Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Descent into Geekery: RPG edition

My expedition into playing table top RPG is a pretty short one. I am not really sure why I never got into this earlier in life, but looking back it was probably the right decision to wait since I would have been completely sucked in. I used to play quite a bit of cRPG either on computers or consoles. I enjoyed the story, but many times the grind just got in the way of things. I wonder if game designers ever will focus on creating grinding that is fun? DragonAge: Inquisition is pretty close in that your grind helps further some of the side stories.

Really my tabletop experience started with one of my friends getting very sick. I knew that he used to play D&D back in the old days with his friends back in Detroit. So I started emailing them and seeing if there was anything we could do to play over skype or anything really. We kept nagging my friend, but he declined the offer each time. When he passed away, the group that we had assembled decided to play if for nothing else but to honor our lost friend.

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast had just launched 4th Edition (I said I was pretty late to the game) and had done a number of podcasts with the guys at Penny Arcade. So Nick agreed to DM our first path through using 4th Edition. We had a couple of copies of the player handbook, Google Wave and Skype. Nick was able to bring in his friend Jeff and I was able to bring in Scott. It was a small group but it was a good start. After a bit of time, I decided to give Nick a break and I took over DMing. We decided to split it up like TV seasons where each would go for about 3 months and would trade back and forth.

We did this for a few years but unfortunately (or fortunately) I had caught the bug. When I wasn't DMing, I wanted to still be creative or at least more creative than being a player would allow. I wanted to create worlds. I wanted to understand more about the craft of DMing. At the time, I was listening to the Penny Arcade podcast, Nick introduced me to the Critical Hit podcast. These led me to a better understanding that the rules were a framework and that I could move things around to find the optimal setting for fun for the group. The DM, Rodrigo, was unhappy with the skill challenge in 4e, so he had his own set of rules which were much more streamlined. I also bought the Lazy Dungeon Master book by Mike Shea along with his other books. I wanted to DM, but I didn't want to do 3 hour of prep for every 1 hour of game play and this certainly provided me with the tools necessary.

Then Google turned off Google Wave. I mean... what the hell? We had a nice little die roller and were getting well versed in the classic "theater of the mind" stuff. I had even mucked with my webcam and a pile of miniatures to try and simulate over the net, but that sucked too. Maybe turning off Wave was a good thing. I did some extensive searching and settled on MapTool which turned out to be a very good thing. It allowed us to share our map space and have individual tokens. It had a built in die roller, but overall the learning curve was pretty steep. The big bonus was that it didn't bog down when you had a huge chat backlog.

About the same time, I picked up a second group. We would play less frequently but could play occasionally in person since everyone was local. I went with a store bought campaign setting book using Neverwinter. I definitely found though that less frequent meant that we could miss months at a time, when I was trying to find a new time slot that worked with the party. But still that group progressed and I enjoyed running it for them. I did find that in person D&D was WAY MORE FUN, but if given the choice between no RPG time and Skype based RPG time, I would take Skype any day of the week.

I also started playing D&D through WotC at PAX. This also fed my addiction to rolling dice and thinking of crazy actions or characters for one-shots. Fast forward a year, and I was offering to DM one-shots at PAX for the WotC folks. I didn't do it a lot but it was a guarantee that I would get to play for a little while. As D&D 4 was winding down to a close, I started to look at other rule sets. This fed yet another addiction to understand how a RPG would tick. What makes it fun? What did the different rules do to change the way the game is played? Reading the works of the Angry DM/GM has also really helped in perspective of how games can and should be run.

13th Age. I happened across this because a friend suggested that I look into it. It was very much in the vein of fourth edition, but trimmed down some of the mechanics a bit. Plus at high level, you roll a lot of dice. I played it at PAX and instantly fell in love with it. I loved that it was 4th-lite, but that it also gave a huge amount of improv hooks for characters and stories. It really made the perfect convention game, because of those improv hooks and also that the things that made your character unique for others of similar class and race could be put together in about 10 minutes at the start of a one-shot. I ran a couple of one-shots with people I knew as well as running them at PAX. It wasn't till this year that I started running it as part of a long term campaign. So far so good, but I think I need another couple months with it because I have a good feel for it. So I would totally recommend going out and picking up 13th Age.

I also started buying up other rule sets. The Bundles of Holding became yet another addiction where I was able to pick up classic Traveller, FATE, Numenera, PARANOIA, Vampire and World of Darkness, Dungeon World, and Torchbearer. I also picked up Fate Accelerated, Laundry Files, Dresden Files, Pathfinder, and way too many kickstarter based RPG. A recent pickup was the Firefly RPG which I have now run twice for one-shots. This is a great system as well as the dice pool mechanic when coupled with complications and assets works to be a lot of fun.

