Sunday, October 28, 2007

Today's Jeopardy Category: Potpourri

If you don't watch Jeopardy, you should. The show is awesome. Unless you get 75% of the questions correct, though, don't try out. From my research from when Ken Jennings (google it) was on the show, most contestants know all the answers, and its mainly a buzzer issue (or at least that is what the jeopardy forums will tell you). Anyway, if you watch jeopardy then you know I'm about to throw a bunch of random things out, so here goes.

First of all I'm off to Ambercon North West next week, and I can't wait. I've got some great games lined up, and I'm even running a game. This will be my second con game of all time, and the first one didn't go so well. I've got some more GM'ing experience, and I'm running a less out there adventure (the previous one was Little Fears), and the game is right in my comfort zone, so here's to hoping everything goes well!

The second thing, I suppose is that my ancestral dog died (the one I grew up with). As I've mentioned previously, Kiwi had lymphoma, but I was hoping she would be able to make it a bit longer. I'm sorry to say that that didn't happen, but I'm sure she's happier now and in a lot less pain.

My car is in the shop (finally), after getting it running and driving it to a closed service station (I didn't KNOW it was closed at the time), we finally went and got it again. Then we drove to a Chrysler service center that didn't even exist (much less out of business), and finally we took a long trek across the lake to Bellevue and found an actual service location, and left it there. Of course, they couldn't reproduce the problem, and couldn't find any faults, so I'm just having them replace the starter anyway. There goes another $700 :/. But, thats ok, as long as they get it done in time to go to ACNW, I'll be fine, but you can bet I'm bringing a hammer on the trip (you can get the starter to work again by hitting it with a hammer, believe it or not).

Sort of in response to this, and also because I've been dissatisfied with my car for a while, I'm also considering replacing that car. On principal, I wouldn't do that, because I always wanted to be more like my parents, who seem to drive cars until they quit than like someone who replaces there car every 3 years (I've had mine for just 5 years), but I've never really liked the PT Cruiser, and with these service issues, I've been considering solving my problems with money... I haven't even really decided what price range I'm in yet. Maybe a Saturn thats under 15k? But, to be honest, I test drove a 3 series BMW, and I am intrigued. I'm planning on driving an Audi A3 or A4 today, hopefully, and maybe also looking into a Chrysler 300, which my dad has, and I like quite a lot. Fortunately, unlike the last time, I have almost as much time as I need to make a decision, so I can even factory order a car to meet my specifications, which seems likely to me (unless I go the cheap route). If any of you have suggestions in this area, I'm all ears.

If anyone is an anime fan out there, I highly recommend "Prince of Tennis." Its a sports anime, so it really is wacky samurai tennis action, and it is a little slower even than most wacky samurai action series (which are slow to begin with), but its a lot of fun, nonetheless. I'm looking forward to finishing up volume 3, which I received from the fine folks at Amazon this week.

Well, thats about all the news thats news. I should have Bliss Stage pt. 2 up soonish (we play tonight).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Playtest Report: Bliss Stage Part 1

This is the first installment of what I hope to be a number of playtest reports. See, I am a member of 3 different gaming groups. Wednesdays is Exalted, approximating twice monthly on Saturdays is the "Amber" group (though we often end up playing non-amber games), and Sundays is the "Indie" group.

The original goal of the indie group is to play a new game every week. Sometimes, we just play some persona setting, or someone wants to run a particular system that we've tried before, but I do think we see a decent variety of systems. We've managed to try out: Shock, Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Hero's Banner, Shockaris (A blend of Shock and Polaris), L5R (Legend of the Five Rings, not exactly indie, but what can you do), and maybe a couple of others that I can't remember. I hope to write up play reports for each of these games, now that I'm blogging, so that others can live vicariously through me (Mike, I'm looking at you ;))

This last Sunday, we managed to get together a crew for the very awesome Bliss Stage game. This is part one of the report, because we all agreed to play another session of it, since we didn't get through all of the adventure I had planned.

