Ban the Man

I’m feeling more than a little mentally glazed today. Which puts me in mind of a pair of traits I’m looking to overcome in GMing role-playing games: brain farts in general and more specifically: the sudden inability for the GM — i.e., me — to be any more descriptive than “The man attacks you.”

It happens to me a fair bit, usually when a fight scene’s dragging on longer than I expected. When health conditions and attack modifiers start piling up, it takes my attention away from making the action descriptive and engaging. Furiously slashing broadswords give way to swords that do seven points of damage or miss. If my energy starts flagging mid-session, non-player characters often become “the guy” or “that woman.”

I consciously work against this most of the time. During the Labyrinth Lord game, during a melee with a clan of troglodytes, I found myself scouring memories of Labyrinth of all things for inspiration on how to inject some humor into a bunch of short little putzes taking on a party of adventurers. Two elements I used were physical comedy in how the troglodytes attacked — usually expressed by mimicking their over-enthusiastic axe-swinging and fooling with over-sized helmets; headgear of any kind can be a great physical prop for a character to fiddle with or struggle against — and voices. I decided to play these guys high and squeaky, like the goblin hordes of Labyrinth. I think I confused everyone who’s actually familiar with the source race, but it seemed to work for the moment and gave me another characteristic around which to build a lively presentation.

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Greg Poehlein on All Games Considered

On episode 127 of All Games Considered, they had on game designer Greg Poehlein as a special guest during their live show at Conglomeration. Greg, perspicacious readers may recall, designed the adventure outline sheet whose virtues I extolled last month.

In addition to his skills as a GM and game designer, Greg’s also a terrific storyteller. He shared some great anecdotes, both from the days of yore, when he designed the original Star Trek role-playing for FASA, and more recently, when he pioneered electronic document retail, culminating in his current endeavor, MicroTactix Games. Check out the episode, if you’re not already a regular listener to All Games Considered.

Tabletop Games are a Good Deal

Katie Boes, guest blogger at Get Rich Slowly, confirms what a lot of game hobbyists already knew: board games — and it’s reasonable to extrapolate from there to role-playing games, because a few books and dice can provide the basis for weekly entertainment for years — are a darn good deal for the money invested.

In particular, she points out that a game costing $50 at purchase costs a dollar per play over 50 plays. Ratios may vary, certainly, depending on how much a person actually likes the game, but that’s what game nights and conventions are for. Both are great places to find that right game because someone else has already taken the financial plunge. Some people use conventions solely as a place to try the latest and most talked about games. My friend Alex bought Android untried in part because he recognized he had already benefited extensively from other people bringing new games to the table at various game-playing gatherings, and so took a turn himself.

In addition to the financial benefit, Katie also cites the entertainment and educational benefits — both for young and old; my mental math skills have become a bit more nimble since I’ve been playing board games. She also recommends places to try out and learn more about games before buying, including the mega-website and public board game gatherings — like, say, those at Quarterstaff Games in Burlington, Triple Play in Lebanon and Border Board Games in Derby Line — as an excellent place for the prospective game owner to try before they buy.

[Border Board Games] Poutine and the Hazards of Deep Space

Saturday afternoon, Alex, Sarah and I made the trek up from Burlington up to the uppermost reaches of the Northeast Kingdom, right on the US-Canadian border, to the town of Derby Line, specifically. Richard and Bethany Creaser host Border Board Games at the Derby Line Village Hall the third Saturday of every month. The Creasers have put this on since at least September, but this is the first solid opportunity we’ve had to get up there.

This is the "medium." Your mileage may vary.

I have to admit the prospect of poutine was a strong secondary motivator. I had never had the opportunity to try genuine Canadian poutine before, and Pizzeria Steve is literally two blocks from the border crossing. On learning our destination, the Canadian border guard shrugged and said, “It’s your stomach, not mine,” as he waved us through, but we pressed on, catching up with the Creasers at the restaurant. I am pleased to report that poutine is delicious and cheese curds squeak as you chew.

On our way to the village hall.

After an amusingly longer exchange with the American border checkpoint, we got back to the village hall in time to meet new arrivals. Eric and Jessica, new arrivals to the area, came to check things out. I volunteered to teach them Dominion while the others mixed the basic set with Dominion: Intrigue. Every time I teach this game, the people learning it show me what my own assumptions about the game are. This time, while I think I laid out the basic turn better than I have in the past, I occasionally went a little too far into the more advanced choices that come up. I guess I did a good job, though, because Eric and Jessica both kicked my ass, getting thirty-four and thirty-three victory points, respectively, to my twenty-one.

