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On MUSCLE Men

On a recent long car ride Jenn and I were discussing the fact that demand for physical toys have been in decline recently.  It would seem that in this digital age all the kids want is an iPad stocked full of video games, which as a video game developer is good news for me, but overall makes me kind of sad.  Many articles on this focus on the interactivity of video games over the static experience of re-enacting movie scenes with a licensed action figure.  Personally, I’d like to point out the problem of forcing everything to spawn from proven licensed material.  You’ll never really engage a child’s imagination with such a restrictive point of view.  Case in point, from my own childhood, consider the MUSCLE Men:

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When I was a kid there were plenty of licensed action figure toys out there: GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Mad Balls, etc. But I very vividly remember the day my mom set me loose at a local flea market and I discovered a huge gallon zip-lock bag of MUSCLE Men for just a couple dollars. I’m sure the awesome value of getting hundreds of little guys for such a cheap price was a big part of why I bought them – I was never good at saving and thus rarely had much money to spend on bigger ticket items. But when I brought those little pink guys home I played with them quite a bit, imagining all kinds of crazy stories and backgrounds for them.

The thing with this toy is, you had to invent your own story, because there just wasn’t a pre-pacakge one supplied. Maybe if I dug I might find one, but at least Wikipedia tells me that only 2 of the original 236 figures even had names. And of course I didn’t even have the original packaging, I just had that one gallon ziplock bag.

With GI Joe or He-Man it was pretty well laid out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The TV shows, which were little more than toy commercials, gave all kinds of characteristics and stories for the figures. But these little pink men were just all over the map. One guy had a shark head, another had six arms, many vaguely resembled wrestlers, but many were just completely bizarre, and all of them were the same shade of eraser pink.

I wanted them grouped into teams, so I had to invent the teams. I wanted the teams to fight, so I had to invent why they didn’t like each other. There were so many of them I couldn’t just make two factions, there were easily a dozen factions. And when I put them away they all went back into that one big bag so the sorting and deciding “does the six armed guy with a helmet go in the weird limbs group or the wearing armor group” re-occurred over and over again.

Maybe I’m just showing myself as the crotetchedy old man I’ve become, but it seems to me that toys are in the decline because toys today suck. Kids have crazy inventive and bizarre imaginations, and their toys should engage that and let them exercise it. Sure, making an exact replica of the latest cartoon movie character will sell plenty of units, but will the kids play with it over and over again, or will they forget all about it once the next animated blockbuster comes out? I say, give them some weird little men with too many limbs and bombs for hands, and they’ll be entertained for weeks.

Old GenCon Photos

 

And for a little more GenCons past nostalgia, here are a couple photos.

GenCon '97 - Look how excited I am to be working the exhibit hall, and rocking my GenCon '93 shirt!

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GenCon '97 - Look how excited I am to be working the exhibit hall, and rocking my GenCon '93 shirt!

GenCon Past and Future

For unknown reasons I find myself again contemplating GenCon.  We missed it again this year — partly because we’re going to have some work done and are strapped for cash for vacations, but also because GenCon has become something of a mess recently.  It appears to be tied up in the geek culture explosion, with record attendance around 56,000.  I’ve read some interesting articles about how everything geek culture is exploding and merging.  For example, can you imagine any convention, be it comic, video game, or board game targeted, without a large amount of cosplay?  GenCon without storm troopers parading down the hall sounds crazy, but back in the 90’s, I’m not even sure if I remember there being a costume contest.

Unfortunately the downside to all this growth is that it’s getting very hard for an individual to go, never mind organize a handful of friends.  Hotels fill up within hours of registration opening up, and the booking sites are just an exercise in frustrating web timeouts.  I have at least one friend who intended to go this year but was simply unable to book a hotel room and so ended up having to stay home.  Certainly the vast attendance numbers is part of the over the top splendor of going to one of these things, but it seems to have reached that tipping point of just being too darn big.

