Saturday, July 16, 2016

My God How I Love Dice

Platonic solids. How they look, how they roll and how they bounce in place like a machine gun bullet is pure rapture.  Of all the polyhedra, the Icosahedron is the sexiest.  The d20 is gaming.  Not those white spotted pieces of crap in a Monopoly set.  Or Yahtzee. Or Backgammon.  Or any other game made for children or old people. D20’s are power incarnate Baby.

During one of my game sessions I asked a player to roll a percent. These days there’s always some confusion as to what die is which. I point.  That one.  Simple.  They roll and get a 10.  Okay.  10. Like the digits one and zero.  What the frak?  I look at the all the d20’s piled on the table and notice they're all marked 1 - 20. Has the real world gone mad?  I felt my chin and found no long beard and I didn’t recall falling asleep under a tree for 20 years. I steady myself on the table.  So here we are.  10.  One-zero. This is so confusing, it’s like when talking about Star Wars, always correcting myself.  No the first one, no, not Attack of the Clones, but the first one made, (counts on fingers and has to think)... Episode IV.  I can’t even remember the friggin number the player was supposed to roll under because that stupid ugly 10 is sitting there on top of the die.  Okay, my brain still kinda works. Redrum. Think man.  If you roll a 10 on a d20/1-20, but what you want is a number from 1 - 100, that means (if you are a gaming dinosaur) you have in fact rolled a 0, which means we don’t know if it’s zero something (01-09%) or zero-zero (100%).  Nobody appreciates the irony of making a percentage roll with a d20/0-9x2 and getting a zero first.  You have to make another roll to find out if what you just attempted is either a colossal success or an epic fail.  It’s so geekily twisted it’s cool. BTW, I think rolling two d10’s is a total buzzkill, ten siders aren’t even perfect solids.  It’s like using Khrushchev’s shoe to hammer a nail.  But now I’m looking at this freaking puss filled ten, this abomination, this Greedo fires first piece of crap… and through all the steam in my eyeballs I just can’t see that this 10 is really a zero.  What focus group inspired mo-ron wrecked the singularly most perfect tool in the RPG universe?  WHO IS THIS PERSON?   Even E.Garry was smart enough to not mess with this sacred thing. 

When I vent to people about this they think I'm crazy.  Actually, I’m not sure what they're really thinking, but they take that half step back, like my skin is rotting off.  Careful, he might still think he’s playing Killer and hiding a loaded banana.  I focus on the twin reflections of me in their eyes.  The perfunctory head nodding only reinforces that they are only waiting for my pointless ranting to end so they can babble on about some lame sports event or I don't even know what, because I have no intention of paying attention.  Whatever. It’s dawning on me that I’m alone on this one. I look online to buy a bunch of d20/0-9x2.  I am definitely NOT thinking that I will break into their homes to swap out the offending die with my own so the game can be played as it was meant to be played.

It turns out I am in fact a dinosaur.  Nobody makes d20/0-9x2’s anymore.  Please remind me while I’m walking to look up from my copy of Grit long enough to avoid the hot bubbling tar pit by my garage. JFC.

More digging online hooks me up with a collector who’s willing to swap solids with me.  I go through my collection and grab the ugliest, nastiest, chipped, cracked, flaked, weeping, misshapen, misregistered, illegible, skankiest looking dice I can find.  Turns out these are the earliest manufactured and thus the most collectible.  Cha-ching!  We exchange emails, I put mine in a box and send them off.  A few days later what I want arrives. Coincidentally, on the same day I also got the new Moto X Pure Edition Smartphone (with real inlaid bamboo).  I took both boxes downstairs and which do you think I opened first?  It drove my wife crazy, too.

Oh my God.  OH MY GOD.  So many beautiful old dice. Some with hard crisp edges that have never been played with (for shame!).  Others worn down from saving throws, bend bars/lift portcullis attempts or random Harlot encounter type generation.  When I first started playing back in the 70’s I had to make my own dice out of paper. Paper doesn’t just “grow on trees”...I had to walk 7 the snow...holding anvils between my toes…to get to the paper store. My mom’s divorce lawyer bought me my first set of plastic polyhedra for Christmas when I was about 15.  (Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make any sense to me either).  A lime green D4, a purple 8 sider, a Ferrari red D12, and a light blue D20.  My little tickets out of my hometown of junked cars filled with cracked mud…. to the land of floating island hexes lorded over by the powerful Roc Hard, who’s coolest trick was to simply raise the taxes on his subjects so he could go up another level.  Rygax who psionically enlarged his arrows in flight to the size of telephone poles.  Xenenon who cut off my best friend's arms and legs in an arena duel broadcast on closed circuit crystal ball (Yes, it was a ticketed event - another XP laundering scheme).  Fansil, the first girl I ever played D&D with.  My dice did all that shit.  As I grew up and moved from place to place practically all the artifacts of my childhood were lost.  Only a few random things survived.  One of my mom's kitchen knives that I held over the stove burner to cut plastic models did.  My original D&D books did not.  They were stolen by some schweinhund during college.  (I mail-ordered the DMG in 1979 and still have vivid memories waiting by my bedroom window like a dog for the mailman to come day after day, week after week, until it finally arrived).  I managed to save all four of my original dice...until  the 8 sider turned up missing one day. Deep down inside this bothered me a lot.  It was proof that the universe DOES NOT CARE about you and when you step in front of the proverbial Mack truck, the only thing people will care about is the gold fillings in your teeth.  But, with this trade I also got a purple d8, an old one, identical to my first.  Things change, maybe the universe cares...  

