27 March 2009
I have been engaged in a thorough test of the RPG Mouse Guard, and I can say with 100% certainty that it is scientifically awesome. This is the work of Luke Crane, David Petersen, and a whole case of intrepid researchers (of the small, furry, large-eared kind and otherwise). Not only is it a beautifully-illustrated hardback in a unique size of binding, it also consists of the same elements that made Burning Wheel and Burning Empires so very intriguing, rendered down to the bare essentials. (As an aside, I am sort of disappointed that the "Burning X" conceit was not followed with Mouse Guard – though I admit that "Burning Mice" sounds like a Roman snack food.)
In other news, I've broken 70,000 words on the pet project. A select few coconspirators are reading this roughest of rough drafts, and if they don't pan it completely I shall be grateful, and perhaps relate a few of their wittier comments here. In the meantime, let us just say this: the plot has thickened.
Other writing has occurred as well. For example, here is an excerpt of a four-season cycle of stories I am writing partly for myself, partly as an homage to central Pennsylvania, and partly as a wingeing, cringeing example of fan-fiction. Yes, there are faeries. No, there are no wings.
A Piece of Winter Ice
So read and enjoy – it's short and it's free. A cookie for you* if you can guess which game line is being shamefully aped!
And speaking of short, that's it for this lab report. I have too much tidying to do, and too many experiments to reset, to spend all evening tapping away. But return I shall, dear reader! For Great Justice!
*Offer of cookie only good in locations immediately proximate to Dr. Madu.
26 October 2008
Permit me to take this opportunity to winge about Exalted. This is not without purpose! I winge, dear reader, for Great Justice, and because it is a lead-in to today's commentary/rant.
I may have said (and if I have, I do beg your forgiveness) that Exalted was (and is) one of the best games out there. The sprawling, go-anywhere setting, the East-meets-West fusion, the juicy Campbellian archetypes of the titanomachia, of empires gone wrong...
But the system, frankly, sucks. And with the recent second edition, hard as it may be to believe, the system sucks worse. I know – I too thought new editions were made for the purposes of de-sucking an established work. The corebook is clean, I'll grant you that: but the surfeit of oddness (ranging from cut/paste errors in Charm structure) to what, to an outsider, resembles peenar-waving "LOLZ mah Xalts beter than urs" style power-creep makes the many sourcebooks a) bad investments and b) physically painful to read. The exception is the second edition Lunars book: you may take your old Lunars book and line birdcages with it, and it will probably be of slightly greater use.
So what to do about all this system-suckery? My hypothesis is this: if you take a great system (with a tightly-written yet somewhat run-of-the-mill setting) and inoculate it with a superb setting (where the system is, for my purposes, irretrievably broken) awesomeness will precipitate out on to the gaming table. Thus, "Creation is Burning," which will either imminentize the Eschaton or cause said awesomeness to crystallize out of solution, drifting down like manna to obscure our character sheets.
To that end, permit me to introduce Dr. Odie, to whom all credit is due for his command of Burning Wheel and Exalted: and whose laser-sharp focus and insights of crystalline precision drive the few and blurry thoughts I have about this system-conversion experiment. A draft of Creation is Burning made its way to him, and he responded with a thoughtful critique some several hundred words longer than the original document.
Rather than pour innumerable hours into an attempt to fix each Charm and balance it against the others through a thorough conversion -- an attempt which I suspect would be doomed to futility before it began -- my answer is to devise a system whereby one can reproduce the awesome might of the Exalted without bogging the (already very complex) Burning Wheel rules down with a 400-page book for each Exalt type. Obviously, creating such an approximation involves a certain degree of subjectivity; just as two games of Exalted from two different groups will almost certainly vary wildly on their scope and power level (Essence-5 Solars vs. Dragon Kings in Rathess), asking two different gaming groups "what makes Exalted, Exalted?" will yield vastly different responses. I disagree with the groups who use Wushu or similarly light rules for their Exalted conversions, leaving most if not all variations of Charm and technique to flavor text or simple narration; I desire my games to have more mechanical weight than mere ephemera. Yet it also seems that a Charm-to-Charm, 1:1 conversion of every mechanic in Exalted misses the point as well. If that were our intent, why not simply revise the Exalted rule and Charm set to a more balanced and pleasing version, and perhaps port over the BITs from Burning Wheel -- in effect, a conversion not of Exalted to Burning Wheel, but vice versa? While you're free to undertake such a Herculean task yourself, my interest lies in finding the middle ground between those two extremes.
