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Jeff's Gameblog
Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Conversions of the Damned
Topic: RPGs
So I was thinking about doing a Synnibarr conversion of the classic dungeon crawl B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. Problem is, unlike most fantasy heartbreakers, the World of Synnibarr monsters have suprising little correlation to stock D&D critters. No trolls or orcs or minotaurs in WoS. The undead are under-represented as well. WoS has a race called gnolls that have very little to do with the D&D critter of that name. Looks like if I go ahead with this insane project I'll actually have to build an homage to Keep on the Borderlands pretty much from scratch. I'll need some sort of crude backstory to explain why a half-dozen fearsome humanoid races are taking up diggs in the same smallish cave complex.

Maybe I should go back to my earlier idea of doing a Savage Worlds conversions. The folks at Dragonsfoot seem plenty willing to help.

Posted by jrients at 4:56 PM CDT
Quote of the Day
Topic: Books
From What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis
Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God's law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles.

Posted by jrients at 2:12 PM CDT
Tuesday, 22 June 2004
Happy Birfday on Me!
Topic: RPGs
I got my B-Day present from my wife this morning: a set of 2nd edition Gamma World rulebooks and module GW3 The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand. Supercool! And I'm getting chocolate cake tonight!

My wife and daughter and I were watching some SpongeBob SquarePants on the TV this weekend. SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick are discussing the fact that Patrick never does anything. Patrick announces that he wanted to defeat the giant monkey men and save the ninth dimension. SpongeBob convinces him to set his goals a little lower, so they never visit the 9th dimension. I mentioned to my wife that I ought to write an adventure that involves going to the 9th dimension and fighting giant monkeymen. She pauses for a moment in deep thought and looks at me and says "It's like your an artist or something. You don't care if your ideas are popular or not, you just do what you want." She finally gets it! Yay! I'm not sure if I could go as far as to call myself an artist, since I'm basically a hack GM, but at least she understands what I am trying to do in my little hobby: my own thing. I'm not trying to convert anyone to my one true way or make a zillion dollars by writing the Next Big Thing (though if someone wants to give me money, I stand by ready to sell out), I just want to putter around with the games I like doing the things I think are cool.

Posted by jrients at 12:16 PM CDT
Monday, 21 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
So I'm going over my new copy of World of Synnibarr and I guess I can see why some people hate it. As far as I can tell the mechanics are basically adequate. Ginchy in some places, but fundamentally sound. In terms of taste, the game is a crime against nature for two types of simulationist players. For setting-intensive simulationists, the background info is ham-handed and incoherent. For character-immersive simulationists, the character generation probably leaves something to be desired too. Random char gen seems to be the norm, though build-your-own options exist. It looks like starting characters can vary wildly in power levels, leaving some PCs with the ability to hog the spotlight.

But for the kind of player who wants to put on an old heavy metal album, scarf some snacks, and roll some dice at dragons, Synnibarr looks like a pretty good fit. I can see myself playing this game much more than Cyborg Commando. McCracken may not be the best game designer or setting crafter out there, but he certainly isn't a loon as he is often portrayed. If you can imagine yourself in a game where a ninja, a cyborg, and an elf take a starship to travel to the stock dungeon setting where they slay a dragon simply to scarf up its loot, then Synnibarr might be the game for you.

Posted by jrients at 9:16 PM CDT
Sunday, 20 June 2004
Happy Father's Day to Me
Topic: RPGs

Got a copy of World of Synnibarr as my Father's Day present. No, my family doesn't hate me. I wanted a copy. I haven't had a chance to give it a complete readthru yet, but my first reaction is that the negative hype is way out of proportion with the actual game. Synnibarr's bad rep may be legendary, but I'm not yet convinced it's deserved. I see here a game I could play and enjoy. Heck, I'm mostly done with my first PC, an Archer.

Last week on a lark I bought a box of bilingual popsicles, labeled "Fruit Carnival" on one side and "Carnaval da Fruta" on the other. Today I reached into the box and pulled out the last one. It was a coconut popsicle. That was unexpected. I had never heard of such a thing. It was very good. It even had real coconut in it. Two thumbs up for coconut popsicles.

