Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Farewell, Hamburg

So I have spent the past four days in Hamburg, Germany helping to present Guild Wars 2 to the European press. We have a new build that we have been springing on people here and abroad, showing one of our racial areas, our underwater adventures, and our dungeons (multiplayer instances).

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'd rather talk about the Bubble, and being a stranger in a strange land.

The Bubble I have mentioned before in these pages. It is the Travel Bubble which surround the modern voyager, at best a frictionless surface that carries the journeyer from one point to another as humane cargo with a minimum of fuss. The Later 20th has perfected the model, such that for the vast bulk of travel happens with very little fuss, and idea of jetting to Europe for two days of business presentation is not only feasible, but suitable.

Hence, I am in Germany with the ease that one could previously go to Ohio. The entire modernity of it all leaves me completely gob-smacked.

(It is not to say the entire process is not without perils - My luggage was delayed coming through Amsterdam while some of my fellows will never see their possessions again, due to a baggage handlers' strike in Paris. When the Bubble collapses, it collapses catastrophically. Still, it is hardly on the same level as having to fight mountain lions to reach your destination).

So, Hamburg. I would like to speak about the coolness of the museums and the bustle of life, but my time was not my own, and I am now being whisked back to the states having completed my mission. However, we have been staying at the Radisson Blu downtown, and extremely upscale operation in the Dag Hammarskjold Paza overlooking the Planten un Blomen, or rather, the botanical gardens. As a result, I have managed to slip out several times to walk the grounds and mix with the locals.

I pass like a mute ghost, smiling but saying little. My German is at the "Ein bier, bitte", level, which leaves me functionally illiterate and a possible danger to myself and others if left unsupervised. However, I am German by genetics, though heavier than most of the population (The locals I have encountered have been fit and have a huge number of bicycles). In effect, I blend, such that I often get hit up by American tourists, also speaking halting German and asking directions.

The weather here has blossomed into a beautiful summer, and the gardens are luscious and green. It is akin to Seattle on those few nice summer weekends when people visit and marvel at the innate beauty of the land, and say how nice it would be to live there, and us locals holding our sides to prevent ourselves from busting a gut in laughter. Hamburg has all the signs of a cold and bitter place in winter - very steeply pitched residential roofs to handle heavy snows, a populace that is stunned by the change of weather (a lot of long sleeves among those lounging on the grass and in the numerous lawn chairs in the area), and heavy and amazingly effective curtains in the hotel. On the last, I was surprised to discover that Hamburg was even further north than Seattle, and since I tend to wake with the sun, that meant a lightening sky at 4:00 AM.

My view, by the way, is southern into the city itself, overlooking the green expanse of the garden and the various surrounding government buildings and capturing a skyline of steeples, office buildings, loading AT-ATs, and wind turbines. Hamburg is mostly flat, which adds to the omnipresent nature of the bicycles as a chief mode of transportation. To that end, the local population are masters of utilitarian bike skills, and handle them with an ability that Americans have trouble matching (drive through crowds is always a challenge in the States, due to the nature of our sidewalks and pedestrians).

But most of my time has been in the Bubble - making presentations in a conference room at the hotel in the international language of Computer Games, English. Our handlers and contacts have been highly competent and friendly, and one has lived in Hamburg for many years (apparently, one is only a Hamburger if one is born here. Also, they don't think being a Hamburger is silly, though they think being from Vienna/Wien, and therefore being a Wiener, is hilarious). Short walks into town to see the Rathaus (City Hall) and the monuments. And a sense that everything moves without any problem right up until 8, when the city center rolls up its sidewalks even though there is another three hours of sunlight.

But Hamburg has been very pretty and very kind, even if I have engaged it only on the most superficial of levels. And now I re-enter the Travel Bubble and am whisked back to my daily life with an ease that would leave my grandfather scratching his head, as if I had suddenly mastered teleportation and blinked from continent to continent with ease.

More later

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My PaizoCon Schedule

I will be helicoptering in on PaizoCon at the Coast hotel in Bellevue this weekend, helping out with some panels for Wolfgang Baur and Open Design. Here's where I'll be:

Building a Shared World: Midgard Hemlock Room

Friday, 09:00 AM – Friday, 10:00 AM
Speakers: Brandon Hodge, Jeff Grubb, Wolfgang Baur
The second great Pathfinder campaign setting is Midgard, and Baur, Grubb, and Hodge are leading the effort with patron brainstorm, critique, and contributions. Interested in doing some worldbuilding, writing a bestiary, or playing in a new world? What does Midgard have to offer? What have been the challenges and surprises of the worldbuilding so far? Tips and tricks to improve your own setting, and an introduction to Open Design's style of collaborative design. We'll generate a monster or mini-adventure as part of the panel.

