Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fate Core Synthesis Draft

This is cross-posted from my other blog.


Working on the Sigils extra was like clearing a logjam: I was able to get a strong start on adapting Synthesis to Fate Core. I realize the common wisdom with creating Fate Core settings is "start with the skill list!", but in this case I felt starting from the other end was better. By working my way through the other Tribe 8 specific skills (Dreaming, Ritual, Sundering, Technosmithing) I'll have a much clearer vision of how to prune and shape the default skill list.

The direction I am going with Synthesis was something that the way Fate Core is written, and how various things are categorized, really brought into focus. The four actions provide a good framework for taming a freeform beast like Synthesis without having to delve into a lot of niggling little rules and modifiers. It helped me realize (for example) that bonuses for trances, extra time, ritual implements, etc. weren't a static thing but should be the result of the character doing something to create an advantage for themselves. The same thing will go for resisting effects; it's not automatic, the character needs to actually do something to get the bonus. Once again, Rob Donoghue's channeling "hack" helped tremendously in helping the rest of the pieces fall into place.

You can get the draft from Google Docs, and I will post regular updates as I tweak and refine it. 

Fate Core Synthesis Draft

Working on the Sigils extra was like clearing a logjam: I was able to get a strong start on adapting Synthesis to Fate Core. I realize the common wisdom with creating Fate Core settings is "start with the skill list!", but in this case I felt starting from the other end was better. By working my way through the other Tribe 8 specific skills (Dreaming, Ritual, Sundering, Technosmithing) I'll have a much clearer vision of how to prune and shape the default skill list.

The direction I am going with Synthesis was something that the way Fate Core is written, and how various things are categorized, really brought into focus. The four actions provide a good framework for taming a freeform beast like Synthesis without having to delve into a lot of niggling little rules and modifiers. It helped me realize (for example) that bonuses for trances, extra time, ritual implements, etc. weren't a static thing but should be the result of the character doing something to create an advantage for themselves. The same thing will go for resisting effects; it's not automatic, the character needs to actually do something to get the bonus. Once again, Rob Donoghue's channeling "hack" helped tremendously in helping the rest of the pieces fall into place.
You can get the draft from Google Docs, and I will post regular updates as I tweak and refine it. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dixton Extra: Sigils

Got the draft (hit the link for the Google doc) completed for the Sigils in the Dixton setting. They are probably going to need some tweaking, but overall I'm pleased with how they turned out. Many thanks go to +Rob Donoghue for his channeling "hack" that helped set the mechanics up in my mind and +Cameron Corniuk+Andy Hauge+Jack Stephenson-Carr and +Mike Thompson for their great suggestions that helped break me out of a bit of writer's block in coming up with an implementation.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Daryl Dixon Has More Than Stuff. Things.


The Walking Dead this season and last delivered an extremely pleasant surprise in the character development department: Daryl Dixon. Norman Reedus has been handed a character who could have been a South Park or Simpsons style cardboard cutout and given him depth, wisdom, compassion and overall badassery.

Daryl serves as the perfect foil for Merle, both of whom came from the same background (which itself could have been done in a cliche manner, but was not) and the exchange between them in Zombie Delivery was a perfect example. Daryl has grown as a person in a believable manner without giving up the charm that makes him Daryl.

Daryl follows in the footsteps of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, a character who has distasteful qualities but shows more than enough depth to be the most sympathetic character in the show (at least to me). Tyrion was already my favorite from the books, but Peter Dinklage brings so much to the table in bringing him to life. Not that Daryl shares Tyrion's depravities, just in both cases the characterization could easily fall into cardboard cutout territory and by virtue of impressive acting steers well clear of it.

Daryl does illustrate a particular prejudice on my part - surprise that a character who might be considered a "hick" or "redneck" would be likable or deep. I'm not particularly proud of this realization, and it goes a long way toward realizing Daryl's likability isn't in spite of his background or because of it, but due to coming across as a thinking, feeling, complete person. The actor successfully turns the mirror of "the other" back on us, showing that even the most open-minded view some people with the same prejudice they criticize others for. That's the real magic in Daryl Dixon.

Plus they'd all die without him around.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Flashback Friday: Living Steel

I'm going to start a feature of sorts revisiting a few older and possibly even a little obscure settings or game systems. Not reviews but more of personal recountings of what I genuinely liked about the games without concentrating on the negatives.

I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic games, movies and books. I think this goes back to living for the first half of my life under threat of nuclear war (probabilistic or not). I entered elementary school at the tail end of when they were retiring the old civil defense movies. By that time, they'd abandoned the "Duck and cover"-type videos of the 1950s and moved on to, "When you hear a siren, just find someplace to sit down and wet yourself." Watching The Day After and Threads didn't help matters much. There's nothing like realizing, "I live in California. We don't have cellars or basements." Living close to a number of key military bases may not instill the same nervousness as having a Minuteman silo in the backyard, but it doesn't help either.

It worked out well for those people in Threads.

So I gravitated towards games like Ogre/G.E.V./Battlesuit, The Morrow Project, Gamma World, After the Bomb for TMNT and Twilight 2000. I also love war machines and mecha. Combine the post-apocalypse with powered armor and I'm set.

Which leads me to this week's flashback: Living Steel. I first discovered it at a convention, where the folks from Leading Edge Games were running a demo. The guys running it made it look downright easy. Little did I know they were actual rocket scientists. I bought the entire line, using my game purchasing budget (and probably part of my food budget too), and spent the next few weeks trying to figure out the mechanics. We tried to play it once and only once, and then gave up for a Mekton game. I don't remember a whole lot about the game system except it was extremely complicated. Regardless, I want to go over the cool bits in the setting and not the system.

One thing I remember about the demo is we were part of some scouting party and located a village or town. Having a heavily armed and armored group roll up to their settlement made the locals understandably nervous; since my character was the leader I was volunteered to talk to them. One of the features of the powered armor is the ability to project an image of the wearer's face, apparently to make the armor more personable. I successfully reprogrammed mine to display a whopping yellow happy face. The discussion went south when one of the locals decided to attack me. I wound up picking him up and trying to explain we were there to help, all the while with that giant happy face on my visor.


