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I've been thinking, as I wrote in my last D&D post, about how to do the more natural settings in my new campaign in a way that both explores the economic questions and maintains the sense of whimsy and adventure you want in a fantasy adventure and it struck me that the obvious approach is to use Fey. The very nature of Fey adventures is tied up in questions of contracts and obligations, it's inherently economic in nature. Players want to exploit a mine, but in order to gain access they need to make deals with the local fey, whose goals may be orthogonal to predictable economic aims, but whose practices are definitely economic in nature.

This creates a really interesting potential scenario: Beneficial contracts that players make with fey accrue immediate guild merits (XP) toward levelling, but if a deal with a fey is ever breached, players lose those guild merits and potentially can de-level. I really like this effect, it makes breaking fey contracts have real, meaningful teeth to the players on a metaphysical level.

Larger contracts between Auction Houses and fey kingdoms are also a wonderful source of adventure hooks, as such deals no doubt require periodic acts of maintenance. I'm imagining a scenario like where the Deal is that in order to ensure safe passage across a river in fey territory, all the Carter's Guild needs to present the local fey lord with a small, somewhat obscure but not valuable gem every year- the kind of payment where the players might wonder what the hell the faeries want with it. The players try to cross the river and the fey lord, wearing an outfit beautifully adorned with hundreds of identical gems showing that this Deal has been in force for centuries and revealing the intricate way that this ageless lord executes plans over long time scales, denies them passage until they present him this year's gem. And he doesn't deny them passage by force, but with a simple but immensely powerful teleport spell. Any time they try to cross the river, they end up back where they started. I can do so much with this kind of story element.

So I'm going to need to think up the details of the organization, such as it is, of the fey in the Mannheim Vale. I definitely want multiple kingdoms/courts of fey, but I probably also want individual loner fey creatures.
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In a couple months the rotation in my regular D&D group is going to work its way around to me DMing the on-going campaign. I've been a fill-in one shot DM for the group for years and have in various contexts run one shots and two and three shots over the years, but have never run a sustained rpg campaign before. I'm very excited.

My goal is basically to run Capitalism: The RPG. The setting is a homebrew called the Mannheim Vale setting, and it's a setting I've used to run one-shots before. It's a late-medieval setting where three kingdoms hold in dispute the Mannheim Vale, a geographically isolated area, with the result being that it's ended up being fairly ungoverned, home to subsistence farming goblins and a few esoteric hermit cults. But the vale has mineral resources of interest to a rapidly industrializing late-medieval power, so that my one-shot adventures have been tinged with the sense that this geographically isolated area is unlikely to stay untouched by the larger powers for long, and that in fact the triggering events of my one-shots have been the early probings of the major powers. I propose to explore in more detail the conflict as the long-time inhabitants of the vale deal with the influx of newcomers with their own agendas, from the point of view of the colonizers. I plan to exploit the tendency of D&D adventurers to, er, exploit, by directly converting economic externalities into plot hooks. And I plan to encourage the tendency of D&D adventurers to exploit by supplementing and modifying conventional XP systems to particularly reward players for discovering and laying claim to resources that have long-term economic value. I want discovering a vein of ore to be more valuable to a player than discovering a monster's treasure horde. But I want mining that vein of ore to bring with it story consequences that make players learn to ask if the reward is worth the human cost.

Players will be all affiliated with one of the numerous Auction Houses of Holern- powerful vertically integrated medieval guilds headed by a Chief Auctioneer (generally a high level bard). I want them to all be affiliated with different Auction Houses so that they're jockeying against each other, working together for the good of Holern and the joint venture but particularly attuned to how they can benefit their own sponsoring guild.

I haven't quite decided on the mechanics of my XP system modifications yet. I was at first thinking of replacing XP for combat with a mechanic I was thinking of as "XP for Profit", as a play on OD&D's "XP for Treasure". But it got messy, it would pretty much only work if players actually operated a fairly substantial economic ledger, which seems like a big ask. I'm thinking now to simplify- minimize or completely ditch XP for combat, and use a guild-based leveling system where players gain levels when they provide enough benefits to their guild to get a guild promotion. Finding a monster treasure horde might be worth a guild merit or two- they're not going to say no to enriching the guild treasury with the percentage of the haul that their guild member of course remits... but finding an exploitable mine, or uncovering a new kind of medicinal plant, or charting a faster trade route... those things are worth multiple guild merits.

This could all turn out to be a total disaster, in which case I'll tweak it as I go, but I'm really excited about getting the chance to try to tell a story like this over a longer time scale.

The other thing I'm worried about is how to tell stories in Capitalism: The RPG while still have it compellingly be a fantasy world. How do I maintain whimsy and magic and fantasy while exploring the economic questions that are interesting to me? How do I keep it fun for players?

I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how to do it for the setting's primary urban locus, the city of the various Auction Houses. My favorite bit of backstory about the city is this: The Council of Seven that rules the city politically is traditionally headed either by a human or a dwarf, alternating on three year terms. This is a political compromise between the two largest races in the city, but it is not a statutory arrangement and every so often, typically when the dwarves and humans are deadlocked on some issue, an elf has served a term as president of the council. And there was that one time that a minotaur ruled the city for three years... His big public works project as council president was a large public park with a fiendishly difficult unsolved labyrinth as its focal point.

I get how cities work, I have a feel for their nuances and I know how to generate fantasy and whimsy in an urban setting while making all the nuts and bolts of the city feel real. I'm going to have to work harder when characters are out exploring the wilder areas to hit the balance between the pure economics and the fantasy adventure. But I'm excited about the challenge of this, too.
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Ran a neat D&D one-shot last night. Set-up was that the players were unpaid interns on their first day at a zoo full of D&D monsters. I drew up the zoo map a year or two ago on a previous occasion when I thought I was going to be running a one shot, but never actually ran it. This time when I was asked on short notice to run something I thought it'd be easy to pull it out of my bag, but it turns out I'd lost all prep materials besides the map drawing, so I had to scramble a little to think up some story hooks in the hour before the game. But it worked really well in practice.

