Monday, March 30, 2015

Agents of A.G.E.N.T.S.

When I've got a big thing to do, it helps me to do a completely useless small thing.

I'm changing my job, employer, and city in the next few weeks. After the longest stable period of my life, I should add. Lots of big things to do. Naturally, this seemed like a good time to make a Random Agent Generator for some kind of spy-supernatural-superscience RPG. Which, in turn, led me to brainstorming some basic fixes to Hero. The relentless pull of All The Big Things will probably turn that brainstorm into brain-reality soon enough.

These are the bones of the agent generator. I've gone ahead and worked it out in enough detail to make 100-point Hero System characters, which may be posted some other day. Everything is rolled on a d12; you make 5 rolls total.

  • 1 - 4 = Research
  • 5 - 8 = Fieldwork
  • 9 - 12 = Confrontation
  • 1 - 2 = Military
  • 3 - 4 = Public Safety
  • 5 - 6 = Intrigue
  • 7 - 8 = Deep Scholarship
  •      9 = Action Science
  •     10 = Monster Hunting
  •     11 = Crime
  •     12 = Something Boring
  • 1 - 2 = Barehanded
  •      3 = Melee Weapons
  • 4 - 6 = Sneaky Guns
  • 7 - 8 = Scary Guns
  •      9 = Weird Weapons
  •    10 = Powers
  • 11 - 12 = Creative Non-Linear Problem Solving
  • 1 - 2 = Sneaking
  • 3 - 4 = Talking
  • 5 - 6 = Cunning and Trickery
  • 7 - 8 =  Big Ideas
  • 9 - 10 = Dumb Luck
  •       11 = Powers
  •       12 = Violence Is Really All I've Got
  • 1 - 2 = Normal Science
  • 3 - 4 = Human Studies
  • 5 - 6 = Physical Training
  •      7 = Weird Science
  •      8 = The Supernatural
  •      9 = Tinkering and Gadgets
  •     10 = Forgotten Things
  •     11 = Politics, Power, and Money
  •     12 = Living To See Tomorrow

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thus begins my feud with David Cross

I've been trying to write about Mr. Show, and it's not working.

I tried a long narrative that tied a bunch of concepts together before reaching a conclusion. I tried a short, punchy summation. There was even a footnote at one point. I've been grappling with Mr. Show, and my reactions to it, since I first saw it a couple months ago. I came to that party 20 years late and with very high hopes.

Mr. Show disappointed me and pissed me off.

There probably isn't much point explaining Mr. Show if you haven't watched it yourself -- sketch comedy, 1990s HBO, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, you can use Wikipedia and Google. A lot of it is available online; this is a pretty representative sample if you're curious. It's a critical darling, a hotbed of alt-comedy, the breeding ground for many of today's influential creators.

It's kind of dumb and predictable.

Lots of things piss me off, but I have a special place in my anti-heart for smart people who choose to make stupid stuff. There's not enough smart stuff in the world as it is. Turning your back on being smart so that you can have the vile smarmy Jack Black prancing around in a sketch about someone sticking his penis in an automated milking machine? Not gonna forgive that any time soon.*

Now, most of their sketches weren't that dumb. Instead, many of them were flat -- they telegraphed punches, their humor was only going to resolve in a certain way. Some were great, thankfully; I have a particular fondness for the "Blowing Up The Moon" sketch on several levels. Mr. Show could have been an entire program of things like that. It wasn't. Was it budget? Laziness? A different view of what constitutes comedy and/or entertainment? Snakes?

Doesn't matter. The show's beloved. And it's been dead for 20 years. And I still don't like it.

The most useful observation I've come across -- the catalyst for writing this, really -- was an AV Club review by Leonard Pierce. He wrote of Mr. Show that "many of their sketch ideas were pretty fucking stupid. They were not, as a rule, telling ten-percenter jokes." That frames it up nicely. I'm a ten-percenter; I want smart stuff. There isn't enough of it in our world. I get tired of wading through the sludge to find the occasional gem. And Mr. Show occasionally sparkled. But that mostly just cast light on all their dumb stuff, and that somehow makes it all worse.

*It seems apropos here to note that I also just watched Animal House for the first time ever. Or at least I got through about 2/3 of it before just shutting it off and finding something else to do. "I was surprised you watched that at all," said my wife, who knows me well. "You don't like crude." NOBODY SHOULD LIKE CRUDE. ESPECIALLY NOT SMART PEOPLE.**

**Hey, we got a footnote after all!***

***It wasn't that Animal House was crude, anyway. It was, again, dumbness and predictability. I've already seen MASH, and the original had better acting and directing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Retooling for 2015

At first this was going to be an RPG blog. That was fun for a while.

