Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Adding Insult to Injury: Page 46 of Outsider

If you’re not reading Jim “Arioch” Francis’ online comic Outsider, do yourself a favor and check it out. He just posted page 46, in which the physical abuse our hero took in page 45 is followed by a quick jab to the psychological cojones.

Outsider is a gorgeous comic. While the wait between pages can be interminable, the quality in both art and storytelling is head and shoulders above most of what you’ll find coming from DC or Marvel. Beyond the excellent telling of his tale, Jim shares the process of building Outsider’s universe with his readers. He’s created languages, worked out the weapons and tactics of the different races, and imagined the shape of telepathic societies. If you like what you read, be sure to pop into the comic’s forum and thank Jim for his hard work.

Making Memorable NPCs at Treasure Tables

Martin Ralya has an interesting article over at Treasure Tables on the seven traits of memorable NPCs. It’s a good list.

There’s one more I’d want to add, but only cautiously. The most memorable NPCs in my campaigns have always been those who defeated the party. It didn’t have to mean death. In fact, a little humiliation was often more memorable than death. But anyone who actually overcame the PCs, or forced them into facing choices they might otherwise have avoided, or in some way thwarted or defeated them, was moved to the top of their lists.

Why would I add this cautiously? All the attributes Martin lists are things you can do, at the table or when designing before a game, to make an NPC stand out. But while you can work your tail off making your NPCs a real challenge for the players, if you’re doing them and your game justice, the players will always have a chance of defeating any important antagonist they face. Dictating character defeat in advance is akin to the Garden of Eden problem: you’re trying to invalidate the actions and choices of the players. Uh-uh! Don’t do it! You have to give the players the victories they earn. Making choices is what games are all about. If you steal that from your players, they’ll have more fun staying at home and playing video games.

And, just for the record, I am never EVER going to play a sage in one of Martin’s games. Gross. Just, really, man. You did not need to go there. Ick! ;p

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Out of the Box" Wants to Go Into the Bookstore?

So I’m reading Kenneth Hite’s latest “Out of the Box” and I’m feeling a little confused. May just be me, may mean I’m no industry insider. But,

When wargame publishers tried to catch up, they crashed, and now wargame publishers sell games on the "small press" model instead of the "periodical" model. They hand-sell them to their customers, they market directly to the customer at conventions and through email and so forth, and they set prices high enough to recoup their costs with very small print runs indeed. And now that the wargaming field has settled into that, you're once more seeing successful wargame companies, like GMT and Avalanche. This is the only model that can work, over the long run, for any RPG publisher that isn't publishing Dungeons & Dragons. RPG publishers have to abandon the notion that every game line must and shall be published unto eternity. We have to retrain our audience to think of RPGs the same as books -- many titles stand alone, some are trilogies, and a very few have the legs to spawn a series. More importantly, we have to retrain the publishers to think of RPGs the same as books.

Says to me, “RPG publisher, smaller print runs of high-quality product with a price-markup to make your desired profit margins, and treating your product like the niche luxury it is, is the way to survive! Only then will book sellers treat you seriously, and actually order your product with an eye towards selling it to retail customers.”

And yet, Ken later says:

Now for a little silver lining. One advantage that we have in the RPG market is that our customers -- you wonderful people -- are much more willing to buy electronic books than mainstream book readers are. Something like five to ten percent of the RPG business last year was PDF business, and that number is growing by leaps and bounds. Companies like Eden, Green Ronin, and Hero have made electronic publishing core parts of their business model.

Um, doesn’t this say, “To the Abyss with brick-and-morter stores and those nasty distributor middle-men! Print runs? We don’t need no stinkin’ print runs! Pdf is the way to go. Direct to the customer makes it easier for them to find your product, for you to know what your customers want, and no mucking about with warehouses of unsold or, even worse, returned books.”?

Ok, 10% is, I hope, a tiny drop of the entire market, so Ken is probably suggesting a combination of the two. That would mean more omnibus products like Ptolus with three-digit price tags, supported with the occasional, low-cost pdf. This seems a reasonable thing to me, actually. Frankly, I’d love to see more stuff like Green Ronin’s True20 and Blue Rose, with black and white pdfs I can cut and paste from, or print out fairly cheaply at my local copy shop. I’m ticked pink at the idea of taking chapters from True20 and working them into a setting book I write myself, slapping in some free art and my own home made maps, and handing those out to my players in three-ring binders. I think that sounds incredibly cool. I’ll probably have to buy a copy of the True20 pdf for each of my players to keep it all legal, but at pdf prices that’s hardly prohibitive. Or, I might be able to get all my players need from the quickstart guide. Well, at least, until TrueSorcery shows up…

Darn you, Green Ronin!!! ;)

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

Remember those who have served and sacrificed.

