Thursday, February 21, 2013

Adventures in Time and Space: the Doctor Who RPG - Review

 So, this weekend was really, really, really long.  I’m taking a break from my standard book reviews and reviewing…a book. Namely, the Sourcebook(s) for the Doctor Who RPG, Adventures in Time and Space.  I picked up the Eleventh Doctor Edition, because, I mean, Eleven.

"I wear a bow-tie now.  Bow ties are cool."
I came downstairs to sit at the dining room table and write and roll dice, a clump of Doctor Who RPG Sourcebooks under my arm.  My housemate Jay, sitting on the couch looked up from his laptop, noticing my armload.  “So how is it?”

I marshaled my thoughts.  “It’s…actually really good, to be honest.  In the right setting.  It doesn’t really work for playing magical characters or finessed swordfighters or…time travelers, but for simple, non-complex games it works really well.

I like the Stats here much better than the ones for D&D to be honest.
Like, you’ve got the six attributes1 and twelve skills, you add your flat attribute and skill and roll 2d6 and boom, that’s what you get for everything.  But it’s kinda cool, like, if you beat the Difficulty by enough you get bonuses (you’re able to hack the computer AND the files are organized easily).  But if you fail by a little, it’s not too bad (You don’t hack it, but you can try again).  But if you fail by a lot, it’s bad AND it gets worse.  (You don’t hack the computer, and it activates a silent alarm that alerts the guards to your location.)”

“That’s…pretty cool.”

“Right?  Like I said, it works really well for simple things.  I mean, look at this character sheet.”

Click me to go to a PDF of this.
The back has more or less all the actions you can do, which
is really useful for quick play.
Jay squinted at it.  “Kinda sparse.”

“Yeah. There’s only twelve skills.  Which is cool, I mean, I love D&D, but…there’s a lot to keep track of.  Here there’s like, just Attributes and Skills.  Oh and gadgets and stuff.  But yeah, with the skills, you can specialize if you have enough ranks.  So, at Knowledge<4>2 I can Specialize in History and Literature, and I get bonuses to any Knowledge check involving books or history.  Same for Convince, I can Specialize in Bluff or Intimidate or things.

Wouldn't it be cool to see Medusa vs. The Weeping Angels?
So say I’m hacking a computer on a Spaceship piloted by Not!Medusa3, I just add Ingenuity + Technology + 2d6, and I add +2 because Medusa’s all mythological and shit, and I’ve read enough books to know how Medusa works. Say the DC’s 15. Rolled 6. So 4+2+6+24.  14.  Not good enough.  But, it’s not all bad.”

“You wouldn’t get in, but you could see file names and things and learn something?”

“Exactly.  The Dungeon Master…Storyteller, whatever, could give you enough info to get on with the story.  Wait, damn, I’d probably take negs because Space Medusa is from a different technology level.  There’s negs for using tech not from your general time-period.  So I can’t use things as easily from beyond Space-Faring Tech Level, since that’s the modern day, you take a -2 per tech level.  It’s less for things before now, only -1 per tech level, because history, we kinda know it.”

“Are there feats?”

“Traits.  That’s kinda a problem, actually.  There need to be a few more of them, they’re kinda sparse and either don’t do much (like, they only give ±2 to skills) or they give you Telekinesis.  You can substitute Telekinesis for any physical challenge, so if your Resolve is high enough you basically you get to win at everything.  Fighting, running, lock-picking…”

“Arson, Weddings, Art…”

“Shush you.”

Miriah, on the couch, chimed in, “I mean, weddings could be physical challenges…”

Madame Vastra resents your implication of Impropriety.
They are Married.
Jay smiled.  “You know, a Silurian wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair.” 5

“Anyway, it’s kinda ridiculous.  I’d make people spend story-points to activate it, balance things out.”

“Story Points?”

“Basically move-the-plot-along coupons.  You can spend them to make things happen in your favor or, oh this is the cool thing, make things go wrong for you to gain storypoints for later use.  Like, getting captured so you can get the plot going would net you some storypoints to use to make one of the Guards susceptible to your diplomacy.

“I like that.”

"I was dressed for GURPS!"
“Right?  I was kinda sad it doesn’t give some mystical secrets of how to make Time Travel work in an RPG.  I figured it should.  I mean, it’s Doctor Who.  It kinda brings it up, but then it diverts to Time Travel Theory and then rushes it back offscreen.  Oh well.  But yeah, for a simple game, for the right kind of game, it’s pretty brilliant.  It places a lot of weight and trust on the Players and the DM, with the story-points, but I mean, it’s not too heavy.  It’s more about storytelling than winning.  Although, the sourcebook’s kinda annoying, it's all like "HI I’M AMY POND LET ME TAKE UP HALF A PAGE."  So yeah, I kinda want a non picture-having version of this, with less in-jokes.6 Because without those it’s just fine.  I’d run a game with it.  I mean, if you use the online tool making a character takes 10 minutes, tops.”

