Saturday, March 29, 2008

Random Comic Review: The Spirit

I am starting a new feature around here, the random comic review.  Well, technically, I suppose it started when I reviewed The Immortal Iron Fist, but now it has a fancy new name!

First up is the comic series The Spirit.  Now, as some of you may know, the Spirit was originally created by comic legend Will Eisner as a newspaper strip in 1940.  Eisner used the comic to experiment with new art and storytelling techniques and as a result The Spirit is generally considered Eisner's masterwork. 

As great as the original is, I am actually going to review the 2007 revival by Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone.  When DC comics first announced they were reviving the series cries of blasphemy filled the blogosphere.  Eisner's work was held with an almost religious reverence, and it was widely assumed that whoever DC put on the book would screw it up.

Wouldn't you trust this man? Thankfully, Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone were up to the task of reinterpreting The Spirit for a new age. Nominally, the comic was about Denny Colt, a former police detective who took to fighting crime as the Spirit after he was believed to be killed in action.  In realty, the comic was often less about the title character than it was about the fascinating and fun world he lived in.

If I had to use one word to describe The Spirit it would be quirky.  One of my favorite stories involved a villain marketing old Russian army surplus pork and beans to kids by using the Spirit in his advertising.  Another one involved an all girl rock band with blue skin gained by sitting under a blue meteorite in the park when it rained.  Oh, did I mention the meteorite made you high?

What amazes me is these convoluted quirky plot lines were usually setup and finished in a single issue.  It made The Spirit a quick and fun read.  I have to admit The Spirit was always the first book I would read when I got home from the comic shop.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.  Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone left the book with issue twelve.  I had high hopes for the new team, particularly the writer Sergio Aragones.  Unfortunately, the series has lost the strange alchemy Cooke and Bone used to create the unique crime noir/comedy/post-modern/humanistic  feel of the book.  I will likely be dropping the book from my monthly comic order.

Well, it was wonderful while it lasted.  C'est la vie!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Once, twice, three times a core book!

Another controversial thing about Fourth Edition D&D is that they are planning on multiple versions of the core books over time.  Not that they didn't have them in Third Edition, but the kicker this time is several classic monsters and classes are being held over for later books.  For example, if you really want to play a monk you will have to buy Player's Handbook II (or III) at some point down the road.

This concept has really pissed off a couple of my friends.  They are very indignant that Wizards of the Coast is holding back "the good stuff" in order to extort more money out of them.  I am very sympathetic to this point of view.  In fact, I shared it when I first heard about this concept.

The more I think about it though, the more I think this new way is more honest.  After all, books like Complete Warrior were additional Player's Handbooks in everything but name.  New base classes, prestige classes, equipment, etc.  Everything you would expect to see in a PHB.  If you tended to pick up all these books anyway, this probably won't be much of a change for you

It will add a burden to the casual player.  At least a couple of players in my gaming group were the type that would purchase the Player's Handbook and nothing else.  They might occasionally use classes or feats from the non-core books, but would rarely buy them.  While it is certainly true they could do the same with multiple core books, something about naming a book "Player's Handbook II" instead of "Complete Adventurer" seems to make it more of a must buy.

In the end though, a lot of the motivation for multiple core books does come down to the economic realities of the gaming industry today.  Back in the days of First Edition AD&D, selling adventure modules was how the game made money.  The rules were the rules and the concept of supplemental rule books was a foreign one.  Then came the original Unearthed Arcana.  While it was really just a collection of rule supplements previously published in Dragon Magazine, it added elements like new classes to the "official" AD&D rules for the first time. Not surprisingly it sold like hot cakes!  It was quickly followed by the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, introducing the concept of skills for the first time. 

By the time Second Edition AD&D came around, selling rules supplements rather than adventuring modules became common place.  The reason for this shift seems obvious.  If you have a group with five players and one DM, only the DM is buying adventure modules.  On the other hand, everyone is buying the rules supplements.  Still, no rules supplements sold as well as the core rules.  Which is why multiple versions of the core rules makes financial sense for Wizard's of the Coast.

