Wednesday, January 28, 2015

GAME HEALTHY FOLKS

I used to read Dragon and Dungeon Magazine religiously as a kid. I particularly enjoyed Dungeon but I also liked reading the game advice columns in Dragon (and the comic strips). I remember they used to run a lot of advertisement and sometime around the late 80s or early 90s (I think) they began an anti-obesity campaign. I couldn't track down the ad but it was an image of a bulging gut with the words "Some gamers have a problem..." on the top of the page and "....denial" at the bottom. I am going by memory here, so this may not be 100% accurate. Since then, I've participated in and observed many of the unhealthy habits that likely led them to run this campaign in the first place. I just want to do my part here to encourage people, gamers in particular, to make healthier eating and lifestyle choices. 


First let me say this isn't about people looking a certain way or being ashamed of themselves. I don't think anyone should be ashamed if they are overweight and I know a lot of skinny people who eat fatty food all the time. This is purely about heart health and living a longer life. Last year my business partner, William Butler, died suddenly from heart disease. He was also the Gamemaster in our group and like a lot of us, he didn't have the healthiest diet. I hope to encourage other gamers to think about what they eat both during the game and in between. 

When you game, you tend to eat the most convenient foods. At my table it was almost always pizza or Chinese (sometimes subs as well).  But we also tend to be readers and the types of folk who spend time at the computer. This isn't universal. I know plenty of athletic gamers too, but I think it is safe to say a lot us (myself included) spend considerable time sitting down and eating food that is easy to make so we finish our book or prep that dungeon level. I believe people should spend a little time and effort to break that pattern because you can only eat and live that way so long before it catches up with you, and I'd like you all to be around as long as possible. 

Here is what I suggest, and it is going to be a bit sacrilegious. Skip the pizza. If you have to order Chinese takeout, get the steamed dishes, not the stir fries or appetizers (or anything fried). Eat stuff that tastes clean, not greasy. If you have to, make food yourself before the game. Also don't eat snacks, pastry or donuts during play.  

I have some experience with this because I became very involved in competitive martial arts some years back and found myself needing to make dietary changes in order to stay inside my weight class (I couldn't go over 149 pounds). This was hardest to maintain on game night (at the time I think I was gaming once or twice a week). My way around it was I ordered the same boring steamed dish from the menu every time (because my group pretty much always ordered Chinese or Pizza). I discovered after a couple of weeks that steamed food, once you get used to it, tastes really good, and greasy food tastes bad after you haven't had it for a bit. In fact one of the other things I discovered was all the light sauces you can use to enhance steamed chicken and vegetable or steamed fish. There are all kinds of ginger sauces and bean sauces. I found out that you could even get a whole steamed cat fish stuffed with scallion and ginger from some places if you asked for it (and it was really tasty). This had a dramatic effect on my ability to remain at my desired weight. 

After I stopped competing and didn't have to be under a certain weight, I gained it back pretty fast by reverting to my old eating habits (getting up to 195 pounds). There is a world of difference between 146 (which is what I was before) and 195. I could feel it. I was still exercising and involved in the same kinds of activities, I just was allowing myself to eat big meals and eat whatever tasted good at the time. I was exhausted and even developed sleep apnea. 


These days, I am back down to my normal weight. But I still hadn't really been eating all that healthy. I was eating smaller amounts but I was consuming a lot of fatty, salty food and fewer vegetables. When Bill died, I started to rethink my diet. I've been aiming once again for the clean food and trying to eat more vegetables than meat of carbohydrates (not cutting this other stuff out, just putting more focus on vegetables). I also stopped ordering food at my games. If someone is hungry and needs to order food, I won't object at all, but I don't ask if people want to order it any more and no one really seems to bring it up. If they did I would also probably encourage them to get steamed dishes. 

