Sunday, August 15, 2010

Burning Matrimony Experience

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As of this moment - this very instant 4:00 PM on August 15th - my wedding is starting. That's right, soon the Abigail will be Mrs. The Abigail (you can expect me to use this from time to time, like a dork). The Abigail and I are going to stand under the chuppah and promise to always play with each other, to always support each other in the things we do out in the world, and to never imagine that we know each other fully, so that we are always open to each others' endless mystery.

Heavy stuff, I know.

We've been living together for a long time (five years!) and dating for about a year longer than that. In a sense, nothing is going to change. Life will go on, much the same, only with prettier rings.

And also, everything is going to change.

The biggest thing is, I just can't believe my luck. I get to marry a hot gamer chick! Me! And she'll sleep in my bed every night and let me run her Exalted (among other things).

Today is the day. Now is the moment. Wish me luck.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Burning Creation Experience

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As the zeppelin takes a gentle left, you will see that we are now flying over Creation. Never a particularly stable place, Creation has recently taken a turn for the worse. As you can see, the East is burning, the North is practically lifeless, the Southern deserts have been replaced by fields of ash, and the Western Islands have been rearranged into a geometrically pleasing configuration. That, I think, is really the best touch. In the center we have the once-Blessed Isle, now surmounted by a cloud of nigh-impenetrable darkness. Try not to look too closely - we get complaints.

The newest Exalted supplement, Return of the Scarlet Empress, details the rise of Creation's demon empress and the fall of everyone else. In it, White Wolf's Exalted line continues to surprise me - first they made me like location books, and now they have convinced me to buy and like a bundle of adventure paths. What's next?

Ok, first a quick summary. If you know anything about Exalted, you know that the core of the setting begins with the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress. Big Red has been holding the fractious Realm of the Dragon-Blooded together with cunning, brutality, and singular dedication ever since the fall of the last Dragon-Blooded empire, the Shogunate. The Dragon-Blooded of the Shogunate - also known as Terrestrial Exalted - were the ones to overthrow their rightful masters, the Solar and Lunar Exalted, at the urging of their secretive viziers, the Sidereal Exalted. The Exalted are humans elevated to demigod status by the gods so that they could, at the dawn of time, help the gods overthrow their makers, the Primordials. Some Primordials died in the fighting, and their slowly dissolving ghosts have created the Underworld, the powerful ghostly monarchs called the Deathlords, and their servants, corrupted Exalts called the Abyssal Exalted. Other Primordials surrendered, becoming the twisted and vicious Yozis, and have since snagged their own servants, also corrupted exalts, called the Infernal Exalted.

Next time, on backwards histories: Japan surrendered on August 14th, 1945...

Anyway, it has been long-suggested that the reason the Scarlet Empress disappeared is that she finally reached too far in her quest for power and got herself kidnapped by the Ebon Dragon, one of the more unpleasant Yozis. Return of the Scarlet Empress takes that implication and runs with it, providing plot possibilities for the eventuality of the Empress's return. Her goal: to turn Creation into hell so that her masters can escape back into the world. To this end, she really tears shit up.

The book itself is divided into seven chapters detailing the progress of the Reclamation (of Creation, by the Yozis) in the Blessed Isle, each of the four outer regions of Creation, and other realms of existence (heaven, hell, the underworld, etc.), and a final chapter that details the final showdown between the Ebon Dragon and the forces of good, assuming that the players haven't thwarted his plans long ago.

In general, the supplement is very good, though somewhat uneven. Chapter One: The Cursed Isle, for example, is extremely well-done. The writer takes a very high-level approach, explaining in broad strokes how the Ebon Dragon's plans are likely to proceed given the most probable eventualities. For details, like Storyteller character game statistics and details about how various military and political organizations function, the book references other Exalted supplements and leaves it at that. The end result feels like an essay on the destruction of the Realm, which a knowledgeable Storyteller could easily detail where necessary to create a compelling chronicle. The second chapter, which details the same process in the Eastern sector of Creation, is similarly written.

