarkness666 aren't sock puppets I apologize for the assumption but buffer it with the advice that if they aren't, they surely aren't the people Mykal Lakim wants stepping up for him. They're not making him look good. If they are sock puppets - and the evidence for it is pretty damning, even if it is circumstantial - well, regardless, that's how Mykal Lakim and his affiliates do business and I don't expect that to change.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fate Core: Some First Thoughts

I was finally able to back the Fate Core Kickstarter yesterday to the level I wanted (and coincidentally found the Thematic Fate Dice Kickstarter and promptly threw behind that, because $28 for 16 dice is a bargain). So far, I like a whole lot of what I see with just a few rough spots.

The reduction in the number of starting Aspects is a Good Thing(tm). I've been head-down with Strands of Fate for a while now (particularly adapting Tribe 8) and I have found that the "Aspect Alphabet" can seem a little too much. Reducing the number, and tying a good many of them to other portions of character creation, seems like it would go a long way toward helping people who get stuck on Aspects. As usual, the advice on Aspects in general is top notch (which is what I'd expect from Evil Hat).

I still have a few reservations about "the phase trio", but I can't really put my finger on them. Since first reading about the concept in Spirit of the Century, I haven't been able to quantify exactly why either. Tying together PCs has always been a sticky point in games, and I've played in plenty where one or more PCs just have no connection to the others and it dragged the entire game down. An alternative beyond the cliche being in the same unit, or being forced to work together, or any other forced relationship between the PCs is awesome. Yet, the Phase Trio seems almost too forced. Phase one is not the problem, it's both Phases Two and Three being crossing paths. I'm thinking I might not enforce it so strictly, but allow for Phase Two (or even Three) to take a step back.

A good example of what I'm talking about is a guy I work with, who we'll call Che (because that's his name). When he started working here we quickly found out that not only were we in Marine Corps Boot Camp at nearly the exact same time (he went in a couple weeks later, so he wound up in the next company over) but we were in the same company in School of Infantry. Mind, there are 4 platoons in a company; we were in the same barracks but different squad bays. We fell out onto the same stretch of parade deck every morning, went to the chow hall at the same time, and did the much of the same training. We had to have rubbed shoulders or exchanged a few words at some point. But neither one of us remember it because I was injured and discharged, and he went on to Desert Storm. Yet we wound up sitting one cubicle away from each other, 20 years later. So I guess the tweak I'm thinking of is having at least Phase Two represent something more vague ("Served in the same company"), and even allowing the order to be mixed up a bit (maybe Phase Two happened first, then Phase One, then Phase Two). This allows for a little more flexibility in accommodating character backgrounds. More than likely the stock method implicitly supports this type of mixing things up, so it's hardly a big deal.

Tomorrow I'll dig deeper into the mechanical workings of character creation and the tweaks that they've made to Fate.

Sockpuppets Strike Back

Well, not really strike back. More like rant and rave in an echo chamber. It's actually not much of a rant, either. Maybe pissing in the wind is a more apt term? Anyway, I'd actually wanted to blog a bit about Fate Core (which I was finally able to get around to backing yesterday) but I wanted to address our friendly neighborhood sockpuppet, Mark Smith, while I have some spare cycles.

First, he has given us a review of the Bucoli sourcebook (remember this is the blog created solely for a Vampire: Undeath review...it's even in the name), complete with a copy-pasta introduction from the previous review. He also has taken to rather odd rants about Trolls, capitalized in much the same way as Mr. Lakim capitalizes words. I'll buy Mr. Smith two clues: 1) troll is not a proper noun, 2) criticizing something is not "trolling" and 3) using the same word, in the same manner, as the person you're not a sockpuppet for is not convincing. Well, that was three clues but I never said I was good at counting.

