Friday, August 15, 2014

Belle Pt 2

It has been over a year since my last blog post went up.  And what a year it has been.  Since that blog post, Madeline and I got engaged and married, we took a honeymoon.  I started a startup with my friend Jason, and Madeline got pregnant (we are expecting the arrival of the littlest Bernard in November).  I have many things to be thankful for.

But none of that changes my feelings about Belle.  I still think about her every day, I'm still sad every day, I'm still trying to come to terms with this, by now, fairly old tragedy. I've read a lot of articles on pet loss and grieving.  All of it is good advice.  I particularly liked The Pet Loss Companion book.  But none of this makes it any easier.

I've combed through all of my old pictures and social media feeds for pictures of her, and I just can't find many.  I think many of them might be on my camera or on my old phone, because I know I took more pictures of her.  I have thought about her final days often, and I continue to feel insanely guilty about that last final trip.  What could've been more important than staying with her in her last final moments?  Of course, if I had known then what I know now, I never would've left.

I've finally gotten to a place where I can think about her and talk about her sometimes without completely shutting down, but the loss is endless, its something I'll have to keep that in my heart forever.

I think the reason I've attached to her so strongly is my long years in Seattle.  Feeling like she was my only true friend (which she wasn't) really let me rely on her presence as a crutch.  I'm so lucky to have so many good people in my life right now, but she was with me at my lowest, and I wanted to be with her at her lowest too.

I always knew she would die one day, but the guilt I feel over her death is powerful and still consumes me.

I've thought a bunch about bringing another dog into my life.  I still don't know if that is such a good idea, but I think if I lived in a place that allowed it, it would already be done.  Unfortunately, the world is what it is, and I'm left shouting my pain into the darkness.

I don't really think this is a great post, but I sorta felt I needed to write it.  Hopefully I can get back to happier posts soon.

Monday, July 29, 2013


I had a lovely companion for 9 and a half years.  Our lives together ended yesterday when Belle died in her sleep at home.

I'm writing this because I need to say the things I'm not saying.  I'm writing this because I fear I will forget her.  The feel of her coat.  The inquisitive wet nose.  The slight lift of her ears when she heard her name.

I guess she had been sick for a while.  Other people seemed to see it easier than I did, but I just couldn't accept that she might leave me so soon.  Somehow I had gotten in my head that she would last until 10 years.  That I would get the long decline of health, sight, and hearing I had seen in other dogs.  It didn't happen that way, and I was blind to it.  I wanted to be there for her.

Belle was very special to me.  Right after college I researched how to get a Great Pyrenees, a breed I knew well from childhood when I could go and play with one in the neighborhood.  I'm also told my favorite cartoon as a child was Belle & Sebastian, about a young boy named Sebastian and his adventures with Belle, a Great Pyrenees.  I knew when I graduated that I wanted a dog and I wanted a Pyrenees.

When she arrived at the airport, I had only had a few old photographs of her as a very young puppy. They brought out a dog in a crate and told me to sign for her.  I looked the crate and saw a beagle.  A while and brown beagle.  I suddenly had visions of a breeder that had lied to me about the dog I was getting.  Fortunately before I could drive home with my new beagle companion, another family complained that their beagle had been turned into a Pyrenees puppy.

I brought her home after that and she was a terror.  Never underestimate a dog that will grow to 95 lbs as a puppy.  She would knock into things, jump up on people and generally be a nuisence.  But I loved her.

One time in particular, I was making biscuits to bring to a dinner at a friends house.  I had put a batch in the oven and was going to do one more.  I walked out of the kitchen after placing the unheated log of dough on the stove.  I turned back almost instantly, but belle already had 3 quarters of the thing down her throat.

So yes, she was not always easy to live with (especially in the 2 bedroom downtown apartment in Seattle), but she was always loving.  She loved to get up on the couch when I was sitting there and just lie down next to me.  She love to snuggle with me on the bed and beg for belly rubs when I was trying to go to sleep.

Other things she liked to do included barking, surveying her lands from a high vantage point, and chewing furniture.

