Thursday, June 30, 2011

She Said: Origins 2011 Part 4 - The Funny, and Interviews!

The Funny
Story of the Flower Seller
This is more 'WTF' than funny, but I had no where else to put the story. So, here goes.
(Setting: Walking out of the Hyatt Regency at 1:30am. Tired and slightly tipsy, with my husband and my father walking right behind me. There's a short, not very well lit area which you have to walk through to get to a crosswalk. This gentleman starts coming towards me, the outline of a flower clearly visible in his raised hand.)



Him: Sir! Sir! Excuse me, sir!
Me: ...
Him: Sir! Would you like...
Me: No, thank you, sir. And I'm a MA'AM.
Him: Oh..ok...

If he'd been hungry and asked for the doggy bag of leftovers from Barley's in my hand, it would've been his. If he'd waited at the crosswalk for me to get to him, I would've been much more polite. But you do NOT run towards a woman at 1:30am on a fairly dark street trying to sell her a f*$#ing flower. Or call her 'sir'. That's just salt on the wound.

I Walk the Line ... While in Costume
I like to think I don't give a poo what anyone else thinks of me. I like to think I have high self-esteem. Every year, that illusion is dissolved when I walk out of my hotel and go 2.5 city blocks while in garb. Some people can do that, no problem. And if you're one of those that can, I wholeheartedly salute you, and wonder what your secret is. Because damned if I don't feel like a two-inch worm when I get 'looks' from those that do not attend Origins. But, every year, I do it. And you know why?
/sigh

The Interviews
I did promise you interviews! And here goes.


Eric Wiener
Eric is a member of Team Paradigm, the guys that lead and guide the happenings of Arcanis/CSE from the background. (Think the Illuminati, but with bowling shirts.) He's also been a good friend of mine for 6 years, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions.
~~~~~
Sarah: What is in the works for Witch Hunter, both as an on-going campaign and as a game in general?
Eric: We are waiting on a proposal that will determine our plans for Witch Hunter.
Our plans are pretty much linked into that proposal, both for the product line and the interactive campaign. The one thing we are firm on is that we will be doing an expansion called Witch Hunter 2012.

Sarah: Are you planning to convert Caliphate Nights to either your new Arcanis system or D&D 4th ed.?
Eric: If we do revisit Tales of the Caliphate Nights, it would likely find a home in more than one system. We've considered the WH system, the new Arcanis system and even some other manufacturer's systems.

Sarah: Think Henry can be persuaded to write some Arcanis fiction?
Eric: Frankly, the releases needed to support and expand the Arcanis RPG line are going to keep everyone busy for the foreseeable future. Arcanis fiction, not only short stories but up to and including full-on novels has been something we've discussed. It just doesn't seem to be a near-future option for us.

Sarah: Production and publishing costs being what they are, is there any plan for either a B&W print of the new CSE book or possibly making the PDF widely available?
Eric: We have no plans for a gray-scale version of the Arcanis: RPG. On the other hand we have plans regarding the PDF that we are going to announce just as soon as we resolve the technical aspects. In short, the PDF will be more readily available.

Sarah: Are there any planned release schedules for additional CSE material, either gaming supplements or modules?
Eric: Arcanis: the RPG has a street date of July 25. Forged in Magic, the first supplement, was at Origins with some advance copies and will follow the core rulebook by a couple of months. The Arcanis Bestiary, should be at GenCon and then released late in the year. We have some printed adventures in the works as well as a Campaign Guide for the Crusade that are still to be announced for release dates from 4Q 2011 - 2Q 2012. Our major releases planed for next year are the Hero's Codex and Chronicler's Codex (GM book)

Sarah: Is there any plan to bring back the Invisible Kings program?
Eric: We don't know. We are certainly interested in story development in areas we are not going to visit for some time (if ever). The actual form of any such program is still up for grabs because we haven't yet built the foundation to build upon. Such is the hazards of relaunch. I would like to add that many authors are currently doing great work by submitting soft points. A couple of years worth of mods should clear everything up for all parties.
Sarah: Thanks, Eric. I owe you some coffee or something
Eric: *laughs* That's all you got?
Sarah: Yup. Short and sweet. I'd make a $#!tty reporter.

And last, but most certainly not least...

Shane Hensley

I've known Shane for going on 5 years, but then again, about a gazillion people can claim the same. Talk with this guy for a few minutes, and see if he doesn't practically make you feel like family. He has been the man behind the dizzying array of products, ranging from table-top RPGs to computer games to card games to books to...
Shane, do you ever sleep, my friend?
Listing all of his achievements would put cramps in my hands, so I will just link to where you can read them yourself.
~~~~~
Sarah: Besides The Last Sons, what else is coming for Pinnacle?
Shane: Savage Worlds Deluxe just dropped! After that is the Horror Companion, 50 Fathoms Explorer's Edition, and the collected Trail Guides for Deadlands. Two other Deadlands books are in their early stages (Relics and Ghost Towns), and Hell on Earth is laid out and going through playtesting and artifying!

Sarah: Any new editions for Savage Worlds planned and, if so, will you stick with an Explorer's Guide-type of book?
Shane: Savage Worlds Deluxe isn't a new edition, but there's lots of cool new stuff in there to *expand* the game. We're doing a limited number of hardbacks, then we'll go back to Explorer-sized versions.

Sarah: You once said Lacy O'Malley was based off of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but were Stone, Hellstromme, or Grimme based off of anyone?
Shane: Stone was based off Clint Eastwood in a backwards way. I asked for a hero and Brom gave me the image you saw on the first edition of Deadlands. When I saw it I knew it had to be Stone instead. Grimme and Hellstromme are completely original, but their *looks* are based off the preacher from Poltergeist 2 and Vincent Price, respectively.