It definitely feels like the last few months, I have really expanded the variety of play I have looked at as well as played.

D&D Shadowfell notes
D&D Neverwinter notes

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Dirtfish Rally School

Yesterday, a good friend of mine had his birthday party at Dirtfish Rally School and treated a bunch of his friends to a day on the course. Besides being incredibly thankful for the opportunity, it was an incredible time.  If you are looking for a taste of racing or just want to be better at driving on rough conditions, this is definitely something you should look into.

The start of the day, we covered material concerning steering and controlling your vehicle.  We spent a lot of time on vehicle weight transfer which is a big thing when trying to control the direction of your vehicle.  Once that was all done, it was time to head out on the track where we would spend some time with our instructors and learn the basic principles of lift-turn-wait and lift-turn-brake which is the main way that you can get your car going in the direction you want.  To practice this technique, we hit the slalom.

The way it would work is that the instructors would take us onto the course and show us some of the technique and how it should look.  Then we would swap into the drivers seat and do 3-4 passes before we would trade with the other set of students (8 students, 4 instructors, 4 cars).  Rinse and repeat.  With the Slalom, it was a nice simple course where we were just trying out this stuff for the first time, so it looked pretty rough.  Our motions were definitely exaggerated as we were trying to find feel for the car and our muscle memory for the right way to handle.  Lift-turn-brake was one of the hardest motions to get into your head as most of the time, you as a driver on the road want to break and then start the turn.

Once we finished up, we headed onto the Boneyard, where we would practice our turning techniques with larger turns.  We had a variety of turns from light bends to nearly hairpin turns.  This was definitely a challenge because as you got more comfortable with the course and got faster, it became more difficult to actually make the turns.  Once this was done, we took a break for lunch, some Forza/DiRT video games, and some more instruction on a new technique, Trailbraking.

The rest of the afternoon was working with an extended course which included the Slalom, the Boneyard, and the Link which connects the two.  This was definitely a ton of fun and really educational.  Almost without fail, once you got comfortable out there and felt like you nailed a series of turns, it would fall apart and you would push it too hard and lose control.  The biggest thing to learn from the course is that precision and control are the focus of good driving.

For pictures.... Dirtfish Flickr Album

Sunday, September 08, 2013

2013 Detroit Lions

Time for my yearly prediction and yearly bet with the Lions and the NFL.  Let's start with my record prediction.  It is tough to predict as when I watched the Lions in pre-season their first team offense was terrible.  If I were to use that as my gut prediction, then I could potentially foresee another 0-16 year... but I think they will hit a stride, I just don't know when that will be.

Week 1: vs Minnesota Loss
Week 2: @ Arizona Win
Week 3: @ Washington Loss
Week 4: vs Chicago Win
Week 5: @ Green Bay Loss
Week 6: @ Cleveland Loss
Week 7: vs Cincinnati Win
Week 8: vs Dallas Win
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: @ Chicago Loss
Week 11: @ Pittsburgh Loss
Week 12: vs Tampa Bay Win
Week 13: vs Green Bay Loss
Week 14: @ Philadelphia Loss
Week 15: vs Baltimore Loss
Week 16: vs NY Giants Loss
Week 17: @ Minnesota Loss

Prediction is: 5-11.  Ug.  Makes me a bit sick in a way and while they always find a way to hang close, it really ends up being a shoot out in the end.  Even in the 0-16 season, most games were won by a touchdown or less.  They just manage to come close to winning without actually doing so.  But wins are all that really count, not close losses.

My bargain/bet... I will buy some Lions accessories as chosen by a friend of mine (not a Lions fan).

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

PAX 2013

PAX 2013 is now in the bag and I definitely had a lot of fun.  The transition to four days was a huge move that did well in terms of scheduling panels seemed more spread out.  This brings with it some problems as well.  Part of moving to 4 days was to encourage folks to get the days they want, allowing more people to experience PAX as the size of the convention center is a huge limitation.  In this case though, I think a lot of people travel in so not buying the entire weekend just didn't make much sense.  That said I talked to a lot of folks who just got a single day pass for whatever was available, so maybe it worked better than I thought.

I was able to attend all four days and had Jason, a friend of mine, along for the ride.  He did get sick from his plane ride and therefore missed Sunday and Monday, doing his best to recover.  Four days is a pretty exhausting and intense experience.  It doesn't help that I have been fighting some stomach issues all summer long so I was putting myself to the test on this one.

