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Chris Pramas

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Recent Reading: Ill Met by Moonlight [Jul. 1st, 2012|07:17 pm]
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[music |Naked Raygun "Rat Patrol"]



Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss is an account of how two British officers from the Special Operations Executive and a band of partisans conspired to kidnap a German general on the island of Crete. What's interesting about this memoir is that Moss, one of the officers involved, actually wrote most of it as a diary during the events themselves. He and his cohort Patrick Leigh Fermor lived on Crete for months and spent many idle days hiding in caves and waiting for developments. During that time Moss recorded events as they unfolded. He added some explanatory text after the war (like what their actual plan was, which he didn't write down in case the Germans should get hold of his diary), but largely the events are related within days or even hours of their happening.

The bold band succeeds in kidnapping German General Kriepe and then spends three weeks dodging German patrols before getting him off the island and whisking him to Cairo.  They manage to do all this without firing a shot. This was possible because they had the support of an angry Cretan populace. Again and again, the band is sheltered, fed, hidden, and assisted in ways great and small by Cretan villagers and shepherds. As a Greek-American, I found the details of the Cretan resistance movement quite interesting (so much so that I just ordered a used copy of Antony Beevor's Crete: The Battle and the Resistance).

I really enjoyed Ill Met by Moonlight. It is focused on just this one mission, so after reading it I had to look up the main characters and find out what happened to them during and after the war. To my surprise I found a clip of a 1972 Greek television show about the kidnapping. It reunited Patrick Leigh Fermor with many of his partisan comrades and General Kriepe himself! The video is not subtitled but I watched it anyway to see these characters I had read about and see their reactions and body language. I'll have to have my mom translate it for me some time.

The book was a birthday gift from Will Hindmarch, so thanks, Will!

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Game Night [May. 19th, 2012|01:45 pm]
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[music |The Clash "Gates of the West"]

Note: I wrote this as one of our Ronin Round Tables, a feature we do each Friday on www.greenronin.com. I thought I'd post it here for folks who don't make it over to the company site frequently. Enjoy. 

In 1999 Nicole and I decided to start hosting a game night at our place to play RPGs. While we've moved from that apartment, cycled many friends in and out of the group, and changed the night of the week several times, game night has been going on as close to weekly as we can manage for the last 13 years. It's a key social activity for us and one that we always try to maintain. Even last year, when I spent 10 months in Austin working on the Warhammer 40K MMO, I Skyped in for at least part of the night to keep that connection. Maintaining a game group is not without its challenges though, and we've faced many over the years. I know we're not alone in this either. How many of these sound familiar to you?

Many Players, One GM
For many years, I ran nearly every RPG on game night. In the early years we played a lot of d20 games, as Green Ronin was one of the leading d20 publishers during that era. I had a long running D&D campaign, ran Freeport adventures, and playtested V for Victory, the World War 2 mini game I designed for Polyhedron Magazine. Later I ran a playtest for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd edition, and even a short-lived Lord of the Rings game when it seemed like we might get to design a LotR game for Games Workshop (not getting to design that game still makes me sad). Later there was Dragon Age, of course, but game night is not all about playtesting. I also ran stuff like a Savage Worlds Day After Ragnarok game and a weird mash-up of Feng Shui, Underground, Delta Green, and Deadlands. Once in a while, someone else would volunteer to run and I'd enjoy just playing, but those campaigns never lasted. We'd do 3 or 4 sessions and then I'd be back in the GM's chair. I do like to GM but a certain point I started to get burned out. We got another GM when Ray Winninger joined the group, but ultimately Ray decided he preferred running longer sessions on weekends than working within the constraints of a week night that includes dinner and socializing (and hey, Ray, you can start those up again any time!).

Differing Tastes
Some groups have one glorious campaign that lasts for a decade or more but in my experience those games are the exception. Most campaigns seem to last six months or less. That is certainly true of our group. We've had maybe two that have lasted longer than a year. Naturally then, a common question is, "What are we playing next?" This isn't always easy to answer. Tastes vary widely among our group and what we ended up playing was often a matter of compromise. In all our years of game night, I've never run one of my very favorite games, Pendragon, because I knew we had players who just wouldn't be into it. That game requires a group of players who really buy into the setting and concepts, and I didn't want to frustrate myself by trying to force it on them.

