Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hating on the Browns

Some days, I just can't help myself.

When it comes to Blood Bowl (or most things miniature and wargamey), I'm a big lover of "fluff." Some people love the tactics involved in crushing one's opponent (I like this, too); some folks are downright obsessive about modeling and painting (I've been known to while away a few hours myself). But really, without the fluff, the game would lose most of its character, coolness, and humor.

I started with Blood Bowl back in the 2nd edition, when the teams used to be arranged like the NFL (two conferences of three divisions each...this was was before the 2002 realignment or even the Jags/Panthers expansion franchises) and had equivalent play-offs rather than the Open Tournament format that began with 3rd edition. Back then, the fluff provided team histories that included records, stats, and rivalries akin to...well, akin to (American) football.

[you can say that these things still exist, but their importance as fluff has been significantly downgraded with the collapse of the League. When all the teams are wandering mercenary bands, that might or might not play another team in a decade, who cares what the past rivalries were? Any team can angle for a good prize purse by entering an open tournament and getting cunning with the matches they schedule. The fluff of the game loses much of its significance...which for me is a downgrade]

[and, yes, I realize that the reasons behind the changed (game) format is the practical problems that comes with running a league...scheduling problems, player no-shows, and player drop-outs due to poor records and not wanting to "play out the string." That's fine...but in MY little corner of the Blood Bowl universe, I'm allowed to run the League as I see fit...and I, of course, run my league in the American NFL format. When I run it at all, that is...]

One team that I always found amusing was The Hobgoblin Team, a team so stupid that its symbol was a hastily scrawled "X" on the side of their helmets, and that couldn't think up a better name for itself than "The Hobgoblin Team." Hobgoblins in the Blood Bowl world are a far cry from the organized warriors of the D&D mythos...they're a bit stronger than goblins, but a lot less intelligent, having issues even tying their boots (and when they get their boots on, they spend most of the match stomping on the feet of their fellows who couldn't figure it out). They are truly pathetic, having never had a winning record in living memory and often going 0 for 16.

Now, there's actually no "hobgoblin" team available in 2nd or 3rd edition Blood Bowl, but the Chaos Dwarf team of 3E uses hobgoblin slaves to make up the bulk of its players, and it's perfectly possible to field consisting entirely of hobgoblins and calling it The Hobgoblin Team. In fact, that's what I do with one of the two chaos dwarf teams in my seems important and appropriate to include such a team (in homage to the original fluff), and its easy to model the wild popularity of the hapless hobgoblins with all the money you save by not purchasing skill players. It's a pretty tough team to win with (even without adding the fan-based stupidity rules you find floating around the internet), but it gives you incentive to play low-down and dirty (which is in line with the team's fluff) and it's a nice team to have on hand to break out against a young player or someone just learning the game (that you don't want to totally thrash).

Not my minis, sorry (they're back in Seattle).
Of course, all my Blood Bowl teams replace (and model) specific teams in the NFL. The Hobgoblin Team is the one I use to represent the Cleveland Browns.

I want to like the Browns, I really do. But they always do such asininely stupid things during the football season that it's tough not to be irritated with them and say, 'hey, you get what you deserve.' Last year, I watched Brian Hoyer exceed expectations and give his team a chance to actually be competitive before having his leg nuked in the Bills game (it was a Thursday night when it happened...I was at the Baranof for my weekly role-playing fix and watched the game in the bar). It was a terrible bit of bad luck for the team, but I figured it at least boded well for the future...that the Browns had finally found a quarterback that could take them out of a really ugly slump.

[for folks who don't care or know much about the Browns, you might find it interesting that they've only had three winning seasons since 1990 and have finished only one season with more than six wins since 2002...the last time they made the play-offs. There's a reason why the Browns get The Hobgoblin Team]

[for non-American readers: the American football season consists of a 16 game regular season followed by the play-offs. More than a decade with a win percentage of under .400 is, frankly, terrible]

But now they had Hoyer, and a chance to build a team that might (in time) at least match the glory days of the 1980s (seven playoff appearances from 1980-1989), if not the championships of the 1950s and 60s (prior to the Super Bowl era). There was hope.

And then there was Johnny Manziel.

The Browns selected "Johnny Football" in the first round of the draft, a hot commodity in college (if controversial selection) and set-up the same kind of nipping-at-the-heels situation the NFL saw previously with Tim Tebow. Even so, the Browns started Hoyer and jumped out to a 6-3 record (and share of the division lead) after their first ten weeks. With seven games remaining, the Browns looked to control their own play-off destiny.

Then they ran into a giant buzz-saw called J.J. Watt who destroyed their offense as he's done most of this year (a year when he's being lauded as an MVP candidate). Dropping to 6-4 in a tight division race didn't help anyone's confidence.

The next week, the Browns traveled to Georgia to play the Falcons and they managed to pull out a needed road victory bringing their win total to seven...but Hoyer threw three picks during the game and despite leading the team to their best win record since Derek Anderson, people started to ask when they'd get a chance to see Johnny Manziel. Truthfully, some folks had been asking this all season. Isn't it possible that the poor showing was due to Hoyer being forced to throw to an out-of-position Josh Gordon, rusty and lacking chemistry after being suspended for most of the season due to drug violations? Yes, Gordon caught eight passes...but he was targeted 16 times. He admitted himself that he ran the wrong routes on two of his targets (that were intercepted).

The next two games were losses. First the Buffalo Bills (the same defense that handed Aaron Rogers his ass last week with four turnovers) and then against the Indianapolis Colts, losing by 1 point to 9-4 team that is (as of now) playoff bound for the second straight year. A rough patch for sure...though again (with the latter game especially), Gordon's failures (and others on the team) were as much to blame as Hoyer.

But, of course, the Browns benched the guy and went with Manziel. Stupid hobgoblins.

Now the Browns are left with a 7-7 record and are determined to "evaluate" Manziel over the last three games by starting him in place of the guy that got them the wins they have. In other words, they've given up the season, even while not mathematically eliminated from the play-offs. Sure, maybe Johnny Football will turn it around in the next three games but, you know...


Hey, what do I care? My team's playing for their division and 1st place in the NFC this week. Our coach has been pretty fearless in his roster selections when needed...going with the third string rookie over the high-priced free agent when the former gave the team the best chance to win. Trading another high priced skill player five games into the year...after gearing the whole offense to the dude in the off-season...because he was a poison to the team. Putting us in the best place to compete.

Maybe Coach Pettine felt the same when he chose to bench Hoyer for Manziel. Maybe he felt he was doing the same thing Denver did a couple years back when they benched Kyle Orton for Tim Tebow. The difference, of course, is that Orton was 1-4 five games into the season, not 7-6 with a playoff berth on the line.

But like I said, it's not my team. Hell, the Browns aren't even in the same conference as the Seahawks.   I don't even like them all that I said, their actions irritate me to no end as a football fan. What an actual fan from Cleveland thinks...well, I'd rather not speculate. At least they have LeBron these days right? All us Seattle folks have IS the least till baseball season starts.