Treasure Tables Reviews Ptolus Player's Guide

Martin Ralya has a review of the Ptolus Player’s Guide over at Treasure Tables and I think, maybe, he kinda liked it:

The idea is that once a player has read this book, they’ll have a good feel for the campaign world, know what it looks like — and most importantly, be able to create a character that has ties to the setting, connections within the city, etc.

As a GM, I love this idea. (Not just love, but italicized love, baby. ;) )

Me, I’m a touch skeptical that players are dying for a 28 page read before jumping into a new campaign. I love that kind of background work, but will most players really take the time to go through it all? I could be wrong, and if I am, then I completely agree with Martin: this is a wonderful idea, and I hope it catches on. I think this is one of those products where art is of the utmost importance. Brevity is key, and art can convey the look and feel of a setting much more succinctly than text. I think others might offer such products for free as a piece of marketing. I imagine many people will base their decision to buy Ptolus upon their reactions to the player’s guide. I also think DMs trying to sell their groups on a setting other than Forgotten Realms or Eberron wouldn’t mind a little help from the publisher or designer.

A Second D&D Movie?!?

Yes, they made a sequel.

Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God

They, in this case, refers to Studio Hamburg Worldwide Pictures. I’d heard that the original D&D movie had done pretty well in Europe, and I guess this proves it. Thanks to Warner Bros. you can find the new D&D movie in your video store. It’s been out for a few months now, apparently, but I only just recently stumbled across it.

So how is it? Not too bad. Not great. It’s nowhere near the goodness that is Peter Jackson’s LotR movies. It’s not quite in the league of those great 80’s fantasy flicks, like “Willow” or “Labyrinth”. It doesn’t have the epic feel of “The Dark Crystal” or “Excalibur”, or the depth of story or quality of acting in “Ladyhawke” nor the eye candy and cool action vibe of either of the Conan flicks.

But, and this is a huge but, it’s much, much better than the first one. First, and most noticeable, it’s immediately obvious that the people who made this movie have actually, you know, flipped through a copy of the Player’s Handbook. Characters in the movie are referred to as rogues and barbarians, and fill those roles just as you’d expect in the game. The barbarian babe growls a lot and whacks people with a sword. The priest worships Obad-Hai and offers a short prayer before knocking down a tree to build a raft. One of the better scenes in the movie involves the rogue finding a secret compartment beneath a pile of furs used as bedding and disarming the trap that guards it. I mean, can you get more old-school than that?

Actually, the rogue has some of the best lines and scenes in the movie. You’ll know what’s going on as soon as his introduction begins, but it’s still fun. He avoids the stereotype of the wimpy or childish halfling rogue by coming across as a seasoned and at times vicious campaigner with no patience for whining. His interplay with the barbarian is amusing. And those of us who have been involved with D&D for a while will appreciate when he asks what horrors drove the barbarian’s brother mad during his expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

In spite of a few references to old school adventures (we called ‘em “modules” in my day), the look and feel is definitely 3rd edition. There are not quite enough buckles and spikes to get the full dungeonpunk look, but the monsters bear more than a passing resemblance to illustrations from the latest Monster Manual. The cleric carries one of those weird, fat lightning-bolt looking shields very popular in 3rd edition art as well. Odd tattoos abound, and there’s not a pointy hat to be found on the head of any wizard in the movie.

It’s clear they didn’t have as much money to spend on this one as they had on the previous movie. There’s a strong “Xena” vibe in the costuming of the extras and the quality of the special effects. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the actors this time through, other than Bruce Payne, who reprises the role of Damodar. That might have more to do with my ignorance of current Hollywood stables than anything else, but the fact that the cover of the CD case doesn’t have somebody’s face splashed up big and bold across it is, I think, rather telling.

(By the way, if you don’t remember who Damodar is from the first movie, but don’t want to endure the agony of actually watching it again, swing by the review at Wulf’s Pit of Sword and Sorcery Cinema for a quick, and funny, reminder. Warning: link not work safe!!!)

In spite of all of this, the movie isn’t great, and I’m afraid that most of the blame must be laid at the feet of the writers. The acting is a bit iffy in spots, and cutting the scene where our heroes find their magic sword really makes no sense, but these are minor issues. The writers really did try to give us a good D&D movie. Their work with the tropes of the game go beyond using the character classes. There’s a short dungeon delve involving classic D&D puzzles like spelling out the secret word by pushing the letters on an inscription, or navigating a trapped hallway by stepping on the right floor tiles. They don’t burden the story with an unnecessary budding romance and they’re not afraid to have characters die and stay dead. The threat to the kingdom and to the individual characters feels real. If the story had delivered a climactic ending, I’d probably be raving about it. Instead, the final act slowly dribbles away. We don’t even get a clich├ęd and overdone swordfight between our heroes and the villain Damodar. Instead, there’s a brief chase, and the villain surrenders without putting up any fight at all. Lacking human conflict and catharsis, the final triumphant clash of good-guy special effects versus bad-guy special effects is rather hollow. In the end, it feels a bit like when your players do such a great job planning their final fight with the big boss that he goes down in a single round, leaving the final moments of your carefully planned adventure feeling flat and anti-climactic.

