Thursday, January 22, 2009

Champions Online

The closed beta for Champions Online has started up and I'm not in it. Like a kid who wants a puppy, all I can do is stare in from the outside, my hands plastered up against the window, my breath fogging the glass.

Cryptic has put up a "Rate my Champion!" game, which does allow us to see the characters the current testers are making and I confess I am stunned by the scarcity of anything actually resembling a superhero among them. I expected the comedy factor to be high ("Tony Shark" remains my fave, an Iron Man suit with a shark head), and I suppose we can blame the high frequency of monsters and robots on the game's broad costume design options. (It's like playing D&D, really. Players want to be "different," so they pick a nonhuman race. They don't have to think about character concept beyond "I'm the dwarf" or "I'm the orc." In CO, it is "I'm the cyborg" or "I'm the guy with the head of an alligator.") But there's also just a large number of meaningless name/look combinations: a guy in blue battle armor named Svart. Who the hell is Svart? Why should I care?

Anyhow, if you have not seen the game yet, check it out, because Svart aside, it's a very exciting project.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes, Me Too

By the time I crawled out of bed and remembered it was Inauguration Day, the speech was already half over. I went and took a shower, came back, and watched it on YouTube. I was listening, paying attention, impressed but not -- you know -- overpowered, until he invoked Washington huddled on the Potomac in winter. And then, I guess that was when it turned into poetry for me. I could empathize with those men and women, freezing their asses off for the Revolution, and I admired their defiance and the defiance the President conjures in all of us. So yeah, that was when I cried.

I'm a big baby, I guess.

Tomorrow is my phone interview for Alcorn State University. It's not the ideal position; indeed, it is one of the lowest paying tenure track positions I could possibly get. However, it is tenure track at a four year university, and there is some opportunity to be found in moving to a historic black college in the same year as we elect the first black President. Whoever gets that job will be there at a very interesting time.

I'll post something tomorrow after its over.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Hate These Guys...

I was very uncertain about incorporating a Nazi element into the Arthur Lives! cosmology since, like so many other occult elements (ie: Templars), it seems terribly overdone. But I am determined to look on this as a challenge and opportunity rather than a limitation. I've used Nazis before to good effect, and if that experience burnt me out on them, well, its time to get over that burnout and see how I can use them in a way that is somehow not entirely derivative.

All of this led to Sophie von Ribbentrop, the latest Unwanted Ally in Arthur Lives! She's also the highest level character in the book by far; all the other foes are within the capabilities of low-level heroes. But Sophie is not actually intended as an antagonist and so her high level doesn't necessarily pose the speedbump it otherwise would. I did notice one particular danger writing her up, and that is that I refer to a number of other practices, terms, and individuals which probably require further explanation but which I simply name-drop (Montauk Chair, Otto Skorzeny).

But I do not have unlimited time, and let's face it: you can Google this stuff yourself.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Meanwhile, in Paragon City...

I just finished a two week free trial of City of Heroes for the Mac. The first thing I noticed was that the game runs much better on the Mac than it ever did when I was using Boot Camp to boot my machine in Windows. I am no expert, but presumably whoever did the Mac port-over really knows how to make the mediocre graphics card built into a Mac laptop do things which the Windows version is blind to. In any case, it ran faster, and with considerably improved graphics settings.

However, we all have to acknowledge that City of Whatever is a very repetitive game. It's fun to see your character use super-powers, and since I am in love with the genre the game has a lot of gut instinct appeal to me, but the floorplans, the missions, the foes, they're all the same and one tires of them in short order. In addition, for a superhero game, there are simply not enough powers available. For any other genre, City of Heroes would offer a great number of options, but the supers genre demands more creativity and choice when it comes to character abilities than any other genre. This is not a new lesson; tabletop supers games have wrestled with it for years, and that's the reason why the Hero System rulebook is thick enough to stop a bullet. For a thematic player like me -- who wants his powers to fit into a logical whole and not just be a bizarre combination of razor-sharp spines and ice powers, there are even fewer options. There isn't, in fact, a single "Controller" combination which I can bring myself to play. None of them make any god-damn sense.