I don't play or run a lot of RPGs these days. So I'm going to write about more things. I hope that'll be fun for a while.

Why don't I play or run RPGs much? I'm getting old. That has two consequences. One is time -- I have more to do with my days. Working my day job, working my side gigs, doing some parenting, doing some now-the-kids-are-out-of-the-house-so-who-is-this-person-I-married stuff, and just wasting time. After grad school and then the rush of other family graduations, I like having time to waste on pointless solo projects.

The other is what, for lack of a non-snobby term, I'll call refinement. Not in the sense of "being better," understand, but the sense of "honing and sharpening." I've been roleplaying for a couple decades now. I have a pretty good sense of what I enjoy: PRETENDING. I like being a fictional person in an imaginary setting. I like character history, troubled pasts, shiny goals, personalities. I like players who are allowed to make up stuff about their characters and I like GMs who use that stuff to help everyone tell cool stories.

I like RPG groups made of people who are actors but who weren't theater majors.

And those people are hard to find. Lots of people roleplay to solve puzzles, or to imaginarily kill imaginary monsters and get imaginary treasure, or to have weird power trips, or whatever. That's fine by me. But that's not fun for me. I like games with players who pretend to Be Somebody and then Want Something and then Pursue That Something Goddammit Because It's IMPORTANT. Plus, y'know, playing nicely with everyone else in the sandbox.

That's hard to arrange.

I don't need an all-actor group. But I don't enjoy no-actor groups anymore. If rolling up stats or assigning character points or being handed a sheet and told "This is you" doesn't wake something up in the pretendy part of your brain, the bit that generates names and histories and a drive to explore/create simultaneously, we might not be a good match. So it goes.

We'll talk about more stuff down the road. It's good to be back.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dungeon World quick review

The usual Star Wars gang tried something new last weekend -- Dungeon World. I was impressed. While it has the trappings of older D&D-style games, Dungeon World uses some interesting bite-sized mechanics called "moves" that streamline play. You can hunt up the official page for yourself, but since it's based on OGL content, a lot of it is online for free.

It's a simple game. Not as bare-bones as the original Gnomemurdered!, which still sets the standard for ease of play, but you could teach it to your eight-year-old kid or your fortysomething-friend-who-hasn't-roleplayed-much. Character generation is basically a flowchart. The idea of moves makes it easy for players to decide on their actions. Its skeleton is D&D, so it's a snap to pick up if you know that game already.

Dungeon World also buys into some of the things I don't want in a game. Classes? Yes. Hit points? Yes (although I don't think they increase with experience, which is a plus). Halflings? Yes. Railroading PCs down specific stereotypical developmental tracks? Yes.

I haven't looked over the GM rules carefully yet. They have a weird storygame vibe, but they might also make the play experience more fun.

I think you could easily fix most of the things I don't like --f'rinstance, make the list of starting moves open to all new PCs, to get rid of that musty 1970s smell. It's simple and modular enough to accommodate that. Dungeon World looks like a solid little game that's worth your attention.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Booze + Lumberjacks = Goofy Monsters

There just ain't much to do, here in the woods of 19th-century North America, but drink cheap whiskey and hallucinate monsters. Gotta hope that people write books about our tall tales, and maybe a century later Wired will be invented and do an article on those books.

The whole thing is worth browsing through. Some of the illustrations are charming, and a lot of the critters are a weird blend of wilderness and steam-age imagination. Like the Tripodero here...

Drawn by Coert Du Bois, apparently, and written up by William T. Cox

...who's supposed to have a rifle-style scope on his nose, in addition to his extensible legs. You could easily adapt a bunch of these beasties to a game of your own -- fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, cyberpunk, weird modern, whatever. Here, let me give you a system-neutral hand with the Tripodero. I used an arbitrary points-out-of-seven scale:

Health: 4/7
Armor: 3/7
Speed: 4/7 (legs extended) or 2/7 (legs retracted)
Attacks: ranged 5/7 (clay spitshot), melee 2/7 (kick)
Stealth: 1/7 (legs extended) or 3/7 (legs retracted)
Etc: Enhanced vision; accuracy bonus with spitshot
Details: The tripodero is a carnivorous mammalbird that travels in small packs. It hunts by spitting small clay shot (also called quids) at high velocities; these are comparable to a medium-caliber bullet or heavy sling stone in terms of damage. A tripodero will forage for mineral-rich mud, which it "chews" in its mud gizzard to create the shot. Patient creatures, the tripodero will stalk prey from hundreds of yards away, combining its scope-sight with its eerie telescoping legs for maximum sight range. The clak-clak-clak of tripoderos raising and lowering themselves in the distant brush has haunted many explorers, and is often followed by the whizz-thak of its spitshot.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The perfidy of memory, or, At least we have pants

I dusted off an old idea and ran a Star Wars game where everyone woke up with amnesia. Nothing innovative there. But the execution worked so well, so smooth and unnerving, that it might interest people who aren't me and/or aren't running Star Wars games.

