Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fall Cleaning

So I've made a few tweaks to the blog - no, I'm not screwing around the formatting, since the one thing that irritates people more about a poor, boring design is CHANGING that poor blog design, but I have made a few tweaks to the blogroll off to house right.

The Alliterates are pretty much all there, though to be honest I'm tempted to winnow through them, since many of them haven't been updated for a year. Ditto on the Friends and Colleagues, as some of them have devolved into little more than twitter relays. And some are just hanging on the borderline with only a few posts in the past few months. And some have changed addresses without sending out a note, and I've caught up with that. Y'all know who you are.

Stuff I'm reading is just that: stuff I'm reading. When I stop paying attention, that's when they go (and since I get this question: Mt. Lebanon PA is where I grew up and how I knew they had a massive windstorm this past week).

Larger changes are in the funny pixels section. Gone is Doodlestan, only because Stan! has stopped doing it for a while (he is still doing 10x10 Toons). Added to the list are:
- Abominable Charles Christopher I put this next to Freakangels, since it is a weekly, but has great art and has talking animals and is something I don't normally follow but it is really, really good. All the talking animals are presented as real animals with human problems, while the protagonist is a mute bigfoot of a creature. Worth following from the begins.
- Scenes from a Multiverse is daily Mon-Fri, and very weird and enjoyable, each cartoon taking place in a different plane of existence. Except when they repeat. Like the stuff with the Empress of the Universe who is about to invade a planet just for the antiquing.
- Surviving the World is similar to the Tree Lobsters and xkcd in that it deals with science. In this case it consists of a guy in a lab coat with a baseball hat and chalkboard. Wonder where he could find a chalkboard in this age of whiteboards and markers.
- 9 Chickweed Lane I know what you're thinking - "Hey, this is a newspaper strip!" Well, it's not in MY newspaper anymore, and is one of the sexiest strips still in the business, along with one of the few that actually runs longer story arcs. At its best when it is talking about dancing, arts, and the hallmarks of felinity.

That's about it. It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and, despite their best efforts, the Seahawks won against the Chargers. And I know I'm going to have to start talking initiatives Real Soon Now - just don't rush me.

More later,

Monday, September 20, 2010

FR vs. DL

Over at the SF/Fantasy site Grasping for the Wind former TSR/WotC editor Phil Athans delivers a freaking brilliant article on the differences and similarities between Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms as intellectual properties, with quotes from Ed Greenwood and Tracy Hickman. Go read it.

More later,

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cowgirls and Empire

Despite living in the Seattle region, I'm not a coffee drinker. I prefer tea, and have done so since long before Jean-Luc Picard radically nerdized my favorite brew by ordering "Earl Grey, Hot". But despite that, I am aware of the spread of the Cowgirls Espresso chain. Most recently, I've noticed two of the espresso shacks on my commute - LP's down on Park Place and The Boulevard Bean near Gene Coulon Park, have suddenly undergone a rename and a repaint, boasting now the black and white Holstein marks of the Cowgirls line.

Drive-through espresso joints are relatively ubiquitous out here - they are relatively small, and can be fit on odd-shaped chunks of land and in the middle of parking lots. They are pretty much local operations, lurking like mammals in the shadow of the Starbucks brand, which occupies more pricey real estate. They also don't require much in the way of training, supplies, or oversight.

The drive-through joints make their goal speed and convenience, are relatively low-cost, and as such have popped up everywhere in the same manner (and for the same reasons) as all those photo huts back in the 70s (and some are on the same sites and in the same buildings). So we see an explosion of corporate organisms into the various niches. And now we see the more organized and successful ones consuming the less-successful ones. Corporate nature, red in ink and claw.

So why is Cowgirls taking over other former independents? Well, it looks like they are taking the "Hooters" approach - a perfectly serviceable product is made more enticing when provided by attractive young women in scanty outfits. Yep, Cowgirls has combined a dramatic exterior (the black and white buildings) with the sexy baristas. And on "fantasy fridays" they have sexy nurses or naughty schoolgirls (or so declare their signs).

And while it is probably wrong to ascribe Darwinian principles to social and economic models (others have done so, with predictably miserable results), the encroaching corporatized sensuality pushed by Cowgirls has allowed it to succeed and thereby expand its niche of corporate evolution. It will be interesting to see if this adaptation fuels future expansion, or if some other trait (corporate organization, or franchising, or local laws) will intercede and place other limitations on its growth.

But I'll leave further research on the matter to others. The idea of driving about with hot liquid between my thighs just leaves me cold, if you pardon the mixed metaphor.

More later,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles III

Shadows of Leningrad by Mike Ferguson, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

My every-so-often Call of Cthulhu game has become more often than not, in part because of the increasing amount of CoC material available. As a result, we have a number of GMs and a number of adventures running at the same time. So it is with little surprise that we broke from an increasingly serious Delta Green campaign to uncork the whupass that is a more pulpier version.