Life Intruding
I look back fondly on my teenage years, when I had way more free time for gaming. Everyone in our group (with the exception of my step-daughter Kate) is a grown up and of course we have all sorts of responsibilities. Almost everyone who has ever been in our group works in either the tabletop or video game industries, so there have been many times that we lose people for months of crunch time. Convention season is another difficult time, as many of us travel for weeks in the summer to attend this con or that. Marc "Sparky" Schmalz, GR's Director of E-Publishing, also went back to school a couple of years back, which sometimes limits his time. Mitch Gitelman, an old friend who joined the group while I was in down south, is one of the guys behind the recent Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter and we're pretty sure that's going to keep him busy. So while we try to meet every week, it isn't always possible. Sometimes it has seemed like the whole thing will unravel, but we've always pulled it back.

Changing Faces
The game industry can be volatile so we've had to watch many friends move away for new jobs, but we've also filled empty spots with friends who have moved to Seattle for a new gig. Sometimes the same person has done both those things. The most famous example is Bruce Harlick of the old Hero Games crew, who moved here to work on the Matrix MMO, was part of group for many years, and then moved back to California for several other video game jobs (ending with his current gig at Zynga). We still call him "Bruce the Traitor" for leaving us but he's far from the only one. Jim Bishop left to go work at BioWare, Patrick Swift for a job at Upper Deck and now Cryptozoic, Tim Carroll for a job at Apple, Jess Lebow for a job at Ubisoft (and the distance record by moving to China!) and hell even me for a while when I lived in Austin last year. Every time we gain or lose people, the dynamic changes a little bit. This isn't always bad, but it's another thing that makes long term campaigns hard. GR's webmaster Evan Sass gets bonus points for being the one person outside the household who has stayed with us through thick and thin.

Campaign Failure
For many of the reasons outlined above, we've found it harder and harder to maintain campaigns. While the group was originally conceived as RPG focused, a few years ago board and card games started to overtake that. Since the group often varied week to week, depending on who was traveling or crunching or what have you, it seemed better to play games we could finish in a night. And as I mentioned, I was also burning out on GMing and I wanted a break as well. So we've ended up playing games like Ticket to Ride, Dixit, Thurn and Taxis, Small World, Formula Dé, Dominion, and recently Miskatonic School for Girls (a Kickstarter that Nicole backed).

As you can see, we've had our ups and downs. Some nights we don't even game at all. Nicole Lindroos, in addition to being Green Ronin's General Manager, is a fabulous chef, so she always cooks and we drink, talk, and catch up. Those nights are fun too and even if we only talk about gaming (which is pretty much inevitable for us), I'd rather get together than miss a game night. It's gaming that keeps us bonded together, keeps us coming back week after week to socialize, and keeps our friendships strong. Of course, it's better when we actually play something but now my step-daughter Kate (who is 16) is part of the group and she's helping to keep us honest. Last week she basically told us that game night without games was bulllshit and she wanted to play a superhero RPG please. I think we raised that girl right!

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Top Five Reasons I Won't Support Your Kickstarter [May. 16th, 2012|01:43 pm]
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[music |Big Black "Bad Penny"]

5. Your promises are vague and so is the delivery date of the project. 
4. You spend 30 days on all social media talking about nothing but your Kickstarter. I didn't back it the first 500 times I heard about it, but number 501 is sure to do the trick!
3. The leader of your team is an ethically-challenged piece of work who has already publicly disgraced himself. 
2. Your "funny" game is about rape.
1. You are a millionaire and you Kickstart something you could easily afford. Asking people poorer than you to fund your project is so 1%. 
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The Man in the Ushanka [May. 7th, 2012|11:35 am]
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I started this story when I was in Austin and finally finished it over the weekend. Really, it's the start of something longer but as I may or may not pursue that, I decided to just post it here and see what people thought. I'll explain what I was trying to do in a later post but better if you don't read that first. 

The Man in the Ushanka

It was cold.

She tried to think of warm places. Summer in Catalonia, the streets of Barcelona baking in the noontime sun. The trip to Greece with her father when she was only 13. Walking through the Grand Socco in Tangier, sweating under her djellaba as she tried to shake the fascist agents tailing her. 

Thinking about the Franquist swine got her blood up and that helped. Reflecting on her comrades and what they had lost let her focus, let her remember why she had traveled so far from her homeland.

A year ago they had lost the war. Franco and his fascists had conquered Spain. She had fled, like hundreds of thousands of others. Many had ended up in refugee camps in France or other nations, but not her. The war was over but she still had a purpose. She had wept bitter tears for her dead friends and then set about her task. Now she was here and it was cold.

Harbin. Far in the north of China, a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Her skills, her instincts, and her will had brought her here, to this city, to this street, to this building. Ten minutes ago a man wearing a thick, fur ushanka had entered the building. No one else had followed and the street was empty. No one else was foolish enough to be out after dark.