An incredibly salient point: I admit to the geeky adrenaline-rush instinctive "convert every Exalted charm to Burning Wheel" initial effort, but the good Dr. Odie's near-Socratic dialogue put the brakes on that.
With Burning Wheel's strong focus on Beliefs and Instincts as player priorities, I really don't know that Exalted's Virtues are required. One Belief and Instinct devoted to each would surely be enough; if you want a Compassionate character, a Belief (that, as a bonus, ties into the story at hand!) and an Instinct like "Always help the helpless" would be more than enough to get you in trouble. Limit Break, though. Not sure how we'd want to do that. Not sure at all, actually. An obvious one is that every time you don't follow an Instinct (or maybe a Belief, as well), you rack up points toward Limit, but what does a Limit Break entail? This bears further pondering.
The jury is still out on that. I must say, though, that after having read the Magic Burner I am sold on using Practical Magic as the basis for Excellencies in CiB, per Dr. Odie's suggestion:
Having had the time to go over the Magic Burner, I note that there's a magic system called "Practical Magic" wherein magic is common and low-key; rather than mighty wizards knowing the spells to end all life, everybody knows a little bit. All doctors know charms to knit bones together and encourage flesh to mend, lawyers and magistrates know minor geas spells, et cetera. The result is that the Sorcery skill becomes highly available, with the caveat that you must purchase (or learn in-game) the ability to use it separately for each skill category. Swap "Sorcery" for "Charms" and you have exactly how I proposed we divide Charm use up (that is, along the broader skill categories). Therefore, I'm inclined to run with that as our base for Charms. First Martial Excellency, Third Social Excellency, Second Crafting Excellency, and so on.
An emphasis of the Exalted game as published is that the character's Virtues (to wit: Valor, Compassion, Conviction, and Temperance) carry an ancient curse, laid down at the close of the titanomachia, when the gods and their Exalted comrades sealed the surviving Primordials in a prison of their own flesh and oaths. The thrust of the curse was that these virtues would incur wicked, foolish, arrogant behavior – that they would carry the Exalts to ill ends through a sort of reductio ad absurdum process. An incredibly Valorous Exalt would be driven to greater and greater deeds of might, challenging mythic beasts, fellow Exalts, and perhaps even the gods in a quest for a worthy opponent. A supernally Compassionate Exalt might choose to euthanize an entire nation to ease their pain, or be driven to destroy death. Yes, Exalted thinks big. The next (or a next, anyway) task is to see where these Virtues fit into CiB. The good Dr. Odie says:
Certainly what will most strongly determine the preferred route for Virtues is what we want to happen for (or in lieu of) Limit Break. If you want to pursue the idea of Virtue imbalance causing trouble, then it makes sense to track each Virtue as its own attribute. If you are more concerned with Limit as originally conceived -- a track that builds up and builds up and then blows up, taking your character's sanity with it -- it makes more sense to focus on tracking Limit, and increment the counter whenever players betray character Beliefs or suppress Instincts. I'm not sure where I think the best course lies. I do know that Burning Wheel very rarely takes character control away from the player totally, and so I'm hesitant to ascribe any compulsions in either form (via Limit Break or through Virtue imbalance). I really like your Virtue die trait idea, though.
With allies such as this in my quest for gaming greatness, how can I fail?
10 October 2008
...on with the blather!
As you may have guessed, I am a young man with warm feelings for SCIENCE (It works, bitches!) and am therefore partial to things science-tific. The flipside to this is that entertainments meant to be sciencelike, such as pretty much all science fiction, had better hew pretty fucking close to the grain if they want me to keep reading/watching/caring. Bad science = me walking away, though some efforts get a pass. The Fifth Element, for example, has terrible science. But it's a parody, so I can accept transluminal airline service and a series of closely-spaced beepy-beacons marking the edge of human interstellar territory as just part of the story. But take a serious SF flick (or one that tries to be serious) such as... oh, The Day After Tomorrow. Now I don't know much – I'm just an unfrozen caveman lawyer, not a climatologist. But if you're going to posit an ice age that happens so fast it freezes fuel lines in helicopters in midflight you had better just skip the pseudoscience bullshit and call it magic.