Looking ahead, in 2017 it will be the 50th anniversary of GenCon.  Given that my very first GenCon was the 25th anniversary (1992), I really want to attend that one.  I imagine that one will be particularly insane, unless somehow this bubble bursts before then.  It may be wise to go to one or two before then just to figure out how to work the logistics, but one or two more is all that are left before it happens, and frankly next year is looking pretty doubtful with Jenn planning us a trip to England.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to write this post was to once again collate my notes and remind myself which GenCons I have been to, and which I missed.  This is really only for my own future reference, so I apologize to any other readers, but here it is, the GenCon roll: (note, early pre-blog dates will link back to the same original recap post I first wrote about my earl GenCon attendance)

1992 – My first GenCon, a Christmas present from dear old dad.  To this day I can’t believe he actually did this for me.  Also, GenCon’s 25th anniversary.

1993 – My second GenCon, and the first we drove to, or should I say, my friend Chris’s mom drove us.  Also the year Magic the Gathering came out.

1994 – The only GenCon I ever attended entirely alone, and at a time when I was really too young to do so.  I would miss the next year as I got ready for college and said goodbye to high school.

1996 – Once in college I rarely came home for the summers, instead preferring to work on campus.  My friend Lam did likewise, and thus he and I would attend GenCon together for a few years running.  This year we had a really great time, flying out of NY together and catching the CCG bug with L5R.

1997 – A bad year for GenCons – the year Lam and I drove a truck full of miniatures out, got stuck working the exhibition hall, and saw the seedy underbelly of professional convention attendance.  I vowed I would always attend in the future as nothing more than a consumer.  Also, the year WotC bought TSR, and the last year I’d attend at Milwaukee.

Here follows a gap of not attending.  I tried to go in 1998 but Lam didn’t or couldn’t go, but then ended up going last minute without me.  I’ve always been kind of annoyed by that.  Then I graduated college and either didn’t have the time, money, or interest to go.

2004 – Though I started playing with a group of co-workers in 1999, it wasn’t until 2004 that for some reason we decided we should all go to GenCon together.  We rented a van and drove out there.  This is probably the last serious road trip with a bunch of friends I would take, and I think it was also my favorite.  Also, I think this was the only one I attended with Dan.

2005 – The first year I blogged about going to GenCon, so plenty of details and photos in this link.  This is the only year I attended with Scott.  It’s kind of sad that I never got to go to GenCon with both Scott and Dan at the same time.

2006 - Now we are starting to get into a groove of going with Joe, BJ, and Adam.  They’ve been doing this with us since 2004 and it’s solidified as a tradition.  Adam always vanishes into the depths of serious competitive Call of Cthulhu, but Joe, BJ, and I play a fair amount of organized D&D 3/3.5 together.

2007 - The year E3 crashed and video games started to appear in force at GenCon.  I believe this is also the year I started seriously getting into Savaged Worlds and thus ran my first game at GenCon.  Also the year they announced D&D 4th edition.  There are some amusing photos out there of me, Joe, and BJ reacting to this announcement, but I don’t seem to have any because my camera was on the fritz.  Also, this is the last year I’d attend a GenCon while Gary Gygax was alive and present.  I wish I had made a point of meeting the guy during one of these, but sadly I never did.

2008 - Not a tone of great photos from this one sadly, as I replaced my camera with a big heavy SLR that was too painful to use at a convention.  At this point I’m pretty heavily into Savage Worlds, which I think actually started the year before.  Still going with Joe, BJ, and Adam (and of course as always Jenn), but we’re starting to lose steam and won’t attend the next year, though many of us will regret that choice.

2010 - By this year we have a whole new group of friends to go.  Adam is still going, but as always we barely see the guy, and new friends from 38 including Mike join us this year.  Also I’m now in the throws of old school D&D, running Labyrinth Lord games.  This is also the year I discover the Auction, which will quickly evolve from a side interest to a major event I will schedule the rest of my convention around.

2011 – John from 38 joins the band, and I continue to immerse myself in the old school.  This is also the year the size of the convention starts to show, and the scheduling system is very difficult to deal with.  Still, I manage to play in some great games, and the OSR is in full bloom.  I also spent a huge amount of time and money in the auction for the first time.

2012 – Adam and Mike join us again, and this time my family including two younger brothers, my mom, and stepfather all make it down (though only my brothers attend the convention, my family parents find other entertainment).  This is also the year we miss Sunday due to inconvenient flight times.