Let me start by giving a brief overview of the world of Bliss Stage and the system. Basically, at the moment you sit down to the game (as far as a timeline goes), "The Bliss" takes out the adult population of the world (16-17+). Everyone just gets sleepy and falls asleep, never to wake up. For a little while, the children have fun with that, looting stores, eating candy and the like. But after a while, you want your mother and father to wake up and take care of you. Too bad. After a month, all the modern services, like water and electricity are completely shutdown. After 2 years, some sort of society is beginning to form. Then the aliens come. They brought the bliss, and now they have remotes that can operate in our world, and they begin hunting down the nascent society that is forming (which already has troubles, with its oldest members "Blissing out"). 5 years after the Bliss, someone finally manages to take down one of the alien remotes. They begin studying its technology. 6 years out, they start experimenting with reversing the technology and allowing some of the kids to enter the dreaming with their own remotes, the tests are brutal. At 7 years, the technology is ready and the pilots are trained, and its time to strike back!

So, if you haven't picked up on this yet, its a roleplaying game for playing mecha pilots who are children, fighting against an alien force that has already conquered the Earth. Wow! But the fun doesn't stop there, it gets much better. The mecha that the children pilot in the alien world of the dreaming are formed out of the strong relationships the children have with other characters in the resistance cell! Your shield is your love of Alice, your lover, your rocket powered fists is the loyality you feel towards the cell's leader, etc. Wow! But wait, there's more. When a pilot enters the dreaming, his anchor (another child trained in instrument reading) must interpret the reading and tell the pilot what he is seeing and what he should do. Thats right, the anchor (a child in the cell) GM's the pilots combat actions in character voice! Wow! Ok, now I'm basically done.

Those of you who know my roleplaying preferences and my anime preferences have probably realized that it would be difficult to make a game more to my liking. Add in the fact that every number / mechanic in the game is designed to either reaffirm or destroy your relationships with other characters, and you've basically got everything I could ask for in a game. Now that I've told you a bit about the game setup, let me tell you about the world we created.

We started with where we were located. The book suggests that we create a resistance cell somewhere near where we are physically in the world. So we thought about where around post-apocalyptic Seattle a resistance cell might be. After discarding as too obvious the Bus Tunnels and the Space Needle, we settled on House boats, lashed together in the middle of Lake Washington. We decided that we had ready access to fish (being on the water), and were fairly able to defend the boats against other bands of children. We decided we didn't have electricity and that sanitation in the middle of a lake was also an issue. When it came time to decided what the aliens were like, it was a little more difficult. We tossed around a couple of ideas, but eventually decided on the very awesome "they are twisted mimicries of people you have relationships with." Going from there, it was fairly obvious that the dreaming was a twisted mimicry of the physical world around Seattle. Some color includes trees growing upside down and buildings in the real world occasionally being replaced by their twisted doppelgangers. That dream stuff, we decided, is what powers the mecha creches we use to fight the aliens.

Once we had established our setting, it was time to get into character creation. Characters in Bliss Stage are generated by the group collaboratively all at once. Once they are all created, the characters are handed out to various players sort of willy nilly (with characters with close ties hopefully going to different players). We started with the Authority Figure. The AF is an adult who has managed to stay awake for the last 7 years. After 7 years, these guys are normally a bit crazy and only being kept alive through some combination of drugs, meditation, gilligan's island tapes and lots of coffee. They are the leader of the cell, and the person who brought in the mecha machines. For our group, we made Robert Morealis. He was a commercial fisherman, who when the Bliss hit was forced to pilot the big hauling boat back to seattle by himself (throwing overboard his shipmates, probably). When he returned to Seattle he found some kids looting his house boat (let by Jed, a pilot), and got them to rally around him. He also led a search team to find his daughters Kat (A pilot) and Meredith (older sister, since fallen into the Bliss, but kept around on the boat and regularly visited by Robert and Kat). Kat is a young hotshot pilot trying to prove herself; to the world, to Robert and also to herself. Jed is the most experience ANIMa (mecha) pilot, and he is growing bitter with the world (and getting close to the Bliss), he has authority issues with Robert and probably half the kids on the House Boat Rafts are still loyal to him. Roderick (Ro for short) is the final of three pilots, who is in love with his Anchor Alice, and the only couple of have had a child "Spike" a one year old boy. Other characters include Sergey, the son of meth lab junkies who carries on his parents work to help keep Robert awake. Megan a girl on the rafts that is in love with Ro, who schemes with Jed (who has a crush on Alice) to break up the only fruitful relationship on the boat, and Shevaun, the unsteady Anchor for Jed (replacing the one that died in his arms after one disastrous mission), who is still unsure of her worth to the group.