I suppose sometimes I wish I could turn back the clock.  Lord knows my wallet wishes I could.  Nevertheless, I don't think the idea of multiple core books is a bad one, at least if they manage to keep the quality level high enough.

I reserve the right to start griping again when they try to sell me Player Handbook VII though.

Monday, March 24, 2008

No taxation without (virtual) representation!

Last night my wife showed me that her character had earned 270,548,850 Infamy on the game City of Villains.  I am not sure how much Influence/Infamy she has on other game accounts, but I would not be surprised if she cracked a billion.  What this tells me is that if the IRS ever starts taxing the virtual economy, I am screwed.

The concept of taxing virtual assets is not a new one.  I like to think that the idea is so ludicrous that it will never come to pass.  Unfortunately, I have also learned to never say never, especially when there is a dollar to be made.

I know many of you will say if the virtual income never is transferred to real income that there is no reason for the IRS to get involved.  The real problem is that the IRS always wants to be involved when there is even the potential to make some income.

To put it another way, the IRS has already inserted itself into barter economy, where no money is being exchanged.  If I do computer work for someone I know who happens to be an automobile mechanic, and he replaces the transmission in my car in exchange, I have earned "income" equal to the cost of the transmission and need to report it to the IRS.

This is the gateway that the IRS wants to use to get into the virtual world.  While we are not earning actual money, we are earning something we could potentially barter for real goods and services.  Hence we should be taxed on it.

The problem is that this is idiotic.  No one would seriously consider taxing you on the money you made in Monopoly.  This is because at the end of the day the owner of the game takes all the 'money' back and puts the game in his closet.  The same is true with City of Heroes/Villains, simply on a longer timescale.  Someday NCSoft will close up shop and all of my wife's influence/infamy will disappear into the ether from whence it came.  Unfortunately, I have noticed a trend that the legal system seems to lose its mind as soon as the words "computer", "online", or "technology" are uttered. 

I should note that there is one game that probably should be the exception to this rule: Second Life.  The main reasons is because you can convert "Linden Dollars" to US Dollars, so making a profit in the game can be turned into a profit in the real world.  However, the solution here seems simple.  When you cash in your Linden Dollars for real US money, that is your earned income.  While it is virtual, there should be no attempt to tax it.  Much like you don't pay taxes on stocks until you cash out, you shouldn't have to pay on virtual investments until you are see a profit.  Especially because much like a company can go bankrupt and you would never see a dime, Second Life could disappear tomorrow, and those thousands of Linden Dollars you never converted could disappear with it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Is it finally time to play a bard?

Call me crazy, but I have always liked the idea of playing a bard in D&D.  I have played several over the years.  Unfortunately, the implementation has always been flawed.

In First Edition AD&D, the bard was actually the worlds first prestige class.  Before you could be a bard you had to spend time as a Thief, a Druid, and a Ranger.  I am actually a bit surprised that you didn't have to spend time as a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker as well.  Not only did it take a long time to become a bard, but you had to survive First Editions horrible dual class rules not once, but twice.

In Second Edition AD&D the bard was made a base class.  So, at least you no longer had to wait until the majority of your party had reached venerable age to take the class.  On the down side, you basically acted as a second-rate thief and a third-rate spell-caster.  Still, the majority of bards I have played to date were second edition bards.

Third Edition D&D  gave the bard an array of buffing abilities to complement their second-rate rogue and a third-rate spell-caster status.  Unfortunately the majority of these buffs sucked.  Oh well, at least they get a lot of skill points.

I am hoping that Fourth Edition will finally be the Bard's time to shine.  If it is, it will probably be due to the concept of roles.  For those of you who are not aware, D&D Fourth Edition stole borrowed refined the concept of roles from MMORPGs. 

