Friday, August 29, 2008

Tiny Adventures, Usual Problems

This week I discovered a wonderful little application on Facebook called 'Dungeons and Dragons: Tiny Adventures'. It is the official WotC D&D application where you take the role of one of the eight iconic characters from the new game and, under a stripped down version of the game system, run through a load of adventures, getting loot and marching towards the mythic level 11 when your character is retired. Cool eh? There's almost no skill involved except buying the right equipment and using a potion at the right time. There's no special powers or abilities. Its just a random dice-fest.

Plainly, this is a promotional tool for D&D 4e. I know me and some of the guys from Collective Endeavour had a chat in March about the possibilities of something similar. Facebook has a massive latent geek audience who appear to have no problems outing themselves as fans of some pretty obscure topics, so having a roleplaying promotional app. seems pretty damned obvious.

However, as always, never underestimate the power of the internet to reduce people to their primal idiot. Already the applications forum is being deluged with complaints and whining. The most prevalent is that the app. is not particularly stable. It isn't. WotC blatantly underestimated the depth of geek on Facebook and the way that an app. which procs every 8 minutes or so is a gem in the world of the tabbed browser. There will obviously be a point where the expected conversion rate of people from D&D:TA to purchasing the D&D4e PHB makes any extra expenditure unviable - it is a promotional tool after all.

The next complaint is that it isn't complex enough. "Why can't my cleric heal?","Why can't my wizard blast things?" etc. Could that be because that would cause untold levels of programming complexity that this little side project doesn't need? Its not targetted at old school D&D players. Rather it is targetted at lapsed players or new players, letting them see the new system. It doesn't need to be complex - all it needs to do is get you to pick up a copy of the PHB the next time you are in Borders!

Another complaint is that there are only two female characters in the game. Two of eight. Oh the flame wars! Apparently WotC should offer male and female versions of each character. The fact that the character images are from the iconic art from the books seems to have passed by everyone who is complaining. 'Why does my advert for Sure not have a MAN dousing himself in deodourant?!','Why is the Admiral in Admiral Car Insurance not a woman on 50% of the adverts?!'

The whinges go on and on. The problem, it seems, is that people are mistaking an advert for a game. Thats why you 'retire' at Level 11, the beginning of the Paragon tier in D&D. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a 'Want to continue your adventures? Buy D&D and build your own!' message at the end. As an advert, its fantastic - addictive, tongue-in-cheek and easy to use. As a game, it sucks massive wobbly throbbing monkey balls. As a catalyst for interweb angst and griping, its as good as ... well, anything else!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Shades of Grey

In the past, I have been THAT roleplayer. Every character I played was a goodie-goodie two shoes who always fought on the side of the angels and never once strayed into dodgy territory. Indeed, every game I played in during my youth was very black and white, good vs evil and you knew damned well which side you were fighting ... and lets just say you didn't get the cool uniforms and classic sinister goatees!

Recently a number of the games I have played in and ran have deviated from this sort of game massively. The playtest of Hot War I ran essentially had three neo-facists dispensing justice to a terrified community. Cold City was a hot bed of potential nastiness and indeed, the one surviving character ended up being possessed by the spirit of Adolf Hitler. None of the characters appeared to be particularly nice people to me. Even Pendragon - that bastion of honour and chivalry - was tainted with some inter-character assassination attempts, a virtual cuckolding, the massacre of innocents, a bloody vendetta that wiped out an entire tribe and more random violence than you could shake a stick at.

And of course, the crowning glory of this is our current D&D 4e campaign where (most of us) are about as 'shades of grey' as you can get. My character is a paladin, but bless this new system in that it has removed that stupid 'lawful good' restriction. He is an absolute single-minded weapon of mass destruction. Born as a slave, raised by tieflings, used as a handservant, sex toy and bodyguard until he was freed, he is a scarred and wounded psyche in a brutal world. Our campaign is very Conan-esque sword and sorcery with demons, sacrifices, slave girls, deserts and all the trappings of a nasty nasty world. Its fucking fantastic!

We're all thirty-something gamers and I think its fair to say that at our age you have been brought up in gaming in one of two schools; you either thrived on the carnage of unabashed intra-player conflict or you were taught that this is BadWrongFun and should never happen. I am certainly of the second school and I still think that the random PC-killing I saw in my youth is totally counterproductive. However intra-character conflict is absolutely essential and indeed drives some of the most memorable parts of our games. These conflicts absolutely do not have to come to physical conflict but they can and should strain the relationships between the characters.