Friday I was able to hit the 13th Age 2 hour demo (which took 3 hours).  This was one of my top priorities for the convention as I really wanted to experience it as a player before I get to running campaigns in the settings.  Overall, I am impressed with its ability to tie the characters into the story and world.  In addition it provides some nice tools such as Icon relations and backgrounds to help kick off the GM improv thought process.  Afterwards, we grabbed some lunch and went to Patrick Rothfuss' panel.  Holy Poo that dude is fun to listen to.  He claims he doesn't have the speaking voice but it was totally engaging and covered a lot of fun questions ("3rd or 4th date" type questions).  Afterwards it was a quick run through of the expo hall and then off to see the WotC booth as I heard they were looking for DMs to help out.  I signed up to help run Confrontation at Candlekeep the next night and decided to play it so that I could be a bit more prepped.  In the end, it was about 6 hours of gaming and a couple of hours in line plus a expo hall run through.

Saturday, Jason abandoned me to stand in line at Cards Against Humanity booth where he scored the Bigger, Blacker Box as well as the core set of cards.  I made a couple passes on the expo hall where I played with the NVIDIA Shield which is just an impressive gaming device and I seriously want it.  In addition it was hooked up to the ScreenBeam by Actiontec to show it off on an HDTV with only 100ms latency.  Afterwards I was able to check out the action in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag in their private theater which was super nice and I have to say that I am excited for this to come out.  Jason and I finished by running through the expo hall and grabbing some food before sitting in line at the Acquisitions, Inc D&D live game.  Fantastic awesome fun.  While standing in line, Jason let me use his NVIDIA Shield which further cemented the fact that  I really want to own one and helped pass the 2 1/2 hours waiting in line.  We hustled out of there and grabbed some sandwiches so that I could scarf down some food before running Confrontation at Candlekeep.  The players had a good time and were really engaging.  We had some old hat players and even a player who had never played a pen and paper RPG before.  Got some hearty thank yous from the players as they left which felt good.  Jason did the intro to D&D Next while I was running that.

Sunday, I was running solo for a while.  I started by hitting the 6th floor of the Expo which I had missed as well as stopping off at the game shop booths where I was able to pick up Fluxx Boardgame, 7 Wonders, and FATE Accelerated. I also picked up a new miniature from Reaper to paint, given that I totally forgot to get a dragon in the Kickstarter.  Got a demo from Fantasy Flight Games for for Cyborg while I waited to run into Lindsey from work and then we ended up playing Flame War, Zombie Dice, Through the Desert, Tsuro, and some other games which was totally fun.  Lindsey and company took off, while I grabbed some food and went to be a player for the Mines of Madness DM Challenge in the Wizards' area.  Unfortunately they ran out of DM, so rather than call it a night (with like 20 folks still wanting to play), I volunteered to run the session cold.  It went fairly well and I think the folks had some fun even through the dungeon had its way with them.

Monday was the day of exhaustion.  I again hit the expo hall early to see if there were things that I had missed.  Talked to the folks at GAEMS about their portable console system which looks nice but is heavy.  The screen on it is gorgeous and the speakers sounded nice.  Watched some folks play Formula D which looks like a fantastically fun board game and grabbed lunch with David from work.  Afterwards we played more Flame War and also Pompeii.  We also checked out WiHD which we found was pronounced Why HD.  This product sends HD signals over 60GHz sort of like wifi but has no lag or problems that I noticed which is impressive in the Expo hall given the amount of wireless stuff going on.  They also claim only 5ms of latency which if true is very impressive.

Overall PAX was fun, and gaming with strangers and friends alike really made the experience.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Green Mars and Blue Mars

I have just finished Green Mars (Mars Trilogy) and Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy) by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I would tack this up to two illnesses starting with Green Mars versus a stomach virus and then Blue Mars versus a head cold.  While I found Red Mars to be super dark and depressing, I did find that Green and Blue were much brighter.  That said, while I have found the interactions of the characters to be fantastic and the ability of the author to really dig into drastically different characters and deal with them in a very personal manner.

Now while I have really enjoyed the series, it feels that a lot of the world and how it plays out is driven by these smart, charismatic, slightly dysfunctional characters.  In addition, the antagonist is really played by all that is old in thought and motivation.  It speaks of a viriditas and how the world is shaped by a constant interplay of chaos and order in the galaxy.  Much of the book is fantastic.  I tended to lose interest in the long monologues where it goes into full on soapbox mode.

With all the things that occur in the books, I don't think I could really do justice in them by trying to provide a full on review.  I definitely think this is a book series that people should read, even if at times it can drag on.  There is definitely some moving moments that will be most poignant as I was wrapping up the final book.  It was super moving and done in a very classy way.