This attitude is more or less suspended when it comes to roleplaying games, mostly because a) I am inured to the terrible science or b) if you try and fight it the story falls apart. Like in the old Palladium Robotech game, where Veritechs ran on what was essentially alien life-force, in space and atmosphere alike, without consideration of reaction mass or fuel. Take protoculture away, and you start having to justify tankage, and range, and operational loadout, and then you may as well be playing Mekton Zeta +.
All this is a roundabout way of saying I liked Firefly, a lot, and I even enjoyed Serenity. (Though Mal Reynolds is a lot more engaging when he's a wiseass, and not a very sympathetic character when he's being a dick. There were a couple occasions when I sincerely hoped Mal would end up as a Reaver hood ornament.) Both of these entertainments had terrible science, and Joss Whedon himself admits that the "science" portion of "science fiction" didn't interest him. In the show, and in the flick, the bad science is more-or-less forgivable – mainly because they don't try to explain it. People can walk around normal-like in a spaceship under weigh, with nary a mention of spin, gravity emulators, or giant magnet sandals. Unfortunately, in the context of a roleplaying game, you sort of have to talk about these things, because if you don't some bespectacled twit is going to work out the math and prove that the Ringworld is unstable – there goes your science cred. So better just to toss some technobabble in there, and hope most readers get glassy-eyed, and move on the swedgin' part.
I knew that the Serenity roleplaying game was not going to be Blue Planet, say, or even CP2020, when I bought it. Really, my biggest complaint is not the total lack of coherence even in the crap pseudoscience – it's the fact that the entire book is written in Firefly dialect. Which, if you've never experienced it (and if you haven't, how the hell did you get in here?) is folksy para-cowboy patter with the odd Mandarin expletive thrown in. This, to me, is akin to writing the entire D&D player's guide like this: "If thou then savest 'gainst the rod, O Fortunate one, thou takest but half damage." "When thou smitest the goblin with thine shortsword, thou inflictest 1d6 damage: but shouldst thou find thyself fighting a giant, lo! take thee care, for thou doth but 1d4, as yon giant is of Large stature." Dialect is great for the flavortext! But keep the rules crisp and clear and concise.
Here. I'll give you an example for free – my 3-page addendum to the ship creation rules. Never one to leave well enough alone, I offer up this PDF so you too can put it on your blog and excoriate my writing style, design ethic, and leitmotif. Needless to say, Serenity and its attendant intellectual properties are copyright of Universal Pictures (may their multiclass ninja/lawyer/accountants never sully my lab), and the Quirks ruleset is in no way intended to infringe upon that.
Ugh, legalese – it leaves such a bitter taste in my mouth. I believe I shall wash it out with a beer. Salut!
– Dr. Madu
PS Not that short after all. If I could only apply this ethic to Deathmagus....
PPS ARGH! A God-damned typo. I'll have to fix it some other day. Unless I rule that "condictive" ceramic fittings are some kind of nanotechnological thing. Or maybe they're made of smart matter. Smart ass matter.
PPS Aaaand somewhere along the line FileAve went kaput. I'll host the PDF somewhere else. After I correct some typos!
04 October 2008
OMGZORZ DOES SHE EXALT?
Jina Liao knew she was in trouble when the Dragon somewhere in the wreckage behind her began to chuckle. The speaker of of his black-jade armored suit stripped all evidence of humanity from the noise – just a mechanical, grating ‘heh-heh-heh,’ amplified to a volume that shook dust from the leaning concrete pillars of the ancient garage.
Jina was the leader of a ratgang. That was the Dragons’ name for people who refused their offer of safety and security, the so-called “survivor civilization.” The Dragons made deals with spirits of electricity and information, and set themselves up as neofeudal lords in the City’s ruin. The Dragon chasing her now was Cathak Hrond – a sadistic enforcer-prince for the Cathak family.
