14 August 2018

A Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis

Portrait of Baron Munchausen
Tell us, Baron, the story of...
...How you circumnavigated the world without leaving your house.
...How a portrait of Henry VIII saved you from being attacked by lions.
...Why every fifth child born in Brussels is named after you.
...How you became the first man to descend Mount Blanc, before any man had climbed it.

This is certainly not a traditional roleplaying game. In fact, I would say it is barely a roleplaying game at all. Yet, Baron Munchausen is one of the most enjoyable roleplaying game books I have ever read. In this “paperless” age of digital game books, I plan to add the “dead tree format” of this book to my shelf.

At its core, it is a very simple game. It is really a story-telling activity in which players interrupt each other to comic result. Less briefly; players take the role of nobility, telling of their adventures at a tavern or house party. The character creation process is limited to developing a noble name and title. The process of play is for four or more players to take a turn telling a five-minute story of their own entirely truthful adventures during the Eighteenth Century. Each tale must attempt to out-do the previous tale and begins with a prompt like those given above, asked by the nobleperson on the teller’s left. Both the game and the roleplay aspects come in during each tale as each player has a purse of tokens equal to the number of total players. Each player is allowed to interrupt each teller once by offering them a token and asking for clarification about an element of the tale, pointing out an inconsistency, asserting the story may have happened differently, or otherwise trying to trip up the storyteller with comic or challenging suggestions. The current tale-teller may simply accept the token and the addition and work this new detail into their tale; or they may add their own coin to the stake and offer an insult to the interrupter to put them in their place. Likewise, the interrupter may take the stake and accept their rebuke; or add a third coin to the stake, offer their own insult and insist the teller acknowledge their original suggestion. This back-and-forth may continue until one player exhausts their purse and must admit their error. If they are still unwilling, a duel may be initiated (decided by best of three rounds of rock-paper-scissor) with the loser forced to submit and take the stake. If, during the insults and raising, either insults the other’s noble rank, proud parentage or outright calls them a liar, a duel may begin immediately. When each tale concludes the teller prompts the player on their right to tell the next tale. When all tales have been told, players each pass their entire purse (converting it to a bounty) to the person whose tale was the most extraordinary. Thus the winner of round is the player with the largest bounty, and now being flush with cash as well as honor, is compelled to “buy the next round” and offers the prompt for the first tale of the next round.

In the book, these rules are summarized in two pages and there are eight pages of sample prompts. However, what makes the book a joy is the comic style in which it is written. James Wallis, who is a veteran game designer, has channelled the spirit of the original Baron Munchausen material. It is presented as a dictation by the Baron himself to various members of the Wallis family line and as such is filled with the Baron’s own stories of himself, his opinions, and numerous digressions from the through line of actually explaining the game. The book also presents a number of variations on the game, from one in which interrupting means the interrupter becomes the teller with the object being to be the first actually finish your story, to a variation for younger players, to a whole list of suggested genre implementations of the game such as cavemen, vampires and supervillains.

I have played this game twice and as is true of anything dependent on social interactions it flows better if players are willing to submit to the premise of the game. Those with better comic timing, more inventive or quick-thinking minds and larger vocabularies of “old timey” words will be more likely to tell the most extraordinary stories, but it is not a guarantee of success. It seems the best moments come out of the unexpected way a teller incorporates their interaction with the interrupter. In one game the winner did not know the rest of the players as well and his story took on a hyperbolic nature while the rest of us relied more on our shared history. In the other game the winner had been called a liar, escalated the interruption to a duel, but then lost and so chose to completely capitulate and when back through their story renouncing each aspect and telling how what really happened was far less impressive. This idiosyncratic interpretation of the standard rules was singularly comical and so unexpected it won the round.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not a game for everyone and certainly not for anyone all the time. It is not the sort of game to play a campaign with, or even to play very often. However, as a pallet cleanser between other games or as a one-off event at a game night or convention, this is a great option. Whether you ever play it or not, it is worth a read as a light piece of pseudo-historical comic writing. I enjoyed it very much.