And that’s basically it.  We had flights and tickets for GenCon 2013, but ended up moving in August and had to cancel our plans.  Then in 2014 we didn’t even try to attend, and thank goodness, because it sounds like it would have been extremely difficult.  I hope this is not the end of my history with GenCon, but clearly careful planning will be required for the future.  In the meantime, I continue to expand the local conventions I check out, and this November I’ll be attending Carnage on the Mountain in VT.

 

PostScript – I just realized at some point I set up a category on this blog for posts about GenCon, which can all be gotten to here.

Dwimmermount: TL;DR

The following assumes you know the whole back-story of the disappearance of James Maliszewski and his blog Grognardia a couple of years ago. If not, here’s a couple links for you. And in the spirit of the title of this entry, the tldr is this: James wrote a very successful blog recounting his experiences going back to original D&D. He started a kickstarter to publish his home campaign setting, and then vanished suddenly when his father became very ill, and hasn’t posted a word online since. While others picked up the kickstarter responsibilities, many were quite upset about the whole thing, while others had some empathy for a man having an obviously tough time with grief.

OK, so I backed that kickstarter when it first launched. In early 2012 I also had a little personal upheaval to deal with, and as such wasn’t paying much attention to James or his blog. There were offers on the kickstarter to refund my money, but I let it ride. It wasn’t a lot of money and I had already kind of forgotten about it. I figured it was worth the risk that maybe James would return or these other guys would put something interesting together. And then last week, this arrived in the mail:

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Man, I was not expecting such a massive book. Seriously, this thing weighs a ton, and clocks in at over 400 pages. It took me a couple days just to get up the gumption to try and read the thing. I started out skimming and popping around trying to find specific bits of interest. Finally, I picked it up for my pre-bed time reading last night and started in at chapter 1. That first chapter turns out to be an incredibly interesting read. While just the introduction, it includes James’ original intro describing his personal goals, and then a larger chunk from the publisher talking about what problems James had with the project and how they went about solving those problems once James had left.

Let’s begin with James’ own motivations. He was pretty enamored of the idea of a mega-dungeon for some time, and wrote about such frequently on his blog:

There’s never really been a properly presented old school campaign setting, because none that I know of have ever given us the megadungeons around which they revolved. It seems to me that, if I were an old school publisher looking for a “killer app,” it’d be a well-done megadungeon and surrounding wilderness, done in a way that fosters sandbox/hexcrawl play.

I think the quote above outlines not only his original dream, but also what eventually becomes the albatross of the project for him. The introduction to Dwimmermount puts it this way:

As identified by James, the fundamental difficulty in publishing a megadungeon is that it changes over time in response to play.

The final problem James identified for a published dungeon is that the amount of detail which accumulates through the history of play can be overwhelming to the referee. Freedom from extensive preparation was one of the key advantages James found in refereeing Dwimmermount, because at the beginning of the campaign there was little prepared material demanding to be studied before each session. By the end of James’ campaign, a wealth of detail had piled up – but much of it did not make it into the first drafts of Dwimmermount. James’ drafts were purposefully minimalist, so as to avoid burdening the referee with an abundance of material to master, leaving each referee space for individual creativity to make the dungeon his own.

Whether or not you agree that megadungeons are instrumental to recreating old school play, I think the above issues ring true for adapting any home campaign setting into published material. I remember throughout my young gaming life (all the way up to and including college play), I always envied GMs who had long spanning home campaigns rich with history and content. When I started my own old school campaign back in January of 2010, this is exactly what I was setting out to create — my own long living campaign world that would grow organically over time. I think I was pretty successful at doing just that, but would I try now to package that all up into a published work and sell it to the public? Certainly not.

The fact is, you can’t package the magic of the shared history among DM and players. You can package up all the output of this communal creative process, but expecting an outsider to be able to pick that up and have the same experiences you did is laughable. And yet, it seems that’s exactly what is being attempted here:

We have added in much of the detail that James left out, attempting to stay true to James’ intent or written notes while resolving inconsistencies between sections of the text written at different times and filling in gaps where his drafts referred to details not provided. As a result, the final material we have published is considerably more detailed than the first drafts. We think this ultimately makes Dwimmermount a better product, and hope that you agree. For some referees, experts in improvisation and megadungeon creation, the additional material we have added will be unnecessary and possibly even distracting; but we feel that erring on the side of more content rather than less is ultimately better for everyone. In play, it is much easier to ignore unwanted material than to manufacture details from whole cloth, and a majority of backers we interacted with preferred to be able to run the dungeon “out of the box” without being required to add their own material.