"Sounds neat.  You should leave it on the counter so I can read through it.  Oh, also, I think you'd like this Kickstarter.  It’s called Odin’s Ravens and it’s –”

“Wait, hang on, Facebook it to me.  I’m gonna go write down the conversation so that I can turn it into a blog.”7  

“Okay.  And after that you should teach me how to make footnotes appear when you talk.”

“Witchcraft.”  I winked and rushed to type everything up before I forgot it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The DM's Notebook: Using D&D for Creative Writing: ~Random Encounter Tables~

From The Game Mastery Guide, which is
actually the coolest book ever.
So I've been thinking for a while about the way the Dungeons and Dragons RPG, in its trappings and mechanics, has some really useful applications for Creative Writing.  The Dungeon Master's Notebook is a series of  to organize such thoughts. 

Dungeon Master's Notebook: Random Encounter Tables

Every so often a Dungeon Master needs to throw a fight at the players because they’ve been role-playing too quickly1, but doesn’t have anything planned, so I roll on an encounter table.  They look something like what’s to the right.

So, say I rolled a 33 on that.  Now the players have to fight a hydra, which burns some time.

How does a Writer use this?  Well, let’s say you have a character you don’t understand yet.  Put them in a room they feel comfortable and roll on the following tables.  You can use a Six-Sided die (a d6), or a 20-Sided die (a d20) if you’re a cool kid.

A Catholic priest2 with a nervous tick (finger tapping, laughing, puns...)
A young girl with a wide-brimmed hat covered in polka-dot ribbons
An elderly Madame in a silvery gown wearing earrings stolen before the war
A gorgeous woman with sharp red lips and her hair on fire
A freckly boy badly disguised as an old man
A drunken pirate with an Indian2 Accent and a well curled beard

…walks into the room and…

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher - Review

Jim Hawkins, Listens-to-Wind, Renly Baratheon, Mina Murray and Odin in the Wild West fighting Cthulhu.

If that sounds like fun then The Six-Gun Tarot is exactly what you need in your life.  R. S. Belcher’s Fantasy Kitchen Sink1 of a first book is essentially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Deadlands Edition. When Jim Negrey stumbles into the sleepy mining town of Golgotha, he becomes embroiled in a bigger mystery than the one he fled, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

The Cast:

Page of Wands
            “I want a raise.”2
Jim Negrey is sorta the main character?  He vanishes for bits of the narrative, but it’s him in the cover art and has an Artifact so dammit he’s the main character. He’s very believably young and afraid of what’s happening, but he has such a good heart, and cares about his horse3.  He’s also narrator in my favourite scene, which describes the cacophony and heat and chaos of a shootout magnificently.  His backstory is revealed slowly as the novel goes on, forming a mystery in itself.  Someone needs to give this kid a hug.

The Moon
            “You'd have to be nine parts crazy to one part stupid to be Sheriff of this town.  Sounds like a job for a white man.”4
I love Mutt.  Deputy, Werecoyote, Magical NativeAmerican, Only Sane Man.  The town hates him for his herritage, but he’s too noble to run off and abandon them.  His choice between the world of men and the world of beasts handled subtly, but poignantly.  I was also a fan of how deftly Belcher handled his affection for Maude Stapleton.  So human, so sad.  Mutt's words speak louder than mine:
“I say a man that lets his religion git in the way of his drinking is a fella with his cart 'fore his horse.”
“Enough!” Mutt said, interrupting the villain’s monologue. “You damn white people talk too much!”

            “They kissed. The love in it was strong, welling up from deep inside of them, giving them power, making them gods.”5
I dunno why there’s this rule that Mormons Men in Fiction are Gay, but very few of them wield angelic swords and armor, and Harry Pratt is technically Biromantic, so…subverted trope?  Also, while it’s sadly brief, the love between Harry and his lover is intense and sweet.  Harry’s struggle between his faith and his sexuality lend a lot of weight to the novel, and packs emotional punch.  This is the second book in a row (after last week's Wytchfire) with a gay action-hero protagonist, and I'm quite glad to see this trend.  Please let it continue onwards towards the mainstream. 

I'm also very glad that Mormonism was handled delicately in the book. It's easy for religious minorities to be full of strawmen, but that was deffinitely not the case in this book.  The Mormon characters that make up ~1/3rd of Golgotha are respectable, varied characters.

Queen of Swords
            “Guns are like men – only useful for a little while.  They can go off at a moment’s notice when you don’t want them to and they make a lot of damn fool noise doing it.”6
Maude Stapleton is the successor to Anne Bonny in a line of women who drank the blood of Lilith in order to become, basically, Slayers7.  This woman has concentrated badass in her blood, but she’s also growing old, and it’s hard to keep running.  Her backstory is probably the coolest thing to hit the shelves in a long time.  Immortal Anne Bonny, Wiccan8 Rituals, and massive libraries.