Is it me, or does he look like he might have a little problem with gas?

If memory serves me right, in Living Steel there was an interstellar society which was defeated by a one-two punch. The Seven Worlds were defeated by an evil empire, but had placed a number of genetically modified supersoldiers in stasis to be awakened when the timing was right. One of the planets they were placed was Rhand, which was (if I remember correctly) a resort or vacation planet of some kind. When Rhand is attacked by a race called the Spectrals, the soldiers (i.e., the PCs) are awakened.

The Spectrals themselves were fairly interesting. They had a warrior type, which was bipedal and kind of Alien-looking. It was exceptionally strong, could see through walls, and was able to incorporate weapons and technology into itself. There was also a spider-looking "brain" type that had psychic powers. They have a hive mind and had some other servitor races they brought along for the ride.

The Spectrals attacked by taking out orbital assets (such as communications) and then spreading a virus planet side called VISR. VISR stood for "Virally Induced Sociopathic Response". Once the population had been reduced to a bunch of Mad Max-style ax murderers and society utterly broke down, they finished their invasion. It would have worked too if it weren't for those meddling Seven Worlders and their powered armor. The invasion not only devastated civilization on Rhand but triggered whatever condition necessary for the release of the super soldiers. They were woken up from their stasis, paired up with some civilian scientists, engineers, etc. who were also in stasis, and set about trying to fight off the Spectrals and reestablish their civilization.


One of the other features of the setting was a teleporter satellite network, called ORCA. The satellite allowed instant transportation from one point on the planet to the other. All but one ORCA satellite was destroyed, and the remaining one damaged. This translated to the satellite only being able to teleport teams once a day or so, and if I remember right the teleportation could be somewhat erratic and imprecise. It was still a reasonably good advantage to have over the opposition.

I also loved the cheesy quotes sprinkled throughout the books' margins. I still remember some choice ones:

Blam. Blam. "Stop." Blam. Blam. "Police."

"We would have believed it was an accidental shooting if he hadn't changed magazines...twice."

Overall, it was kind of a neat setting saddled with a terribly clunky system. I'd actually like to revisit it at some point, because I'm certain it would make a great game using Mekton, Silhouette or even a FATE-based game.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sins of the Sister, Part 5


Previously...
Sins of the Sister, Part 1
Sins of the Sister, Part 2
Sins of the Sister, Part 3
Sins of the Sister, Part 4


The path leading from Bazaar up the Great Hill was all that remained of an ancient roadway, long since broken up and overgrown. Only isolated patches of blacktop and a few large ancient buildings resisting collapse were reminders of the World Before. By the time we entered the woods surrounding the base of the hill the sun had burned through the morning fog and we could see the dome of Mortuary above the trees. The forest seemed peaceful, but Kileg scouted ahead and behind us for any danger.

"I have the sword that killed Nyeda," I said to Den'a, bringing my horse alongside the wagon. "I didn't know if it would be useful to you."

"It will." Her voice was soft and childlike.

I studied her for a moment. "You are very young for being in one of the Sisterhoods."

"Not all of us are old hags." She smiled, the barest upturn of her mouth.

"I did not mean offense. I thought Yagan arts need many years of study."

"For some, yes. For others,  it is more nature than study." Her eyes met mine. They were a peculiar dark blue, almost violet. "Just as I'm sure there are some who take better to killing than others."

"What are you going to do with the boy? Is he sick?"

"I will find the nature of his sin and purify him. You will have the truth about your murdered comrade and Joan will have justice."

"Purify? I thought only Marians could do that..."

"It's not polite to invoke a dead Fatima, Templar." Her eyes glittered. "Sin has deep roots, and mere absolution is not enough for true purity."

"So, why him? Why do you need me?"

"There is a lot I cannot tell you, Cara Gray'on. I am simply a servant of Baba Yaga and follow the instruction of my elders. As for you, the Grave Fields can be dangerous and I require a protector while I work. Guy Nostra'on did not seem happy with your actions yesterday. I believe he is punishing you."

I nodded and thanked her for her honesty. Kileg had returned and motioned for me to join him, so I excused myself and guided my horse to his. He told me the way was clear except for Joanite hunters tracking some Squats who had headed into the Hunting Paths. I related my conversation with Den'a and the dream I had the night before, confessing my concerns about the situation. Kileg was silent for a long while, his eyes constantly searching the edge of the path ahead as he considered what I had said. Finally he asked to see the sword, examining it closely while he guided his horse with his knees.

"I think this metal is from a fallen star," He said finally.

"The Falling Plagues? Why do you say that?"

"I have seen one other blade like this, and was told it had been forged from a fallen star. It was a Joshuan blade. I took it off of a Squat, who claimed another Squat had killed an old Joshuan Outrunner and stolen it. I didn't believe her, thought it was some old metal someone had banged into a sword shape, but when I returned to Vimary I was ordered to bring it to Joan's Tower and never saw it again."

"Who did you give it to?"

"Nostra Guy'on." Kileg lowered his voice. "These swords are rare. Not something a boy would find in a plowed field. You're right Cara, and this blade may hold part of the answer. Forgive me, but Nostra Guy'on is a snake. I'm not even sure he fought during the Liberation, as much as he runs away from it now. He'd let the Z'bri walk right into Joan's Tower if he thought it would make him look good."

I looked back at the wagon. Den'a was sitting with her face slightly upturned toward the dappled sunlight while the young girl was concentrating on driving the wagon. The two boys sat on either side of Robbo, who was sitting perfectly still staring into space. One of the boys was sharpening his knife while the second started at his feet.

"Please watch what you say." My voice was barely above a whisper. "You can't tell who or what might be listening, even here."

"Joan hardly speaks to anyone. She did to you for a reason. Just remember that." He handed the cloth bundle containing the sword back to me. I shook my head, in confusion more than disbelief. There were too many missing pieces, and the pieces I did have didn't make any sense. The Sin Eater, and whatever she was going to do, seemed like the only hope I had.