The basic player roles are Defenders (i.e., meat shields), Leaders (i.e., buffers/healers), Strikers (i.e., massive single target damage), and Controllers (i.e., battlefield control/damaging large numbers of targets).  Of the classic four, Fighters are Defenders, Clerics are Leaders, Rogues are Strikers, and Wizards are Controllers.

So why have these roles?  Well everyone knows in previous editions having a party without a fighter, cleric, rogue, or wizard was often a bad idea.  Player's would often feel constrained to wait until other players had chosen members of those classes before picking one like a monk or a bard. 

In Fourth Edition, the designers had a goal that as long as you had the roles covered that you would have an effective party.  So what does this mean for our good friend the bard?  Well bards are leaders (i.e., buffers).  And they are supposed to be much better buffers now, on par with their fellow leaders Clerics.

This can only be a good thing.  The problem with the bard's ability to buff in Third Edition was that it was completely dwarfed by the spell-casters.  With the new edition, the ability of bards to buff should be much more potent.   This should make playing a bard a much more viable option.  To put it another way, when you say you are playing a bard in Fourth Edition the rest of the group should no longer groan.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

2008: The Final Odyssey

I don't intend this blog to become a collection of obituaries, but I figured I had to mention the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, one of the pioneers of science fiction.

Clarke was the author of many seminal works including the 2001 series, Childhood's End, Rendezvous With Rama, and The Hammer of God.  Unlike many science fiction authors, Clarke was truly concerned that his science fiction contain as much science as possible.  This keeps his work from seeming as dated as the work of many of his contemporaries

Clarke's science fiction was not what you would call "action packed".  Nevertheless, he had a vision of the future that over his long life turned out to be right more often that it was wrong.  Well, ok, his idea that we would all have monkey servants by the 1960's was a bit off the wall.  Still, the man was able to envision the concept of a global communication system running off of satellites in geostationary orbit long before it became a reality.

Clarke's death is not a shock to me the way Gary Gygax's was.  After all, Clarke was 90.  Still, the world seems a smaller place with his passing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

(Not) rolling with the punches.

One change in Fourth Edition D&D which is sure to delight some players and infuriate others is that there are no longer any random rolls in the character creation process.  Character stats will be created using point-buy, and hit points will now be a set number per class level.

When I heard this I was actually surprised.  I honestly shouldn't be.  My regular game has been using point buy and fixed hit points as a house rule.  Other game systems, like White Wolf's Storyteller System, Champions, Star Wars d6, and even OGL games like Mutants & Masterminds have been doing it for awhile. 

Eliminating random rolls from character creation simply makes sense.  A player who rolls poorly finds himself at extreme disadvantage at the game table.  Meanwhile, I player who rolls well can make a character who finds the average adventure to be a cakewalk.  When these characters are both in the same party it can be a problem.  At least until the character with poor rolls dies and the player can roll up a new one.

That being said, the old school gamer in me cringed when I found this out  Some atavistic part of my mind screamed "It's OK for you to make up some mamsy-pamby house rules to take out rolling, but by gum in REAL D&D you roll 3d6, six times, in order, and live by the results!"

The more rational point of my mind quickly reasserted itself.  It did make me realized how ingrained die-rolling is in the D&D creation process.  I think its because all of us have gone through the extremes.  The joy of rolling that eighteen!  The horror of seeing three ones!  Its a shared experience that helps bring us together as gamers.  Everyone has a story of playing a fighter with a nine strength or that thief who's lowest score was a fifteen.

In the end I suppose rolling your statistics just seems so quintessentially Gygaxian!

Still, I can't say I am sorry to see the randomness go away.  It will make the game fairer and easier to run.  I just bet we will call it "rolling up a character" even after the rolls are gone.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wearing of the green!

I wanted to do a St. Patrick's Day themed post, and this looks like the closest I am going to get.

In my earlier post about Fey and the Feywild in 4th Ed., I spoke about how I was a big fan of the new take on the fey in Fourth Edition.  That being said, I have a certain amount of nostalgia for the adventure "Huddle Farm" By Willie Walsh in Dungeon Magazine #12.  It definitely is an old school fey adventure, but one handled with style and panache.