Even if we look back at the relationships between the characters in the classic RPG 'bible' - Lord of the Rings - we see conflict between everyone and Boromir, Gimli and Legolas (which is obviously resolved!), Frodo and the Fellowship etc. Star Wars? Luke and Han? Leia and Han? Han and Londo? C3P0 and R2D2? Even Luke and Yoda are at each others throats at times. Star Trek? Spock and McCoy? Worf and Pickard at times?

Of course, the real trick is that the driving force behind 'shades of grey' characters is a far more complex set of drivers than 'do good' (or indeed 'do evil'). The characters are more complex, less predictable and generally more intriguing. You can never quite be sure whats going to happen. Thats a good thing. It keeps you thinking at the table rather than simply falling into tried and tested character reactions.

I like Shades of Grey. Indeed, I wonder whether I could really go back to the White Hat role again and have the same level of impact? Who knows!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An Englishman's Hole is his Castle

As an upshot of the Great Extension Erection 2008, I have managed to get myself a study/office/hole. Its been the first time since I left home for University that I have been able to have a place that is wholly my own. Its great. It is a total refuge from the madness of the world. Somewhere I can just go to and relax, be quiet and think. So, here it is!

As you see, I am not the only denizen of the hole. It would appear that Sam, our cat - as opposed to the streets cats who have adopted us, appears to have found a new place to sit. OK, so its on my desk and he is in the way, but its the first time in ages he has even come close to me in a non-food related context, so thats cool!

I have moved all of my books and graphic novels into the room and for the first time ever I have thrown some books out. Not a huge number - maybe two crates of stuff like chaff SF and new-age stuff that I was into when I was at Uni, but it was a watershed. My roleplaying games have suffered a purge too and the remaining ones will be making an appearance in here soon. This really is the underpinning of my room and its very gratifying to see.

Of course those aren't my ONLY books - there's also my burgeoning Duty & Honour reference library, which is shelved to the left of my desk. The desk was a bargain £20 from a local second hand shop, and the chair was £10. My one tip-of-the-hat to being a teenager at heart is my full wall Sin City poster featuring Jessica Alba. This is now my little nerve centre. If I get a phone on it, I may not have to move...ever.

One of the unrealised upshots of this is that I can now have sound on my PC without having to concern myself with anyone else. And that sound can be quite high apparently. Thats a new one for me and eventually when I get back to the world of MMOs, it will be cool to have sound again.

The piece de resistance however is my lovely worn two-seater leather-ette sofa. Its wonderful. I can happily sit there and sleep, read, relax, chat - its fantastic. And as a final touch, just out of camera shot is the ubiqitous little fridge for snacks and Pepsi.

All-in-all, the furniture in the room cost around £100 (with the shelving being scavenged from the living room) and it was so well worth it. Now, of course, this gives me the perfect creative environment, so no excuses now for things not happening!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Don't Watch with the Zohan

I'm a big Adam Sandler fan. Not a 'oh theres a new Adam Sandler film, I must see it now!' fan, more a 'Oh look, there's another repeat of 'Happy Gilmore' on Sky One ... thats a pleasant and assuredly pleasing way to pass an evening.' sort of fan. So, when Hellboy II was sold out this afternoon (!) we plumbed to watch 'Don't Mess With the Zohan' instead. It looked like it could be a good laugh. In some ways, it was, but in others it was a horribly painful awkward viewing experience.

The plot, if you haven't seen the trailer, is that Adam Sandler is 'The Zohan' - a legendary Israeli counter-terrorist who is tired of war and wants to move to the US and become a hair stylist. He does this, falls in love, has sex with lots of old women and then his past catches up with him and he is revealed! There are some other 'subplots' but really, thats not the point of the film - or indeed, this post.

As you would expect from most of these US Laugh Pack films, it is PACKED with cameo appearances - Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Mariah Carey, John McEnroe, Kevin James, John Turturro, George Takei, Henry Winkler and (for the pro-wrestling geeks out there) Michael Buffer amongst others. Its quite funny seeing them pop up and wondering how the hell they got involved with this ... thing.