The crumbling dome at the top of the Great Hill loomed large ahead of us as we followed the meandering trail until it turned us toward the Grave Fields. Branches intertwined over our heads, the way ahead becoming a tunnel through the trees and underbrush. The familiar sounds of the forest, the clop of horses' hooves and clatter of wagon wheels became muted in the soft carpet of leaves. The girl driving the wagon hunkered down, gripping the reins tighter, and the boys jumped at every cracking branch or rustle in the brush. Kileg strung his bow and rested it on the saddle in front of him, muttering to himself as his eyes swept the way in front of us.

Near midday the tunnel began to widen until the trees, patches of blacktop and occasional crumbling wall or  rusted hulk of a metal chariot gave way to a rolling plain dotted with gnarled copses, broken stone slabs and small buildings. Columns and sculptures were scattered randomly about, leaning haphazardly or half-buried on their sides. The sky was a vast expanse of gray punctuated by the stark silhouettes of giant ravens wheeling overhead.

The lurching and jolting of the wagon on the rough ground threatened to throw the boys and Robbo from the back, so the girl was forced to stop. Den'a clambered down and proclaimed we would have to continue on foot. It was the first she had spoken since earlier in the morning.

"What about the horses?" Kileg asked.

"We'll need to leave one of those three behind. One that I trust," I replied. I motioned to the girl. "You'll need to stay with the horses. Tie these two to the wagon. If anything happens, take the wagon and the horses back to Mortuary and get word to the Watchtower." She nodded, trying her best to look brave. "We'll be back as soon as we're finished, I'm sure you will do fine. You two, get Robbo out of the wagon. Carefully."

We all walked a short distance then Den'a stopped just out of sight of the wagon. She produced a small bowl and some long strips of linen from a bag. "You do not want to attract unwanted attention," she said, placing the bowl on a nearby rock and mixing a small amount of thick paste. "If you would allow me, I will need to mark you."

Kileg hesitantly agreed and I nodded. She took a small amount of the paste on two fingers and smeared some on all of our foreheads and cheeks, even Robbo, then instructed for us to wrap the linen around our heads. It was muslin, much like her own covering, but like gauze. It could be seen and breathed through easily enough. She then marked herself and wrapped her own fabric around her head. We continued onward into the Grave Fields on foot with Den'a in the lead.

Descending into the Grave Fields we found ourselves in a labyrinth of mausoleums, crypts, stone, stunted trees and mist. Many of the entrances to the mausoleums and crypts were closed, either by rotting iron gates or more recent, crudely constructed barriers. The pitch black openings all descended into the earth. Pennants and skins hung from many of the crypts, and I saw many markings I recognized - Tribal symbols, family names, clan sigils - and some that were altogether foreign to me. The structures seemed much taller than when we emerged from the forest. I chanced a look back once and found a totally different landscape than the one we had traveled through moments before. Aside from the ravens, we saw no other living thing.

After a couple hours of following Den'a through the fields, picking our way carefully through the rock and brush, our group came upon a small hill dotted with sickly trees. A slightly worn trail led up to an opening near the crown of the hill, framed by three rough stone slabs decorated with brightly painted patterns and charcoal drawn symbols. Poles bearing dried human skins stood to either side of the entrance.

"Looks like the right place," Kileg said quietly.

"I will continue with Robbo from here," Den'a turned to face me. "I will need you to wait, but you cannot accompany me for the ritual."

"You can't be expected to handle him by yourself," I answered skeptically.

"I will not be, the boys will accompany me. They witnessed the incident, I need them as well."

"W-we didn't actually see..." one of them interjected.

"You have a part in this," she said. Her voice held an edge I had not heard before.

"And my part?" I asked.

"The ritual I must perform is very delicate, and I cannot be interrupted. I will need you to insure I am not. It is going to be dark soon, and I have preparations to make. I will call for you when I am ready." Den'a walked up the hill and disappeared inside the shadow of the entrance, carrying the sword and a number of bags she had brought with her in the wagon. A moment later a torch guttered to life just inside the entrance, throwing a dim glow against the walls. She disappeared down the passageway and did not return until it was almost dusk.

As Den'a exited the tomb Robbo began to mutter to himself, shaking his head back and forth and swaying on his feet. He had not made a sound the entire morning or afternoon. The linen over his face puffed in and out, sucked in against his mouth as he struggled to form words. I could not see the two boys' faces, but they gripped the poles attached to Robbo's collar so tightly their knuckles were white. Den'a walked up to Robbo, taking his hands into hers, and he immediately calmed down.. She tugged gently on his hands - he hesitated at first then began to follow her up the hill, the youths loosely holding the poles behind them.

Some instinct told me to draw me sword, and I did so with Kileg following suit. There the two of us stood, silently watching as darkness fell  across the vast necropolis of the Grave Fields.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fighting "Aspect Creep"

One of the things I didn't realize until after the fact with my Strands of Fate adaptation for Tribe 8 is the sheet number of aspects. On top of the character aspects there was a tribal aspect, and then if the character had Synthesis there were two Eminences apiece. I want to try to figure out a way to streamline it for Fate Core while still keeping the basic tenets of the way Synthesis works.
For those who are unfamiliar with Tribe 8 (and to help me try to focus on the important bits), there are a set of "Eminences" which are essentially archetypes - Life, Inspiration, Motion, Wisdom, Truth, etc. Tribal and Fallen characters in Silhouette have two - for each Tribe they are fixed while Fallen retain one from their birth Tribe and can choose one from their new Outlook. These characters are considered to be "awakened". In Dreams of Flesh and Spirit, I represented this as an advantage which granted a persistent aspect. The Eminences were also aspects. By this point, the character would a Tribal or Fallen aspect plus an Awakened Aspect and two Eminence Aspects (not to mention the Synthesis skill). That's four additional aspects, and it's too many.
Now, there are two things that strike me about Eminences. The first is they're more of archetypes than personal characteristics. They're universal constants and exist outside of the character. The second is that they can likely be collapsed pretty easily. Using archetypes I can see seven Tribal archetypes and four Fallen ones.
Tribal Archetypes:
  • Agnite: Child
  • Baba Yaga: Crone
  • Dahlian: Trickster
  • Evan: Mother
  • Joan: Warrior
  • Magdalen: Lover
  • Tera Sheba: Judge
Fallen Archetypes:
  • Doomsayer: Prophet
  • Herite: Heretic
  • Jacker: Avenger
  • Lightbringer: Visionary
One of the things that Eminences do in Silhouette is allow a character one reroll or a bonus on a roll during a session. Fate Points and creating advantages already mimic this, so there's nothing more to be done other than allowing the character the aspect. This aspect would be Awakened to [Archetype]. Characters who don't want to invest in Synthesis don't need to do any more - otherwise the character would only need to buy ranks in the Synthesis skill, along with any other requirements (since I need to evaluate what those might be).
The awesome thing about this solution is it could probably work just as well for the other three groups that have powers: Keepers, Z'bri and Guides. It's just a matter of identifying archetypes. One aspect, one skill, and a much less cluttered way of dealing with Synthesis.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sneaky Skills for a Sneaky Time