Now this is kicking it old school! The quick synopsis is that a halfling feud is ready to break out at the Huddle Farm because of a recent series of unfortunate events.  These events include trampled fields and a burned barn.  Most of the adventure involves finding out who is responsible for all of this chaos.  The answer is not immediately obvious unless your players snuck a peek at the cover of the issue.  If you still haven't got it, let me give you a hint: The culprit is known for wearing green, carrying shamrocks, and possibly concealing a pot of gold.

(Speaking of the cover, I am a big fan of the gorgeous work done by Linda Medley.  It really stands out among the Dungeon magazine covers of its era, and is one of the reasons I choose to run the adventure in the first place).

The adventure is a nice change of pace, since it provides a light mystery and a presents a number of social situations that cannot be easily resolved by resorting to swordplay.  The low level of the adventure helps, since even mid-level spell-casting can quickly derail this kind of story.

On the downside, First Edition AD&D was not designed to handle an adventure that was primarily social very well.  This could easily lead to player frustration and an unfortunate "lets just burn the whole farm down mentality". 

So how would this adventure translate into Fourth Edition?  Well, on the plus side, Fourth Edition is supposed to have much more robust rules for social interaction.  This should definitely help with the social aspects of the adventure, even among the players for whom Charisma is a dump stat.

Nevertheless, the tone of the adventure would change significantly.  "Huddle Farm" was primarily a light-hearted adventure, which  fit the generally light-hearted nature of the fey in 1st Ed.  In Fourth Edition, even "good" fey are dangerous and unpredictable.  The basic premise of a fey creature turning hostile because of mortals encroaching into territory he considers his own is definitely still valid in the new paradigm.  What would change is the general tone and feel of the adventure.

Pranks played by a Fourth Edition fey would be less light-hearted and much more dangerous to the halfling farmers involved.  One of might even be dead by the time the player character's arrive on the scene.  Rather than walking into an environment where the halflings are full of anger and bluster, most likely the environment would be one of uncertainty and fear.  The change in tone would make the adventure profoundly different.  Not unenjoyable, but different nevertheless.

So tonight, I raise a pint to the First Edition leprechaun.  You may be gone in Fourth Edition, but you are not forgotten.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Subscriptions now available

This is just a quick post to let everyone know you can now subscribe to A Hero Twice A Month courtesy of the good folks at FeedBurner.  You can either subscribe via an RSS reader or choose to receive notification of updates via e-mail.  Just click on the the appropriate link under Subscribe in the far right corner, then follow the prompts.

The Immortal Iron Fist Issues 1-6

Iron Fist is one of the lesser know Marvel heroes.  Created in the 1970's he was originally intended to capitalize on the martial arts craze.  Quickly teamed up with his fellow 1970's hero Power Man, the two stared in the series Power Man and Iron Fist.

It was a quirky series, and I have to admit I was a fan.  Or, more specifically I was a fan of the last half-dozen or so issues as I first became a fan of the book near the end of its run when it crossed over with the lamentable Secret Wars II series.  So most of my experience with Iron Fist was gleaned by reading about him in comics pulled from the back issue bin.

Like unto a thing of iron! Perhaps this is why I did not immediately jump on The Immortal Iron Fist book when it first came out, even though it was written by Ed Brubacker and Matt Fraction.  More likely it was just that I remember loving Iron Fist as a teenager andI  figured what I liked about him would not translate well to me as an adult.

So it was with some trepidation, I hopped on the book with issue #7, a stand alone story featuring Wu Ao-Shi, the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay.  I liked that a lot, and shortly afterwards my lovely wife was kind enough to pick up The Last Iron Fist Story (issues 1-6 in TPB format) for me for Valentine's Day.

(As an aside, if you are a nerd, I highly recommend picking up a nerd wife.  It will make your life so much easier in the long run).