The problem is two fold. The first is that this film is a massive pisstake of the Arab-Israeli conflict wrapped up on some of the bluntest and least sensitive satire about the character of both sides of said conflict you could possibly get away with. Indeed, I think it is the almost absurd levels of satire (like Israeli's brushing their teeth with hummus, all jewish men working in electronics stores and the really near-the-knuckle 'Hezzbullah Hotline' segments) that allow it to carry on without being too much. That said, the fact that the incredibly hot woman in the salon where the Zohan finally gets work falls for him, despite the fact that he has shagging the octigenarian clientele in the back room (and she condones it) just beggars belief.

The second problem is that a LOT of the jokes are verbal ones spoken in what I assume is Yiddish (I'll be honest here, I have no idea!). You can sort of infer what is meant but half the time people were just laughing uncomfortably because they sort of assumed that what was said was supposed to be funny. It was like painful real life canned laughter.

And that was the real problem. As I had to explain to an American that stumbled onto my messageboards a couple of years ago and decided to brand every other person an Anti-Semite, in the UK we just do not make jokes about Jewish people. At all. Its just not done. Now I can recognise that a large number of the actors in this film are Jewish and they were being rather self-depricating. I can also see that this was a very blunt edged swipe at the Israeli man stereotypes but it was as if people felt that they weren't allowed to laugh. As if they would be told off if they laughed. It was exceptionally uncomfortable.

My laugh-out-loud hooting and wailing probably didn't help. No doubt I will be being visited by the police any time now...

'Don't Mess With the Zohan' is not a good film. It has to go to levels of intense absurdity to be able to frame the subject matter in a way that is even palatable. I would recommend seeing it when it comes out on SKY, just to experience it.

Oh, and it was a 12A apparently. *shakes head*

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Post GenCon Blues

I remember the first time after four years that I didn't go to Wrestlemania/Raw Deal World Championships. On the day of the event, I was like a bear with a sore head. Intellectually I knew that (a) the free trips had to end sometimes and (b) I had chosen to end them, but it still really got under my skin that something that I thought was so cool and I had been such a part of for such a long time was happening without me.

I had similar feelings this weekend. This year will be the first year since 2002 that I have not gone to the USA. I know that sounds amazingly indulgent, and indeed it is, but the trips have been a real highlight for me and have acted as a watershed for me to sort my head on so many things. Moreover, being someone with a very broad and active online social circle, they have also been a chance to catch up with my friends. This year would have been particularly poignant as it would have been the first chance to see some people since the death of our mutual friend, Barron. He was a big part of GenCon - in more ways than one - and he would have been sorely missed.

I promised myself last year that I would NOT get it into my head that I could attend GenCon every year. The commitment of £1000 every year just for me to go on my jollies would be simply unfair on Christine and the girls. Indeed, finding myself currently 'between jobs', if I had commited to going I would have almost certainly have had to cancel. That still doesn't stop me being jealous as hell of the people that could go.

For a while now I have also been having a thought about how things like this will progress. The airfares to Indianapolis have risen by £100 since last year and given 'the current climate' I can only see them getting higher. You never know, give it a couple of years and we might have caps on our international air travel! I guess things will look a lot more achieveable if I was, you know, working but even then I can see another trip being an expedition too far.

So yeah, post GenCon blues and I never even went!

Lies, Damned Lies and (Olympic) Statistics

Just a little observation.

Every medal table I have ever seen in all my time following sport has been ranked with the number of golds being the primary ranking factor, with silvers and bronzes deciding ties. I checked some news site - British, German, Australian, Canadian - they all use the same system. I checked the official Olympics site - that uses that system too.

However, CNN (via Sports Illustrated) doesn't. It ranks the teams by aggregate medal count i.e. all of the medals added together with no weight given to golds or silvers. And guess what? That just sneaks the USA ahead of China in the medal table.

I had to laugh.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When is a MMO not a MMO?

When it's D&D4e!

OK, I'm being very specific here but 4e is raising very MMO-ish feelings in me.

1. There is a level of 'must play again'-ness rising in my mind. I want to see what happens next, not only in the game but also in the statistical development of the character.Optimising the choices that I make with each level is becoming an intricate process. Feats, Powers, Stats, Skills - its all very relevant and very enthralling for me on a certain level.

2. Builds! I've been running through different builds in my head and on paper and I have began to see different routes that a character could take. I realise now I have made a fundamental mistake with Morn, making his primary stat STR when it should have been CHA. However there are some great synergistic (is that even a word?) combinations of powers coming in the future. Its a lot of fun.