Sarah: What's your favorite game that you've written?
Shane: They're all my babies. The Plot Point in 50 Fathoms works the best, I think. City by the Silt Sea (for TSR's Dark Sun) was a blast. Evernight was a BLAST to run. I guess I have to go with Deadlands and Hell on Earth though--there's a lot of my soul in those books. :)

Sarah: Due to the awesomeness that is Zombie Pirates, are there any more computer games in the works?
Shane: My day job is at Cryptic Studios where I'm working on Neverwinter. I'd LOVE to do more casual games. I'm very proud of Zombie Pirates, and love the way the gameplay and the story turned out. But it's tough finding funding for smaller games, even though I think they have the greatest potential compared to their risk (Plants vs Zombies or Angry Birds, anyone?)

Sarah: Thanks again, Shane. I owe you (and Michelle) a drink next Origins if you guys go.
Shane: I never turn down a drink!

Thanks!
All in all, Origins was a convention well worth the time and effort. A+ eBay. Would buy again.
I now leave you guys in the capable hands of my husband. Thanks to Eric and Shane for answering my questions. I now apparently have many drinks to hand out for next year...
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

She Said: Origins 2011 Part 3 - The 'Meh...'






The "Meh.."
Costumes 
As the attendance for the convention seemed down, so did the number of brave ladies and gents that decided to go around in jedi robes, steampunk finery, and Renaissance velvets. There were still a few I managed to find, but very little. Above and below are a few of my own pictures.



The Arcanis Soft Point
One of Arcanis' most prolific authors, Scott Charlton, has been with the gaming community for eons. He wrote Carnival of Swords, In the Shadow of the Devil, and The Bloody Sands of Sicaris. He also enjoys writing fiction based on the intricate stories already woven by the industrious Henry Lopez. His latest creation, Kiss of the Beautiful Devil, was one of the modules played at Origins this year. It's also, in my opinion as a player, his worst. I'll not give away spoilers, but it will require heavy editing and lots of feedback. I also do not mean to discourage or deride Mr. Charlton's abilities. He can weave a tale like a spider weaves a web. But, sometimes a web can be so full of various sticky threads that even players are caught as flies, with no way out. In fact, I encourage you, if you have played it, to send feedback to Kitty Curtis (feedback@shatteredempires.com). We love feedback, whether it is good or bad, just so long as it's also constructive.

The Origins Swag Bag
Origins veterans likely know what the Origins Swag Bag is. It's a medium-sized plastic bag that acts as kind of a Christmas stocking for us gamers. It has all sorts of coupons for booths in the Exhibit Hall, cards for newly developed games, keychains emblazed with the names of various gaming companies, and the coveted "Origins (Insert Year Here) d6 Die". This year, though, was filled merely with advertisements, a small Pog-like token (you guys remember Pogs?) that I have no idea of its purpose, and a keychain/beer bottle opener.
It did have the Origins d6 Die and a page of coupons to the food court. The staff at said food court, however, was seen being derisive at the coupons to the customers there, to the point one customer in front of me decided it wasn't worth it and kept the coupons in his pocket, unused. Bad food court. No cookie!

Guess Who's Coming to Democratic Dinner?
This might also fall in 'The Funny' category too, but I more shook my head than laughed at this particular scenario. Imagine, if you will, a bunch of gamers, dressed in steampunk costume, carrying various weaponry with them as either part of their costume or new purchases from the Exhibit Hall. Now imagine the look on a Secret Service agent's face, one who's job it is to protect Vice President Joe Biden, when said group of gamers passes him.

Probably not plotting anything concerning the Democratic Party.
(Doc is pictured in mid-game, 2nd from left.)

Columbus Convention Center. A word of advice. Do not schedule a Democratic Party dinner at the same time as a gaming convention, where all of us weirdos are gonna be high on Mtn. Dew while carrying swords and crossbows. It's bad form.

Tomorrow: Last in this series (Origins: The Funny and Interviews), and then the reins of the blog will be back in the hands of DocStout!
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

She Said: Origins 2011 Part 2

Yesterday, I posted about The Good about Origins 2011. Well, unfortunately, it's that time where I talk about the not-so-good. I wish this was a bit shorter, but I promise to not drop the critical hit with Wall 'o Text on you this time.

The Bad
Origins 2011 Attendance
Origins has, historically, been the second-largest gaming convention in the U.S., with GenCon far in the lead. With that said, Origins can still boast an attendance number of 8,000-10,000, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, for this year, it felt more like 6,000. In years past, I have seen lines for tickets and badges wrap entirely around corners, down halls, up staircases. I've sat in line for hours, cursing my inability to pre-register for events, and wishing the lines were shorter.
Be careful what you wish for.

The Exhibit Hall
I swear, I get this feeling every time; it's the giddiness of walking into an Exhibit Hall on Thursday morning and looking at all the fun stuff to demo, the nifty costumes, old gaming books for deep discount. I can go up to the CEO of a gaming company and completely nerd out with him over his new Shadowrun 4th ed. books. (Which, by the way, are absolutely gorgeous.) But like the attendance, this year's Exhibit Hall seemed small in comparison to days of old. Although GAMA has said it sold out all booths before the convention, the Hall did not give me the feeling of elation, only mild disappointment. The number of booths demonstrating their new games felt was about right, but NOTHING looking interesting enough to demo. And that makes for a sad panda.

Doesn't everyone use this picture in at least one of their posts?

Mage Wars Cards
While waiting in line for tickets, a gentleman wearing an Arcane Wonders t-shirt came up to me and handed me a card for a new card-based board game called Mage Wars. After looking over the flimsy thing, I didn't realize the source of my distaste with it until my husband made the comment, "You can tell it's not professionally produced." I asked how he knew that, and he replied, "Because of the borders, they're all scuffed up. It would've been much better to have a white border, instead of a black one that has paint coming off in places. If you know your deck well enough, you can cheat just by memorizing the scuffs on individual cards."
And he's right. I remember that being a problem with M:TG Alpha, although M:TG cards, even during Alpha, were better made and not nearly as brittle around the edges. Shame too. It looked like an interesting game, but that just killed my interest in it.