The most personal message that I am taking away from this is that our goals in life should leave the world better off than when we started.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Recently Completed Books

Firing up the rarely used blog to put down a few thoughts on a myriad of books I have completed recently...

Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher was a fantastic read.  I have liked all the Dresden File books so far and as a writer, Mr. Butcher continues to get better.  The first few were definitely rough around the edges, but still contained interesting characters in tough situations.  With the most recent outing, we pick up at the end of Ghost Story and the return of Harry.  Again we watch as Harry is put into terrible situations where he doesn't have to good sense to end it all and manages to come out the other side, definitely worse for wear and with more burdens.  While all the books in the series follow this same sort of pattern, this one does a fantastic job of really opening up new realms of possibilities in the story line as well as expanding on the depth of his created world.  Just like a piece of candy, I really can't wait for the next one to come out.  Also kudos to Amazon for quickly replacing my first copy which had a printing error within a day of contacting them.

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy) by Kim Stanley Robinson is a book that my friends have been nagging me to read for quite some time.  While this falls under the category of hard science fiction, it also really puts a strong emphasis on the human and social aspects.  Even though this book came out 20 years ago, it still evokes the same fear of large powerful corporations who will exploit all to reaches higher into the monetary stratosphere.  It talks of people who try to work within that system to save humanity.  It talks of people bucking the system to save humanity.  It tells also of the futility of the effort and the mass destruction that people cause wherever they go.  The book's pacing is on the slow side and is definitely not for the faint of heart as this book is fairly massive, but I found it thought provoking and will be starting the next book shortly.

A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson finally completes the Wheel of Time series started in 1990.  The series itself has sort of a love - hate relationship with me as I truly enjoyed the first few books but at some point it began to drag and the number of side characters sort of exploded, only to be made worse that a lot of the side characters were more interesting than some of the main characters.  The final book is sort of a love fest for all the readers that have stuck with the series so far.  Some characters die and some live through the final battle and we really get a chance to have at least a paragraph with all of them.  This book is also massive and the last battle is a large chunk of the book, but most of the book is actually spent on 3 battles leading up to the last battle.  This choice was probably deemed necessary in the tale, but for me was just wasted space.  In the end of it all, I am glad to say that it is over.  I don't regret the love that I have for the first few books, but I can't say I have enjoyed the last half of the series.  What is made worse is that many of the characters in this book just don't feel like the characters that Robert Jordan would have written.  While the female characters finally get some depth, the male characters all go through a change that makes them feel just untrue to their origin as well as the experiences that they have gone through.

Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and The Lazy Dungeon Master by Mike Shea where some pretty good reads for the DM that wants to spend more time playing with his players than crafting an intricate story line.  I have spent a lot of time in the last 2 years trying to figure out the best to do collaborative storytelling.  I have read a lot of works and also gone about it from the player side.  I don't think I have the right answer, but a lot of the reading has definitely put me on a stronger path.  At some point, I will have to start putting down some of the ideas and approaches I have taken.  That said, I can definitely recommend these books in you are interesting in doing DM work as it works hard to take the work out and put more control back into the hands of the players.

The Human Division #1: The B-Team, The Human Division #2: Walk the Plank, and The Human Division #3: We Only Need the Heads by John Scalzi are part of an episodic experiment in writing where the stories range from short story to novella in length released on a weekly time table.  The stories all take part in the "Old Man's War" universe and are told from the standpoint of a bunch of characters experiencing the universe after John Perry brings Earth to the galactic table.  While the "pilot" book felt a bit rough getting started, I have found that they are addictive and hard to put down (making their shortness all the more painful).  And while they are short stories, you can definitely see the pattern that is forming and the deeper story line emerging from the pieces.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Penny Arcade Expo 2012

Another PAX up and gone.  Given this was my 8th PAX I think that I have really hit my stride in managing my time there as well as any associated stresses of going.  There is just so much to see and do that you have to consign yourself that you are going to miss truly great events in favor of other truly great events.


For Friday, I did not have much on my plans to hit. I was interested in doing some D&D as well as hitting the expo hall and seeing what folks had brought in.  Instead of jumping into the queue line, I was happy to see that the Penny Arcade Merch line was already open and nearly empty, so I jumped in and got my yearly tee shirts and book.  After getting through the mega line (which I got to talk to two nice guys in the insurance business, seriously), I was able to check out the insanely crowded expo hall.  After quickly looking through the expo hall, I settled into line to watch the live play demo of Assassin's Creed 3 which was absolutely incredible.  Besides being blown away by the graphics, it was just incredible to see what they have done in terms of interacting with the environment.  When Connor was climbing a tree, it was not climbing a ladder or rope, he was moving branch to branch in a very realistic manner.  My friends went through earlier and mentioned that their playthrough included stopping to pet a dog in the street.  Just wow.