After some thinking and reworking, I'm kind of settled on the skills for the Dixton setting for Fate Core. I'm hoping it's varied enough to capture the nuances of what a master thief-type character does, such as the splitting of underworld and legitimate contacts and resources, the use of a Case skill as a counterpoint to Investigation, breaking out Pilfering and Breaking from a general Burglary skill, etc. Alertness is just Notice renamed, and the same with Sneak and Stealth. The stunt list is definitely not comprehensive, and obviously doesn't include any kind of magic or powers system - which is where I'm setting my crosshairs next. Anyway, you can download the draft skills document and take a look for yourself.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Death of a Game Store

I saw a post yesterday from +Jesse Butler  that Gamemaster in the Laguna Hills Mall was going out of business (with the attendant sale). I hadn't been to the LHM in a couple of months, and since I was home from work today with the kids I decided to head over there and check it out.

Gamemaster has been in that mall as long as I can remember. I didn't grow up around here, but I was in the Marines and spent many weekends in the Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills and El Toro area. There used to be a Tower Records on El Toro I visited whenever I had a chance, and Gamemaster was the nearest game store (aside from Game Towne in San Diego). After I was discharged, I often made road trips to various game stores in Southern California and Gamemaster was one of my regular stops.

The decline of the brick and mortar game store is a well-known phenomenon. Here in Southern California we've lost a large percentage of established full-service game stores. Gamemaster never had a large selection of role playing products, but it often surprised me (if I remember correctly, I picked up a run of Interface magazines there). What they did have was an tremendous depth and breadth of board games, card games, traditional games, darts, dice, a baffling range of accessories for playing card and other classic games, puzzles, you name it. I always knew that if I needed that one thing you can't find in Barnes & Noble or one of those board game carts in a mall, I could go to Gamemaster. I always felt some sense of security the store was still there. 

While the girls only wanted jump ropes they found (I tried to get them to pick up either puzzles or a game, but they wouldn't bite except for - of course - entirely too expensive selections), I at least was able to find these, and bought all three tubes:



The next time we go back, the store won't be there and that makes me a little sad. It might not even be the owner's fault - the mall has been going down the shitter for quite a long time. The last time we were there The Tokyo Store was still open, which was a favorite place for the girls to go. This trip, it was closed. There's one in the Mission Viejo Mall, but it's a smaller store and doesn't carry quite the same selection. There's actually nothing in there for the girls to be interested in anymore, except maybe Claire's. Hell, not only has the food court been closed for at least three years, but the public mall restrooms have been "temporarily" closed for at least that long. I think the only places that do any reasonable amount of business are the restaurants, probably because of the medical center across the street.

So, here's to a delightful little store. I might not have patronized the store with any frequency, but it was always comforting to know an island of game geekdom was holding out in the Laguna Hills Mall. It's fitting that the Fudge dice were the last things I will likely buy from Gamemaster because a standard set of polyhedrals were the first, more than 20 years ago.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sins of the Sister, Part 4

I shouldn't have been surprised at the news Kileg was involved, given the dream, but I was. I found him in the courtyard with Den'a and the three young Joanites. Kileg was in hunter's leather and a wolf's pelt cloak, his unstrung bow in a scabbard on his back and a solid, wide blade at his belt. Den'a was covered in her shroud, and the Joanites had been outfitted as acolytes. There were also two saddled horses and a hitched wagon.

"I was not expecting you to be here. I dreamed about you last night."

"I hope it was a good one?" Kileg winked, grinning wide underneath his bushy beard as we grasped forearms in greeting. "Old Nostra came to me last night and asked I accompany you as far as the edge of Mortuary. Says nobody is supposed to know, not even you until this morning."  He glanced at Den'a. "This one says there will be no danger. Don't know about you, but there's more to this, so I think I'll stay with you until it's all over."

"I dreamed of No Man's Land, and Selia..."

"That definitely is not a good one. Any idea what it means?"

"I don't know...I'm hoping whatever it is we're doing will reveal it to us."

"Also, I'm also not sure where you go these three from." Kileg grimaced at the three youths. "I'm afraid they won't be much good in a fight, unless it's against ancient Squat women. Still might be too much for them."

I looked the three Joanites from the previous morning over. They each wore a smock bearing family and clan symbols over leather jerkins and had been given austere but serviceable short swords. The girl looked anxious and excited, but one of the boys was sullen. He had a fresh bruise over one eye and a cut on his face. I looked at Kileg, who shrugged nonchalantly.

"Keep an eye on that one, I think," Kileg said. "He was thinking he's the boss of the other two earlier, trying to stir something up."

I pointed to the girl. "You, I need to drive the wagon. The two of you will be with the prisoner. You don't take your eyes off him for a second, and the moment he so much as twitches wrong you yell at the top of your lungs and get out of the wagon. Nobody talks to him, taunts him, touches him." I looked at the second boy, motioning to the one with the bruises. "You, if that one gets mouthy, stab him. This is your chance for redemption in Joan's eyes. Do you understand?" All three of them nodded.

"It's just like the old days, no?" I said to Kileg.

"Not really," he replied gruffly. "Very curious how you got mixed up in all of this. Too bad about Nyeda..."