Like I said, I want to like the Browns. I'd like to see them do well. Maybe because I hate the Steelers and I liked seeing Cleveland taking it too them this year. But, no, I think it's more about tradition: I've been waiting to see their stock rise ever since the recreation of the team Modell shipped to Baltimore.

But I guess you can't get your hopes up too high with The Hobgoblin Team, huh?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


One thing folks should understand is that much of my exploration of the superhero genre is directly related to my child (who turns four years old next month). Not that I don't enjoy the superhero genre myself (for reasons of wish fulfillment and punch-in-the-mouth problem solving, if nothing else)...I'm just saying I probably would not be going back and watching these old cartoons, if not for him. Probably...

Anyway...the last day or two he's been really interested in superhero origins, i.e. "how did [insert name] become a superhero." Season two of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends consists of three episodes that tell the (individual) stories of the three heroes on the team. And as with most of the "history" stuff in the show, they're pretty faithful to the original versions found in the comic books (even dealing with the death of Parker's uncle and his feelings of guilt...fairly dark stuff for a Saturday Morning cartoon).

Theme Song: Free Bird
Of course, that can't be said of the origin story for Firestar because her character has no basis in comic books. She was created specifically for the cartoon.

The original concept for the story (from what I read) was to have Spider-Man teamed up with two heroes whose powers were polar opposite (fire and ice), to create a dichotomy and allow for more interesting interaction. The Human Torch would be the natural fit and was the creators' first choice; unfortunately, there was some issues with getting the proper licensing/rights to use the Torch (I believe it was these same issues that prevented him from being included in the 1970s cartoon of The Fantastic Four, requiring the writers of that show to create a humorous robot to round out the team's foursome). Since Johnny Storm wasn't available, Firestar (Angelica Jones) was created: a female mutant with the ability to harness and control ambient microwaves for a variety of stunts, mainly related to heat and fire.

Pedestrian as a "generic fire mutant" may seem, the change makes the show immensely better simply by dint of the character being female. Not only because, hey, it's inclusive and gives a female viewer a character with whom to identify, but because it sets up a far more interesting interplay between the three characters on the screen. There's the back-and-forth banter that comes when friends of opposite sexes interact, as well as a bit of a "relaxed love triangle" that allows everyone a chance to show-off a bit: the guys compete with each other - at times - to look good (or at least not bad) in front of Firestar and it mirrors Firestar's own (very understated) interest in pulling her weight in the Man's World of the comic book genre.

Not that she really needs to worry about pulling her weight: besides being the most measurably powerful of the three heroes, Angelica is a smart, strong, and competent character. She is immensely likable, has interests outside of her friends (and crime-fighting), is responsible, compassionate, and confident. She comes to the rescue of the boys at least as often as they come to hers, and is able to operate solo a lot more effectively than the other two, especially Iceman (who often seems lost without one of the others helping him out).

Interesting as the superheroes are (power wise, story wise), the part that fleshes out their 2D characters is their human interaction. And Firestar provides a much needed female voice...can you imagine if the only female character had been Aunt May? Sure, May provides one facet of the female archetype, but with the addition of Firestar the dynamic of their relationship (young, hip woman and wise, elder)...well, it exceeds the sum of its parts.

Firestar's a great example of what a female superhero can be...note the lack of provocative costume. Yes, that's partly due to being a children's TV show, but there's no need to dress like a stripper when you can melt things with your mind. And she's not a prude: Angelica has an interest in dating (and dating outside her super-buddies), and is not just looking to snag a husband. She knows what she likes and doesn't let her friends' ribbing get in the way (as when she had an initial attraction to Kraven). The story with Sunfire and their romance makes perfect sense, and hits just about every right note, and really shows a strength of the genre: that the real world barriers of culture and ethnicity can be cast aside and ignored, allowing us to see how much we share as human beings. 

But fans of the superhero genre should already get that. Equality is an inherent part of the one's going to refer to females as "the weaker sex" in a world where Carol Danvers can crush Captain America in arm-wrestling. It makes no difference that (black) Luke Cage is married to (white) Jessica's a bit more important that they're both superhumanly strong and durable. 

Objectively speaking, the superhero universe is more diverse than our real world with its aliens and robots and sorcerers and mutants - all of varying powers and power levels. The (imaginary) people of that universe have mostly managed to take it in stride, instead coming back to the more basic question: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Nothing else is a big deal.

[consider the scene from the original Secret Wars where Reed Richards is repairing Iron Man's armor. Asked by then-pilot James Rhodes if he was curious that there was a black man in the armor, Reed replies, "Well, no. I knew there was a man inside the armor." Richards doesn't care what skin color the superhero has]

[and, yes, I realize that comics can be used to parallel real-world prejudice and act as substitute analogies...see "mutant hysteria" and "Superhero Registration Act" as prime examples...but the potential for looking beyond race and culture and sex and sexuality, to a world united by common (hopefully good) purpose is, I think, the strongest in this particular, peculiar genre of fiction. To me, that's pretty neat, and a reason to maintain interest in comics]

*ahem* Back to Firestar...

One last tidbit of interest here for this character...and while it applies to most of these early superhero cartoons, it's especially driven home with a character who has the potential to level a how little damage needs to be inflicted to end a fight. It's not like Firestar just fries bad guys (the Spider-Friends are often found foiling robberies and such, in between fighting superhuman menaces, and so are sometimes simply combatting non-powered "goons"), even though she could. No one is getting incinerated or being set on fire; in gaming terms, there's no HPs being removed by her attacks.

"Well, JB," you say, "That's based on a couple things: one is that it's a children's cartoon, and they don't want to encourage children to fight (i.e. punch people), and the other is the usual 'superhero code' against killing opponents." To which I reply: okay, but consider these two things:
  • Most folks would have a hard time bringing themselves to take a life, regardless of whether their pointed finger is the equivalent of a loaded gun. My understanding of military training (having never been through boot camp) is that at least part of it involves getting recruits to a mental state where it's okay to kill in the line of duty. For a lot of people, it would take a real life-or-death situation (perhaps involving the endangered life of a loved one) to get us to do mortal harm to a person. Very few of us are "natural born killers."
  • Whether you have a "code" against killing or just lack the stomach for it, if your power is one like "microwaving the shit out of things," you are now faced with an interesting challenge: how can I stop these crooks and villains with my seriously lethal superpower? This requires a lot of creative thinking on the part of the player; in a show like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends it requires the writers to constantly think of interesting ideas in order to keep the depictions "fresh" (it can't all be simply "cages of fire," as that would get boringly repetitive). In superhero RPGs that assign a higher value to "lethal" powers over "non-lethal," this is something to think about. Sure that ability to blow shit up is awesome when you're facing a mindless robot, but what about when facing your mind-controlled buddy? 
People that kill bad guys (even in self defense) are still committing murder, and while the law might consider it justifiable homicide, it really depends on how excessive was the forced used by the hero. It's possible a hero might still be wanted for felony jail time, even on a lesser charge (like manslaughter). Just saying.
; )

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


"Superpower? Washboard abs."
Kraven the Hunter is a true badass and one of my favorite super-villains. Of course, I say this with knowledge based solely on two sources: the Marvel Superheroes RPG (he appears in the Advanced edition) and his appearance on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. And as I never actually used the Kraven write-up in any of my past Marvel campaigns, it's pretty safe to say the lion's share of my admiration comes from his depiction in the cartoon (episode #2, circa 1981).