He was hunting, a pastime for many bored and cruel Dragons. With their Essence-optics they’d pick out a likely ratganger, either kill his companions or drive them off, and then chase him through the underbelly of the City. Typically the pursuit was incredibly one-sided, the ratganger armed with a length of pipe, a shiv, her wits, and a zipgun; the Dragon armed with a Essence-fueled coilgun or flamethrower, and clad in powered jade-alloy armor, guided by spirit-AIs and navigation software.
But Jina was a quarry of a different kind. She ran a ratgang, which made her a force to be reckoned with. She knew the alleys and rooftops of Sector 81 like she knew her own breath and heartbeat. When the Cathak gave chase, lighting her path with blasts from a heavy beam cannon, she nearly lost him in the Railyard Jungle. She swam the length of the Scumpond underwater, hoping to confuse his Essence-sensors. She leapt from balcony to balcony at the Old Hotel, crossing three-meter gaps twenty stories up, to no avail. He hounded her relentlessly, dogging her steps, taunting her through the helmet speaker. “Run, girlie, run! It’s more fun that way!”
She was sure she had him caught at the Pillar Farm. Once there had been some kind of enormous skeletal concrete structure – a skytower, an airpark, maybe a powerbeam station. But at some point in the City’s past – after the Fall, presumably – the tower had overbalanced and come crashing down, leaving a tangled mass of twisted rebar, pillar-stumps, and pulverized concrete. It was a deathtrap, and ratgangs throughout 81 lost kids and scouts there, two or three a season. Jina figured if there was anywhere in Sector 81 that an armored Dragon could be crushed to a paste, the Pillar Farm was the place.
She was mistaken.
Her cable-tripwire was flawless, placed at the bottom of a looming snarl of snapped-off columns. It looked stable, but when the tripwire went ten tons of debris would roll down in a gathering avalanche. Hrond was following the heat-prints her bare feet left on the gritty pavement – and when he blundered into the cable, invisible at ambient temperature, the grinding roar of tumbling concrete sent Jina into a brief euphoria.
That changed when the first column rose from the pile, supported by a gleaming black jade arm. Hrond gave the shattered concrete pillar a contemptuous power-assisted shove and stood, the servos in his legs yowling as a load of debris spilled from the powersuit’s shoulder plates. “Nice try,” grated the speaker, and the beam cannon came up as Jina turned and ran. A blue-white flash of light accompanied a hisssCRACK as concrete exploded in white sparking tracers of burning lime – and Jina was off, sprinting for cover. Hrond thumbed the beam output toggle to “constant” and twisted the collimator-choke down to a pinhole as he tracked the fleeing ratganger by her heat signature. With a cold smile, the Cathak leveled the beamrifle and watched as the targeting AI settled the crosshairs on the girl’s back. Inhale… exhale… aim… squeeze— the beamrifle spat a searing thread of energy that should have sliced the girl into smoking slabs. But when the Cathak’s flash-compensating filter cleared his visor, all he saw was a red-hot worm-track scribbled across a teetering concrete wall, his missed target written large. No corpse, no girl. With an amplified growl, he kicked his way out of the tangled pillars and stomped up to where the girl had been. A pit yawned at his feet. “Suit, enhance to normal light,” ordered the Water-dragon, and the power armor’s spirit obliged by amplifying the dim and grey ambient to a level like that of a bright day. Colors were washed out into pale suggestions, and the image was grainy and restless – but clearly the girl had stepped on a weak spot and fallen through.
Hrond scowled at the thought of his hunt being cut short. “Suit! Audio enhance,” he commanded, and leaned down at the edge of the gap. As he listened, he gave the hole a brief visual inspection. A maintenance hatch, perhaps; the tags of rusted hinges jutted from the edge. One was beaded with fresh blood. Interesting. A tentative scuffle came through Hrond’s helmet speakers, analyzed and noise-filtered, and unmistakably a footfall. With a tiger’s grin the Cathak stepped back, adjusting the beam rifle’s output to “burst” and the collimator to “wide-angle:” then he lowered the business end of his weapon into the gap, leaned away, and pulled the trigger. WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM! The Essence-driven weapon loosed five blasts, each with the force of a grenade in the enclosed space, before a telltale winked in Hrond’s visor. The weapon was spent.