Needless to say, with a twisty maze of relationships like that (I haven't even enumerated all of the craziness we came up with), the character interaction just basically flowed easily from there. I think we were also all grateful for the shared character creation, which allowed a lot of voices to really get into these characters and really make them damaged or ambitious or caring.

After that, it was finally time to play (only took about 2.5 hrs to explain the rules, eat, and generate characters and setting). Every game of Bliss Stage is supposed to start with a "defend the base!" kind of mission. This was definitely what we did, and it was really cool to see people get into character voice on both sides of the equation, and really go at the aliens. By the end of the mission, everyone had nightmare elements (sent by the aliens) in their world view, and there are some really twisted things we were able to come up with. The mecha combat was fairly smooth and not very painful as far as mechanics are concerned.

Once that was done, it was time to tackle interlude actions, where we get the chance to really get some character interactions and play with our relationships. Jed and Shevaun had an interesting interaction where they talked about some of what it really meant to be involved in the resistance and why they both worked as pilot/anchor. And what it meant to see the dead anchor reflected in the aliens as Jed fought them. Ro and Alice had it out about why Ro was able to so casually destroy aliens that looked like both Alice and their son Spike. And, in one of the funnest roleplaying moments I have ever taken part in, Robert and Kat argued about how she failed to really give it to the aliens, and hesitated over the demon that looked like Robert. Robert also pointed out that she has to be better than she is if she ever expects to save anyone from the aliens. Then they slapped and punched each other, really hitting and hating the other one.

We were about to go into the next mission, when we realized it was late, and we should probably play again next week.

Once we understood the system, it was fairly lightweight and generally awesome. It really forced us to focus on the twisted, strained relationships that must happen in such a horrific situation. And it allowed for some awesome mecha combat. Wow! What more could you want from an indie RPG?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Goal Oriented Stunting

Recently, I saw the epic action masterpiece that is Dead Fantasy. The second totally awesome "EAM" from Monty Oum (the previous being Haloid). If you haven't seen these two movies, you should see them immediately (just click those links), at least if you like video games characters doing very awesome violence to each other.

While watching Dead Fantasy, I got annoyed once again by how movies and action sequences can do outrageously great stunts that just do not work in roleplaying. Some of these are fairly simple to describe, like the in ability to just be fast. In the mind's eye of roleplaying combat, moving fast just isn't anything, timing things correctly just isn't anything awesome either. But these are both techniques exploited to great effect in action movies. With Dead Fantasy, however, I saw a different kind of stunting that we never use in roleplaying, but that really rocked. That is linked stunting where you do something awesome in one action, and that changes the environment and you doing something enabled by that in the next action, and so on. Occasionally, you do get this kind of imaginative synergy, and it is really awesome, but the system is actually driving you away from it.

See, the way it works is that as soon as you know there is going to be combat, you immediately start thinking of stunts to do, once you do them, you don't try to build off the last one because someone else's awesome stunt will probably change the situation enough that if you build stunt to stunt, your idea would just be wiped away. In combat you always have goals (hurt the enemy), but you rarely have a specific moment of time (you have a setting of some sort, but not a bunch of things flying through the air or thing moving or toppling), generally you're stunting in a time vaccuum.

I was discussing this issue with Mike, and I even challenged him to get us to develop a system that explicitly encouraged linked stunting (as I was calling it), but instead Mike made a very interesting suggestion:

One thing that might be interesting to me is if we explored how to use stunts to exert more careful control on the game. What if you tried to stunt loosing a fight? Or maybe stunt a fight in which after 3 rounds, the Zeppelin you're riding crashes into a city building? Or a conversation in which (to nobody's in-character desire) a PC and an NPC fall in love?

Perhaps something like a system in which, at beginning of a conflict, the GM and players try to interest each other in challenges with this more subtile stunt goal system. With the prize being experience maybe if the stunting was good? A system like this might also make it possible to try new stuff - like these linked stunts you're talking about - and see what happens.