Posted by jrients at 6:00 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, 20 June 2004 6:10 PM CDT

Topic: Books
When I went to library yesterday I returned The Year 1000 without actually opening it. I do that sometimes. What seems like a good book to read in the library just doesn't excite me when I get it home. I checked out two books. Why I chose those particular books exemplifies how I wander into new subject matter to read.

The first one was Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould. I'm sure I've read something by Gould before, but I can't quite put my finger on the title.

I first got interested in the Burgess Shale after reading an article by Ken Pick over at the excellent Traveller webzine Freelance Traveller. Here's part of Mr. Pick's explanation of what exactly the Burgess Shale is and why we should care about it:
The Burgess Shale is a geologic formation in the Canadian Rockies, incredibly rich in fossils from Earth's early Cambrian period -- the earliest known (except possibly for the Edicara) muticellular life on Earth. Over 90% of these fossils are unclassifiable except as "Problematica" (unclassifiable weird ones), matching no known phylum.
Pick uses the Burgess Shale as a metaphor for Traveller gaming prior to the publication of the 3rd Imperium setting. Until the 3I stuff started appearing, people made their own setting. Traveller was a set of rules for sci-fi adventuring with no hardwired setting, exactly the way D&D approached fantasy. Anyway, the fossilized lifeforms preserved in the Shale have very little in common with life as we know it today. I'm hoping Gould can tell me a little bit more about these weird creatures.

The other book I picked up was Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. How I arrived at the decision to track down this particular book is kinda interesting. My cow-orkers Laurie gave me a couple of back issues of Discover magazine. She mentioned that she thought I would like some of the articles in them. The April 2003 issue has an article entitled "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" by Steven Johnson in which he reports on the emergence of software dedicated mapping relationship networks. Software designer Valdiss Krebs is on the forefront of this stuff and he did an experiment using Amazon's database of purchases. Krebs wanted to see if he could map the political polarization of the US by looking at two relationship maps. Each map would be based upon one book and the books connected to it by purchases. So for example, if you started with book A and some people who bought book A also bought books B, C, and/or D, the first step in drawing the map would look something like this (the periods are just place holders):


Next Krebs's program looks at D, C, and B. If some people who bought D also bought A, B, E and/or F, then the map might next look like this:


This process is repeated until all the purchase relationships for the entire database are mapped, at least those relationships that can lead back to A. It's sort of kinda like playing Twelve Million Steps to A Biography of Kevin Bacon.

In order to look at the political divide in the country, Krebs made two such maps with Amazon's database. One started with Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and the other with Ann Coulter's Slander. Krebs wanted to see which books appeared on both maps. Only Lewis's What Went Wrong connects the two relationship maps.

Admittedly, only looking at Amazon purchases isn't exactly the most ideal method of mapping the political spectrum, but the results still creep me out. Is the question "What Went Wrong?" the only thing the right and the left have in common anymore? Lewis's book is about the Middle East, but not about 9/11/2001. However, it was in the print process when the tragedies of 9/11 happened and made it into stores not too long thereafter. I can see why a lot of people at that time would have been drawn to Lewis's book. Everybody wanted to know what went wrong. Here's a guy who maybe has an answer.

So anyway, I decided if What Went Wrong? is the only meeting place for the left and the right, then I had better read it. If all that the folks in the US of A have in common anymore is a desire to understand what the hell is going on in the Middle East then maybe we need to all get together and find the answer.

The folks on the other half of the political spectrum seem as incomprehensible as Wellsian Martians to me some days. The fact that so many people on the right and the left have this question in common says something important. It gives me a glimpse into the essential humanity of everyone, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum.

Posted by jrients at 10:33 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, 20 June 2004 10:52 AM CDT
Friday, 18 June 2004
The Next Big Thing? Prolly not.
Topic: RPGs
Coming soon to a friendly local gaming store near you: Wraeththu, the game of psychic swordfighting posthuman hermaphrodites stuggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world!

I shit you not.