03 August 2018

200 Word RPG Challenge

This summer I made a commitment to play more games with the local RPG scene. There is fortnightly game event called Slur Your Role put on by Nerd Louisville at a bar not far from my house. I have been volunteering to run games there. The event is pretty Dungeons and Dragons focused because that game is so popular (no shade), but I have been trying to bring alternatives to the table. So far I have run CAPERS from NerdBurger Games, Lacuna by Momento Mori Theatricks and a couple weeks ago I ran three of the games from this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge.

I heard about 200 Word RPG last year and when the competition went live this year, I not only submitted a game, I applied to be a reader. I read about 60 submissions and recommended my favorites to the actual judges. Some of the ones I selected were, indeed, among the finalists. The whole process was enjoyable and being part of it made me feel all the more like I am part of this industry. I wanted to promote the Challenge and bring this brand new games to the table. Titles of the games are links to the 200 Word RPG site. Do go read the games, as they are all only 200 words!

Of the three winners we did not play Sidewalkia! owing to it being a game for outside voices and it being one of the hottest weeks of the year. Instead, we played PSYCHIC CHILDREN ON THE RUN FROM DANGER. This was one of the games I’d read and picked to be a finalist. I liked it because of the resolution mechanism. To use their psychic power players guess the next card which will be drawn from a standard deck of cards. If they are exactly right they have complete control, if they are less right they have less or no control. It worked great with five players at the table watching each other’s card draws and really playing up the theme. One thing I was looking for in the games I selected was the possibility to play the game over several sessions. This one delivered on that idea. No one was ready to stop after an hour, but I had to move on.

For Dear Elizabeth… I brought the required paper, pens and prompts (things like “death,” “courtship,” “visitor”). It’s a two-player game, but we simply paired off writing letters only to our partner. I was least sure about this one. All my players where modern guys in their 30s so playing a young 18th century woman wasn’t exactly what they might have come to a game night for. Once I explained it and handed out the materials and once they were sitting in their corners drawing their prompts and responding to the letters they got from their partners, they all took to it. More than one person said it was much more enjoyable than they thought it would be. When we summarized the letters at the end I was happy no one had brought in aliens or zombies. It was all decidedly 18th century issues.

Our last game of the night was #WinterIntoSpring. It was, I assume, intended to descend into a bit of a mess and take on elements of farce. Maybe not, but that’s what happened for us. The idea is to splint into two factions and roleplay fashion vloggers before and after a revolution with one faction replacing the other as the dominate faction between the two rounds. Magazines are cut up and made into paper dolls to represent the changing fashions. The group decided our factions would be “machine overlord sympathizers and human freedom fighters.” Then I revealed the two magazines I had brought along were a bridal magazine and a fly fishing magazine. Silly mash-ups and hyperbolic descriptions of the fight against the machines ensued. What more could one want?

I’ve loved being the one to bring the not-at-all-D&D to the scene this summer. I think playing games with more strangers has made we a better game master. I certainly feel stretched by the experience. Add to that the additional stretch of putting a few different 200-word games on the table in one night and I feel very pleased my table seemed to enjoy themselves. I plan to participate in the 200 Word RPG Challenge again, and I hope I can also bring next year’s winners to an audience.

23 April 2018

Am I Dieselpunk?

In support of Wild Skies: Liberating Strife, Brandon and I have been recording a few podcast appearances. Most recently we were on The RPG Brewery. Since we’ve called Wild Skies a dieselpunk game, we also appear on the newest episode of The Dieselpunk Podcast. They asked a question they ask of all their guests; “When did you know you were dieselpunk?” My honest answer to the question is: “Only when you told me I was”.

To step back a little bit: while Brandon and I were developing Wild Skies we always said we wanted it to be dieselpunk. The game was always set the 1930s and took inspiration from the ’20s and ’40s as well. To us, it was about staying in the technological brackets of “after airplanes” and “before jets”. The “punk” comes in with the idea “all problems can be solved by adding a bigger engine”. With these ideas set, I don’t feel we had to work that hard to make our game dieselpunk. We looked to the political, cultural and technological elements of those decades for our inspiration and naturally remixed them as we saw fit.