Let's take a look at why.

Here's a guy who looks like Tom Selleck on steroids, wears a lion-head vest, and hunts dinosaurs with his bare hands. He is, to coin a phrase, The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Oh, sure, he has a potent jungle power potion that gives him "the strength of ten gorillas," but really how strong would that be?

[per the internet, gorillas are estimated to be six to ten times as strong as a human, meaning Kraven at full strength is around 80 times stronger than a human...about the same strength as Spider-Man whose official stat line says he can bench around 10 tons]

Kraven's real superpower is his giant brass MSH terms, they rank as Monstrous (75), or at least Amazing (50). The guy's courage is well-over the "foolhardy" red-line. His half-baked plan to conquer New York with an army of newly hatched dinosaurs that "only he can control?" That kind of crazy is what led to the Jurassic Park franchise making millions and millions of dollars.

But crazy or not, there's no denying he's a sharp dude with a heap of skill. He out-plots and out-thinks (for the most part) three veteran super-heroes, despite having no real super-powers. A little chloroform, a little taser-type action, and voila! Three bound and helpless superheroes, despite the guy lacking true superpowers. Hell, he doesn't even use a gun...Kraven's got his own twisted code of honor. Sure, some might say he plays "dirty," but he's just using every possible angle. When you're going up against mutants that can melt steel...or freeze and shatter need to use every angle.

Kraven is an evil version of Batman. Not the Superfriends version that I grew up with, but the always prepared, The Brave & The Bold version of more recent years. You young 'uns dig the hip, Eastwood-cool Dark Knight...I prefer the brash and bombastic "bad guy" version. He positively oozes villainous self-confidence.

Case in point: I love how he refers to himself in the third person. That's sooo hip-hop! In 1981!
: )

Kraven's main failing? Being a super-villain, his arrogance leads him to "go it alone" (or with a minimum of henchman help), and he definitely bites off more than he can chew. I'm not sure how he handled Spider-Man in the comics, but it's readily apparent in the 'toon that any single "Spider friend" is over-matched by his devious hunter's mind.

Which is nuts, right? Because he doesn't have super powers. And even Spider-Man should be able to deliver a beatdown in a straight fight. Kraven doesn't wear body armor, he doesn't have "the skin of a rhino." This is a one-punch Jason killing Horshack.

There are two takeaways here for game design purposes. First, an antagonist/peril does not require the bad guy to be a Big Bad Boss-type monster to provide a challenge (and a good one) to players. Secondly, in a cinematic (live comic book) style game, simple mechanics coupled with teamwork can provide decent action sequences without necessitating large stat blocks.

But that latter is an insight mainly for Yours Truly...the design equivalent of an "inside joke" that needs a bit more explanation. Perhaps when I talk about DC Heroes (AKA Mutants & Masterminds III) I'll get into that. Yeah, probably.

[by the way, while I've never used a Kraven-type villain in a supers game, but I always felt the Hunter/Vigilante class in Heroes Unlimited was about the perfect vehicle for such a character...even without a "jungle power potion"]

Just by the way: my son also digs Kraven...though the hunter doesn't scare him nearly as much as Mysterio.

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends

The Three Amigos
I know, I know...folks would rather here about D&Dish stuff over here at Ye Old Blackrazor Blog, but I've really got nothing at the moment. Truly, the well's a bit dry at the moment. For one thing, Paraguay just doesn't inspire anything in a "fantasy-exploration-adventure" kind of way. For another, Alexis's book (my reading of it, analysis, and review) just took a lot out of me. I just need a couple weeks to recuperate before I approach anything like a D&D-style campaign. Sorry.

Rather than leave you folks on empty (and rather than fall out of practice with the blogging thang), I'm going to talk some superheroes. I know the genre turns off some people, but it's better than nothing, right? You certainly don't want me blathering on about the Seahawks and the NFL (next projected post on that subject will be at the end of the regular season).

SO...Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. That's where I'll be starting: the Saturday morning cartoon from the early 80's (specifically 1981 to 1983, per wikipedia). This would have been back when I was in the 8-10 age range, so probably the perfect demographic. I purchased comic books back then...usually in the summer months from the Missoula, Montana Circle K located down the street from my grandma's house...but I certainly had no sophistication regarding comic titles, nor was I regular collector, nor did I have any sense of the history of the Marvel series being published in the 80's (most of which had a couple decades of history/backstory to them). Plus, I preferred Ghost Rider or Rom to anything as pedestrian as the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man.

I was, however, pretty fanatically loyal to this particular cartoon.

I enjoyed Saturday morning cartoons, immensely. When I was a kid my family never had cable TV, which means we were limited to 5 to 7 channels the first couple decades of my life. Cartoons we're played on three of those channels (ABC, NBC, and CBS) for a couple hours, starting around 7am or so and ending around 10 or 11. During that window, I surfed between the three channels, focusing on a variety of action/adventure flicks: Thundarr the Barbarian, Blackstar, Jonny Quest, Godzilla as well as the usual superhero flicks. Things that had a mystical/mythology twist or a lot of ass-kicking was what I wanted to see. When cartoons started having "messages" or "morals" thrown in at the end...well, that's when I stopped bothering to get up early. Shows like Transformers and G.I. Joe sounded the death knell for my love affair with cartoons, probably circa '84 or '85 (though I was pretty diligent about watching the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon for the length of its run on TV).

But before that happened, there was Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Spidey replaced the Superfriends for my superhero watching (though the Justice League received a small *bump* when they brought in Darkseid & Co. circa '84). The villains were ones I recognized, the threats seemed more interesting, the art and writing was better. Plus, the acrobatic Spider-Man is a character that was made for animation. The titular "friends" (Iceman and Firestar) are pretty cool as well.

Recently I've had a chance to re-watch these shows (ahh...the magic of the internet) with my son...something I haven't done since they went off the air in '83 (I don't know if they were later syndicated, but if so I missed 'em). And compared to the 1960s Spider-Man (also viewed on the internet) or the Superfriends (even the great Legion of Doom episodes)...really there's no comparison. It's a great, great show: the animation, the writing, the humor and action. For me, it really captures the youth and energy of the late Silver Age...there are no dark antiheroes or grey areas. It's fun, but it's interesting, and the comic relief from the small pet is a nice balance to some real instances of scary ("scary-ish?") jeopardy/peril in which the heroes find themselves. The series leads off with three badass villains (Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, and Doctor Doom) and has some great ones like the Red Skull (with literal Nazi themes...that ain't something you see too often in a kid's cartoon!).