City of Heroes has some neat thematic elements, and I want to give credit where it is due. Arachnos is 98% pure genius. Every other superhero world has the Ubiquitous Snake Guys: Viper, Hydra, Cobra, the Serpent Society, ad nauseum. But, probably because Spider-Man would sue all rivals for copyright infringement, there has not been till now a very good Evil Spider Organization, despite the obvious strengths of the idea. And while Arachnos not only combines high-tech weapons, martial training, cybernetics and bizarre magic (those Mu guys, bound in chains and floating around, are awesomely creepy), they do it all in a way that makes them look incredibly cool. The only weak spot in Arachnos? Lord Recluse himself, because let's be honest: I know they were trying to refer to the Brown Recluse spider, but it really sounds like Captain Hermit, or maybe Doctor Dysfunctional.

There's also no question that City of Villains is a better game. The neighborhoods are more visually interesting, the dungeons are more varied, and robbing banks is more fun than protecting them. Several of the villain archetypes are built to encourage a fast play tempo -- when the more you fight, the stronger you get, you are inclined to keep pushing yourself and not rest. This is in distinct contrast to the heroic archetypes, who are more likely to rest between fights because, well, they have nothing to lose but time. Standing around resting is boring.

I have said this before, but I think I have said my last goodbye to City of Heroes; the next update will provide a way for players to make content for other players, which does appeal to my GM instincts, and I do admire some aspects of the game. But it's worn pretty thin, and the lure of a game that doesn't force my superhero to use MMO archetypes (Champions Online has no "classes" or archetypes, so that you can choose whatever power theme you wish) is pretty potent.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rogues Gallery

I've spent the last couple days making antagonists for AL!, including a Freemason mastermind vaguely inspired by the Mason in National Treasure (or, as we like to call it in our house, The deFranklin Code), an Illuminati double-agent, and "Mr. Invisible," a vicious hacker visually modeled on King Mob.

In other news, my interview with Alcorn State is finally scheduled: next Wednesday morning. I'm also applying for tenure-track positions at RCC; it's not a glamorous spot, but it would be a good place-holder till something better comes along, and we could use the money (and benefits).

And finally, the fine ratmmjess has at last granted me a desire I have nourished for years: a copy of Fantastic Victoriana. It has been long out of print, and it was this book that got me >this< close to running a Victorian MUSH. A computer copy is not quite as good as an actual book, but hey, I will gladly purchase a real copy if/when it ever comes back into print.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ah, Alignment

Gamers who dislike D&D often bring up alignment as evidence to back up that dislike, and it is certainly true that alignment debates have a tendency to be long, sticky, and argumentative. On the other hand, I have spent many an afternoon in a game store, whiling away the hours arguing about whether it was lawful good for the paladin to punch the dryad in the face. My weekly group got two new players last night and, as often happens, differing play styles prompted an alignment debate. In this case, I exacerbated the situation by throwing a Moral Dilemma (tm) at the players.

The makers of 4e have gone to great lengths to minimize the potency of the "I hate alignment" argument. (Perhaps we should call them "alignment-deniers.") Alignment has no effect on your powers. There is no way to detect alignment and no spells which target foes of a particular alignment. Clerics and paladins have some alignment requirements when the character is made, but the character can then change his alignment. The only requirement in the Player's Handbook is that player characters not be Evil or Chaotic Evil; D&D is at its heart a game of cooperation and heroism. Both of these things are inimical to the Evil and Chaotic Evil alignments.

The goal here is clear: to make alignment a very broad roleplaying tool with no game effect whatsoever. I think it succeeds at that, but then I never had much problem with alignment in the first place. I've generally been successful at explaining the difference between alignments by using famous examples from film or books. King Arthur is Lawful Good while Robin Hood is Chaotic Good, for example. (Superman/Batman is another useful tool, for those who prefer the movie version.) But last night and this morning I have been thinking of a new way to explain alignment, through the use of a very simple thought experiment.