John and Eric of the Dieselpunk Podcast use the definition “retro futurism of the 1920s through the 1950s” when they talk about what dieselpunk is to them. I first encountered that definition last fall when John interviewed Brandon about the release of Wild Skies: Europa Tempest. By that definition, some of my favorite pop culture is dieselpunk even though I never called it that before: The Rocketeer, Batman: The Animated Series, Dark City and NausicaƤ Princess of the Valley of the Wind. If I push the definition a little more to include what was actually produced in the ’20s-’50s, virtually all of my favorites are dieselpunk: Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft, noir films like A Touch of Evil and the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda posters. I’m dieselpunk. Who knew?

Being on the show was great. I listen to a bunch of podcasts, but that was only the second time I have been on one. Brandon and I know what we like about our Wild Skies setting and about role playing while our hosts know about trends in dieselpunk, but almost nothing about role playing games. There was a lot of room for us all to learn from each other.

One idea mentioned in passing on the show which I want to weigh in on is the question: is dieselpunk about the particular technology or about the aesthetics of a setting? For me it’s all about the aesthetics and the attitude of remix culture. It’s what I call the blender. It what you put in the blender comes from the dieselpunk era, what you get out of the blender is dieselpunk. As with steampunk and cyberpunk “genres” before it, so much more fits under the umbrella of the name than just the technology of the time in question.

I have an important point about this. The remix is needed because the pop culture of so much of the past was so one dimensional; that is, white male heroes. For me, remixing the past in a “punk” way allows women, people of color, homosexuals and anyone else who tended not to be in focus, or allowed to be heroic of escape from stereotypes to become the center of action on their own terms. Again, steampunk led the way and it’s one of the things I appreciate about it.

I think dieselpunk – at least what I want it to be – should do the same thing. As a creator I need to open up the playing field so anyone can have adventures in the textures of this period. We’ve tried to make the right steps with Wild Skies: Europa Tempest. We present women in our NPC crew and in leadership positions. Our supplements include gender non-conforming and gay characters as well. As we assemble Liberating Strife, I realize there is still room to grow as my own awareness of the importance of representation grows. As a person who can so easily see myself in the pop culture I love, I feel an extra pressure to present my remix in a way where other people can see themselves as well.

10 April 2018

A Review: Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-1943

5 of 5 stars.
For a while one of my “grail books” has been David Levinthal and Garry Trudeau’s Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-1943. When I walked into a bookstore recently and spotted it on an endcap from across the room, I had to buy it. It is a reprint copy, but I am not a collector looking for first printings; I just want to look at the art.

I first encountered David Levinthal’s work as an art student. His work focuses on toys or models shot with dramatic light and in soft focus to create a kind of emotional verisimilitude. I once saw an exhibition of his Modern Romance series and I smile whenever I see his work on the covers of Sarah Vowell’s books. Garry Trudeau is well known as a cartoonist. I was interested to see what these two cooked up together about the Second World War.

The collaboration is described by Trudeau in the beginning of the book. He was trying to find the right historic photographs to illustrate a fictional story we wanted to tell about a Russian solder on the Eastern Front. Levinthal was working on a series of photos capturing the lifelike horrors of war without necessarily making realistic looking photos. They combined their efforts and rather than using real photos to illustrate a fictional story, they manufactured photos to illustrate the real history. There are real quotes and a few real photographs to round out the project. It becomes, as the title says, a graphic chronicle of the Eastern Front.

One thing that has stuck with me is Trudeau calling what they made a “paper movie”. It is such an odd phrase to read today when comics have triumphed as a medium and “graphic novels” can be of any genre and regularly make it onto bestsellers lists. I suppose in the mid-seventies when they were working on Hitler Moves East the concept of a “graphic novel” didn’t really exist. That was even before the “serious” comics revival of the mid eighties. Even though Trudeau went on to make comics himself, he couldn’t have called this project comics, it was a more serious work than than name implied.

As a long time comics reader and someone who loves “sequential art storytelling”, I think Hitler Moves East works. There are Trudeau’s words to tell you what happened at each stage of Operation Barbarossa and the selection of ephemera such as identification cards and propaganda posters lend their own authenticity. Then there are Levinthal’s washed out, or grainy, or almost over-exposed photographs of figures dashing through train yards, or hunkered in pill boxes, or laying cold and still in the snow. Much of the narrative impact is conveyed by the photos. The whole is surprisingly effective in giving the reader a hint of the ravages of war. It is a book one does not read so much as experience. That is what art does.