Unfortunately, the chapters on the North and South aren't quite as good. Both of these chapters read more like minutely detailed adventure paths. Creative players and character-driven Storytellers will quickly go "off the map" or simply find the plot ideas inapplicable. This doesn't mean that the chapters are useless, but the useful ideas are buried in paragraphs of much chancier stuff.

Let me give you a practical example. In the chapter on the Blessed Isle, we are given a section about the final stages of the Reclamation, in which the Empress corrupts the Sword of Creation (enormous feng-shui powered cannon) so that her infernal masters can use it. This section gives a variety of options for character involvement, explaining how any kind of character might get involved, and then gives us several options for the speed at which the corruption proceeds. On the other hand, we have a section in the chapter on the South entitled "The Akuma Who Loved Me" (I don't know why, but many of the section headings are riffs off the titles of spy and heist movies) which introduces the character of Raia, a hopelessly enslaved Terrestrial Exalt who seduces one of the characters and uses the connection to manipulate the player's characters.

The former is a broad treatment of a series of events that anyone could get involved in, but the individual characters' hooks are up to the Storyteller. The latter is a narrow plot thread that only applies to characters whose players who are willing to roleplay romantic (or at least sexual) situations, are willing to fall for Raia's story and aren't already exclusively romantically involved, and for whom a romance with a secret villain would be an interesting challenge. I can tell you right off the bat that for the various Exalted characters I've played, this storyline would only be interesting - maybe interesting - for one of them.

The final chapters, however, pick up the pace and become much more interesting. Chapter Six: Other Realms of Existence provides a wide variety of plot ideas for characters who are primarily involved in one of Creation's other settings: Heaven, Hell, the Underworld, or the outer chaos of the Wyld. Some of these suggestions are merely interesting (I can take or leave the Empress as the 14th Deathlord) while others are brilliant (go on, tell me that the section on the Righteous Dead didn't send shivers up your spine). Chapter seven makes an excellent capstone on the book and lives up to its title: Endgame. I don't want to spoil this chapter for you, so that's all I'm going to say.

All in all, I would recommend the purchase, with the caveat that it doesn't do your chronicle-building work for you. The relevant sections for your chronicle are going to be either well-writtenly vague or overly specific, and you're going to have to do a lot of the statting, writing, and narrative shuffling yourself. What the book does do a good job of is providing interesting ideas for where to go and what to do, as well as a realistic treatment of how a divided and chaotic Creation would fare against the relatively organized might of Hell.

Finally, I'm going to add that I would love to see similar books for Creation's other Enemies. Return of the Scarlet Empress is good, but I'd also buy Rise of the Deathlords (for the forces of death) and The Second Crusade (for the forces of chaos).

And if any White Wolf dudes are reading this... I work cheap.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Menace Mechanic Madness

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It's been a while since I've created a straight-up roleplaying post, hasn't it? Well, here's a thought I had today at the gym that I think some of you might find useful.

In pretty much every game, the developers find it useful to present your character with a trait that goes up or down to reflect how much and what kind of shit your character is in. Whether it's Hit Points, Health, Sanity, or Humanity (which go down) or Stress Tracks, Damage, or Banality (which go up), the idea is to create a sense of tension by making real, on the character sheet, the fact that BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO YOU.

I even once played a game that used marbles.

This is in all ways laudable. I don't know about you, but the act of erasing or filling in a dot or a box or a number on my character sheet does in fact drive home that things are changing. Watching that number rise or fall, those boxes or dots show up or go away, can be very tense.

I'm going to call this idea a Menace Mechanic. That is, it's a mechanic for tracking threats to your character's continued health, sanity, or existence: menaces.