Unfortunately, the bear also looks like a screenshot from the Discovery Channel's website.

Barley's
Please don't get me wrong. Barley's has been a tradition with me and mine for many years now. We go there, drink their prized ales, eat Mildred's Sauerkraut Balls, and chat about the past few days of gaming goodness.
But you shouldn't make a group of 7 people wait for 45 minutes, and then try to seat 8 people that had just got there, no reservation either. One of our group, a feisty girl named Christina, even decided to go up to the hostess stand to give her what for.
We were seated 5 minutes later. And for the rest of the night, as I looked at the surprisingly poor food on my plate, I had disturbing thoughts resembling the scenes from Waiting.

Origins Future Dates
I'm sure some of you GAMAphiles have already heard. But for those of you who do not keep up with Origins/GAMA-related news, this will either upset or excite you. Here goes.
For at least the next two years, Origins will fall on Memorial Day. While that will obviously not affect the international community (unless there is also a holiday in their country that falls around late-May), it will have a definite impact upon the American gaming community, especially teachers and students.

Memorial Day is usually a time for families to have reunions, cook on their grills, and give thanks to the men and women of the Armed Forces, not to mention finishing up school and commencement ceremonies for graduation. It's a busy busy time for students, the parents of students, and teachers, all of which make up a decent chunk of the gaming community. While it will certainly help with costs in going to the convention, what money attendees might save in going, GAMA might lose with dropped attendance numbers.
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Monday, June 27, 2011

She Said: Origins 2011

Hello! My name is Sarah and I'm the wife of DocStout, the author of The Unemployed Geek. I've been a gamer for over 17 years, my gaming experience largely encompassing D&D, Pinnacle Entertainment's Savage Worlds, and Paradigm Concept's Living Arcanis/Chronicles of the Shattered Empires. I'm also a published author and editor, with over a decade under my belt in working with some of the best and brightest the gaming industry has to offer.

Origins has always held a special place in my heart. It was where I first met my husband and many, many more dear friends. It was also where I first learned about and played in something called a "Battle Interactive." It was where I got Adrian Paul to sign my sling after I dislocated my shoulder (short version: a 325lb ex-Marine should not playfully try to put a 125lb woman in an armlock). I got a hug and cheek pinch from Don S. Davis "for being cute" and had a long chat with Teryl Rothery about being a female in a male-dominated industry. Every year, I manage to come back with tales of valor, of pranks played, of hilarity, and of fun times had.



This year was no exception. I'll start off with the good stuff.

The Good

The Drive
With the majority of gamers in the U.S. being centered across the Midwest, it makes sense for the two biggest conventions to be located there. (The other, of course, is GenCon in Indianapolis, IN.) For those of you who despise the TSA/Airlines, and wish to bring an entire household full of gaming books - you know who you are - driving is about the only reasonable method in getting to Columbus, OH. And if you are part of the majority, that drive is not too terribly long, thankfully. There is only so much Dramamine in the world. I can't be the only person in the world that gets carsick while reading in a moving car. And being unable to read gaming books while on your way to a gaming convention?

Think this, but with books.
The Soft Drinks
I know my husband has mentioned Mountain Dew Pitch Black before. I, like him, have sacrificed virgins in the name of the Old Ones in order for it to return to us. Or something like that. We thought we'd be clever and pick up an 8-pack here and a 12-pack there, slowly hoarding it, as we knew its time on our mortal plane was short. But, damnit, if everyone else didn't think of that same plan. You're lucky if you can find a single bottle of this stuff in Chicago.

In our pre-convention grocery run, we happened down the drink aisle. Just as my husband was saying, "I doubt they have Pitch Black," we looked down. Our eyes bugged. There, on the shelf, looking forlorn and unloved, were two 12-packs of ambrosia itself.

The Not-So-Soft Drinks
I'm not sure if any of you are familiar with Irish liquors outside of Bailey's or maybe Caroline's. A friend of mine, Matt, has a definite love of a particular Irish liquor called Celtic Crossing, and since he brought a bottle with him to Origins, I felt I also needed to share the awesomeness with you all. Think scotch, but sweeter.

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot
When you've been gaming for a long time, especially in an environment like an on-going RPG, you meet a great many people. A big reason people go to these conventions is to catch up on old friends and make new ones. Which, I suppose, is ironic considering the stereotype of the anti-social gamer. The games we play are, at their heart, socially-based. You will make more friends than you can remember. (You might make enemies too, but that's another story.) Which is why, when you go to a convention, you might catch yourself looking at someone in the face, then your eyes will flicker down to the name on their badge and then back up. I think it's a tradition now.

I'm not looking at your boobs, I'm trying to read your badge.
The New Arcanis

I'll do my best to not go into too much detail with this one, as my husband will be writing a later article reviewing the new Chronicles of the Shattered Empires (CSE) system. Needless to say, many man-hours were spent tweaking, editing, and playtesting the book that would become the basis for Arcanis.

Arcanis has, and probably always will, go by what's called a Hard Point-Soft Point story arc. Hard Points mean the story and scenario contained within a particular adventure directly impacts the main story arc that is planned. It is HIGHLY preferred that they be played in order. Soft Points, on the other hand, do not directly affect the story. They can be played at any time and in any order.


The Hard Points that premiered at Origins were penned by the master storyteller himself, Henry Lopez. They were story and role-play heavy, with a small amount of combat, as is Henry's M.O. I cannot wait to see what else he has in store for us Arcaniacs.


One of the Soft Points we played at Origins was GM'ed for us by the author himself, Tony Nijssen, a fantastic guy and great storyteller in his own write. (Write. Get it? I made a funny.) If you have not played Ancient Secrets Left Unspoken yet, I highly recommend it.