3. ALTS! Gah! One of the things that I have realised over the years is that we tend to play a game once. We rarely return to something we have already played. So this could be it for D&D4e! I only get to play a Paladin. But what about the Warlock? What about the Halfling 2H Weapon Ranger? What about the Eladrin Fighter? I want to make alts! I want to try new stuff out. Its almost tempting to seek a second group to try it out. (Tempting but inevitably flawed and deadly)

I can feel my MMO-senses tingling with 4e. The same feelings, the same thrill on levelling, the same development of powers and the same yearning to explore things from a different angle. Very clever.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The City of Kings Pt2 - Onion Skins...

...rather than banana skins. Congratulations to GM Andrew for getting over the difficult second session with consumate ease. I'm not going to go into the body of the game in detail as you can read it on his blog, rather I'll look at some interesting aspects of the game itself.

1. Invisible Skill Challenges.
In the previous session we had been introduced to the 'Win 3 before you lose 3' skill challenge technique. It was very explicit. This time the skills challenges melted beneath the narrative and no mention was made of them specifically. This made for a far less mechanical game and was, I think, better. As players I think it is imperative upon us to maximise our bonuses for skills. When I challenged the Captain of the Grub's Guard I could easily have used my Insight (+8) to size him up first and claim my +2 bonus. I didn't. We're still learning.

2. Oodles of Roleplaying
Thats more like it. Every character now has a voice in the game. The duplicitous tiefling hating Artemis, the blunt instrument of Morn, the cultured ambassador Assamber and the quite alien and pious Azhanti. Very good. I loved the interactions between the characters and the very 'shades of grey' that (mostly) they inhabit. There can only be trouble ahead between Morn and Artemis and thats going to take a little thinking about to stop it resulting in one of us being dead or dying!

3. A City ALIVE, I tell you, ALIVE!
My hat comes off to Andrew for his sheer verbosity and excellence in narration. He never stumbles over his words and never has less than an excellent description of that is going on. He covers all the senses and gives a real spark of life to the setting. The City of Kings lived yesterday. A broken guardtower in the spice district of the market, the derelict sea walls made poor by the Sundering, the deathly march of the Giant's Cradle, the chaos of the Night of Madness, the decadence of Jabb.... The Grub's Lair. It was all excellent.

4. However, too much too quick.
If I had one criticism it would be that the pacing of the nights adventures was too fast. We had individual issues which lead to doing a job for the rebellion which lead to doing a job for the Grub which lead to doing one of two jobs for the Cabal whilst still doing a job for Kyia and whatever else we had left over from our personal stuff. We saw the docks, the Night of Madness, the tieflings, the Cabal, the Rebellion, the Giants Cradle, The Grubs Palace ... it was all a bit of a blur. I missed the Quest sheet from the previous session as they gave these interactions a bit more solidity. I understand that the game needs to settle into a pace of its own and that will mean that the characters need to be established but it was just all quite difficult to take in. Or maybe thats my age!

5. Levelling without Scope
There is one more issue that I would highlight and that is the consequences of the storyline levelling that we are doing. We are aiming for one level per session (or set of adventures) which will see us through the game from 1-30 within say 18 months. One of the issues with this is that the characters are gaining 'power' at a pace. This means that a monster that last week would have caused us problems was now a reasonable inconvenience. The GM has recognised this and has signalled that he intends to 'ramp up the opposition'. This is cool but it doesn't allow us to wallow for very long in our new power level. This means that we have no real handle on how tough we are and we have to trust the GM that the things presented before us are beatable. Next session we have been contracted to either (a) kill the Cabal's Big Chief Bountyhunter Woman or (b) kill her boss. I have no idea whether this is achievable or suicide, because I have no real idea of our capabilities. A little consolidation, occassionally, might be in order?

Regardless, this was an excellent game and created some excellent interactions at the table. Looking forward to the next session a lot - oh, and I got my legendary item as well - the Uber Hammer of Knocking Over!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Thanks Gary Rhodes!

Being a man of leisure for the last few weeks, I have been able to watch 'Rhodes Across China' this week. Its been good - more accessible than Rhodes Across India and probably more interesting as well. Anyway, after watching it a couple of times they made some dim sum. I love dim sum but, despite my quite decent culinary skills, it has always been something that I reckoned only experts could make. No. I just made some prawn and chicken steamed dumplings with a nice rich dipping sauce. And know what? They were bloody lovely. Thanks Gary!