Archive for December, 2012


DIY Dungeons

In my recent post about posers and players I talked about a comment requesting that my fellow Mules and I, being hipsters who have ruined everything else, would leave D&D alone for those who genuinely enjoy playing the game. I would claim not to be a hipster, except I don’t wantdiy dungeons to miss out on my share of what must be a sizable XP award for ruining everything in the modern world. Also it is undeniably true that I organize RPG events  in places like art galleries and DIY spaces where people wearing skinny jeans are known to congregate.

The latest such venture is DIY Dungeons, which benefits tremendously from the access to non-conventional gaming spaces conferred by my co-organizers Ray Weiss and Tim Hutchings’ local cred as a musician and an artist, respectively. My contribution is just to think about how to make RPGs function as a party game – meaning that they’re immediately accessible whether or not folks have played before, and structured in a way that people can sit down and get involved whenever they arrive (like we do at parties, unlike how we do at most RPG sessions) and easily move on to whatever else they like to do at parties after they get a taste of the gaming experience.

The next DIY Dungeons event is tomorrow night. 12/12, at a DIY space called Olive Garden. I don’t really understand what DIY spaces are, but a common element seems to be naming them for things they are not; one of the precursors to this series of events was the Everything is Dolphins release party held at Shea Stadium, which has no more relationship to baseball than tomorrow’s venue does to Italian food. (Playing in an actual Olive Garden would rock, though.) Here’s the description for the game I’ll be running:

CONQUERORS OF BRONX RIVER ROAD. The zombie apocalypse is here! Can you rebuild civilization using your wits, nerve, and the resources you can loot from the neighborhood around you? In this hack of the Adventurer Conqueror King roleplaying game, you’ll play yourself struggling to survive in a bleak future by fortifying a stronghold, recruiting other survivors, and decapitating zombies with chainsaws.

Over at the ACKS G+ community people hoping this presaged the release of Adventurer, Conqueror, Mutant Badger wanted more details about this hack, and a previous one that mashed up ACKS and XXXXtreme Street Luge. (The latter scenario took its cue from the intro to the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, where Bobby, Shiela, et al. wind up in fantasyland after going on a roller-coaster ride. The ACKS characters had discovered this portal and taken the trip in the other direction – I found a great map of Knott’s Berry Farm circa 1983 as a prop to show the strange land they discovered. The XXXXtreme Street Luge characters, meanwhile, had broken into the amusement park, shut down after kids disappeared on the roller coaster, and were using it as a racing venue). Here’s the skinny:

They’re designed for a particular goal – being able to get new players going very quickly and also letting them get up from the table 15 minutes later if they want to move on – and aren’t meant for anyone but me to be able to run (so nothing is written down). That said:

– In XXXXtreme Street Luge you quickly randomize characters and then players take turns in the spotlight. Each other player asks the spotlight player “In this made-up circumstance, how did you deal with the situation using this particular stat?” The ACKS mashup uses the same GMless narrated-action-after-the-fact approach (so it’s functioning more like a storytelling game) but turns it on its head – players take turns in the role of party leader, in which they invent a problem and then ask the other players “How does your character help us get out of this jam?”

– The zombie hack relies on a) converting ACKS gp into a genre-appropriate unit of exchange (a day’s food); b) squinting at the ACKS price list until a chainsaw looks like a sword and a Corvette looks like a light riding horse; c) using pennies to represent gp and track encumbrance; d) building a map of the real-world location on the table as stacks of coins: if you capture the auto parts store, you’ll be able to loot this many resources, which you can then spend to fortify other map locations. The “you play your character” thing is mostly there to make it easy to get into the game – you just think about what you’d do in this situation – and mechanically means that everyone is a fighter with average stats, except that if a +1, 2, or 3 bonus would mean they’d succeed I’ll give the player a chance to tell me why their abilities would help in this situation and then convert that to a 3-18 score.