The Role-Playing Interactive (or LARP, if you prefer) for CSE was its usual. How it works is there is a small number of NPCs sitting at tables spread out around a large room (usually 5-8 NPCs, depending on the size.) Those NPCs usually represent certain important factions, royalty, and so on. And they need stuff done and accomplished with the other NPCs there. The problem? They cannot talk to each other, and hence need intermediaries. That is where the PCs come in. PCs usually join the entourage of a particular person, usually when the NPC's interests matches the PC's. What happens next is 4-hours of back-stabbing, diplomacy, lying, cheating, and political maneuvering goodness.


As mentioned earlier, there is something called a 'Battle Interactive' or 'BI'. If you do not know what this is, I hope to describe it well enough to do it justice.


Imagine this, but with 20 more tables in the same room.


It is roughly 10-12 hours of continuous fighting, usually centered around a siege or battle in the over-arcing storyline (hence the name.) It is a desperate fight for survival. Your table is sent on various missions (secure refugees here, destroy siege weapons there, usually lasting about 30 min-1hr) and your success or failure helps determine the success or failure of the entire battle. It is fast-paced and frantic, with people usually taking their actions at the same time while calling out numbers to the GM, who is juggling about 10-30 bad guys on the battlemat. There is a narrative between each missions, describing the ebb and flow of the battle at large and what your actions have done to control said battle.


It's also one of the absolute best parts of my convention experience.


Speaking of the BI, there is a new feature that Arcanis started doing this year, which is handing out patches as a sort of battle trophy. And when I mean patches, I mean the large sew-on/iron-on patches you got when you were in Boy Scouts, with the particular battle you participated in printed on it. While looking quite snazzy, they also have an in-game effect, making them much more valuable.


And last, but certainly not least, I'd like to extend my congratulations to Kitty Curtis for becoming the new Campaign Director for CSE. I'm sure her tenure as the head of this campaign will be an amazing, creative, and exciting one for everyone who loves Arcanis.

Coming Soon!

The Bad, The 'Meh', The Funny, and interviews with Pinnacle Entertainment's Shane Hensley and PCI's Eric Wiener.
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Friday, June 24, 2011

L.A. Noire – Review of RockStar Games' Crime Action/Adventure Title

Adventure gaming is dead. That's what I've been reading in articles for over a decade. The days of experiencing an interactive story where items are collected, puzzles are solved and advancing a plot takes more brainpower than fast reflexes are gone, now the province of indie game studios. Whoops. Looks like they were wrong. At its heart, L.A. Noire is a classic adventure game, with sections of Grand Theft Auto-style driving and sandbox exploration and the occasional cover-based shooting gunfight, with even more rare quicktime-event fisticuffs. Not only is the genre not dead, from the critical and fan reaction, it has returned with a vengeance.

Rating ended up being M, drifting close to AO, not for kids.

The world of L.A. Noire will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen L.A. Confidential, as quite a bit of the Academy Award-Winning film is mirrored in the setting. Postwar Los Angeles with an LAPD struggling with an image (mostly deserved) in the press of being corrupt and violent, and recently shamed by the failure to solve the murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia. The environments are at least as convincing as the James Ellroy crime novels and the films they inspire of a gritty urban California filled with men still reeling from the war. Hard-boiled investigators, mobsters, movie stars and crooked cops all have secrets, and it is Detective Cole Phelps job to root them out.

Technically, this game is an achievement. It isn't without its flaws, at least on the Xbox360, and I've encountered more than one crash/lockup bug and occasional framerate issues, but for the most part, it is gorgeous even on a standard-definition television. The face-capture technology is unlike anything we've seen in games to date, with subtle expressions on the actors faces modeled so perfectly that no small detail of a performance is lost. In a game where investigation requires evaluation of facial tics and details to determine whether or not a person being questioned is lying, this technology is being put to good use.

The actors, some of them with solid Hollywood credentials, really make the interrogation scenes work.

In addition to questioning witnesses and suspects, careful investigation of clues at various crime scenes turns up evidence that can support accusations of outright lies by providing contradictory evidence. In this manner, the true story comes out as a diverse cast of characters are put to the question, with the player having three choices for every statement a person makes. “Doubt”, or “You are lying, but I have no proof.” “Lie” or “You are lying, and this proves it.” Finally, there is of course “Truth.” The more correct responses are given, the more small details come out about what really happened. Scouring scenes for clues feels a lot like classic Sierra adventure games, and confronting suspects is most similar to the Phoenix Wright games.

The music, action sequences and overall polish of the game is great, but there are other elements that some people may not care for. Occasionally with chase scenes, the camera angle or lighting interferes with controlling Det. Phelps and ruins the tension and immersion as you watch him run into walls. Vehicles control exactly like their equivalents in Grand Theft Auto, which is to say that they corner like they have small buildings attached to the roof rack and go airborne at the slightest provocation. Running over pedestrians, crashing into cars and stealing... err... commandeering vehicles are in this game, but with fewer consequences, though there are no hookers to shoot, and in fact, you cannot randomly murder innocent pedestrians without use of a vehicle.

Careful scanning of crime scenes is much more exciting than shooting random hookers, anyway.

The story follows Cole, the last good cop in L.A. from his career's start as a patrolman (tutorial missions) through four departmental assignments, or “desks”. The game length is impressive, the story feeling about like two full seasons of a television show, and it ships on three discs for the Xbox 360. I haven't finished it yet, but I've seen enough threads on forums and discussion boards to suspect that the ending is less than perfect for many people's taste. Each case solved on the way to the conclusion is given a rating based on clues found, statements correctly evaluated and how little damage is done to people and property in the course of the case. Getting 5 stars on all of them is no mean feat, as you may not save and retry failed interrogations.

This game was great overall, and I hope that it is successful enough to encourage more of this sort of thing from developers. If there was more of this, and less of “Modern Shooter Clone 3” on my consoles, I'd probably use them a little more.
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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Origins 2011... Where did DocStout go, exactly?