Speaking of what I am good at, there's something I want to get off my chest because of this classic bit at the end of his post:
Please tell me this guy has no life and he gets an SSI check. Well folks, that's my rant I'm going back to Minecraft to relax because stupid people make my head hurt.
First, there's the implication that receiving SSI is somehow bad. One of my best friends was on SSI - he had chronic asthma and a bad heart and his life ended much too soon, while on the waiting list for a transplant. He was also an aspiring actor (O.M.G. - someone on assistance trying to do something so they won't have to depend on it!), an excellent uncle to his nieces and nephews, and one of the most moral, principled people I've ever met (frustratingly so, sometimes). Another good friend of mine receives SSI, because her husband (who, along with the former person, were practically brothers to me) died in a horrible accident. He was a fantastic husband, father, friend, and all around nice guy. My mom qualifies for SSI, because she's legally blind and has been all of her life. So, that bit of standard idiot-mantra of "Anyone who receives anything from the government must be a loser" can eat a bag of dicks.

But, aside from that, Mr. Smith doesn't have to worry! I have both a life and a very successful career as a SQL developer. He may want to look up what SQL means - a forewarning though, the subject does contain big words, plus some relational algebra and set theory.

Now I'll address the meat of this post.
Not only does he troll Dark Phoenix Publishing but he accuses everything he doesn't understand or like as being fake, thievery or he just throws a fit.
Do you mean trolling like this, where two sockpuppet accounts (James Pendragon and Iblis Eterna) came out of the woodwork? This behavior went on for virtually every post on the White Wolf Facebook page until eventually pretty much everyone was banned. I've not posted anything, aside from one post, on either the Dark Phoenix Publishing page or Mark Smith's page. This must be some new threshold for trolling I'm unaware of.

Besides, the rallying cry of  "you don't like it, so you have no right criticizing it" is the biggest load of horseshit ever uttered. Typically, people who don't like something tend to have extremely good reasons (say, blatant copying and a pathological drive by the author to deny it), and often when their criticisms are addressed the end product is something even the critics have at least something good to say about. This isn't one of those cases. The criticisms are completely and totally valid. No fits involved here at all, just good old fashioned critical analysis.
So let's see here, first he accuses Dark Phoenix of plagiarism. He can't find a single, published case of plagiarism [...]
Dark Phoenix Publishing's Vampire: Undeath lifts portions of the Storyteller system and many of White Wolf's concepts without crediting White Wolf as the inspiration. Hell, the entire list of planned game lines is a carbon copy of White Wolf's business model, down to the subjects of the games and even the layout of the covers. The books and other pages/websites are still using unlicensed, uncredited artwork and graphics. There are proven cases of plagiarism on the Dark Phoenix Publishing Facebook page - some of which have now been removed, but were memory-hole proofed in my previous post. I'm not the only one who has seen it. I'm not the only one who has reached this conclusion. Posters on 4chan, Something Awful, reddit, Giants in the Playground, and others have reacted the same way to the material.

And the next bit:
So wait, you feel a book about Succubi shouldn't be about sex?
No, I said it was poorly done and full of crappy ideas. The dead giveaway that being about sex wasn't the issue may have been the second blog post, where I give an example of a game I feel handles the subject of sexually-driven characters well. I guess Mr. Smith never claimed reading comprehension was his strong point. Maybe he should stick to Minecraft and WoW.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Year of FATE: The Laundry and Exalted


To round out the other games I'd like to be able to tackle this year are two games where I love the settings but not really the system.

The first is The Laundry rpg from Cubicle 7. I have a soft spot for espionage, office humor, and Mythos-related things, and I think the Laundry-verse is perfect for playing in. The only issue is I'm very lukewarm about BRP - it's perfectly functional, but just kind of sits there for me. I would definitely veer toward using FATE for such a game, and incorporate some specific elements to help capture the required feel. One idea I had was using handouts and forms from the sourcebooks as a way to generate FATE points. Get handed a form, fill out, when the player returns it they get a FATE point because you know something is going to happen because of whatever is in the report. The other idea I had was for a zombie parody mission, possibly in the style of the Warm Bodies.