As she got older, she and I learned how to live together.  Towards the end the only things we disagreed on were how much the gardeners were  to be trusted (NONE said she) and if I should ever pack a suitcase again.

One thing I always found endearing about her was her lifetime ability to chase her tail.  She had the most gorgeous long fluffy white tail that would whip around like a fan an catch lots of wind.  Because of this she could sometimes catch her tail in the corner of her eye, and then it was off to the races! She would spin and spin and spin in circles trying to grab that tail.  She almost always caught it to.  When she was a puppy she would gleefully chomp down on that white fluffy tail and give a little start.  When she was older she would just chew a little on the fur at the ends.

She was my companion every day of our time together.  Even when we were not together physically I would think about her often.  I almost always worried about her while I was gone, and several times considered getting an internet-enabled camera so I could make sure she was doing okay while I was out.  She gave me so much love and devotion.  She was so gentle with everyone, at least once she wasn't a puppy, and she loved being with people.

I always knew a day like yesterday would come.  I always knew that one day I would be standing and she wouldn't.  I always thought that I would be with her, that I could help her through that time.  I thought I would have more time.  She gave me companionship and love for 9 and a half years, when others left me, she stayed and was unconditionally happy.

My grief process is just starting with her.  I know that I will miss her for the rest of my life.  As rational-science driven person, I don't believe she lives on.  But as a human being, as a dog owner, as the human father of Belle.  I hope she is out there stealing dough and lying on couches just watching people.  I hope she is jumping on unsuspecting women in the street and pulling their tops down.  I hope she's chewing through couches and making people buy entire trucks for her.  I hope she gets to run in a wide open park and have all the bacon treats she wants.

Belle, I miss you.

To my friends that knew my friend and companion.  If you can remember anything about her, good or bad, I would really appreciate anything you care to write.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dread: Horror Roleplaying Done Right

The last game I ran at the retreat was a game of Dread. I'm really glad I did that (though it was a little last minute, when we realized that Scott was running more games than others). Dread has a fantastic mechanic! In my mind it is one of the best mechanics I've seen, because it does a lot to help the feel of the roleplaying and story. It doesn't guide as much of the roleplaying, as say Polaris or Shock does, but at the same time I think it does far more for forcing the players to get into the setup of the game, and focusing the game. But what is the mechanic, I hear you asking! The mechanic is a jenga tower that you must pull bricks from in order to accomplish things. That is basically the entire system. Though the book has a ton of advice on character generation and how to generally run a good horror game.

The great thing about this mechanic is that it gets everyone very tense and concentrating on the mechanic of the game, and that tension and focus transfers well to the game that is happening around the tower.

I have since the game run it again for my Seattle group of players, and it worked similarly well. I'm planning on running a Dread session at ACNW. I'm not sure if I want to use the same story setup (something terrible happened at camp 10 years ago that is coming back on the players), but I think it could be pretty good. One of the things in the feedback of the game at the retreat that people latched on to was that I should've given them a roadmap to defeating the evil thing. That seems like a really good horror trope to give the players, since otherwise they are helpless to make the evil end (which was a focus on the game, though doesn't have to be in general).

The main problem I had the first time I ran it was a GM/plot issue that I didn't resolve well. I basically had 2 plots planned: a zombie horror game, and a camp horror one. I didn't know I had this problem, until I started the game and realized that everyone wanted to deal with the camp stuff. It couldn't be zombies, it had to be related to the dead camper! This was very obvious in retrospect, but caused the game to suck slightly in the execution.

I also tried to give something for the "eliminated" players to do. Namely I asked for some shared GM'ing so we could split the group and also give the dead folks something to do. I didn't want to decrease the sting of death by giving them another character. So, I let some folks GM some scenes. They did a great job at the scenes I asked them for, unfortunately I didn't think through my instructions very well. Shared GM'ing is something that my friend Mike really likes to do, but I still haven't found the right way to approach the scenes, and this was no exception.

Anyway, I think the game went well, and my second run of the game also went well. Dread is a fantastic system that really doesn't get in the way and really encourages the roleplaying.