By the time you read this... (usually, in fiction, here's where “I'll be dead” goes.) I'll have been in Ohio for the better part of three days, with another three and change remaining in the 2011 Origins Game Exposition. This assumes, of course, that the reader encounters the article the day it is posted. I've always wanted to start something with those words, so in any case, I'll get on with it. I first started attending Origins back in 2002, and the first two shows I attended, I traveled and attended the convention alone. My game convention experience started with Gen Con back in 1990, and that huge convention with its frenetic pace stands in contrast to Origins, which is still very large, but has always felt somehow more laid back to me.


Origins is the second largest gaming convention in the United States, averaging 10,000 attendees annually as compared to Gen Con's 25,000+. Operation of the show is currently managed by GAMA (the GAme Manufacturers' Association) and has been hosted by the city of Columbus, OH since 1996. The first Origins was back in 1975 (GAMA management started in 1978,) and the location of the hosting city has changed twenty times including the two years it ran concurrently with Gen Con. Since the decision was made to anchor Origins to a single city, attendance has steadily grown.

Ah, pre-registration. This area is only this empty a day before the show, or on Sunday.

From its roots in the wargaming community with Avalon Hill as a sponsor, the convention has expanded to cover many games including miniatures (collectible and hobby wargaming), card and board gaming, collectible card games, LARPs and tabletop roleplaying games. Miniatures wargaming is a little more prevalent at this show, especially for historical scenarios, than it is at either Gen Con or Dragon*Con (in Atlanta, GA.) The presence of the War College and its annual seminars on Military History and the convention-long National Security Decision Making Game are also highlights for history and historic gaming fans.

This convention has a particularly special place for me, personally, as in 2006 it is the convention where I first met the woman I would marry two years later. Both fans of roleplaying games for ludicrous percentages of our total lifespan (I started gaming at age seven, she at eleven) we'd managed to somehow not meet each other until we were both single, despite my having known her father from RPGA events years earlier. Since 2002, I've missed a single Origins (last year, in fact) and we decided to attend at the last minute this year, traveling to the show with my father-in-law for nearly a week of games. When we return, live (as opposed to scheduled) posting will resume with a full report from this year's show, but not one written by me.

One of the Roleplaying Rooms at the Columbus Convention Center.

My second guest blogger here (Joel of “a momentary lapse” was first) will be none other than my lovely wife, with her report on the convention upon our return from the show. She is a sometime columnist for Wreckhouse Magazine, editor for Paradigm Concepts, and college student, so I can only hope my writing does not suffer too badly in comparison. With any luck, I'll have had time enough to give a complete review of the finished Arcanis Roleplaying Game (based on my perusal in brief of the new system, I'm excited) to complement the earlier profile on the Arcanis setting. Not only will I have a copy of the rulebook by the time this posts, but I'll have played a few sessions at the convention of the Living Campaign. Back tomorrow with my last “post by schedule” article.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Game of Thrones – Post-Season Recap of HBO's Epic Fantasy Series

Long before the show actually premiered, I wrote about my excitement concerning HBO's Game of Thrones, considering how big a fan of the novels I am. Now that it is all said and done, season one aired and picked up for a second go, how did it all pan out? In a word, fabulous. I was particularly impressed by the delicate balance struck between a wide variety of factors that, if ignored, might well have prepared this series for an entry in a future sequel to my “worst adaptations” article.


The producers of the series had challenges. George R.R. Martin's Westeros is a complex and dark world with a detailed history and subtleties that affect the plot in sometimes unexpected ways. However, a book has the freedom to meander about and plumb the depths of a fantasy world's history that a television show or film cannot. Without some of these details, however, the world loses its unique character, and certain players of the great game act in ways that make no sense, due to lack of proper context. Setting the stage without leaving the important stuff out while not boring the audience with a long history lesson is tricky, and they nailed it. I was amused when I noticed that the appearance of a nude prostitute nearly always signaled a scene featuring a history lesson, a process I've seen referred to as “sexposition.”

Then King Robert proclaimed that all History Lessons must be taught
in the presence of whores. Nude whores. He was probably drunk.

The producers also had to effectively manage the time they were allotted for the first season in order to tell the story contained originally in an 835 page book, and to best use the budget they had for the season as well. Cuts on details in the books were merciful, and the essence of the story and every key scene was retained. I'd have liked to see more of the direwolves, but I understand that shooting with animals costs time and money that adds to a budget very, very quickly. The lack of large battle sequences on-screen was regrettable, but most of the action in terms of large-scale military conflict was told “off camera” in the first book, as well. The decision to be careful how often Rickon Stark was shown was also in the service to logistics, as the youngest child actor is likely to change the most in the filming of a long-term production.

Casting was handled particularly adeptly, given the large number of people in the ensemble, and my early excitement for the casting of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion turned out to be spot-on. Also of particular note is Maisie Williams, the young actress playing Arya Stark. Arya is a great character, a favorite of many who love the books, and they found a shockingly brilliant young actress to fill the role. Arya isn't an easy character to play, fan expectation is high, and the youth of the actress makes her performance incredible. Lord Varys, the Spider, is one of my personal favorite characters, and the more I saw of Conleth Hill, the more I liked the casting. I can't think of a single casting decision that I don't applaud, as most characters looked as I had pictured them, or were so well acted that they changed my mental picture for their roles.

Lord Varys. Fear his gash.

The big moments, the shockers and iconic images were handled adeptly, and one of the great pleasures of a fan of the novels is watching Twitter and reading recaps posted by people experiencing the story for the first time.  I've read each book at least three times now, and have been proud to see a story that has meant so much to me reach a whole new audience in a new way.  Now, a little less than a month to wait for the new book, a Dance With Dragons.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Best Restaurants for the Origins Game Fair – Places to Eat Before and After the Games

Every year I go to the Origins convention, once I hit the streets of Columbus, Ohio, I am reminded that one of the best things about the show is the many excellent options for food in between gaming sessions or after visiting the exhibit hall. With the show starting in earnest tomorrow, I'll take this opportunity to talk about some of my favorite places to grab a bite at the show.