Second, we have Exalted. I loved the first edition setting but wasn't big on the system. This wasn't for lack of trying - I ran both a first edition and a second edition game, but they were such a huge chore I swore off Exalted for a number of years. The announcement of third edition has piqued my interest, but I doubt even a complete system overhaul would encourage me to wade back into the system. Even if I take cues from people who have previously adapted Exalted, it'll still be a lot of work, Since I haven't regularly gamed for a number of years, taking on Exalted too might be a too much. I suppose I could run Tribe 8 and Exalted, and keep the other games in the wings for nights when regular players can't make it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Year of FATE: The Thief campaign

I've been thinking of the various games I'd like to try to kick off this year, and I've decided I want a handful of FATE games. Aside from running my Strands of Fate version of Tribe 8, I've wanted to do a Thief-style game for a very long time - and playing Dishonored is just adding fuel to the fire. The upcoming FATE Core might be just the thing.

The biggest challenge I see is thief-style characters - for example, Garrett in Thief or Corvo in Dishonored - are generally solitary. Sure, they may have allies or other characters they rely on, but they can't have a large team when they're actually working. A good parallel are netrunners in Cyberpunk. The netruns could take a decent amount of time to resolve, but only the netrunner character's player was involved. To make matters worse, netruns took only seconds or minutes of game time, leaving the other players very little time to have their characters accomplish something else. My thinking for this type of game is each player has a thief as their main character and another secondary character such as a fence, captain of the guard, gang leader, wheelman, guild enforcer, recurring patron, etc. This allows for the player to stay engaged at least part of the time when another player's character is going solo. Like in The Dresden Files the city where the characters are based would be created collaboratively.

Another important element is the feeling of creeping from room to room, avoiding guards, overcoming obstacles, etc. that video games like Thief or Dishonored excel at. Skill rolls alone sound pretty unsatisfactory. Players in either of the two video games who are cautious, observant, and take the time to plan things out typically find getting through a mission much easier. One way to handle this (aside from the Stealth tracks I mentioned in my previous post) it to treat each zone as an adversary that must be defeated. The zones would have Aspects representing things important to or of concern to a thief - lighting, hiding places, sound, visibility, alternate routes, locks, etc. The thief would then have to develop the best strategy to "defeat" each zone. My understanding is that FATE Core may have some elements that would help out with creating the zones as adversaries; even if it doesn't, the FATE fractal would already handle it. If need be specialized rules for "building" locations could be developed easy enough. Similar to city creation, it might be really cool if the other players, beside the player who will be attempting the job or mission. collaborate on creating the location.

So for my "Year of Fate", my second game is definitely going to be Thief/Dishonored inspired. I think it would be a really awesome campaign if done correctly.






Friday, January 4, 2013

Plagiarist of the week

Every first year college student gets a face-full of anti-plagiarism material, including statements that have to be signed and sometimes even a class which must be taken. Students who are caught plagiarizing risk failing a class, academic probation or worse. There also is no wiggle room as to what is plagiarism or what isn't - taking someone's idea and rewording it, but not citing the reference, is enough for it to count. Copying someone's text word-for-word is just a degree worse, not a completely different crime.

The MLA uses this definition of plagiarism in their Statement of Professional Ethics (an article which is fully referenced):
In this statement we adopt the definition of plagiarism given in Joseph Gibaldi's MLA Style Manual: "Using another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism.... [T]o plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics.... Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another's wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another's argument, and presenting another's line of thinking" (6.1; see also Gibaldi, MLA Handbook, ch. 2). It is important to note that this definition does not distinguish between published and unpublished sources, between ideas derived from colleagues and those offered by students, or between written and oral presentations. 
Plagiarism is something a lot of tabletop gamers don't think about too much, at least in the products they buy. Most books have a large amount of original content, and many which have required research or are working off of others' ideas at least contain references. The authors don't shy away from admitting their influences - publishers of Mythos-based rpgs don't say, "Oh, we have nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote about Cthulhu and our Geriatric Singular Diety is called C'htool'hu." Of course, there is the whole Jim Shipman affair, which has surprising parallels to our plagiarist of the week - perhaps not in scope, but in terms of denial and continued doubling down in the face of an avalanche of blowback.
So who is the Plagiarist of the Week? Do you really have to guess?