The session started with everyone waking up, dazed and with a weird taste in their mouths, surrounded by garbage. Nobody knew why. Everyone was wearing matching coveralls and had no shoes. Nobody knew why. All their equipment was gone, which is a great way to terrify players and motivate swift action. The one thing they were sure of was that they had agreed to do... something? With a deadline? Probably?

That took all of 30 seconds. Then I told them they could roll to remember things -- I like it when people are rolling dice. So they rolled dice for their Knowledge stats. Alas! Nobody had prioritized that stat! But they limped along as best they could, and for every 5 points in their total, they got a memory back. I mean, I actually handed them a tangible memory.

I had a deck of index cards. Each card had a sentence or two written on it. Got enough points? Get a card. Every now and then they could take time to try remembering more. Of course, time was in short supply. Eventually they stitched together an idea of What They Were Doing and did it. It even ended up being close to What They Had Agreed To Do.

These are the cards available. The players ended up with about 2/3 of them. It might make more sense with more campaign information, like knowing about the sinister purple-lightsaber-wielding Jedi who's hunting them, but the general flavor of the cards is there:

  • The code phrase is "The Jawa flies at midnight."
  • Someone in Engineering was flirting with you.
  • You snuck one of the droids on board with you.
  • After the jump to hyperspace, security will be much tighter.
  • Zal Duster is alive! AND HE'S A WOMAN!
  • Someone kept saying the name Ventik Doha.
  • The Engineering section is on lockdown.
  • Security Code 303736. That must mean something.
  • Desti Daven is pretty harmless for an Imperial bigwig.
  • You hid some gear in a cabinet in the Engineering sector.
  • Is that her? Dammit! That's her -- the angry one from the junkyard planet!
  • The ship's self-destruct has been activated.
  • Hold on... that guy's not "auxiliary security." He's a bounty hunter!
  • The most influential governor in this sector is Jessa Makepeace.
  • Garbage is dumped before every hyperspace jump.
  • That guy. Purple. Purple... That guy.
  • It's a diplomatic ship. Violence is not a good idea.
  • His "assistant" is an agent of Imperial intelligence!
  • Yes, but WHY was Dash wearing hooker makeup? And where did Hawke find that banjo?
  • Someone in Engineering is helping you save the governor.
  • The ship's main lounge has no security or monitoring.
  • Someone has poisoned the ration bars.
  • When it's done, you should escape on his ship.
  • You have to contact him BEFORE the jump to hyperspace.
  • Jessa Makepeace is the governor of the Oolooda sector.
  • A grinning face, big teeth, two horns...
  • Diplomats from the Lycu system smuggled you on board.
  • Gas. Yellow. Smelled like burning soil. Big smile... horns...
  • Governor Tarvo of the Lycu system has some Rebel sympathies.
  • Rogan A'Gamar is also Desti Daven.
  • An Imperial governors' conference? Could you be on a duller mission?
  • She has a hooked nose and you shouldn't trust her.
  • Boolan Sector. Good. Tovian Sector. Bad.
  • The counter-code is "Not without his golden slippers."
  • Then the R5 droid aimed its firefoam nozzle at you and chattered menacingly...
  • Yellow means unlocked. Red means locked.
  • One of the Zzohren brothers was seen talking to Imperial intelligence agents.
  • The command center is at the top deck of the bow.
  • One of the ship's security officers seemed to recognize Victarian.
  • While you were unconscious, they implanted cybernetic weapons in your face.
  • Someone in Engineering is helping you set the bomb.
  • If you persuade him to defect, several other Imperial governors may follow.
  • Jessa Makepeace can drink enough to kill a Gundark.
  • You don't have your ship. Why do you not have your ship? How will you escape?
  • Garbage pods aren't locked unless they're full.
  • The ship's captain is marrying... someone to a woman who looks like Greedo.
  • Lieutenant Ariella Forn, of the ship's security detail... she's not bad looking.
We did the same thing for equipment. Since they woke up in a trash compactor, there was a lot of miscellaneous stuff they could try to use as weapons, tools, barter, shoes, etc. I usually don't run an equipment-centered game; this was a nice change of pace for everyone. Having an unreliable vibroknife was better than the alternative.