The only problem is that most menace mechanics don't provide a lot of room for customization. The game decides what menaces to measure, whether it's how close your character is to dying, how long it will be before he betrays his people to the crude sun-worshipers overrunning the land, or how close she is to forgetting her beautiful secret faerie nature. There's rarely any room for you to formally determine exactly where the fault-lines in your character's personality are. The Abigail and I often find ourselves discussing her characters' weaknesses, where and how they could go bad, and then leaving it at that. I get to incorporate these personality problems into the story, but I rarely get any mechanical support (unless, of course, I find a way to incorporate the character's issues into an existing menace mechanic).

Now, this isn't always a problem. I'm not the kind of designer who thinks that you always need to write a system for every thing that's going to happen in your game. That said, if you don't write a system for it it's not definitely going to happen, and sometimes that's sad.

So, what follows is a customizable Menace Mechanic that can probably be adapted to any system that tracks mental and spiritual menaces.

* * *

The first thing you need to do is give your character's Menace a name that sums up what it is, what it means, and why it's bad. Some ideas that spring to mind: Anger Management Issues, Cold-Hearted, Desire to Give Up Human Foibles and Become a Robot Chick (actually ran a game for one of those once).

Then you need to pick a number of intermediary steps - we'll call them Milestones - that lie between a theoretical ideal state (I embrace my human flaws and love my meaty flesh!) and some kind of theoretical fallen state (Love is illogical). The number of steps probably varies based on the kind of game you're already playing and how you want the Custom Menace system to fit in with everything else. If you're using Custom Menace in place of Humanity or Morality, for example, you probably want to identify ten states (Menace 1 through 10). In other systems you might be happier with five, or even three.

Two probably won't work, though.

You should also figure out if Menace is going to rise or fall. Again, you should probably make this compatible with the rest of the game. If Menace is replacing or coexisting with White Wolf's Morality, for example, you probably want Menace 10 to be good and Menace 0 to be bad.

For each Menace Milestone, you need to pick one or two acts that could constitute a breaking point. In other words, something the character could do that might cause them to slip further down that slope towards robot-hood (or whatever). If a character performs an act that would be unacceptable for her current level of Menace, some kind of dice roll is in order to see if the character loses (or gains) Menace. The exact kind of dice roll is, again, a choice you need to make based on the rules of the game you're adding this system to.

So, for example:

Menace: Become a Robot-Chick.
  • 10: Make any decision based on logic rather than emotion, sacrifice a relationship for any reason.
  • 9: Damage a relationship for any reason, pass up an opportunity for physical gratification
  • 8: Add or implant technological devices to your body
  • 7: Damage a relationship because it is logically expedient
  • 6: Sacrifice a relationship because it is logically expedient
  • 5: Harm another human being because it is logically expedient, replace a damaged body part with a technological prosthesis
  • 4: Sacrifice (end) a relationship because it is logically expedient, break your sworn word because it is logically expedient
  • 3: Betray a close friendship because it is logically expedient, replace a perfectly good body part with a technological prosthesis
  • 2: Alter your body with technology in such a way that you can no longer enjoy a common form of physical gratification
  • 1: Sacrifice your essential humanity for robot-hood

This example is for a character that the Abigail played in White Wolf's Exalted. In keeping with the general themes of the system, I have chosen to have this Menace run from 10 to 1.

* * *

I'm unlikely to ever get to actually use this system, since the Abigail gets grumpy when I add system to games (she prefers to subtract system from game), but I'm curious to hear what you may think of it, and what you may some day make of it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burning Update Experience: Solid Suck

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So, it turns out that I won't be attending the podcaster pub night. The Abigail and I double-scheduled the evening with celebrating her last client. If you were looking forward to seeing me, I'm sorry to disappoint, but probably I'm the most disappointed of the lot.

Anyway, it'll happen again. Next time, hopefully.

Comic Depression

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For the longest time - about as long as I can remember being aware of the art form - I have wanted to be a part of the team that writes a webcomic. The first reason is pure arrogance: I often want to do things right that I see done wrong. Actually, this can get really frustrating when I experience something that has maybe, the smallest seed of quality and I find myself obsessing over how I'd do it, and how I'd make it good. A lot of webcomics... well, they're clearly written by artists who think they can write, rather than writers who think they can draw (the latter, when I have to choose between the two, is the one that I prefer).