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The Scent of Dried Herbs, the Sight of Calipers and Scales

Over on wod_lj, a World of Darkness discussion community on LiveJournal, a poster recently shared a gallery of photos from an apothecary museum in Kiev — watch out, the photos are huge, but worth the wait. Until recently, the poster’s LARP group used the museum as the venue for their campaign. That’s a pretty awesome backdrop for one’s game, especially considering the group based itself around a Tremere chantry, which would naturally be littered with all sorts of arcane instruments and exotic ingredients.

It’s an pretty swanky place to play and really, a museum for vampires is too fitting. Reminds me of that other highly thematic game space that made the rounds a few months back.

Carnage the 13th Goes (Un)Live

Last week, Carnage‘s new website went live, unofficially marking off the countdown to the convention’s thirteenth gathering in November. That can seem like a long way off in April, but I appreciate the head’s up. I’m a poky writer at the best of times; combining that with the desire to playtest adventures beforehand can get hairy.

But I’ve already given some thought to what I want to run, including adventure particulars. In keeping with the horror theme, I plan to run a GURPS game using Kenneth Hite’s Cabal universe, as well as a return to the Boston franchise of Ghostbusters International, which went so well last year — still up in the air whether I want to go GURPS again or switch to Cinematic Unisystem.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to run, as I’ve climbed on board the good ship Carnage as staff. There will still be lots of running around this year, except now it will be with purpose. Working as staff is fun and something I tend towards naturally, but it does put a crimp in one’s ability to run games.

I hope to squeeze in at least a game of Arkham Horror somewhere along the way. Last year’s session was sparsely attended, but I’m not sure if that was the Saturday night time slot or the myriad viruses that flew thick and heavy. If last year’s convention “flu by,” then 2010 will be the Year of the Antibacterial Wipe, I think.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Warring Wizards and Arthurian Knights

I got to play two titles new to me this week at Quarterstaff Games: Wiz-War and Camelot Legends.

Andrew considers the board while Alex explains the rules of the game.

Wiz-War is, I have gathered over the years without doing any outright research, a long-lasting game involving wizards at war with each other. Seriously, that’s about it, in addition to it’s a game that inspired a great deal of modification and improvements among the player base. One of the continually recurring events at Carnage in the fall is a Wiz-War game using some really impressive three dimensional dungeon pieces. It’s one of those games you sign up for, hoping against hope to get in.

So when Alex announced he’d dug his copy out of storage, I was first in line to play. Amusingly, I was also first in line to get hosed. Wiz-War, I discovered, is mostly about having a good laugh at the expense of others and yourself. Here’s the essential pitch: wizards are running around a dungeon riddled with spatial warps, trying to steal treasure to deposit on their starting spot. Along the way, one casts spells, defends against other spells if possible and generally run amok making life difficult for others.

So that’s how my wizard got frozen on his first turn, saw his entire sector of dungeon teleported to the other end of the board and then had an amplified six turn No Spell cast on him shortly thereafter. That kind of shot my ability to really do anything for the rest of the game, especially considering the dungeon sector was placed in such a way as to make it a long damn walk anywhere useful.

Once this state of affairs developed, I spent the rest of the game watching everyone wreak and suffer mayhem while I puttered around my corner of the dungeon. It didn’t help that I missed the part of the explanation where wizards go for other people’s treasure. I heard it only as “get two pieces of treasure.”

With these pieces of knowledge in mind, I think I would be better prepared for more games of Wiz-War, though I don’t know if I’ll ever quite ken it. “Take that!” games never quite mesh with my brain. Hex Hex is about as complicated as I can get before I just wind up needlessly hoarding cards and forgetting to play something of useful because I’m saving it for “later.” It’s a habit that needs breaking.

Alex and Nonny raise and dispatch companies of chivalrous knights.

Camelot Legends was a Z-Man Games offering Brennan had on hand. We opted to play the really basic introductory version. It wound up being so basic, in fact, the game felt a bit empty, with many wrinkles to liven things up.