I’m interested in doing every kind of outreach for RPGs I can arrange, whether it’s to hipsters or kids 8-12. One of the things DIY Dungeons has been able to achieve that other approaches like the afterschool class (formerly D&D, now ACKS) has not is to achieve a better gender balance than I usually see at conventions and gamedays. Here are some pictures from the first event, at the Clocktower Gallery, where we had to talk loud to be heard over the sound of a robot gamelan installation:

50% of the women at this table had played D&D before (which is to say Anne, in red on my left) so maybe my observations about usual gender balance say more about me.

Ray running his new game Cyberpanky N.O.W., scenario “McDonald’s Mercs”; cyperpunk proved to be an immediately relatable genre even for non-gamers.

Brian, from the band The Nuclears, running a Call of Cthulu scenario set in the Sex Pistols’ London; this also proved immediately accessible.

My experience so far has been that convincing people to try role-playing games at these venues is an exercise in anti-hipsterdom. My job is to say Hi, I’m glad I’ve caught your attention with these colorful dice and maps! In addition to being aesthetic objects for your aloof, ironic appraisal, these are used in game I hope you will sit down and genuinely enjoy right now. You can choose whatever degree of distance from the events in the game works for you. Me, I’m going to fully commit to having a good time, goofy voices and all.

If you’re in or near the Bronx tomorrow, come out and join us at 5 pm (or whenever if you want to put my easy drop-in goal to the test). Gaming will go on until around 9, when the bands Cave Cricket, Old Table, and The Widest Smiling Faces will make it too loud to hear one another’s funny voices. If that’s too short notice, the next DIY Dungeons events will be on 1/4 at Big Snow and 1/20 at Silent Barn. Hope to see you there!


Landscape Painting Around Dwimmermount


The Opening of The Starfall Desert

In the midst of relocating across the country and becoming a first-time father this Fall, I had been asked by the esteemed Tavis Allison of Autarch to put some of my hedge-wizard illustration skills to work for one of their projects. I had the pleasure of being asked to develop a colored hex-map showing the region around James Maliszewski‘s infamous/legendary Dwimmermount.

James had already enlisted the mapping mojo of the influential Rob Conley of Bat In The Attic to create a play-reference black and white map for the region around Dwimmermount proper, but Tavis called for a large colored map that could be printed on durable vinyl. It was to be sans locations and named areas so the map could function for mysterious player exploration and utilitarian play at the table much like the old wilderness survival map.

I had my earlier methods for making colored hexmaps, similar to the style of the Judges Guild Wilderlands map sets and detailed in my overly long series of posts on this very blog, but I wanted to stretch the process some more and see if I could move the technique into more of a hand-made affair. (At least in appearance, anyway.)

I decided to make the thing entirely of scanned watercolor paint-strokes. If it was going to be in big printed color, I thought I would savor the opportunity and forgo using the color black for creating outlines or details and try and have it look like everything was painted on in color. A lot of published game maps start life in digitized B&W and can have a “coloring book” feel to them. I wanted to see if the whole thing could be done with hand made colored strokes and textures.

In the end you can still see the digital-ness of the whole affair, and I used black for putting the hexes on, but the intent is to have it organic/quirky enough that the machine qualities don’t register to the viewer.

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

The raw painting used to create a "big" mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The raw painting used to create a “big” mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The steps were numerous and I won’t detail them unless there is substantial internet begging, but they involved much tracing, painting, scanning, buying a recycled socialist computer, pattern creation, GIMPing, Hawkwind, Ice Dragon, and beer.

My goal next time is to create 4 inch sized hexes with oil paint on a wood panel.


Playing and Posing

I’ve been a role-player since I was ten, but sad stretches of my life have been spent in denial. When I’ve wanted to be serious and important, or to get laid – especially when I thought getting laid was serious and had something to do with being important – I’ve let my dice gather dust and tried to be something else.

None of the other identities have been as satisfying. In the late ’80s I was a Hampshire College hippie, in the late ’90s I was a neuroscience grad student. For a while in between I wanted to be a science fiction writer, which is what this post is about.