I thought this was very interesting. Plus, I was very excited about the possibility of doing some of the things that are more far afield for most roleplaying games (like the PC and NPC falling in love). I was especially excited about getting more stunting going on outside of combat, which I feel is a big hole in our stunting abilities.

So in last Wednesday's game we tried some of these. Only briefly, but I hope we get to continue to work with it, because I think it has a lot of value. Actually re-reading it, I don't think I accurately conveyed Mike's idea to the group, but what we did was interesting nonetheless. We tried a scene in which we stunting getting a lead on finding someone in the city we were in. This worked OK, but we were very unsure of how it was supposed to work. If instead of stunting a nebulous goal, we use the kind of goals that mike was talking about, which are very specific sort of side-goals to the stunting, this work work better... Instead of stunting getting a lead for instance would could stunt finding someone, but causing a riot in the process (causing the riot would be the side-goal side of the stunt). I think this could be a useful tool for getting player buy in for plot elements that the GM wants to introduce...

Needless to say, this kind of stunting I think requires a lot of trust between GM and players (and between players too), but I think we can manage it. Unfortunately with new people joining us, I don't know when we'll be able to get back into this experimentation, but hopefully it won't be too long (we don't want to be trying out new things that we're not comfortable with until the new people get comfortable with our group, goes back to the trust thing).

Anyway. We're playing Bliss Stage tomorrow, and I can't wait to see how that turns out. Children in a world of sleeping adults fight aliens in giant fighting robots comprised of their relationships with other characters! Who could want more!?! Assuming we do play, I'll post something about what happened.

Its been a little while...

So, I've been running around pretty swamped recently, and this blogging thing has suffered a little bit, but not to fear, I still have 11 draft posts in flight, and I plan on getting back into the swing of things. So, what has happened since I last posted.

Just before the previous post, I went to see my grandfather in Oklahoma. As it turns out, he wasn't doing so well. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer back in April (I think), and due to his age (I believe he was 92), they weren't going to be able to do anything for him. So I went back to see him. I should've gone back earlier, but I was very glad to be able to talk to him nonetheless.

It was pretty clear how things were going from that visit, and so I was not very surprised (although deeply saddened) to hear about his death a little time after the post on the 9th. So I managed to get a flight back very quickly and I went to his funeral. Emily also made it (back from France) which I think was very nice. One note: I flew on frequently flyer miles, and I recommend the strategy of saving up enough miles to have an anytime trip to everyone, it takes a lot of the stress away if you have to fly for an emergency.

Anyway, I'm back in Seattle again, a little bit light on vacation, but ready to get back into the swing of things again.

Other news from my front. I think I may have found 2 different people to join my two roleplaying groups (looking like 1 for each). I hope they do show up, and I hope they enjoy themselves. We also have another maybe from a TPM at work, which would also be cool. This is great news because those groups have been shrinking for a while and were almost at criticality now (3 players, 1 GM; I consider 4-5 players to be optimal, and 2 players to be uncomfortable).

My older childhood dog (not Belle, but Kiwi) is probably going to die fairly soon. She has lymphoma, which would be hard to beat, especially in dog of 14 years. I just hope she enjoys what time she has left :)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Sorry for the delay in updates, I was traveling last week and I only really had time for the one on thursday. My goal is about 2 a week, and I think I still made it last week, but it still feels like a long time. So on to the big news!

I made SDE III! With the help of Paul (my new manager) and Tim (my old manager), we were able to make the case that I've been performing at the III level, and its finally official. I've been working towards this seriously since around January when I decided to step it up and see what I could do. I'm pretty excited about this development, and looking forward to the new challenges. So , what are the new challenges? Well, I'm not really sure. As a good friend of mine says, "Amazon is in the habit of promoting people who are already performing at their new level", so perhaps not that much will change. I hope to be more involved in cross-team efforts, in driving them, in creating them, being involved in their design and initial planning.

Along with awesome new responsibilities (who doesn't love responsibilities!) I also got some stock (golden chains), and a nice raise, so gadgets, here I come ;).

Anyway, I've suspected for a little while, but I just got official word today along with the compensation changes, so I can now shout it to the heavens :).

I don't have much more than that on this particular subject. Look for returning to our regularly scheduled blog soonish :)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Quick Update

So, I wanted to post some sort of long ramblings on subjects only a few people in the world could care about, but instead, I'm going to just drop a note here. I've been out on a recruiting trip to UIUC since monday.