"When we're done with this, we definitely need to catch up." By that time, the jailer and guards had come up from the cells, bringing a shackled Robbo with them. He was in ill-fitting but fairly clean clothes, and had been scrubbed such that his skin looked a little raw. Bandages covered his hands and the worst of the cuts and burns on his face salved. He did not look up or make any noise as they got him into the wagon and chained his shackles to iron rings set in the wagon. The two boys clambered up after him. Kileg helped Den'a onto the bench next to the girl, who had taken the reins.

"Let's get this over with," I said as I swung into my saddle.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Work-Life-Game Balance

Like a lot of middle-aged gamers, that spot in the "middle" has left me adrift when it comes to gaming. For the last decade or so career, family life and other daily demands have pretty much removed me from doing much active gaming. I'm able to find time to read about games, or write about them, but that's because it can be done in the spaces between one project or the next, or downtime at home, with no set schedule.

This situation sucks because it seems we've hit the Promised Land of tabletop role playing.  Gaming is finally starting to catch up with technology, moving beyond basic online communities and discussion forums to the point where it can actually benefit the gaming experience actively around the table. On top of that, there's been an explosion of impressive games.

Personally, it seems impossible to be able to fit any face-to-face gaming experience in. I have a career, as does my girlfriend - but she puts in much longer hours than I do, including weekends. Both of us have a child, one six and the other seven, so that means we're dealing with double the amount of activities, school work, and other concerns that come along with their age. I'm typically responsible for getting the kids to school, picking them, getting dinner, doing homework, giving baths, and keeping them entertained on the weekends (they have no interest in role playing, at least yet, and neither does my girlfriend). Throw in housework, weekend activities, trips, family birthdays and visits...there certainly doesn't seem to be any time at all to fit a good game in.  Trying to get together three or four people with the same situation for a few hours each week makes it impossible.

There are a number of options for trying to get some gaming in, each with their own concerns and pitfalls. Play-by-email and play-by-post are the least time-restrictive. It works for some people but not for me because I quite like having a group of people around when I play. The newest option - Google+ Hangouts - seems to be a good compromise. You get to see the other people's faces and hear their voice, as well as leverage tools like Tabletop Forge/Roll20 to help the game along. It does still have the limitation of finding the block of time and the environment to be able to make it work, but given that a lot of my gaming-related activity occurs after everyone goes to bed a couple of hours of later-night gaming a week might be feasible.

For me, work may be the way to go. There are a number of gamers that work here (not surprising, being a software development shop). Word around the cubicles is someone was given implicit permission to use a conference room for after hours weekend gaming. It might also be possible to set up weekly lunch-hour games. We could order in for lunch and get together for an hour or so. We would have access to the projector in the conference room, plenty of room, and we'd remain relatively undisturbed. We'd also have some flexibility as to the day of the game, in case someone takes a day off - not to mention, we're all here anyway. For some lighter games such as Fate Core,  this might work. For D&D or Exalted an hour might not be enough time to gain any traction.

Short of waiting until I retire, I think that work gaming might be the only way to go.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rusted Sky - Fate Core Tribe 8

I'm starting to put some tentative processing cycles toward how I would redo my Tribe 8 conversion for Fate Core, and I'd like some thoughts. The Strands of Fate adaptation, as I've mentioned before, I think is solid and a good step away from the ill-fitting Silhouette mechanics. There were still a lot of mechanical fiddly bits - multiple stress tracks for different things, it sticks fairly closely to the way the powers were modeled in Silhouette, and it skews more toward a more "down to earth" tone.

For Fate Core, I want to make the step in the direction of how Tribe 8 has always existed in my head and break even further from its semi-realistic roots. More surreal and dreamlike, more mythological, more Robert Holdstock, more Neil Gaiman, more Clive Barker, more dark fairy tale and legend.

The first thing I want to do is get a rough idea of the skills. I want them to be archetypical, in name and function. One idea I had was to name them after the Fatimas, the other was to take the Eminences and use those in some way. There are multiple paths to go down, and I just need to find the right fit.

For those unfamiliar with Tribe 8, the survivors of our world have been broken into what amounts to five camps: the Tribes, the Fallen, the Keepers, the Squats and the Serfs. The Tribes are descendants of the humans that were enslaved by supernatural beings called the Z'bri. Each Tribe is led by a demigod-like being called a Fatima, who freed the Tribes from the Z'bri. The Fallen are those that have been banished from Tribal society. The Keepers are those who are descended from survivors who tried to preserve knowledge of our world. The Squats for all intents and purposes are savages. The Serfs the tainted servants of the Z'bri who were not liberated.

Each Fatima represents a pair of specific concept or archetype (called Eminences). These are:

Agnes the Child: Capriciousness, Inspiration Baba Yaga the Crone: Death, Fate
Dahlia the Trickster: Illusion, Motion
Eva the Mother: Empathy, Life
Joan the Warrior: Devotion, Fury
Magdalen the Lover: Conflict, Sensuality
Tera Sheba the Judge: Truth, Wisdom

In addition,  there are two more Fatimas, who were destroyed:

Joshua the Ravager: Force, Magnum
Mary the Forgiver (Agnes took her place): Purity, Recognition

In addition, the Fallen have four Outlooks: Doomsayer, Herite, Jacker, Lightbringer with their own pair of Eminences. There are four Z'bri Houses, mapping to alchemical humours: Flemis, Koleris, Melanis and Sangis. There are three types of "magic" in the setting: Synthesis (for Tribals and Fallen), Technosmithing (for Keepers) and Sundering (for Z'bri).

I want a skill selection that isn't quite as dry as the default skill list. I also want to avoid having a large number of aspects - because I was treating the Tribe, Outlook, or other affiliation as an aspect, plus each Eminence was its own Aspect, along with using Strands of Power. I think it all fits together nicely, but I can see it could get unwieldy.

Now, the Eminences map pretty nicely to each Fatima's sphere of influence so it might be possible to collapse those to their archetypes and get rid of the individual descriptors entirely. That would give us: Child, Crone, Trickster, Mother, Warrior, Lover, Judge, Ravager, Forgiver. The same holds true for the Fallen. The Z'bri Sundering powers are easily represented by their House. Each archetype would occupy, and aspect slot, and the use of any powers would hinge on that aspect.