Among the extras on the CD is an interview with G. Gygax that is, in a word, painful. Lots of cuts and hopping around, yielding sound bites rather than an actual interview. What we are left with sounds like blatant shilling for the movie, talking about how the different characters fit their roles well and how the movie is true to the ideals of D&D.

If you’re not a fan of D&D, I can’t recommend you see the movie. If you are, and can spread the cost of the rental among the rest of your group, sure, why not? It’s a fun way to kill a few hours, and might serve well to relieve the agony if you’re doing a bad fantasy movie night, sandwiched between “The Sword and the Sorceress” and one of the “Deathstalker” movies.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

SJ Games Ends Game Aids Program

Steve Jackson may be in the land of the Road Warrior, but that doesn’t mean he’s not keeping an eye on the business. Yesterday came the announcement of the end of the Game Aids program:
The goal was to encourage and recognize fan-created game support. If anything, it had the opposite effect. Our apologies to the creators of programs that have been stuck in our pipeline for years. As of now, you're free.

Unsurprisingly, the response at RPGnet has so far been positive.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Says Blancandrins: "Much good will come of this."

Elazair has posted a gift for the readers of RPG.NET:

Because I love RPGnet, here's a little gift to you all. It's a free pdf of a d20 D&D adventure based on the French poem The Song of Roland.

Read the history of this adventure and download it here.

And be sure to say "you're welcome" by giving Elazair feedback in the thread.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lumpley on Character Ownership

Vincent Baker has finally posted his long-awaited declaration on character ownership. As we’ve come to expect from “Lumpley,” it’s a bare-bedrock examination of what we do when we play a roleplaying game. And, again, as we’ve come to expect, Vincent’s goal is deconstruction, to tear apart our assumptions in search of the raw stuff of gaming. For those who just enjoy eating pizza, rolling dice, and racking up the EXPs, there’s not much here for you. However, if you’re interested in what may possibly become the cutting edge of design, there are some interesting thoughts to ponder.

I must confess, I sometimes feel cheated when I read Vincent’s stuff. This is a great example. On the one hand, it feels very “yeah, well, duh!” Anyone who’s ever been involved in a game where the players controlled multiple characters, or swapped characters around because the thief’s player wasn’t going to be there and the group really needed a thief, has brushed up against the issues Vincent’s talking about here. On the other hand, this sort of formal description of the underlying principles can be useful in designing a game. Once you dissolve the barriers of ownership, all sorts of fun things become possible. The character is, in the raw mechanics of gaming, a resource to be manipulated in pursuit of the player’s goals. Why not make characters, or the attributes of characters, a tradable commodity within the system of the game? Anybody got sheep for magic-users?

On the other-other hand, Vincent’s also challenging a core appeal of gaming. As “World of Warcraft” and other diku-muds have proven, improving a character and fighting for that “DING!” of leveling up is one of thrills that keeps people coming back to the table. Even if your particular “DING!” has nothing to do with stats and numbers, but is instead the more social victories of love and political power, or even the “muy macho” thrills of overcoming impossible odds while enduring great suffering, your enjoyment of the game is heavily invested in your sense of ownership of your character. Designers tamper with these expectations at their peril. Not to say it’s not worth it. But do understand that you’re going to face some stiff resistance from players once you start to dance where angels fear to tread.

Fun Stuff: Motivation at RPG.NET

The Photoshop madness continues at RPG.NET. Now it's those inane motivational posters, but done RPG style. Good, funny stuff, folks, but be warned! Some of it is not work-place safe. And, for those ladies in the audience, bare-chested Vin Diesel and bare-buttocked Mal from "Firefly" both make appearances.

Here I Am!

Rock you like a hurricane!

Um, well, maybe…

Howdy, folks. Welcome to the Trollsmyth. This is my blog of all things gamey. Mostly, it’ll focus on tabletop RPGs, boardgames, and cardgames, with occasional forays into the blighted wilderness of computer gaming. I will certainly be posting original content, but I’ll also be trying to link up with as much good stuff as possible. The net is a vast place, and it’s easy to miss good stuff. If you know of something link-worthy, don’t hesitate to let me know about it. Please don’t be offended if I don’t post the link on the blog. In the end, Trollsmyth is about what I find interesting, and, as everyone knows, YMMV. I hope that you’ll find this blog useful and interesting. And the management is always open to suggestions.

Thanks for stopping by!


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