She padded up to the door and paused to listen. Nothing. It appeared unlocked, so she eased it open slowly and slipped inside. The entry room was dark and empty. She heard voices beyond.

The speakers seemed fully engaged so she gave herself a few minutes to warm up. Then she pulled off her gloves and reached under her coat to find her chosen instrument: a Mauser machine pistol. She did not bother to attach the broomhandle-shaped shoulder stock. That was used to steady your aim for distance shooting but tonight was all about getting up close.

She moved forward quietly and scanned the next room. It too was dark and empty but a door across the way was open and light shined up from the basement. She made her way there and padded down the stairs. Now she could hear the speakers quite clearly: two men, both Russian.

"...you see, comrade, this is why you must return to Mother Russia. We need men of science like you to build our great Soviet state." The speaker had his back to her but she recognized his voice. She was sure she would never forget it, in fact. Her grip on the Mauser tightened.

"I have given you my answer a dozen times," the other man said, his voice agitated. "I came to Harbin to get away from Stalin and his cronies. I don't care about politics. I just want to be left alone to continue my work."

"And as I've told you as many times, comrade, your work is why you are needed in Moscow. You won't be punished for your flight. You can have a comfortable life, an intellectual life...if you come voluntarily."

She was down the stairs before the man could give his answer.

"No one here is going to Moscow," she said calmly in Russian, leveling the Mauser at the man in the ushanka. "You least of all."   

“Dr. Karpenko,” chided the man as he turned around. “You didn’t tell me you had found love in Harbin.”

His smile froze on his face when he saw the Mauser. “Your devotion is touching, my dear, but you better put the gun down before you make me angry.”

“I don’t know this woman,” said Dr. Karpenko, backing away.

The man in the ushanka looked from the gun to her face. Their eyes locked. “If you knew who I was, woman, you would run screaming into the night. Get out now.”

“I know exactly who you are,” she said, and the man laughed. She continued, “You are Georgy Rakov, a Major of State Security of the NKVD. You learned your trade in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. There you tortured and executed many innocent comrades during the purges. From 1937 to 1939 you were stationed in Spain, ostensibly to fight fascism. Your real mission was to set up secret prisons near Madrid, where you could bring a little bit of Lubyanka to the Spanish Republic.”

Rakov took a step back. She tensed, thinking he might be trying to make a break towards an unknown exit, but now that she could see the basement she knew she had him cornered. The room was full of machinery, and strange machinery at that. She saw whirling gyroscopes, sparking antennae, and countless moving cogs. The work of Dr. Karpenko, she presumed, but what its purpose was she could not say.

“You seem to have me at a disadvantage, madam,” said Major Rakov. “You know so much about me and I so little about you. Who sent you? The Whites? The Japanese or their Manchurian puppets? Franco?”

She shook her head slowly. “You really don’t remember, do you? I suppose when you’ve tortured so many, the faces all blend together.” She removed her hat and tossed it to the floor. “I am Sara Nikas Ramon. Do you recognize me now? No? Perhaps you remember me better by my code name: Nike.”

Rakov’s eyes went wide. “You! You’re supposed to be dead. I ordered your execution myself!”

“So you did,” she replied coolly. “I’d tell you how I escaped but I want you to go to your grave wondering how I survived, and how I tracked you down.” 

Dr. Karpenko suddenly piped up. Sara had been so focused on Major Rakov that she had forgotten the exiled scientist was there. “I am no friend of the Soviets, but please do not shoot him down here. This machinery is very delicate and I will not see my life’s work ruined.”

“Rakov seems to value your work,” she said. “That alone inclines me to destroy it, but I will not. I have but one purpose here.”

“She thinks she is going to kill me, doctor,” said Major Rakov with a laugh. “Well, Nike, here I am. Shoot me, if you have the guts.” He thrust out his chest, daring her to fire. “Can you do it? Can you murder a man in cold blood?” He was using the voice she knew so well. The hard voice of command. The one that both guards and prisoners feared. 

She eased off on the Mauser and sighed. “I cannot kill a man in cold blood.” Rakov’s face lit up in triumph. “But you are not a man,” she said, snapping the machine pistol up and firing a burst straight into Rakov’s chest.

He staggered back and crashed into a wall. He doubled over, coughing and wheezing. Then he righted himself and suddenly there was a pistol in his hand. His mouth and chin were wet with blood, but still he smiled as he brought his pistol up.

“This is for my comrades,” said Sara icily, and she squeezed the trigger again. More bullets tore into Rakov and he fell heavily to the ground. To her amazement, his pistol slowly rose again but hand was shaky and it was pointing in the wrong direction.