In the hour I had, I typed up a schedule and a task list for the interns and embedded all the storyhooks into these materials, which the interns found on a chalkboard in the employee only area of the zoo's welcome center. There were hooks like "Feed the owlbear" and "Sing to the manticore" and "Make sure all the oozes are accounted for" and "Don't feed the trolls" The great thing about this was that it meant that for much of the adventure, I didn't need to advance the plot- the players took over management of the schedule and advanced the plot for me. All I did was serve as timekeeper and occasionally inserted an NPC to stir things up. This suited my natural inclination as DM to not do very much.

There were a lot of hysterical scenes- the drunk satyr in the petting zoo, the lovelorn chimera escaping his cage to seek the lovely hydra, the sphinx needing to be given a new riddle, but my favorite was probably the payoff on a gag from the schedule- an item said "Feed the minotaur", but there was no minotaur cage on the map. The interns ran all over the zoo trying to find a minotaur, but when the zoo's owner showed up at the end of the day to evaluate their performance, he told them "That says manticore"- the unfed manticore who got increasingly grumpy throughout the day in spite of being sung to.
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I'm running a D&D game at Philcon this coming weekend and I'm really excited. I drew my map last week and wrote up most of the encounters over the weekend (Most, because there's lots of ways this could go, and there is the strong possibility I'll have to make up a new encounter on the fly).

One thing I'm thinking about is that the adventure takes place in a forest. My map has a series of paths through the forest, so it's possible for the adventure to run like a theme park forest, don't venture off the path. If that happens, the forest will effectively work like a dungeon, with various forking paths to explore. That would be fine with me- the paths are sufficiently Jacquayed, and the encounters are sufficiently dynamic that there's plenty of room for interesting exploration even while staying on the path. But since it's a forest, the 'walls' of the paths CAN actually be broken through. Players will take movement penalties and be at risk of getting lost if they go off into the woods, but there are substantial potential benefits. With the right jaunt into the woods, the players could skip about two thirds of the adventure.

I'm uncertain how to communicate that to players. I think it is possible for me to inadvertently steer players away from considering the off-road routes with the way I describe the scene, if I focus too much on the path. "You are on a forest path. It heads out straight in front of you, curving slightly to the right, and there is a split in the path in two hundred feet with one prong continuing straight and the other making a hard right." If I talk like that, I'd imagine most players wouldn't realize that actually at any time they could just go left into the woods, because the descriptive language only acknowledges the path forks as choices . But I definitely don't want to signpost it too obviously because I want it to be a realization on the players part. If I say, like "On your right side is forest, in front of you is a path, and on the left side is forest, which way do you go?" then either the players think I'm being obnoxiously patronizing or they realize that I am explicitly giving them the option of going into the forest, which I don't think is what I want either.

I think the middle ground is to feed subtler reminders of the forest into my descriptions. "As you walk along the path, slowly curving rightward, you notice that the trees on the left side of the path are getting thicker and more gnarled." Give the players reason to be curious about the forest, if they want to be, rather than directly inviting them to explore it, and do it using descriptions where if they're not interested, it just comes off as flavor. I also suspect a mechanical cue will help- if the first time they consider investigating some of the trees, I say "Okay, traveling in the woods will be at a movement penalty," I'll be giving them the information about traveling off-path at their instigation, rather than at my own. There are also a few places on the map marked where an interaction between on-path and off is cued- as the players pass a certain spot, they'll hear the rustling of deer in the woods, for example.
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I posted about creating a 3.5 ranger character about a year ago. Just completed my first dungeon crawl with him over a year's worth of quasi-bi-weekly sessions.

Some thoughts:

Its jack-of-all-tradesness is sometimes frustrating in a well-balanced party. I have stealth skills I rarely use because our rogue generally makes a better dungeon scout. I have healing skills I rarely use because our cleric is a better healer. On the other hand, as a jack of all trades fighter I do offer useful versatility. Though my character focus is on archery and ranged combat, though I am most deadly as a sniper, a role I performed in our boss fight, my character is also capable of wielding a longsword and being the party's frontline fighter in weeks when our actual frontline fighter is not there.

In terms of character, I'm stumbling a little more. The canonical ranger is early LotR Strider, right? Once he becomes Aragorn, though, his canonical ranger attributes fade into the background. Late LotR Aragorn is definitely multiclassed out of ranger, into some sort of warrior-king prestige class. I'm finding the same thing is happening to me as we dungeon crawl because the very act of being part of a party and adventuring together undermines the ranger's classic loner status. He has to work together, share the load, and he is gaining experience from doing that, even though trust is very hard for him. I'm not sure where he's heading, though.

My other current D&D character started as a base mercenary fighter and has evolved into a mercantilist prince whose most powerful weapons are his lawyers and accountants. I don't exactly plan for these things to happen, I just see where the adventure and my own curiosity and intellectual preoccupations take me and very often it ends up surprising me. A Level 3 Ranger is too early to see where the character is headed, but it is definitely not toward a Level 10 Ranger.