Really Close, Really Convenient – The Convention Center Food Court.

The best thing about the food court is that you don't have to leave the convention center to grab something to eat. In years past, I've had amazing peanut butter sandwiches (they really are good enough to warrant a mention) from the Krema Nut Co. very good breakfast from Chikn 'N Eggs (best place in the morning for food court breakfast) and mostly standard fare from italian, chinese and burger stalls. There is one place that is particularly good and deserves a merit all its own.

A few years back, I got it into my head that I like gyros enough that I wanted to find the best one I could buy. I'd try every place I knew of and every place I drove by every few weeks for years, evaluating price, quality/quantity of food, sauce, fries, everything... The best one I found was sadly not in Chicago. My very favorite gyro plate is served at the Mykonos Gyros stand right in the food court. Inexpensive, best balance of meat, sauce, pita, tomato and onion in a sandwich that doesn't fall apart or leak everywhere, and very good fries, to boot. I still have gyros in any new restaurant I visit around here to hopefully find a place that tops Mykonos, a place I'd have to drive 12 or so hours to visit.


Across the Street – Barley's Brewpub

Awesome beer, short walk, amazing appetizers.

Man, I love Barley's. Convenient, great atmosphere, excellent beers brewed on-site, and my hands-down favorite sit-down restaurant in Columbus, OH. Hamburgers with ale-washed onions, solid pasta dishes and consistently interesting specials. One year I had an order of jerk-seasoned ribs with a blueberry barbeque sauce, something I'd never heard of before or since. I'm also a fan of “Mildred's Sauerkraut Balls,” an appetizer with sausage, sauerkraut, and cheese rolled up, breaded and fried. Even though I'll spend a bit more there than in the Food Court, I know at least one meal there is a must this year.

A Short Walk – The North Market

My favorite stall at the North Market, Nida's.

Just a few blocks away from the convention center you have the North Market, a place with food stands, stalls and small restaurants. I've gotten great deli sandwiches, perfectly cooked barbeque and an omelette with Andouille sausage in years past. The place I try not to miss annually, however, is Nida's Sushi. I've had sushi on both coasts of the US, in Las Vegas, and here in Chicago, I've had enough to know what I do and don't like, and what I expect to pay. Nida's is as good as any sushi restaurant you can find in the Midwest without breaking your bank, convenient and extremely inexpensive. I've paid twice what I expect to pay at Nida's for sushi that isn't half as good, and they also serve a very tasty Pad Thai.

If you happen to be at the show this year and visit one of these fine places, go ahead and tell them I sent you. They won't know who the hell I am, but they'll likely have served me recently. This is the first of my "auto-posted articles" while I'm out of town.  I'll check comments and such from wherever I can get Wi-fi on the Kindle, the rest of this week will be similarly short and sweet, and I'll be back with a surprise guest blogger next Monday!
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Monday, June 20, 2011

Living Campaigns - Players and Paperwork

For the bulk of the time I've spent as an adult gamer attending annual conventions, especially Gen Con and Origins (where I am as of the publication of this post) the main reason I've made the annual pilgrimage is for tabletop roleplaying games in general, and to participate in living campaigns in particular. So, what's a living campaign? In short, a living campaign is run by a team of volunteers organizing a single campaign with a shared world that thousands of people at home, in game shops and at conventions participate in. That is an accurate summary that does a poor job of answering the question. I'll do my best to elaborate.


The earliest living campaigns were based on Dungeons and Dragons games or their derivatives, which typically have a single game master controlling the world, the story and all of the monsters and characters not played by individual players. The RPGA (Role Playing Game Association) originally came up with the concept of a game that could be played with players creating characters that conform to a published set of uniform guidelines, to keep individual “house rules” to a minimum. These characters would play a series of adventures published in Polyhedron, the RPGA newsletter, and track treasure and experience gained on a form kept between play sessions. Different groups could form under different gamemasters to play any new scenarios using the same characters, as the standards for character creation and session tracking kept everything organized and honest. Set in the Forgotten Realms city of Raven's Bluff, this first campaign was called Living City.

Living City became extremely popular at game conventions after its 1987 debut, new Polyhedron articles clarifying, refining and announcing various aspects of the campaign. Most new scenarios were written by RPGA members, and distribution over the internet for printing replaced a magazine-style publication allmost completely by the mid-1990s. Special treasures, titles or other important rewards were tracked using paper certificates signed by a gamemaster to indicate the reward had been earned in-game. Living City thrived until the release of the 3rd Editon of Dungeons and Dragons in the year 2000, but by then many other living campaigns had been launched for play by the RPGA.

Men and women of the RPGA playing Living Greyhawk.

Living campaigns offer an alternative to gamers who cannot find a group to play a standard campaign with that meets their schedule, or who prefer to play with a different group of people in a different environment regularly. The community aspect of participating in the same campaign world with thousands of other players instead of (usually) three to six other people makes a living campaign a good fit for convention gaming. Conventions also sometimes have larger scale events such as “Interactives” which might include Live Action Roleplaying, in-character item bazaars, or events hosted by campaign world organizations like guilds recruiting for membership or sponsoring a competition of some sort with a unique reward for the victor. Conventions also play host to the mega-event called the “Battle Interactive,” where a large scale fantasy war is played out with each table of players representing squads, and their table gamemasters playing a series of rounds representing important skirmish actions in the battle, with tables overall success or failure rate in achieving objectives determining the outcome of the war.

A Living City Interactive from 2001, "A Game of Masks."
Funny story, seven years after this picture was taken, I'd end up marrying the girl in green on the left. 

Some of the individual impact of characters upon a setting is lost in a game mostly played at conventions and in the back rooms of retail stores, but it is a different sort of experience for those who want to play many adventures with different people, but with advancements to a single character persisting throughout. The paperwork and tracking of certificates, experience and gold adds a bit of accounting to these games no present in a typical roleplaying game, and filling out the forms is daunting for some. Living games also require some suspension of disbelief as many players complete the exact same scenarios at different tables, but the game works best not trying to reconcile a singular timeline inclusive of everyone's different experiences in previous sessions.