"Hi, I'm Mykal. You can't handle my smoldering plagiarism."

Dark Phoenix Publishing's various notes and other text go beyond simply copying ideas and not crediting them (which is still plagiarism; I trust the MLA over some two-bit fake). They actually tread into territory of copying text word-for-word - on top of using artists' work without any credit whatsoever, and continuing to sell products which contain the infringing work.

Laughing Cow Cheese, a poster on RPG.net, subjected himself to the grueling task of checking some of the text associated with Dark Phoenix Publishing and their products. This is what he found.

The text from this has sections taken almost verbatim from this page on the Manataka Indian Council website. The Memory-Hole Proof version of the Dark Phoenix Publishing FB text has been preserved here and here. Last minute update: It appears the author of the article has also commented on the note.

Portions of the description of their Chtulhuhu game where copied verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the Cthulhu Mythos. Again, the MHP version is here.

This note on why vampires are immortal copies text from A Modern Guide to Demons and Fallen Angels. MHP version of the note.

For the big finale, we have their submission guidelines, which are most helpfully swiped from Dark Horse Comics' guidelines. MHP Versions: 1, 2, 3.

What we have here is a "publishing company" being run by an individual who doesn't have a single clue about how to maintain integrity during the creative process. I refuse to speculate as to whether this is through lack of ethics, ignorance, or willful disregard for others' work. Considering the fact that "Mykal Lakim" (which, not surprisingly, isn't his real name) is full of excuses for pretty much everything, it wouldn't surprise me if he denied responsibility for any of it. It is a company of 20 people...any one of them could have done it! Regardless, if "Mykal" has plagiarists in his midst and he enables them, he's just as culpable. At this stage, if he doesn't try to put some kind of spin on the plagiarism it would almost be a letdown. When someone asked what happened to their stolen company logo art, the response was, "we're upgrading yet again in an effort to update our company and make certain changes for 2013 [...] We're trying to credit everyone who requires being credited for the work they have done, when they do it." Except "updating" means "being forced to remove our stolen logo" and "credit everyone who requires being credited" means "when someone makes us give them credit."

As in the Shipman affair, we owe it to ourselves and the creators of the games we play and enjoy to not allow anyone to rip off anyone else, and to get the word out when we see it happening. It's very, very bad for our hobby and the roleplaying industry as a whole. As roleplaying gamers we should never stand for it, and never accept excuses. No one is allowed to plead ignorance about working with "other companies and artists". No one should be giving this "company" their money. Hopefully this is a wake-up call to "Mykal" that he doesn't have any right to blatantly copy other people's works, repackage them, and sell them as his own. Like Steve Conan Trustrum of Misfit Studios said, "Own your shit". It's not a hard thing to do - and too easy to tell when someone isn't.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Misogyny and Trainwrecks, Pt II

First things first: I'm not going to discuss what people should feel is misogyny or not misogyny. I realize this is dancing around one of the very factors I think causes this kind of disconnect between writers and readers. In the end if someone feels a game, or a book, or a statement is demeaning or otherwise offensive is up to that person - not the subject of their feeling. It is certainly more black and white than that, but I'm leaving that whole aspect alone.

There are very few game products, FATAL and "The Slayer's Guide to Female Gamers" aside, that are openly misogynistic. Instead the potentially demeaning content is often more subtle, and authors find it easy to say, "Well, that's not what we meant" or "That was in character". Even James Desborough - the author of "The Slayer's Guide" - defended his blog post In Defense of Rape as satire, or comedy, or to prove a point. He may have had a real point, too, if it hadn't been buried in defensiveness and the desire to make a point for the sake of it.