I've disabled comments due to the amount of spam on this particular post.  Email me with any comments and I'll add them to the body of this post!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hero's Banner and a new Technique

Continuing in my desire to post on more games from the retreat, I'll write up my experience with a slightly tweaked version of Hero's Banner that we playtested for Tim Koppang, and also a new GM'ing technique that Mike and I discussed as a result of the game.

For those that don't know, Hero's Banner is a game written by my long time friend Tim Koppang, and is designed to tell the story of a young man (or woman) choosing between life paths. You get 3 life paths: Hero, where you choose to act or be like someone you admire, Blood where your family's desires or needs take prominence, and Conscience where you own desires run free. The biggest change from other Hero's Banner games was that (at the cues of the write up) we did 3 players, 1 character. This was interesting, it got 3 very good players to put their head together and make 3 interesting, compelling life paths to choose between. Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations with the session was that we could only choose 1 path. Mike in particular wanted to strike compromises between the different life paths.

Beyond the character generation, there is a mechanic, which lets you succeed more the more passionate you are about one path over the others, which uses percentile dice (oh god why? WHY?), and a sort of game timer that measures overall progress towards narrating the final scene and epilogue of the character. These mechanics had a major impact on the game play, which in general is, of course, a good thing (in particular I thought it was good for us to abandon one of the paths, as it wasn't compelling or useful anymore), but too many times they felt like a burden. While we were always in line for choosing a path and agonizing over that decision, it felt like the players were, occasionally, jerked along that path fater or (at the end) slower than desired.

So what was our game about? Our Hero was Dame Plowman, a woman from common stock who had won her way into knighthood and an honored place at the Duke's court. The character (Damien) wanted to be like her, but mainly wanted to court and marry her, achieved by becoming a knight. The Blood story was the least interesting of the three. Our family was in trouble after the death of the patron of the family. Our mother and friend (Baron Landsher) wanted us to take on the duties of a noble and rescue our lands from our debts. Finally we come to the strongest story like, the horse trainer story. Conscience told us to become an Arabian horse trainer, which no non-arab had ever been able to do.

I think the biggest problem was the speed of the plots. I made the horse plot very strong by kicking it into high gear very quickly. First I tried to stage a scene in a village, getting Damien to pass judgment on an important matter (for the peasants). Mike ran from that, because he was late for horse training. On the way there they ran into Dame Plowman escorting a bandit lord from Uran to the Duke's prison. They witnessed the bandit lord attempt to stab Plowman, and decided to interfere despite the fact they were in peasant cloths going to the horse trainers (horse people hate nobles). They ran off quickly, after being stabbed themselves. At the horse folk's place, they were introduced to the master herdsman, (after meeting the hilarious and awesome Shaliq), and given a horse. They were then told they would have to stay with the horse for the next week all the time, with their hand sealed in wax to the horse. After that they went to talk to Mom, but found Dame Plowman at home, waiting to ask them why they were in peasant clothes and what this horse thing was about. Then they talked to mom, who revealed that their major creditor, Lord Fauntleroy was waiting to go over the books with Damien. Fauntleroy left shortly thereafter, thoroughly upset with the level of commitment Damien showed to his debts. Damien and the horse then went out to meet Plowman, and they had a romantic ride on the horse (Aiya). Plowman invited them to a ceremony to recognize her and his contributions to bringing the bandit lord to justice, in 3 days time. The horse was not invited. Over the next several days Damien fixed the village's problems, impressing Fauntleroy, but talked to their mother and told her they would not be the new lord for the land. They got permission from the master herdsman to be separated from Aiya for the 3 hours of the ceremony. They attended the ceremony where they were knighted in a surprise ceremony. Then the final horse scene took place, where they had to pass the final trial of the horse (I've skipped over the 7 horse trials they they've been doing each day). They failed (due to mechanics at this point). Then they went off with Plowman, finding Shaliq and his son fighting bandits, rescueing them and impressing Plowman at the same time. In the end, they chose to go with Sarah Plowman and join the knights of the garter.