So I would encourage any gamers reading this who are not already eating healthy to consider making a change. Eat cleaner and healthier food. Get a little more active and work out. I don't exercise to the extent that I used to, but I still try to stay active and do a moderate routine when I can. Not only does it improve your mood, it gives you more energy. I am certain if you don't exercise and incorporate a little resistance and cardio into your day, you'll be more alert at the game table and feel more enthusiastic when you prep adventures. 

I don't like being preachy about it. I know it can come off a bit high-and-mighty when someone tries to steer you toward healthier food options, but I also don't want to lose another friend to a heart attack, so I will take being more rude if it means gamers' arteries get less clogged. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SPRINGING THE APOCALYPSE ON YOUR PLAYERS: THE SURPRISE END OF THE WORLD CAMPAIGN

Spoiler Warning: This entry contains a few spoilers. If you haven't seen This is the End, you may want to skip it. 

I watched the movie This is the End last night, and it prompted some thoughts on campaign possibilities. There is a general convention that players sign-on to the campaign conceit before play. If the group sits down for a game of Call of Cthulu, it has been established that everyone wants to play a horror game. Before a session of Star Wars, everyone's basically agreed to play space opera. If you shift gears on your players during the campaign and transport your Call of Cthulu players to Narnia, they might cry foul (and with good reason). But there is a place for judicious use of surprise campaigns. 


I started GMing with Ravenloft and while you can run it as its own campaign setting, where the players start as natives, it was originally intended as a surprise to drop in an existing game. For example you might have a party adventuring in Faerun and when one of the player characters commits an evil act, the mists appear and take them to Ravenloft. I've been thinking more and more about springing surprise campaigns like this on players. While it can make for more mystery and excitement it can also tick off the group if you aren't careful (or if it just isn't the kind of thing they enjoy) so know this sort of tactic isn't without risk. 

In the past I've dropped horror campaigns on my party. Mostly this was by bringing characters to Ravenloft in a standard campaign, but I've also thrown zombies at players in modern games. I contemplated turning my Crime Network campaign into horror at one point as well, having one of their fallen PCs come back as a spirit bent on revenge, but opted against it. Now I'm thinking of how you might drop an apocalypse on a party. I haven't tried this yet, so this well could crash and burn. Watching This is the End, gave me some ideas though. 

I think the crucial thing is it needs to happen in an ongoing campaign where the players are invested. It would probably work best in a modern mundane setting because players won't expect it, but could work in anything (from alternate history to fantasy). That time investment, in my experience, really makes a difference. With Ravenloft it is one thing to make new characters and then pull them into the mists first thing, quite another to have it happen well into an ongoing campaign. 

In terms of venue, the apocalypse could be anything from the biblical Apocalypse to nuclear war, zombies, etc. 


One thing the movie shows is that the biblical apocalypse could provide ample room for adventure following the rapture. The rapture is the moment when all the good people (in the bible it is all the Christians, but the movie conceit that it is all the good people probably works better for an RPG) ascend to heaven. There are different ideas about how this is all supposed to play out, but one line of thoughts believes there is a period of tribulation where those who didn't ascend are left to suffer on earth as the apocalypse unfolds. This is essentially the premise of This is the End and I believe this works great for a few reasons.* 

You can extend this period for as long as you want. There is all kinds of wiggle room to decide how things play out and exactly what sort of world the characters inhabit during the great tribulation. 

This forces the players to go into survival mode but with characters they're invested in. If you begin the campaign at the moment of the apocalypse, the players don't really have much to lose except characters they rolled up two minutes ago. If you drop it into a six month old campaign, their survival matters a lot more. 

My favorite reason is the bad people. After the rapture, the only people who are left are the bad folks (you can decide for yourself exactly what this includes, in the film it was everyone from the vaguely snobbish and ungrateful to the truly murderous). What is hell for the players, is heaven for the GM. This is an environment dominated by tribes of cannibals, violent motorcycle gangs and even a few opportunistic politicians. 