Today, living games are run both within and outside of the RPGA, some to promote a particular game, others simply by groups of dedicated fans who volunteer to administrate and handle the questions and rulings that keep gameplay as universal and consistent as possible. I'm currently involved in the Chronicles of the Shattered Empires campaign set in the world of Arcanis, and preparing to play in the Shadowrun: Missions campaign as well. (Preparing my Arcanis character for the con actually is the reason for the extreme late time of this article's publication.)

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Name of the Wind, Fantasy by Patrick Rothfuss – Summary and Review

One of the nice things about having an extra 40+ hours in any given week is that I have that time to engage in leisure activities that were once often neglected due to a desire to keep up with other hobbies and get a little bit of sleep now and again. Making even the leisure time somewhat productive is a goal I constantly struggle with, making sure that I have a steady stream of new things to experience and evaluate. Without an unlimited entertainment budget, however, I can't play every new PC or console game release. Luckily, with the existence of local libraries and friends with extensive collections of novels, I don't have that same problem with books. I've done enough reading in my time spent out of work that I've certainly gotten my money's worth out of my Kindle, and even limiting myself almost completely to my favored genre, fantasy, I've gotten a LOT of reading done, as I've written a bit about before.

Despite what this cover proclaims, the book really isn't  a romance novel
 with a protagonist whose head is on fire.

The most recent book I've finished (just last night, in fact) is The Name of the Wind (Book One of The Kingkiller Chronicle) by Patrick Rothfuss. I'd heard about this from friends in my WoW guild who had finished it to rave reviews and encountered it in one of my favorite webcomics. This book is the first in a trilogy that will set the stage for another trilogy using the same characters and locations established in the current books. The Name of the Wind is the (relatively) young author's first published novel, and after rejection from several publishers, he caught a break in 2002. An excerpt of the book was entered in the Writers of the Future competition, and it won, getting him the needed exposure for publication.

Originally, all three books in the trilogy were supposed to be a single long work titled A Song of Flame and Thunder, but a few changes were required before publication. The book was split into three volumes and the series was retitled in order to avoid any confusion with George R.R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Substantial revision was needed to reframe a single long book as a trilogy of novels, and to date two of the three volumes have been published, both making it to the New York Times Bestsellers list. Audience and critical reception to the books have been very positive, with The Name of the Wind receiving the Quill award for Best Sci-fi/Fantasy in 2007.

He may look like an average IT guy at any given University, but this man can spin a tale.

When I first started reading the series, I really didn't know exactly what to expect, and even a few hundred pages in, I must confess, at first, that I didn't “get it.” Sticking with the book past my initial reservations, I found that my mistaken assumptions were at the heart of my perceived problems with the books, and they were satisfactorily resolved once I fully comprehended what it was, exactly, that I was looking at. The book introduces a character named Kvothe, a character whose personal legend is so larger than life that he goes beyond the wildest reputations of the characters in the worlds most overpowered game of Dungeons and Dragons, and becomes one of the tall tales those characters might tell each other around the campfire.

My initial resistance to the character was rooted in too much fantasy that forces the audience to accept that a character is a total badass because the author says so, and as a result the character comes off as a little silly, but you swallow your contempt and trudge on because there's something else you like about the book. Finding a protagonist whose reputation is so over the top that it almost seems a parody of fantasy as a genre gave me pause. Then Rothfuss started to do an incredible thing. By having Kvothe tell his story in flashback to a professional historian from childhood on, the legend of the character is broken down and deconstructed. The reader is assaulted at the beginning with an impossible character with a laundry list of impressive names and titles, and step by step we are exposed to the small, reasonable decisions that make the character earn every last one of them.

The character of Kvothe has inspired a lot of fan-art and some of it is very good.
(Attribution for this piece goes to Wyrmrider at DeviantART.)

The framing story, of the legendary magician, bard and swordsman telling his story as he has retired and is in hiding from all that he once was allows us to occasionally hear the folk tales that have sprung up from events that the audience knows the true version of, allowing us to grin at how much the stories get right as well as the things that are misremembered or exaggerated. Hints about what is going on in the present fill these cracks and interludes in the main narrative which is the flashback. Once I'd understood this, I was rapidly approaching another of my incorrect assumptions, that the first book would wrap up the “origin story.” Once I figured out that the entire trilogy would have the flashback and the telling of the legend as its focus, I settled in more comfortably and realized I'd be reading all three books in the series, as well as any other works that follow up in the same world.

What I'm reading as soon as I get done posting this.

I've settled today nicely into the second volume of the trilogy, The Wise Man's Fear and gotten rather deep into it as I was in an “unavoidably detained” sort of waiting-room scenario that I was glad to have the book in tow for. So far the writing style and continued character development is consistently fantastic and evocative, showing what is meant rather than telling. This is a difficult trick to pull off, as the entire three-book series is arguably entirely exposition, but it is done deftly and I anticipate that I'll have finished the second volume and be hungering for the release of the third well before I am ready to leave for the Origins Game Fair next week. I'll be doing my best to build up a buffer and schedule articles to automatically post while gone, but if I don't comment on many blogs in the next week or if I miss a post, that'll be why.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Free Games Profile - 5 Games I've Been Playing That Cost My Favorite Price.

Not so long ago, I posted on my Tumblr a list I'd seen somewhere else about awesome free games. I like awesome, and free is right in my price range at the moment, so I've checked out a few of these in the last week or so, to answer the question: Do you get what you pay for, or are there good free games out there? One of the games is a pretty complete alpha of an inexpensive project, one is a free-to-play, also known as “freemium”, where you get a feature set for free, but there are additional options/content available for purchase. Yet another takes the structure found in Mafia Wars-type games and turns it on its ear to produce something very interesting. The last two are complete, finished and free, no strings attached.