A product that is “better for everyone” at the expense of “experts in improvisation” who will find much of the work “unnecessary and possibly even distracting.” This sounds an awful lot like the exact progression of D&D, a gradual removal of reliance on expert GMs able to improvise, and a leveling of the playing field to give everyone a standard experience, even if that standard had become somewhat drab as a result.

I will still attempt to make it through the 400 pages and find the hidden gems for extraction into my own campaign. I’m sure they are in there, and it’s just a question if I can make it through all the verbosity to find them. For my own money though, I kind of wish the book had been closer to James’ original draft, or perhaps something more like Michael Curtis’ Stonehell. Give me loose notes that inspire my imagination and leave plenty of room for interpretation, not pages upon pages of minutiae.

I tore through Stonehell and dropped that sucker right into my campaign world. My players know of its existence, and some love it, and many more avoid it like the plague. It is full of mystery and danger in their eyes – just what a massive dungeon should be. Is it the central tent-pole of my campaign? No. Does it provide plenty of hooks for adventure and exciting play? Absolutely.

A New Old Campaign

For some time now some of my co-workers have been asking me to start up a new D&D campaign.  The main force behind this is actually a guy who was in my previous campaign, but there did seem to be a general desire around the office to play.  Seriously that’s one of the big advantages of working in video games — I have yet to work anywhere that didn’t have enough people interested in playing D&D to actually start a group.  This one was a bit surprising though.  Out of the 20 or so employees in the office, 9 players have asked to be part of the campaign.  I imagine one or two may start to flake out as it goes on, but our first session is scheduled for this Wednesday and as far as I know all 9 players will be there.

The campaign location will be the same world I’ve been running since my blog reset back in 2010.  My goal at the time was to start a campaign world that I could continually run stuff in that would eventually become deep and full of content simply by virtue of playing in it for so long.  I had heard stories of guys running the same world for decades, and I was jealous.  Well, it’s actually is working.  I have a huge hex map of the known part of the world and tons of adventure leads to start this new campaign out.  I’m pretty excited actually.

The group is an interesting melange of newbies and old hats.  As I said, one of the guys has been playing in my campaigns for years and I sort of think of him as the backbone of the group.  Or at least the cheerleader.  Certainly he’ll be the one to lead between-game conversations and keep the energy up, and frankly, I’m super grateful to have a player like that.  That kind of player can really make the difference between a game that trudges on and one that everyone is really excited to play every week.

Then I have at least one guy who has never played any version of D&D before.  This is a guy that will have trouble telling a d8 from a d10.  I like this kind of player just as much, because newbies have a great way of not letting themselves be bound by the rules.  They are far more likely to try something crazy that makes me scramble to make up rules on the spot and inevitably leads to a really awesome and memorable scene.  I do, however, have trouble answering him when he asks the simple question “What edition are we playing?”  I’m so steeped in the history now that I find it difficult to answer that question without going on for half an hour about the history of the game.

The funny thing is, I’m almost tempted to start calling what I play “OD&D”.  The fact is, I use the B/X books, but the majority of my house rules are focused on adding OD&D and AD&D 1e style stuff (race/class split, multi-classing, spell progression, etc.)  When I compare how I run the game to how others run OD&D, I’d say my game is more OD&D like than Basic D&D like.  And there’s something really nice about being able to answer the above question as simply “We play the original edition.  You know, the first one ever made.”  Most neophyte players understand numbers, and have a vague impression that there’s a 1st edition, 2nd edition, etc.  Trying to explain this weird non-numbered branch of the game that existed in the 80’s is a bit cumbersome.