Just to be clear, though it has a similar name to another book about the Eastern Front, it does not share that book’s apologetics of the Wehrmacht.

27 March 2018

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife...”

Today is the start of the crowd funding period for the first source book for Wild Skies, the premier anthropomorphic diesel punk role playing game. This time we are turning our attention from post-war Europe to North America and the Roaring Twenties of the United States in particular. Taking a line from the song “America the Beautiful”, the title of this source book is Wild Skies: Liberating Strife. The project is live on KickStarter now, so please go there to support the book and help make it a reality.

From the beginning, my writing and business partner, Brandon, and I envisioned Wild Skies as a game to explore the many aspects of pulp-era adventure. This is the first of several planned source books. We wanted to begin with Europe because it is something less often seen, but we always knew an America book would follow. Almost as soon as the first book was announced, we were asked by fans, “So, when is the America book coming?” Knowing everyone considers a source book for America an obvious choice, we expect the project to generate a lot of interest. We will be delivering new animal types, new careers, new perks and quirks; all with an American theme. Keeping with the diesel punk feel we established in Europa Tempest, the America setting has flying battleships and dogfights and cities full of big machines. In contrast to Europe, we have asked for more Art Deco-inspired design in the aircraft and buildings. Inspired by the “current wars” and the early electrification of New York City, we have made electricity a central part of the story but ramped everything up to the point nearly limitless power is distributed wirelessly to everyone.

Beyond the technology, the other huge conceit of the setting is the “trust busting” efforts of Theodore Roosevelt didn’t really stick, nor did the stock market crash of 1929 happen. We posit a situation where all large corporations were instead consolidated into one mega-corporation owned by the Dennington family. Unlike the political tensions we explored in Europa Tempest, we aim to explore economic tensions with the story hooks of this book. What would it look like if a company really acted on the idea “a happy worker is a productive worker?” How do different people make lives for themselves in a ruthlessly capitalistic meritocracy? What other interpretations of “the American dream” are possible?” We also want to explore the international implications of the United States’ isolationist stance.

We had some growing pains over the course of our first project (Customs form? What is that?), but we also learned more about how to do the kinds of projects we want to do in this industry. We are experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, for sure; realizing now how little we knew before. Though we expect Liberating Strife to be a smaller book then Europa Tempest, we have more help lined up this time. There are four primary writers instead of just two and we have a whole team of people in place to write the stretch goals when, if and as we reach them. We are expecting a quick turn-around on this project and delivery by this year’s GenCon in August. I’m never sure what it should feel like when I’ve “arrived” in the industry, but I think once this project gets funded and we have two full books out in the world as Wet Ink Games, I will feel more like I have made it.

Come fly the Wild Skies with us. This time over America!

07 March 2018

I Wrote a Rifts World Book

My writing partner Brandon and I submitted a manuscript we called “The Sovietski Sourcebook” to Palladium Books on the last day of 2012. We knew then it takes a while for a publisher to take all the steps which lead to a book being published. We know that better than ever now that we have our own games company. At last all the steps are complete and Rifts World Book 36: Sovietski has been released! If you are a fan of Palladium, you have seen this coming for a while now. The “raw preview” edition of the book was released in summer 2016. Since then it has regularly been featured in the company’s weekly update. Even knowing it was coming, it was still a special moment to see my name on the cover of a Rifts book. Thanks to Kevin Siembieda, the staff of Palladium Books and all the artists for bringing this book to fruition.

What is the Sovietski?

Rifts is a role playing game set roughly 300 years in the future which assumes humans entered a Golden Age of technology before a nuclear exchange on the Winter Solstice provoked a magical apocalypse which opened the Rifts, magical gateways to every possible elsewhere, and demons and magic beings flooded in; destroying nearly every human civilization. In the time period of the game monster kingdoms and human nations vie with each other for control of the earth. Many human cultures have adopted magic or revived ancient mystic arts, but just as many are committed to technology and cyborgs and power armor are as common as wizards and psychics.