Dark Phoenix Publishing's preview of their Lilliana sourcebook doesn't so much have a point as it completely lacks one, which is what makes the statements I highlighted in my last post stand out. This is mostly because the book falls back on "women as sex objects" without adding anything at all to the trope of Vampires as Sex Gods. Being sex objects are the only way they can hold sway over males. To make matters worse, the discussion of the sex is two-dimensional and lacks any meaningful discussion of S&M, bondage, homosexuality, or any other non-vanilla sexual behaviors. Of course the book is prefaced with a warning of  "adult content and material" - in this case, "adult" means "14-year-old-boy." The defense of the preview was it is just a preview (I'm going to start calling this tactic The Rallying Cry of The Perpetual Alpha) and assertions the full product has more depth. To make matters worse, objections to the depiction of the females in the book have been met with more dodging the question, quoting unsubstantiated shadow playtesters about how everything is great, and the odd assertion that everything will be okay if the players aren't doing it wrong (to quote Raquel Looker, the ersatz editor pressed into making a Facebook account just to comment: "Basically, the Liliana can only be as smart as the player. All of the material is there. All the player has to do is use it correctly [emphasis mine]").

My intention wasn't to spend the entire post ragging on Dark Phoenix Publishing, though. I wanted to discuss RPGs that have handled women in a more nuanced, mature manner. Granted, discussing men and women is very likely to turn to sex at some point, especially when the subject is how they interact with each other. Still, maturity isn't turning a roleplaying supplement into softcore porn. Concentrating only on sex misses a whole lot of other story opportunities, and there are a number of games that recognize this and don't pin down the more "sensual" character types as simple gold-diggers or whores.

Tribe 8, from Dream Pod 9, is an excellent example. In general, all of DP9's game lines have dodged the most egregious stereotypes and pitfalls (it might have something to do with their being Canadian). When Tribe 8 was released, it got a little bit of criticism for being a "man-hater" game, most likely  due to confusion with the punk band of the same name. To be sure, there are a lot of strong, female characters in the game - the society is, after all, a matriarchy. What it really boils down to, I think, is there are more strong female characters than most gamers are used to, and not an over abundance of strong female characters in general. Gender roles aren't "reversed" so much as different, and men are neither inferior nor weak.

Tribe 8 even includes a "sexy" Tribe - the Magdalites. From my perspective, Magdalites are handled very well. They are a lot more than sex kittens and bimbos. Sure, sexuality is a large component but they have many more facets. Anything pleasurable is fair game: art, music, conversation, food, emotions, drugs, and even pain. They understand lust is just an empty urge without the accompanying emotions. There has to be some mix of love, hate, jealousy, desire, anger, happiness, sadness, excitement, disappointment. Sometimes those other emotions are far superior to lust, and Magdalites excel in manipulating all of them. Because of this Magdalites have a lot of power within the Tribes. Not because everyone wants to bump uglies with them, but because they serve so many functions: dancers, diplomats, spies, concubines, drug dealers and even assassins.  Of course, there is a very dark side to the Magdalites - addictions of all kinds, the willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of new sensations, and emotional fallout of their power plays. Magdalites can break bonds as easily as they make them, driving friends and lovers apart for nothing more than their darkest secrets. These darkest urges align somewhat with the Z'bri  (the big demonic evil in Tribe 8), who are completely grounded in the physical form and its sensations. In fact, the Magdalites are the diplomats who get sent to secretly trade with the Z'bri.