In life news, I am heading to Balticon this weekend and I am excited for that. As it is the 50th anniversary edition, they've invited back a whole bunch of past guests of honor, and that spectacle and the fact that GRRM is the 'official' guest of honor means it's going to be a much bigger event than usual, almost the size of a small Worldcon. I liked Balticon a lot last year, as there were lots of cool people and I felt that the extra day of convention gave me the breathing room to really enjoy myself. This year, where it's not on Shavuos and I'll only have Sabbath restrictions on one day, I should be able to take fuller advantage of the con's offerings. I'm also looking forward to seeing [personal profile] freeradical42- since he finished his PhD and moved to Westchester, it's been harder to schedule time to hang out... it's almost exclusively been at cons over the past six months.

And after I get back from Balticon I will continue my frantic packing, as I am moving into a new apartment a couple towns over June 1st! It should be a better situation- access to more young Jewish community, closer commute to work, closer access to trains into the City, a number of other benefits. But packing always brings tsouris, so hopefully that won't be too much crazy. I am trying not to panic.
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The biggest struggle I had in running a high level 5E game at Philcon had to do with magic items.

Magic items in 5E are completely rethought in substantial ways with regards to game balance. In general, in 3rd and 4th editions, there was an expectation in the math that players would have level appropriate magic items, that this was one of the things that equalized them against enemies. Along with this expectation came the pricing- magic items were priced so that they could be afforded by players of appropriate level, in addition to being seeded throughout dungeons. Magic items were commodified as an integral part of the adventurer economy.

5th edition, with its much flatter level curve, is designed so that magic items are not required to stand up against level appropriate enemies. A +1 weapon is still a powerful item even at higher levels. The general place of magic items in 5th edition is rethought commensurate with this change. Magic items are not actually priced in the DMG, they're not designed to be part of the adventurer economy, and the DM is encouraged to restrict the ability of players to construct magic items on their own.

Rather, magic items in 5E are supposed to be story seeds. They're supposed to be coveted and dangerous objects of power, like Anduril or the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, rather than merely powerful tools, as they are in Vance's Dying Earth or Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. The new 'attunement' rules go along with this- in order to gain the benefits of a magic item, one must not merely pick it up and start fighting with it. One must rather become acquainted with the weapon, channel some of your own personal energy into it, and in doing so take the risk that the weapon will be cursed and gain power over you.

I find these rules really exciting, and if I ever get to run a 5E campaign I think it'll be really cool to use magic items in this way, but these rules were a big problem for running a one shot high level adventure in the system, because the players were high level enough that you would expect them to have acquired magical weapons in their adventures, but I didn't want either the timesink to me or the distraction in game that fully fledged 5E magical weapons would have imposed.

In retrospect, upon rereading the magic item rules in the DMG, I have realized that there is another option in the rules which is better suited for what I wanted, which is the weapon quirks table. I could have given the players +1 or maybe even +2 weapons, but given each a roll on the weapon quirks table, which would have personalized the weapons in some minor, inconsequential but interesting way. This would have been, in effect, a lite version of the full fledged 5E magic items rules, giving magical weapons with some heft but also some story hook, and I think it would have been fast enough for me as a DM and fun enough for the players, without distracting from what was already a crammed 4 hour session.
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My new D&D (3.5) party: cleric, barbarian, bard, rogue, and I'm playing a half-orc ranger, aiming toward the Archery fighting tree. I have never played a ranger before, in any system. Curious to see how it'll go. It's a really weird class in 3.5, with a strange admixture of options and powers available to it. There's the animal affinity stuff, the tracking stuff, some minor spellcasting stuff, the situational combat boosts (Rangers are totally lethal against their favored enemies, when using their favored weapons, while wearing light armor, and otherwise are mediocre fighters)... hell, apparently at level 9, I get Evasion, which Rogues get at level 2. In jack-of-all-tradesness, the Ranger almost seems like the Bard of fighter-type characters.

This is a playgroup I've been playing Alternity: Stardrive with for the past six months, but the GM got bored, which is probably understandable since we never quite clicked with the game. So we're switching to bog standard 3.5, using bought modules, so the DM can recharge his creative batteries. We'll see how long this lasts until he's bored again.

I have never played a ranger before, but I have played half-orcs. It's a little tricky... there's a lot of really racist undertones to orcs in Tolkien (and thus D&D) and I try to tread carefully to avoid building my character on problematic tropes. I tend to prefer to treat half-orcs as an entirely separate race that resembles orcs and humans, rather than the usual half-orcs as the offspring of human women raped by orcs, but I think this time we're shooting for half-orcs as the consensual, wanted offspring of humans and orcs. The party's barbarian is also a half-orc, and we decided we'll be brothers. (The barbarian's player and I played dwarven brothers a few years back and had fun, so I'm looking forward to the new fraternal dynamic evolving)
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I bought into the Reaper Bones kickstarter because the overwhelming number of miniatures entranced me. They showed up this past week and I have slowly started painting them.

I am terribly inexperienced at painting minis. I had never done it before this past fall, when I acquired a minimal amount of equipment to start painting the pewter dwarf minis from another kickstarter. That is going very slowly, because I love those pewter minis and am quite hesitant to paint them and risk screwing up. They're extremely detailed, beautiful miniatures that are not exactly beginner level projects. I bought some super cheap plastic orcs to practice on, and that's been very helpful since I don't care if I screw up so I can experiment. However, they're also super cheap and not very detailed, and I'm unsure how well they prepare me to work on the dwarves. Important but tricky features like beards are not a part of the orc models.

Now I have like two hundred well made but reasonably inexpensive plastic minis to practice on. This is hopefully a lot of opportunity to practice. I'll try to post some photos of them as I paint, and maybe people can critique me? Thus far I have painted a skeleton, an orc, and what I think was supposed to be a human noble, but which I painted as a ranger with a long, flowing green cloak. The ranger mostly didn't come out well, but I like how the cloak came out, with interesting shadows and highlights. The orc was neat, until I changed my mind on the green shade for his skin. I don't like how the second shade dried quite as much, but I still think it's pretty decent for where I am now.