[just by the way...the depiction of Dr. Doom in this show is probably my favorite non-comic book depiction of the good doctor in any medium. The 70s Fantastic Four version..."I need Black Beard's treasure to take over the world" is sooooo weak-sauce compared to this minor happenstance. And don't get me started on the live-action version...]

Not that I'm bringing this up to stroll down Nostalgia Lane (though feel free to enter your own personal comments, as always). Fact is, I'm tinkering on the hero game (once again) and there are various aspects of the show I want to discuss...things that relate to, oh say, what I want to do in superhero-based RPG.

But let me save that stuff for individual posts.

[sorry, I wrote this yesterday, but didn't have a chance to get it posted. Will try to get another one done today]

Friday, December 12, 2014

Joop, Joop-I-Doop, Joopy-Jupiter

And speaking of random space opera...

I spent a lot of yesterday morning watching videos of movie trailers for upcoming films. This is a ridiculous waste of time for many reasons (not the least of which is my free time for actually seeing films these days is next-to-zero), but mainly because, well, I could have been writing instead. But hey: I blame Jay over at Gamma World War! for his constant Man Max just know I love me some post-apocalyptic goodness, and after that I just "follow the links."

So it was that one link led me to a trailer for the space opera flick, Jupiter Ascending (latest release date sometime in February).

Now it's pretty ridiculous to "review" trailers of not-yet-released movies [*ahem*] but certainly I count on trailers to pique my interest...with the effort it takes me to get to the movies these days, something better really wow me (except in the rare instance when it appeals to some personal interest of mine). Strange as it may seem, given the overall geekyness of my blog, my general film interests only rarely run the vein of fantasy or space opera. Historical pieces like In the Heart of the Sea or quirky character pieces like Inherent Vice are much more my speed.

Having said that...

Watching this trailer for Jupiter Ascending, I found the premise of the setting to be very intriguing. I'm trying to remember if I've seen this particular "speculative fiction creation myth" in fiction before. Sure there's a lot of shades of The Matrix, here (as one might expect from the same dudes who wrote that trilogy), but while The Matrix was kind of a GenX take on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, this feels much more Flash Gordon-esque...which is something I really dig.

I don't know why (I dig it). I'm not of George Lucas's generation, did not grow up on FG serials or comic strips. But I've always enjoyed the idea of intergalactic empires operating "just beyond the ken of Earth knowledge." Secret space battles/intrigues on a titanic scale that only a few privileged Earth folks have discovered. Think of the Marvel comic character Corsair becoming embroiled in the Shiar Empire. In many ways it's similar to the "stranger in a strange land" sword & planet epics of Burroughs (John Carter), Moorcock (Michael Kane), and John Norman (Tarl Cabot)...yet the scale is so much larger, spanning multiple planets and systems and often including that "ship-to-ship" action that appeals to the pirate fetish so many of us have.

But it's not just the action. When you're dealing with the technology to deal deathblows to whole planets and star systems (whether we're talking Star Wars or the Lensmen), one hero's ability to wield a sword, laser or otherwise, scarcely matters (unless granted license by the author, that is). Instead, being able to navigate intergalactic's interactions with the people in the important part of the equation.

And who doesn't love the associated difficulties with governing an interstellar empire? See Dune, Foundation, Star Wars, etc. for examples.

So that's cool. And Jupiter Ascending has been in development long enough that there are plenty of spoilers about the characters (like how they've been genetically spliced with various animals to make better warriors, trackers, etc.). Which is also cool.

Having said that...the over-the-top super-sci-fi action sequences on display in the trailer I find to be terribly uninteresting. So much so that it detracts from the things that ARE interesting. It's like the recent Hobbit's as if the filmmakers don't trust that the subject matter is interesting enough to engage audiences without bombarding them with complicated blue-screen mayhem. I don't know how many ways I can say it:

Including action for the sake of including action is BORING. It fucking-A is.

Sure, I'm an old geezer that has no idea what the kids want these days. Perhaps the market research shows that the only folks who'd be interested in such a film  play too many high octane action video games and want to see the same kind of thing on the screen. I can tell you that after seeing the action sequences on display, and especially after watching this other trailer for the film, I'm actually turned off from watching the film, despite the cool setting. And sure, it's grossly unfair to judge a film by its previews alone...but isn't the preview the thing that's supposed to grip you and reel you in? I've spoken with a lot of folks who skipped an otherwise good movie because the trailer "sold them" poorly (or sold them on the wrong thing)...I know I'm not alone in that particular brand of superficiality.

Thus, unless I read some truly stellar reviews, I will probably not be watching Jupiter Ascending, unless it's available on one of those 12 hour plane flights that I seem to take with alarming frequency these days. I'm just shallow like that.

Jupiter Descending
[sorry, I just have space opera on the brain these days...that and superheroes, but who wants to hear about Aquaman?]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

SW Musings: Goofy Fun

Or not...spent yesterday baking gingerbread cookies. Even though it's over 90 degrees outside, my goal was to get this place smelling a little bit more like Christmas. Or, at least, burnt cookie. Mission (more or less) accomplished!

No...they didn't look like this.
My child wanted some of the gingerbread men to resemble characters from Star Wars...specifically Darth Maul, Yoda, R2, and Qui-Gon (we've been watching a lot of Phantom Menace the last couple days). Thanks to being a journeyman Play-Doh mason these days, I was able to get some reasonable silhouettes (I think)...certainly D was pleased with the end result.

I won't discuss the myriad difficulties associated with the task of baking in a country where people don't cook or really know how to do anything more than grill meat and starchy root vegetables. Instead I want to muse a little bit about modeling Star Wars in an RPG...a topic I realize I've visited more than a few times over the life of this blog (with little success).

Once upon a time, I had hit upon an idea for a way to "do Star Wars" as a knock-off of an existing game. Actually, there were couple four systems that would make good "hacks" for a SW-type game. B/X was one. Trollbabe was another. Dogs in the Vinyard a third...though having just purchased the last one and read it over the last few days, I see exactly how mistaken I was: DitV works well for a number of genres, but it is one that really needs to be tied in tight with religion, and there's just not enough theology to the pseudo-religion of the Jedi.

Oh, yeah...I should probably mention that I mean these are good hacks for a Jedi-centric game, not an overall "galactic space opera adventure" game. If you want something akin to the original trilogy (or, at least, the original film)...well, there are other systems to hack for that style. Systems that will allow for goofy fun in more than just a few passing ways. Star Wars, like that other 80s space opera film series (Star Trek) was all about the goofy fun.

There's a part of space opera that really cries out for goofy fun...and by this I mean a "not taking itself too seriously" approach. Probably because it IS "space opera." The technology isn't based on "hard science" (laser guns/swords, FTL travel, AI robots that "feel," psychic powers, etc.). It's fantasy, and melodramatic fantasy of world-shattering destruction (literally). That's why Guardians of the Galaxy, with its goofy cast, is such good space opera.