I promised that I would discuss a new GM'ing technique from this game. I'm not sure it is coming through in the write up, but the horse plot was very interesting and awesome. All the players felt a lot of connection to both Shaliq and Aiya (the horse). So why was this? And could we find a way to replicate the awesomeness to other games? Mike and I discussed this at some length. The core of the idea goes like this: you as the GM want to make some item important or special in the player's mind, something that they (or the character) wants. First, you make them work for it. You make an entire people or tribe or group who's job it is to gatekeep the item or the best form of the item. The player gets in good with them. Then they are given the item or a proto form of the item. They must doing something that is awkward socially with that item for some time. After that the item will be completed or otherwise augmented. So for, say, a chopper character in Apocalypse World, that wants an awesome new bike. First introduce the nomad group of mechanics that make the best post-apocalyptic motorbikes. They given him a bike, doing a ritual to seal the bike to him, a lot of hoodoo nonsense with feathers and smoke. They let him go with the bike, but warn that the bike will have its own demands that if they are not met, will mean the destruction of the bike. Now comes the important part... The character now has a spiritual connection to the bike, and she (or he, depending on the sexuality of the character) is around as a hallucination all the time, asking for things, being socially awkward. Another example we thought of: a katana that must have a Samaurai's hand kept on it at all times for a week. A book that a librarian character desperately wants that can't be given, but can be copied, over the course of a demanding week. In all of these cases, a time commitment is important, it is also important for the GM to keep up the pressure. This shouldn't be a time-off week where nothing else happens, this should be the week that the plague comes to town, and jimmy falls down the well. There should be pressure to give up the item.

Obviously this item technique isn't useful in all games, but I think it might be a good idea. It certainly worked well in the Hero's Banner game we played.

BTW, Buy Hero's Banner!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Retreat, Take 3

Well, another year has come and gone, so its time for me to update my blog again. We just wrapped up on the 3rd edition of the roleplaying retreat, which some folks are calling BenCon.

So what was the highlight of the week for me? I really enjoyed getting to play a bunch of indie games that I hadn't had a chance to try out. I'm going to try to be blogging for a while about the games we played, but today I'll limit myself to 1, and one I GM'ed no less.

The first game I GM'ed at the retreat was Dance and the Dawn. This is a very interesting game, extremely stylized and simple. The setup for the game is pretty simple. The players (up to 4) play the Ladies of Ash, which have been brought to the Midnight Waltz by the Duke of Ash at the behest of the Queen of Ice. The Queen provides 4 (or 5 in the case of 4 players) Lords of Ice, one of which is her son, the Prince of Ice. After some initial setup of the world (How does magic work? How do the Ladies find themselves on the Island of Ash), you create characters based on completing sentences (I was ____, I loved ____, I lost ____, I will ____), which I felt worked pretty well. The ladies also compose a couplet of peotry to describe their characters. The Lords then are created to help them achieve their "I will" sentences. The game proceeds on a chess board (read the book if you want the full details), there is very constrained interaction between the Ladies and the Lords (and everyone else). At most you probably get to ask like 3 or 4 questions to a particular lord. If you pick the one that was created for you, you have a happy life, otherwise, disaster (the left over lord is the soulless lord, whom no one will be happy with).

So what worked? I thought the imagery questions from the world setup worked really well. We quickly sketched out a very stylish setting and one that was intimately realized for each of the players. People were also pretty nervous about their end game decisions, despite everything working out for the best in my group. Though the soulless one was figured out fairly early by folks. The sense of courtly intrigue and propriety shown through despite the constricted mechanics and setting, which was awesome (in fact I think the constricted setting and rules that only allowed for a dance were the reasons those pieces worked).

On the other end of things, I found the lack of real romance to be disappointing. After having run my True Love game about 4 or 5 times I was looking forward to having a cool romance game that really brought things home other than the one that I made (with the help of others, see last year's write up for details on that game). But, the constrained nature of the game / characters and the clue-esque mystery that was the centerpiece of the game (who is their true love) served to leech out all of the romance and turn it into a more clinical game, at least in my opinion (though I would love to have comments from my players).

Over all, "Dance and the Dawn" worked pretty well, and was very cool, and I think we even told a cool story, but it is not a game about love or engendering player emotions. Well worth a play :).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cloak, Dagger, and Dragons!