Today is the twenty second day of the Omer.
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Saturday night I played for the first time in Alai's Legacy of the Bieth D&D campaign. LotB is a campaign setting he's been working on for ages, drawing from Medieval Arabian and North African lore, spaghetti westerns, and bits and pieces of things like Moorcock and other post-pulp fantasists. It's something I've been excited about experiencing because it's so unique and because Alai has spent so much time working on it and so much time talking to me about it that it really seems like a living, breathing location.

I rolled up a Labyrinth Lord level 1 Magic User. 2 hp, one spell per day, no rings for mortal men doomed to die. :P Party was a motley crew of poor, hardscrabble fighters, thieves, and one cleric.

And somehow along the way our plan to stop a crew of bandits involved a massive public works project, a fictional sage and miracle worker, multiple contradictory rumors about the governor's propensity for bribery, three separate plans involving setting things on fire, and zero combat rolls in the entire four hour session. It was sensational. The world was vivid and as interesting as we'd imagined. Alai was extremely good at giving us flavor details that made it come alive.

And I found an amazing partner in crime. It's not uncommon in D&D sessions I play in for me to enter into our planning session with the craziest plans I can come up with. Then people talk me down, refuse to go along with my plans, moderate and modify my plans, or in other ways move us to something saner. I'm okay with that. Crazy plans are part of brainstorming, and I'm happy to see my ideas help push people toward a final plan that makes more sense to them. But my partner in crime, someone I'd never before played with, kept taking my crazy ideas and gleefully extending them with even more ridiculous detail. I don't think this was the most complicated and outlandish plan I've ever tried to execute in a D&D game, but it came close, and it was fun to have players around who kept saying "Yes, and..." to my suggestions.

The social experience of roleplaying has lost some of its luster lately for me, because my regular bi-weekly group has a player whose play style doesn't match with mine, making some of the sessions into frustrating clashes of personality. (It's really weird that D&D is a game classically favored by socially inept nerds. It demands so much attention to social nuance. I am terrible at that most of the time.) I really enjoyed being with a group whose playstyle, for the most part, matched mine. Though I imagine that having reached a critical mass of crazy scheming players, anyone looking for a more straightforward dungeon crawl was getting shouted down by us.

Today is the twenty first day of the Omer
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Playtest went okay. Needs a fucking skill system that makes sense. Not that I would use it correctly most of the time, but it'd give me the guidance I'd need to actually do logical things with noncombat dice use. There was a lot of fumbling "Uh... yeah... give me a dex roll, I guess? And if you can justify any of your skill bonuses, go ahead!"

It also needs monster creation rules. I was going to have to borrow and fudge the bear stats from a different system if my players decided to fight my bear. Fortunately they ran away.

Mostly, as Alai put it, the rules got out of the way and let us play. Which was fine, but I was never clear when that was because of the rules and when that was because I didn't know how to use the rules. Either way, we had a good time, but this game still has a lot that dissatisfies me. And I don't feel like we adequately playtested it in the sense of pushing it to discover the specific problems with the system. Further research required.

I like this setting I invented in thirty seconds, though. The Mannheim Vale is a vale that is geographically isolated from the major political entities of the continent. It has several small goblin villages, along with a few longtime visitors that have established good relations with the goblins by leaving them alone, trading fairly with them. And now there are rumors of adamantium ore in the hills! It's destabilizing the political situation and putting the autonomy of the vale at risk. And I was able to hint at all of that politics subtly enough that the players got that things were going on, but also got that these weren't necessarily plot hooks and didn't need to be chased down immediately. Sometimes I've found as a DM that if I include stuff for flavor, players will decide it's important and I'm forced to make details up fast to either build plot hooks off of their interest or quickly discourage them from pursuing it without being railroady. This time, I struck that balance well. The players didn't approach the scenario as I'd imagined they would, but they never caught me completely off guard. And the stuff I'd stuck in as red herrings was entertaining enough that I don't think they minded wasting their time. My oracular dwarf hermit sage amused people more than he frustrated them, at least.

I've been pushing for a couple months for us to get together a Google hangouts one-shot of the month club with alternating GMs. I decided to view this as a soft launch for the project and at the end of the night asked for someone to step up to take the next alternation. Alai volunteered, so... this might become a thing! I am excited.
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I ran a D&D 5E playtest last night. I'll be running another game with different players, some of whom read this, tomorrow night, so I won't talk too much about the specifics of the adventure. But I wanted to post about the playtest so I can get my thoughts out.

It's a much, much simpler system than 4E, certainly as presented in the playtest materials. Combat is faster, with far fewer in the way of mechanical choices and a lot more freedom given to rule of cool and theater of the mind instead of miniature battle minutiae. In this sense, it seems more in line with 'old school' combat as I understand it, though unlike 'old school' rpgs, there are unified, relatively comprehensible mechanics for everything. I suspect I would have an easier time teaching the system to new players than almost any other full-scale (i.e. not like DREAD, designed only for one-shots) rpg I've played.

Healing's a lot tighter than 4E. I'm not clear if the death rules as written are tighter than the 4E rules on which they're based, because I wasn't really interested in running through them. When my players got knocked out, I gave them a prison-break scenario rather than running through all the death saves. I suspect that the 3 saves and you're stabilized mechanic means these death rules are overall less lethal, though. The one time a player actually got to do a number of death saves, he easily stabilized.