Back to the review.  I need not have worried that my love of the character would not translate well.  Not because I hadn't changed, but that Iron Fist had changed with me.  The current series owes less to traditional comic books than it does to old Samurai Sunday martial arts movies mixed in with a liberal dose of pulp action. Nevertheless, it remains respectful of the stories that preceded it.  In some ways it reminds me of the movie Kill Bill in how it manages to mix the old in with the new and yet feel fresh.

I should warn longtime fans that the first story storyline, involves a lot of retroactive continuity.  Normally, I am normally not a big fan of tampering with the past, but it works here.  This is a case where the changes additive, expanding the mythology of the character. Since the book follows Daniel Rand (the titular Iron Fist) in his own quest to find out the truth behind what is going on, the changes are revealed naturally to the reader.

I suppose while I am on the subject, this series is great reading material for anyone who plays a monk in Dungeons & Dragons.  The mix of oriental and occidental culture is done well, and may give a player several ideas useful at the gaming table.

If you have any interest in the subjects above I suggest you, at least, give The Immortal Iron Fist a try.  The comic is a hoot, and the storylines are being collected in trade paperbacks if you are not a monthly comic kind of guy (or girl).

Using quest based rewards in alternate XP systems.

I want to apologize in advance that this post is a bit of "inside table tennis", i.e., something that may not appeal to a wide audience.  Also, considering it is examining potential house rules for a game system that hasn't been released yet, I am amazed that this blog post hasn't ripped a hole in the universe yet.

The comments on the my last post got me thinking about how quest base rewards could be used in a game that doesn't use XP.  Which the D&D game I am currently in does not.  So why would you run a D&D game without XP?

One of the problems my gaming group has is that since we are almost all 30+ years old, real life often gets in the way of gaming.  People have to work, visit the in-laws, watch the kids, etc. Some of our players are able to attend more frequently than others though, and over the course of several years it lead to a pretty large level disparity between the members of the group.  When you have a level twelve character in the same group with a level nineteen character, it becomes almost impossible for the DM to create appropriately leveled encounters.

Since we are a fairly casual group and are more interested in fun than competition, we started moving towards having the characters at the game at a certain base level.  When the DM feels it appropriate the base level of the game is raised and everyone levels up. 

The individual DM's tweak it a bit.  One of them gives out minor, but permanent rewards for accomplishing individual goals (e.g., you were there for the majority of the moat house adventures, so your character gets the Toughness feat for free).  Another one, has altered the death and dying rules so that rather than losing a level when you die, you simply acquire a negative level.  Whenever it becomes time for the group to level up again, you get to remove one negative level in addition to leveling up, allowing you to catch back up to the rest of the group.

Given this system, I think quest based rewards could really be a boon.  Since the key mechanic is you get a reward whenever you complete a quest, its just a matter of what you make the reward.

One tact might be to simply include the reward on the quest card.  For example, perhaps the card says when you complete the "kill the man who killed your father" quest, you get to re-roll any one die roll and pick the better result.

Alternatively, you could tie quest cards into an existing reward mechanic in the game.  For example, maybe when you finish a quest, you gain an action point.  Another example, from the game described above, might be that completing a quest allows you to remove a negative level that you have acquired.

Of course, there is no reason you cannot mix and match these.  Maybe minor quests give you a small reward or an action point, while major quests allow you to remove a negative level or gain a small permanent bonus.

Well, I think I have spent enough time alienating my readers.  I promise my next post will have (slightly) broader appeal.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love quest based XP.

Quest based XP is a new concept in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition.  The concept is simple: The players will acquire certain quest cards from the DM.  Some cards may be related to the character's back story (e.g., "I must kill the one-eyed dwarf who took advantage of my sister").  Some cards will be based off of interaction with NPCs (e.g., "The elders of Barrow's Edge want us to put an end to the goblin menace").  Some quest cards may even be treasure (e.g., "Look, this map says there is great treasure in some place called 'The Tomb of Horrors'.  How bad could it be?").