Of course, you might not want to use the biblical apocalypse. There are plenty of other options here: zombies, plagues, the Islamic Yawm ad-din (day of judgment), the end of Kali Yuga, Ragnarok, etc. You can even mix and match if you want. There is no rule that it has to follow one tradition or genre. You can get as creative as you like. 

I would just mind the risk here. This is the sort of thing where you have to be willing to pull the plug if it bombs with the groups. 

*I'm no theologian, so I am sure I am oversimplifying here. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A YEAR OF WUXIA REVIEWS

I've decided to post a master list with links to all the wuxia and martial arts fantasy movies I've reviewed over the past year. It is possible I left something off this list but believe I found every blog entry. These have become popular enough that I will continue posting them in the future. I should have a review up for The Water Margin soon. I'd like to do write some Chen Pei-Pei reviews as well, but as I mentioned I reviewed every one of her films that I have a copy of and some of the others are quite hard to obtain. If I manage to outbid someone for the Jade Raksha or Whiplash (which I haven't been able to do) or find a copy of one of her other movies available for sale, I will do a review. I am going to start doing some newer films as well in addition to the classic Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.


Chang Pei-Pei Movies: 










Other Movies:














Friday, January 23, 2015

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE: WARRING SECTS AND HYPOCRISY

I am working with one of our artists today on the Purple Cavern Sect headquarters and I am quite excited about the end result. We are not going to have too many maps like this due to budget constraints but the ones we've selected to illustrate really show how the setting works. 

Sects are a very important aspect of the game and we worked hard to give our sects flavor and history that would feel true to the wuxia genre but also provide opportunities for adventure (I am discovering those two things are usually not in conflict). One theme I wanted to preserve, because it features in many of my favorite films and series, is the battle between good and evil sects, and the hypocrisy that sometimes exists below the surface. 


In the martial world of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate there are many sects characters can belong to (and they do not have to be part of a sect if they don't wish). There are presently thirteen major sects including the heroic Nature-Loving Monk Sect, the prestigious Golden Dragon Sect, the perplexing Temple of the Nine Suns Sect and the greatly feared Zhaoze Sect. These are all grouped under Orthodox or Unorthodox, and this reflects their reputation in the martial world. Orthodox sects are generally regarded as righteous and good, while Unorthodox sects are usually viewed as wicked and evil. Sometimes the reality matches the impression, other times it does not. An Orthodox sect may simply be riding a reputation it earned long ago but no longer lives up to. An Unorthodox sect may have a questionable history, perhaps even dishonored itself in some way, but ultimately be on the side of righteousness. 

When I was working on the different sects for the game, I was thinning a lot about movies like Killer Clans and Dragon Swamp or television series like Swordsman or Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber. So I tried to inject some of the conflict and backstory into the sect histories. I also focused  a lot on the personalities behind the sects, which I think is important. Love, justice, duty, and righteousness often clash in interesting ways. 

I think this provides for a richer gaming experience because conflict between sects can feature prominently in a Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

GENDER ROLES IN WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE

Been working on addressing gender and sex in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. It is a somewhat delicate balancing act in my view because we want to be true to the genre but also treat everyone fairly at the table. The approach I use in my own campaigns is to assume the standard societal norms reflected in wuxia film and literature but to always allow for PCs who are the exception. I also believe in listening to my players and hearing any concerns they have. Not simply saying "this is the way it is" if that creates issues for peoples' enjoyment. I don't think there is one best way to handle this though. This is how we are thinking of handling the issue in the rulebook: 

Yang Huizhen in A Touch of Zen
GENDER ROLES IN QI XIEN 
The wuxia genre is a bit unusual when it comes to gender roles and equality. On the one hand this is very much a genre where women and men are pretty much treated as equals in terms of martial arts skill. The earlier wuxia movies frequently featured female protagonists, often disguised as men, who could swing a sword as good as anyone. Later films in the late 60s and early 70s like Come Drink With Me would continue this tradition. In the move A Touch of Zen, for example, the two chief characters are a male scholar named Ku and female martial hero named Yang. Ku is depicted as a meek and bumbling intellectual while Yang is a fearless and aggressive warrior. But wuxia is also a genre where gender roles are clear and at times constrictive.