The setting, if a bit on the weird side (even for an RPG), has literary credibility. The Wraeththu RPG is apparently based upon a trio of dark fantasy novels written by Storm Constantine. Ms. Constantine's works are highly regarded in some circles and it was apparently a bit of a coup when White Wolf was able to get her to write the intro fiction for Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. (Ms. Constantine's Pen&Paper entry has a nifty photo of her. In addition to her writing talents, she ain't hard on the eyes.)

The Wraeththu rpg itself, however, seems to have gone through all the growth pains that one sees when folks who aren't RPG industry-saavy try to step up to the plate. The initial Wraeththu PR machine was sloppy even by RPG industry standards. Here are the two RPG.net threads that clued me into Wraeththu's existance:

Most Pretentious and Artsy RPG Ever Created?: Wraeththu

Wraeththu: Bring On the Clowns

Those are both monster huge threads with large swaths of only-barely-on-topic material. I'll try to summarize the key points, split into three departments.

The "Your PR Sucks" Department: The overhype of the Wraeththu rivals the things I've heard from the bad old days of SenZar, Synnibarr, and Multiverser. "Wraeththu is going to take the RPG world by storm, no one will play [your fave game]anymore, playing Wraeththu cures cancer, etc., etc." Also, despite hoping that White Wolf players would buy their products, both gabby and the official site spend time knocking the World of Darkness. I can't see how alienating the fanbase is going to make sales. Furthermore, the frontman for the operation, 'gabby2600', seemed to pull the old gag of posting under multiple identities so that he could agree with himself. Finally, claims were made that look like just plain lies. The big one was that Storm Constantine is acknowledged as an influence in the 1st edition Vampire core book. No such acknowledgement seems to exist in the real world.

The "This is an innovative system?" department: Yet again the new kid on the block is claiming to have an utterly revolutionary system. (Here's a hint folks: Is your name Jared Sorensen or Robin Laws? No? Then you system probably ain't revolutionizing jack squat. And if you've never heard of Messrs. Sorensen or Laws, then you have no goddamn business claiming your system is revolutionary to begin with.) Turns out the innovative system is nothing more than yet another fantasy heartbreaker, i.e. mostly stuff we've seen before. More disappointingly, the system was written in '92 and was not created with the Wraeththu setting in mind. Now, there were certainly good rpgs written in or before 1992, but the odds are long that a designer could break new ground today if they are ignorant of Sorcerer and the Pool and Dying Earth and Universalis and Adventure! AND Rune AND Inspectres AND HeroQuest AND EVEN FRICKIN' D&D 3rd edition. I mean, come on.

What do I actually know about the system? Not a whole lot. You have 6 or 8 stats, rated 3-18 or 1-20 or something like that. You roll a d20 to do stuff. There's some sort of enigmatic weapon creation subsystem combined with an emphasis on swordplay. The psychic/magic/psionic rules use a freeform system reminiscent of Ars Magica. No hint of hardcore social or psychological mechanics, despite some folks claiming those would suit the novels to a 'T'. In fact, such rules seem to better fit the spirit of the Wraeththu Mythos more than the swords and swordfighting, which are downplayed or even nonexistant in the novels.

The "I'm playing WHAT?" department: RPG.net hasn't seen any gabby antics in a long time. The website has mostly cleaned up its act. I haven't actually seen the mechanics, they could work just fine. Heck, the 'Storm system' mentioned on the current incarnation of the website may be a totally different set of rules than gabby2600's musty old homebrew. Assuming all these issues are under control, that still doesn't address the main hurdle for this game to be a success: all the PCs are members of a race of gay posthuman hermaphrodites. I know "gay hermaphrodite" sounds like a contradiction. It's not. The 'hara' race is composed of male humans who have mutated into hermaphodites. (I'm not going to get into their strange "flower penis" biology here, you'll have to follow the RPGnet threads above for the lowdown on that.) According to reports, some of the characters in the novels were homosexual prior to their transformation. Either way, the result is that hara sexual intercourse is between two posthuman entities who previously were both human males. Apparently the characters in the novels all use male pronouns as well. In short, and to simplify greatly, the novels might be called "gay science fantasy" if you felt the need to pigeonhole it. (Some would disagree with that assessment, which is fine. Mischaracterizing a trilogy I've never read isn't the worst thing I've ever been accused of. Like, today.)