Despite the fancy special effects and (yes, really) heart that is injected into Episodes I, II, and III, there's very little real humor instilled in the films...especially the kind of self-deprecating type of the original trilogy. Han Solo, for all his bad-assedness at piloting and shooting, often comes off as a lovable buffoon. Leia ends up humbled by Solo's wit more often than any other "princess" I remember seeing on celluloid (and what does it say that she ends up with the buffoon by the end?). And while Luke is certainly a force to be reckoned with by RotJ (no pun intended), he had a lot of ground to make up from being wet-behind-the-ears kid of the first movie...but of course, his story evolves along a significantly different path from the others through Empire and Return of the Jedi.

Very little humor or silliness is found in the prequel fact, the one with the most might be The Phantom Menace and, no, I'm not talking about Jar-Jar. Here we have Qui-Gon failing to influence Watoo with his mind-tricks. Here we have Anakin admitting he's never actually managed to finish a pod race. Here we have Obi-Wan referring to their own party as rather "pathetic life-forms."

Not taking oneself too seriously means allowing yourself to be admit that you aren't the invincible action hero but a person with flaws and foibles and ability to laugh (or at least grudgingly smirk) at your own failings.

As a related aside: I realize I never did get back to what I thought about the Star Wars VII trailer. My overall impression was that what I saw was interesting...and that I would be interested in seeing more. I found J.J. Abrams's interpretation of Star Trek was full of contrasts between the seriousness of the situation and the playfulness/humor of the other words, pretty good space opera. This gives me quite a bit of optimism for a good Star Wars flick.

Hmmm...more on this later (perhaps).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Happy Virgin of Caacupe Day!

Actually yesterday (December 8th) is the day Paraguayans celebrate the Virgin of Caacupe...a little statue that was carved by a divinely inspired local four centuries back and now the target destination of a few hundred thousand pilgrims every year. You find this kind of thing all over Latin America (sorry if that sounds dismissive), but here in Paraguay it's a national holiday, shutting down most businesses and such (they do so love their holidays here). Word on the street is that nothing much gets done from December 8th till mid-January as everyone goes into kind of "holiday-slacker" opposed to the usual slack that permeates the fabric of this country.


ANYway...that's why my "non-posting weekend" continued till today...I was busy with the kids yesterday. Today, I just slept in (was up waaay too late watching that barn-burner between Green Bay and Atlanta). Truth is, we're all (my family) still adjusting to the five hour time difference and scorching hot summer weather...none of us are sleeping particularly well. We all just seem to be killing time till we can get to Mexico (seeing the in-laws for Christmas) and eat some real food.

We, too, have caught the infectious national slack of Paraguay.

Mmm...hopefully, I'll get something more interesting posted later today; right now, I've got to jet.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How to Run (Part 3)

[continuing our review of How to Run; see prior posts here and here]

PART 3: Managing Your Players

This is the smallest section of the book (about 38 pages). Despite the title, it is still much more about managing oneself as a DM, but specifically with an eye to how that management impacts player interaction and participation at the gaming table.

Chapter 9 - Power Politics discusses the relationship between the DM and players, specifically the DM's role as a facilitator of the game, NOT a judge, authority, or godlike super-being. Again, the emphasis is on service to the players...and here we're talking real-world service in managing social contract. When Mr. Smolensk writes that it is the DM's job to serve the players, he's not saying that one must create brilliant adventures or hooks or railroad the players through some fantastic story for their own enjoyment. Quite the contrary: throughout the book he stresses that the players must make and create their own "adventures" (for only in doing so can they truly find the emotional engagement that is the objective of role-play). No, instead the "service" being discussed (in this chapter specifically) is serving as a group facilitator: making sure all players have a voice, making sure all players feel valued, making sure all players are equal partners in the exercise (and that the DM is not "lording it over them"), making sure that you (as DM) are not failing at meeting their expectations of fair and respectful treatment.

Chapter 10 - Bad Games discusses how DM's who fail to recognize their role of service can become the abusive DMs running "bad games" (hence the title) that so many players have experienced at one time or another. For me, this was one of the weaker chapters: if you've already "bought in" to the paradigm Alexis has building up to this point, than it follows that you shouldn't want to fall into these categories. I suppose that the main pitfalls outlined here - relying on one's charisma and building a power-base on sycophantic players - are traps that even good DMs need to be mindful of and avoid...however, as a cautionary note, it seems more like frosting to be added on to an earlier chapter. But maybe I'm just nitpicking.

The ideas and topics presented in Part 2 and Part 3 of How to Run are definitely more esoteric than the practical information found in Part 1...discussing the cultivation of good habits and creating a "vision" for the players is a bit more abstract than making sure players have cool-off periods and bathroom breaks. It's good information (again), but it really is more for individuals who intend to make running games a high level vocation. The concepts are less pertinent to the one-time DM or occasional "dabbler" (who can get by wonderfully with just the information in Part 1), and much more imperative to the "career DM;" dudes like myself who find our butts in the GM chair more often than on the players' side of the table.

PART 4: Worldbuilding

If they taught "playing role-playing games" as a potential degree in college, you'd probably need the first year just to dissect and learn the multi-hundred page rule books being published these days. If you limited yourself only to "old school" type products, you might be able to study several systems during the first year...say Moldvay D&D, D6 Star Wars, and the original (Jeff Grubb) Marvel Superheroes RPG...each providing a distinct genre and different approach to rule design and game mechanics.

How to Run would be an excellent course text for such a curriculum, but it would not be read in the first year. It could be a strong text for the sophomore year, with Part 1 being studied the first quarter and Parts 2 and 3 in the second quarter. Part 4 could be started be the Spring session...but I seriously doubt that would be enough time to really do justice to it. At nearly one-third of the page count, I found Part 4 to be the most challenging reading of the book (there are a lot of abstract concepts here that can't be understood until practically tried and implemented), and the prescribed exercises are especially time consuming. No...the final section of How to Run could definitely provide coursework for the entire year of a third year student.

[I suppose actual "game design" (not discussed in the book) would be the prerogative of fourth year (senior) students]

Let's get to it (as best I can):

Chapter 11: Beginnings lays the foundation for everything that follows. It explains the principles of world design, the creation of the imaginary setting, based on the abstract elements of function (poorly defined), behavior (of players with regard to function), structure (the implementation of function), and formulation (the interaction between the three preceding elements). It's pretty highbrow stuff, and could benefit from some concrete examples. Unfortunately, part of the paradigm here is that function has to be tailored to one's players (remember how the DM is serving their interests and wants to get them actively engaged?) which makes it difficult to create hypothetical examples of function without first creating a batch of hypothetical players and a hypothetical DM. "Function" appears to be (from my reading) a synthesis of concepts/activities in the game world with the potential of providing interest/engagement to both sides of the table. But I may be off...the function section of the chapter could stand to be more clearly defined (even the notes in the Keys to Success chapter appears to admit it is difficult to comprehend the concept). Being as amorphous as it is puts the other elements on rather shaky ground, since function is the key concept of the chapter.