Because our aim was to be true to the genre, we assume that most social conventions present in wuxia film and literature are also present in Qi Xien. This doesn’t reflect our personal views of traditional gender roles, it is merely an attempt to reflect the source material. That said, we also don’t place particular emphasis on this either.

Ultimately this is a social game. While Qi Xien is a world that contains traditions and customs found in wuxia, this is your game and you can run it the way you want. We don’t want female players to feel the oppression that characters in the setting experience. So while imperial posts are largely run by men in Qi Xien, and families are led by men, this doesn’t mean you can’t make exceptions for individual player characters. It also shouldn’t be used to make anyone uncomfortable at the table.

There are a few ways to deal with this issue at the table. One approach is to completely ignore the distinctions in social status between men and women. Just assume it isn’t a part of the setting at all. Even though this isn’t the approach we took with the rulebook, there is nothing wrong with doing this. If you don’t like it or find it too constricting, ignoring it is a perfectly acceptable option. Another method is to draw on existing tropes in the genre. The most common is women disguising themselves as men and taking male names. Whether or not the people around her know she is really a woman, this should allow you to hand wave any impediment to her holding a position normally reserved for men. Basically any female character disguised as a man, would be treated as one. Another approach is the one mentioned above, just treat PCs as the exception to the rule.

Monday, January 19, 2015

BREEDING DELIBERATE AMBUGUITY

One aspect of world building that appeals to me is cosmology. A fundamental question when you first make a world is 'what religious beliefs are true?'. In a setting where gods and goddesses are real, this has huge implications for what people believe and how they behave. Fantasy worlds offer the possibility of objectively real myths. There are some big implications in that. At the same time, I crave some amount of diversity in my fictional faiths. The real world is filled with people who disagree over the structure and nature of the cosmos. To a degree you want some of this, because fantasy settings need to be rooted in things we understand and know about our own world. But when the gods are real, that presents a problem and the GM or designer needs to decide the plausible limits of religious diversity if myth is an objective reality. 

My approach is to first establish what is absolutely true. In Sertorius this means that the gods described in book all exist, that Aetia is a kind of transcendent deity that is the source of all things (even if the gods created the particular features of Gamandria itself) and that Senga died, and this somehow produced the Sertori. 

But we still have a bunch of different religions. Even with a given god, like Ramos, there are numerous faiths: The Church of Light, The Church of Ramos, The Cult of Sarda and endless pantheons that include Ramos in some way. At times these religions contradict one another, so which one is correct? We left the answer deliberately ambiguous and allow the GM to decide. My own solution, in my campaigns (which we hinted at in the rulebook) is that Ramos is capricious, and even a bit of a jerk. He makes agreements all the time with individual prophets and is willing to experiment with different guidelines for his followers. What matters to Ramos is that people honor their agreements. He holds mortals to the specific covenant he has made with them. This means he can acknowledge both the Church of Light and the Church of Ramos, and even though they have different creeds, he expects both to abide by those creeds.

Another instance where we breed deliberate ambiguity is Sarilla's motives and role in the death of Senga. Again, this was to allow the GM to have ultimate say, to maintain some of the mystery. Is Sarilla evil or is she good? Or is the answer more grey? In the book there are some standard explanations offered but these are by no means definitive. We didn't want to answer this question because how you answer it has a huge effect on the setting and we felt it was better to keep this aspect of the world a mystery. The GM is once again free to offer up his or her own answer. The key is the players do not know what that answer is until well into the campaign (if ever). 