For me, RPGs are more satisfying because they’re essentially social. At the gaming table, you are both the audience and the performer. You have rules that govern everyone’s childish need to get attention by putting on a heroic persona. You develop skills in sharing the spotlight so that your individual awesomeness becomes part of something larger. You get consistent rewards when you act like an adult and pay attention, and variable reinforcement when you make good decisions about risk and commitment.

I enjoyed the sociability that came with every other identity I’ve worn. I liked it so much that I spent more time showing off my persona than I did writing, or experimenting, or doing research for I Saw My God: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Let’s get the obvious problem out of the way. If you want to be a serious science fiction person, it might be about reading the stuff, or writing about it, but most of all it’s about writing it. You can set up your typewriter in a bookstore window like Harlan Ellison, but you can’t escape that this is a solitary activity. Socializing is the opposite of doing the thing you’re defining yourself around.

In another life I might have been happy organizing a SF convention or reading series, but these are sideshows to the main event. What I like about gaming is that the situation is reversed. You can make lots of valuable contributions to roleplaying as a designer or blogger or artist, alone with your tools, just like you can enrich SF fandom by throwing room parties or judging masquerades. But if you’re not getting together with other people and playing games, you’re not really doing the thing.

Since the social aspect is so important to me, what I find most interesting is that the collaborative quality of the core activity also improves the socialization around it. When it was important to me to be seen as a serious SF person, bookstore conversations with strangers would go like this:

  • ME: Hey, that Vacuum Flowers you got there is a great book.
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I need a new copy ’cause I read it to pieces. Swanwick hit this one out of the park.
  • ME: Have you read The Glass Hammer?
  • FF: Oh I loved that! Jeter is my favorite of Dick’s students.
  • ME: How about Uncle Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book?
  • FF: No, who’s that by?
  • ME (walking away): Good day, sir or madam, you are unworthy of further conversation.

Clearly, this is largely because my most consistent identity has been “dickwad”. But the nature of RPGs as a social experience drives you to leaven Pretentious with Retro and Stupid because any game group will be a mix of all three. Snobbishness is limited by the need to get a group together to play with:

  • ME: Hey, is that the original Rogue Trader?
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I had some great times with this as a kid.
  • ME: I’ve been reading Small but Vicious Dog and like the look of it, but I really want to see how it plays.
  • FF: Well, my group plays mostly Warhammer 3E these days.
  • ME: Sweet, I’d love to see that in action! Here’s my card, let me know if you ever have an open spot at the table.

A while back a commenter at the Mule asked “You Hipsters have ruined everything else, can’t you leave D&D alone for those of us who genuinely enjoy playing the game?”

Being a hipster is seen here as the opposite of being genuine, so it’s tempting to get into a discussion of irony. There’s an interesting conversation to be had in the territory between Noisms at Monsters & Manuals sometimes thinking that

there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously

and Zak’s classic post about how fun in a RPG can be driven by the distance you as a player have from the events in the game.

I want to short-circuit that discussion by talking about hipsters as a synonym for “posers” rather than “ironists”.  A poser is someone who wants to be seen as something they’re not. It’s beyond me to figure out whether a hipster who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon with a sneer is genuinely drinking it – they do eventually have to pee as a result, right? But I do know that for lots of my life I wanted to claim an identity without doing the thing it was based on.

It’s only when I’m a player that I stop being a poser. At the table, I’m really engaged in the core of the activity, and that’s true whether I keep it at a distance with ornate Vancian language and meta talk or genuinely enjoy the feelings I imagine my character to be experiencing. I’ve personally never gotten up and danced out a moment of triumph in a roleplaying game, but when the kids in the D&D afterschool class do this I feel no piss-taking impulse whatsoever.

Online I often hear about people who like to talk about roleplaying games without actually playing them. I guess they would be the posers of the RPG world, but this post isn’t an attack on them. I’ve never known anyone to do this for long before getting drawn into actual play, and I think that’s because the core of gaming is social. Someone interesting to talk to about RPGs is likely to be fun to play with as well, whereas having interesting things to say about stories I was going to write didn’t get me any closer to being a writer. I’m glad to define myself around a hobby where seeking opportunities to play a role pushes me to be less of a pretentious dickwad, not more.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2012

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