However, the books I have at the table are undeniably the B/X books.  I have one set for my own use behind the screen, and one on the table for the players.  The fact is, I find the language and the organization of these books much more usable at the table than the LBBs.  While the spirit of what I play may be infused by ideas in the LBBs, I think the B/X books are just far more functional as reference material mid-session.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered pretty far off course here.  The point is, I have a new campaign starting up, using the same good old world and system I was using back in the halcyon days of 38.  I’m pretty darn excited, and I expect it will lead to a bunch more posting at this site again.

TotalCon Review

OK, it’s been a week, it’s high time I reflect on last TotalCon.  I think I can honestly say: best con ever.  And I really wasn’t expecting that.  If anything I really threw this con together last minute: I fell backwards into a room with a friend that needed a roommate, the games I ran were a collection of games I’ve run at other cons because I was too busy to write any new material, and by the time we arrived I had completely forgotten everything I had signed up to play.  I was even surprised when opening my envelope of tickets to discover I had pre-paid for a t-shirt.  Wow, it was like a nice little present from my past self.  Thanks Paul of the Past!

My games ran pretty well.  Actually, oddly my Thursday evening game for which I expected low turnout, and planned an adventure that was easy to scale, had 8 people show up.  Friday afternoon, on the other hand, I had to cancel because only 2 showed up.  The last game I ran on Saturday afternoon had an almost completely full table of 9 players.  The lesson is there’s really no good way to predict how many players you get, and you just have to be ready to roll with the punches.  Thankfully on Friday Tim was running a continuation of a game I played in a previous year, and he was gracious enough to let me join his over-full table.

The games I did run were good, and the games I played in were mostly good as well.  There were some that were great and some that dragged a bit, nothing unusual for a convention.  What really made this “the best con ever” for me though was the people.  First off, now that I’ve been going for 5 years running, I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces every year.  Often times I wouldn’t remember their names if it wasn’t printed on a badge hung from their neck, but fortunately it is, and it’s very easy to fall into the usual casual conversations.  However, in addition to a general sense of camaraderie, my roommate for the weekend made an important introduction to some other folks with the casual comment of “Huh, I’m surprised you guys haven’t met yet.”

It’s a funny connection – my TotalCon roommate is an old friend from college and happens to now live in the same town as I do.  He goes to TotalCon for the board games, I go for the RPGs, so besides the occasional meal together and chat in the evening, we don’t really see much of each other at the convention.  Lara, the first person he introduced me to,  was an ex-coworker.  It just happens that he was connected in these random ways with two people who are both RPG nuts and have been going to TotalCon for years.

And so Lara introduced me to her sister, and her sister’s husband, and they being gregarious people introduced me to a whole ton of other people I had never met before.  I was invited to join them at the hotel bar after the games Friday night, which was full of good humor and great conversation.  I went there again Saturday, at which point I found myself being led through the halls from one party to another.  Who knew there were after-hours parties at TotalCon?

Well, I would if I thought about it.  A couple years ago I posted about the insanely loud people in the next room.  Was this them?  Maybe.  I get the impression there are plenty of other late night parties at this thing.  I mentioned this anecdote of my loud neighbors at one of the parties, and got the very apropos response “well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”  And why not?  I already learned the lesson of “don’t play 8 AM games”.  In fact, I scheduled nothing earlier than 10 AM, and honestly, if I missed one of those it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  So I stayed up late, had a few too many beers, and generally just had an awesome time.

Being at a party full of gamers you don’t know is a very interesting experience too.  It’s like a normal party full of people you don’t know, only there’s this wonderful implicit topic of conversation.  I never felt awkward talking to a single person — they all had very interesting things to say, and were interested in what I had to say.  It was almost surreal.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to going back, and it seems my new friends are now trying to recruit me into GMing games at Carnage on the Mountain, a convention in November up in VT.  It’s not taking very much arm twisting at all.