When I first heard about the concept, I have to admit I didn't like it.  Handled poorly, I can see quest cards turning D&D into a game of Oblivion where PC's talk to random NPC's until they get a quest, then they quickly run off and do the quest.  Nevertheless, handled well I believe quest based XP can enhance the game.

One good thing I can see coming out of quest based XP is its potential to bring details of the player character's backgrounds into the game.  Too many times I have seen players write up backgrounds for their characters that never come up during gameplay.  Having a couple of quest cards lying around related to the character's background gives the player an incentive to bring it up during the game.

Quest cards might also encourage adventures that don't involve killing every creature in the dungeon.  Here is an example of an actual conversation with one of my players:

Player: "If you sneak past or talk to the monsters, you don't get XP for them."

Me: "That's not necessarily true.  I usually give half XP for bypassed monsters and give bonus XP for creative solutions to problems"

Player: "But then how much XP you give out is up to you.  I would rather kill the monsters because the book specifically lists how much XP you get.

I chose not to tell him I rarely paid strict attention to Challenge Ratings and often "winged it" when assigning XP at the end of the adventure.  However, this is a case where quest cards might have helped out.  A quest card that said "Steal the the king's ruby without alerting the palace guards" would encourage stealth.  Or a lot of assassinations.  In any case it would discourage charging the gate.

In the end, I guess I came to realize quest cards are just another tool in the DM's arsenal.  Misused, they have the potential to screw up a game.  But used properly they can enhance the D&D experience.

Plus, I like playing Oblivion, don't you?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Gno more gnomes.

Before I begin I have a confession to make.  I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another for nearly thirty years.  In that time I have played nearly every conceivable combination of race and class. 

gnomeI have never played a gnome.

Or at least I never remember having played one.  So it is probably not too surprising that my reaction to the announcement of gnomes not being in the Fourth Edition Player's Handbook was one of extreme indifference.

I think the problem with gnomes is that they lack what we in the corporate world would call a "strong brand identity".  This probably dates all the way back to First Edition.  All of the playable races in 1st Edition except gnomes had roots in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Not that dwarves and elves didn't exist before the Lord of the Rings, but the versions of them that were presented in the Player's Handbook were certainly influenced by it.  I believe this strong connection between early D&D and Tolkien's work helped develop the brand identity of these races in D&D.

Gnomes didn't have this help and it shows.  In First Edition the gnomish racial abilities were basically a mixture of half of the dwarven racial abilities and half of the halfling racial abilities.  Unique to gnomes were that they were good illusionists and they could speak with burrowing mammals.

Speak with burrowing mammals?  Seriously?

Second Edition hurt the gnomes even more by turning the illusionist into just one option among many for specializing your wizard.  So instead of being the best practitioners of a mysterious class with unique spells, they were really good at one subtype of magic-user.  Third Edition kept this same dynamic, but 3.5 tried to spice things up by giving gnomes bard as a favored class.

Let me say that again.  To encourage people to play gnomes they tied them in with the bard.  I think that speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, I know people who love gnomes.  Thinking back, the lack of strong branding was a selling point for these players.  Want your gnome to replace every third word with "Gnome" the same way the Smurfs do with Smurf?  Who the gnome am I to gainsay you!  Want your gnome to have eight page long names and talk a mile a minute just like a gnome from Krynn?  Why not?

I am sure that gnomes are not gone from D&D forever.  The will probably make a comeback in Player's Handbook 2 along side the monk.  When they return, I will welcome them back with open arms.  I just hope that when they return that the designers have figured out who they are supposed to be.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Is is wrong to want to play a video game just because of a song?

I recently heard the song Still Alive by Jonathan Coulton.  Its a catchy little tune that plays at the end of the video game Portal.  I haven't played Portal, but I know that the protagonist matches wits with the insane computer GLaDOS as she navigates through increasingly complex rooms using her aperture gun.  GLaDOS alternatively taunts and encourages the character with offers of things like cake and grief counseling. 