The "gay thing", to use a lame turn of phrase, ought to be enough to doom Wraeththu's chances of being a mainstream commercial rpg hit. Too many RPGers will be squicked with the idea of playing mutant homos. It's that simple. With a little luck and a lot of post-"RPGnet fiasco" work Wraeththu might make it as a good niche game. If the game gabby2600 was pushing gets published as described, the best it could hope for is a spot in Middle Finger Evolution's hall of shame.

(I supposed this would be as good a place as any to insert the usual disclaimer: I'm het, but I'm not a hater. If you think I've written any homophobia into this piece, go ahead and call me on it.)

All in all, Wraeththu is lined up to be the next rpg that everyone loves to hate. Heck, they've already got a great head start over at RPG.net. And yet, I can't help but think that the game has serious promise, even if it sticks to the tacked-on '92 homebrew system. The few details I've heard about the system do seem to contain kernels of good ideas. There's a lot to be said for an elaborate weapon construction system that is well-integrated into kickass sworddueling combat rules. Team the sword rules up with an effective magic-on-the-fly mechanic and you've got the basis for some great fightery. I see visions of glittering futuregoth prettyboys dancing about the battlefield, swinging intricately bejewelled razorwhips and katanachuks, dodging each others' luminescent multi-hued psychic emanations. It could rock. These rules might not have much to do with the world of the Storm Constantine novels, but what do I care? I've never read them. (Though I have put the 3-volumes-in-1 omnibus edition on my Amazon wishlist but no one in my family ever uses the damn thing come gifty time. It's not that I end up with crappy birthday and Xmas gifts, it's just that I maintain the wishlist to make it easier on them. Why no one uses it is still a mystery. Anyway, I guess I should try my local used books emporia. I have no idea what section of the store to go to find them. Sci-fi? Queer fiction? I dunno.)

And as to the whole "hermaphodites with flower-anemone shaped penisvaginas" angle, I can't say I'm completely annoyed with the idea of playing one. I play too many characters who are obviously expressions of my own Freudian anxieties. You know the type, guys with big guns or swords. Right now I'm going through a phase in which all my PCs wield large knobbby quarterstaffs. And of course all these guys are straight. Being forced to play a gay hermaphrodite could very well afford some insight into these overcompensating tendencies. Or maybe it'll just creep me out. Won't know unless I try.

Then there's the whole posthuman angle to the hara. Most games that deal with this sort of stuff posit posthumanity as either a fairly clearcut but interesting set of technological extrapolations (I'm thinking of Transhuman Space here) or else as Nietzschean overmen, taking the form of spandex-and-cape clad Olympian gods. Wraeththu goes with the idea that the next step in human evolution will be unexpected and pretty damn weird. I gotta give props for that. After all, if you were to thaw out a neanderthal and expose him to modern America, I think he would be pretty freaked out. It rings true to me that homo sapiens would have the same reaction to the beings that come after us in the chain of evolution.

All in all, I have to give credit to the people behind the Wraeththu rpg for trying to bring something truly different to the table. I really hope their game gets into print and finds its way onto the shelves of friendly local game stores everywhere. I'd love to flip through a copy and I might even buy it. Of course, they might not end up publishing my ideal version of Wraeththu, in which mutant girlymen spend all their time engaging in Jedi duel style combat using their personalized battleblades.

Either way, best of luck to them and theirs.

Posted by jrients at 2:45 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:31 PM CDT

Topic: Chess Variants
Been thinking about my large variant project. I've been unsatisified with the fact that the wizards are pawnless. Every other piece in the game has a pawn of ... that can promote to a new piece of that type. (Excepting that the pawn of kings promotes to the prince piece and not a second king). The wizards have no apprentices. I could add pawns of wizards onto the board, but that would probably mean putting them in advance of the normal pawn line or some other inelegant arrangement. Instead, it occurred to me that I could borrow Enochian chess's priveledged pawn rule, whereby the last pawn a player has is allowed to promote to any piece save king. Although this rule would not lead to many games with a third wizard on the board, it at least introduces the possibility.