TotalCon Bound

TotalCon is very soon and I’m starting to get excited!  I didn’t mean to make such a big thing of it this year, but the trip seems to have run away with itself.  Originally I was just going for the weekend, but a friend contacted me about sharing a room and was going down Thursday night.  Now, “the weekend” already included Friday night in my head, and since I wasn’t going to GenCon this year I figured I was due a day off and could include the entire day Friday in my trip.  Then we started discussing when on Thursday we should leave.  I signed up to run a game Thursday night at 7, still late enough to have a full day of work, but then I started waffling about leaving a little early or even taking a half day, and finally just threw up my hands and took the whole day off.  Now my friend is talking about attending a 3:00 PM game on Thursday, and I’m noticing there’s a 1:00 PM game that sounds kind of cool…

To soothe my sense of self-indulgence I am including a slight corporate spin this year.  I’ve printed up a bunch of post cards for Road of Kings, and will be passing them out to anyone who will take one.  They have QR codes for the iTunes and Google Play URLs on them.  This was an idea I already had for PAX East this year, and figured what the heck, why not bring them to TotalCon?  I’m actually really curious to see what effect if any these will have on sales for us this weekend.  While PAX is more specifically for video games, and has a significantly larger attendance, TotalCon feels more like our actual target demographic.  I’m kind of excited actually to really be targeting “our people” so specifically and seeing how they react.

But mostly I’m going for the games.  I’m looking forward to playing with Tim Kask and Michael Curtis again.  I loved playing in their games last year.  I think I also signed up to play a game or two run by Travis Miller, who had the balls to run some shorter 2-hour games in the 10AM-12 slot.  That’s an idea I’ve batted around myself in the past, so I’m really psyched to see how that works without taking the gamble myself.  Also Travis is a great DM, so I’m sure those games will just be dead fun regardless.

Between this trip and chatter at the office about starting up a new regular campaign, this little old blog may just be seeing some new life in the coming weeks.  Here’s hoping.

Convention Concerns

OK, I’m back.  Road of Kings is out there and doing well, and I think I can breathe now and think about other things.  Time to get this blog back on track.

I want to talk about GenCon.  I was not able to go to GenCon last year due to moving, and again this year I won’t make it for various reasons.  That said, I do still keep an eye on things, and anyone reading this blog will know I’ve posted several times about the growth trend it’s been experiencing for the past several years.  Now, however, it’s getting a bit ridiculous.

Housing for GenCon sold out this year in less than a day.  According to the email:

To put this in timing perspective, last year, open rooms existed in the block through March 18. In 2013, housing took seven weeks to ultimately sell out. This year’s sellout of rooms with three or more consecutive nights happened in less than three hours with all other rooms selling out quickly thereafter.

Coincidentally, last Thursday’s Big Bang Theory featured a plot whereby the main characters try and fail to buy tickets to the San Diego ComicCon.  Four guys sit poised over laptops timing the moment tickets go on sale, then rapidly start refreshing their browsers trying to get into the system’s queue to buy tickets.  Yup, for the past several years, that sounds exactly like my experience with GenCon’s housing and event registration systems.

To be honest, I’m kind of scared by this trend.  Is it a bubble, and will it pop?  If not, will the experience of going to this convention worsen as it continues to bloat and become impossible to get into anything?  Will this flood of interest spill over into smaller local conventions, and if so what effect will that have?

In Big Bang, Sheldon decides to try and start his own competing convention.  I’m already there my friends, I’ve been running a small local convention for a close group of friends now in it’s 7th year — HelgaCon.  To be honest, these days I’m way more excited about HelgaCon than any of the other conventions I attend.  It combines the joy of playing games with the pleasure of seeing old friends I haven’t seen in a long time.  There’s no dramatic rush to get housing or sign up for events, and the best thing is, none of the games ever suck.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward next year to finally getting back to GenCon, assuming I can get in.  This year though, I’m sure I’ll still get plenty of good gaming in, and I’m kind of glad to not be spending two Saturday afternoons sitting at my desk hitting the refresh button over and over.

 

Road of Kings Released!

Hey everyone , I’m super excited to report that Road of Kings has officially been released on both iTunes and Google Play.  I won’t bother you with more blabbering on about how awesome our game is.  I’ll just leave with these nice two buttons:

app-store-badge google-play-badge

Countdown to Release

I’ve posted this everywhere else, why not my own blog?  Road of Kings has an official release date: January 18th.  Also, we’re officially supporting iPhone/iPad in addition to Android, which is very exciting, as we expected it to take much longer to support that platform.  Things went pretty smoothly though, thanks very much to the good folks over at libgdx and robovm.

Finally, here’s the new trailer we just released.  Enjoy!