Publishing in Kobold Quarterly
Hemlock Room

Saturday, 05:00 PM – 06:00 PM
Speakers: Wolfgang Baur, Christopher Bodan, Jeff Grubb
A magazine article or illustration has always been a good way to break into the RPG business, and that hasn't changed. Learn how to submit a winning query, how to rise to the top of the slush pile, and how to keep yourself in front of 30,000 readers every issue. Plus, the secrets of how to keep a freelance career going *after* your first publication.

Improvisation and Game Mastering
Hemlock Room

Saturday, 06:00 PM – 07:00 PM
Speakers: Wolfgang Baur, Jeff Grubb, Adam Roy
Haven't prepped your game this week? Willing to just completely wing it? Improvisational games can be a lot of fun, but they require at least a couple ingredients to work well. Panelists provide some techniques to make your game soar and shine rather than crash and burn. 
I regret that I will not be making it to the "Secrets of TSR" panel due to a conflicting commitment. Although, of course, I can usually be found in nearby bars :)

More later,

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Film: Whisperer

The Whisperer in Darkness, Directed by Sean Branney, Written by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman from an original story by H.P. Lovecraft.

So last night I went to a SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) midnight showing of "The Whisperer in Darkness" up at the Egyptian on Cap Hill. I didn't know that I would make it because it was MIDNIGHT after all and I would have to drive all the way up from Kent and, oh yeah, it was at MIDNIGHT. But I ordered the tickets online (effective, smart, and easy on the SIFF website) and so I headed north, a bloody fingernail of a moon hanging low over the Olympic Range to the East.

Of course, I live on the ragged edge of suburbia, near the growth boundary, where farms are still in the process of being churned into subdivisions, so I forgot there were actually places where people HAD a night life, who could be found out on the streets at midnight. We tend to roll up the sidewalks at nightfall around here (if not before), so a strong population of students and clubbers was a reminder that I live in a civilized city (on the other hand, parking was a pain, but I was effectively a tourist, so I rolled with it).

Oh, the movie? Right. "The Whisperer in Darkness" is based on the Lovecraft short story of the same name (more on that in a moment), and this film version was produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), who did "The Call of Cthulhu" movie a few years back. "The Call of Cthulhu" was an adaptation of the classic Lovecraft short story, and was filmed as a silent movie, as befitted the technology of the time. This time, they filmed "Whisperer" as a black and white movie of the thirties.

The plot of the original story is as follows (spoilers): Folklorist and researcher Albert Wilmarth exchanges letters with George Akeley, a Vermont farmer. Akeley tells him of strange goings-on around his farm involving flying spirits from another world. Wilmarth initially disbelieves, but Akeley brings him over to his side, growing more frantic as time goes by. Then suddenly, Akeley sends a note to that everything is cool, and would Wilmarth personally bring back all the evidence he sent Wilmarth to his farm? Wilmarth, having not seen enough horror movies, does so, and finds an ailing Akeley who tells him about how wonderful these alien Mi-go are and downloads a bunch of Lovecraftian mythos into Wilmarth's brain. This does not clue him in to the fact that things are wrong, but upon discovering that it is NOT Akeley he's been talking to, Wilmarth runs off into the night. The end.

Now, I have been thinking about "The Whisperer in Darkness" for many years, since I have been working intermittently on a play version (I take it out about once every two months, advance it by a scene, then put it back in the vault). So I know the story has, to be kind, weaknesses. Wilmarth and Akeley never really meet. Wilmarth's behavior is a little rocky, in that he is all too trusting of Akeley and that, after getting a big SAN-loss worth of Cthulhu Mythos, it is something (relatively) minor that sets him fleeing into the dark hills of Vermont. And it is another of those Lovecraftian tales where nothing really HAPPENS to the protagonist.

But until I saw the film, I realized that there was another problem, and addressing it was if it were going to be a thirties Hollywood production hits the nail on the head:

STUDIO BOSS: What's the story on the rewrites for that Lovecraft project?
WRITER: There's a problem, JB!
STUDIO BOSS: What's the problem?
WRITER: There's no third act!
STUDIO BOSS: What do you mean there's no third act?
WRITER: In act one you present the problem. In act two, the protagonist works against the problem, and in act three, the protagonist resolves, or fails to resolve, the problem.
STUDIO BOSS: So what happens in the short story?
WRITER: The protagonist runs away.
STUDIO BOSS:  Runs away? That doesn't put butts into the theater seats! Give it a third act, pronto!

And so they do, and do so admirably. The cast swells as well, and grows to include historical figure Charles Fort and a lot of Miskatonic colleagues and a female character lacking from the book. Matt Foyer plays Wilmarth with a continual sense of dread and loathing, and it is his movie, George Akley (Joe Sofranko) kicked down to a supporting role (or rather, roles, as George and Albert do get a chance to talk). And it has a third act that gives more action to the protagonist, more grounding to the entire operation, and a sense of resolution.