So let's move on to Chapter 12: Elements of Design. Here we have a chapter that discusses the practicalities of world building, from the effort required, to the acquisition of quality materials for your map making. Here the idea is over-deliver to one's players, with the idea that this will provide them with motivation and enthusiasm, facilitating engagement, as well as helping to instill a concept of value in everyone's minds (those of the player and the DM who is doing the work)...value of the imaginary world being explored, that is.

Chapter 13: The Creative Process provides practical methods for brainstorming and conceptualizing your world (you need to have the key concepts from Chapter 11 and the practical stuff from Chapter 12 before you move to this step). The amount of effort recommended by Mr. Smolensk in prior chapters is exceeded here by the recommended time he proposes you spend. However, as we've leaped into the realm of the vocational DM, it's hard to argue with a few months of time spent on conceptualizing a world that you intend to run (with constant tweaking) for many years to come. Alexis provides tools for folks who want to commit to "the long haul," as he has. The "Keys" in this chapter provide notes for abbreviating the process.

Chapter 14: Modelling [Canadian spelling] is really the Part 2 to Chapter 13. It explains in practical, semi-linear fashion how to translate the ideas and concepts onto to start small and work outward, how to create your world in such a way to introduce it (in a practical way) to the players. It discusses the creation of entities (which can be individuals, monsters, geographic features, religions of the fantasy world, whatever...though focused on those things pertinent to the players), and creating their relationships to each other...which is as important if not more so than drawing lines on a map. This creates the web in which players can anchor their immersion.

For those interested in role-playing as an exploration of the imaginary world...what might be called (in old GNS terms) a "simulationist creative agenda"...this section of the book is a godsend. It also provides an idea of the amount of work and effort needed to create a lasting game of the type Mr. Smolensk has run...and still runs...for decades. You can, of course, put less effort towards your world building, though perhaps with lesser results.

The Appendix contains (in addition bibliography, index, etc.) one last chapter (Chapter 15: Gaining a Level). It does not contain the "keys to success" section found in other chapters; it is an epilogue, not a part of the instruction found in earlier chapters. It discusses work: the reason for work, the reason why work is good, the reasons why one might choose to invest in the amount of work described in How to Run for a fantasy role-playing game. It is a convincing argument.

Concluding Thoughts Regarding How to Run

Alexis has really put out something special here: an example of how to turn a passion for gaming into a Great Work, i.e. a transformative experience. He does not outline a road to perfection in gaming, but one of perfecting oneself (an on-going process, a life's work) by approaching a subject with intensity and serious attitude. Nothing here is going to be mastered in a handful of years, but all the tools and ideas presented are useful for personal growth and development of one's ability as a game master.

Having said that...

Not every person seeks to walk this particular path, and the tools outlined are not necessarily appropriate to all forms of gaming. With regard to "world building," I'm not certain his principles would apply to all forms or genres of role-play...for example, the comic book superhero genre (which often exhibits wild inconsistencies and flexible reality even while using a "real world" setting). Recent game designs have demonstrated that an enjoyable role-play experience can be had without the need of a DM figure: games like Fiasco, for instance. And many story games can still engage and elicit emotional, exhilarating response from players even without the need for the detailed world-building and attention to cause-and-effect that Mr. Smolensk is preaching (games like My Life With Master); many of these games were designed to do exactly what Alexis purports to desire, but with less time and effort spent...perhaps because the commitment required otherwise is a price we are unwilling to pay.

For myself, I enjoy running games, and I enjoy running different types of games...not simply different adventures in the same world. While I do not particularly enjoy learning different rule sets, I do appreciate how different rulesets interact with their respective games...I don't just want "One GURPS To Rule Them All." But that's me, and I recognize that for some folks the only thing they want to do is play the One Game (whatever it is) that they love and that has allowed them to craft their perfect fantasy world. This desire is not an unusual one...M.A.R. Barker was perhaps the first to bring this type of work to the gaming world with Tekumel, and you can see it even today in worlds like Timeshadows's Urutsk or Alexis's own campaign. These worlds have lasted years and will continue as long as their creators continue. For folks who have this burning desire to create...and to bring their creation to others (not just write a six book fantasy series)...I'd strongly recommend they get How to Run and read it a few times. Especially, if they are fairly new to the whole role-playing thang (like I said, it'd take years to master the stuff in these pages so start while you're young!).

For those who do NOT have such a burning desire...who simply want to run games, and perhaps dabble in "world-building"...there's still a lot of good to be found in this book. It will provoke self-examination. It will make you take stock of how you run your gaming table, and provide tips as to how to make your games better...for yourself and your players. Even if you're not into long-term campaigning, it's useful stuff, and much of it is new (even if some is stuff you already figured out). There's no talk of the history of gaming, no talk about specific systems or rules, only information on how to run a better game. There's plenty of good insights even for those who don't enjoy long-term campaign play, and it's not a bad read.

All right, that's enough.

Get Ready To Run!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How to Run (Part 2)

Just picking up where I left off...

Let's get right to it.

The book being discussed.
How to Run comes in at a bit more than 350 pages, though that includes an index, table of contents, and bibliography. After the introduction, it is divided into five sections including an appendix, the total comprising fifteen chapters (the last chapter, a bit of an epilogue, is in the appendix). The first four sections are comprised of the following:

Part 1: The Art of Presentation
Part 2: Managing Yourself as DM
Part 3: Managing Your Players
Part 4: Worldbuilding

Each section is composed of several chapters relating to specific topics. In addition, each chapter ends with a "Keys to Success" section that emphasizes or elaborates on specific points raised in the chapter. It's a handy trick for remembering what was discussed, and lends to the overall "textbook" feel of the book.

The introduction nicely lays out what the book is about. How to Run is both genre and system neutral; it does not discuss specific rules or editions of D&D, and though it refers to GM position throughout as "Dungeon Master" or "DM," Smolensk is careful to note that the outlined principles can be used in running any table-top RPG. I know that for his own game Alexis uses heavily modified (1st edition) AD&D in a campaign setting firmly rooted in the historic 17th century Earth. He mentions little (with regard to the specifics) of his campaign setting in How to Run, and nothing at all of his house rules or system...the text really does strive to be applicable to any RPG a person might try to run.

Which reminds me: while it is never specifically defined, contextually Mr. Smolensk uses the term role-play to simply describe the act of playing a role-playing game. In other words, if you are playing an RPG you are engaging in "role-play," pure and simple. For the purpose of his book and its concepts that's just fine.

PART ONE: The Art of Presentation

This is the largest section of the book, and (in my opinion) the meatiest part in terms of presenting real tools that can be of use to folks wishing to run a game. It provides excellent advice and checklists for even experienced DMs, and raises a lot of questions for self-examination in us "old-timers." I found myself nodding quite often, noting the things I had done that worked well and likewise the areas where I  had stumbled in my own games; the codifying of these things (always with an eye towards the goal: facilitating engagement of the players) is well done.