I had heard good things about the game, but wasn't really planning on picking it up anytime soon.   However, I recently checked out the closing credits on YouTube, and found I can't seem to get the catchy, if disturbing, little tune out of my head.

I think the only choice I have now is to buy the game and beat it.

Click below to see the video that is going to cost me $60.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Coming out of the (Gaming) Closet

A lot of people who play Dungeons & Dragons don't admit to that fact.  Not that they necessarily lie about it, but they don't bring it up.  I know I have strong tendencies in this direction.  While I was pretty open about playing D&D at my last job, at this one I kept it pretty close to the vest.  When a co-worker would ask if I had "any plans for the weekend" I would say "I am getting together with some friends" rather than "I have a D&D game this weekend".  Technically true, but definitely a semantic dodge.

Being in the gaming closet is a relatively common phenomenon.  There was an entire series of Knights of the Dinner Table strips devoted to the question "At what stage in the relationship do you divulge that you are a gamer to your significant other?"  It probably wouldn't have been so funny except I have had that same conversation with many of my gaming friends.

Considering how deeply in the closet some gamers are, it is amazing we can find other gamers to play with.  One of my college friends likened finding other gamers to Vampire: The Masquerade.  In that game, vampires maintain a world-wide conspiracy hiding their existence called "The Masquerade".  One consequence of this is that you can't just ask if someone else is a vampire without breaking the Masquerade.  So if you suspect someone is a vampire, you ask a series of leading questions and carefully gauge the responses. Only when you are certain you are talking with another vampire do you own up.

If you think I am exaggerating, observe this real life conversation I had with a former co-worker.

Co-Worker: "It's like that game, Dungeons & Dragons.  Have you ever heard of it?"

Me: "I have."

Co-Worker: "Actually, I used to play it"

Me: "Me too"

Co-Worker: "You know, if I could find a group, I wouldn't mind playing it now"

Me: "Actually, I still get together from time to time with some guys to play"

Co-Worker:  "I still know some guys too"

Obviously, this is absurd.  Football fans don't use secret code to determine if you are a fellow football fan, they just ask.  But I understand the reticence of D&D players to come clean.  When D&D players are presented in popular culture they are almost always held up as objects as scorn and derision.  A lot of writers use D&D as dramatic shorthand for "Look! Nerds!".

I really feel the treatment D&D players get in the popular press is worse than similar groups, like comic book readers or computer geeks.  It is usually at its worst in mainstream television, but even shows that you would think would be D&D friendly often go for the easy "Look! Nerds!" joke.   Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel had relatively nuanced jokes concerning Star Wars and comic book fans, but revert to type when D&D is brought up.  For goodness sake, the "Look! Nerds!" joke appeared in Shrek 3, a movie about an ogre and a talking donkey.

(As an aside, the writers at The Simpsons and Futurama have inserted very funny D&D jokes in their shows.  However, comic fans seems to take it on the chin.)

In any case, I am going to make an effort to be a little more forthcoming about playing D&D.  It came up at work when news of Gary Gygax's passing came in.  Not surprisingly, my co-workers finding out I play D&D was not the end of the world.  It never is.  One of these days I will get old enough to realize this. 

PS - I would like to dedicate this blog post to my friend Brian, one of the LEAST "in the closet" gamers I know.  Brian has never been shy about proclaiming his love for D&D, and if every D&D player had his evangelical nature, the hobby would be in much better shape than it is today.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Why Superheroes Never Change the World

I have been playing a lot of the video game City of Villains recently.  Its not nearly as popular as its counterpart game City of Heroes.  Before it launched it was widely assumed that the opposite would be true; City of Villains would be the hit and City of Heroes would become a ghost town.

It should be that way.  The new game made improvements to the AI, character design, and gameplay.  Nevertheless, despite a decent launch players eventually migrated back to City of Heroes in droves.  The biggest complaint seemed to be that the villains on City of Villains simply didn't seem to be very villainous.