After meeting up with my compatriots outside the League of Legends tournament (which I hope is not part of PAX next year, but separate and nearby) and grabbing lunch, we headed over to the Annex and starting going through one of the special encounters where we all got to play evil drow.  The DM was a little distracted, but we still had some fun (got a free d20).  We realized that the queue line was nearby to try out D&D Next.

While in line we met some nice blokes from Canada.  One of the folks in the room also broke out Cards Against Humanity which was sick, disturbing and cool.  Basically I have been told it is similar to the game Apples to Apples where you basically do Mad Lib.  Cards Against Humanity contains only the most foul aspects of humanity to use in sentences that can only end horribly.  Once we got into the game, I was shocked at how well balanced the game felt and how much fun we actually had playing.  The story the DM put together was fun, and coming from the 4e perspective I was a bit skeptical of the characters with few abilities and few hit points.  But once we started playing, I saw that it was really a playground for the players and DM which required way less math and fiddly bits and focused on what D&D should be about, which is a group narrative that is fun and engaging.  For instance, one of the characters in the group was a priest of Lathandar, which could be done fairly dry and just playing the mechanics, but instead the player basically put life into his character where he tried to convert every creature he met to his god whether they be undead, animal, or person.  Plus he monologued... a lot.  Scott's character was a halfling rogue who used to be a chef, so when he got the chance, he backed some poisonous pies to feed some Orcs.  Just had a seriously good time.


On Saturday, I had two things on my agenda: Acquisitions, Inc and the DM challenge.  Up until that point, I decided it was time to hit the expo hall again and time permitting, I would check out the board game area.  Well time didn't permit and we got sucked into all the cool games.  While the big triple A games were cool, what we came away with was how cool the indie games were, although part of that is probably that we could actually go play them and talk to folks working the booth as opposed to the big titles and companies were just overwhelmed with people.  I did get a chance to try out Doom 3 3D, which left me feel nauseous.  I was impressed by the look and how smooth it was, but felt like my eyes were about 2cm too close together for what they wanted to show.  Another cool one I saw was Hawken which had some awesome mech action coupled with neat visual cues on damage taken.  Also I got roped into trying a controller that attaches to Android devices via bluetooth called Moga which felt incredibly smooth and comfortable... if I had an Android device.

After lunch, we were able to get in another D&D encounter before we began the long line sitting exercise known as waiting for Acquisitions, Inc (and a blog that has good pictures as well).  While waiting we met a few groups playing Zombie Dice (best line game ever) and decided to join forces to have a bigger game, which included a couple from the UK named Ben and Jen as well as Dennis, a friend of Scott's and also Glen and Amy.  After that we switched up and played some Cards Against Humanity.  The D&D session had some incredible set pieces as some cool effects, but at its essence it is about watching Wil Wheaton, Scott Kurtz, and Mike and Jerry at their best.  It was fun, entertaining and loaded with butt jokes.

After that, Jason and I headed over to take part in the DM challenge while Scott went to the Avicii concert. Our DM had flown in from London and I was lucky enough to land again with one of the guys we had met the night before.  In addition, the DM from the challenge last year was part of our player party this time.  The encounter set was placed in Menzobarranzan with evil Dark Elves (a theme for them this year).  The campaign was pretty interesting and I can see what the DM was trying to do, but as normal players we didn't cooperate.  In either case, what he planned was super slick, but what ended up happening was also very interesting.


Instead of waiting in line for the expo hall, I was ran into an interesting guy from California and we talked a lot about interesting games.  He headed onto the hall, and I learned that the Wil Wheaton Awesome Hour was already full up so I headed down to talk to the folks at Reaper Miniatures who put on one of the largest kickstarters of all time.  I took some time to paint a miniature of my own and found it super relaxing and fun. I am afraid I have found a new hobby.  Once I left, I headed for the expo hall to see some more of the indie games and get a chance to play Forza Horizon and another game from Dream. Build. Play.

After lunch, I met up with Lindsey and her daughter, Sam.  We wandered about looking for a place to buy Cards Against Humanity but gave up.  I was surprised at Sam who at only 7 months was having the time of her life waving at everyone she saw and just being a bundle of smiles.

At this point, I am completely worn.  I find a nice quiet place to rest my weary legs and wait to have dinner with Amanda, Scott, and Jason.