Chapter 1: The Early Days discusses Alexis's own initiation into running games, and gives the young DM an idea of the attitude with which the task needs to be approached (it's not as hard as it looks, but it does require time and effort, even effort outside of learning the game). Chapter 2: The Carrot and the Donkey discusses how to motivating and enticing your players, providing the best environment for them to succeed at the goal (of engagement); note, there's no "stick" for the donkey, only carrots. Chapter 3: The Players describes some stereotypical personality types one might find at your table, how to recognize them, how to work towards their strengths, and how each can be used to build a strong gaming group (these are interesting "types" based on Mr. Smolensk's own experience and perception, not the usual archetypes found in Jungian psychology or whatnot). Chapter 4: Drama offers a method for creating a traditional three-act (play) structure for folks who want to create "stories" with their game sessions, but the author has come to the conclusion that such is a weaker form of role-play than long-term engagement and immersion (or, at least, more difficult to sustain over time). In dispensing, with the idea of "story creation," he begins to discuss cause and effect, and ways to empower the players by allowing their actions to matter in the campaign, outside the plot machinations of a story-minded DM. Chapter 5: Continuity discusses several tools for gripping your players, making them care about participating (i.e. engaging them emotionally) beyond simply offering them missions, as well as elaborating on the discussion of cause and effect and how it contributes to the ongoing participation and enjoyment of the gaming experience.

I want to pause here for a moment to discuss Mr. Smolensk in relationship to another respected (if sometimes controversial) game designer, Ron Edwards. I personally find the two remarkably similar,  something like flip-sides of the same coin. This shouldn't be too surprising considering similar personality archetypes (both are Virgos born in, I won't get into astrology right now, but with my own background that's a tough lens for me to ignore). Both have their detractors and admirers. Both are very intelligent and thoughtful. Both can be be prickly hardliners when it comes to their own beliefs. And both are extremely devoted to the service of the players at their table. Both seek to walk that line of using mental focus to bring about emotional engagement...but their approach to the same is very different. Edwards is devoted to the principal of "story now:" creating game mechanics that requires players to step up and engage with the narrative being created around the table. Smolensk would seem to be a standard-bearer for what the old GNS model called simulationism, or "the right to dream," creating a world one can escape into and experience. However, he has a ready answer for Edwards's "hard questions" regarding what it's all for and how long it will last: bluntly, all the work the DM does is for achieving an emotional engagement from the players, and goes beyond simply allowing players to explore an imaginary world as wizards and warriors (or whatever). It lasts for as long as the DM has the energy to devote to facilitating this process (in one blog posts, Alexis postulated having to retire the DM chair in the next 15-20 years). In many ways, the "Tao" of Alexis Smolensk is the antithesis of Ron Edwards, though I'd say both have a devotion to the hobby and an incredible ability to "think outside the box" when it comes to pushing gaming in new directions.


Chapter 6: Pomp discusses actual presentation and the logistics of running a to show up and make arrangements, and how taking care of real world issues can create a better (more engaging, less distracting) game environment. It talks about ways to facilitate engagement through your appearance and movement, and the benefits of preparation, as well as how best to set breaks and ground rules...things often left out of most RPG game manuals.. It's good stuff for anyone who plans on running a game.

All in all, I found a lot of good material in this section. It certainly gave me a lot of food for thought with regard to self-examination (as both a DM and player).

PART 2: Managing Yourself as DM

This section is only composed of two chapters, a total of 55 pages. For me, it was the first section that I found challenging. Not because it was hard to read or too abstract in concept (that comes later), but because it challenges you on what you really think about role-playing games and being a DM. While Part 1 requires you to approach the running of an RPG with a serious, non-casual approach, Part 2 requires you to approach idea of DM'ing almost as a vocation. It is not explicit in this, does not require you take any vows, but if you plan on following the prescribed course, you're basically committing yourself to making your game much more than a "mere game."

Chapter 7: Vigilance discusses how your game must always be "on" when you're at the table. Even when you are acting in service of your players (remember, that is one of the main thrusts of the book), you can't let little things like, say, "friendship" get in the way of your focus or attention to the task at hand. The vigilance Mr. Smolensk prescribes (with regard to oneself) is a near ruthless stance. He discusses stress in the game (both for players and DM) as a product of an engaging role-play experience, and its chemical effect on the brain and decision-making process.

This particular part did not ring true for me (perhaps because I tend to compartmentalize stress)...but then perhaps it's been a while since I had a truly engaging immersive role-play experience. I have to think back to my youth for examples of events that propelled extreme emotional outbursts in myself...though I have observed it in others to greater and lesser degrees over the years. Perhaps my decades of experience of telling myself "it's only a game" has done a bit to dull the shine, or perhaps I am simply out of practice when it comes to full-on emotional commitment in the last 15 years or so. However, I can see how my own response to players who "just want a fun night out" has caused (in the last couple years) a downward spiral in actual gaming quality, as I too forgot focus and allowed myself to lounge in the easy camaraderie and laissez-faire attitude of "dudes blowing off steam at the bar."

[that's something else that I don't have enough of in my life!]

But that's what I mean by "challenging." Without asking it outright, Alexis is posing a question: how seriously do you want to take your game? And what quality of play do you want to have? It's a valid question. I can do the indie one-off gaming thing very easily...I can likewise run a simple "dungeon excursion" with minimal effort...but is that satisfying? It's a hard question. If I'm being honest, the answer is: probably not. Certainly not always.

If you decide to buy into the effort described in Chapter 7, then Chapter 8: Decision Making provides additional practical tools to help with your game, from non-attachment (rolling with the unexpected), to anticipating patterns of behavior, to using checklists and worksheets (goes hand-in-hand with the management of stress-related mental slips).

Once again I see I'm running long, so I'm going to have to continue this till tomorrow. Sorry!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Run (Part 1)

Before returning to Paraguay for my "winter break," I made a point to order a print copy of How to Run by Alexis D. Smolensk, known throughout this neck of the interwebs for his blog The Tao of D&D. Fortunately, the extra I paid for shipping allowed me to get the book during my two week window in Seattle, and I spent about four days reading the thing cover-to-cover.

Writing the Tao of D&D
This is the first book by Alexis that I've read, though I've been reading his blog for a few years. Those familiar with his blogging will find the book to be a similar work, in that it is carefully and thoughtfully crafted, intellectual, and fairly no-nonsense. No, it does not contain rants nor inflammatory passages...this is a practical, working text not a blog (all bloggers are entitled to spew and vent and rail at times), but it shows the same attention that Alexis seems to instill in all his writing (here's an old essay of his from 2004, years before his Tao blog).