The recruiting went pretty well, I think. We got a lot of resumes and a few did manage to stand out from the rest. The big highlight was that the Tech Talk was on the following day at 5:00, which meant I had about 24 hours of free time at UIUC. So, I went up to Chicago and saw Dave Goodell. It was great to see Dave and Heather, and I enjoyed getting to see their house as well (its very nice, with an extremely well appointed kitchen).

I got back to Urbana-Champaign in time to eat something and collapse, for I had gotten a little sick. Nevertheless, I made it on time for the tech talk. I think the talk itself went pretty well (at least I hope it did), and I could see some additional excitement in the students after I was finished.

So, now I find myself back in Seattle for one night only (16 hours only) before getting back on a plane to see family in Oklahoma. Woof. If I had this to do over, I think I would've flown directly to Oklahoma or maybe (just maybe) scheduled them on different days.

I did manage to watch a few movies on the trip (some with Dave, some on the DVD player, one in a theater), some of which I liked, and some of which I didn't... Heres the break down:

  • Wonderfalls - Ok not really a movie, but definitely funny and cool, series is being delivered to me from Amazon

  • Madlax - Anime, I liked half the story, but its by the same people that do Noir, and suffers from the same slowness and empty scenes

  • Fracture - Anthony Hopkins! Oh Sir Hopkins, you are so very awesome. The plot was superb if one or twice predictable. Definitely worth seeing, especially if you enjoy Tony at his most evil

  • Next - Great action film, but the ending leaves you wanting

  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Very funny at points, better than the series

  • Condemned - Stone Cold Steve Austin. Those pro-wrestling guys can really do a great stunt or two. Austin isn't as good as, say, The Rock, but is as good as John Cena (The Marine). The stunts are a little less flashy than the other two, but all in all a decent action movie, that will have you squirming from societal insights at times.

  • The Brave One - Awesome. Jodie Foster shows us again why I consider her to be one of the best female actors of the modern age. Really really powerful and striking and thought provoking. Plus, based loosely on an NPR radio person

  • Fantastic Four 2 - About as good as the first movie, which is to say not very good. How did they greenlight a second one? While I didn't regret watching these, I probably wouldn't see a third one

  • Vacancy - Ok horror/slasher fic. Clumsy storytelling, but the thriller aspects were gripping nonetheless.

Hmm... that does seem like an awful lot of movies... Oh well, I do like watching 'em.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stunts: A Glorious Passion

I just got done with a pretty stunt-tastic game (yes, I stand by my word choice). Keith GM'ed a pretty rockin' Rifts-in-Persona game. Yes, once again we have decided to play an established setting (Rifts) in our home brew generic system (Persona), and I think it works better than the published system, but that may just be me. Rifts, as I found out, is sort of an interesting setting. Its the future, and society has had some sort of great apocalypse that killed 3/4s of the word's population. This meant that all of their gooey ectoplasm went into the ley lines, and restarted magic. Oh, and it also opened up a whole bunch of "rifts" in the world that are actually portals to other dimensions/worlds/universes.

The cool thing about this setting is that you can (if you're playing PersonaRifts) create a whole world that your character is from, you can craft out a very strange situation, or you can play a human who's gained magic powers, or anything in between. To give you a sample, one of the characters was a wolf, who was actually an energy being (from an appropriate dimension) forced into corporeal form. He just found himself one day in the body of a wolf. Combine that with a crazy gun nut and an even crazier Glitterboy pilot who won't leave her armor because the world scares her, and you have a glimpse at some of the interesting characters possible in this dynamic setting.

Anyway, my point with this post is not to talk about Rifts but to talk about stunts. For those of you not familiar, stunts are the awesome favor text you put around what your character does. For instance, instead of saying "I get on the computer and hack into their mainframe", you might say "I leap into my fully prepared computer sensorium, where my every body movement is interpreted into the electric impulses computers need to function on. As I submerse myself into the electronic world, it is almost as if the computer reads my mind as node after node of the public 'net flits by in the blink of an eye. I lift my fingers and begin to play a symphony as electrons spew forth from my fortress, attacking the enemy. Indeed, what electronic guardian could resist my siren musical call?".