Mike and I have come up wth a number of pieces of roleplaying discussion shorthand. Sort of small quips that remind us of big concepts when we are talking about games (about what went right and what went wrong). I've already talked about one of these ("stunt your failure") in 'The Death of Cool' post, but there are a couple of others that I think are really useful, and one in particular that caused me to write this article.

1. The Belly Of the Dragon.

This is a concept that relates to getting players onto your plot and not some other plot that you might've accidentally hinted at. Basically the story goes like this: your players are at the local inn. You have a big adventure planned with the forest elves. They need the player's help to overthrow their god and regain their sense of morality. You have a bunch of NPCs, compelling story hooks and such, but the adventure starts with them in the woods, meeting the elves. So you give the players the hook: there have been a lot of bandit attacks out in the woods, if only someone could help! Instead of charging off into the woods like you wanted, the players say "Well, we should get the local lord or duke or whomever to fix this." You panic. Of course there is a duke and he doesn't like bandits, so you need some reason for him not to be interested so you say "the local duke doesn't care about these people, he won't help." a player responds with "we need to make him see the plight of these people". And so it continues. And eventually you find yourself saying something like "Well, you could go up to his castle, which is protected by the king's elite guard and is renowned across the land as the most defensible fortification for 100 miles, but a dragon has swallowed the castle whole and now its in the belly of a gaint dragon. You think you've won, they won't go up there now. The players on the other hand hear "there is a lot of cool stuff at the castle, it must be where he wants us to go, plus we get to fight a dragon!".

This concept boils down to: if you place too many cool obstacles in front of players, it isn't a turn off, sometimes it is a challenge and the more you heap on, the more some players will want to tackle those challenges. I think this is the reason I sometimes drag games off course. I almost always seek the plot like an arrow, but if the GM starts building up some problem or place, I will think that in the plot and start pushing towards it.

Some ways to counteract the belly of the dragon effects include sudden role reversal... "Oh the duke will talk to you, yeah, and he wants to hire you to route out the bandits, no we don't need to roleplay the interaction with the duke". Another technique would be the metagame hints ("you feel a pull to go out into the woods", or "your childhood friend is traveling this road and he may get hit by the bandits!". Basically, though it boils down to: if you find yourself talking about things that aren't in your grand plot, stop! Don't talk about things the players aren't supposed to do, either it convinces them not to do something (which could've happened quicker by not talking about it) or it derails the game.

2. No more secrets!

This is a technique that generated some controversy at the retreat. The basic idea is that secrets are bad, or at least not very interesting. I want to talk about this from 2 perspectives: player and GM secrets. This post was actually inspired by this Geek Girls Rule!! post. I was struck by one particular sentence: "It’s friends only as much of the information there is not stuff other players/characters would necessarily know". This is exactly the sort of reasoning I want to argue against. (Note: I have no idea what trust level exists between players in Tammy's game and it may be the case that she has completely valid and awesome reasons for hiding this stuff)

First off GM secrets. In general these take the form of plot points or other things. Some of this is OK. But a lot, in my opinion, should just be thrown away. For instance, lets say you have a game plan of the players creating a rock band, getting killed in a plane crash, and recruited by Satan to corrupt the world through rock and role in order to be placed back on earth. This was a great game that was run by Keith a long time ago ("Paladins for Satan"). Now that game went well, but it could've easily gone badly, because our character instructions were "make a rock band". Now, for instance, we could've make a christian country music group. That would've been bad. While the character conflict over serving Satan might've been delicious, the meat of the game was supposed to occur after we were back on earth, doing his bidding (As it turns out we made a death metal band and everything was great). In my opinion, it would've been better to be like "make a rock band who will be recruited by Satan to corrupt the earth". Now, yes, I have just revealed a major plot point. But that plot point is going to occur and I need the players to say yes if we are ever going to have that awesome rock off between the players and the 2nd coming of Jesus. This also allows people to make that christian rock band, with the full knowledge that they WILL be turned to the side of evil (this is a form of player by in through character generation).