Advantage/Disadvantage rules definitely simplify combat modifiers, but the rules were sufficiently different that I found I was struggling at times to remember when advantage or disadvantage applied. I'm pretty sure with more comfort in the system, this wouldn't be a problem. There were a few other combat rules I missed. I know Attack of Opportunity rules are notoriously complicated and hard to remember, but there was a moment in this game when I said to a player "If this system had Attacks of Opportunity, you would definitely be provoking one right now." I invented an adjudication on the fly for him to duck in between the swarm of kobolds to give his ally a healing potion, but this was probably the moment I was most frustrated with the combat rules. Though to be honest, I would have been happier if the player had tried to distract the kobolds in some way instead of just bulling his way through. I was on the border of just telling him it couldn't be done, but there was a lot of adventure ahead and I just decided to let him give it a shot with a high DC and move on. There's a lot of stuff that system has nothing to do with, where it's just about what the players want and what the DM is willing to let them get.

Our other major note was on the skill rules, or lack of them. Virtually everything is just an ability roll, with specialized skills noted with bonuses to ability rolls. It made for fun freewheeling, but I think in a diplomacy-heavy game, or just in a long-term campaign, this lack of mechanics would get frustrating to me. The skill system has been eroding with each edition, and I already didn't like how coarse the 4E rules were compared to the power and clarity of the 3rd edition skill system. In a one-shot adventure the skill rules were fine, especially for players and a DM learning the system, but if I were running this in a campaign I would have to mod the skill rules.

All told, it was a fun night for both players and DM, I think, though I need to see more of the system before I'd decide what I feel about it. I'm especially interested in seeing their character building rules. It looks like they have interesting ideas, but we didn't get much of a look at them.
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Met up with [personal profile] marina and [personal profile] oddcellist the other night at the Way Station, the bar that looks like a TARDIS. It was really fun to meet them both, but that's not why I'm posting.

I'm posting because I attempted to spread the Left Behind II virus by giving my copy of the DVD to [personal profile] marina. [personal profile] roga, she will be bringing it back to Israel in shame. Make sure that Israeli fandom watches it. And make sure you watch the special features.


I don't usually write rpg session reports here, because mostly they're uninteresting, but I'm wondering if I can't draw out a point here by writing about this past Saturday evening's Star Wars Saga session.

Setting is 5-6 Years After the Battle of Endor. Our party is a collection of New Republic-affiliated officers from a variety of backgrounds, working undercover as Manticore unit- a more or less extralegal investigation arm of New Republic Intelligence. My character, Sanderz, is a human Coruscant Port Authority police officer with expertise in sniffing out smugglers. Another character, Captain Remora, is a Mon Calamari B-wing squadron commander. A third character, Kennaud Thorn is a badass Zabrak demolitions specialist. And the party is rounded out with a corporate honcho with limited combat experience.

The idea is that we are positioned with cover identities that allow us to wage pretty wide-ranging investigations without implicating New Republic Intelligence's interest. In game we've expanded that capability with two additional cover identities- a Hutt-operated luxury goods smuggling operation based on Coruscant's lower levels and an official appointment as a New Republic ad hoc economic investigatory committee charged with doing the preparatory work for economic integration of the New Republic and the Hapes Consortium.

All right, enough background. This week, our party was given a week to prepare for a voyage to Hapes to continue that investigatory work, which includes quiet orders to seek evidence of a Hapan anti-New Republic conspiracy. During that week, we got a call from the Hutt's translator seeking our assistance in closing a deal involving 'blacked' bottles of Hapan Gold Wine- bottles that somehow turned black while possessing the same chemical signature.

We intervened and a hilarious scene evolved as a mysterious Wookiee angrily bid against a Gran club owner for the case of blacked Gold Wine. The scene was strange. There was no reason we could figure out why the wine would be worth any more, yet we were able to ask for an amazing markup. Captain Remora- [personal profile] freeradical42's character- decided that before he pulled the trigger on any deal, he was going to try to get information from the bidders about their profession, their interest in the deal, with characteristic rude bluntness. Sanderz, my character, more familiar with the underworld, was determined to close the deal safely before asking any questions. And it was just about the funniest thing ever, this four or five sided auction/interrogation that culminated with us splitting the case in half and making 3 times the normal price of a case of wine. (-What do you do for a living, you no good low-life? -He didn't mean that! We're not the sort who asks questions! How's thirty million credits? -If that Gran doesn't back down I'm going to beat him up!)

This was thus settled. And since this had nothing to do with our mission as Manticore Unit and since it had really little connection to anything, it should have ended there. But we were curious about a few details that didn't add up and our GM gave us a lot of string to play with. And here we get to the point I wanted to draw out.

There are two ways to conduct investigations in an rpg. Those two ways are fundamentally drawn from the two opposing philosophical approaches to rpgs. Approach 1 is "I roll Gather Information and get a 24. What do I learn?" Approach 2 is "I find a list of all of the people the Wookiee assaulted and interview each one separately to learn what I can about his character and motivations."

This philosophical opposition goes deeper than the basic "Some people like to act out their encounters and some like to use dice to tell them how well they did." There are other tradeoffs here. The first approach takes you five minutes. The second approaches takes you... took us... over two hours. The first approach puts the decision about what information is relevant mostly in the GM's hands. The second approach lets the players have much more control over that. These are tradeoffs you need to balance as you decide how you want to undertake investigations in a game. What decision you make fundamentally changes what kind of experience you'll have.

In a series of bizarre encounters with assault victims, we learned that the Wookiee had assaulted a Duro peddler of blue milk because that Duro shared his name with a Duro fund manager who owned stock in a company called Red Milk. We learned that the creator of a popular whiskey blend had gotten the idea while being smacked by the Wookiee and a vampire goth had replaced his ruined teeth with vampiric fangs after being similarly smacked. And we learned that there is a great market for custom-made wine cozies in certain parts of the community.