However, it does jump the rails just a bit as far as a "thirties-movie", in that it feels like a William Castle movie of the fifties or early sixties than one of the thirties. And while the "Shadow of the Knife" is used to great advantage in the early parts of the film, it show the monsters eventually, and the final sequence is a memorable closeup that is crafty computer animation as opposed to the stop-motion of 1933's "King Kong".

Yet in the end, it is a responsible adaptation, taking the heart and soul of Lovecraft's original and transplanting it, still beating and leaking vital fluids, over into a different media. The movie made its debut at SIFF (at MIDNIGHT) but is being shown again Sunday Night at the Neptune (7 PM). Definitely worth checking out.

More later,

Friday, June 03, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles IV

Horrors from Yuggoth by Adrian M. Pommier, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

I’ve mentioned my Call of Cthulhu group before, though I only review stuff in this space that I’ve personally GMed. Our group has multiple GMs, and we all have different areas that we concentrate on. One handles Arkham in the 20’s, another does Trail of Cthulhu, we have the occasional Delta Greenish playtest, and somebody sends out for Tekumel. Anyway, I’ve been rolling through the Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu series, with a group of pulp-based heroes, and the previous reviews are here, here, and here. As noted in the reviews, they have a similar pacing, an assuming overarching arc, and are suitable for a standard group of "investigators".

But now we shift dramatically with Horrors from Yuggoth. Gone is the spider-silk thin metaplot involving two creepy kids. Gone also is the familiar pacing for the first three (You go to a distant land at the request of someone who is either dead before you get there or has the life expectancy of a ripe banana, you uncover a conspiracy involving dark gods and you get on the scene at the very last moment to spoil the ceremony bringing some nasty in from an eldritch dimension). Gone also is a more pulp-driven feel, replaced with a historical event that takes a left turn into the mythos (and we have Mild Spoilers from here on in).

And it was such a difference in tone and approach that I couldn’t bring the regular PCs along – there was no way to justify the semi-retired mobster, the art historian, and the authoress with her adventurer boyfriend, in an adventure that spilled them out on the polar ice like so many abandoned pets. Nope, it didn't fit at all.

OK, here’s the short form. In 1928 the Airship Italia went down on a polar floe (true). A massive multi-national rescue effort was stage (true). Roald Admunson lost his life trying to mount a rescue effort (true). The survivors on the ice floe were five Italian airmen who survived in a red tent and were eventually rescued (true, and as noted in the movie “The Red Tent”).

Now we take a Cthulhian twist – the Italia was in the region investigating Lovecraftian activity, and was brought down by a elderitch threat. The massive multi-national effort is in many ways a cover for a race between rival nations to find what is buried beneath the ice. The PC’s rescue team, pulled together by the American Foreign Office (with overtones of the early CIA) is one of those groups, though they are not aware of this at the outset. 

Given the size of our gaming group (6 players), there was the challenge of justifying risking 8 people (including two NPCs) for five, but that was glossed over. This felt very much like a tournament module, where the action should have been covered in about 4 hours. I decided to run it in one sitting, and it went six hours, as there was no real good place to stop and let people into/out of the adventure. 

This marathon run resulted in some silliness around hour 5, where the heroes were confronted with an intestine-like set of hallways and a particular sphincter-like door. Intended to be spooky and unsettling, it instead turned into snickering and guffaws, which was not the feel anyone was looking for (but sometimes you just can't help it). Similarly, as we were running long, the ending felt a little more hectic than it otherwise might be. On reflection, I would have broken it into two sessions and hand-waved off the sudden appearance and disappearance of PCs.

Troublesome also were some of the text to be read was not for the faint of heart and the heavy of tongue ("One the bubble-pods has a peristaltic muscle sealing it mostly shut", or "Longyearbyen, the largest city in the Svalbard archipelago, has taken on the atmosphere of a macabre carnival ..."). And verging back into the silliness, the presence of the walrus men (shown on the cover), were more amusing than terrifying, calling out Lewis Carrol and John Lennon jokes.
All in all, this felt like a tournament module re-purposed for publication as opposed to part of a larger series. It functions within a limited set-up and resolves itself in such a way that it is unlikely that the characters therein will ever see play again. There is enough "sudden death" elements to sideline a character permanently, and only limited ways to bring up backup characters to continue the adventure. It feels like it SHOULD be played in a single sitting, though it has too much stuff for just a short session (and indeed, the group never found a couple plot points on the ice itself).

The title itself underscores one of the problems of CoC modules. The original apparently bore the title Rescue at Svalbard (mentioned at the very end), which was accurate, does not tip the hand of the DM, and is as exciting as mud. Horrors from Yuggoth is cooler, but gives away the ultimate bad guy to anyone who knows the mythos. And putting a walrus-man on the cover does nothing to make them horrifying later on. So this feels like a fight between play experience and marketing, and marketing won.
In the end,this is one of the weaker entries, treading some new ground but ultimately failing to follow through on the promise of the earlier modules. This may be a mid-course correction for the line or an attempt to spread out the potential of the series, but it was just OK.

More later,