I believe this is true.  Rather than traditional supervillains, characters in City of Villains seemed more like "Tragically Hip Antiheroes" (TM).  Of course, City of Tragically Hip Antiheroes (COTHAH), doesn't roll off the tongue the way City of Villains does.

So I started to think of what could be done to make the villains in City of Villains more like traditional comic book villains and realized it was tough.  The biggest problem is that supervillains are proactive while superheroes are reactive.  Villains are the ones always hatching plots, pursuing their dreams, and trying to change the world.  On the other hand, superheroes tend to wait for things to happen, whether it is a new supervillain plot, a natural disaster, or even a simple mugging.

In fact, whenever a superhero crosses the line and attempts to use their vast powers to make the world a better place, it almost always turns out bad.  When Firestorm attempted to end hunger in Africa by making a desert into a virtual Eden (Firestorm #77-79), he merely managed to spark a land war in an already volatile area.  Similarly, the story of well meaning superheroes becoming dictators has played out in books like Squadron Supreme, Kingdom Come, and countless others.  In essence, whenever a superhero takes a proactive stance in mainstream comics, he becomes the villain of the piece.

Taken to its logical conclusion, being proactive about changing the world is one of the defining attributes of the comic book villain.  Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, and Magneto don't simply sit around and wait for things to happen.  They make things happen.

So does this mean that a great supervillain MMORPG is impossible?  Maybe it is.  The trick is that the proactive nature of supervillains means they are actually content creators, rather than content consumers.  Villains need to be able to create their own storylines. This is not something that MMORPGs do well.  Frankly, this may be an area where pen and paper games beat out MMORPGs for the foreseeable future.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The King is Dead, The Kingdom Prevails.

It was first reported on Troll Lord Games Message Board. I have to admit, when a co-worker told me about Gary Gygax’s passing I didn’t believe it. But then more and more mainstream news outlets started picking up the story. By the time I saw Gary Gygax on the front page of Google News I knew it must be true.

I’ve never met Gary Gygax. I was never one to attend the big conventions like GenCon where I might have had a chance to shake his hand or tell him how much I loved the game. So I cannot comment on the man. Nevertheless, it has caused me to think about the game that Gary and Dave made, and what he means to me as an avid D&D player.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created D&D back in 1974. Personally, I have been playing the game since around 1979. I was very young at the time, and the game had a profound effect on me. I doubt if I would have the deep seated love of fantasy literature that I do now. It expanded my vocabulary, introducing me to words like paladin, encumbrance, and phantasm.

I’m not especially outgoing. I’m not an athlete. But playing Dungeons and Dragons gave me an outlet to be social. It gave me an outlet to be creative. I am still in contact with many of the friends I played D&D with over the years. The same cannot be said of the people I met in high school, or even college.

I think about my current gaming group. We are a pretty disparate group of people. If we weren’t all D&D players, I am not even sure many of us would have met. But our love of this hobby brings us together twice a month like clockwork.

So thank you Gary. Thanks for starting this whole ball rolling. I believe the world is a better place because of it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Now for a race worth giving up gnomes for

Now, one addition to the base races I like a lot is Teiflings. When they were first announced, I have to admit I was leery of making them core. But then, the new race is not that much like the 3.5 Ed one.

To be a tiefling in 3.5, all you needed was to have some fiendish blood in your ancestry. Now, this is kind of cool, but it lacks a coherent racial identity. 4th Ed tweaks this a bit and makes them the descendants of an ancient empire where the rulers made pacts with devils to gain forbidden power. They got it, but all their ancestors were marked by the diabolical energies they unleashed. . The empire may be gone, but the legacy of evil remains.

Now this just seems like a fascinating background to give a race. It gives the DM a lot of jumping off points for adventures. It also gives the player a lot of role-playing hooks without limiting their options too much.

As a disclaimer, being the scion of a cursed legacy is a pretty typical background for my characters, so I may be a bit biased on this.