There was a new Soviet Union at the height of the Golden Age and the few people who survived the apocalypse in their bunkers managed to pass their brand of soviet communism on to their descendants. These descendants are the Sovietski, a small (mostly) human nation built on what used to be the great cities of eastern Russia. As the rest of Russia is ravaged by cyborg warlords, ancient demons and gargoyles, the Sovietski keeps itself safe with mandatory military service of all citizens with many converted to cyborgs. They also have tanks, hover tanks, fighter jets and walled cities. Many fans of Rifts like the high technology aspects of the setting so there are plenty of vehicles, cyborg bodies, weapons and cyborg character classes included in the book.

The aspect of the book I am happiest with, however, is our focus on the culture of the Sovietski. We included quotes from communist figures to illustrate the ideals of the Sovietski or to present its irony. We described the unique cultural feel of each of the different cities. We wrote about religious enclaves and festivals and made a random roll table for chance encounters with strangers. We included some of the non-humans which also call the Sovietski home. All of these elements (hopefully) give players the ability to play characters from the Sovietski, not just play with the equipment of the Sovietski. What have the people had to give up to survive in the hostile world of Rifts? What joys have they found for themselves despite the sacrifices?

Why did I want to write about it?

This Sovietski book was something of the perfect project for me. Brandon introduced me to Rifts twenty years ago and I have liked the expansive world of the game ever since. We have role played together since high school and have done so weekly for almost ten years. I enjoy reading about Russia’s history and we both keep up with the news from the country. Working together to write a game book set in Rifts Russia was a natural extension of all our previous experience with Palladium and our shared interests.

As a creator, I always respond to things I like by wanting to add to them. While almost every corner of the Rifts globe has been talked about, there are plenty of places where the coverage has been thin. The “New Soviet Nation” was one of these areas. It was introduced in Rifts World Book 17: Warlords of Russia, with some extra information in Rifts World Book 18: Mystic Russia; about thirty pages in total, and most of that cyborg bodies and vehicles. The nation existed, but its history was not detailed, its political systems were not explored and the motivations of its people were left blank. The challenge was to add the detail we wanted to the setting without contradicting what had already been established in previous books. I think we managed it well.

The project has an important personal aspect to it as well. I have always been interested in the Soviet Union. I attribute this to being old enough to remember the end of the Cold War and the break up of the USSR but too young to have really had any understanding of events at the time. For most of my life, America’s fallen rival has loomed in my imagination as a mysterious shadow of “something important” which is ultimately unknowable because it is gone. I cultivated an appreciation for the symbols of the USSR during my teen years because teens are always looking for ways to mark themselves as unique by defying expectations. In collage when I began to study the broad sweep of Russian history and leaned about the machinations and proxy wars between East and West which define the Cold War, I learned there is little, if anything, to appreciate in the government or leaders of the Soviet Union. Instead, I came to appreciate the remarkable capacity for survival possessed by the Russian people. They have overcome a barely hospitable landscape, defeated invasion forces and endured some of the most brutal government repression in history. I find myself having made something of a complete circuit with this project. My interest in detaining a fictional version of the Soviet Union has only made me appreciate all the more the people who struggled against the real Soviet Union. It is the heroic spirit of those people I wanted to capture. This book is my celebration of survival against all odds. It is my eulogy for the millions killed in Soviet era purges. It is an expression of my hope for a better future for the Russian people.

A role playing game book may not be fine art, but I like to think Rifts World Book 36: Sovietski is in the same tradition as the many works by Russian poets, composers, writers and musicians which have been expressing the same hope for centuries.

29 December 2017

Five Stages of a First Draft

I am currently working on a new project for Wet Ink Games. Its early days so I don’t want to say much about it, but this process has given me reason to think about the creative process and specifically about the many stages of work a creator has to go through to make any particular idea a reality. There are lots of creators who have covered this before, but I want to put my own little spin on it. I think of my process from an idea to a first draft as happening over five broad stages.