Most of these things probably don't lead anywhere. A few of them likely do. Red Milk promises to turn into a significant player in our game's shadowy politics. I think this is a really legitimate philosophical split here, because the session we had was both immensely frustrating and extremely fun. And everything we learned could have been handled with a couple of good Gather Information rolls, which would have freed up time for the other fun and less frustrating things the GM had designed for us, but it would have been an entirely different game.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
There's a D&D mantra "Never split the party." It's partially about in-game logic- If there are dangerous things all around, it's generally a good idea to not separate yourself from your allies, especially if they complement you in ways that make your own abilities more fearsome. But it's mostly a D&D metagaming mantra, developed from hard experience with the awkwardness of trying to fairly deal with two or more groups of players that are separated from each other. How does the DM split time between the two groups adventures? How does he scale encounters that were designed for the whole party to not be crushingly unfair when only half the party sees them, or does he just let the half-party die because of their stupidity? All of this is complicated and difficult to deal with, so from a metagaming perspective it's generally held that it's better to keep all the characters together if at all possible.

In last night's session, I spent a good amount of time agitating for us to split the party. Because of course the thing is, in an rpg sometimes your character wants to do things that don't make sense from a metagaming perspective.

Alys, our halfling rogue, was kidnapped by worshippers of a dark and perverted deity who we believe seek to use her in a powerful ritual associated with a religious festival. Dorfin, my character, has deep trust issues because of a brutal childhood in a corrupt military academy he has recently escaped from. But Alys is one of the members of the group he's formed the deepest bond with, and the combination of his indoctrinated sense of duty, the friendship he's developed with Alys, and his fear that if someone he's trusted gets out of his sight she might betray his secrets means that Dorfin will stop at nothing to get her back.

Our party, though, has more complicated relationships with each other. I think I mentioned before that sometimes with this group the DM can just sit back and not throw any challenges at us at all and we'll keep the plot moving completely on pc vs. pc interactions, because there's so much in-group tension. Our cleric has been trying to exorcise our warlock against his will. Our wizard doesn't really give a shit about anybody. And Dorfin kept huge potentially party-endangering secrets from the rest of the party. So when Alys was kidnapped in late afternoon, after a difficult day in which the spellcasters exhausted many of their best spells, a lot of the party wanted to make camp, get some rest, and then go after Alys. From a tactical point of view, it probably made sense. We had little idea where she'd gone and evidence that she'd been teleported untraceably.

But Dorfin wasn't going to let that happen. Even if the rest of the party made camp, he was determined to spend the whole night searching for tracks if he had to, to prevent their headstart from becoming too vast. And so I pushed to split the party. It didn't end up happening, because they ended up following me (which is interesting in its own right, and we'll see what comes of it), but I think it would have been interesting if it had happened.

As birthday presents to myself, I have finally bought myself Harry Keeler's The Riddle of the Traveling Skull and shall report back on it, along with the CD anthology "DNA on DNA", as part of my attempt to learn more about the music of the amazing musicians I saw at the Masada Marathon. In other news, the Mycale album is unbelievable, but I'll have more on that soon- I'm working on a playlist of Jewish a cappella music to post because the Omer is coming up. I was thinking about it and I have quite a few different styles of Jewish a cappella music that don't suck.

But I mentioned the Keeler novel because if you're any kind of writer at all, I think you'll be fascinated by Keeler's guide to plotting: The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction. It is strange and full of surprising and useful insights, put together by a truly distorted brain.
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Writing for PurimGifts has been going pretty well, though not I think as well as last year. I suspect that like last year I will probably throw out half of my drafts and start fresh before I'm done. The nice thing about an exchange with a 300 word minimum is that it's easy to throw bad ideas away.

D&D has been going well in one of my games. Dorfin Maltby, battlemage in hiding, has revealed parts of his backstory to his party. The stakes keep ratcheting, the adventures keep being fun, and there have been numerous moments when the interpersonal dynamics are so complicated and interesting that the DM can just sit back and act as a referee, rather than throwing challenges at us. I'm really glad I'm part of this party, and after a chat on the drive home after yesterday's game, I'm genuinely sad that one of the players told me that she's planning to retire her character in a level or two in order to try out something new. I'm excited to see her new character, but in the past six months or so I've developed real affection for her present halfling rogue.

The other game has been... weird. This is the one we converted from 4th Ed. to Pathfinder because with only two regular players, 4E wasn't really working for us. It's also been dogged by a lot of missed sessions- DM being sick, me going to the opera, my grandmother's funeral, etc... So the rhythm has perhaps been a little off, as we adjust to new rules, figure out how to handle missing players, try to remember sessions from weeks earlier, etc... But when we have gotten together, the story's been strange. This is the game where my dwarven bard/cleric is a radical monotheist who resents the deities of the rest of his party. This is the game where our party has always consisted of a mixture of non-human species, making our way through a world whose unchallenged basic assumption is that it's majority human in most places. Racial tensions have played a large part in a number of adventures, driven by the players more than the DM in most cases. And with the DM having ceded more of his worldbuilding authority to us recently, that focus has if anything increased.

We're in a city now that segregates its nonhumans in the "Foreigngate" section of town. This is... um... a powderkeg. One which in the last session we half-accidentally detonated, resulting in dwarf vs. gnome violence arising over a mixture of cultural differences, economic resentments, and an unfortunate degree of proximity. On a scale so large we were completely unable to contain it.

So yeah, that's been unusual and challenging. On the one hand, I'm pleased that I've managed to agitate enough to make consciousness of these problems with D&D bubble to the surface. I'm glad that my emphasis on how dwarves represent Jewish stereotypes, on the problematic nature of the human-majority fantasy world, on making racial identity mean something in this world, has affected the way other players run their characters and how the DM understands the world he's created. I'm... uncomfortable, though, with the way it's served to amplify the racism rather than work towards reconciliation. It's good that we're stirring shit up, I suppose.