It is my firm opinion that whenever you have a secret as a GM you should think long and hard about keeping it a secret from any players. Even if it is a secret from the characters (this doesn't really matter), it shouldn't be a secret from the players. For one thing, people enjoy the game a lot more when they know some big thing is going to happen, and what better way to indicate that than telling them what the big thing is. Trust in your players to keep it OOC, and run with it.

I said I also wanted to approach this from a player perspective. Secrets for players seem to take 2 forms: back story secrets and character planning secrets. So, lets say you're a Cylon (traitor) in a Battlestar Galactica game. Think about what is cooler: the other players seeing all the cool cylon things you do as you subtle work to mess up the ship, or the other players being bored as you talk to the GM out in the hall yet again. Additionally you should always be thinking of ways to reveal to the other characters your secrets. As Mike once said "if you never reveal a character secret in play, it isn't any different from not having a secret at all". As a player you should have a plan for the best way the other characters find out your secret. Do they catch you shooting up before a mission? Do you tell them in a tear-filled confession. It may not work out the way you're thinking, but having a plan and communicating that plan to the GM can make for some really awesome roleplaying.

At the end of the day, both GM and player secrets should be revealed. If you never reveal them, its like they never happened. Have plan for getting them out, and take any opportunity that comes up. If you hide it away, then you never get to have an awesome story about the secret, and that is what you want, right? Hiding things from players is almost never right, since it excludes players from enjoying all aspects of the game. Hiding things from characters has a necessity, but all secrets should have an arc that includes their reveal, so that you have have some cool story around the secret (otherwise why have the secret at all?).


Monday, April 5, 2010

Look to the Left, Look to the Right: Who is having fun here?

One of the things that was very interesting to me that came up at the retreat was the concept of player engagement rescue. What I mean by this is, sometimes, for whatever reason, players are not engaged. As the GM, you try to watch carefully for this, and reengage the player as much as possible. There are lots of GM'ing techniques for this, and really the GM side of this equation is worth writing about 10 books. But what I want to talk about today is the player side of this story. If you are another player in this game, it is a really cool idea to try to look out for this and fix this as well. It takes the pressure off the GM (if successful) and is often even more engaging than what the GM could do with his limited camera time.

I first noticed this technique when used by Chris Lightfoot, a great guy and an awesomely experienced gamer, and I'm embarrassed to say I only noticed it because he did it to me. I and several others were not really engaged with the game or with the plot, and he came over, got us organized and got us back in the game, and it was awesome. Ever since then I have been trying to do the same for others (in addition to figure out how to be more engaged all the time myself), and sometimes I can do stuff and sometimes I can't.

The easiest form of this technique is very simple and also, in my opinion, effective. Simply ask for another player's help. Going out to investigate something? You need the taciturn warrior to accompany you, no question, what if you ran into trouble? Trying to lure the big bad out of a cave, well, the only thing is to have that barmaid turned adventurer on your arm to help you, she might know something about caves! It's pretty cool to see the other player turn to you and suddenly become more active; to know that you just made their game experience at least a little bit better.

There are several different ways I've seen to approach this technique. First of all, ask for their help, as above. Second would be to look at what they are interested in doing (what do they come alive for) and engineer a spot in the plan for them (perhaps even by scrapping your intricate sneaking plan and letting the 9 ft tall cyborg guy smash through a wall to get into the secret lab). Another technique, which has to be used with care, is to engage them adversarial, if the game is of that form... See what their characters care about and suggest destroying or maiming it/them. Or just outright attack them in some manner. Players are never more involved than when defending what they care about. (Note: this can only be used with players who can play with this level of confrontation, unsure players or new players will almost always just fold and go along with your plans, even if it does require the bloody sacrifice of Aunt May, and then you've driven them away even more).

I'd love to hear how people have approached this technique or idea themselves, weather it is what has worked well on you or what you have used to good effect. As players there are a lot of things that we can do that the GM just can't (like change plans). This is, in my opinion, a high level technique that a lot of people just don't think about, but can really turn a so-so game into a great game.

Next time perhaps some review of some interesting concepts we've come up with, like "the belly of the dragon!".