The second reason is that I love dialog, I love character development, and I love plots. While I have a good visual imagination and like deciding on the appearances of things, it isn't my favorite thing to do. Frankly, I get stressed out trying to figure out how often to reincorporate so-and-so's appearance, such-and-such's smell, the fact that what's-her-bucket has a pet weasel-hawk.

So basically, writing a webcomic means that I get to do just all the fun stuff and none of the less fun stuff? And also it's serialized, long-running, and full of potential? What's not to love? You'll notice that I don't want to get a job in the comics industry, and that' because I do like writing descriptions. I'd feel incomplete if all I did was plot character arcs and write dialog. But, as a project, as something to do (along with everything else I do) it'd be... glorious.

Despite my rather arrogant and cynical description of the webcomicist's art above, I do read a number of truly wonderful webcomics:

  • Collar6: It's ridiculous, it's absurdly kinky, and the setting seems like an absurd mix of a modern version of Exalted and a bondage fantasy... but I like it. Take from that what you may.
  • Digger: The comic's own tagline says it best: "a wombat, a dead god, a most peculiar epic." I remember wanting to read this one back when it was on a pay site, and how happy I was when it finally went free.
  • Drowtales: I've been meaning to write a longer ode to this comic, which actually has done a great deal to cure my elf rage. Seriously.
  • Girl Genius: Does anyone not read Girl Genius? Really?
  • Keychain of Creation: Like ORder of the Stick, but younger and for Exalted.
  • MythAdventures: The team behind Girl Genius, bringing Robert Aspirin's creation to the screen. Top quality stuff.
  • Order of the Stick: Rich Burlew's gently mocking presentation of a D&D-themed fantasy world is practically required reading for fantasy gamers everywhere. This story manages to oscillate perfectly between humor and drama, with real characters, really developing, in a hillarious and absurd world.

Unfortunately, I have never made the acquaintance of my opposite number - an artist with lots of time on his or her hands, eager to bring my mindchilds to life.

But some day. Someday...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burning Update Experience: Clearing Out the Bullpen

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My browser has a folder labeled "BZE Bullpen." This is where I keep all the links I want to eventually pass on to you. Well, the BZE Bullpen is too damned full, and it's time to pass those links that can be passed on without lengthy comment (that is, an entire post), all at once, so I can finally be free of them.

Here goes nothing.

* * *

Check out this horrifying new bastardization of our art: personalized teen books. Actually, I'm probably being unfair here. I had a book like that when I was younger, and I cherished it for years. I think my dad made it with the printer at home and had it bound somewhere. My imaginary friends were even in it!

I think I was seven at the time.

Enough said.

Oh, I guess if it gets kids reading it's all to the good. I guess.

* * *

Also in the world of vague outrage, if you want to buy anything from Peter S. Beagle do it from here. Apparently some kind of publishing SNAFU means that he isn't getting money from some of his work published through other channels. And besides, authors almost always make more money when they sell their stuff directly, and we all want Mr. Beagle to be rich, don't we?

* * *

In more awesome news, check out this (in no particular order): 

* * *

That just about does it. The BZE Bullpen is now a little slimmer, and everything that doesn't really demand a longer post is cleaned out. Enjoy the links.

And last but not least, I'll be going to the podcaster pub night this Thursday (August 5th) to meet Chris Lester, Abigail Hilton, J. Daniel Sawyer, and Kitty Nic'Iaian. Well, actually just Chris Lester and Abigail Hilton. I mean, I'm going to meat Sawyer and Nic'Iaian, but I've never read their works and don't know them from trolls. That'll probably change after the pub night.

Anyway, you should go, too, to also meet these wonderful people who make podcasts. Not to meet me, though. If anyone there has heard of little old blog-writing me - except Abigail Hilton, whose written a guest post here - I'll probably pass out from shock. The event details are here, on the Metamor City blog.

That's it for now. Burn on.