Things I've been reading include:

Kraken by China Mieville, at my little brother's prodding. It's good. It's surprisingly good. Even when it sucks, you can avoid the suckage because the story pushes you past it quickly. I don't know at all why this story worked, but it did. Guys, I think China Mieville is back.

Five Equations That Changed the World by Michael Guillen- Anyone who like me wants to write scientist RPF is advised to read it. It's quite good at distilling the emotional center of these scientific narratives. Anyone who's interested in science history might find it enjoyable as well, but there are better books for that. Guillen's particularly interested, though, in how religious belief influenced individual scientists, and I like him for that.

The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy is a truly fantastic travelogue by a science writer jumping from exotic astronomy outpost to exotic astronomy outpost, from the Atacama to the Transvaal, from the South Pole to Lake Baikal. If you want to have an idea of what it's like performing scientific research in the 21st century, read this book.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. Yes, Alai, I'm finally reading Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I'm sure you're thrilled. Have just begun "Ill-Met in Lankhmar". I must say that the first two stories were not really my flavor, but they were pre-team-up, so I'm willing to let the charms of the duo win me over. The thing which makes me antsy is that magic has been presented in such a vague way. I prefer systematic magic, like Lord D'Arcy or Mistborn or even Wheel of Time, to Magipoor or Lord of the Rings and their magic-does-what-the-story-demands-of-it approach.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. All I can say is that right now, option number 1 for this year's NaNoWriMo is a new commentary to "Pale Fire".

Things I have watched lately

I'm up to date on GRSigmaSigmaK, which is thankfully in its final season. Rusty/Ashleigh just seems like a desperate final season move on the part of the writers, though they've done a good job of slow-playing it, recognizing that it's unintuitive and needs time to persuade the viewers. Rebecca deserves a healthy relationship before the show ends, and I'm hopeful that ending it with Evan will lead to that. But Evan's character has been drawn as well this season as ever. I love what they do with him. He's a total bastard and they don't try to make him a sympathetic bastard, but they make him seem like his nastiness is reasonable. You can understand why Calvin still looks up to him. You can understand why Casey and Rebecca would date him even though it couldn't ever last. He's an asshole, but often he's an asshole you can live with.

I'm thrilled that the show decided to turn Beaver from a punchline into a character this season. He deserves it.

My major disappointment with GRSigmaSigmaK is actually that the Omega Chi's revenge prank on the Kappa Taus was mean and stupid instead of clever. Picking on Dale? Dear lord. For the most part, GRSigmaSigmaK's depiction of the fraternity system is positive. These people are college kids, and they can be severely irresponsible, yes, but they do believe in friendship and loyalty and supporting each other. But every so often we see them act in a way that could have only happened because of the flaws in the Greek system itself, and Omega Chi tends to be where it originates. Loathsome people.

I watched Inception finally, too. I suppose I enjoyed it? There was much that I didn't enjoy, and there's much in Abigail Nussbaum's negative review that resonated with me. This was, as Nussbaum said, not a very good heist movie. And the characters are not at all well fleshed out. Arthur in particular seemed vague to me. And while the antigravity fight scene is beautiful, it's unclear to me why they didn't dream bigger. This is a much more engaging movie if the dreamscapes are more compelling. Still, it's better thought out than nearly every SF movie they release, and Leonardo DiCaprio does a lot with a role that really doesn't give him all that much to work with.

Still, I'm almost certainly going to end up writing IOAWNAT/Inception crossover fic. The combination is just irresistible to me, the mixture of metafictions.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
So my D&D group is converting our characters from 4E D&D to Pathfinder (D&D 3.5 OGL clone), mostly because we're transitioning to a more NPC interaction-heavy style of gameplay now that we're down to two reliable players and a couple of occasional stragglers and my DM wanted a system that actually had a reasonable skill system.

And in converting my dwarf character, I saw that I now had a +2 to Appraise checks that involve gold. And I was like, "Oh, joy. Hi, Wagner, I'd almost forgotten you were hiding there."

My understanding is that the intellectual history goes Wagner's Ring Cycle --> Tolkien's Lord of the Rings --> Gygax's D&D original. At each step, the linkage between Jews and Dwarves became less overt. But it doesn't go away. And jumping back from 4E to 3.5E was a reminder that D&D has actually gotten better at making Dwarves their own thing over the years. It's an unpleasant reversion.

I created this character partially because I did want to engage with that intellectual history. Kelin's worship of Moradin is a vital part of his identity in a strangely similar way to the way that my worship of Hashem is a vital part of mine. Kelin's interactions with non-dwarves, his understanding of his dwarven heritage and his desire to preserve it, share it, and amplify it, these are all built on my understanding that Dwarf ~= Jew in many ways. Which I suppose means having to accept the consequences of playing a Jewish character in a medieval setting. A major plot right now involves him going into majority human areas and attempting to make a coin or two playing music that hides parts of his heritage. And the struggle has become weirdly personal. I'm not sure if, when in next week's session he'll have his first concert in town, I'm going to be able to bring him to cave that much.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
I've spoken a few times about the D&D character I've been playing since February, a dwarf bard named Kelin Rolffson whose monotheism has rankled the group. Maybe I should mention my new character, since I've been playing him for a few months now and am starting to have a feel for him.

Dorfin Maltby's a human mercenary. He was kidnapped/conscripted as a young boy and brought to a military training academy. He's 26 now and has fought many wars for many masters, after deserting some years ago from the military order that trained him. He's the almost comically heavily armed sort (my DM looked at my character sheet at one point and said "Holy shit! You have that many daggers?"), he's tough and ready for action at any point. He's learned not to give away too much, so he's somewhat quiet and his answers to questions rarely ever reveal the whole story. Unlike the wizard in our group, who readily spins incredible tossers, Dorfin's lies are plausible and internally consistent and purposeful.