I am enforcing a new rule at the game table, NO MORE of those lazy ass d20/1-20’s allowed.  Time to make those damn kids suck it up for a change.  Or they can go find another Crypt Lord or hug trees or follow their phones around or whatever.

My apologies, you will learn nothing from reading this.

My God how I love dice.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Change Your Head.

This is more or less an open letter to the creators of Maze of the Blue Medusa.

To Zak Sabbath & Patrick Stuart:  This thing, Maze of the Blue Medusa, which you have created together is stupefying. Assimilation could change your brain.  I think it changed mine.

For a couple of years I have gone back and forth on whether what you were doing was actually good or just artsy trash.  Deep Carbon Observatory was getting rave reviews.  How could something that was so sloppily put together garner such acclaim?  Posts on “Playing D&D with Pornstars” often made me want to smash my chromebook, in spite of the fact that I often agreed with you. What’s your problem?  More importantly, what’s my problem?

I’ll tell you: Ego.  I had written my own RPG and was writing a blog of my own.  Didn’t I deserve some of this acclaim?  Come on, my game was as good as this stuff.  When would the cool kids teach me the secret handshake?

The long and short of it is, I was able to contain my insecurities and better manage my ego.  Just plain owning it helps.  Realizing that I’m not in a competition with you gentlemen works too.  When the Medusa gets acclaim and attention, it raises all boats, right?  

Blue Medusa goes way, way beyond Deep Carbon and Pleasant Land.  

This is not a review, I am still processing Medusa.  Generating a genuine review is no simple task, the subject matter must be methodically picked apart, logically commented on and compared to other like offerings.  It takes more energy than running it. Right now, however, this is not the point.  I feel as someone who is a part of this community and a game designer to acknowledge the importance of this thing.  You should know it, and the rest of us, too. 

As I write this I am only about a half of the way through Blue Medusa.  No small task- even written in the shorthand they have championed it is 368 pages of dense material with many interlocking parts.  Writing a proper review is going to take time.  Instead, while my excitement is still fresh I would like to offer these thoughts:

1) It has a great beginning: Medusa starts immediately with a cool device and NPC interaction.  Right away this sets the tone of the whole thing, which is very important.  What the players do, say and ask all matter.  Nobody's mom is there to read out the plot intro. Why would anyone want to begin by hacking away weeds for 45 turns just to get to the entrance?  OMG, kill me now, please.  

2) Doesn’t have a “Plot Rut”:  Usually module creators build their adventure around a predetermined narrative path.  If all you want is to fill a few hours being marginally entertained, this is the easy way.  Simply drop your wheels in the rut and get pulled along. This method of play is thankfully missing from Medusa.  You’ll have to work a bit to play this one.  (Or run it).

3) Truly Magical: Medusa has a lot of really cool, mysterious magical stuff in it that is not the usual corporate stuff spat out by committee.  A game about imagination that actually is. Imagine that.   

4) The logic is explained: The gametic logic of why things are the way they are is explained.  This is a great help to the DM if they are expected to make informed changes of the module.

5) Give me more toys: One of my pet peeves is that the “powers that be” are so stingy.  It’s like playing 007, but being forced to drive a Pacer.  Aren’t we punished enough in real life? Lighten up and give me some cool toys.  Everyone is afraid of “imbalance” and that the game world will get broken.  You should be so lucky.

6) It’s not static: Things are happening and depending on what you do NPC's, whole areas or even the whole thing can be affected.  The idea that things are changeable either by time or by your actions is powerful.  You can blow it up.  You could blow up.  Or not.

7) Great artwork: The artwork is absolutely correct.  The technically over-executed cookie cutter fantasy illustration you see these days hurts the game experience by defining things too much.  A looser style of artwork allows the participants to fill in the gaps and define things their own way.  Why does everything need to be so defined?  (I’ll tell you, so Disney can own it and make more $$$).

I have been working on my own game.  Things like Medusa allow me to frame the whole RPG design experience differently.  I have been rereading various “classic” game modules, usually it is an arduous experience.  Not so with Medusa.  Each time I’ve come away with a new take on how to make something I am working on better or with a new idea entirely.  A rare thing indeed.

Keep up the good work gentlemen!