Sara shook her head, muttering, “Can’t you even die without Stalin’s permission?” She walked across the basement to finish the job and that’s when the pistol went off. She realized that he hadn’t been aiming at her at all, but at Karpenko’s strange machinery. Three shots rang out in the basement and then Rakov’s arm fell to the floor.

It was enough. The machinery began to smoke and electricity arced off the antennae. “You fools!” cried the doctor. “You fools!”

Sara turned to dash towards the stairs but it was too late. The machinery exploded with a roar, throwing her forward. It seemed like she flew through the air for a long time. She knew she would crash into the stairs or the wall and probably break her neck. Instead she had the sensation of falling from a great distance. She was sure her eyes were open but she saw nothing but white. Then she felt a chill shock and all the breath was knocked from her lungs.

She didn’t know how long she laid in the cold. Was she dying? Was she dead already? Finally, the aches in her bones convinced her she was still alive and she struggled to her feet. She had fallen, Sara realized, into a snow drift, but how could that be? She had been inside a house.

It was snowing and she was chilled to the bone. Sara cursed herself for taking off her hat in Karpenko’s basement. What little body warmth she had was being sucked away quickly. She put her gloves back on and began to move. If she stayed still, she was going to freeze to death.

After a few minutes of trudging she came upon an arm sticking out of a snow drift. She grabbed the hand and pulled. The body would not budge so she used both hands and put her back into it. Suddenly it came free from the ice but now she was off balance. She lost her footing and fell to the ground, the body falling on top of her with a thud. She found herself staring into the frozen face of Major Rakov. Fear clutched her gut but it passed quickly. Rakov was dead, his lifeless eyes gazing into nothingness.  

Sara got up and dusted the snow off her coat. It was then she noticed Rakov’s ushanka in the snow drift his corpse had so recently occupied. She smiled and picked it up. In weather like this, a good ushanka could save your life. 

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We Are 138! [Apr. 24th, 2012|12:04 pm]
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[music |Misfits]

It is common practice for writers and game designers to put Easter eggs into their work. They are often targeted at super fans, whose deep knowledge of the topic at hand lets them get the joke. I did this somewhat frequently in my early days as a freelance writer, except I put in things simply to amuse myself. In particular, I put punk references into my game writing with the full knowledge that few, if any, readers would get it. 

"We Are 138" is a case in point. In 1996 I wrote an scenario for the Feng Shui RPG (and no, non-gaming friends, this was not a game about furniture arrangement, but Hong Kong action movies) that appeared in the book Marked for Death*. In the adventure the PCs go to the dystopian future controlled by the Architects of the Flesh and visit a town called Pride 138. They witness a legion of school children in matching uniforms marching down the street chanting, "We are 138! We are 138!" The adventure explains the town's curious name:

"If anyone asks about the origin of Pride 138's name, Footen tells them it's a product of one of the Buro's less successful campaigns. They sought to increase civic pride by naming new towns in rural areas Pride; needless to say, by the time they hit the 138th town named Pride, the campaign lost its novelty." 

"We Are 138" is, of course, a song by The Misfits, possibly inspired by the movie THX 1138. The old Misfits tunes are pretty well-known these days, but even so I never had anyone tell me they got the reference in that adventure. Same for most of my Easter Eggs, with the notable exception of the cloud giant pimp named Dolemite I put in the AD&D supplement Vortex of Madness. No one ever figured out that Krokus Behemoth, the ormyrr watch captain in the City of Glass from that same book, was a reference to the early stage name (Crocus Behemoth) of Dave Thomas of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu. 

The funny thing about Marked for Death now is that I can't actually remember which came first, the idea of using the song in an adventure or the idea of the Buro naming hundreds of towns Pride. Since the ill-conceived propaganda campaign works whether you get the reference or not, I suppose it doesn't even matter. 16 years later I am still amused. 

* I pulled down Marked for Death when writing this to get the proper quote. I hadn't looked at for ages and thought, "Damn, that's a sweet cover. I checked the credits, only to discover that the art was done by my Krab Jab studio mate, Mark Tedin. Funny!
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Not Quite a Talking Head [Mar. 9th, 2012|01:31 am]
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[music |Stiff Little Fingers "Nobody's Hero"]

This week I talked to a guest coordinator from a morning talk show on the Lifetime channel. She was interested in having me come on the show to talk about roleplaying games and DC Adventures in particular. How did this unlikely event transpire?