And there's the twist. Mechanically, Dorfin is a hybrid Fighter|Sorcerer (4th Ed hybrid rules). The battle academy was devoted to finding youngsters with magical talent and turning them into battle mages of the Order of the Gossamer Sword, capable of fighting as the equivalent of many men. In order to conceal his former affiliation with the brutal Order, Dorfin never uses his magical gifts where anyone can see him. Presumably there will come a point where Dorfin trusts this party enough to share his secret with them, but we're nowhere close to that point yet. And in the mean time, everyone in the party is enjoying the secret. It's really the distinction between rpgs and all other tactical games, isn't it, that in no other type of game would you deny yourself a tactical advantage just for storytelling flavor? I've been hampering my character in combat for story reasons and I've been getting a lot of satisfaction out of doing it.

And I've been getting satisfaction out of the moments where my powers can surreptitiously be employed, as when I magically barbecued a few enemies when I got separated from the party, or when I secretly used my channeling dagger to analyze the enchanted blood of a dead enemy while pretending to just be cutting off a souvenir. The rest of the party's been getting into it, too. The distinction between this secret we all know OOC and only I have IC has galvanized the roleplaying and brought us deeper into our characters.

It's funny... I think this is the first human character I've ever played in a D&D game. I tend to play dwarves, as I think I've mentioned, because D&D dwarves read as Jewish to me for a variety of complicated reasons that trace the intellectual history of their incorporation in D&D. I was more or less forced to play a human this time to make the hybrid rules work with my character design, and I'm definitely struggling a little bit to figure out what 'human culture' is in this world. I may need to fiddle with Dorfin's agnosticism a little bit to find some strings to pull toward that end.
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Finally got around to grabbing El Madmo's debut album from a couple years back. El Madmo being Norah Jones's "punk rock" band. Apparently Norah Jones regularly does this thing where she dresses up in a costume and plays music you'd never expect her 'brand name' AC albums to have. I saw her last January as "Avril Lavigne", wearing a black wig and playing classic country covers with her all-girl trio Puss 'n Boots. And let me tell you, Norah Jones singing Johnny Cash while strumming along on a guitar is a wondrous and surprising thing.

El Madmo's songwriting is haphazard and lazy, rather than the tight, carefully considered construction you expect in a Norah Jones song. They seek to make up for it in buoyant enthusiasm and a lot of the time, it works. This is music determined to pretend it's not gimmicky. It is so much fracking fun. They seem at times to be intentionally trying to break every rule a good musician follows, just for the hell of it. Jones howls, screams, and shouts her way through songs. They go for the obvious rhyme always, like a mantra, especially in the opening number "Carlo." Songs are overproduced, underproduced, misproduced. The last track, if you listen through a minute or so of silence, gives you a 'hidden track' of ridiculous outtakes. It's these three phenomenally talented musicians whose usual show act is polished to mirror-finish, taking off the polish and just having fun. The last song is called "Rock Yer Balls Off".

Um... in any case, I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I'm sorry I didn't listen to it earlier.

Last night was packed, with a NaNo write-in followed by a late night D&D makeup session that pitted half the party against the other half in the quest to find magically-laced Drakes and harvest their magical energies for fun and profit. NaNo wordcount is up to 27,000. I was saying at the writein that 26,000 is an important milestone because it's where Ferret and Florence and the The Da Vinci Code Code crashed and burned two years ago. I feel like if I can pass 26,000, there's nothing between me and 50,000.

My novel... it is fucking weird, even for me. And I haven't even gotten to the part where I use LaTeX tabular mode to do a scene in two columns.

Tonight, going to see Strauss's "Intermezzo" at New York City Opera with Talia. Looking forward to it!
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
I found a new D&D group about a month ago. They play at a local comic shop once a week. It took a couple of weeks to fall into the social rhythms of the group, and they still make references to other friends that I don't know, but it's been a lot of fun to play.

When Alai had the big conversation about designing his new campaign setting, we talked about the place of religion in these abstract fantasy worlds. D&D has a pantheon, but it doesn't really take it seriously- even though clerics have long been a key part of the game and in 4E the divine power source is an even more prominent part of the game. The Gods are present but they don't inspire much faith, unless you're a follower of a particular deity. The religion of the game is in the background of the setting in a way that I don't think is true to the way people experience religion. And in particular, monotheism is never considered a possibility.

So when I crafted my character, trying to break out of usual D&D ways of thinking about religion was part of my character concept. Kelin Rolfsson, a Dwarven Bard, is a member of a monotheistic splinter sect that believes that Moradin is the one true God.

The rest of the party is more or less normal D&D religious. We have a Paladin of Corellon who has no problem with there being other deities, a druid who communes with various natural spirits, various characters with minimal or perfunctory connection to different Gods... but the insertion of Kelin and my insistence that his heretical (and illogical) religion is a core part of who he is has totally altered the character of the game. When the party camps out in a tavern searching for information, we argue religion. When we're in battle and need to make a moral decision, we ask each other what our Gods expect of us- and whether that even matters.

I told our Storm Warden Goliath that the polytheistic pantheon is a human conspiracy and he responded, "But I'm not human." To which Kelin retorted "So why are you buying into their conspiracies?"

In general, our game isn't very intense. We have a mechanic called 'fanmail' that gives in-game benefits for sharp one-liners that flatten out the deadliness of the game. I can't imagine Alai would call our game 'old school'. But I love the dynamic that putting some time and thought into the religious makeup of the world has engendered.


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