I've read the reviews of the book on Amazon, calling How to Run "invaluable," a "must-have," and "the most important RPG book around." That's all great praise, but to most folks it doesn't really describe what the hell you'll find in this "Advanced Guide to Managing Role-Playing Games" (the book's subtitle). It was my interest/curiosity in Alexis's work...and respect for his mind and passion for gaming...that prompted me to buy the book. This review (which, as usual, has an excessive preamble) will attempt to explain what the book contains, to better decide if you want to put it on your shelf. That's not a spoiler alert; this isn't a work of fiction we're talking about, after all.

This might get a little long...but what were you planning on doing this week anyway?

Oh, yeah...before I explain what's in the book, I'm going to take a couple-few paragraphs to explain Mr. Smolensk, his approach to gaming, and DMing in general; this will be helpful in understanding what's contained in the book. Don't roll your eyes at me. This book may not be the "most important RPG book" on the market, but I daresay it is an extremely important book to Mr. Smolensk. His own gaming world (what us Old Schoolers might call the ongoing campaign or fantasy milieu) has become tantamount to a life's work. I won't say it IS his life's work; I'm not sure if the world serves his game or if his game serves his world. Regardless, the book How to Run is an opus explaining how to create your game (as a DM/GM) and your game world in the same way as to approach them as a life's work, in other words.

This is valuable sharing. There are many folks who have decades of DM'ing experience...successful experience...floating around the tabletop gaming world. I'm one of them. But few of us, if any, have taken as extensive a look into the own inner workings of our imaginations, with as calculated and clinical an eye, as Alexis has. And none, that I know of, have taken the time to publish a work on the subject. Successful DMs - I define the term by those who run games that are enjoyed by all the participants and that instill a love of the hobby in the players - probably don't ponder too hard on what makes their games successful. Despite being growers of the hobby, we don't go out of the way to teach the art of Dungeon Mastering to neophytes. "Only DM'ing games will teach you how to be an effective DM" is the usual line.

But that's not the only reason we're not sharing our knowledge. In addition to probably not knowing where to even start (i.e. developing a curriculum...jeez), there's a sinister aspect to being a long-time DM: there is a feeling of power in being a world builder and absolute authority to the players who come to your table. And teaching others how to do what you do is akin to giving away your power...what if someone you teach should become a better DM than yourself? What if you lose "your players" to someone who is more creative or who spends more effort or who makes a better presentation? What if you're (O Horror!) relegated to the ranks of a mere player?

[the sad fact is, we all have attachments, especially to things like power and respect and even to "looking good"...some of us have sat the DM chair so long that we're rusty (or downright idiotic) when it comes to playing a PC in a game, and it's tough to go from being a first rate DM to a second rate player]

However, it's not just a lust for being top dog that prevents folks from dispersing their "trade secrets." Building fantasy worlds from scratch (even working off an existing model like Tolkien's Middle Earth or medieval Europe) can be an intensely personal experience as one must go inside one's own mind to build the imaginary construct for the players. Sharing such a process can be very difficult, especially outside of one's friends at the gaming table (who know, understand, and appreciate your work). Explaining the process is even harder.

So for Mr. Smolensk to do these things (which he does) is an exceptional accomplishment, and makes How to Run an unusual book. It's a book that some of us could write (or at least attempt), but few would have the balls to do so. In addition to requiring a hard analysis of your own gaming skills (and the skill to make that analysis and write it up in a digestible format), you have to have the "cred" to back it up. Alexis has been running the same game since 1986...through many different players of different ages, different skill levels, different degrees of RPG knowledge. The players enjoy his game and he has the proof in that they come back for Mr. Smolensk writes himself, the proof of a good game isn't whether or not the players say they had fun, but what they show in their actions (do they put their butts back in the chairs the following week). Alexis has managed to do that for nearly 30 years, and not simply with the same hoary grognards that he came into the game with back when he was a kid in the 70s.

To write such a book, you have to have (in addition to skills) a pretty solid sense of your self. You have to have a pretty concrete ideal on which to stand, if you're going to put out a unique work and share a part of your soul. Publishing a book is hard enough as is...that's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into something that might be derided and ridiculed...or, worse, ignored by the reading public. But when it comes to something of such immense importance to a person, the desire to get it right...or at the very least, respectably good...must be an intense burden. I say this as someone who gets incensed when I receive a one-star review (sans comment) on a book of mine that was anything but a magnum opus.

Alexis Smolensk has a concrete ideal when it comes to role-playing games, and especially to the DM's responsibility with regard to the game. For him, role-play is about immersion and escapism, for all participants, and this is accomplished through active engagement of the players. The DM's role is in facilitating the players' engagement such that they can do nothing but enjoy and revel in the fantasy; every action the DM takes - from hosting the game to world building - is in service of this. The book How to Run explains how to do this.

Now, just in case you're wondering, Mr. Smolensk and I don't see eye-to-eye on everything. In fact, in some ways we have diametrically opposed views towards gaming. So, if you think this review is going to be all flowers and sunshine being lauded at, that's really not the plan. There's a lot to like here, but...well, I'll get to all that tomorrow in Part 2. Sorry for being a tease, but my rambling preamble has used up my blogging time...for the moment.

More (and more specifics) later.

Travel Hell

I'm back in Paraguay.

It took 59 hours door-to-door due to various snafus and a reroute through Buenos Aires (that's Argentina, folks). I know there are people who probably thing I'm a whiny bitch and wish they could be so fortunate as to have such a travel adventure, but this weren't no picnic. It wasn't just that I was traveling with a toddler and an infant (the two, especially my almost-four-year-old, are quite used to these journeys and extremely sedate/well-behaved) it was the quarter-ton of baggage that we had to deal with. When your family is gearing up to live in the Third World for seven months, you pack a lot of shit. The snafus and reroutes ended up meaning a lot of shlepping of giant, heavy suitcases by Yours Truly through multiple airport check-ins, customs, whatnot. We got into town Monday night and my back is still killing me. I should probably chew some ibuprofen.

So here we are. About two-and-a-half days of travel, and I killed my first cockroach (in home) less than 24 hours later (and my second one a couple hours after that...God, I hate cockroaches). We actually got in Monday night (it's Wednesday now, right?), but we're all still adjusting back to the five hour time difference. The fact that the coffee maker broke sometime while we were gone hasn't helped.

Ah, well.

I hope to write (or at least start writing) another blog post of more immediate (i.e. gaming) interest later today. Or maybe right now. Everyone besides me is still asleep (I've been up since 4am or so), and the morning's been quiet. Well, you're still going to have to wait for it, okay.

BTW: One positive thing to come out of our mishaps? I found that I've been grossly misled about the character and personality of Argentine folks. Certainly it was a small sample size (we were in town a bit less than 24 hours), but every person with whom we met and interacted (I count 17 off the top of my head) was kind, helpful, friendly, and positive/cheerful (a little no-nonsense at times...but always professional). Our brief stint in B.A. was a highlight of the journey...though I would've happily skipped the experience to arrive Sunday morning, as planned.