Another possibility is to make each of the collapsed archetypes a skill. I'm somewhat unsure how that would work given the Squats, Keepers and Z'bri - it makes no sense for a Koleris to have the Child skill, even at 0 ranks.

Once I have some idea of how I want to handle the archetypes and skills, I'll also know what direction to take with Synthesis. Even in Strands of Flesh and Spirit, Synthesis is free-form but still mechanical. It enables the character to "control" whatever is within the realm of either Eminence. By collapsing the archetypes, I think it would be much more wide open. Instead of Capriciousness and Inspiration being two separate things, it becomes encompassed by "The Child" (plus a whole lot more).

I'm just not sure what direction I want to go with it yet. I'm certainly open to suggestions.

As an aside, the name for the Fate Core version (Rusted Sky) is a homage to the website run by one of the early Tribe 8 fans and a contributor to the line, Edwyn Kumar. Even after all of these years, his insights and contributions to the game left a lasting impression on me.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Building a sneaky game


So, I have a basic outline of a city for a Thief/Dishonored style game. It has - or at least I hope it has - the elements a game like this needs. Slightly more advanced than the Renaissance; no multitudes of non-human races; a mysterious ancient civilization for some mystery and to provide an excuse for artifacts/rare treasures/forbidden magic; and lots of dark, cramped alleyways, rooftops, waterways and underground tunnels. The next step is figuring out what a game like this needs in order to work.

There are roughly four groups of actions characters in these games take: sneaking around, taking down opponents, overcoming obstacles or puzzles, and stealing things. This applies even to modern or near-future games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Alpha Protocol. For the opposition, there are typically only two types of actions they take: looking for thieves and trying to kill them.

With that in mind, I can flesh out a rudimentary list of various abilities. They're intended to be their own skills, instead of stunts for existing skills. Some things that aren't on this list like Physique or Will may still be available when needed, but they aren't a key focus in this genre. Even so, a general skill like Investigation shouldn't be allowed to overshadow Case, which is intended on being a narrower, more focused skill so that it can concentrate on what's important to the genre. I'll detail each of these with overcomes, advantages, attack and defense later (with some possible additions and changes).

  • Alertness - A measure of knowing what is going on around you. This is not much different than the existing Notice skill. Guards typically have this skill, which they use to blow your stealth. 
  • Breaking - This is the ability used for picking locks, opening safes, figuring out how to manipulate doors, hatches, gates, etc.
  • Cant - This is a measure of the character's reputation and connections within the criminal underworld. It can be used to get information on potential missions, find employment, obtain equipment, or locate other less-than-lawful knowledge. It can also be used to communicate with other underworld types without Squares (i.e., normal people) understanding them.
  • Case - The ability to find vulnerabilities and items of interest in a location. This includes guard patrol patterns; hidden or little known entries/exits; safe routes; hidden rooms; compartments or safes; valuables "hiding in the open"; etc.
  • Deceit - This is identical to the default skill in Fate Core.
  • Fence - This is the ability to evaluate the usefulness or value of items. It is also used to locate buyers or sellers. Thieves typically have a rank or two in Fence, but often rely on dedicated individuals.
  • Fighting - This is the standard skill from Fate Core. Note that most thieves (and even many assassins) are not particularly good at it. Guards almost always have this skill.
  • Pilfer - The ability to take (or place) objects without being noticed.
  • Shooting - Another standard Fate Core skill. Some thieves and assassins prefer Shooting to Fighting, so slightly more have some level of it. Guards that don't have Fighting usually have Shooting. The worst ones have both.
  • Sneak - The ability to avoid being seen or noticed - basically Stealth from Fate Core. 
  • Square - A measure of the character's non-criminal contacts, legitimate concerns and resources. It also be used as a measure of how honest or non-suspicious the character can appear.
  • Takedown - This skill is used to quietly, and quickly, remove opposition. It is separated from Fighting to allow thieves to be good at taking out opposition but terrible fighters.
  • Tracing - Also called parkour or freerunning, this is a particularly specialized form of Athletics dedicated to overcoming and navigating obstacles. This may not stay as a separate skill, but instead become an Athletics stunt (there is a good argument that the ability to do parkour means being generally athletic).

Player Characters

Obviously, in a game like this thieves don't break into manors in groups like a stealthy flash mob (or a flock of crows - you get a brownie if you get the reference). For the most part, this genre is one of solitary characters. There are a number of ways to handle this - having a main character and a supporting character, or have players play different roles within the criminal underworld. Since we're assuming everyone wants to be the dashing Flynn Rider, We'll go another route. Each of the player characters perform their own missions and jobs and meet during downtime to take care of other business and drama. When a player character decides to take on a mission or job, the other players collaborate with the GM to flesh out the details. The other players also assume roles in running opposition against the player. This will require more work later on to determine exactly how the whole thing works.

Guards

This is a genre where the opposition are kind of like Barney Fife until they are provoked. They are Fair NPCs, with no stress boxes and one skill (Alertness +1). But once they spot your character or otherwise become sufficiently alerted (like you accidentally blow something up) they become more like Jack Bauer.

This is simulated by guards, soldiers, etc. (and only those types of opposition) becoming Good NPCs once a certain threshold has been reached. They become much deadlier and more difficult to deal with at the worst possible time - when you are out in the open and exposed.

If there's a threshold which needs to be reached it's possible to have the player roll a contest consisting of obstacles and if they fail the guards are alerted. This option seems like a cop-out. Once the alarm is raised, there's no good way of figuring out how long it should last or what the consequences are. Consequences are probably the key word there, and where consequences are a possibility a stress track is sure to follow. Side note: Apparently I must be the stress track king, considering how many I use in Strands of Flesh and Spirit. I promise I won't go that far here.