* Let's say there's a guy. His name is Joe. He has a gun. (In honor of the presidential election, I suppose we must call him Joe the Shooter.) He is pointing his gun at another guy, whom we will call Jeff. Jeff is my friend. I have a gun. To protect Jeff, I draw my gun and shoot at Joe.My alignment is ... Unaligned. I am attacking Joe out of personal loyalty to my friend Jeff. Note that Jeff may be an ass; he may be a saint. In this case, these possibilities are irrelevant. I'm attacking Joe simply because I like Jeff better than I like Joe.
* Same situation, except now Jeff is a stranger to me. He's not my friend; I don't know him from Adam. Joe threatens to kill Jeff, as before. I draw my gun and shoot at Joe to defend Jeff. Now I am risking my life for someone I don't even know. My alignment is ... Good.
* Same situation as before. Jeff is a stranger. Joe has a gun and is threatening to kill Jeff. I have a gun. But I do not use it. I put it away. I approach Joe peacefully and try to talk him down because I don't want anyone to get hurt. I negotiate a hostage swap with Jeff, so he goes home and now Joe is pointing his gun at me. I still have my gun and I will use it on Joe if I must, but I do not want to hurt him even though he is threatening to hurt me. My alignment is ... Lawful Good.
* Now that Jeff has gone home, let's go back to Joe and I. Joe has a gun. I have a gun. Joe points his gun at me. I shoot Joe. I am fighting in self-defense. My alignment is ... Unaligned.
* Take away Joe's gun. Instead, Joe has a shiny new watch. I have a gun. I shoot Joe and take his watch. Maybe I give it to one of my friends. Joe is weak and has what I want. My alignment is ... Evil.
* Finally, there's poor Joe. He has nothing, and is a complete stranger to me. I have a gun. I shoot Joe. Die, Joe, die. My alignment is ... Chaotic Evil.

In my recent story, the mother of one of the player characters assassinated the Duchess of a distant land in order for the local Baroness, whom the mother was sworn to protect and who is the target of a local assassination plot herself, to get out of the country and ascend to the throne of that Duchy. She murdered Duchess Meralthea to get that Duchy for someone else. The only difference between this and mugging Joe so I can give his watch to my buddy is one of scale.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Working Again

A few days off and I am eager to get writing again. One thing that True20 has not done well to this point is Narrator advice. There's almost no guidance at all on how to outline a story, how to get the players interested, how to create and preserve suspense, and how to build to a satisfying climax. I look forward to doing some of this for AL!, using as a framework what I call "Whedonisms," elements of Joss Whedon television like Buffy, Angel and Firefly. If anyone out there wants to speak up about the kind of stories you think Whedon tells, speak up.

In other news, my Sunday 4E game has resumed after a too-long holiday break, and I'm very glad to be introducing a couple of new players to the team.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Real Superheroes

OK, so, I saw this on the Huffpost and it's an article in Rolling Stones about the "Real Superheroes" phenomenon. It looks like the Mystery Men stepped off the screen and into our homes. This is far out, and I have got to learn more about these people.

Maybe, with my training, I can become their secret mentor or something.

Far from the Fields We Know

Most Arthurian games leave Spenser more or less out of it. I had to include him. Frankly, I love Spenser, and one of the reasons I love him so much is because he is so damn difficult. Also, he was an incredible Arthur geek. I did not realize the extent to which he was an Arthur geek until I discovered King Ryons in Book III, and realized that this was the same Ryons who battles Arthur in the Prose Merlin.

Anyhow, my conception of the world of Faerie in Arthur Lives! is one part Spenser, one part Shakespeare, and one part Dunsany. And a little bit of Wagner, because I don't know Wagner as well. Maybe Dunsany doesn't really belong, because he's too late and doesn't talk about Arthur anyway, but darnit, he's just too good. People should read more Dunsany, dammit.

Faerie can be found here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

More on Religion in Gaming

I want to write a bit more on the presentation of real religion in RPGs. Somewhere in here is a meta-commentary about shoot-from-the-hip stream of consciousness blogging of the sort Andy Sullivan maintains, as opposed to a compositional blogging style of the type which, frankly, I more prefer. I leave it to interested parties to unwrap that particular package. I want to talk about God.