Somehow the talent coordinator had gotten a copy of DC Adventures: Heroes & Villains, Volume 1 and was intrigued. She looked at the author list and then went on Facebook and found Christopher McGlothlin. Chris, as many of you know, is a long time freelancer on our Mutants & Masterminds line and a regular at our GenCon booth as well. When he called me last weekend to tell me "a hilarious story," I thought it was going to be some tale of crazy academia. Instead he wanted to put me in touch with this woman from Lifetime. Not what I was expecting, particularly from Chris!

Tuesday I talked on the phone with the guest coordinator. She was quite nice but knew nothing at all about gaming or the game industry. I had to explain what RPGs were and how they worked. She apparently had never heard of D&D or even HBO's Game of Thrones show. Since Lifetime is oriented towards women, I talked about how things had changed since the 80s and a lot more women were gaming now. I pointed out how I was running a game for my wife and step daughter. I told her about Blue Rose and Faery's Tale. She asked if we dressed up and I said (politely) hell no. 

After a half hour of this, she said it sounded interesting and that she'd like to book me for the show. Great, I thought. Lifetime isn't exactly our main demographic, but I'll go almost anywhere and promote gaming if you give me a platform. So she's running down the particulars, like where they tape and when it would happen. Then she tells me that the cost to us will be $5,900. I about choked.

"Is the money a problem?" she asked. I said, "Well, yes. We're a small company. I could print a book for that money." And this is where our real culture clash took place. This is apparently normal in her world, but it sure isn't in mine. We give out review copies but that's about as far it goes. We don't pay for coverage. 

We talked for a little while longer. She suggested that, since Heroes & Villains Volume 1 had so many authors, maybe they could kick in to get this great coverage for their work. I tried to imagine pitching that one to the freelancers. "How'd you guys like to pay for me to be on TV?"

We agreed to touch base the next day. I told the staff about it and I could hear the gales of laughter from the East Coast. I sent her an e-mail thanking her for the opportunity but telling her that we simply couldn't afford it. I said I'd be happy to do the show if they waived the fee, but otherwise I'd have to decline. Fee waiving was a no go, so that's where it ended. 

Looks like TV isn't ready for me yet. I'll have to start with YouTube. 

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Getting Sinister in Saltmarsh, Pt. 2 [Feb. 17th, 2012|11:55 am]
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[music |The Members "Solitary Confinement"]

Once again, this post contains spoilers for Sinister Secret of Salt Marsh. Stop reading now if you intend to play it one day.

When last we left our trio of adventurers, they had braved the dilapidated mansion of the “Mad Alchemist”, discovered it was not actually haunted, and smashed the smuggling ring they found operating in the caves beneath it. I picked things up a few days later, assuming they had spent that time selling their loot in Saltmarsh and turning that into coin. I had prepared a few rumors for them to pick up around town and passed those on.

Then two men came to see them at their inn. One was an older cleric of Pelor and the other a young man with a freshly shaved head and the robes of an acolyte. The latter turned out to be Jebbric, the smuggler they had shown mercy to back in the caves. He took the whole going straight thing seriously and went off to join the Church of Pelor. The older cleric had brought him to the inn so he could pass on some information about the smuggling ring and so fully repudiate his former life. He told them the smugglers were expecting a ship to come in just a couple of days. If they wanted to finish the job of destroying the smuggling ring, they’d want to take care of the ship. Kate thought to ask about the handout from the caves, so Jebbric explained the signaling system the smugglers used. This proved useful later.

I had given them two days so they could make any preparations they might need. The girls seemed pretty unconcerned about attacking a smuggling ship, so rather than prepare, they started chasing down the rumors they had learned. They visited a park and discovered that indeed frogs were croaking in unison in the middle of the night. They talked to some folks about a rash of burglaries that some blamed on Seaton refugees and others on the famous Keoland thief known as the Scarlet Thorn. Finally they went to see the city council and apprise them of the situation. It was agreed that two excisemen from Saltmarsh would answer the signals from the ship and begin to row out. Meanwhile, the adventurers would approach from the opposite side in another boat and board while the smugglers were distracted.

The plan worked out well. Kate slipped onboard first, backstabbing and killing the guard on the forecastle. Then Nicole’s plate armored paladin made too much noise jumping down to the main deck and the alarm was sounded. The NPC cleric took care of the smuggler in the crow’s nest with a well-chosen command spell (“Jump!”). Nicole assaulted the bosun, killing him and sending his body over the rail into the briny deep. Kate had a long duel with the ship’s captain but poor rolls kept her from prevailing. The paladin finally came to her aid and dealt the finishing blow. Kate was not only annoyed at the kill stealing, but also that the bosun had gone over the side before she could loot the body. She asserted that the treasure so lost was coming out of Nicole’s share, which cracked me up.