Players place cards representing characters from the Arthurian story cycles in one of three locations: Camelot, Cornwall and the Perilous Forest. The goal is to complete events that appear in the locations by assembling a company there whose relevant qualities — of which there are six, with names like Combat, Diplomacy, Adventure and Chivalry — meet or exceed a specified target number. For example, Assassination is an event that plays in Cornwall. To complete the event, scoring points and triggering a special ability on the event card, a player has to assemble a company of no more than six characters with eighteen points of Cunning among them. It’s a steep goal, but it’s worth six victory points.

The art on the cards is gorgeous and the basic game play is very easy to pick up, but it’s also really basic, which is to be expected from something the rule booklet labels as such. I just didn’t realize it was going to be that basic. We had a couple turns at the end of the game where, since the character and events deck had run out, there was nothing to do but wait as people assembled companies to take the final remaining events in play.

Next time, we’ll have to give the standard rules a try. That adds more cards in, and it seems like it includes a new phase in the turn, that involves bidding on something. Or maybe bidding’s part of basic play and we just ignored that part. Either way, I’m not sure if I want to have to use up my precious character cards in something that’s not going to contribute to completing an event.

The Lance of Longinus

While on Red Ice Radio a couple years ago, Jerry E. Smith presented an interesting idea for the power behind the Lance of Longinus, the storied weapon that pierced the side of Jesus while he was crucified. Rather than having exceptional properties bestowed by God or another non-human agency — though Jerry also related some of the lore that claimed the lance had a pretty interesting past before it entered the hands of Longinus — Jerry suggested that the spear became a receptacle for humanity’s thoughts and dreams. As the stories around the lance grew, so did its powers.

In particular, the story of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion stood out for me. As Smith related it, Maurice’s all-Christian legion refused to obey the Roman emperor Maximian’s orders, as they would contravene the legionares’ Christian values. They suffered multiple rounds of decimation — killing one man in ten — before the surviving members of the legion were all executed. By Smith’s theory, this act of martyrdom further empowered the Lance of Longinus, which already had an affinity for Christianity by serving a role in the crucifixion.

After the martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, the lance’s became a boulder of sacrifice and duty-sympathetic mystic might rolling downhill. When Constantine later acquired the Spear of Destiny, he took a pro-Christian position, later converting himself. This seeming property of the spear puts a slight spin on Hitler’s acquisition of the Hofburg spear during World War II. Maybe it was part of an overall delusion that his cause was just and right, or maybe he was playing keepaway, denying a resource from enemies who could make better use of it by securing it in a facility designed to dampen and negate its mind-changing abilities.

You can read more about Jerry Smith’s book on the subject, Secrets of the Holy Lance: The Spear of Destiny in History & Legend, and then order it from Adventures Unlimited Press.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] The Unexplained

I’ve awaited The Unexplained for years now, since I first heard about it at OGC in 2006. Back then, Brad Younie called it Strange World. He pitched it as a paranormal investigation game, for running games along the lines of television shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. This past February, I had the chance to not only play two Unexplained adventures run by Brad, but pick up my own copy of the book at TotalCon.

My primary interest in The Unexplained was as a go-to source for paranormal phenomena and their packaging for use in role-playing games. Powered as it is by FUDGE, I knew it would be easy to ignore the mechanical material while harvesting the ideas and information for use in my own campaigns and adventures. Paranormal investigation is something I’ve followed for a while, mostly in the form of podcasts like The Paracast and EERIE Radio, so the idea of a one-stop shop for role-play ready material really appealed to me. I was also interested in what ways The Unexplained would recommend running paranormal investigation games, as one of the hallmarks of the field in real life is the ever-hanging question of whether or not there’s any validity to the phenomena people experience.

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[Tuesday Night Board Games] Save Doctor Lucky in Spaaace!

Baron Samedi. With the chainsword. In the Crew Mess.

After several months of getting distracted by other game-related endeavors, I picked the “play every game I own” mantle back up this past Tuesday at Quarterstaff Games. This time it was Save Doctor Lucky, the decidedly more benevolent prequel to Kill Doctor Lucky. In the past, whenever I’ve brought a pile of Cheapass titles and the choice was to save or kill the good doctor, the vote’s always gone to murder the bastard — a perfectly understandable sentiment, but it does get in the way of ever finding out how Save Doctor Lucky plays.

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