Jina hardly had time to recognize her good fortune as the rusted hatch gave way beneath her feet. She fell, fetching up against a jagged spur of metal with a stifled cry as the air burned above her. Despite the pain, instinct bent Jina’s knees to accept the shock of landing, and when her feet hit concrete after a surprisingly long fall, she rolled with it and ended up sprawled at the base of a wall. Her head rang with the impact, and the darkness was near-absolute. She wasted a few precious seconds trying to decide if she was dead, alive, injured, stunned – the dim grey square of light above her was suddenly occluded, and ratgang instinct threw her into silent, scuttling motion. Her hands were thrust out, one high and one low, to detect or deflect obstacles. She struck something cold, smooth and unyielding: a metal door set into the wall. Her fingers brushed a box bulging from the doorframe: at her touch it lit dimly with golden numerals. Some mad impulse seized her then, and as Hrond lowered his weapon into the darkness, barrel glowing with its priming charge, Jina tapped 5 random numbers into the pad. No one was more surprised than she when the door slid silently open. Not one to question great fortune, she dived though just as the chamber behind her exploded with Essence-fire.
Yes, she does. When I have that bit o' fluff written it will probably go up here as well.
In the meantime, I offer the following sage advice to all dwellers in the City of Darkness:
Stay alert! Trust no one! And keep your
– Dr. Madu
26 September 2008
I read about how other people write – what wannabe writer doesn't? Gordon R. Dickson recommended you sit down and just write. Write anything, even if it's crap, even if you're writing your name over and over again, and sooner or later you'll get tired of writing crap and either a) write something good or b) quit writing. Gene Wolfe, that son-of-a-bitch*, sits down in the morning and writes for two hours, knocking out a Hugo or three. And that's all he does. Steven Brust apparently maintains a normal lifestyle (involving blogging, email, and computer games) and somehow mystically written works appear. My guess is while he's asleep a demon possesses him, cooks up a big meal, eats it with gusto, and then writes like... well, like a demon. His advice boils down to "Write a cool sentence. Then write a cool sentence connected to that one." Lather, rinse, repeat.
The method that works for me, which works for me insofar as it works at all, is probably most similar to the Brustian model: I get a vignette in my head, a scene where Milesos dispatches his mortally wounded father-in-law after some snarky dialogue. I write it. Then I get another scene, where Milesos and company get ambushed by a pack of Dire-folk. I write it. In the meantime, there's this huge chrono-literary gulf between the two events, and that's where my scattershot method feels like it's breaking down. The capturing and the father-in-law-killing are critical points in the book, sure: but there are doubtless other critical points in between. I just haven't thought of them yet.
They also say you should read, and read widely (Who are 'they'? You know, 'them.' 'Those people.' 'Those people with their name on books on shelves in my library.' 'Writers.'). Most recently I have been hip-deep in Anathem, which is a Neal Stephenson book that snuck up on me in the dark and hit me over the head with a Burmese whack-bonk. I won't bore you with a review, but I will say this: it was written by a man in love with language. I probably only catch 15% of the verbo-linguistic cleverness that goes on in Anathem, but that's enough to keep me smirkingly thoroughly engrossed.
Neal also says "Just keep writing." So I shall go do just that.
After I read a few more pages of Anathem. It's research! No, really...
– Dr. Madu
*Said with the deepest respect and appreciation for Mr. Wolfe's craftsmanship.
17 September 2008
Burning Empires blows my mind.
And frankly, that's impressive, because I have a lot of mind – and it does not, dear reader, blow easily. By all means, go over to their lab and poke around. Thor Olavsrud's series of articles detailing the evolution of Burning Empires from over-dinner hobnobbery to glossy, bricklike printed product is a real insight to those of us who aspire to someday publish similar efforts of our own. Faith Conquers and Sheva's War are on their way to me as I type — and I must say, I look forward to those comics as I have not looked forward to a comic since the halcyon days when I had an Appleseed subscription.
Eagerly awaiting –
PS "Karsan League Tequila: This Time, The Worm Eats You."