I am using the same approach in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Sometimes it is broad and significant. For example Dehua believes in a cosmology of two parallel realms, while Yen-Li believes in a cosmology of thousands of realms. Sometimes the ambiguity is more subtle, like when we address specific gods or spirits that are understood differently by the different religions. Here is an example from two entries on the afterlife in the chapter on religion: 
The Eight Magistrates: According to Dehuans, the dead must undergo a period of judgment and review by the eight magistrates. Each Magistrate spends a day evaluating the deceased, based on celestial records of his or her actions in life. There is one magistrate for each major Dehuan Virtue: Filial Piety, Propriety, Tradition, Order, Wisdom, Integrity, Loyalty and Righteousness. Other religions believe in similar deities but the precise number and nature of them changes to match the faith’s precepts. 
The Majestic Lion Cult: This religion originated in the West but accepts much of the cosmology shared by Dehua, Yen-Li and Qi Jao. They believe in a figure called the Majestic Lion, who carries souls to paradise in the afterlife. According to their system of belief, to enter paradise one must be free of outstanding grudges. This means you must spill the blood of your enemies before you die. Only the will the Majestic Lion deliver you to Paradise.
This isn't meant to confuse. Rather it is meant to give the players a clear sense of how different people understand the afterlife, while giving the GM the ability to decide for his or her own campaign. There are at least three alternative views of the afterlife expressed here. One entry offers disagreement on the nature and number of the Eight Magistrates, the other posits an entirely different view on what happens after death.  

Ultimately this is a great way in my view to create diversity but still have the setting cosmology be objective. One thing it does rely on is the GM choosing what is real and what is not. In Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate we also address this in the GM chapter, at times weighing in with a definitive answer (such as how the Mandate of Heaven actually works). 

Friday, January 16, 2015

SO YOU CAN'T DO IMPRESSIONS: TURNING WEAKNESS INTO STRENGTH

I think when you are weak in a particular area there are a few things you can do. First you can work to improve it. That is always worth exploring and I think there is nothing in this world quite like taking a junk box and turning it into a corvette. So if you are bad at impressions, but have a strong desire to improve, by all means work on it. Another solution is to ignore you weaknesses and play to your strengths. Nothing is wrong with that approach either, I use it all the time. My favorite approach, when it makes sense to do, is to turn a weakness into strength. 

I am very bad at impressions. Not too good at accents either. This used to frustrate me a bit, because I liked the idea of doing interesting voices at the table. Now I've learned to accept it and turn it into a strength because when you can't do impressions, no one knows you are doing an impression. 

If I try to act like Robert De Niro or Jerry Seinfeld, my players will have no idea who I am supposed to be. This is annoying if you want your players to believe you're Robert De Niro, but since I've never run a campaign where meeting Robert De Niro was a remote possibility  it isn't a concern (the closest we came was a Crime Network game where one PC tried to break into the music business). If you just want your players to believe you're playing distinct and interesting NPCs, then a bad impression can go a long way. 

I've packed my campaigns with guest appearances from the likes of Peter Ustinov, Gilda Radner, Jim Carey, Carol Kane, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, Sigourney Weaver, Sean Connery, Don Knotts, and many more. In none of these cases was my portrayal of these people at all convincing. In fact my Sigourney Weaver is probably not all that different from my Peter Ustinov, but it is different enough that I can see the characters I use them for as separate, which helps me get a handle on them each time they come up. This also helps my players know whose voice I am speaking in, even if I have two NPCs engaged in a discussion with them. 

Generally I limit this mainly to minor NPCs I need to flesh out on the fly. Impersonating a celebrity badly is a great way to quickly put together a believable NPC. For major NPCs, I think you need more of a solid foundation than just the voice of a celebrity. But for a barkeep or bandit, it can really help to emulate the mannerisms of a famous actor, comedian, politician or even a musician. 

So next time you fail at a celebrity voice impression or trying to sound like a lizard man, turn it into a strength. Allow your lack of skill to cloak the source of your inspiration.