Descending into deeper into the ship they discovered three smugglers and a wizard playing cards. They should have come up on deck when they heard the fighting, but I totally forgot to do that so I decided that they were a little drunk and too into their card game to investigate the noises above. When I mentioned that one of the card players was a wizard, Kate went nuts. “I dive across the table and stab him!” she exclaimed. They won initiative, so this she did, hitting the wizard with both her weapons. The poor bastard only had 8 hp to start with so she nailed him to his chair before he had a chance to get up, never mind cast a spell. Two smugglers went down the same round and the last surrendered.

Down in the hold they encountered three lizardmen and dispatched them in a few rounds. Then they discovered three things: a pseudodragon in a cage, an aquatic elf chained up in a tiny room, and a cache of weapons that were being smuggled to a lizardman settlement. The pseudodragon is in the module and as it was total Kate bait, I let her bond with it. Their party can certainly use the help. The aquatic elf, Oceanus, explained that he was captured while investigating the connection between the smugglers and the lizardmen. He then agreed to come with them to Saltmarsh and talk to the town council.

We ended the session there. Next time they have to dicker with the council about the fate of the ship they captured, and then decide on a course of action. Are the lizardmen a threat to Saltmash? If so, what’s to be done about it? And what’s up with those frogs in the park? And is the notorious Scarlet Thorn really in Saltmarsh?

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Getting Sinister in Saltmarsh, Pt. 1 [Feb. 17th, 2012|02:31 am]
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[music |The Partisans "I Never Needed You"]

When I moved back from Austin, one of the things I wanted to do was get a family RPG campaign going. Our long running game night only sometimes actually features games anymore (long story), and I could tell from various comments that Kate found it frustrating to spend so much time around gamers without getting to roleplay regularly. I tried to get something going with a Dragon Age game last year, but I we only played a few times. I was writing all the adventure material and since this was Dragon Age, it started feeling like an extension of work. I wanted this to be about the family just getting together and having fun, so I decided to take a different approach. Kate had heard endless discussions about D&D at game night, but her actual experience with it was limited. I was looking for a game with a lot of pre-written adventures anyway, so I decided to go all the way and run an AD&D game set in Greyhawk. Might as well give the girl a proper education!

With just Nicole and Kate playing, this was going to be a small party, so I had them create 3rd level characters. Nicole made a paladin and Kate an elf ranger/thief (yes, I bent the rules for her). I created a NPC cleric of Procan as a support character, so the party would at least be a trio. To open the campaign I choose Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a classic adventure that I had actually never run before. I dug out my DMG II (from 3rd Edition) because it had a write up of Saltmarsh. Most of it was useable, though I dialed the year back to 576. My plan was to keep them in and around Saltmarsh for at least a couple of levels, so the town info would be useful.

Spoilers for Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh follow! Do not read on if you plan to play this module.

At the start of the first session, I told them they had traveled to Seaton at the behest of Saltmarsh’s Alchemists’ Guild to find and acquire some rare ingredients. The day before their arrival, a squadron of ships will yellow sails had raided the town. Hundreds of prisoners were taken and many buildings burned (including the shops they were to visit). The game picked up with the PCs at the Alchemists’ Guild, explaining why the raid had prevented them from completing the mission. The head of the guild said not to worry about it because something more important had come up. He found a letter indicating that an alchemist from the area named Turnbull had a copy of a rare text called Ye Secret of Ye Philosopher’s Stone. The man had disappeared 20 years ago and his ghost was said to haunt his dilapidated mansion. Would the PCs venture inside and try to find the book?

The module makes much of how you have to play up that the house may be haunted. I tried to do so, telling them local legends of the ghost of the “Mad Alchemist.” After they took the mission, I had the NPC cleric ask, “Do you think it’s really haunted?” Nicole and Kate both scoffed immediately, which made me laugh. Kate, so jaded at 16. Nicole quipped, “If I ran a thieves’ guild, I’d hide it in a supposedly haunted house.” I said nothing in reply.

The trio then went to the mansion to investigate. I thought the upper levels needed a bit of jazzing up so I added an encounter in the dining room. They came upon a table and next to each place setting was a severed hand. Kate asked if any of the hands had rings; I said yes. When she entered to loot the rings, the hands (in fact, crawling claws) leaped up off the table to try to strangle them. That was fun. Later they freed Ned the assassin and let him tag along for a little while. Right before he was about to get his clothes back, Nicole hit him with detect evil and the jig was up. They sent him packing wearing only his underwear.