Or God in gaming, specifically. I do think that SJG's "Yrth" setting, which must surely have begun as the house game but which first saw print in the Man-to-Man rules and then later was expanded into GURPS Fantasy, was the first significant attempt to portray real-world religions in a manner that was consumed by neither parody nor personal agenda. Religion in Yrth was exactly like religion in reality: messy, complicated, prone to human foibles, and based on faith. I think this last is important; if the gods you worship appear in the city square or fight in battle, that religion is not confronted of the basic question of faith which all mortal religions are faced with. An inhabitant of Greyhawk would be an idiot the claim the gods don't exist. A hero in the Dragonlance setting of Krynn may not believe the gods care, but he'll never doubt they live.

Contrast this with Ars Magica and Pendragon which, while less well-known, is very similar to AM in this degree. In these games, there are mechanics for God. His existence is never in doubt, but the game succeeds in treating the subject in a complex and interesting way because -- while you don't have the question of faith which Yrth had -- you do have a real world religion presented in a "straight" manner which is historically accurate to the source material. I have no idea if Greg Stafford is a Christian or not, or any of the many smart people who have worked on Ars Magica over the years. They could be Scientologists for all I know. That's because the games they have created depict Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in an accurate and faithful way, without polemic or agenda.

The World of Darkness -- at least the original one, which remains the only one I at all know -- did not try to present an accurate picture of modern day religion. Syncretism ran amok, so that every religion was depicted as a colorful but essentially meaningless patina over a central inner truth which all religions shared in common but which no book ever seemed to articulate. The awesome influence of the Byronic hero on Vampire: the Masquerade and its descendants meant that there was a kind of glorification of the "villains" in the Catholic story who, while still evil-with-a-little-e, were mostly misunderstood and tragic. It's not hard to see why this was done; gamers are traditionally pretty secular and the audience for World of Darkness was even more so. These were Goth punks who wanted to sneer at organized religion, not treat it seriously. An opportunity for education may have been hidden here, but it's hard to say. I don't know if I could have, for example, gotten some of the Vampire players I knew to treat a Catholic priest as anything other than a figure for derision.

The best representation of religion in D&D is not, as many will tell you, the Forgotten Realms. While that setting has a myriad of warring gods and story potential galore, religion in the Realms is ultimately more like rooting for your local team than anything which exists in real life. No one asks if these gods exist, they ask who is stronger, who is gonna win the playoffs. Once you pick a team, you're honor bound to stick by that team rain or shine, winning season or losing one. You put a block of cheese on your head in the shape of a moon or seven stars, and cheer your throat raw. It's robust and energetic, but it's not faith.

No, the place to go for an interesting depiction of religion is Eberron, where Baker made the smart decision to put the gods so far off stage that no one knows if they actually exist. There are plenty of big-ass forces which can plop their feet down on Eberron and be seen, but the gods aren't among them. If you believe in a god, that's a leap of faith. And that puts your character at risk. What if you're wrong? And because the alignment of priests, paladins, and worshippers was divorced from the alignment of the faith, the followers of each religion were free to be human again: good, bad, stupid and indifferent.


I remember way back when Steve Jackson Games set their fantasy in "Yrth," a world colonized by real people from our own middle ages. Why was this ground-breaking? Because Yrth's inhabitants did not practice made-up religions which resembled our own but had all the serial numbers filed off. They were Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Well, most of them. Who knows what the Sahud were.

As common as it is now to have games which portray real religions, GURPS was quite daring at the time. The memory of "Mazed & Monsters" was still around, you know. There were accusations that D&D was Satanism. Game designers did not put real religion in their work, it was just asking for trouble. GURPS used the Crusades as an engine for plot and character development, and Ars Magica did the same thing. Then you got the whole World of Darkness thing, in which vampires may or may not have been descended from Cain, and in which all religions are basically one religion, which may have been the modern incarnation of the original lazy failure.

Anyhow, I bring this all up because Heaven and Hell are non-negotiable elements of Arthur Lives, though unlike D&D players aren't likely to travel there for adventure. Now Faerie -- there's a spot people could go to, and that will be much more fun to write. And a lot more work. But for now ... here's to Yrth.