The first game I want to talk about is also the oldest. Cave Story, originally called Doukutsu Monogatari, was developed by one man over five years, a labor of love. The PC release is an old-school platform adventure that is most similar to Metroid, with weapons that level up when golden triangles are collected. The story follows a robotic (or maybe cyborg) soldier who wakes up in a cave with no memory and stumbles into a village of friendly creatures who are under assault by a mad scientist and his hench-things. The action is familiar in an old-school way, very difficult in spots and the story progresses in unexpectedly interesting directions. The version of the game translated from Japanese to English became so popular that a remake of the title with enhanced graphics was made for the Wii, and a 3D version is coming to the 3DS. This one is a lot of fun, and there are several endings and bonus levels to discover.

The surprised looking Lunchbox is named Balrog. I just wanted to type that.

In the same vein of free platforming action game is Spelunky, with retro graphics and random level generation, Spelunky is fun, but it makes no claim to be fair. The cave explorer is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, complete with hat and whip, and in the opening levels there is a golden idol which can be collected that triggers a rolling boulder trap when touched. You start with a limited supply of basic tools, 4 ropes which allow climbing up into areas that you can't jump to, and 4 bombs which allow blasting through floors and walls. Other items can randomly be found through the levels as you collect treasures, fight monsters and attempt to evade deadly traps. There's a lot to discover in this game as well, secret areas, occasional NPCs to interact with, and in a nod to Temple of Doom, even sacrificial altars to Kali.

Snakes... why did it have to be snakes...

The free Alpha release of Desktop Dungeons reminds me of a cross between Realm of the Mad God and classic roguelike dungeons, only on a smaller scale. Every dungeon is a single screen large, you start out with the possibility of four races and four basic classes to choose from with special abilities, and if you can level up enough to defeat the boss monster in the dungeon, more features unlock with every win. The game is random, very difficult, even less fair than Spelunky in some cases (sometimes it really isn't possible to do much of anything as every monster you can reach kills you in one hit.) However, individual tries at the randomly created dungeons don't take very long, so a lot of dying and restarting makes this one addictive. Also of note, this game has altars to various deities who your character can choose to worship. The gods give piety for completing certain actions, and penalize piety for others. For example, a warrior god might grant piety for every monster killed, but penalize for casting spells. After several days spending more time than I'd like to admit on this one, I've beaten the dungeon only three times, once each with a warrior, thief and cleric.

This game has no business being this addictive. I may drop the $10 for the finished game.

Another free game that I've actually been playing for a while now but only recently got back into is the fantastic Echo Bazaar. On its surface, Echo Bazaar looks like a Facebook game. You get a number of turns that refill slowly with time, you train skills by repeating actions over and over until a higher level of skill unlocks a new action to grind and train on. There are several things that separate Echo Bazaar from the pack of games released by Zynga for Facebook however. First, though you need to connect through Facebook or Twitter, Echo Bazaar is separate from the social networks aside from the ability to tweet short ads for the game for bonus actions once daily, and the ability to interact with friends and followers who also play. The setting is a Victorian London that fell deep beneath the Earth, claimed by the dark Masters of the Bazaar. Hell is literally so close they have an embassy, and demons and strange creatures walk alongside grubby urchins and gentlemen and ladies in a twisted and vaguely Lovecraftian setting dripping with mystery. Echo Bazaar also tracks decisions made in the course of telling your story, and makes those choices relevant enough that each player's experience is unique. My personal character is a debauched rake and hedonist, using a silver tongue and his wits to seduce, gamble and write poetry in society while searching for the Ultimate Game, a poker game with the Heart's Desire as the prize, and the Immortal Soul as the stake.

A game with secrets and souls as currency, be a thief, thug, scholar or some combination of all these.

The last of the free games I've been messing with recently is one of a category of games recently made available on Steam. I'm a big fan of free-to-play MMORPGs and multiplayer action games that make their money from a dedicated fanbase willing to part with a little cash in order to get something extra. I like the model a lot, in some ways this is the basis for Echo Bazaar. How much I like the structure, however, depends on how much content is behind a paywall. If the game has only a small amount of free content and makes me cough up cash for the full game, it isn't “Free to Play,” its a demo, and I feel cheated. A good way to get around this is to make most of the purchasable content earnable in-game over a long period of time. A few well-known games deserving of their own articles do this, including Dungeons and Dragons Online and League of Legends. Steam just put up access to Champions Online, Alliance of Valiant Arms, Forsaken World, Global Agenda: Free Agent and Spiral Knights.

I've been burned by F2P games before, this one seems worth the time investment.

I started on my “play to evaluate” on Spiral Knights, as I want to give each of these a fair shake on their own merits before judging them. Trying to play them all at once would ensure at least one game doesn't really get played nearly long enough to get a proper review. I started with Spiral Knights for two reasons, one, it was the most different of the five titles in presentation from other games I've been playing recently. The second reason lies with the developers. Three Rings is an independent studio that practically introduced me to the Free-to-play concept with their game Puzzle Pirates, that released in 2003. I wanted to see what these guys could do with a more ambitious project. Spiral Knights is best described as an Action-RPG like Legend of Zelda, but with a robotic, almost Lego, feel to the characters and multiplayer dungeons and towns. The game is very pretty, controls smoothly and is a lot of fun in party. The currency to enter a dungeon, resurrect when dead or craft items is “energy,” which can be refilled with time, real money, or tanks can be bought using in-game currency. Bonus! It passes my litmus test for “is this really free?” I looks forward to pushing into content and seeing where the content boundaries before it really makes sense to pay are.

I anticipate I'll revisit this topic many times as I do a LOT of gaming, and don't have a whole lot of budget for it, so finding my diversions without opening my wallet beyond WoW and Gamefly subscriptions takes up the time not spent writing, reading, looking for work or doing tabletop RPGs. I'll find the best and the worst that money doesn't have to buy, and come back and report on my findings.
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