In the basement they avoided the rot grubs by burning the dead body in plate mail straight away. I added the detail that the armor was engraved with symbols of Pelor. Nicole is playing a paladin of Mayaheine (yes, GH nerds, I’m bending the timeline slightly) so I thought it’d be suitable armor for her. Kate then found the secret door and got the drop on Jebbric, the smuggler inside. They interrogated him and tied him up. They then found the book they had been sent for and smashed the smugglers’ ring operating in the caves under the mansion. They turned four prisoners over the Saltmarsh watch, but let the one who gave them information go. Jebbric promised to straighten up. They then returned to the Alchemists’ Guild for their reward. So ended session 1.

Overall, it was a really fun time. Kate, who is soft-hearted in real life, was all about the ducats in Greyhawk. She took meticulous notes on every item of value they found in the house and tallied everything at session’s end. I can see some future adventures involving her thief side. Other possible hooks include the escaped assassin, the plate mail of Pelor, and the raiders that attacked Seaton.

We played session 2 last night. I’ll try to write that up later this week.

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Fun in LA [Feb. 10th, 2012|10:53 pm]
[Tags|]
[music |Flipper "Life"]

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, or Burbank to be more precise. I wasn't there that long, but it was funny how many LA stories I got out of it. Saturday afternoon, for example, I was coming back from a mediocre lunch at the oldest remaining Bob's Big Boy (it dates to 1949, though hopefully the food does not). I saw a woman with a big stroller crossing the street with what looked like the entourage of a rap star. As they got closer to me, I saw that a cameraman was filming the whole posse. I don't know if the baby mama was the center of attention or if she was a nanny for someone else in the group. I walked right by them and couldn't tell you who anyone was, but it's possible I made a 2 second cameo is some dreadful reality show. 

Later I was in a quiet hotel bar doing some Dragon Age work. Two women came in, and a few minutes later a Latino guy in a fedora joined them. The women start to interview him, and they seem pretty excited. Again, I had no idea who he was. I was sitting maybe 10 feet away so I could hear the whole thing. As he dropped clues, I used my iPad to run Google searches. I finally figured that it was Jaime Monroy. I had never heard of him, though apparently he was the warm up comic for Solid Gold and opened for the Jacksons on the Victory Tour. He had some interesting stories but he lost me when he said that his hero was Ronald Reagan. 

Finally my old friend Cecil Castellucci came and picked me up at the bar. Cecil and I met as college freshmen at NYU and fate kept throwing us together until we decided we were friends for life. Our most improbable meeting was in the middle of Dachau the year I Eurailed around the Old World. We have both ended up with careers in the geek world. I do the gaming thing, of course, and she writes YA novels and graphic novels (her Plain Jains book for DC was terrific). We have crossed paths at conventions from time to time but we needed a proper catch up and this was the night. She used Twitter to find a cool bar in Burbank called Tony's Darts Away. We stayed there until it got too loud and crowded (damn hipsters), then we moved to an old school diner place we happened across called Talleyrand (founded by a fan of French diplomacy?). They still had bundt cake on the menu so I got a slice and we kept talking until I got a call from Wil Wheaton. I had a great time talking to my old friend and wished it could have gone on longer, but we had to leave. 

I was crashing at Wil's the next two nights so Cecil was kind enough to drop me off. Everyone was sick at the house and they had been working all day, so they went to bed by midnight. I'm a night owl, so I was up until 4ish. Then I got up at 8 am because I had somewhere to be early. I can't talk about the rest of the trip yet, but that should change come March. I will say it was nerdy, fun, and a little bit Hollywood. I got home and at first thought I had missed the plague. It was sneaky though and I didn't get sick Thursday. Now that head cold is ragin' full on. Glad I can stay home this weekend. 
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The Highlights of My Year [Dec. 31st, 2011|08:01 pm]
[Tags|, , , ]
[music |Crass "Where Next, Columbus?"]

2011 wasn't the worst of years, but it wasn't the best either. It was up and down, sweet and sour. I started the year living in Austin and working a day job at Vigil Games as lead writer on the Warhammer 40K MMO. I'm ending it back in Seattle with my family and I'm pretty damn happy to have reunited with Nik and Kate on a permanent basis. I don't want to dwell on the negative so here are the top 5 other highlights of the year.

1. Kate's Birthday

I wrote about this a few weeks ago so I won't go on about it, but the most joyous event of the year had to be Kate's surprise 16th birthday party. I often feel like it's my job to apologize to Kate for how disappointing the world is, so it was awesome to see how happy our girl was with her party and all the friends who came out for it.