The feminism is...weird, in this book.  Maude is a badass mom who doesn't back down and don't need no man to defend her, but her primary motivation is her daughter in many cases.  Interpret that how you will.  I don't know enough feminist theory to touch it.  I think it was fine, but I could be way wrong. 

The Hanged Man
            “Not my Time.”9
As Sheriff of Golgotha, Jon Highfather10 has seen some shit and some shit accessories11.  What I love about Jon is his “But for me, it was Tuesday” approach to the upcoming apocalypse.  Armies of cultists who cry midnight?  He haint even bovvered.  It’s a realistic, but also fresh approach to a man who’s been killed more ways than Phil Connors12.  He's a sad character as well, and you get the impression that some of the hanging scars on his neck are self-inflicted.  We don't really find out why, but the writing's on the wall.  I'd love to see more about this character.  He's the action hero we need, just not the one we deserve right now.  The Reconstruction Era is when everything changes, and Jon Highfather is ready. 

Adding to the motley bunch of characters, each complex and interesting in their own right, Not!Frankenstien, Not!Mr. Freeze (no, really), Cheng Huang, Not!Caleb, RileyFinn13, Lucifer and Not!Aleister Crowley all turn up at some point or another. 

All these characters are dealing with the fact that The Great Old One 14 is getting loose and trying to end the world.15  It’s basically the Book of the Dun Cow IN THE WILD WEST.  The Nevada atmosphere is great too, drenched in sweat and slang.  I can see Golgotha so easily in my mind, can imagine every turn of the street, from the main road where the Paradise Falls theatre is putting on a production of The King in Yellow to the thunderingly-racist-yet-accurate-to-historical-attitudes16 twisted, non-Euclidean streets of "Johnnytown."

It’s a great book, great stories, great characters. The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher.  Go pick it up.
 "You water down your Whiskey" Lucifer said incredulously.
"The Good Stuff is for the paying customers."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The DM's Notebook: Using D&D for Creative Writing ~Ability Scores~

So I've been thinking for a while about the way the Dungeons and Dragons RPG, in its trappings and mechanics, has some really useful applications for Creative Writing.  So, I'm starting a series called the Dungeon Master's Notebook to organize such thoughts. 

Dungeon Master's Notebook: Ability Scores

Strength1, Dexterity2, Constitution3 , Intelligence4 , Wisdom5 , Charisma6 .

These are the abilities of any living thing in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  The average score for a person is 10.  Someone who stumbled through college has 10 Intelligence, someone who works out every odd Sunday and goes swimming in the winter has 10 StrengthIntelligence of 8 is a dunce, 12 is clever, 14 is a Savant.  Sherlock Holmes has a good 18 or so.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tolkien-Pulp: A review of Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhoffer

So I just finished reading/livetweeting Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhoffer.2  I'm not going to lie, when I was googling the book, I was somewhat hesitant, skeptical.  There's this section at any bookstore just labeled "Sci-fi/Fantasy" where all the books seem to be the same, and you kinda feel like not reading them as quickly as possible.  There's a certain ghetto happening here, the Sci-fi/Fantasy ghetto at it's worst.  Sure, there's fantasy out there that gets popular enough to rise above the ghetto, but they seem often few and far between.  It's not a genre people take seriously, mostly because people assume there's no inherent worth.  It probably also has to do with the cultural ostracization of D&D, and all of its trappings, into the "Other" category.  The "Standard D&D universe" has, thanks mostly to Tolkien3, been so thoroughly ingrained in the cultural consciousness that most people can tell you the rules without having actually read a high-fantasy pulp book.
I actually know who all these characters are and what
they're doing.  #Dragonlance.

Everyone knows that Dwarves are stout and beardy, Elves are pretty and magical and live in forests, Knights are noble and always do the right thing, magic comes at a price, and the orphan stableboy turns out to be the long lost heir of the kingdom.  The Undead or Dragons show up to cause problems and the hero saves the day and no one points out that he should probably be dead from all the diseases that would come of fighting shambling undead, or burned to a crisp from Dragon fire.  And that's 1st Wave Tolkien-Pulp.

This persisted for a while until people started subverting those tropes, until 1st Wave Tolkien Pulp became ghettoized even by its target audience.  In came Pratchett and Anthony and Jones, who were masters of subverting the tropes and making things very self aware and funny and that was what people started to read, because a good parody makes the reader feel clever because she4 gets the joke, and slowly but surely Parody killed the Fantasy Pulp Star.  And that was 2nd Wave Tolkien-Pulp.

Most5 of the Tolkien-Pulp on my shelves is 2nd Wave.  It's easier, more accessible, and more fun.  It's been a long time since I've read some good, solid, down to Erathia Earth 1st Wave Tolkien-Pulp.  And that's what Wytchfire is, on the surface, so when I heard Meyerhoffer was looking for readers I did so more out of duty than excitement.

But then I really started reading.