In the end, any RPG material claiming to be "mature", yet only concentrating on sex (particularly that the only real power women have is through sex), fails to actually be mature. Taking the stance that somehow men are powerless against vaginas doesn't make it any better. It just fulfills the same kind of male sex fantasy as going to a strip club and then going home and masturbating - there's no substance and no real emotion there (for the record, I'm not saying that going to strip clubs is automatically immature - my thoughts on that sort of thing are beyond the scope of this post). It's also very poor material for role playing (or any kind of story telling) because it misses out on a whole spectrum of possibilities.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Misogyny and Trainwrecks, Pt. I

Hopefully everyone had a great New Year. I managed to stay up until midnight, and my girlfriend found a good quote summing up the experience: "Youth is staying up because you want to, middle-age is staying up because you're forced to." This year, since the kids made it to midnight, meant the latter.

On to the continuing Dark Phoenix Publishing trainwreck. When we last left off, a sockpuppet review of Vampire: Undeath had appeared. Other than that, the amount of crazy and/or stupid stayed at a pretty low level for a few days, but things changed quickly when they posted a preview of their new bloodline sourcebook and hit a nerve in their portrayal of their all female vampire clan, the Lilliana.

This time around, I'm going to examine several choice sentences from the preview and my first reaction. Next time I'll relate it to similar subject matter in modern gaming.
"Try not to think of the Lilliana as whores or cheap thrills. They’re so much more than that. More akin to trophies that every man, alive or dead, would die to have on their arm,[...]"
Yes, because being a trophy is the pinnacle of what any woman would want and, even as a vampire, is the most that they can aspire to become.
"Instead of walking the streets attempting to sell their bodies, Lilliana gain pleasure from having benefactors give them gifts. I mean, why should you degrade yourself when you can have several benefactors who are dying to give you their money?"
So they are not only trophies, but gold diggers? I actually can't begin to communicate what's wrong with this. Because being attached to someone who is wealthy solely for the purpose of material gain isn't degrading, but prostitution is?
"The Lilliana aren't supposed to be understood. They can’t be understood. Humankind can never understand what it takes to be one of them. The primping… the pampering…"
Andrew Dice Clay: "Women...who gets them? With the primping and the pampering and ayyyyyy!"
"As long as they know how to dance better than anyone else at the club they’re sure to get our attention."
Now for a little sidetrack to set up my next thought. In the last decade and a half or so, the goth/industrial scene has been overrun with socialites and other "style over substance" types who are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on imported club clothes, dance in only one prescribed manner seen on a "How to be a goth" video, and wear gas masks and/or goggles for no fucking reason. The phrase "dance better than anyone else at the club" screams this to me for some reason. Which then reminds me of this song from HexRX (who are a great bunch of guys). There's even a cringe-worthy video to go along with the song that fits the image I have.

 Fuck gas masks. Especially gas masks.
"When we say “basic rights” does that include my make-up and travel accessories or?"
Again, with a statement hitting every bad stereotype of feminine superficiality there is, presented in a "Oh, we're trying to be entertaining but wound up being more than a little misogynistic, but isn't it great anyway?" manner.

Predictably, many of these points and more were called out in the Facebook thread announcing the book's preview. Mykal Lakim bobbed and weaved as much as he could with gems such as, "It's one of the largest previews and we've received nothing but great feedback on it from those we opted to release it to before this release." and "According to the majority of our feedback, the writing is not misogynistic. We have seen from Amy and Theresa that they believe it to be offensive to them and their interpretation of the preview." Interspersed through all of this were unattributed quotes from anonymous reviewers written in the same style as Mykal Lakim and the bizarre notion of playtesters who don't want to be associated publicly with the product. The surprise guest was the book's editor, who showed up to the party immediately after creating a Facebook account. She did a passable job in trying to explain why she personally likes the Lilliana book, but wasn't very convincing with regards to the finished product not being full of the same tripe.

In a completely different discussion, apparently the artist who Mykal Lakim stole the Dark Phoenix Publishing logo from has been trying to get hold of him. The message was not, "Thanks for using my work for free, you keep doing that!". It goes a long way toward explaining why suddenly the graphic disappeared from their Facebook page, but that leaves all the rest of the web pages, PDFs, etc. where the logo hasn't been changed.