Great stunts have only recently begun to come up in the games I play. About 1.5 years ago, I think, Ghen-ki, Mike, and I were in a car, and it came up that we all thought we could be stunting more in our exalted game. In response we decided to make a couple of changes to the way stunts were given out: 1. Award all stunts, even if its just minorly. 2. Allow all kinds of stunts, including flashbacks we you can reveal some scene from your past. 3. Try to think of something for every action. After committing to these changes, our stunting game started to become much much better.

It is interesting to watch what stunting does for a game. I don't think every game should be heavily stunted, in fact I think for many games, that would ruin the atmosphere of the game, in particular character drama oriented games, I think suffer from too much heroic stunting. In those kinds of games, character emotion and acting I think play a bigger role. But, in an adventure oriented game where everyone is out to have some fun, I think stunting can be a big influence on the fun. Rather than just hitting him with your sword, you're now leaping from rope to rope, brandishing your rapier as you barely mange to keep the pirates at bay. Much more evocative, much more engaging, and it's a whole rush when you finish describing a particularly cool action, and you get to see the reactions of the other players (oo, wow, etc).

One bad thing I have noticed about stunts is when there are different levels of stunting in the crew (players) or when a new player is joined. On several occasions it has seemed to me that new players were getting overwhelmed by the amount and voraciousness of the stunts, and it has actually intimidated players. This is really bad because any healthy group is going to see people come and go from it, and you have to be able to recruit new players. This is one of the reasons I think my wednesday and saturday games are struggling a little bit for players. This badness can also manifest through other players disengaging from the adventure, because they don't feel like they contribute as much to the game as others.

So, concluding, I thought I would take a little bit and describe some of the techniques I use to craft my stunts, and ask anyone reading my ramblings if they might contribute as well in the comments.

If I'm struggling to think of something I will often do two things: 1. Ask the GM for details of the setting... What is in the room? What are people wearing? How is the ceiling or floor constructed? Who is in the crowd (if anyone)? 2. Take stock of what my character has / is doing / is thinking about. The best stunts are ones that combine some part of your character with some part of the setting and some part of the enemy. Show emotion! Grab his scarf and use it to fling him around the room! Use the extras in the area as an appreciative audience.

Sometimes it can help to work from the problem backwards, especially in fighting stunts. Stunting against a blank page can be extremely difficult but if someone asks you how you're going to get to say drilling your sword like a spinning top into the guy's chest, that is much much easier. So, you might think of one awesome way to hurt or injure you're opponent. For instance, maybe you're fighting some sort of demon three times the size of you. Well, how might you hurt them? Say, drop a mountain on it? Ok, now you have to think of a way to do that... Much easier than hurt the demon (In this particular case, I attacked the side of the mountain we were in and caused an landslide).

Another great source of inspiration are movies. Try to get the GM to set the scene, and then picture it in your mind. Now think about how a movie might play out with that setup, what is dramatically appropriate? What are some catch phrases your character might use? You do have to be careful here, though. Lots of movie scenes can come out very very poorly in stunts. For instance, if in the movie Jet Li seems to move into a blur of motion and attacks the 10 guys basically simultaneously, well, thats great for Jet Li and whatever movie he is in, but multiple attack stunts rarely work out that well for roleplaying games. Another type of stunting that doesn't work out well is the skillful stunts. He skillfully jabs a dagger through the metal rings of his ring mail isn't really the best you can do.

One thing that Keith pointed out to me one night when we were discussing stunts is that you want to use words that evoke visuals. For instance if your stunt involves something happening "skillfully" you need to think of other words. How can someone move skilfully? It doesn't evoke any visuals. But if someone moves gracefully like a hunting tigress (or "as graceful as a cow is not", sorry in-joke), that can really invoke a certain feel or scene.

Another technique I sometimes use is to have my characters emotions or feelings manifest physically, for instance, if my character is shouting, screaming in pain, perhaps their swords is forced out of the way by the power of my words. In a magical setting, I one has a songstress who regularly blocked swords with the notes of her songs made physical through her desire.

Well, thats about all I have time for right now, but I'm sure that I'll be posting more on stunts in the future. In the mean time, anyone out there have other suggestions?