Characters using the Sneak skill have a Stealth Track. This is a standard two-box stress track (there may be skills, stunts or extras that add to this). When a character fails a roll or otherwise does something where they might be caught, they can either take the stress or downgrade and take a consequence. This doesn't add any additional consequence slots, meaning the character is vulnerable in a physical or mental conflict because they have a stealth consequence. This is intentional - having the consequence of "I Found Him!" means more guards are going to be coming down on you and you're one step closer to getting run through (criminal justice in this genre doesn't often involve courts or jail).

Stress clears at the end of the scene, but obviously the consequences linger as per Fate Core. The recovery action required depends entirely on the nature of the consequence. If you have the mild consequence "I Know You're Here Somewhere!" you would just need to take an action to convince the guard that it was nothing, and then rename the consequence to "Damn Rats" or "It Must Have Been the Wind". Once that has been accomplished, it's a matter of not getting caught for the remainder of the scene so you can clear the slot. A moderate consequence might be "Set Off The Alarm", which will have to be disabled or turned off to downgrade to "Stay On Alert". A severe consequence might be "Botched the Bamford Job". Bamford is going to want to find the thief who infiltrated his manor and depending on how things went down or past history you might be a suspect. Contacts may not want you around until it's cleared up; worse, some of your more opportunistic peers might decide to help Bamford out in finding you. Once you run out of Stealth stress boxes, the guards know you're around (if they haven't seen you directly) and at that point go from being Fair to Good. That's when things unquestionably go pear-shaped, and it's probably best to try to get out of there as fast as possible.

Next up, I'll start to flesh out the custom skills.

For a lot of good references on 18th century London thievery, including a dictionary of Thieves Cant, a list of professions, business directory, costs of goods and other neat information head on over to this website.

Finally, I'd like to thank the Fate Core Google+ Community, particularly Jeff Johnston, Jack Gulick, Andy Hague and Andrew Jensen, for their terrific ideas on how to handle stealth.


Being true to yourself

When I was in high school, there was a guy that tried so hard to impress everybody. Actually, there were a lot of those, but I'm thinking of one in particular (and maybe one or two others). I'll amalgamate them into one person - "Barry", which was my nickname for Legion in Mass Effect 2. Barry was an extremely awkward guy, prone to making inappropriate comments at the most inappropriate times, and would just constantly bug everybody about whatever he was on about. We tried to be accommodating, but this isn't an alternate universe where kids shun intolerant people and are nice to the ones who don't fit in. We were pretty big dicks to Barry most of the time.

We were so hard on Barry because he was obviously fake. He would make up stories about things that had happened to him. He would claim to have drawn or written things that were obviously not his. When Barry was called out on this behavior, he would get angry and defensive. Naturally, after enough times of this pattern we just started ridiculing him instead of trying to help him out.

I'm not sure (and certainly not qualified to speculate) on what causes Barry and people like him to act the way they do. I do know that being true to oneself is a surefire cure. Taking all of the time and energy expended on appropriating others' work and putting it toward doing something wholly original, even if it turns out quite poorly, is a learning experience. Copying somebody else's work is just dishonest and does more harm than good in the end.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Paying homage where homage is due

I just realized something that has been entirely missed in this whole Dark Phoenix Publishing trainwreck, and I think it's something important.

White Wolf, for all intents and purposes, fully realized and popularized the genre of "personal horror" where the player plays the monster. Prior to Vampire, there was one rpg I know of dedicated to the players being the monsters - Nightlife - and that game came out a scant year or two before Vampire: the Masquerade did. In every other contemporary rpg at the time, the types of monsters seen in White Wolf games were not playable options. They were monsters to be defeated for XP or treasure. It was one of the reasons that, for example, AD&D used the term "monster" even for benign creatures. Some games may have had a structure or rules to allow for monsters to be played as PCs, but it still wasn't the focus of the game, it was an add-on. I recall game designers at the time actively scoffing at the idea of monsters being playable. PCs are, after all, "the heroes", and the advice in the original Dungeon Master's Guide was along the lines of  "player character races are the best choices, and we won't help you if you want to allow other races".

Does this mean any game where the characters are vampires is automatically a White Wolf ripoff? Nope. But does it mean that such a game likely owes a big debt to White Wolf for popularizing the genre? The answer there is "Yes." The same way that most roleplaying games owe a debt to Dungeons and Dragons, for at least popularizing roleplaying, if nothing else. Any game publisher that chooses to put out games that line up almost exactly to White Wolf's product lines owes White Wolf that debt in spades.

Not at liberty to discuss copying Campbell

This post was started before Bleeding Cool featured the copied picture, which has since been removed from Dark Phoenix Publishing's Facebook and Google+ along with all discussion. It still warrants analysis, for reasons revealed below.

Take a good look at this picture. It shows the artwork Dark Phoenix Publishing posted, alleging their artist (who is really "Mykal Lakim") did all by his lonesome (click for full-sized version):

Reflection is a very interesting turn of phrase there...

Now take a look at this:

I can't stop staring at the sunglass-shaped spot on her head

That's Jeff Campbell's cover for Gen13 #12 on the left. It's an iconic cover - I'm not a comic book person, but I had a very good friend who was. I remember seeing this as a poster in the comic book shop next door to a game store we used to frequent.

You'll notice a few things. One, the images match up exactly in terms of the pose, outline of the hair, position of eyes, nose, ears, fingers. But there's more to it than that. Lakim's version includes a sunglass-shaped empty spot where Fairchild has sunglasses. The z-shaped folds in the crotch match up exactly. The garter belt is identical. The line for the negligee matches the line of Fairchild's sarong-thing . The detail-lines on the abdomen match. This is a direct copy of Campbell's cover. The only noticeable difference is that the Lilliana image is longer - except that versions of the cover exist which are longer than the color comic book cover. 

Lakim's own words are the only adequate way to get across the utter irony of his response to this:

"I didn't do it" has long been established to not live in my household.


Yes, actually...yes.

All I have to say about the first statement is, people accuse others of tracing when the image is obviously traced or copied from another image. Removing the color, drawing some frills and changing a couple lines is not "reflecting your artistic vision". I'm sorry if it hurts your delicate sensibilities or threatens your self-image, but if you don't want people asking you if something was traced become a better fucking artist so your stuff doesn't look traced.