2. Brazil

In May I flew to Curitiba to be a guest at World RPG Con. This was my first (but hopefully not my last) trip to Brazil, and my first time south of the equator as well. I had a great time, though as usual with big trips like this I wish I could have stayed longer. The con was small but the organizers and attendees were super enthusiastic and they made me feel so welcome. I met many excellent gamers and had the chance to actually hang out with Steve Jackson (the other American game designer guest) for the first time.

The day after the con we got to ride the Curitiba-Paranaguá Railroad. It was a three and a half hour, 116 kilometer trip through the rain forested highlands to the coast. The route went through 13 tunnels and over 30 bridges, and the whole trip was in a vintage Italian train from the 60s. Then we had a huge seafood feast in Paranaguá, followed by more sightseeing by bus before the drive back to Curitiba. All in all, pretty awesome.

3. Seattle: The Returning

I moved back to Seattle in August. Nicole flew down to Austin, we loaded up a truck with the help of friends, and then it was a five day ride through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I’ve mentioned my happiness about getting back with my family, but here I’m talking about the trip itself. When I moved down, I had a fixed deadline so it was four days of hard driving and nothing else. This time Nicole and I had no schedule we had to keep to so we decided to be more casual. I’m glad we did.

Our first stop was at Reaper Miniatures in Denton, TX. Ed Pugh and Ron Hawkins gave us a thorough tour of their facility. They have a really impressive operation going on there and it was cool to see it. We probably spent too much time swapping game industry stories, but hey, how often are we getting to Denton? When it was time for us to move on, they gifted Nicole with some out of production Mousling miniatures, which made her squee with delight.  

Next we stopped at the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson. It’s a really unlikely place for a museum dedicated to rocketry and space flight it’s quite well done. Apparently NASA wanted to get rid of a bunch of stuff back in the 70s, so Hutchinson said, “Give it to us and we’ll make a museum!” The history is well presented and they have some great artifacts, including the lovingly restored capsule from Apollo 13. Worth a stop if you find yourself in Kansas.

In Denver we stopped to have lunch with college pal Pat Brown at the Buckhorn Exchange. We worked out the meet up over Facebook on my phone while we cruised down the interstate. Thanks, technology. Pat recommended an over the top gourmet shop outside town so we had to pop in there as well. They had a huge room full of cheese that was essentially a giant refrigerator. The store keeps coats on hand in case you get cold, but after Texas I enjoyed it in there. Cheese and other goodies we got there made our dinner in the hotel later that night.

As we rode through Wyoming, I thought we were done with stops. Then I noticed on the map that the highway went right by Little Big Horn in Montana. Turns out you can get from the highway to the hill where Custer died in less than 10 minutes. Clearly we had to do it.  

4. Dragon Age, Set 2

Professionally speaking, the highlight of the year for me was the release of Set 2 for Dragon Age. It took way longer to get done than I figured, but I’m pleased with the result. The release made me feel great for an hour or two. Then someone asked, “So when is Set 3 coming out?” Oh, gamers. :)

5. Steve Ignorant: The Last Supper

I’m ending my list with a bit of punk rock. I did not get to a lot of shows in Austin because I lived in north, north Austin and had neither license nor car. So when German band the Spermbirds came to America for the first time to play South by Southwest, I ended up missing their show. When I heard that Steve Ignorant was bringing his Last Supper show to Emo’s, I determined that I would be there. Thanks to pal Donna Prior, who agreed to drive and come to the show with me despite the music not exactly being her thing, I got my wish.

Steve Ignorant was the singer for Crass, an uncompromising British punk band of the 70s and 80s that went the Sex Pistols one better by taking their anarchism very seriously indeed. They became a hugely influential band, and ran a record label that put out lots of other anarcho-punk bands. Crass broke up in the mid-80s and I never had a chance to see them. I think they only got to America once and then briefly. A couple of years ago Steve Ignorant decided to put on a show called The Last Supper. Basically, he wanted to perform those old songs a final time as “a celebration of what Crass meant” to him.

So this was not a Crass reunion per se, but Steve singing songs from ’77 to ’84 backed by musicians from bands like Conflict, Killing Joke, and the English Dogs. I’m sure a lot of people saw the whole thing as a cynical endeavor but I don’t give a shit: it was awesome. Steve was into it, the band was tight, and hearing those classic songs live was a treat. The real surprise of the night was the performance of many songs from Penis Envy, Crass’s feminist statement on which Eve Libertine handled most of the vocals. A younger singer named Carol Hodge sang the Penis Envy songs and she killed it. She was fierce and delivered those songs with conviction and energy. It was the icing on my punk rock cake. 

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