We've been following the Goodman games series for a while now, with adventures in London and Luxor. Now we continue the "What the "L" tour" with moving onto Leningrad, which only recently (in the game era) was St. Petersburg. The regular group, centered around a novelist and her world-adventurer partner, along with their long-term house-guest, a mobster "on vacation" from Chicago and a few others of their circle with ability in the art world, were in attendance.

The adventure is complete and stands alone, despite the Vol. III on the cover, and includes pregen characters for the one- or two-evening adventures (It tends to span two nights for our bunch). Missing (without anyone noticing much) is the overplot that started in Luxor and got a head-nod in London. It is a self-contained adventure within itself (mild spoilers follow0.

The adventure has the same basic framework as the previous two Goodman Games in plot. You are invited to a distant location by a knowledgeable acquaintance, who is dead/dying when you get there. In this case, the acquaintance is artist Charlotte Geoffrey, who is (good news) already dead before you set out. There are a number of plot hooks to bring the PCs in, and we used the one involving getting hold of her latest works - gothic, creepily realistic artworks that the State is all-too-willing to get rid of. Upon arrival in St. Pete's, um Leningrad, they meet a collection of characters, both odd and mundane, all of whom have something to do with the scenes to come.

The middle part of the adventure is what Goodman Games does very well - a collection of scenes that can be encountered in any order. In our case, the players keyed in on something that, to my generation, was not unusual, but to them stuck out like a sore thumb, which led them into an area ahead of schedule, and later they skipped a section entirely (which is just as well, since a lot of the sections end with "Bwah-hah! The bad guys just left!"). And, as fate would have it, one of their number went a bit wobbly in the brain and went to the State Police to warn them of monsters about the same time that the party was going to check out that sanitarium, anyway. So though they did not follow the plot in anything like the reasonable order, they still got the gist of the adventure and a good time was had by all.

The finale also followed the general plan of the previous adventures - a plan to let into our world something that should not be. With our semi-established group, they have a handle on this (the world-traveling adventurer packs a sniper rifle now, chiefly for picking off high priests at a distance). The level of previous success can effect the lethality of the final encounter, and even at lower levels, it can chew through parties. In our case, the investigators managed to convince the State Police that there WAS something going on, meriting their expedition being accompanied by two trucks of cannon fodder police. Even then, they had to use the vehicles as weapons in order to defeat the monsters, which were not even statted with all of their official nastiness.

So how did it go? Pretty good - much better than London and even a step up from Luxor. Playing a pulp campaign, I went the cinematic rule that everyone understands Russian (like in the movies) unless they don't. Though to be honest, I have but two Russian accents - Boris and Yakov (In Russia, Sanity loses YOU!).

Presentation values are good, though I would have loved to have had a period map of Leningrad, particularly since most of the locations are historically accurate - I did some digging and found that they had the correct names of the ballet and the museums and hotels for that era, and getting them squirreled away in my brain as far as their locations would have helped. As it was, I added to the adventure a car and driver, provided courtesy of the State, to help them (They could get around by streetcar - Leningrad was a modern city of the time - but there were a couple places where they have to get out into the 'burbs and beyond). The maps that were there were complete and blissfully free of maddening typos, odd doors, or things that did not agree with the text.

Shadows of Leningrad is an improvement over previous entries and the best of the series so far from Goodman Games. It combined both cthulhian menace with exotic location and a dash of historical relevance. It may also be the first Russian adventure that I've played that does not go to Baba Yaga right off the bat. If anything, it may have two monsters too many, since there were a plethora of creepies, any two of which could have held their own in a night's adventure.

Worth playing, and the group hopes to see more.

More later,

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The PAX Report

So I have been off-line for the past weekend, attending PAX in realtime meatspace. PAX is the Penny Arcade Expo, a conclave of nerds, geeks, and gamers that descends upon the convention center in a cavalcade of wonkiness. Of course, if you read the Seattle Times, which ignored the event, nothing of import occurred at all downtown ("This just in! It is STILL RAINING at Bumbershoot!").

Here are some general notes:

 - We got a lot of attention for Guild Wars 2 at the show, and I thank everyone who stopped by to play the demo, sometimes waiting hours for the shot at playing the game for 40 minutes. We ran an introductory human quest chain and a mid-level charr assault on a boss monster called The Shatterer. The response was phenomenal, and the booth was packed for much of the three days. Thanks to all.

- We were not the only ones to get a lot of fan appreciation at the con. Portal 2 got a good-sized mob, as did Dragonage 2, but the game (at least, the game by someone else) I'm looking forward to in the near-term is Epic Mickey , designed by TSR Alum Warren Spector. Loved the booth (which looked like papers falling) and loved what I saw of the game.

- On the other hand Duke Nukem Forever will finally see the light of day. Really? Will I be able to play it on my Atari ST?