The second statement references this:

I can totally see the difference...one guy has a gun and the other a sword. Case closed.

The image on the left is from the Hunter: the Vigil role-playing game. The one on the right is the cover of the Capcom video game Devil May Cry 3. Mykal is right - that happened. Nobody is denying it. Including White Wolf. The fact is White Wolf commissioned the artwork and were unaware of the copying until it was pointed out. They were roundly criticized for it, in more than one forum, and Ethan Skemp addressed the issue - without denials or excuses, in a very straightforward manner - in this thread. All indications are that White Wolf came to a settlement with Capcom and blacklisted the artist.

The difference between White Wolf's situation and Mykal Lakim's is there isn't a buffer between the artist and the publisher. There's no art director trying to find commissioned artists who can produce the desired pieces, and has to review dozens or even scores of them. It's possible for something to slip by in that case, because the director isn't looking over the artists' shoulders. That's an important distinction - because, were Mykal Lakim to actually admit fault, it would be admitting to using that specific image as a reference (at the very least) and reveal the whole "my vision" thing as bullshit. It's not Mykal Lakim's vision, it's Campbell's vision that Mykal Lakim modified for his own ends.

But, instead of  addressing that the piece was indeed a thinly-veiled copy of Campbell's iconic cover - something that is as obvious to anyone looking at it as the Hunter image - Mykal Lakim's response was to claim it was a common pose, and how could it be helped if his vision matched that of a completely unrelated comic book cover? Yet, he can totally see that the Hunter and Devil May Cry images are near carbon-copies. That is some hardcore cognitive dissonance there.

"I really wanted Billy's toy, so I just took it, because it matched my vision of me having his toy."

That is a fundamentally different statement than "We didn't realize the artwork was so close to somebody else's. We really should fix that." It seems that, when Dark Phoenix Publishing's unauthorized use of DeviantArt user WildSpiritWolf's tattoo design as well as other swipes of text (documented by +Steven Trustrum  in an album) are taken into consideration, "fair use" for them really means, "If I want to use it, that's fair."

UPDATE 02/27/2013: Since this post was put up, Dark Phoenix Publishing has put up a "Meet Mykal Lakim" page which has several pieces of art, including the copied Gen13 piece, with explanations of the references were and an admonition that he never claimed to own the copyright on the original images. Except that's not what the problem was, it was the fact it was not just referenced but pretty much copied, and he tried to defend it as an original work. That's sort of like having someone fix your plumbing, and and saying you did it all yourself because you tightened up the last pipe. Campbell did all of the preparation to create that image. From the original idea, to rough sketches, to drafts, to finding a model (assuming he used one) - he did the work. This is in addition to all of the hours Campbell has put into perfecting his art. Lakim may have physically drawn his image and made minor adjustments to it, but the "vision" of the image is all Campbell's.

Tracing and copying are an important tool for artists to learn. The key word there is learn, not lean. Good artists who start from references don't blindly copy the reference. They use it as a stepping stone to evolve into something that is totally their own. Removing the color from an image (or starting from a black and white version), removing detail, using a fill, and then adding a couple minor details isn't really what I would call "evolving beyond the original." That just plain laziness, and dishonest to boot.

UPDATE: Just for any of the "haters gonna hate" people out there, here is a comparison of another piece that Mykal Lakim just copied without adding anything of his own:

The irony of that being an almost entirely white wolf is not lost on me

SECOND UPDATE: These images are somewhat old news, and the werewolf one was removed due to excessive nagging about its lack of genitalia (I'd take it down too if people were so focused on it...it's enough to make you feel kind of inadequate). But here are two more "shinning" (to quote Vampire: Undeath) examples:
Making the drawing so crappy the source isn't obvious would have worked if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

Werewolf lacks nads because there weren't nards to trace
UPDATE THE THIRD: It never ends, does it?

Because starting from the middle and working your way out is the way most people draw


UPDATE, EPISODE 4: The werewolf image above was created by Paul Mudie. Paul had this to say on the matter:

You don't know the half of it, man
Apparently, that is what prompted this from Mr. Lakim:

If you didn't ask for permission, beg that you don't get sued

Because Mykal Lakim has blocked and deleted pretty much everything calling his material and methods out, I am also using this post to make sure he understands where I stand with certain statements he and his cohorts are making. With the removal of the image and the thread devoted it to it from Dark Phoenix Publishing's Facebook page, a string of accusations against +Matt McElroy+Steven Trustrum  and myself ranging from defamation to theft to what amounts to conspiracy (in the sense we are "competitors" and are seeking to discredit Mykal Lakim on that basis) have disappeared. His friendly neighborhood sock/shill Mark Smith has since helpfully stepped up with the exact same message directed at Steve Trustrum (UPDATE: and Matt McElroy, too). Both he or Mykal Lakim (if they are different people) should take heed and think twice about what they're saying. Accusations of theft or libel that are unfounded are actually defamation. If he consulted with legal counsel who is telling him otherwise, I'd suggest finding counsel that didn't find their bar exam in a cereal box.

Speaking of cereal box lawyering, the trainwreck came full circle with Mykal Lakim supposedly sending out DMCA notices because of the composite image, on the basis of a toothless disclaimer he put on them about no unauthorized distribution. It's all very Donna Barstow. But, of course, the first recourse of someone who misunderstands free expression and copyright is to try to stifle criticism by using the legal system:

This is also a great example of the Garfield minus Garfield atmosphere in his comment sections
In return for the expected DMCA notice (I'm going to frame it, should I receive one), I offer up my own "vision" of one of Mykal Lakim's works. Unauthorized duplication or copying is highly encouraged.

"Damnation, What a Waste!"  Trollface and text overlayed by Soren, finished using GIMP. 30 minutes. Protected by fair use as satire. If you don't like it, go eat a bag of dicks.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How to Destroy Angels - "How Long?"

The visuals in this video are very cool, and the entire album seems like it is going to fit a post-apocalyptic and possibly post-scarcity theme. I have a feeling when it comes out, a good dose of the tracks are going to go into my "Tribe 8" playlist (yes, I actually have a Tribe 8 playlist. Don't judge me).