Stage One - Filling the Blank Page: The the first step of any new piece of writing is to start with a blank page. I have heard many people say the blank page is the most intimidating because there is nothing to work from; the page is blank. I don’t see it that way, because when starting a new project I first set down a lot of ideas about what I want to do. There is often no method or reason to this step, it’s just a way to get all the possibly relevant ideas if not on the actual page, then at least up to the front of your mind so you can work with them. I will sketch scenes, propose characters or even just names, write down bits of dreams I’ve had, list possible plot events and make a list of scenes is movies or comics which I want to use as inspiration. This step is like brainstorming, but it seems more directed than that to me. I am usually not trying to find an idea at this stage, but looking for what will help me build up an idea I already have. This is the most free stage because there is nothing else set down yet so there can be no conflicts or missteps at this stage. All competing details are still possible and exist together in limbo. Once you have put everything you think might be helpful in front of you, you are ready to begin the work in earnest.

Stage Two - Finding the Edges: Once you have your working central ideas you need to know the full extent of the project. You need to know how big this particular project is and where it ends. All the threads of history and inspiration you’ve pulled into this particular project need to break off somewhere. This roughing out of the whole shape of the work sometimes leads you see it as possibly part of the larger series of works, but at some point you have to decide this is the part I am working on now and set that off as a individual project in your mind and on your page. This is the stage of outlining a whole project or maybe writing a one or two line description of each chapter for a novel. I have done a list of what needs to happen in each chapter for several of the NaNoWriMos I have worked on over the years. In the case of writing a RPG book, a list of all the things you want in the game and how many of each is part of what you make at this stage. For example, we need 20 new animal types and five or six new airplanes for the next Wild Skies book. We know that going in. This stage is not limited to outlining. Sometimes you have to start the writing to find out what you need to know about characters and backgrounds. There are still no wrong answers in this stage. You are filling out the shape of how big and how long you think the work is going to be. It may still change in the making. This stage generally doesn’t take that long, but it is my favorite part of the creative process. I love the combination of direction set in this first stage with this stage’s freedom.

Stage Three - Painting in the Floor: I may be mixing architectural metaphors here, but I like to think of this step as filling the work out to the edges set in the previous step. It could also be called “painting in the canvas.” This is the longest step in the process. After the direction is set and you know about where you want to go, you have to actually go there. In stage two you can simply write, “the characters discuss their emotional history,” but in stage three you have to figure out want that history is and how you are going to reveal it to best effect and what words your characters are actually going to say. If you set yourself the task of creating a dozen character profiles or six new airplanes which all need statistics to make them unique then you have to write up all those details. It can be a slog to get through this stage as it’s not a time for a lot of new ideas. It’s slow and steady crafting. It’s the “cruising altitude” portion of the flight, to mix in yet another metaphor. About 80 to 90 percent of a project gets written in this stage.

Stage Four – Finishing the Corners: This is the stage where you have to go back and deal with whatever you skipped in the previous step. This has been less common in the novels I’ve written because I’ve only finished longer fiction like that all in one go during November. It is a more common problem for me in RPG writing where there is often many different types of writing within one project. Maybe you left a detailed time line for last because the alternate history section wasn’t written yet. Or maybe you skipped the details of a weapon’s game numbers because you wanted to get on to describing the attributes of your fantasy creatures. This stage also includes all the details you didn’t plan for from the start. You may not know you need a chapter exploring the motivations of the queen mother until you get to the climax of the story and she’s there when her son is murdered. Whatever the reason you skipped something or left it out, in stage four you have to go back and get those things done. This is the hardest step for me, usually. There is often a reason I left the tricky bits for the end and they are still tricky to get right. I find the work of this stage is motivated not by what I am interested in writing or thinking about, but by the needs of the story. It is often work I just have to push myself to get through.

Stage Five – Polishing all the Details: Fifth and lastly the work as a whole must be harmonized in terms of format and details. Did you change a character’s name in chapter three? You have to make sure it’s corrected in the first chapters. Did you create place-holder information while someone else was working on the real details? That has to be swapped out. Were you inconsistent in story details like descriptions of a place or in format elements like use of quotation marks? You have to bring all that into line. You should also fix spelling errors you missed in your initial haste. This is the final pass through whatever you’ve written to get everything “right” as much as you can before the first draft is done and other people get to look at it. It is a clean up stage and doesn't usually involve too much mental power so while it can be tedious, it is not hard.

There you have it, my breakdown of work. I’m off to paint in some more floors. Expect more news in the new year!