- Of my appointed tasks, I had a great time with RPG panel, mooring down the "ancient paper gaming" side of the equation, and discussing a number of challenges facing the computerized version. I also signed a lot of books at the booth on Saturday, and apparently people who did not get a signing kept circling back to the booth to see if I was there.

- Of course, part of the challenge for those looking for me was protective coloration. We were all decked out in our ArenaNet soccer shirts, white and emblazoned with our massive dragon-shaped "2" in red. They're really cool looking, and make us stand out against the hordes of darker-dressed gamers ("I will stop wearing black when I find a darker color"), but it does give us a uniform look, such that pulling me out of a crowd is difficult. I may have to go back to wearing loud Hawaiian shirts.

- About half the time I was in the booth doing interviews with websites. We had a press room upstairs for full demos, but had so many sites interested (including sites who we had never talked to before who wanted to know what all the hubbub was about) that we carved out a small space in some of the lesser pandemonium of the booth to talk and show off the game. I am surprised I can still talk after this.

- We also designed an event at the convention. Now THIS is insane. We did a quiz show at the booth for a limited number of tickets to the panel, and for those lucky 50 or so we (Lead Designer Eric Flannum, Content Lead Colin Johanson, and myself) sat down and proceeded to design an event that will go into the game. Yeah, we designed part of the game at a convention with the fans. I have said before that we are creatively fearless as a company, but this just blows the doors off everything.

- There was a fan party (again, limited by those who grabbed tickets by the quiz show) at the Hard Rock, and I had a friend (now known as Anne the Enabler) who kept pressing mojitos into my hand throughout the evening. Still, I survived the event and got home safely that evening.

- I did get to have lunch with Warren, and trade stories about our mutual long strange trips.

- On the boardgame side, a big hit was the Castle Ravenloft boardgame from WotC. It is a massive box, and those hauling it around in their official WotC forklifts left a wake of stunned onlookers who wanted to get their own copies.I've played it, both at the start of the design cycle and as a finished project, and I like it as a tough, cooperative game.

- I did NOT get to D&D Bus, a psychedelic explosion of vintage Sutherland art, but that was pretty cool as well. 

- And I survived without the deadly consars, also called the Pax Pox or  the AntraPax, that haunted last year's festivities. And was able to run a gaming day here at the house for a bunch of friends on Labor Day. And now, finally, I get to lay down my tools and rest for a brief while, before taking up the crusade again.

- But seriously, the convention was great for the game and great for the staff.  We have been concentrating on the game for so long, and the outpouring of attention and positive excitement has made it all worthwhile. We're really charged up (as well as really, really tired - but that will pass).

- Thanks to our hosts (Jerry/Tycho and Mike/Gabe) for putting together this Nerdstock, and to all the fans.

More later,

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Convention Duty

This coming weekend, I and most of compatriots will be at PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo in downtown Seattle. We will be showing off GW2 for the first time to North American audiences, talking to fans, giving away books, and a plethora of other activities.

My personal schedule as far as major appearances is as follows:
Beyond Pen & Paper: RPGs, Videogames, and the Mainstream
Friday, 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM, Wolfman Theatre
Role Playing Games - RPGs - have been around for decades now, evolving from their pen & paper roots to computers and consoles of all kinds. However, what started out as a niche genre has now crept into titles with mainstream appeal - Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Oblivion. How did this jump happen? What differentiates the development of an RPG from other game genres, like shooters or platformers? Is it positive or negative to be an RPG game with their roots in pen & paper? And how in the heck do you go about defining what a "role-playing game" is to BEGIN with?? These questions and more will be discussed! Boundaries will be broken! Horizons will be expanded! And someone might actually use the term "THAC0"! Come roll twenties with us!

Panelists include: Brian Mitsoda [lead designer/founder, DoubleBear Games], Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda [game designer, ArenaNet], Tim Cain [design director, Carbine], Jeff Grubb [game designer, ArenaNet]

Guild Wars 2: Designing Dynamic Events
Saturday - 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM, Room 304
What does it take to create MMO content? Veteran game designers Eric Flannum. Jeff Grubb and Colin Johanson, key creators behind ArenaNet's upcoming Guild Wars 2, will give audience members a unique perspective on designing MMO content in this fascinating talk and workshop. In an informal presentation, Eric, Jeff, and Colin will show you how Guild Wars 2 designers create events in the dynamic, living game world and the many factors to consider when designing any kind of MMO content. Attendees will leave with a greater insight into the work of game designers and a deeper understanding of the Guild Wars 2 dynamic event system.
This session is a ticketed event with limited attendance. Please stop by the Guild Wars 2 Booth #642 to find out how you could get a ticket.

Panelists include: Eric Flannum, Colin Johanson, Jeff Grubb

Ghosts of Ascalon Book Signing
Saturday, 12:00 PM - 12:45 PM, ArenaNet Booth
We will be giving away and signing copies of Ghosts of Ascalon.
I also will be in the booth for a number of shifts for interviews. Come by and see us!

More later,