I've also been thinking about some new piece ideas. The wizard (camel + ferz) and the champion (alifant + dabbabah + wazir) hint at the existence of a whole class of double and triple compound pieces comprised in whole or part of ancient chessmen. Off the top of my head, a knight + wazir would be a nifty piece, I'm not sure what to call it right now.

Another piece I came up with recently is the lighthouse, which captures as a cannon but moves in a much more limited fashion, either as a king or a wazir or a ferz. I'm not sure if the limited 1-step movement should also allow for capturing or not. I call the piece a lighthouse because it's movement is very limited but it can "see" pieces far away.

Posted by jrients at 10:18 AM CDT
Thursday, 17 June 2004

Topic: Collecting Games
Well, I got roped back onto eBay with all my chit-chat about gaming magazines. I had my eye on one of the issues of Dungeoneer that I need. And I also had the old SPI Dallas rpg on my watch list. But I scored a small victory by not bidding for a couple days and then finally deleted them off my watch list. Even better, I'm visiting eBay less often than ever.

Posted by jrients at 1:53 PM CDT

Topic: RPG Actual Play
Last night was Dave Hoover's "Avatars" campaign. I noticed an error in my previously planned advancement scheme for my PC, Rondoo. I had him gaining d10 in the Faith and Healing skill without ever achieving d8 in them! Here's my new plan:

15 Healing, Faith to d8 (gained last night)

20 Spirit to d10
25 Edge: Power Surge
30 +5 Power Points
35 New Power: Dispel

40 Smarts to d10
45 Healing, Faith to d10
50 New Power: Greater Healing
55 +5 Power Points

There's lots of room for switching things up in the above arrangement, so the plan has some flexibility. Like if wizards start popping out of ricebowls to cap our asses, I can move the Dispel power to earlier in the schedule.

I had a great time last night, plenty of furious action and zany antics. Somethings been bothering me though, and I'm having trouble putting my finger exactly on it. I guess part of the problem is that my expectations of "heroic fantasy" and the campaign as played aren't meshing. For example, twice now we've come across the scene of the crime after the bad guys have killed the innocents and split. In a heroic game I would expect us to show up just in time to save some folks. Instead, all we get to do is bury the bodies and avenge the deaths of people we never even met when they were alive. As a result of the folks already being dead, we find ourselves having to interrogate the bad guys and they are rather resistant. End result? The "heroic" PCs torture the captives and still don't get the information they need. I guess maybe I was expecting something a little more like the old formula 1) Save filthy peasants from boblin attack, in nick of time, 2) Peasants say the boblin attacks are the doings of the old Poopmancer who lives in the tower over yonder, 3) Visit tower, defeat Poopomancer. As it stands, the most heroic thing we've done was to save Uncle Lars from the Twisted, and he was never really in any danger, nor was he Johnny's uncle!

Also, we seem to have hints of "stuff going on" but not enough info to actually formulate a plan. Being impotent to thwart the badguys isn't very heroic either. Of course, I've twice now shot myself in the foot by shying away from the dungeons. Last night, though, I think Dante (Joe's PC) was right to not want to go down in the mega-ant tunnels, especially if doing so meant leaving his horsey behind to become ant food. Still, I regret not going into that first dungeon. We're short on food and short on money. Much of the treasure we've scored has been in the form of high-grade Twisted weapons and such, but finding buyers among the locals humans isn't easy. These issues aren't buzzkilling the campaign for me (yet?), but they do raise some concerns. What has Dave got in mind for the game? Is he attempting to address some sort of narrative premise and I'm out of the loop? Maybe next session I need to go over the campaign materials with a fine tooth comb to see if maybe I'm not connecting with something crucial in the setting info.

Eh, I'm clearly rambling at this point. It's not like the game isn't fun. Each individual session is fun. I just can't quite wrap my head around the overall campaign situation.

I want to end on this point: Last night we fought deadly ant riders. That rules! Dave's got a great flair for freakish fantasy foes.

Posted by jrients at 10:37 AM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:55 AM CDT

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